A blog about belief

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Speaking objectively

In Philosophy, Science on November 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm

The “plain style” of speech that has just about completely supplanted the “high” rhetoric of the past is in part a remnant of an early version of the scientific method that claimed to root knowledge in objective observation.  The ideal of dispassionate language has persisted even as this interpretation of scientific practice has given way to more sophisticated ones, and I’m not sure of the extent to which we ought to hold on to it.  One thing that I’ve learned from Twentieth-century philosophers of science like Karl Popper and W.V. Quine, who have more in common with post-structuralism than anyone wants to admit, is that science works because observation is subjective, because there is no way of reporting what we see that cannot be disputed by someone who sees it differently.  Every act of perception is an act of interpretation in terms of a particular doctrine, and this is a good thing, because discovery occurs at the points at which our doctrines come into tension with what we perceive, at which, that is, there is something that we just can’t make fit with our present beliefs.  Objectivity is the process in which we actively seek this sort of tension.  It’s not the opposite of subjectivity, it’s what happens when subjectivity runs up against the world.

The thing is, this process only works if the doctrine in terms of which one interprets things is in a certain sense rigid.  If the associations that constitute one’s beliefs are flexible enough, then one can finagle any sensory data one comes across to fit them; I have called this, in another post, paranoia.  The purpose of the sort of formalized language that Quine takes such pains to develop is not to be transparent, but to be sufficiently rigid for science to work.  It is to make the relationships between different statements clear enough that when contradictions arise – when things don’t line up properly – the tension is manifest.  A language made rigid in this way looks quite similar to the “plain” modes of speech advocated by the early Royal Society empiricists, but the theoretical basis for it is very different from what led, for instance, Thomas Sprat to decry “figural” language as a cause of pointless contention.  There is a legitimate place for this formal sort of language, although not for the reasons that Sprat gives.  It facilitates both experimentation and productive debate.

But rigidity is only one of the prerequisites of objective discussion as I have defined it.  The other, the contingency and changeability of the systems of doctrine by which we make claims, would seem to be best served by a type of language that looks quite different from the traditional scientific plainness, and I’m not convinced that the particular formalization that Quine comes up with doesn’t falter in this regard.  Despite the theoretical motive to the contrary, Quinean language still looks like it’s meant to be transparent, if due to historical association alone.  An ideal sort of language for an objective discourse would be right up front about the fact that each individual statement in that discourse represents a particular, contingent, subjective viewpoint, while still providing as little give as possible when the discussion runs up against one of these viewpoints’ limitations.  This is doubly important in literary criticism, where it’s always import to keep aware of one’s own cultural position, and how that might impact one’s understanding of a text.

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