Monday, October 19, 2009

Science, Writing and Existence

Before the break, I promised I would say something about the difference between the logical and the existential conceptions of science. Heidegger makes this distinction in Being and Time, where he distinguishes between approaching science as "an interconnection of true propositions" and a "mode of Being-in-the-world" that discovers truths (H. 357). Heidegger is interested in the ontological conditions of "the theoretical attitude".

He emphasizes, however, that it is not merely the opposite of a "practical" attitude. Science ("theoretical exploration") is not a matter of "hold[ing] back from any kind of manipulation". On the contrary, Heidegger says, science requires a great deal of practical activity: setting up experiments in physics, preparing slides for observation through the microscope, digging up artifacts for archaeological research. Here, already in 1927, Heidegger is heralding the emergence of what we today call "science studies", i.e., the interdisciplinary study of science as variety of social and material practices. Playing on one sense of the German word "Betrieb", I have previously called this conception "science as hustle and bustle" (here and here).

Writing plays an important role in this regard. "Even the 'most abstract' way of working out problems and establishing what has been obtained, one manipulates equipment for writing, for example" (H. 358, my emphasis). In fact, Heidegger has earlier defined human existence by rereading Aristotle's famous characterization of human beings as "rational animals" as "that living thing whose Being is essentially determined by the potentiality for discourse" (H. 25). In this sense, then, Foucault's early work on "discursive formations" can be considered an "existential" analysis of science. It is also, of course, an important part of the transition from the philosophy of science in the traditional sense to contemporary "science studies". While writing is not the only practical aspect of modern research, it may be the most straightforwardly "existential", as the slogan "publish or perish" reminds us.


Kathleen said...

At this time and for the last nearly 40 years or more, science has been, at least in the field of virology, microbiology and immune dysfunction, a matter of satisfying personal and geopolitical prestige and the egos of nations and those who act on their behalf as they imagine it--their maintenance of power through retention of incumbency.

Animals, moving in their simpler worlds, can only act rationally. The cat chases the mouse in order to catch and eat it.

People, on the other hand employ complicated means in order to get money and through that prestige through possessions. The cat simply sprays its scent about in order to lay claim to its territory.

In science, a previous paradigm must be upheld in order to impress those who maintain the status quo and pass out the grants or paychecks.

The idea is not to reach a conclusion through scientific means, but to fail to reach a conclusion
that is unwanted. A question may be asked and answered repeatedly, only for grant money to be payed out again to repeat the research until someone is willing to be a team player on a pretty damn crooked team.

Deer graze and drink and flee from enemies--all simple rational processes. Humans use means to ends which may make no sense at all, except that it is what reigning powers and institution desire or wish to conceal.



Thomas said...

I'm not sure this goes directly to point, Kathleen, but there are lots of examples of "play" in the animal kingdom, i.e., animals doing things for kicks. The cat, for example, plays with mouse before devouring it. There's probably some evolutionary explanation for that (I think I once knew what it was) but it's not straightforwardly "rational" for it not to, as you put it, "catch and eat" the mouse right away.

Science wouldn't happen if there wasn't prestige in it. Vast investments of ego. But as others have pointed out before me (I'lll find the passage in Bourdieu and post it later) the fact that someone had an interest in discovering something doesn't invalidate the discovery. Human (and, like I say, other animals) do many things "for kicks", including, sometimes, science.