Sunday


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by John E. Fletcher and Anthony B. Stewart.

Supplement to an Addendum

Recently I posted Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III, in which I employed a thought experiment to explore what I call the Marxian Thesis, which is the idea that the intellectual superstructure of a civilization is determined by its economic infrastructure. That post was an addendum on the series of posts investigating the nature of technological civilization, which is, in turn, a device I am using to take technological civilization as a lens with which to focus on civilization simpliciter. This post is a supplement to that addendum, following up on the thought experiment of the addendum with another thought experiment that leads us in a different direction–but still a thought experiment exploring the idea of civilization, and especially the possibility of a scientific study of civilization.

In my Euclid/Darwin swap thought experiment I thought about the possibility of an ancient Darwin introducing natural selection during classical antiquity, but civilization would have to wait for a Victorian Euclid to introduce higher mathematics and axiomatics into history. How different would the history of western civilization be under these circumstances? Wouldn’t a scientific biology have been a much greater benefit to early agricultural civilizations than advanced mathematics? Another kind of thought experiment in historical counterfactuals could derive from swapping existing figures with non-existent figures. This may sound rather curious, but I will try to explain what I mean by this.

In my previous post I noted that Euclid and Darwin both wrote books that defined a discipline. Euclid wrote The Elements while Darwin wrote his Origin of Species. There are other examples of definitive works, for example, Clausewitz’s On War and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In the present context I want to especially focus on Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, but I suppose I could just as well take Clausewitz as my example: both Smith and Clausewitz represent the application of Enlightenment ideals of scientific knowledge to a particular domain of human experience and activity. For Smith, it was economics; for Clausewitz, it was war.

Adam Smith published his The Wealth of Nations at the high water mark of the Enlightenment. The book was immediately influential, and arguably has only grown in influence since then. Smith’s book effectively created the modern discipline of economics, much as Darwin’s Origins effectively created scientific biology. There were books on economics written before Adam Smith (as there were books about biology written before Darwin), but earlier economics treatises (like earlier biological treatises) did not provide the conceptual framework adequate for the foundation of a discipline on scientific principles. One could say that the financial needs of the industrial revolution meant that someone would inevitably formulate a scientific economics (and this would be evidence for the Marxian Thesis), but we have already seen that this does not always happen. One could equally well claim that the biological needs of agricultural civilization would have inevitably resulted in a scientific biology, but this did not happen.

Suppose that, instead of Adam Smith initiating the development of scientific economics during the Enlightenment, or in addition to this, some other scientific discipline, viz. one not yet in existence today, had its origins during the Enlightenment. So this is my sense of a thought experiment that involves swapping an existing person and text with a non-existent person or text. Suppose we swap Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations with a non-existent founder of a science of civilization and a definitive book that initiated the development of the scientific study of civilization. In this scenario, some author writes a definitive text on a science of civilization in the late 18th century or early 19th century more-or-less single-handedly formulating an adequate conceptual framework for the study of civilization and creating a social science with civilization as its special object of scientific investigation. This text then goes on to be the basis of an ongoing scholarly tradition, so that a science of civilization beginning in the Enlightenment grows into a formal academic discipline with entire departments of universities devoted to its study.

It should be noted that the social sciences during the Enlightenment were far behind the development of the natural sciences, with which latter the scientific revolution began. There was no parallel development of the social sciences (much less a science of civilization) on the order of what was going on in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology at this time. However, this near total absence of an equally well developed social science tradition did not stop Adam Smith from initiating modern economics as a social science discipline. Perhaps economics was the first social science to assume a modern form, and it may be relevant that economics is the most formalized and mathematized of the social sciences today. If we take history to be a social science, then history is certainly far older than economics, but history stagnated from classical antiquity until the modern period, and did not become the basis of a growing social science tradition in the way that economics became something of a template for the social sciences that would follow in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We can even speculate on how a social science of civilization might have come about during the Enlightenment. There was a time in the late 18th century and the early 19th century–the late Enlightenment, when both Adam Smith and Kant were active–when an individual with sufficient resources could have traveled the world almost as extensively as today, if a bit more slowly. This was at the same time when young English noblemen took the “Grand Tour” of Italy (cf. Brian Sewell’s television documentary about the Grand Tour, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour of Italy), traveling through Europe at a time when European societies were strikingly different from each other. This was also an age of gentlemen amateurs, some of whom became great scientists. Given the resources to travel, and a sufficiently robust constitution that would allow for a bit of discomfort, one would have had, at this time, an historically unique opportunity to travel the world and to see profoundly different civilizations little influenced by each other in comparison to the level of cross-cultural influence today.

With this in mind, we could even construct an imaginary backstory for our counter-factual author of a counter-factual 18th century treatise on civilization, consisting of the social and cultural equivalent of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, subsequently returning home to reflect upon his experiences. Alternatively, a sedentary scholar (like Kant) might seclude himself in his library with the great travelogues being written about the same time (because travel on a planetary scale was now possible)–I am thinking of the likes of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), James Bruce (1730–1794), Richard Burton (1821-1890), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), Charles M. Doughty (1843-1926), and others of the time–and draw from these accounts of nearly pristine civilizations the ideas for a scientific account of civilization.

Some world-traveling gentleman amateur would have had the opportunity to witness regional civilizations uncontaminated by all but immediate neighbors, piquing the curiosity of our traveler, much as Darwin’s curiosity was piqued by his naturalist observations made during his time on the Beagle in its expedition around South America. Returning home to ruminate over all he had seen, he begins collecting more information about every known civilization, and eventually sets pen to paper to record his collected observations and the principles employed to unify his observations. Travel and reading would have made possible the study of civilization in an empirical, scientific manner by visiting regional civilizations, observing them, and perhaps even measuring them by whatever means might have been available to social science metrics of the time (perhaps creating these methods, as Galileo created his own methods of quantitative research of physical phenomena).

We tend to think of the 19th century conception of civilization as naïve or worse, but in so far as it was, for those who traveled, informed by direct observations of regional civilizations (more isolated from each other than civilizations are today) it was a more sophisticated understanding based on first-hand knowledge, and before the resistance to comparing and contrasting civilizations that we see today (cf. Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization). In order to identify the common core of civilization one must be willing and able to analyze civilizations, and analyzing civilizations would mean reducing them to their constituent parts and determining the relationship of the parts to the whole. To do this with civilization requires a certain social environment that is not present today. Civilizations as we see them today have been racked on the Procrustean Bed of universalism and can no longer be seen for what they are because of the strong ideological overlay of scholarship.

If the rudiments of a science of civilization had been initially presented by a definitive text of the Enlightenment, or even of the romantic era, and subsequently refined and formalized as economics and biology have been refined and formalized since their inception as modern scientific disciplines, how might the world have been different? Would the history of western civilization have been altered by the self-understanding made possible by a science of civilization? In On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies I discussed how a science of civilization could lead to technologies of civilization, just as biological science has led to biological technologies. With a science of civilization issuing in technologies of civilization, we would be in possession of the means to actively intervene in the process of civilization in order to attain certain ends. One could see in this ability both profound dangers and great opportunities. Existential risks are always the flip side of existential opportunities.

Even though there was this opportunity for the study of civilization when civilizations are largely isolated from each other, it didn’t happen, and so as I have presented it here in this thought experiment this scenario will forever remain a counter-factual unrealized in our history. We could still today begin the scientific study of civilization, but the evidence of isolated and pristine civilizations is being lost by the day, just as the archaeological and the geological record are degraded by the passage of time and further human activity. The earlier a science appears in history, the more it can take advantage of an historical record that is degraded with the passage of time.

One of the essential elements in the development of a civilization is the order in which sciences and technologies appear. We could formulate alternative historical sequences for civilizations in which sciences and technologies appear in a different order than they did in fact in terrestrial history, or alternative historical sequences in which particular sciences or technologies are missing that have been present in human history, or which are present that have been absent in human history. A science of civilization is an example of the latter, so that we can posit a counterfactual civilization in which a science of civilization is robustly present, and whether this science has its origins near the beginning of the history of a civilization (as with higher mathematics) or later in the development of a civilization (as with biology and economics) would also affect the developmental trajectory of a civilization that possessed the knowledge that would be produced by a science of civilization, that the technologies of civilization made possible by that knowledge.

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Thursday


There is passage in Foucault, in the preface to the English language of The Order of Things, after the more famous passage about the “Chinese dictionary” in Borges, in which he discusses a pathological failure of taxonomy. The theme of Foucault’s book, restated compellingly in this preface, is taxonomy — taxonomy in its most general (and therefore its most philosophical) signification. Taxonomy is a problem.

It appears that certain aphasiacs, when shown various differently coloured skeins of wool on a table top, are consistently unable to arrange them into any coherent pattern; as though that simple rectangle were unable to serve in their case as a homogeneous and neutral space in which things could be placed so as to display at the same time the continuous order of their identities or differences as well as the semantic field of their denomination. Within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiac will create a multiplicity of tiny, fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets; in one corner, they will place the lightest-coloured skeins, in another the red ones, somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of purple or those that have been wound up into a ball. But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still too wide not to be unstable; and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical, superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning all over again, becoming more and more disturbed, and teetering finally on the brink of anxiety.

THE ORDER OF THINGS: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, MICHEL FOUCAULT, A translation of Les Mots et les choses, VINTAGE BOOKS, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, Preface

Taxonomy is the intersection of words and things — and just this was the original title of Foucault’s book, i.e., words and things — and Foucault brilliantly illustrates both the possibilities and problems inherent in taxonomy. Foucault had an enduring concern for taxonomy, and, as is well known, named his chair at the Collège de France the “History of Systems of Thought” — as though he were seeking a master taxonomy of human knowledge.

Foucault found madness and mental illness in the inability of a test subject to systematically arrange skeins of wool, since each attempted scheme of classification breaks down when it overlaps within another system of classification pursued simultaneously. One suspects that if the task placed before Foucault’s aphasiac were limited in certain ways — perhaps in the number of colors of wool, or the number of categories that could be employed — the task might become practical once a sufficient number of constraints come into play. But the infinite universe investigated by contemporary science is the very antithesis of constraint. There is always more to investigate, and as the sciences themselves grow and fission, begetting new sciences, the task of bringing order to the sciences themselves (rather than to the empirical phenomena that the sciences seek to order) becomes progressively more difficult.

The taxonomy of the sciences is more problematic that usually recognized. Consider these possible categories of science, not all of which are current today:

● natural sciences It is still somewhat common to speak of the “natural sciences,” with our intuitive understanding of what is “natural” as sufficient to classify a given study as an investigation into “nature.” What, then, is not a natural science? At one time there was a strong distinction made between the natural sciences and the formal sciences (q.v.)

● formal sciences The phrase “formal sciences” is rarely used today, though it is still a useful idea, comprising at least mathematics and logic and (for those who know what it is) formal mereology. Today the formal sciences might also include computer science and information science, though I haven’t myself ever heard anyone refer to these sciences as formal sciences. Since the mathematization of the natural sciences beginning with the scientific revolution, the natural sciences have come more and more to approximate formal sciences, to the point that mathematical physics has, at times, only a tenuous relationship to experiments in physics, while it has a much more robust relationship with mathematics.

● moral sciences Philosopher J. R. Lucas has written of the moral sciences, “The University of Cambridge used to have a Faculty of Moral Sciences. It was originally set up in contrast to the Faculty of Natural Sciences, and was concerned with the mores of men rather than the phenomena of nature. But the humane disciplines were hived off to become separate subjects, and when the faculty was finally renamed the Faculty of Philosophy, philosophy was indeed the only subject studied.”

● earth sciences The earth sciences may be understood to be a subdivision of the natural sciences, and may be strongly distinguished from the space sciences, but the distinction between the earth sciences and the space sciences, as well as these two sciences themselves, is quite recent, dating to the advent of the Space Age in the middle of the twentieth century. While the idea behind the earth sciences is ancient, their explicit recognition as a special division within the sciences is recent. I suspect that the fact of seeing the earth from space, made possible by the technology of the space age, contributed greatly to understanding the earth as a unified object of investigation.

● space sciences The space sciences can be defined in contradistinction to the earth sciences, as though science had a need to recapitulate the distinction between the sublunary and the superlunary of Ptolemaic cosmology; however, I don’t think that this was the actual genesis of the idea of a category of space sciences. The emergence of the “Space Age” and its associated specialty technologies, and the sciences that produced these technologies, is the likely source, but the question becomes whether a haphazardly introduced concept roughly corresponding to a practical division of scientific labor constitutes a useful theoretical category.

● social sciences The social sciences would obviously include sociology and cultural anthropology, but would it include biological anthropology? History? Political science? Economics? The social sciences often come under assault for their methodology, which seems to be much less intrinsically quantitative than that of the natural sciences, but are not social communities as “natural” as biologically defined communities?

● human sciences In German there is a term — Geisteswissenschaften — that could be translated as the “spiritual sciences,” and which roughly corresponds to the traditional humanities, but it is not entirely clear whether the human sciences coincide perfectly either with Geisteswissenschaften or the humanities. Foucault’s The Order of Things, quoted above, is subtitled, “An Archaeology of the Human Sciences,” and the human sciences that Foucault examines in particular include philology and economics, inter alia.

● life sciences I assume that “life sciences” was formulated as a collective term for biological sciences, which would include studies like biogeography, which might also be called an instance of the earth sciences, or the natural sciences. But the life sciences would also include all of medicine, which gives us a taxonomy of the medical sciences, though it does not give us a clear demarcation between the life sciences and the natural sciences. Does medicine include all of psychiatry, or ought psychiatric inquiries to be thought of as belonging to the social sciences?

● historical sciences I have written about the historical sciences in several posts, since S. J. Gould often made the point that that historical sciences have a distinctive methodology. In Historical Sciences I argued that there is a sense in which all sciences can be considered historical sciences. Indeed, one of the distinctive aspects of the scientific revolution has been to force human beings to stop assuming the eternity and permanence of the world and to see the world and everything in it as having a natural history. If everything has a natural history, then all investigations are historical investigations and all sciences are historical sciences — but if this is true, then Gould’s claim that the historical sciences have a unique methodology collapses.

There are also, of course, informal distinctions such as that between the “hard” sciences and the “soft” sciences, which is sometimes taken to be the distinction between mathematicized sciences and non-mathematicized sciences, and so may correspond to the rough distinction between the natural sciences and the social sciences, except the that the social sciences are now dominated by statistical methods and can no longer be thought of a non-mathematicized. This leads to problems of classification such as whether economics, for example, is a natural science or a social science.

For each of the science categories above we could attempt either an extensional or an intensional definition, i.e., we could give a list of particular sciences that fall under the category in question, or we could attempt to define the meaning of the term, and the meaning would then govern what sciences are so identified. An extensional definition of the earth sciences might involve a list including geomorphology, biogeography, geology, oceanography, hydrology, climatology, and so forth. An intentional definition of the earth sciences might be something like, “those sciences that have as their object of study the planet earth, its subsystems, and its inhabitants.”

Today we employ the sciences to bring order to our world, but how do we bring order to the sciences? Ordering our scientific knowledge is problematic. It is complicated. It involves unanticipated difficulties that appear when we try to make any taxonomy for the sciences systematic. Each of the scientific categories above (as well as others that I did not include — my list makes no pretension of completeness) implies a principled distinction between the kind of sciences identified by the category and all other sciences, even if the principle by which the distinction is to be made is not entirely clear.

The implicit distinction between the earth sciences and the space sciences has a certain intuitive plausibility, and it is useful to a certain extent, though recently I have tried to point out in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- the importance of astrobiology as unifying terrestrial biology and exobiology in a truly Copernican framework. While the attempted task of a taxonomy of the sciences is important, the nature of the task itself suggests a certain compartmentalization, and too much thinking in terms of compartmentalization can distract us from seeing the larger synthesis. Concepts based on categorization that separates the sciences will be intrinsically different from extended conceptions that emerge from unification. An exclusive concern for the earth sciences, then, might have the subtle affect of reinforcing geocentric, Ptolemaic assumptions, though if we pause for a moment it will be obvious that the earth is a planet, and that the planetary sciences ought to include the earth, and the the planetary sciences might be construed as belonging to the space sciences.

The anxiety experience by Foucault’s aphasiac is likely to be experienced by anyone attempting a systematic taxonomy of the sciences, as here, any mind, whether sick or healthy, might continue to extrapolate distinctions to infinity and still not arrive at a satisfactory method for taking the measure of the sciences in way that contributes both to the clarity of the individual sciences and an understanding of how the various special sciences relate to each other.

On the one hand, perfect rigor of thought would seem to imply that all possible distinctions must be observed and respected, except that not all distinction can be made at the same time because some cut across each other, are mutually exclusive, order the world differently, and subdivide other categories and hierarchies in incompatible schemes. To use a Leibnizean term, not all distinctions are compossible.

To invoke Leibniz in this context is to suggest a Leibnizean approach to the resolution of the difficulty: a Leibnizean conception of conceptual rigor would appeal to the greatest number of distinctions that are compossible and yield a coherent body of knowledge.

A thorough-going taxonomic study of human bodies of knowledge would reveal a great many possible taxonomies, some with overlapping distinctions, but it is likely that there is an optimal arrangement of distinctions that would allow the greatest possible number of distinctions to be employed simultaneously while retaining the unity of knowledge. This would be a system of compossible taxonomy, which might have to reject a few distinctions but which makes use of the greater number of distinctions that are mutually possible within the framework of methodological naturalism as this defines the scientific enterprise.

There are not merely academic considerations. The place of science within industrial-technological civilization means that our conception of science is integral with our conception of civilization; thus to make a systematic taxonomy of the sciences is to make a systematic taxonomy of a civilization that is based upon science. Such conception categories extrapolated from science to civilization will have consequences for human self-understanding and human interaction, which latter does not always take the form of “cultural exchanges” (in the saccharine terminology if international relations). Industrial-technological civilization is in coevolution with industrial-technological warfare, so that a taxonomy of science is also a taxonomy of scientific warfare. Our conception of science will ultimately influence how we kill each other, and how we seek peace in order to stop killing each other.

One of the most distinctive forms of propaganda and social engineering of our time is the creation from whole cloth of artificial and fraudulent sciences. Since science is the condition of legitimacy in industrial-technological civilization, social movements seeking legitimacy seek scientific justification for their moral positions, but the more that science is seen as a means to an end, where the end is stipulated in advance, then science as a process must be compromised because any science that does not tend to the desired socio-political end will be subject to socio-political disapproval or dismissal. While there is a limit to this, the limits are more tolerant than we might suppose: large, complex societies with large and diverse economies can sustain non-survival behavior for a significant period of time — perhaps enough time to conceal the failure of the model employed until it is too late to save the society that has become a victim of its own illusion.

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Historical Sciences

29 August 2009

Saturday


Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould has emphasized throughout his corpus that the historical sciences are distinct, that is to say, that they represent a distinct approach to science and that they should be recognized as involving a distinct approach. In the Prologue to The Flamingo’s Smile he wrote:

History perverts the stereotype of science as a precise, heartless enterprise that strips the uniqueness from any complexity and reduces everything to timeless, repeatable, controlled experiments in a laboratory. Historical sciences are different, not lesser. Their methods are comparative, not always experimental; they explain, but do not usually try to predict; they acknowledge the irreducible quirkiness that history entails, and acknowledge the limited power of present circumstances to impose or elicit optimal solutions…

Later, in an essay on SETI in the above-mentioned collection, he elaborates:

The historical sciences try to explain unique situations — immensely complex historical accidents.

From a philosophical standpoint, Gould’s point is both interesting and inadequate. He essentially constructs a straw man to represent what he takes to be the non-historical sciences, but we can leave this aside. I agree with Gould that we should recognize the historical sciences as a particular approach to science.

Given that there are historical sciences, these sciences could be classified according to the objects of study, but they could also be classified according to the historical period or scope of history such sciences embrace. According to the latter scale, cosmology would be the most comprehensive of the historical sciences, taking in the entire history of the universe. Next would follow astronomy and astrophysics, which study the very long lives of galaxies and stars. After this perhaps would come geology, which studies the time periods appropriate to the surfaces of the planets that orbit the stars studied by astrophysics. These latter disciplines — astronomy, astrophysics, and geology — are less temporally comprehensive than cosmology, but still embrace far more of time than most of what are commonly considered historical sciences.

After these scientific preliminaries we would come to the ordinarily recognized historical sciences of paleontology, paleobiology, and paleobotany, then anthropology, and archaeology. There must be the objects of geology before there can be the objects of paleontology; there must be the objects of paleontology before there can be the objects of anthropology, and there must be the objects of anthropology before there can be the objects of archaeology. Last of all among the historical sciences comes history itself, that is to say, the human history of the historical period.

The familiar image of the historical sciences.

The familiar image of the historical sciences.

We need not stop here, however, as our temporal classification of the sciences is suggestive. Particle physics — that paradigm of the “hard” sciences that today thrives on enormous experiments employing Brobdingnagian machines — could lay claim to studying the smallest time scales, thus assimilating the paradigm of the natural sciences, and even the mathematicized natural sciences, to the paradigm of the historical sciences. As the sophistication of particle physics increases, physicists study particles and other exotic objects that last for small fractions of a second, pushing the boundary of time investigated near to zero. And here the minute time scales of particle physics coincides with the incredible time scales of cosmology, as much Big Bang theory concerns itself with the constitution of the universe during the early fractions of a second immediately after the Big Bang.

There is a strange, sublime beauty in big, sexy science.

There is a strange, sublime beauty in big, sexy science.

As limiting cases of the historical sciences, particle physics and cosmology would seem to have to gone as far as we can go, but there is another step yet that we can take. If we consider on the one hand the totality of time, which, if construed as eternity, might be the object of eschatology (thus assimilating theology to the historical sciences), or if construed as infinity could be the object of mathematics. On the other hand, at the opposite extreme of temporal infinity are temporal instants: single, unextended points in the continuum of history, which construed as points or real numbers would assimilate the objects of mathematics to the historical sciences.

Low-tech research methods in mathematics.

Low-tech research methods in mathematics.

What is the lesson here? Ought we to bring the methods of the historical sciences to bear on point set topology? Ought we to bring to bear the methods of the exact, mathematical sciences — those caricatured by Gould as “a precise, heartless enterprise that strips the uniqueness from any complexity and reduces everything to timeless, repeatable, controlled experiments in a laboratory” — on history? The answer should be obvious: we should cast the net of rational thought as widely as possible. If it is fruitful to bring historical methods to the mathematicized sciences, we should do so. And if it is fruitful to being the methods of the mathematicized sciences to the historical sciences, we should do that too. The cross-fertilization of the sciences is a powerful spur to development and often a source of new and exciting ideas.

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