Friday, December 23, 2011


Recent reading has thrown up a cluster of bilaterally related stuff that more thought could perhaps assemble into a complete picture. For now I'll just provide the list.

First, Michael Wood, writing about the future of universities in the LRB:
If we can’t speak the language of our enemies, not only will they not listen to us – they might not listen to us anyway – but they can’t. We need to be saying things they could hear if they would listen. ‘They’, by the way, includes all kinds of people within universities as well as outside them. But what if we can’t speak that language without losing the battle? What if the very language wins the battle by definition? What if we can’t speak of cost-effectiveness because we don’t understand either cost or effect in the way our enemies do?
Amusingly, an article about Michael Polanyi in the same issue suggests what the right language might be:
Michael thought, with few exceptions, that political meddling with a self-organising economy was wrong and destructive. (Nye notes that Michael Polanyi, Hayek and von Mises were all using the notion of ‘spontaneous order’ at that time, and while it has been claimed that Polanyi’s scientifically derived concept had priority, the usage was common in 19th-century European liberal thought.) [...] Scientific research, in its essential nature, is spontaneous, self-directing and self-organising, driven on only by its ‘internal necessities’ [...] Bernal talked of the freedom of necessity, while Polanyi asserted the necessity of freedom. Scientific autonomy had historically been a substantial fact and it had proved its rightness.

In other words, the argument against planning science -- either central or corporate -- is formally the same invisible-hand argument that the right uses to argue against planning the economy, and that "Burkeans" have used for various purposes. (It is trivial to generalize this argument to some aspects of the humanities, certainly the creative arts.) Of course, it would be silly for me to expect anyone on the contemporary right to find this persuasive, but that simply indicates the extent to which ideology is subservient to class warfare in politics (and probably has always been).

The article goes on to describe Polanyi's irrationalist defense of science:
The notion of ‘connoisseurship’ hasn’t often been attached to scientific judgment, but Polanyi repeatedly did just that: ‘Connoisseurship, like skill, can be communicated only by example, not by precept. To become an expert wine-taster, to acquire a knowledge of innumerable different blends of tea or to be trained as a medical diagnostician, you must go through a long course of experience under the guidance of a master.’ And so too to become a scientist.

Science is a vast fiduciary system. Scientists know what they do by finding trustworthy sources and then trusting them. It is also what Polanyi called a polycentric system, in which autonomous and only loosely co-ordinated groups of specialists – mildly sceptical and mainly trusting – periodically keep an eye out for what is going on next door. The coherence and integrity of the body of scientific knowledge arise through these processes of mutual adjustment. Finally, the bases of scientific judgment cannot be completely articulated because the ‘tacit dimension’ is ineliminable. It is not a fly in the formal ointment; it is what makes science science. You would understand that, Polanyi suggested, if you knew what it was to be ‘confronted with the anxious dilemma of a live scientific issue’. The further away you are from the quotidian life of scientific practice, the more you tend to be infatuated with myths of method.

Nye convincingly argues that the major purpose of Polanyi’s anti-rationalist philosophy of science was political and, specifically, that it was meant to counter Communist visions of hierarchical control. The political machinery of Communist planning proceeded through rational and formal method and it presumed rational and formal method in the object of planning. Conceptions of effective method had been devised to celebrate science, but in the middle of the 20th century they were having the unintended consequence of making people think they could command and control scientific inquiry in whatever direction they thought society needed. But you cannot plan and co-ordinate practices that are in their nature self-organising and whose most basic judgments are not formally specifiable. It was not just that a proper understanding of the nature of science was necessary to defend it; a proper understanding of science could contribute to the defence of liberal society as a whole: ‘The world needs science today above all as an example of the good life. Spread out over the planet scientists form even today, though submerged by disaster, the body of a great and good society.’ The fabric of science was political.
(When I hear "the fabric of science" I inevitably think of nylon.)

The bit in bold reminded me instantly of Michael Wood summarizing Auden:
Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.
And thence, by a relatively short step, to Auden, in "Streams," writing about the innocent anarchic nature of water, which
    tells of a sort of world, quite other,
  altogether different from this one

with its envies and passports, a polis like that
to which, in the same of scholars everywhere,
   Gaston Paris pledged his allegiance
  as Bismarck's siege-guns came within earshot.

(There is an interesting tension here between the idea of art or science as romantic, spontaneous effusion that is implicit in this line of "spontaneous order" thinking, and the more common idea in Auden that the redemption is hard work, that it is something arrived at by a painful process of discipline. It is hard to think of redemption in non-Arcadian terms. The art/nature contrast and the planning/spontaneity contrast are not quite the same because traditional ways of life or scientific practice, which are spontaneously ordered, quite seamlessly include many very artificially organized activities. Conservatism is on this reading chiefly opposed to glibness -- David Brooks often says or implies this, but of course it is nothing if not glib to conflate this kind of view with the politics of the contemporary right.)

But to return to Polanyi. Shapin doesn't say this but his views on science are reasonably common among theoretical physicists; a good example is Steven Weinberg on scientific beauty in Dreams of a Final Theory:
A physicist who says that a theory is beautiful does not mean quite the same thing that would be meant in saying that a particular painting or a piece of music or poetry is beautiful. It is not merely a personal expression of aesthetic pleasure; it is much closer to what a horse trainer means when he looks at a racehorse and says that it is a beautiful horse. The horse trainer is of course expressing a personal opinion, but it is an opinion about an objective fact [...] that this is the kind of horse that wins races.

And elsewhere, flogging the horse metaphor on PBS:
The horse breeder has seen lots of horses and from experience with horses knows that that's the kind of horse that wins races. [...] So it's an aesthetic sense that's been beaten into us by centuries of interaction with nature.
(Weinberg's thoughts on this topic are stimulating but I disagree with them -- I think a majority of theoretical physicists nowadays would dispute the plausibility of "rigidity" as a criterion -- and I fear that it is ultimately just another example of the depressing trend where very successful people over-generalize from their success.)

I'm not sure how much weight any of these ideas individually bears, but I think they form an interesting strand in the history of 20th century liberalism.

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