Thursday, May 07, 2015

Epistemic Machismo


Polanyi was one of the most prominent physical chemists of the middle of the twentieth century. In the second half of his life he took up philosophy in an effort to understand his own experience of scientific discovery. His elaboration of "tacit knowledge" entailed a criticism of the then-prevailing ideas of how science proceeds, tied to wider claims about the nature of reason. The logical positivists conceived reason to be rule-like, whereas according to Polanyi, a scientist relies on a lot of knowledge that can't be rendered explicit, and an inherent feature of this kind of knowledge is that it is "personal." He explained:

"The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge; then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies."

But the culture of scientific apprenticeship that developed in Europe, and then later in America, did so without warrant from the official self-understanding of modern science. As Polanyi writes, "To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness." This is intolerable if, like Descartes, you think that to be rational is to reject "example or custom" in order to "reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own." The paradox of the Cartesian project is that from a beginning point that is radically self-enclosed, one is supposed to proceed by an impersonal method, as this will secure objective knowledge — the kind that carries no taint of the knower himself. Polanyi turns this whole procedure on its head: through submission to authority, in the social context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable.

Let's dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: "You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things." This suggests that there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of the Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation — from kings and priests — and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one's freedom but to one's pride.

If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term "method" is that one merely has to follow a procedure and voilà, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures, no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant's "rational beings") that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.

It's a delightful coincidence that I just encountered this same theme of trust last week in a book about a completely different topic. In fact, I'm just going to merge that post into this one. Here's Saul Frampton talking about Montaigne's understanding of experiential knowledge as opposed to that of Descartes:

But Montaigne can be seen to offer an alternative philosophy to that of Descartes, a more human-centered conception that lays no claim to absolute certainty, but that is also free from what some have seen as the implications of such claims: the totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, and the individualist anomie of modern Western life.

For at the heart of Descartes' philosophy is the intellectual principle of division, an attempt to offer clarity in a world made uncertain by religious and political unrest. He thus states as part of his 'method' that intellectual problems should be 'divided' into 'as many parts as possible' and that we should accept as true only that which we can perceive 'very clearly and distinctly' — i.e. separate from other things. And this principle provides the foundation for his division of mind and body: he sees the mind as all 'one and the same', whereas he 'cannot think of any Corporeal or extended being which I cannot easily divide into Parts'. For Descartes, true knowledge thus amounts to a singular unambiguous vision: he uses the metaphor of a city designed by one 'single master', rather than evolving naturally and haphazardly through the work of 'different hands'.

Montaigne, by contrast, operates with an older, less cutting-edge, yet perhaps more venerable intellectual instinct: that of proximity. Rather than defining and dividing things, Montaigne wants to bring them together, get near to them, close to them, not least to himself. And rather than searching for certainties that divide him from the commonality, Montaigne sees the principle of trust as of far greater importance; as he says at the start of his essays: 'You have here a book of good faith.' For Montaigne, human relations are the primal scene of knowledge: if trust is restored, agreement, tolerance and hence truth will follow; the search for constancy and certainty strikes him as merely obstinacy in another guise...For in the midst of these [French wars of religion] Montaigne begins to see such conflict as fueled by the search for political and religious certainty.

Whereas Descartes' division of mind and body separates him from other bodies and other people, Montaigne sees his own relationship to his body as opening a gateway to 'the universal pattern of the human', and as a consequence society at large. Self-knowledge thus leads us into ourselves, but then out of ourselves into others: we need to get to know ourselves before we can understand our fellow man — a logical paradox from a modern perspective, but not for Montaigne.