Archive for the ‘postmodernism’ Category

Twelve principles I’m taking away from recent discussions

January 27, 2011
  1. Hypotheses non fingo A: Ideas about things are not hypothesized and tested against those things so much as things are determined to be what they are by testing them against ideas. Facts are recognizable as such only because they relate with a prior idea.
  2. Hypotheses non fingo B: Cohen’s introduction to Newton’s Opticks makes it plain that Newton is not offering a general methodological pointer in this phrase. Rather, he is answering critics who wanted him to explain what gravity is, and what it’s causes are. In saying, I feign no hypotheses, Newton is merely indicating that he’s not going to make up stories about something he knows nothing about. And in contrast with the Principia, the Opticks provides a much more accessible overview of the investigative process, from the initial engagement with light, where indeed no hypotheses as to its causes are offered, and onto more specific inquiries into its properties, where hypotheses necessarily inform experimental contrasts.
  3. Ideas, such as mathematical/geometrical theorems, natural laws, or the structure of Rasch models, do not exist and are unobservable. No triangle ever fits the Pythagorean theorem, there are no bodies left to themselves or balls rolling on frictionless planes, and there are no test, survey, or assessment results completely unaffected by the particular questions asked and persons answering.
  4. The clarity and transparency of an idea requires careful attention to the unity and sameness of the relevant class of things observed. So far as possible, the observational framework must be constrained by theory to produce observations likely to conform reasonably with the idea.
  5. New ideas come into language when a phenomenon or effect, often technically produced, exhibits persistent and stable properties across samples, observers, instruments, etc.
  6. New word-things that come into language, whether a galaxy, an element in the periodic table, a germ, or a psychosocial construct, may well have existed since the dawn of time and may well have exerted tangible effects on humans for millennia. They did not, however, do so for anyone in terms of the newly-available theory and understanding, which takes a place in a previously unoccupied position within the matrix of interrelated ideas, facts, and social networks.
  7. Number does not delimit the pure ideal concept of amount, but vice versa.
  8. Rasch models are one way of specifying the ideal form observations must approximate if they are to exhibit magnitude amounts divisible into ratios. Fitting data to such a model in the absence of a theory of the construct is only a very early step in the process of devising a measurement system.
  9. The invariant representation of a construct across samples, instruments, observers, etc. exhibiting magnitude amounts divisible into ratios provides the opportunity for allowing a pure ideal concept of amount to delimit number.
  10. Being suspended in language does not imply a denial of concrete reality and the separate independent existence of things. Rather, if those things did not exist, there would be no impetus for anything to come into words, and no criteria for meaningfulness.
  11. Situating objectivity in a sphere of signs removes the need for a separate sphere of facts constituted outside of language. Insofar as an ideal abstraction approximates convergence with and separation from different ways of expressing its meaning, an objective status owing nothing to a sphere of facts existing outside of language is obtained.
  12. The technology of a signifying medium (involving an alphabet, words as names for features of the environment, other symbols, syntactical and semantic rules, tools and instruments, etc.) gives rise to observations (data) that may exhibit regular patterns and that may come to be understood well enough to be reproduced at will via theory. Each facet (instrument, data, theory) mediates the relation of the other two.

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Newton, Metaphysics, and Measurement

January 20, 2011

Though Newton claimed to deduce quantitative propositions from phenomena, the record shows that he brought a whole cartload of presuppositions to bear on his observations (White, 1997), such as his belief that Pythagoras was the discoverer of the inverse square law, his knowledge of Galileo’s freefall experiments, and his theological and astrological beliefs in occult actions at a distance. Without his immersion in this intellectual environment, he likely would not have been able to then contrive the appearance of deducing quantity from phenomena.

The second edition of the Principia, in which appears the phrase “hypotheses non fingo,” was brought out in part to respond to the charge that Newton had not offered any explanation of what gravity is. De Morgan, in particular, felt that Newton seemed to know more than he could prove (Keynes, 1946). But in his response to the critics, and in asserting that he feigns no hypotheses, Newton was making an important distinction between explaining the causes or composition of gravity and describing how it works. Newton was saying he did not rely on or make or test any hypotheses as to what gravity is; his only concern was with how it behaves. In due course, gravity came to be accepted as a fundamental feature of the universe in no need of explanation.

Heidegger (1977, p. 121) contends that Newton was, as is implied in the translation “I do not feign hypotheses,” saying in effect that the ground plan he was offering as a basis for experiment and practical application was not something he just made up. Despite Newton’s rejection of metaphysical explanations, the charge of not explaining gravity for what it is was being answered with a metaphysics of how, first, to derive the foundation for a science of precise predictive control from nature, and then resituate that foundation back within nature as an experimental method incorporating a mathematical plan or model. This was, of course, quite astute of Newton, as far as he went, but he stopped far short of articulating the background assumptions informing his methods.

Newton’s desire for a logic of experimental science led him to reject anything “metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical” as a foundation for proceeding. Following in Descartes’ wake, Newton then was satisfied to solidify the subject-object duality and to move forward on the basis of objective results that seemed to make metaphysics a thing of the past. Unfortunately, as Burtt (1954/1932, pp. 225-230) observes in this context, the only thing that can possibly happen when you presume discourse to be devoid of metaphysical assumptions is that your metaphysics is more subtly insinuated and communicated to others because it is not overtly presented and defended. Thus we have the history of logical positivism as the dominant philosophy of science.

It is relevant to recall here that Newton was known for strong and accurate intuitions, and strong and unorthodox religious views (he held the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge only by royal dispensation, as he was not Anglican). It must be kept in mind that Newton’s combination of personal characteristics was situated in the social context of the emerging scientific culture’s increasing tendency to prioritize results that could be objectively detached from the particular people, equipment, samples, etc. involved in their production (Shapin, 1989). Newton then had insights that, while remarkably accurate, could not be entirely derived from the evidence he offered and that, moreover, could not acceptably be explained informally, psychologically, or theologically.

What is absolutely fascinating about this constellation of factors is that it became a model for the conduct of science. Of course, Newton’s laws of motion were adopted as the hallmark of successful scientific modeling in the form of the Standard Model applied throughout physics in the nineteenth century (Heilbron, 1993). But so was the metaphysical positivist logic of a pure objectivism detached from everything personal, intuitive, metaphorical, social, economic, or religious (Burtt, 1954/1932).

Kuhn (1970) made a major contribution to dismantling this logic when he contrasted textbook presentations of the methodical production of scientific effects with the actual processes of cobbled-together fits and starts that are lived out in the work of practicing scientists. But much earlier, James Clerk Maxwell (1879, pp. 162-163) had made exactly the same observation in a contrast of the work of Ampere with that of Faraday:

“The experimental investigation by which Ampere established the laws of the mechanical action between electric currents is one of the most brilliant achievements in science. The whole, theory and experiment, seems as if it had leaped, full grown and full armed, from the brain of the ‘Newton of electricity.’ It is perfect in form, and unassailable in accuracy, and it is summed up in a formula from which all the phenomena may be deduced, and which must always remain the cardinal formula of electro-dynamics.

“The method of Ampere, however, though cast into an inductive form, does not allow us to trace the formation of the ideas which guided it. We can scarcely believe that Ampere really discovered the law of action by means of the experiments which he describes. We are led to suspect, what, indeed, he tells us himself* [Ampere’s Theorie…, p. 9], that he discovered the law by some process which he has not shewn us, and that when he had afterwards built up a perfect demonstration he removed all traces of the scaffolding by which he had raised it.

“Faraday, on the other hand, shews us his unsuccessful as well as his successful experiments, and his crude ideas as well as his developed ones, and the reader, however inferior to him in inductive power, feels sympathy even more than admiration, and is tempted to believe that, if he had the opportunity, he too would be a discoverer. Every student therefore should read Ampere’s research as a splendid example of scientific style in the statement of a discovery, but he should also study Faraday for the cultivation of a scientific spirit, by means of the action and reaction which will take place between newly discovered facts and nascent ideas in his own mind.”

Where does this leave us? In sum, Rasch emulated Ampere in two ways. He did so first in wanting to become the “Newton of reading,” or even the “Newton of psychosocial constructs,” when he sought to show that data from reading test items and readers are structured with an invariance analogous to that of data from instruments applying a force to an object with mass (Rasch, 1960, pp. 110-115). Rasch emulated Ampere again when, like Ampere, after building up a perfect demonstration of a reading law structured in the form of Newton’s second law, he did not report the means by which he had constructed test items capable of producing the data fitting the model, effectively removing all traces of the scaffolding.

The scaffolding has been reconstructed for reading (Stenner, et al., 2006) and has also been left in plain view by others doing analogous work involving other constructs (cognitive and moral development, mathematics ability, short-term memory, etc.). Dawson (2002), for instance, compares developmental scoring systems of varying sophistication and predictive control. And it may turn out that the plethora of uncritically applied Rasch analyses may turn out to be a capital resource for researchers interested in focusing on possible universal laws, predictive theories, and uniform metrics.

That is, published reports of calibration, error, and fit estimates open up opportunities for “pseudo-equating” (Beltyukova, Stone, & Fox, 2004; Fisher 1997, 1999) in their documentation of the invariance, or lack thereof, of constructs over samples and instruments. The evidence will point to a need for theoretical and metric unification directly analogous to what happened in the study and use of electricity in the nineteenth century:

“…’the existence of quantitative correlations between the various forms of energy, imposes upon men of science the duty of bringing all kinds of physical quantity to one common scale of comparison.’” [Schaffer, 1992, p. 26; quoting Everett 1881; see Smith & Wise 1989, pp. 684-4]

Qualitative and quantitative correlations in scaling results converged on a common construct in the domain of reading measurement through the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the Anchor Test Study and the calibration of the National Reference Scale for Reading (Jaeger, 1973; Rentz & Bashaw, 1977). The lack of a predictive theory and the entirely empirical nature of the scale estimates prevented the scale from wide application, as the items in the tests that were equated were soon replaced with new items.

But the broad scale of the invariance observed across tests and readers suggests that some mechanism must be at work (Stenner, Stone, & Burdick, 2009), or that some form of life must be at play (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010a), structuring the data. Eventually, some explanation accounting for the structure ought to become apparent, as it did for reading (Stenner, Smith, & Burdick, 1983; Stenner, et al., 2006). This emergence of self-organizing structures repeatedly asserting themselves as independently existing real things is the medium of the message we need to hear. That message is that instruments play a very large and widely unrecognized role in science. By facilitating the routine production of mutually consistent, regularly observable, and comparable results they set the stage for theorizing, the emergence of consensus on what’s what, and uniform metrics (Daston & Galison, 2007; Hankins & Silverman, 1999; Latour, 1987, 2005; Wise, 1988, 1995). The form of Rasch’s models as extensions of Maxwell’s method of analogy (Fisher, 2010b) makes them particularly productive as a means of providing self-organizing invariances with a medium for their self-inscription. But that’s a story for another day.

References

Beltyukova, S. A., Stone, G. E., & Fox, C. M. (2004). Equating student satisfaction measures. Journal of Applied Measurement, 5(1), 62-9.

Burtt, E. A. (1954/1932). The metaphysical foundations of modern physical science (Rev. ed.) [First edition published in 1924]. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dawson, T. L. (2002, Summer). A comparison of three developmental stage scoring systems. Journal of Applied Measurement, 3(2), 146-89.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1997). Physical disability construct convergence across instruments: Towards a universal metric. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 1(2), 87-113.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1999). Foundations for health status metrology: The stability of MOS SF-36 PF-10 calibrations across samples. Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, 151(11), 566-578.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 238(1), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/238/1/012016/pdf/1742-6596_238_1_012016.pdf.

Hankins, T. L., & Silverman, R. J. (1999). Instruments and the imagination. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jaeger, R. M. (1973). The national test equating study in reading (The Anchor Test Study). Measurement in Education, 4, 1-8.

Keynes, J. M. (1946, July). Newton, the man. (Speech given at the Celebration of the Tercentenary of Newton’s birth in 1642.) MacMillan St. Martin’s Press (London, England), The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Volume X, 363-364.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Maxwell, J. C. (1879). Treatise on electricity and magnetism, Volumes I and II. London, England: Macmillan.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

Rentz, R. R., & Bashaw, W. L. (1977, Summer). The National Reference Scale for Reading: An application of the Rasch model. Journal of Educational Measurement, 14(2), 161-179.

Schaffer, S. (1992). Late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation: A manufactory of Ohms. In R. Bud & S. E. Cozzens (Eds.), Invisible connections: Instruments, institutions, and science (pp. 23-56). Bellingham, WA: SPIE Optical Engineering Press.

Shapin, S. (1989, November-December). The invisible technician. American Scientist, 77, 554-563.

Stenner, A. J., Burdick, H., Sanford, E. E., & Burdick, D. S. (2006). How accurate are Lexile text measures? Journal of Applied Measurement, 7(3), 307-22.

Stenner, A. J., Smith, M., III, & Burdick, D. S. (1983, Winter). Toward a theory of construct definition. Journal of Educational Measurement, 20(4), 305-316.

Stenner, A. J., Stone, M., & Burdick, D. (2009, Autumn). The concept of a measurement mechanism. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 23(2), 1204-1206.

White, M. (1997). Isaac Newton: The last sorcerer. New York: Basic Books.

Wise, M. N. (1988). Mediating machines. Science in Context, 2(1), 77-113.

Wise, M. N. (Ed.). (1995). The values of precision. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Modern, Postmodern, or Amodern?

February 17, 2010

A few points of clarification might be in order for those wondering what the fuss is all about in the contrast between the modern and the postmodern (and the amodern, which is really what we ought to be about).

The modern world view takes its perspective from the foundational works of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. One of its characteristic features is often referred to as the Cartesian duality, or subject-object split, in which we (the subjects) enter the previously-existing objective world as blank slates who deal with reality by adapting to the facts of existence (which are God-given in the full Christian version). Many Marxists, feminists, and postmodernists see modernism as a bastion of white males in positions of political and economic superiority oblivious to the way their ideas were shaped by their times, and happy to take full advantage of their positions for their own gain.

Postmodernism takes a variety of forms and has not yet really jelled into any kind of uniform perspective; in fact, it might not ever do so, as one of its few recurrent themes has to do with the fragmentation of thinking and its local dependence on the particular power relations of different times and places. That said, a wide variety of writers trace out the way we are caught up in the play of the language games that inevitably follow from the mutual implication of subject and object. Subject and object each imply the other in the way language focuses attention selectively and filters out 99% of incoming stimuli. Concepts originate in metaphors that take their meaning from the surrounding social and historical context, and so perception and cognition are constrained by the linguistic or theoretical paradigms dominating the thoughts and behaviors of various communities. We cannot help but find ourselves drawn up into the flow of discourses that always already embody the subject-object unities represented in speaking and writing.

When we choose discourse over violence, we do so on the basis of a desire for meaning (Ricoeur, 1974), of an inescapable attraction to the beautiful (Gadamer, 1989, 1998), of a care that characterizes the human mode of being (Heidegger, 1962), of a considerateness for the human vulnerability of others and ourselves (Habermas, 1995), of an enthrallment with the fecund abundance of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1984), of the joy we experience in recognizing ourselves in each other and the universal (Hegel, 2003), of the irresistible allure of things (Harman, 2005), or of the unavoidable metaphysical necessity that propositions must take particular forms (Derrida, 1978).

All violence is ultimately the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1974), in which discourse is cut off by the imposition of one particularity as representative of a potentially infinite whole. This reductionism is an unjustified reduction of a universal that precludes efforts aimed at determining how well what is said might work to represent the whole transparently. Of course, all reductions of abstract ideals to particular expressions in words, numbers, or other signs are, by definition, of a limited length, and so inevitably pose the potential for being nonsensical, biased, prejudiced, and meaningless. Measures experimentally justifying reductions as meaningfully and usefully transparent are created, maintained, and reinvented via a balance of powers. In science, powers are balanced by the interrelations of theories, instruments, and data; in democracy, by the interrelations of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Just as science is continuously open to the improvements that might be effected by means of new theories, instrumentation, or data, so, too, are democratic governments continuously reshaped by new court decisions, laws, and executive orders.

An essential idea here is that all thinking takes place in signs; this is not an idea that was invented or that is owned by postmodernists. C. S. Pierce developed the implications of semiotics in his version of pragmatism, and the letters exchanged by William James and Helen Keller explored the world projected by the interrelations of signs at length. The focus on signs, signification, and the play of signifiers does not make efforts at thinking futile or invalidate the search for truth. Things come into language by asserting their independent real existence, and by being appropriated in terms of relations with things already represented in the language. For instance, trees in the forest did not arrive on the scene hallmarked “white pine,” “pin oak,” etc. Rather, names for things emerge via the metaphoric process, which frames new experiences in terms of old, and which leads to a kind of conceptual speciation event that distinguishes cultural, historical, and ecological times and places from each other.

Modernists interpret the cultural relativism that emerges here as reducing all value systems to a false equality and an “anything goes” lack of standards. Unfortunately, the rejection of relativism usually entails the adoption of some form of political or religious fundamentalism in efforts aimed at restoring bellwether moral reference points. One of the primary characteristics of the current state of global crisis is our suspension in this unsustainable tension between equally dysfunctional alternatives of completely relaxed or completely rigid guides to behavior.

But the choice between fundamentalism and relativism is a false dichotomy. Science, democracy, and capitalism have succeeded as well as they have not in spite of, but because of, the social, historic, linguistic, and metaphoric factors that influence and constitute the construction of objective meaning. As Latour (1990, 1993) puts it, we have never actually been modern, so the point is not to be modern or postmodern, but amodern. We need to appropriate new, more workable conceptual reductions from the positive results produced by the deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. Though many postmodernists see deconstruction as an end in itself, and though many modernists see reductionism as a necessary exercise of power, there are other viable ways of proceeding through all three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982; Fisher, 2010b) that remain to be explored.

The amodern path informs the trajectory of my own work, from the focus on the creation of meaning in language to meaningful measurement (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b), and from there to the use of measurement and metrological networks in bringing human, social, and natural capital to life as part of the completion of the capitalist and democratic projects (Fisher, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010a). Though this project will also ultimately amount to nothing more than another failed experiment, perhaps sooner than later, it has its openness to continued questioning and ongoing dialogue in its favor.

References

Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/WP_Fisher_Jr_2000.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Rev. ed.). New York: Crossroad (Original work published 1960).

Gadamer, H.-G. (1998). Praise of theory: Speeches and essays ( Foreword by Joel Weinsheimer, Ed.) (C. Dawson, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Hegel, G. W. F. (2003). Phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Dover (Original work published 1931).

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Irigaray, L. (1984). An ethics of sexual difference (C. Burke & G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Review of “The Science of Liberty” by Timothy Ferris

February 15, 2010

The topic of Timothy Ferris’ (2010) “The Science of Liberty” is fascinating; the author recounts many entertaining and illuminating historical episodes in science, with their often profound implications for political and economic experimentation. But as Gary Rosen says in his New York Times review, Ferris ultimately gives up “on any real effort to argue for the decisive influence of science as such. He is content to speak of science metaphorically, as the model for openness and experimentalism in all the major realms of liberal-democratic endeavor.” This is unfortunate, as there is much to say and more to be done in documenting and extending the material practices of science into political and economic applications (Ashworth, 2004; Jasanoff, 2004, 2005).

And more than that, Ferris misses two important opportunities that could have made this book into something more compelling. First, the voluminous literature on the co-production of social orders across political, economic, and scientific contexts is almost completely ignored. Worse, when Ferris does touch on it, as he does in the work of Bruno Latour, he turns it into an example of an antiscientific attitude that he is content to “jeer and dismiss,” as Rosen puts it in the Times.

Latour’s work, however, is part of an area of academic research that has emerged in the last 30 years with a focus on the way scientific values embody, insinuate, and disseminate implicit moral, political, and economic values, values that are ineluctably spread and adopted along with the technologies that carry them. The basic idea is expressed in Alder’s (2002) history of the meter:

“Just as the French Revolution had proclaimed universal rights for all people, the savants argued, so too should it proclaim universal measures. And to ensure that their creation would not be seen as the handiwork of any single group or nation, they decided to derive its fundamental unit from the measure of the world itself.” (p. 3)

“Ought not a single nation have a uniform set of measures, just as a soldier fought for a single patrie? Had not the Revolution promised equality and fraternity, not just for France, but for all the people of the world? By the same token, should not all of the world’s people use a single set of weights and measures to encourage peaceable commerce, mutual understanding, and the exchange of knowledge? That was the purpose of measuring the world.” (p. 32)

But instead of capitalizing on this primary theme in Alder’s book, the only mention of it by Ferris (p. 124) is as a source for a contemporary’s comment on the execution of Lavoisier by the Revolutionaries. Hunt (1994), however, points out that this focus on standardization provides the medium through which the material practices and implicit values of science are exported from the laboratory into the broader social world, where they have unintended political and economic effects. Recounting the development of electrical standards, Hunt observes that

“Such standardization—first of resistance coils, then of production materials—is a good example of the process Bruno Latour discusses in the section ‘Metrologies’ in Science in Action. Standardization of instruments and materials enables scientists and engineers to extend their networks of calculation and control by simply making and sending out what are, in effect, little pieces of their laboratories and testing rooms. They can then travel around the world without, in a sense, ever having to leave their laboratories—as long as they are able to put certified copies or extensions of their instruments wherever they have to go.” (p. 56)

Hunt continues, providing more detail on how the social order implied by standard values comes to be constructed:

“As useful as the precision and control afforded by standardization was within a single company’s system, it became even more important when an exchange of materials was involved—when standardization became part of contract specifications. By providing fixed and agreed reference points in which both parties could have confidence, standard resistances were crucial in settling or heading off possible disputes. By enabling engineers to secure the comparability and even uniformity of their copper and gutta-percha, to identify and police deviations, and to reproduce the properties of successful cables in a predictable way, reliable standards were crucial to the growth of the cable manufacturing industry and to the efficient operation and extension of the world cable system.” (p. 57)

Electrical engineers, then, rigorously established the natural properties of resistance as it shows itself in repeated experiments, designed their systems to conform with those properties, earned economic and legal successes by efficiently deploying standard resistances, and worked together to create a global system. In other words, as Ferris himself emphasizes, scientific practices imply and lead toward democratic practices by being antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative. And every year on World Metrology Day (May 20), the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) repeats the same mantra emphasizing the vital importance of technical standards and common product definitions for free trade and liberal democracy.

The same basic point made by Latour is also made by Schaffer (1992; also see Wise, 1995 and many others), working in the same area of the history of electrical standards as Hunt:

“The physical values which the laboratory fixes are sustained by the social values which the laboratory inculcates. Metrology has not often been granted much historical significance. But in milieux such as those of Victorian Britain the propagation of standards and values was the means through which physicists reckoned they could link their work with technical and economic projects elsewhere in their society. Instrumental ensembles let these workers embody the values which mattered to their culture in their laboratory routines. Intellectualist condescension distracts our attention from these everyday practices, from their technical staff, and from the work which makes results count outside laboratory walls.” (pp. 22-23)

Had Ferris taken the trouble to look at Latour’s 1999 book, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, or Latour’s 1990 and 1993 contrasts of the postmodern and amodern, he would have found lengthy replies to exactly those disputes he unknowingly re-provokes. Far from denying that anything exists objectively in nature, as Ferris implies, Latour and the field of science studies examines how we enter into dialogue with nature, and how things come into words as objects of discourse by asserting their independent real existence in very specific and reproducible ways. Ferris commits a gross reductionism in casting as postmodern nonsense this field’s efforts in tracing out the microscopic details of what is said and done, how instruments are read and the readings recorded, and how the recorded values take their places in forms, memos, bills, invoices, laws, accounting spreadsheets, manufacturing specifications, operating instructions, etc. Ferris would have had quite a different book to write if he had followed the implications of networked thinking coordinated via standards and brought them to bear on recent developments in the social sciences and economics (Fisher, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010a).

Ferris does his “jeer and dismiss” thing again in a second way, instead of engaging substantively with the likes of Heidegger or Derrida. In joining with Gross and Levitt (1994), and Alan Bloom (1987), in their dismissals of Derrida and deconstruction, for instance, Ferris (pp. 258-259) has simply found it easier to project irrational conclusions on writers whose work he cannot be troubled to read carefully enough to understand (as on page 238, where “logocentric” is said to be “a fascist epithet aimed at those who employ logic”). Derrida’s comment that “a critique of what I do is indeed impossible” (quoted on page 242) hardly renders his work “immune to criticism,” as Ferris says. The point is that it is impossible to critique effectively what Derrida does without doing it yourself, which puts you in the unresolvable situation of having to employ the same assumptions as the ones you’re criticizing.

Closer attention to Derrida’s extensive considerations of this issue would show the sensitivity and care that are required in trying, for instance, to be as faithful as Levi-Strauss was to the double intention of being able “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he [Levi-Strauss] criticizes” (Derrida, 1978, p. 284). Postmodernism is essentially this kind of a twist on the old maxim about being able to continue thinking critically while holding two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. This double intention permeates Derrida’s writings from the beginning of his career. In a 1968 discussion of his work, for instance, he said, “I try to place myself at a certain point at which—and this would be the very ‘content’ of what I would like to ‘signify’—the thing signified is no longer easily separable from the signifier” (Wahl, et al., 1988, pp. 88-89). In saying this, the speaker is obviously making an effort at a clear separation of what is signified from the signifiers representing it.

What complicates things is that what are signified in that sentence are precisely the difficulties entailed in effecting the separation referred to. Though this point is lost on those unable or unwilling to do the work of thinking these self-referential recursive patterns through, the discourses of deconstruction often show awareness of the need to assume the convergence and separation of signifier and signified even while specific instances of their inseparability are analyzed (Gasché, 1987; Spivak, 1990, 1993). This follows from the fact that deconstruction is but the third of three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330), where the prior two moments are reduction and application (Fisher, 2010b).

Any time things are put into words in spoken or written expressions of limited lengths, reduction takes place. Reductionism occurs when things are misrepresented, when the utility or fairness of the way something is conceptualized is biased, prejudiced, or ineffective. Of course, language is historical and cultural, human attention is inevitably selective, and so words and concepts are always colored by the interests and prejudices of their times. These places in which the meaning of things remains stuck on and inseparable from local particularities may become increasingly apparent over time, as words are applied constructively in creating meaning, socially. Eventually, new distinctions and new aggregations of previously lumped or segregated classifications will be demanded just to be able to continue meaningful communication. And so the cycle progresses through applications to a period of critical evaluation and on to new reductions with new applications.

But this process need not be construed only negatively, since it also stands for nothing more than the fact that there is always room for improvement. Industrial quality improvement methods adopted over the last 60+ years are well-known, for instance, for asserting that there is no best way of doing something, that the standard way of doing something is always flawed in some way. The ontological method comprehensively outlines the life cycle of concepts (Fisher, 2010b), and so offers positive potentials for informing experimental evaluations of new possibilities in science, capitalism, and democracy.

And so, though one could never gather this from reading Ferris, late in his life Derrida diligently urged his critics to read him as closely as he was reading them, saying in one interview (Derrida, 2003) that:

“…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.” (pp. 62-63)

This is from someone who holds “truly meaningful utterance is impossible” (Gross & Levitt, 1994, p. 76), and who stands as the representative of a movement (deconstruction) that “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy” (Bloom, 1987, p. 387)? Far from defeating or debunking “lackluster scholars,” which is how Ferris (pp. 257-258) credits Gross and Levitt, and Bloom, they actually do nothing but demonstrate their failure to grasp the issues. The situation is again similar to one brought up by Thomas Kuhn regarding the nature of interpretation.

As I’ve noted previously in this blog, Kuhn (1977) recounts an experience from the summer of 1947 that led to his appreciation for an explicit theory of interpretation. He had been completely perplexed by Aristotle’s account of motion, in which Aristotle writes a great many things that appear blatantly absurd. Kuhn was very puzzled and disturbed by this, as Aristotle made many astute observations in other areas, such as biology and political behavior. He eventually came to see what Aristotle was in fact talking about, and he then came to routinely offer the following maxim to his students:

“When reading the works of an important thinker [or anyone else who is held by some to have a modicum of coherence], look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.” (p. xii)

As Kuhn goes on to say, if his book was addressed primarily to historians, this point wouldn’t be worth making, as historians are in the business of precisely this kind of interpretive back-and-forth, as are many philosophers, literary critics, writers, social scientists, educators, and artists. But as a physicist, Kuhn says that the discovery of hermeneutics not only made history seem consequential, it changed his view of science. As is well known, his skill in practicing hermeneutics changed a great many people’s views of science.

Derrida’s efforts to explain the meaning of his difficult language and prose are not, then, late after-thoughts presented only in response to critics—and to followers who often seem to misunderstand deconstruction as much as those presenting themselves as defenders of truth and reason. His purpose is akin to Kuhn’s in that he is urging people who find absurdities in his writing to reconsider and ask themselves how a sensible person could have written them.

Derrida’s reference to measuring the distance from standards clearly intersects with Latour’s interests in metrology. Standards in rhetoric, grammar, orthography, etc. in fact form an implicit model for metrological standards and their coordinations of thoughts and behaviors on mass scales. This sense of measuring is no empty metaphor, as is plain in Derrida’s (1989) book-length study of Edmund Husserl’s (1970) Origins of Geometry, one of the founding documents of Continental philosophy and postmodernism.

“The mathematical object seems to be the privileged example and most permanent thread guiding Husserl’s reflection… [on phenomenology] because the mathematical object is ideal. Its being is thoroughly transparent and exhausted by its phenomenality” (Derrida, 1989, p. 27).

Accordingly, its “universality and objectivity make the ideal object into the ‘absolute model for any object whatsoever'” (Bernet, 1989, p. 141, quoting Derrida, 1989, p. 66). Heidegger (1967) similarly reflected at length on the mathematical object. He was, after all, Husserl’s student, dealt extensively with mathematical thinking (Heidegger, 1967; Kisiel, 1973), took more courses in mathematics and physics at one point in his studies than he did in philosophy (Kisiel, 2002, p. x), and remained well enough versed in mathematics to serve on dissertation committees for his university (Krell, 1977, p. 12).

Far from being the antiscientific nonsense portrayed by Ferris, there are strong parallels between mathematical logic and the themes being played out in postmodern studies (Tasic, 2001; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b). In direct opposition to Ferris’ characterization of logocentricism as a charge levied against those who use logic, Derrida (1981) wrote that those most guilty of logocentrism are those who resist logic, saying that

“…resistance to logical-mathematical notation has always been the signature of logocentricism and phonologism in the event to which they have dominated metaphysics and the classical semiological and linguistic projects.” (p. 34)

“A grammatology that would break with this system of presuppositions, then, must in effect liberate the mathematization of language, and must also declare that ‘the practice of science in fact has never ceased to protest the imperialism of the Logos, for example by calling upon, from all time, and more and more, nonphonetic writing.’ [see Of Grammatology, pp. 12, 10, 3, 284-6] Everything that has always linked logos to phone’ has been limited by mathematics, whose progress is in absolute solidarity with the practice of nonphonetic inscription. About these ‘grammatological’ principles and tasks there is no possible doubt, I believe. But the extension of mathematical notation, and in general the formalization of writing, must be very slow and very prudent, at least if one wishes it to take over effectively the domains from which it has been excluded so far.” (p. 34)

“The effective progress of mathematical notation goes along with the deconstruction of metaphysics, with the profound renewal of mathematics itself, and the concept of science for which mathematics has always been the model.” (p. 35)

Derrida is here speaking to a form of nonphonetic writing, a kind of mathematical symbolization that effects a transparency inaccessible to forms of notation that stand for words representing some kind of particular thing. Though the problems are complex, the project Derrida describes follows in specific ways from Heidegger (1967; Kisiel, 1973, 2002; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004) and from other influences on him.

So, contrary to Ferris’ claims (p. 259), Latour, Heidegger, and Derrida have not ignored science as a source of knowledge, reduced it to arbitrary social constructs, or turned their back on learning. In fact, Heidegger (1967) traces the roots of mathematical thinking to learning, to how we learn through what we already know, and to how things that can be taught and learned were the original mathematical objects. There are indeed great potentials for further advancing the impact of science on democracy, but we are needlessly blinded to real possibilities when our ideas are driven more by unexamined prejudices than by the critical application of clear thinking. In this review, I’ve hardly been able to crack open the door to the issues in need of careful study, but I offer it in the hope that others will take the time to stop, study, and think in future work in this area.

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