Saturday, September 22, 2007

the constructed narrative

so I've already geeked out about Bruno Latour on these pages, but now I get to add another European philosopher of science/knowledge, the polish Ludwik Fleck. His book, Genealogy and Development of A Scientific fact is absolutely changing my life.

Whereas Bruno Latour is talking about the controversies encountered in the development of scientific fact, Fleck talks about the study of and phenomenology of what a scientific fact is. I haven't finished the book, and I'm not entirely sure that I'll be able to parse out the exact philosophical implications of all of this just yet, but the interesting contention that like any other non-scientific "fact," scientific facts are no more ur-real. Social nets condition and determine not only how facts are developed (it's pretty clear from studies done on expectation bias, etc.), but the facts themselves, Fleck argues, are themselves part of the net of intersection social conditions. To illustrate his point, Fleck looks at the genealogy of scientific facts surrounding syphilis and in particular, a genealogy of the Wasserman reaction which is used to diagnose syphilis.

I had trouble visualizing it until recently when I was in the shower. You know those little graph illustrations of curved space that always pop up when talking about Einstein and relativity?

As an analogue, think of societal knowledge or through structure as what represents gravity and curves the space, what Fleck calls "active" knowledge. Next, consider each line as a particular line of thought, with intersections as scientific facts. This, Fleck calls "passive" knowledge (in that it follows the traditional idea of 'reality' as some objective existence that can be known definitively).

So, a traditional view of science and scientific inquiry would tend to view the process as: logical inquiry (lines) being distorted by bias (gravity). Thus, unbiased (or least-biased) inquiry is possible, so the driving goal is to remove bias.

As I understand it, Fleck argues that no, this "distortion" actually is no such thing. That's just how the terrain *is* based on the prevailing thought style (as he calls him) and logical inquiry must needs fit to this terrain. The byproduct of this is that there *is* no objective truth because for this to be true, there must be cognition without a society or societal knowledge, which Fleck expressly and specifically describes as impossible.

It's taking a bit of time and energy to wrap my head around these thoughts and to visualize it -- but it's definitely changing my life, particularly with lots of collisions of secondary (tertiary or even more +ary levels) thought-styles that occurs with places of "artificial" diversity (e.g., Washington, D.C., most post-high school settings).

Anywhere, where the hell was I talking about? OH OH, the reason why this plays into music study (and life and general)? There's an interesting phenomenon that accompanies thought styles, and that is the general suppression of extraneous or contradictory information. It's certainly apparent in scientific inquiry and experimentation ("we went looking for a vaccine," "after this experiment, it was clear we needed to do X so we performed Y experiment) which almost never holds up when the process is more clearly examined and parsed (Fleck observes wrly that well-defined experiments cannot lead to cognition since well-defined experiments require the outcome to be known!). In retrospect, then, what was a kinky line of haphazard direction is straightened out into a direct A to B line. And what's interesting is that this isn't done on some sort of Cartesian plane:

But instead, this twisty turny thing, is *called* straight and the thought style bends to conform to it, assimilate it. Thus, the shortest (logical) distance between fact A and fact B is no longer a "straight line" in the sense that it conforms, instead, to the bendy twisty reality of the thought style. That's the thunder of Fleck's argument.

It's so easy to see this in terms of narratives for how people have learned to sing, which is why it's refreshing to hear people talk of how it wasn't A to B and then B to C in their learning. Renee Fleming comes to mind. Vivica Genaux is another (whose metaphor of groping around in the dark to find the door I found particularly apt).

And, my teacher also shared with me other stories in which he spent a great deal of time learning to do things that he's asking me to learn. Which helps, so I don't feel quite like a fuck up for not getting it immediately (that's a really bad personality tick that I'm trying to kick). So, it's back to humming.

Hm! Hm! Hm! Hm hm hm hm hm! Hm hm hm hm HM!

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