Monday, July 18, 2005

C.P. Snow surely failed   posted by Razib @ 7/18/2005 01:24:00 AM

Four Challenges to Postcolonial Theory:

More broadly, I question O’Connor’s disdain for inductive reasoning, generalizations, and conjecture. As anyone who has ever struggled with arguments about literature must know, literary studies has never conformed to the modern ‘scientific method.’ One generates viable arguments and new forms of literary knowledge via routes that are often tangled, using reasoning that may be equal parts inductive and deductive, as well as through through conjectures (that are eventually substantiated), generalizations (that are hopefully true), and partial initial knowledge (that is later filled in). It may drive scientists insane to say it, but a literary critic has to have some sense of what she or he expects to find before writing a question or filing a proposal....
As I've said before, I don't "follow" any particular philospher of science (Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, etc.), but, as I note in the comments, I assumed that literary folk were familiar with them. When I read that passage I was rather disoriented. It seems to imply that:
  • Inductive reasoning and science are exclusive (someone should have told Dimitri Mendeleev).
  • That generalization and scientific theory are somehow exclusive.
  • That conjecture and hypothesis are not synonyms (or at least intersecting concepts).
  • That scientists propose hypotheses and conduct experiments with little foreknowledge of the range of possibilities.
Reading that passage, I got the strong impression that the author was conflating "science" with mathematical formalism.1 Now, it is true that humanists of the literary bent often get irritated when simple folk of scientific inclination like I misrepresent their discipline through ignorance and inability to grasp the subtle meaning in their "words," but science is in its essence a rather simple method....a method that I see described above, with only minor specific modifications necessary,2 in science testability is a measure of the model against the world, while reproducibility is a measure of the model against your fellow man.

1 - Even my interactions with friends who do graduate work in mathematics does not suggest to me that they are automatons at the service of axioms, inexorably ground down by the "logic" of their work. The finish product is certainly clean, but the process is filled with intuitional leaps and hunches from what I can gather.

2 - It is through testing and reproducibility that we get through the slop of misimpression and error. The problem that I have with many Literary Theorists and other assorted humanistic scholars who employ "Theory" is that I don't get a strong sense that they are studying anything aside from their own circular suppositions. In other words, it resembles pure mathematics, but without formal rigor or felicitous applicability in modeling the universe we see around us. I do not think it necessary that humanists should all strike the perfectly rationalistic pose that some analytic philosophers do, I simply wish, for lack of a precise phrase, that people like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would help us engage the world transparently and learn to love life with innocence, rather than being tied down by tangled ropes of faux-verbal unmeaning. If they so often did not have the title "Ph.D." their words would indicate to me that they abominate sincere cognition altogether. They strike me as modern day analogs to the fakirs and ascetics who the Buddha initially sought wisdom from, before realizing that their self-denial and flagellation was futile.