December 14, 2009

It's Irrefutable!

"Althusser informs us that 'it is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful State Ideological Apparatus'" (from Tony Judt's 1994 New Republic review article, reprinted in his recent book "Reappraisals"). I sometimes tend to think it's more like state ideology is the most powerful family apparatus, in all the engendered senses of that inversion, but that's just a detail, right? After all, Althusser's talking irrefutable fact here, so he can't be wrong, right?

Despite his obvious humourless totalitarian tendencies and socially unperceptive work (and life, for that matter), Althusser was once taken Very Seriously Indeed by people I knew and respected in Sydney, and I'm sure somewhere in the stash of books I left with my brother when I moved to London there's a dog-eared copy of "For Marx" or "Reading Capital" (probably both). Reading Althusser as an engineering student who was also doing a serious history and philosophy of science (HPS) second major was a transformative experience, but not in the way it probably was for most non-techie readers. More than the deliberately obtuse and jargon-laden prose (seemingly designed to do the familiar trick of being allusive without actually pinning Althusser down to anything you could test or criticise without him (or his acolytes) protesting that you'd misread or misunderstood him), I think it was his misuse of the words "science" and "scientific" that did it for me. It's that classic sleight-of-hand shell game equivocation where a hollowed-out version of "science" is used as a stand-in for something quite different, but still lends it the aura of objectivity (the dead giveaway with Althusser is that nothing non-trivial in science is an irrefutable fact). And I was left with the stark difference between the "show the work" and "evoke the metaphor" poles of my then-academic reading life….

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November 13, 2009

That Positivist Eschatology

Along with a handful of other people I spent an enjoyable few hours last weekend showing John Wilkins the Sights Of The City (and Berkeley). John's a real philosopher and historian of science, a field I really only dabbled in at university, and the various conversations over lunch or bagels or out in the streets ranged from mathematical models used in cladistics through species concepts and the storybook version(s) of science history taught to scientists, to what a positivist eschatology might look like (OK, that one was inspired by a previous comic non sequitur over a beer, but never mind), to Australian accents (his accent's noticeably more authentically Australian than mine; I think my accent's sui generis now, it doesn't belong to any country or region any more, which is a little unsettling). And he knew who the real Jimmy Little is, which was somewhat impressive for a philosopher (I was there as the Real Me, fortunately).

John's book Species: A History Of The Idea has just been published here by UC Press. One of John's arguments (at least as I understood it), which got aired on the weekend, is that the notion within biology that earlier scientists or philosophers — Linnaeus or Aristotle, for example — used essentialist conceptions of "species" is wrong, and that the notion that they did use such conceptions is itself a modern misconception, one that's been rather influential in modern biology and history and philosophy of science (HPS). A more nuanced look at what earlier scientists and philosophers actually meant when they used the term "species" suggests that few if any earlier such usages were essentialist.

That intrigues me, and might help explain a few things that have puzzled me about the history and sociology of modern biological; but I guess what I've always been most interested in with things like this (and what motivated me to do HPS at university) are the sociological and psychological reasons how and why such an idea might spread and take hold in intellectual circles (and anti-intellectual circles, for that matter) — and how such ideas die out or marginalised. History and sociology often only make sense to me when taken with a healthy dose of psychology (tempered with a great deal of skepticism); I can't help feeling this is one of those cases.

I've ordered his book; it turns up in the mail today or tomorrow; let's see how much of it I can misunderstand or misconstrue….

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August 25, 2009

There's A Riot Going On

"What are we to make of a scientific materialism which formally accepts the findings of physics about matter, yet makes so little effort to link these findings with the class struggle, revolution, or whatever. Does not the abyss between proton and the proletariat conceal an unacknowledged metaphysical conception of man?" — Benedict Anderson in a footnote to Imagined Communities (p10 in my edition).

At first glance this is an absolute riot of category errors (and the context doesn't save it). At second glance it's hard to make enough sense of it to know whether they're really category errors or not. But never mind: this is a frustrating book, but one I keep reading. And reading it is like reading a map prepared by someone who navigates to a completely different (even hidden) set of stars (Marx, Gellner, et al); it's like unearthing a time capsule from a long-vanished era and having to struggle to remember some of the cultural, philosophical, and political references that Anderson must have assumed we'd all get or at least recognise as Important and Relevant (itself a word of its time…). In short, a book that seems colonised by the time and place of its writing.

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January 31, 2009

Science Taken For Wonders

Reading George Makari's "Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis" (Harper, 2008), the question that keeps leaping up at every turn is: how did anyone take Freud seriously for so long? Put another way, what deep psychological need did Freudian psychoanalysis — a sort of astrology of the mind, short of real evidence, a mishmash of wishful thinking and received prejudices masquerading as the key to unmasking wishful thoughts and prejudices — what deep needs did it tap to be able to seduce several whole generations of philosophers, analysts, and patients? Now that's a problem best studied by psychology (or social psychiatry, perhaps). In this history, Freud himself comes across as mercurial, manipulative, spiteful; the group of Freudians around him as a typical cult, concerned mostly with a desperate struggle not to alienate the Leader and find themselves on the outside. Not a pretty picture, but not that untypical of any insurgent movement, in the field of science or elsewhere.

Freud's monumental reputation loomed large in the Easter Island of philosophy I inhabited in Sydney all those years ago (where he seemed to have been regarded as a founder of the science and philosophy of mind), but he and Freudianism were basically invisible in the science and history of science courses I took at the same time. And it's easy to see why: at every step of the history as told by Makari I want to leap up and ask "but where's the evidence?" or "how could you conceivably test that?" after some new assertion or complex model has been unveiled. Entire theories seem to have been spawned by (or grounded on) anecdotal evidence often gained from a single unverified clinical case (and then just as easily abandoned). The whole history comes across as a whirl of epicycle upon epicycle, self-validating, unfalsifiable, almost medieval, a sort of ungrounded Aristotelian hermeneutics of the mind, and as fundamentally changeable as Freud himself.

But Freudianism isn't necessarily Freudian any more, and while it's a lot of fun, it's unfair to visit the sins of the father on his children (especially since he abandoned so many of them). In the ferment of ideas about the mind during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have to admit that Freud seems to have had a good productive line of suggestive metaphors, established some useful vocabulary, and done a lot of good in deliberately letting quite a few essential cats out of the bag. But science? What Freud does seem to have bequeathed science isn't so much a science of the mind (we're still a long way from that), but a series of suggestive and largely-untested models for such a science; whether they'll be successful in the longer term isn't clear. But it makes for a very readable history….

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