Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I like his "trivial" analogy...but

As someone who is interested in rhetoric, I think it would be enlightening to discuss what Fleck means by one of the characteristics of a “closed system of opinion”—style. He writes, “only a classical theory with associated ideas which are plausible (rooted in the given era), closed (limited), and suitable for publication (stylistically relevant) has the strength to advance” (30). (These characteristics are presented as distinct here, but are assuredly interconnected?) On the next page: “A closed, stylized system…is not immediately receptive to new ideas” (31). Elsewhere, (could not locate passsage) Fleck asserts that proto-ideas that contain kernels of an emergent scientific truth will not be accepted “mainstream” until they are expressed in the preferred language and style of the discipline. And also (and here’s a cool precursor of social construction of technology theory to come in the decade or so after this work’s publication), an emergent scientific truth won’t be broadly accepted until the conditions in the thought community are ripe. It would be interesting to track how induction into the thinking and writing conventions of a particular thought collective works, in other words, the cognitive molding of the scientific thinker/rhetorician. But, importantly, to look at this process as a sociological one—using the framework of the individual’s gradual entrance and successful interaction in a thought collective. Also, in what ways is this process necessarily normative, i.e., what modes of thinking/writing are naturally discouraged as a condition of entry?

I like his “trivial” analogy--the individual is the soccer player, the thought collective, the soccer team, and cognition, the game itself (47). He uses this analogy to reinstate his claim that, in order to create any “firm ground for epistemology,” it’s necessary to always “investigate the thought community” (46). It’s interesting that he resorts finally to figurative language to get at this concept, which for me begs the question: It seems there are two ways to read the concept of the thought community: as admittedly metaphorical or as striving toward being empirical. In other words, in the “metaphoric” reading, yes, knowledge is socially constructed, context-specific, and contingent upon the means of knowledge-making and expression in a culture. But, this is widely discussed “metaphorically” in other disciplines, in rhetoric, for example, in the theme of a “discourse community,” or James Berlin’s “social epistemic rhetoric,” or Lester Faigley’s “social view,” etc. In the metaphorical treatments, thinking still happens inside someone’s head, but it is inherently shaped and even constrained by environing social factors. I know Fleck is making a case for something different (as we are in this class): something more empirical, or tangible (not finding the right word), perhaps a material rather than merely textual way of tracing the social construction of knowledge (still not saying it right, perhaps I mean direct versus indirect?). This shifting of focus from inside the head to the collective—I guess I am conceptualizing it in terms of theory I am already familiar with, which may be a little counterproductive—but it’s a new switch for me from a focus on “knowledge” or “truth” to “cognition” as socially-constructed. While I am having trouble expressing exactly how this is different (it seems at first a difference of mere emphasis), I am interested to learn how this switch could impact my personal research questions, and open up new research methods as well (new to me anyhow).

4 Comments:

Blogger mdl said...

An addendum, if I may. The publication of this (first in translation?) was 1979, Kuhn states that he read it in 1949 or so, but it was actually written in the 30s, right? Does that strike other people as totally remarkable?

9:50 AM  
Blogger jmj said...

He does seem to be ahead of his time.

I was also interested in Fleck's continued use of the word style. He seems to recognize the importance of language (esp. structured language) in learning, though I don't remember that he ever says so outright.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I like your comparisons to Faigley and Berlin, but let's make another rhetorician connection - Kenneth Burke.

I'm not exactly sure if you can split a "metaphorical" reading of Fleck's analysis away from an "empirical" reading. That is, I don't believe Fleck is using the "thought community" only to explain how things happen after the fact. Yes, this is useful, but I think Fleck is also interested in something a bit more proactive. The reason I bring up Burke is that he talks a lot about how we can study discourse in the same way that natural sciences study things like minerals. For Burke, if we study enough discourse we can get a better sense of what motivates people. In this sense, analysis of thought collectives and how members of it talk to one another gives us important insights. These are insights that are just as empirical (for Burke and, I would argue, for Fleck) as the study of "nature" or atoms.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Eileen McGinnis said...

A comment on a comment: JMJ highlights the use of "style" to describe the operation of a thought collective; when I was reading Fleck, I wondered, why not "approach" or "methodology" v. "style"? It does seem a nod to the significance of a discipline's stylistic conventions, but I wasn't sure what to make of it, since, as JMJ notes, Fleck doesn't spend much time explaining his choice of terminology.

10:55 AM  

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