Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Minimizing caprice, maximizing constraint

What interests me most about Fleck's analysis is his discussion of active and passive elements of knowledge. Fleck shifts the site of agency from the mind, the subject, the individual to a thought collective. Agency lies in the collaboration, in the exchange of ideas rather than the simple utterance of that idea (by the person "in charge"). This idea itself sits in opposition to the scientific field of the human sciences at Fleck's moment in history, and it might be the reason this book wasn’t translated to English and was largely ignored for so long.

In his own historical moment, Fleck was dealing with the an expansion in the idea of the “solitary genius.” It’s helpful for me to think of Pasteur and Wassermann alongside literary modernism, a time in which it became imperative to attach names and individuals (“the subject”) to innovation and creation. In associating innovation with the genius, we imply that all knowledge development heads in a very specific direction. Wassermann insisted that his experiment “proceeded from the idea, and with the clear intention, of finding a diagnostically usable amboceptor” (75). Fleck refutes this claim. In fact, he denies that anyone could ever support such a claim – his analysis shows us that the discovery of the Wassermann reaction involved a great deal of synthesis and “play” of ideas. This play doesn’t mean flitting willy-nilly, rather it means that cognition is much more complicated than a model of “intention” could ever account for. It also means that Wassermann was one of many cogs in the process.

This gets me to the larger question I’d like to address: In Fleck’s discussion of active/passive and caprice/constraint, is he at all interested in agency? Is it a question he finds particularly important, or is he merely trying to give us a method of analysis that avoids the trap of locating agency? I think I’d lean toward the latter. While I don’t think Fleck attributes anything to mere chance (ideas don’t just appear, they are parts of a specific thought collective – a specific historical moment), I see him trying get us past the idea that the results of experimentation could ever be known. The “solitary genius” (Wassermann, Pasteur, Wolff, Hemingway) can’t possibly claim complete mastery of their experiment; if they could, it would cease to be an experiment.


Blogger mdl said...

Was the active/passive terminology perfectly clear to you? Perhaps we can talk about it more in class. It seemed that passive referred to unspoken precepts that are like the translucent glue of a discipline, whereas active refers to claims that require active shaping and proof. Where I guess I would like to explore some more is the notion that passive knowledge is incapable of being examined by initiated members of a thought-collective (which I guess is where my questions relate to yours on agency). For example, on page 101 in chapter 4, fleck writes, "Thus every product of intellectual creation contains relations 'which cannot exist in any other way.' They correspond to the compulsory, passive links in scientific principles." I may risk sounding either idealistic or ideologically naive, but isn't the goal of critical inquiry to examine and resist our foundations, etc. (I believe that Fleck himself talks about the duty of the mature initiate of a thought collective to do just this...somewhere in the text, but I can't find it now--did I imagine it? I believe it's in the discussion of a scientist's training in chapter 3.)Anyhow, in his framework, passive truths can be converted to active ones, but it doesn't seem to be his focus or interest to assess how much power an individual has to do this. Is this how you read this active/passive framework in terms of agency?

6:50 PM  
Blogger IB said...

Jim, very interesting thoughts! I was wondering if Fleck really rules out completely the role of chance in scientific discoveries? On page 89 he writes about the general pattern of the development of a scientific fact. The first step is "the material offering itself by accident". Does this mean that it is neither only the thought collective nor only the individual who initiates the process which in the end leads to discovery but that chance does play a certain role?

I think, I still struggle with Fleck's idea of "not knowing where the road leads", meaning that during the process of experimenting a scientist does not know about the outcome. It is more a process of trial and error, but after the discovery, this process and the "not knowing" cannot be reconstructed. This is how I understood Fleck. But maybe we need to discuss this more in depth.

9:53 AM  

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