Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Thought styles, Galileo Galilei & psychotherapy

Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact struck me because I had never thought in depth about my use and understanding of the terms fact and truth. I was particularly astonished that Fleck manages to demonstrate the historical, social and psychological processes underlying knowledge and cognition without positioning himself absolutely with one of the epistemological trends prevailing at his time - the side of the positivists, namely the members of the Vienna Circle who believed in an ideal science and the existence of an objective, neutral observation of reality, nor on the side of philosophers preceding the Vienna Circle who stated the existence of an absolute truth and believed in the restriction of the cognition of this truth to human perception. Fleck states that both facts and cognition are subject to change. The way I understood Fleck is that he thinks of neither an absolute scientific truth nor of absolutely objective, neutral human perception.

The explanations of the terms thought style and thought collective reminded me of the medieval Galileo Galilei case which can serve as another example of the socio-psychological processes underlying scientific discoveries and the character of human perception. Galilei discovered by accident the satellites of Jupiter and later on the rings of Saturn and spots on the sun’s surface. At the time of his discoveries, several (now historic) conditions were given: The telescope had just been invented in the Netherlands and was not recognized as an instrument of scientific value. In addition the prevailing thought style permitted the approval of the facts discovered by Galilei because they did at that time not fit into the doctrines that had persisted for decades. Thus the scholars of his time simply refused to have a look through the telescope and even those who did, stated that they did not see the phenomena that Galilei had discovered. This historic case is in line with Fleck’s explanation of the role of visual perception and thought style in scientific discoveries.

Another example is the different academies of psychotherapy as they have emerged within the past approximately 120 years, e.g. psychoanalysis, behaviour therapy or cognitive therapy. Depending on which academy a therapist belongs to he will focus on different aspects of the patient’s mental health problems, their etiology and their treatment. Although it is the same patient, the facts which are stated about this patient differ. In a way, Freud was also bound to a thought style prevailing at his time which restricted him to specific methods and perceptions. At his time, the disorder then called hysteria was thought to occur in women only and thus only women were examined and treated. This corresponds to Fleck’s statement that “Every fact must be in line with the intellectual interests of its thought collective, …” (Fleck, p. 101). In addition Freud himself was attacked at first, because he introduced the concept of subconsciousness and stated that mental health disorders do not necessarily have to have a medical cause.

The British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1882 – 1944) once compared science to a fishing net with a certain mesh size. Only fish larger than the mash size are caught. I think that this quote expresses some of what Fleck says in Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact: Thought styles and the restrictions of human perception are the mesh size. After one catch a certain fact as assumed. If changes in thought style occur, meaning that the mesh size is changed, facts will also be altered. On the other hand, if by chance a fish smaller than the mesh size is caught, the net will be altered which means that facts can also change thought styles like vice versa.

2 Comments:

Blogger jmj said...

That's an interesting point about GG, especially noting the fact that his detractors refused to look at his evidence. Would Fleck argue that even if they had looked, they would not have "seen" the correct interpretation because of their bias? At the very least, I think Fleck provides a good model for the way in which some kinds of bias are useful in developing bodies of knowledge.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Eileen McGinnis said...

I think your application of Fleck's thesis to Galileo was nifty and shows the usefulness of Fleck's approach in broadening our notion of how facts become established within a thought community (I realize this comment doesn't add to the discussion, but I just wanted to marvel). Perhaps I am hung up on the notion of the lone genius or innovator, but I am still confused about how Fleck would account for Galileo's ability to innovate. How does membership in multiple thought collectives come into play in enabling ideas that are "ahead of their time"?

11:12 AM  

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