Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Life on Mars

“…there is no reason to suppose that an inhabitant of Mars would see us more ‘objectively’ than we, for instance, see ourselves.” ~ Karl Popper

Popper, K. (1976 [1962]), “The Logic of the Social Sciences”, The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, p. 92.

The students who have been participating in my quantitative methods course this term will soon pass on to the sister course on qualitative methods, which I am not teaching. I have been told that the qualitative methods course will seek to teach the students the difference between “positivist” and “post-positivist” research methods, with an emphasis on a particular kind of discourse analysis. I’m sure it will be an interesting course – and a productive conceptual and practical break for the students from what has been a fairly “straight” methods course this term, whose strong goal was to communicate – with reference to the particular example of quantitative techniques – that certain ideals for the research process can be important, even if practice remains flawed, and those ideals are never realised. It’s not an accident that my students are tossing terms like “regulative ideal” into their coursework… ;-P

I’m currently trying to decide how to use the final course lecture, which will hand the students over from this course – with its relatively positive, though qualified, appraisal of the ideal of research as a collective human endeavour – to a course that will likely relativise much of what I’ve been teaching this term as outmoded and “positivist”. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry… While trying to decide, I’ve found myself flipping through The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, in order to read over Popper’s contribution.

I’ll tuck some of Popper’s argument away here – please note that I have my own critique of what I’m reproducing – I won’t go into this critique, as it isn’t my motivation for writing this post. My point is simply to suggest that our own critiques are stronger, the less caricatured are the positions they criticise. Popper staunchly (and accurately) denies being a positivist throughout the debate from which this passage it taken, but I have a small wish that the course next term should follow Adorno and Habermas in their inaccurate characterisation of his position – and that students should be introduced perhaps to something like this form of “positivism” as the foil for whatever “post-positivist” method they should learn. To make my wishes a bit grander, perhaps the form of “post-positivist” method they learn might seek to be a determinate, rather than an abstract, negation of a position like the one below:

Eleventh thesis: It is a mistake to assume that the objectivity of a science depends upon the objectivity of the scientist. And it is a mistake to believe that the attitude of the natural scientist is more objective than that of the social scientist. The natural scientist is just as partisan as other people, and unless he belongs to the few who are constantly producing new ideas, he is, unfortunately, often very biased, favouring his pet ideas in a one-sided and partisan manner. Several of the most outstanding contemporary physicists have also founded schools which set up a powerful resistence to new ideas.

However my thesis also has a positive side and this is more important. It forms the content of my twelfth thesis.

Twelfth thesis: What may be described as scientific objectivity is based solely upon a critical tradition which, despite resistence, often makes it possible to criticize a dominant dogma. To put it another way, the objectivity of science is not a matter of the individual scientists but rather the social result of their mutual criticism, of the friendly-hostile division of labour among scientists, of their co-operation and also of their competition. For this reason, it depends, in part, upon a number of social and political circumstances which makes this criticism possible.

Thirteenth thesis: The so-called sociology of knowledge which tries to explain the objectivity of science by the attitude of impersonal detachment of individual scientists, and a lack of objectivity in terms of the social habitat of the scientist, completely misses the following decisive point: the fact that objectivity rests solely upon pertinent mutual criticism. What the sociology of knowledge misses is nothing less than the sociology of knowledge itself – the social aspect of scientific objectivity, and its theory.

Apologies for what is essentially a half-post – I may yet strip this one from the blog, as I can’t really develop my point at this time and, half-written, this post leaves my own position massively underdetermined, and is likely very confusing. I’ve just been thinking a great deal recently about the issue of critique in teaching – and about why I rarely actually teach any form of critical “verdict” on past forms of theory in my courses – but instead generally focus on trying to get the students to empathise with and understand the materials they’re reading and working with. The cultivation of a kind of empathy, it has always felt to me, necessarily preceeds critique – empathy allows critique to hug close to its object, to be determinate, to explode its object from the inside out. But all of these are points I will need to reserve for a later time, leaving this a somewhat inadequate post… Apologies that, in the rush to the end of the term, the little posting I manage to do may be inchoate and incomplete in this way…

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3 responses to “Life on Mars

  1. rob May 28, 2007 at 10:25 am

    I’ve just been thinking a great deal recently about the issue of critique in teaching – and about why I rarely actually teach any form of critical “verdict” on past forms of theory in my courses – but instead generally focus on trying to get the students to empathise with and understand the materials they’re reading and working with. The cultivation of a kind of empathy, it has always felt to me, necessarily preceeds critique – empathy allows critique to hug close to its object, to be determinate, to explode its object from the inside out.

    Yes! What you call “empathy”, I call “affirmation” — following the initially occasional and currently more frequent use of this term in commentaries on contemporary continental philosophy, esp., in my case, on Derrida.

    Affirmation/Empathy wants — yes! — the other (theory) to be “right” — how wonderful would it be if the “answer” had already been found, the problem already “solved”! — and out of this desiring-relationship emerges what is most logical (in the Hegelian sense) in the discourse of the other. It seizes on this logic and affirms its value and its truth (indeed, its truth-value). But affirmation/empathy does not cease there, for it desires this logic so much that it affirms that logic as (onto)logic, as logic without limit, and so it demands the utter consistency of the discourse of the other with this logic; it demands — yes, yes! — that that discourse in its entirety, and thus including its “own” logic itself, remain entirely consistent with the unlimited affirmation of that logic.

    More often than not — and this is an empirical observation; it’s not a statement of principle or method — such affirmation/empathy, such a desiring-(for-)logic, ends in a “deconstruction” of that logic, or rather sees that logic deconstruct, witnesses its auto-deconstruction. That logic turns out to be incomplete, but not so much because there’s something “missing” from that logic, but rather because it is “too much”; its logic is more than it can encompass, more than it can live up to. Of course, that does not mean — it most emphatically does not mean — that “affirmation/empathy” would thus abandon the logic of the discourse of the other, would thus cast it aside because it turns out to be insufficiently logical, insufficiently consistent with logic, hence with itself. (Such abandonment is, in passing, the modus operandi of conventional, analytic logic, which is why analytic philosophy is largely doomed to fail to make sense of contintental philosophy.) Rather, “affirmation/empathy” finds in this “failure”, in this auto-deconstruction, cause to call for another logic, a logic that is up to the task of finding (a) logic — a fortiori (a) value — in this event. After all, there remains a (limited) logic, hence value, to the discourse of the other.

    Teaching “philosophy” (as distinct, in a sense, from teaching “theory”) consists in teaching this desiring-relationship that is affirmation/empathy and in teaching, in particular, its ethico-(il)logical mode of response to the potential (for) “failure” that emerges from the performance or embodiment (i.e. event) of that desiring-relationship.

    The catch here (and watch now for the auto-deconstruction; yes, yes!) is that it’s impossible to teach (or learn) such desiring-relationship as an element of (a) philosophy, or (a) theory — which is to say, as an historically specific (i.e. event-ual) practice or value rather than as a principle of philosophy as such — without having to teach that philosophy or theory in the form of its (empirically or event-ally) prior engagements with the discourse of the other (i.e. with other theories). There’s a sense, in other words, in which it is utterly imperative to teach the philosophy or theory of that desiring-relationship in terms of its “critique” (i.e. the movement of its affirmation/empathy in respect) of an earlier “theory”.

    Affirmation/Empathy cannot do without the critical relation that it most wants to do without, therefore — and this in order to be “itself”.

  2. N Pepperell May 28, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    rob – Apologies for the lack of substantive reply – Mondays and Tuesdays are very hectic for me. I just wanted to thank you for your comment, which I love. I mentioned above that I regarded my post as a sort of half-comment – I deeply appreciated seeing you develop a more robust reflection around similar themes.

  3. rob May 28, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    The pleasure was all mine, NP. Seriously.

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