focus and context, part IV: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies



Before I studied physics I was seriously considering to study architecture. I didn`t but my sister became an architect.

Besides the architectural practise she likes to think about architecture also in a broader theoretical framework. Once in a while we are having fierce discussions about these architectural theories. My biggest problem with these discussions is that my sister often refuses to “define” things. That means she uses expressions and she refuses to tell me what they “exactly” (where admittingly “exact” was my idea of what is “exact” and not hers) mean. She even used words which I know with a very different – and precise – meaning.

At a time this was mystical for me and so these discussions made me ask: are these humanities people progressing at all and if yes -how? Given that there is no well defined consensus about what they talk? How can Hermeneutics work at all, if there is even not a consensus among people from a similar background? (I am exagerating a bit)

There was an interesting experiment in 1996 by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal who wrote a parody paper with the title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” . In this paper he set up wild assertions about some physical notions and he heavily cited french philosophers. The paper got published in a not too bad (?) journal called “Social Text”. Then in the journal Lingua Franca he declared that his article in Social Text was just a parody and he also explained why he submitted the paper, among others he wrote:

“Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about “the social construction of reality” won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy.”

The socalled “Sokal affair” made it even on the front pages of the New York Times and the resulting debate focused on academic ethics, both in whether it was appropriate for Sokal to deliberately defraud an academic journal, and whether Social Text took appropriate precautions in publishing the paper. There were apparently no anonymous referees checking the paper, like this is mostly the case for mathematical papers.

For fairness one should also remark that there were also nonsense papers published in computer science (e.g. look for this funny SCIgen – An Automatic CS Paper Generator and its citations).

But “the humanities” were also critizing that Sokal was sort of feeding a nonexisting (?) “war” between natural sciences and humanities: see e.g. this article by Bruno Latour (unfortunately in german translation)
From his article (no guarantee for the translation):

“A small number of theoretical physicists deprived of the fat budgets of the cold war, seek a new menace against which they heroically offer the protection of their esprit… France, in their eyes, has become another Colombia, a country of dealers who produce hard drugs — derridium, lacanium, to which American doctoral students have no more resistance than to crack. They defer from happy and healthy Campus life, even forget to take their daily dose of analytical philosophy and surrender – spiritually weakened – to relativsm.”

and so on.

I was asking myself: what is going on here? Being myself a mathematical physicist and looking at the discussions with my sister I was fully in favour for Sokal.
On the other hand, if you take these certain kinds (?) of humanities people serious (at least to a certain extend..:)..joke!) then what is the difference in their way of thinking?

I believe there are thousands of articles about this “war” and I better should read, if not cite them all, but this is just a blog and not a journal and so I will just give my personal reflections on this. So may be what I am saying is banalities or wrong:

I noticed that in the discussions relating to natural sciences versus humanities often the words “objectivism” and “subjectivism” do appear. The natural sciences usually claim to be “objective”, i.e. statements in natural sciences can be “falsified”, which means e.g. in physics that one can repeatedly perform an experiment in order to “empirically” test an assertion, i.e. if I drop a cup of coffee then it will fall down every time or not. And in order to “falsify” an assertion I need to state it properly, i.e. I have to “define” what it “means” to drop a cup of coffee.

On the other hand if I belong to some parts of humanities, where I rather do not want to “state properly” or do not want to define, but were I want to admit deliberately a subjective component, i.e. a component which depends on the individuum, then of course it is often hard to “falsify” – simply because this may depend on the individuum.

This was a bit confusing to me. Since if the interpretation of a connotation in some parts of humanities really depended so much on the individuum, the subject, then how do these people communicate at all? So I concluded that “subjectivity” is rather connected to a kind of “collective subjectivity”, i.e. there “is” a kind of consensus in the humanities about the interpretation of certain issues, but this consensus is not necessarily “defined” but rather “exists” -may be a bit blurred- in a given community. So in principle -like if you read all the books of that community- you may acquire a certain understanding. However this understanding could still be “blurred” by the collective subjectivity of that community.

In “opposition” to this “humanities approach” is the “math approach”: i.e. if I want to understand a certain mathematical term then usually (if this is not string theory..:)…just joking…what is M-theory?) one likewise has to read a lot of books of a certain community in order to understand what the term means. However in contrast to certain parts of humanities there is usually a path of links relating the ingredients of a term. So if you follow all the links and the therein contained definitions then usually the term won’t be blurred, but well and clearly defined – regardless of time and circumstances. Of course there are also parts of humanities who take this approach (so I put them on the “math side”) but not all.

Concluding – one observes that there are “two” kinds (if we simplify generously) of communitites. Both communities are building knowledge, but with different results, methodologies and most often with different content.

question: which kind of community is “better”?

My opinion about this is that this question is void or at least weakens if one looks not at the terms “objectivity” and “subjectivity” but at the terms “context-based” and “context-free”, which I think is the main difference between the two approaches.

Math and natural science try to be “context-free”, that is if I read a definition of a term, then this term has more or less the same meaning regardless of any context, let it be an individual context, like that of language or gender or a historical etc. A circle is a circle. I wrote about this already here. Science, in particular math is to a great extend context-free or at least tries to be.

However terms in humanities are often NOT context-free, which makes them sometimes hard to understand if the (historical, individual, community etc.) context is lost. Or in other words if “a circle” has several cultural meanings then one needs to know this context in order to understand the term properly. So this can be a disadvantage. Likewise the “blurriness” can be a disadvantage in contrast to natural sciences – put simply: if I do not know which meaning of the circle is applicable, then this may be a problem.

So why should there be humanities at all? This is a mean question but there is a clear answer: There are certain things which evolve out of a certain let it be e.g. cultural, psychologic etc. context. The context is there and sometimes it is important and too vast to define. It took even mathematics quite a time to get less blurry. And sometimes it just takes time to “filter” or “focus” onto the main ingredients in order to get a clear structural – and thus may be context free – understanding of whats going on (like e.g. for theories in economy). A certain “blurriness” may be also in general sometimes useful and necessary. Sometimes however not.

So in short, I do NOT share Latours opinion of:
“Bei diesem Wandel werden einige Forscher auf der Strecke bleiben, diejenigen nämlich, die immer noch denken, Wissenschaft vom öffentlichen Leben und von Forschungspolitik abkapseln zu können. Es ist an ihnen, sich “umzuschulen”, und nicht notwendigerweise die Aufgabe der anderen, sie wieder auf den Weg zu bringen. Alles in allem ist der Relativismus eine Qualität, kein Defekt.”***

I.e. I think it is important to keep the two different approaches of context-free versus context-based approach (which is also sort of at the core of relativism) seperate. In particular it must be possible to have a natural science which is “separated” from public life and politics in that, that it can act independently of public opinion. (This does however not imply that it acts in the “dark”). There needs to be a certain scientific freedom.

Moreover it is also important to find out where the two approaches can meet.

This also means that there is in particular the problem of how to present the involved ideas for this task.

Remark: Context is also an important feature in the Web 2.0 discussion, since putting parts in a different
context via e.g. mashups may alter the meaning.

***translation without guarantee (observe it is a translation from french to german to english): With this change some researchers will stay behind, namely those who still think that one can seclude science from public life and science policies. It is their task to re-educate themselves and not necessarily the task of others to bring them back on the way. All things considered relativism is a quality and not a flaw.

One Response to “focus and context, part IV: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies”

  1. hyperclear Says:

    nad wrote “i.e. if I drop a cup of coffee then it will fall down every time or not. ”

    This scientific method of trying out things although they are evident is crazy! I said this many times – why do people not understand, why do I need to repeat this argument over and over: this mode of operation of trial and error or “testing superficial hypothesis’” as scientists call these “scientific method”-crazy-tests is often just plain bullshit!

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