Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing

[2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing

I’ve been struggling with a section of my book that maintains that science is a form of publishing. It’s a useful lens, I think, for understanding some of the ways the Net is changing science.

This morning, I went for a book to read on the bus and came across Richard Rorty‘s Consequences of Pragmatism, a collection of essays that I had read half of and put aside about six months ago. And what’s the very next essay I was up to in it? “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Here is one way to look at physics: there are some invisible things which are parts of everything else and whose behavior determines the way everything else works. Physics is the search for an accurate description of those invisible things, and it proceeds by finding better and better explanations of the visible. …

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model …. and then they announce that the true meaning of the Book has been discovered. But, of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are someow “talking about the same thing,” the same invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.

Rorty’s essay applies the same distinction to philosophy as a way of explicating Derrida … and it is one of the clearest, most sympathetic, and most delightful explanations I’ve encountered.

9 Responses to “[2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing”

  1. Well, speaking as someone who wanted to be a mathematical physicist ( and has both math and physics bachelor’s degrees from MIT, really), that strikes me as the sort of science-as-critical-literary-theory view which tends to get denounced as utter nonsense.

    > After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model

    That “dream up” makes it sounds like it’s done on a whim, or for fashion. In reality, it’s because the old model has been insufficient.

    > and then they announce that the true meaning of the Book has been discovered.

    Blatant straw man. He’s setting this up to sneer at it, in the next sentence.

    > But, of course, it never is,

    BANG, down goes the straw man he put up.

    > any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations.

    NO! Science is NOT like literary theory. Gravity is not a perspective of dead white men in phallocentric Eurocolonial hegemony.

    > What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are somehow “talking about the same thing,” the same invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.

    This is about as backwards as it is possible to get – he’s basically proclaimed physics to *be* a kind of literary studies (“commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters”). And in fact, inquiries do steadily converge in some overall sense – there is widespread agreement over scales of incredible orders of magnitude (the frontiers of knowledge are different matter – but that shouldn’t obscure how much is well-settled).

    I probably shouldn’t have wasted all the time on this. But, per my background, it’s something of a personal peeve.

  2. You should read the essay.

  3. I find it interesting that modern or postmodern uses of metaphor reverse the basis of comparison. Instead of comparing human creations and mechanisms to Nature, natural processes are compared to human creations and constructions.

    In Rorty’s essay, Nature is compared to a Book. In my writing I call this the mechanical fallacy. The products and constructions of rational consciousness are centrally located and the world is compared to mechanical forms. In the aftermath of logical positivism, Reason replaces Nature as the center of meaning.

    The other interesting notion here is that all writings are responses to previous writings, something I call horizontal thinking.

    Writing is simultaneously responsive to both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of reality. We respond to other writings at the same moment we respond to Nature.

    If all writing is reduced to references to other writings, to what did the first writer respond?

    The English Romantic poet, S.T. Coleridge, has a great quote about this. Here is my poor paraphrase: Not all water can be found by taping into someone else’s tank.

    He was speaking about the writing of poems and the sources of poetic inspiration. Yes we write in response to the tradition of Literature (horizontal), yet we also write in direct response to Nature (vertical).

    The same argument is made in literary studies. Every poem that is written, is a response to a previously written poem.

    Somehow the fields and forests in the poetry of Robert Frost are responses to the landscapes of Vermont and New Hampshire and not merely responses to those fields and forests Frost read about in the poetry of William Wordsworth.

  4. In the preface to his poem, Christabel, S.T. Coleridge writes,

    “For there is amongst us a set of critics, who seem to hold, that every possible thought and image is traditional; who have no notion that there are such things as fountains in the world, small as well as great; and who would therefore charitably derive every rill they behold flowing, from a perforation made in some other man’s tank.”

    This is why we must continue to read the great poets!

  5. The writings that Rorty refers to are, in fact, “vertical” at least in a logical or temporal sense, e.g., Hume begat Kant, who begat Hegel, who was grist for Nietzsche, who provided sport for Heidegger, then Derrida, etc., etc. Each iteration purported to improve upon its predecessor in the more-or-less conventional scientific sense (i.e., explained all of the subjects touched upon in the discussion so far, but perhaps better, and also addressed new subjects of interest, etc.) — and in fact each successive contributor described their motives in more-or-less the same terms (“the old model was insufficient”). However Rorty didn’t have any confidence that this endless process of sublation was necessarily following any consistent trajectory, much less one that would ultimately lead to the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Basically his argument from the history of philosophy was that if something is getting “better” along the lines described above (but you can’t really be sure that it’s always getting “as better” as it possibly could), and you also can’t be sure if the process is truly net-cumulative (i.e., with each successive step old anomalies answered > new anomalies uncovered), then describing that process using terms of praise like “progress” and “advancement” is itself not very rigorous or scientific.

    I don’t think that Rorty ever conceived of physics as equivalent to literary criticism, contrary to what many superficial critics have claimed. Nor did he think that what Hume, Kant, Hegel, et al. accomplished was trivial, so the suggestion that his analogizing to scientific breakthroughs was intentionally dismissive doesn’t fly either.

    Obviously the degree of scientific agreement on the “middle ranges” of physical reality is vastly greater than the level of agreement on anything in philosophy, but then it’s not really clear that those shared certainties can be said to be entirely/eternally independent of the still highly contentious matters under investigation at the micro/macro frontiers of science. In any case, Rorty didn’t have recourse to any similar levels of indirection to which as-yet-unsolved problems could be safely relegated.

    If Davidw needs more lucid explication of Derrida (pun intended), Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is also a good one.

  6. I apologize for not defining my terms. In my writing consciousness is quadrivertical (+) and it manifests through four ways of knowing: thinking and sensing on the horizontal axis and intuition and imagination on the vertical axis. Clock time is horizontal and eternal time is vertical.

    Since the 1600’s the horizontal axis has become vertical. This paradigm shift has both concealed intuition and imagination as valid ways of knowing and has placed Reason (above) in a position of dominance over Nature (below).

    One could go so far as to assert that in the modern or postmodern world Reason reigns supreme. Consciousness has become monovertical with the other three ways of knowing discredited, subordinated, or forgotten. Logical Positivism and Scientific Materialism are examples of a reduced monovertical consciousness.

    One example of this reduction is the invention of the Mercator Projection in the 1600’s. Maps successfully transformed the three dimensional landscape of the Earth into a two dimensional representation printed upon paper. Rather than representing a most useful hallmark of scientific progress, the Mercator Projection serves as a metaphor for the hegemony of Reason.

    We have become so enmeshed in the grid of Reason, we have forgotten that there are other valid ways of knowing.

  7. The ghost of Rorty has advised me that he is happy to accept your typology of time — in fact it corresponds quite closely to the aufheben move by which (according to him) Hegel believed that he had surpassed Kant. From that perspective, it would make perfect sense to regard Hegel’s flattening of time as a retrograde historical development. FWIW, Rorty wouldn’t categorically disagree with this viewpoint, much less object on the basis that Hegel had gotten closer to something called Ultimate Reality. However, he might question the belief that Kant had actually gotten things “more right” than his own intellectual predecessors (esp. Hume). He’d also be very likely to demand some persuasive chain of reasoning to justify the belief that a modern society which continued to be shaped by a Kantian worldview would be somehow “better” (more just, more efficient, more peaceful, sustainable, etc.) than the world in which we currently live.

  8. Big Ideas just published a good podcast featuring Simon Blackburn discussing (c. 2005) this very topic… Available online at:

  9. […] [2b2k] Philosophy as writing, science as publishing ( […]

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