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As a matter of fact…. January 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Our subject is the “matter of fact”. Specifically, I’d like to start a line of thought about the role of the matter of fact in science historiography, and the notion of science as a truth-producing enterprise. The SSK program built an entire industry around tying the production of scientific facts to its political and cultural context–quite successfully, I might add. In my upcoming course the relationship between science and polity will be a theme that I continually revisit. Yet, I’ve never been able to shake the idea that the notion of science as producing or validating truth claims has always been taken a little bit too seriously. Painting science as an absolutist enterprise (whether in a positive or a negative sense) has always struck me as a fairly Continental concern, from Descartes to the Enlightenment to the postmodernists and deconstructionists, to Latour’s insistence that we need a “new constitution”.

This concern, while recognized in Anglophone thought, has never seemed to gain much intellectual traction outside of certain theory communities. Why is it that our society is so blasé about scientism? (Outside of a due caution against dogmatism, I think this is actually the correct stance). Does it have something to do with the differences between English polity and legal theory versus Roman and Napoleonic models? This issue is clearly too big to develop in just one post, so I’d just like to begin by suggesting the need to consider the epistemological differences between the matter of fact and the insight. We’ve seen a lot of scholarship on the former, but I have seen far less of the latter despite the common usage of the word “insight” to imply something other than “fact” or “truth”.

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