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The 20th century turning point presumption January 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Picking up on the thread about science and polity, let’s take a look at the granddaddy book on the subject, Leviathan and the Air Pump, and specifically that famous final paragraph ending in “Hobbes was right” (in a chapter entitled “The Polity of Science” by the way):

[In the seventeenth century] a new social order emerged together with the rejection of an old intellectual order. In the late twentieth century that settlement is, in turn, being called into serious question. Neither our scientific knowledge, nor the constitution of our society, nor traditional statements about the connections between our society and our knowledge are taken for granted any longer. As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know.

We can find a similar argument in Yaron Ezrahi’s (lamentably out of print) The Descent of Icarus, and at least implied in numerous other works (thanks to Paul Erickson for turning me on to Ezrahi, by the way). Tom Hughes, for example, in Rescuing Prometheus, argues that large engineering projects had to be augmented by “postmodern” methods, such as participatory planning.

Now, these are some really good books, but I really think that this underlying idea about some mid-to-late twentieth century turning point (beyond modernity/faith-in-sci-tech?) is a really, really weird argument. I want to speculate it has to do with an academia-based focus on Enlightenment models of knowledge, as well as presumptions, such as those alluded to in the post about “Cold War” science. This focus contrasts with broader attitudes that seem to be based on alternative presumptions about institutional arrangements (rather than being totally naive of postmodern insights, as the literature often seems to imply). This gets back to Continental vs. English systems of governance and law, but, as usual, I’ll leave this point dangling.

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