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The Hierarchy of Needs August 18, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Methods.

In the following paragraphs, I argue that historians or philosophers must necessarily write about a thing according to a series of rules or a ‘hierarchy of needs’ so that their account (consisting of a narrative, a series of propositions, a taxonomy, etc.) may be considered as both valid (internally coherent) and as useful (generally applicable) by and for the work’s perceived public. That a specific study of Galileo or Descartes assumes a specific form in response to the needs of the wider scholarly community and emerges as a mediated product of the individual scholar’s realization that he or she must satisfy a series of ‘needs’ in order for that argument to be accepted by the wider community has a specific intellectual genealogy. The idea of the meditated and individual but nonetheless universally valid judgment can be traced back to the later days of the enlightenment with the fleeting supremacy of the romantic absolute subject that bridged the gap between individual intuition and understanding. This allowed the individual judgment to have the same force of assent as those judgments accorded to the work of reason alone (Kant’s ‘inter-subjective validity’).

The shared understanding that a particular narrative exists within a specific discipline attains visibility in every work of history or philosophy that situates itself in the ‘literature.’ In this way, every work of scholarship is by its very nature a work of intellectual atavism, a rehearsal of intellectual formulations to be defensively considered and offensively discarded. Scholars appeal to literature to formulate a series of propositions from which they will depart. It is the habit of scholars to say, “historians of (subject) have noted x, while, in the following work, I will note y and z.” The degree to which such a statement represents the body of work in question is less important in comparison to how the author uses the previous literature as a kind of conceptual prosthesis. The leading question should be not how the author develops his position from previous scholarly work or body of works, but how that previous literature is used instrumentally to construct the present argument. This instrumental view of literature, essentially any work of historiography, cannot be a valid representation of previous scholarship, since this scholarship is ‘put to use’ rather than described.

This leads to my larger point as to the nature of all scholarship as both defensive in how the scholar construes his own claims as an (assumedly) internally coherent system of propositions and as offensive in how the scholar modifies his claims in a series of narrative gestures that attempt to consider how those claims may be perceived by the wider community. These series of strategies and points of contact form what I call the “hierarchy of needs.”

The hierarchy of needs allows for an individual work of an author to have those characteristics by which we as a community may judge his work as being “true.” It also points to how the author formulates the work in order to conform to a shared series of standards. If an individual scholar addresses a specific set of concerns, the narrative produced and how that narrative refers to the subject in question (say networks of patronage in the French enlightenment or texts read by communities of sea-going merchants) may escape the charge of subjectivism, thus emerging as both an individual project and a thing that is universally valid.

For now, I propose that it is generally most important (first on the hierarchy of needs) for the author that his work is generally coherent, meaning that his thesis is demonstrable from the evidence. The general coherence of a specific work of scholarship has little to do, or may be unrelated to the reasonableness of specific claims. Thus while we may not agree with some of the suggestions of Foucault we (tend to) agree with his methodology and general propositions. As importantly, a work of scholarship must elucidate its subject and refer cogently to something external. A work of scholarship must not only have an argument but that thesis must correspond to the external problem or reality that it describes.

The degree to which the ‘ontological fit’ of a specific narrative can be determined by an individual author, whether there really was an ‘enlightenment,’ or must be defined by the wider community, is, I think, an endlessly recursive debate. The final position concerning any narrative is that both the author and his peers believe that such a narrative not only argues a specific series of positions but that those positions should be viewed as ‘true.’ After both the internal coherence of a narrative and its ontological potential have been ‘verified’ or agreed upon, the next concern pertains to the ‘situatedness’ of the narrative in the wider field. How does the work of one scholar correspond, fit, or disestablish the work of other members of the field? The ‘situatedness’ of any particular work goes to the question of ‘relevance’ and points to the networking of ideas within a specific disciplinary arrangement within a community of scholars.

After this emerges the problem of what I call ‘conceptual drift.’ ‘Conceptual drift’ refers to the predicament of using the taxonomy or the specific language of other disciplines and the process of intellectual work by which they are introduced into the scholarship of another discipline. Generally, specific taxonomies, ways of referring, begin as narrow formulations determined by specific responses or concerns, and gradually, through a series of adoptions, become general formulations through their use in an endlessly diversified series of contexts. Examples of conceptual drift would be Kuhn’s formulation of ‘paradigm’, Foucault’s work on ‘genealogy,’ or Habermas’ definition of ‘public sphere.’ The concern with conceptual drift is that philosophic taxonomies such as ‘power/knowledge’ are frequently used as an ontological premise, a way proving that the narrative is grounded in ‘historical fact.’ At most, due to the radical de-contextualization that has already occurred in the use of these terms, such formulations should be use solely descriptively.

Connected with, perhaps made more evident by the problem of ‘conceptual drift,’ and perhaps last on the hierarchy of needs for a work of history, philosophy, or history of science would be how the formulation relates to the question of the ‘public.’ The idea of a public is the most difficult and nebulous of concepts, and open to the widest range of formulations, many of which develop in a separate manner from the original intention of the author. On one end of the spectrum, a public is pre-determined by the selection of topic by the author and its composition towards a specific sub-specialty. As often however, the public determines the reception of the work itself apart from the original intention of the author, Kuhn’s work being the programmatic example of this phenomenon. In either situation, whereby the work emerges as a specialized, even technical, enterprise, or where the work becomes reformulated as a kind of generalized, even conversational manner of referring, and is defined in terms of the discursive consequences it produces a work of history, philosophy, or history of science, which loses its ability to function as a coherent enterprise. In the first instance, the technicality of the narrative may impinge on the ‘reality’ of the construction employed and may in fact merely be addressing the discipline or subspecialty more than the object to be described. In the second instance, the work no longer functions as a concept in and of itself but as a concept for the explication of other events outside of the context in which it was originally employed. The original taxonomy, which referred to or described a specific thing or series of things, becomes a mere ‘name’ rather than a structured way of referring.

What is most important about the ‘hierarchy of needs’ is not simply the acknowledgement that works of scholarship bear the imprints of their makers and of their publics but that such features are not only readily definable but also can be traced over a series of engagements. The hierarchy of needs in a profession and its change over time is the story of that profession. An attention to the hierarchy of needs can enable a better understanding of how groups of scholars define specific taxonomical problems and address the difficulties of communicability of subjects and do so in a manner that allows specific standards of comparison across disciplines.

An attention to ‘conceptual drift’ would allow for an insight into the degree to which the specific needs of a profession modify the specific content of a concept. An attention to how specific concepts are used within specific works addressed to specific forums may provide definite insights into the nature of the discipline in question, and to specifically how that discipline views itself as engaging not only with members of its own community but other institutional frameworks. As importantly, a narrative of the specific ‘need’ of a public will help to break down the traditional divide between science and culture and might go far into a stable and useful account of how debates become formulated around such concepts as ‘objectivity.’


1. Cornelio Barros - December 16, 2008

I need to read of the book of Jurgen Habermas about the Hierarchy of needs. If available how I can buy or have it. Please send me the message so I can follow it accordingly.
I look forward to listening from you.

Thank you
Cornelio Barros

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