Clerestory

Dry November: Day 10

November 10, 2019

Officially, I only made it nine days in. Yesterday I toasted a friend’s birthday with sherry, and had another drink later on. But I avoided most of the booze throughout the evening, and can’t do much other than to get back on the wagon, after having walked a few forlorn paces.

Today I’m still processing notes on Polanyi’s Republic of Science (1962, PDF). The section I can’t get over is here:

Consider, also, the fact that these scientific evaluations are exercised by a multitude of scientists, each of whom is competent to assess only a tiny fragment of current scientific work, so that no single person is responsible at first hand for the announcements made by science at any time. And remember that each scientist originally established himself as such by joining at some point a network of mutual appreciation extending far beyond his own horizon. Each such acceptance appears then as a submission to a vast range of value-judgments exercised over all the domains of science, which the newly accepted citizen of science henceforth endorses, although he knows hardly anything about their subject-matter. Thus, the standards of scientific merit are seen to be transmitted from generation to generation by the affiliation of individuals at a great variety of widely disparate points, in the same way as artistic, moral or legal traditions are transmitted. We may conclude, therefore, that the appreciation of scientific merit too is based on a tradition which succeeding generations accept and develop as their own scientific opinion. This conclusion gains important support from the fact that the methods of scientific inquiry cannot be explicitly formulated and hence can be transmitted only in the same way as an art, by the affiliation of apprentices to a master. The authority of science is essentially traditional.

The idea that science is basically a tradition, more-or-less like a literary canon, fascinates me, and I think he is probably right. A canon doesn’t really exist as some list, but rather as a broad consensus passed through generations as a tradition — so too with scientific opinion, which is a consensus.

Moreover, though literature may not so explicitly train its acolytes to argue against it, I do think that people who undertake to engage with a literary canon are bound to challenge it in its particularities. To be fully onboard with any syllabus or canon seems to me to be evidence of not having really read critically.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.