Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Science, Natural and Otherwise


What a curious word.

What a curious cultural fixation.

We love science.

By which, of course, we mean natural science.

This is America! Natural science is the only science!

The word 'science', however, has a more general meaning than the one we ascribe to it.

Science originally denoted an organized and rationally grounded body of knowledge that had claims to truth due to its organization/rational foundations.

Collingwood is one of the people who turned me on to this issue with the word science. "The word 'science', in its original sense, which is still its proper sense not in the English language alone but in the international language of European civilization," he explains, "means a body of systematic or orderly thinking about a determinate subject-matter" (An Essay On Metaphysics, 4). Collingwood explains how there "is also a slang sense of the word,... parallel to the lang use of the word 'hall' for a music-hall or the word 'drink' for alcoholic drink, in which it stands for natural science" (Ibid.). When I use the word science, when my friends use it, we almost always mean natural science.

What are the consequences of the word science being defined as merely natural science? Well, there are probably many. But I only want to reference two right now. One about our cultural fixation on natural science as our main source of knowledge. The second being with how I read authors, like Foucault, who use the word science without defining it properly.

I sometimes worry that other forms of thinking aren't respected. The humanities are what I'm primarily thinking. I think that natural science, and its methods, have come to dominate our ways of claiming knowledge. How do you know what you know? We would probably say that we know most things because natural science has told us so.

But what about history as a science? What about philosophy as a science? Are these not orderly modes of thought that deserve a certain claim to knowledge? But I don't think we regard those disciplines in that way. They at best offer uncertain or biased knowledge. Not what I think. I think they can offer very real knowledge. But it seems like our cultural fixation on natural science prevents us from taking advantage the possible knowledge that could be derived from these other disciplines. Oh well.

Then I read people like Foucault, and I wonder about his use of the word science. He is always discussing 'the human sciences', the importance of science in exerting normalizing power/knowledge, so on. I bet he is using the word science in the larger, continental sense. I am just unaware of it, or was unaware of it.

The word science deserves examination. Because it can't just mean natural science. We need to draw on the benefits of science in the broadest sense. We need to value orderly and careful thinking, regardless of its subject matter. There can be sciences of many things.

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