This post distills a series of thoughts from reading three different texts: The Heroic Model of Science (Chapter 1, Telling the Truth about History by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, 1991); The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen (2000), and an Interview with Ilan Stavans by Richard Birnbaum (@ 2003).
Three threads are primary: language, interaction, and science. “Language” is engaged theoretically and in practice, particularly the practices of interpretation. Although the references in the three selected texts refer mainly to written translations, I extrapolate ‘down’ to in-the-moment generation of understanding in everyday talking with each other, based on cooperation or agreement between people about meaning. I also extrapolate ‘up’ – or at least ‘over’ – to the interlinguistic skills that are most obviously evident in simultaneous interpretation. As to interaction, there are numerous levels from the microsocial to the macrosocial and the temporal to the ephemeral. The history of science is significant because of its influence on how people in western countries learn.
Why these three texts, beyond the coincidence of reading them more-or-less at the same time? Appleby, Hunt & Jacob (hereafter AH&J) investigate “what sorts of political circumstances foster critical inquiry” (p. 9). They write specifically in regard to the discipline of history by “examin[ing] critically the relevance of scientific models to the craft of history” (p. 9). I borrow their analysis as a way to explore the relevance of scientific models to other disciplines, particularly communication and the intersection of communication with political economy (especially governance), management (the organization of business), and culture (identity, ritual, and social relations).
AH&J challenge relativists and skeptics, sometimes lumping them together as postmodernists, arguing that in some ways they can “leav[e] the impression that the linguistic conventions of science have less to do with nature and more to do with the sociology of the scientists…in this way they have confused the social nature of all knowledge construction with the self-interest of the constructors, forgetting that all social beings participate in the search for knowledge and sometimes do so successfully” (emphasis added, p. 8-9). AH&J offer definitions for “skepticism” and “relativism,” showing how these attitudes form the substance of conflict with another historical attitude, that of religious absolutism. Tensions among these attitudes form the roots of the culture wars we see in the U.S. today.
“We view skepticism,” write AH&J, ” as an approach to learning as well as a philosophical stance…skepticism can encourage people to learn more and remain open to the possibility of their own errors” (p. 6-7).
Relativism, a modern corollary to skepticism, is the belief that truth is relative to the position of the person making the statement” (p. 7). There is an important nuance to this definition: truth is not directly relative to the person, rather, it is relative to “the position of the person.” (Note: “modern” means the idea of relativism wasn’t around when the initial fight took place between the skeptics and the religious. “Relativism” is an outgrowth of that fight.)
Religious absolutism is “the conviction that transcendent and absolute truth can be known” (p. 15).
All of these stances can be overdone, hence AH&J propose a standard for knowledge, i.e., for what we believe to be true:
found knowledge can be understood, verified, or
appreciated by people who
in no sense share the same self-interest” (p. 9).
The last phrase, it seems to me, is most crucial. If we are interested in democracy and social justice – meaning a fairness for groups of people of varying types – then we must find ways of producing and valuing broad social, political, and economic structures that are acceptable to everyone, even those whose self-interests differ from our own.
Jonathan Rosen, in a section about the ways Judaism and Christianity have borrowed from and influenced each other through the ages, writes about “open fearlessness, that willingness to assimilate outside cultures into your own without worrying that they will corrupt your beliefs” (p. 83-84). One of the anchors he poses for the Jewish religion is the collective realization, a very, very long time ago “that only words were durable” (p. 79). The Talmud, he argues, “is a sort of cathedral built across the ages and spanning all the earth – or perhaps I should say it’s a Temple, or at least a translation of one, built out of words and laws and stories” (p. 81).
I want to make three points simultaneously: language as a power with literal force; the “extraordinary religiosity” (according to AH&J, p. 50) of early (and at least some contemporary) scientists; and the inescapable fact that scientists today are the inheritors, intellectual descendants, and cultural products of the heroic science born of the Enlightenment. Certainly I am. I want to both rescue and continue the project of “truth with a purpose: the reform of existing institutions” (AH&J, p. 41), while seeking to escape or alter additional repeat performances of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century culture wars.
Power of Interpretation:
Language is key. Rosen’s parallel between the Internet and the Talmud speaks to a proliferation of heterogeneous meanings that suggests an antidote to “the nature of books never to be quite right and of words always to elude our grasp” (p. 54). The refusal of words to mean one thing only, and to mean only that one thing always and forever, is precisely the juncture where understandings are forged or splattered. Words are durable while truth about what the words mean remains elusive. Rosen’s desire “to embrace contradictory traditions” (p. i) seems similar to AH&J’s focus on “the interplay between certainty and doubt” (p. 10). This enables Rosen to keep faith with “the business of life [which] is to learn, not to know” (p. 33). For AH&J that interplay “keeps faith with the expansive quality of democracy” (p. 10). Learning, democracy, science, and faith are inextricably intertwined: language is their confluent expression.
This is why Ilan Stavans can assert with conviction: “I find translators, in many ways, to be the real protagonists of culture . . . Translators are the underpaid heroes of culture.” Translators – and interpreters – are always in between. Rosen explains how the Talmud “devised a culture intended to be a kind of middle term between extremes – between destruction and new creation, between the dead and the living, between God and man, between home and exile, between doubt and faith, between outward behavior and inner inclination” (p. 131).
Interpretation is a form of communication that has to work within and between “the chaotic contemporary forms of communication that,” Rosen explains, “are so often accused of diverting us from what is true. The chaos and the incongruities, it turns out, are part of the truth” (p. 119). On that basis he compares the “interrupting, jumbled culture of the Internet” (p. 10) with “a page of the Talmud” (p. 19): “all those texts tucked intimately and intrusively onto the same page, like immigrant children sharing a single bed” (p. 10). “Those portions and their accompanying readings,” he continues, “swim in a sea of commentary . . . so large that it seems at times to expand [like the Internet] to include everything” (p. 30).
Language in History:
Before elaborating on Stavan’s thesis, let me summarize the discussion of language and its role in history provided by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, because they present the discipline of linguistics in the creation of heroic science as an equal partner to the discipline of science. “The Enlightenment,” said to begin in 1690, “set the terms of the modern cultural project: the individual’s attempt to understand nature and humankind through scientific as well as linguistic means” (p. 39). Concurrent with the emergence of sciences and history as disciplines, “the European philosophes also developed new approaches toward old languages and texts. Reading old documents, indeed reading any document, is never as simple as it looks. Even picking up the local newspaper you ask, well, why did they run that story? Or, I wonder what party that journalist has joined?” (p. 37)
The discipline of linguistics began with criticism of written texts, called hermeneutics. It didn’t take long before “the language in a text, the words on the page, became too important to be left to clerical interpreters” (AB&J, p. 38). The Christian Bible was, at the time, the standard of absolute knowledge; it came under particular scrutiny. Ironically, clergy had originally invented hermeneutics, using the Bible as the reference point for all kinds of statements of absolute truth concerning the world and time. Now, AB&J continue, “The words had to be enlisted in the enterprise of creating wholly secular and scientific learning, but with consequences for … the present generation” (p. 38).
Stavans says, “Using language as a category is a way to say who we are in front of a mirror.” He goes on to illustrate how words change meanings over time, illustrating how the evolution of meaningfulness is what goes on socially, among and between people. When you, or I, use language – when we talk or write – we are “saying who we are” to ourselves.
When I wrote earlier that I am cut in the vein of heroic science, it is because I recognize how I think and talk in those terms. AH&J present a range of descriptions:
“Diderot described the follower of the Enlightenment as an eclectic, a skeptic and investigator who ‘trampling underfoot prejudice, tradition, venerability, universal assent, authority – in a word, everything that overawes the crowd – dares to think for himself, to ascend to the clearest general principles, to examine them, to discuss them, to admit nothing save on the testimony of his own reason and experience'” (citing Diderot’s article on eclecticsm in the Encyclopedie (1751), p. 39).
I am not an ideal type, but there is certainly a resemblance. How about this: “a new kind of person…hard to govern, suspicious of authority, more interested in personal authenticity and material progress than in the preservation of traditions, a reader of new literature, novels, newspapers, clandestine manuscripts, even pornography, all especially produced for an urban market” (p. 40). This description hardly marks me special, rather it describes today’s average western person. To wit, “a new cultural type who could be a pundit, prophet, fighter against tyranny and oppression, original thinker, elegant writer, sometimes pornographer, reader of science, host of salons, or occasional freemason” (p. 35).
The average western person today, as well as trained scientists and elites, however, is also subject to the culture wars that are the legacy of the original, historical figures of the Enlightenment who “battled with clergy and churches and at moments risked martyrdom” (p. 18). “In the culture wars of the present generation, language, with the many uses and abuses that can be attributed to it, has figured prominently in the arsenal of weapons” (p. 38). Today, continuing the trend of the Enlightenment when secular hermeneutics turned the scientific method on the Bible, all words are related to other words.