March 24, 2015

Fleck's Multiple Collectives

This week's post comes from a first-year graduate student, John Heydinger, who, after a earning his B.A. in history, briefly became a field and conservation biologist working in South Africa. He has since returned to our own thought collective of the history of science, and plans to work on the relationship between the sciences and the humanities in higher education. His post is about Ludwik Fleck, whose book we read in a seminar about theories in/of history, led by Susan Jones.

Ludwik Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is a text both rich in meaning and illuminating in application for the budding historian of science; it seems to grow in strength with increasing familiarity. Amongst our graduate student community Fleck provides fodder for conversations both broad and deep. Echoing one such discussion I wanted to recapitulate a difficulty found in Fleck’s work, along with a tentative hypothesis for how this difficulty in applying Fleck’s philosophy to the history of science might be overcome.

Fleck notably coined the term ‘thought collective’ (denkkollectiv) to characterize the social arena within which the genesis and development of scientific facts occur. Endeavoring to answer the fraught question of how does “an empirical fact originate and in what does it consist” (p. xxviii), Fleck argued for the importance of individual cognition as a socially-conditioned activity (p. 42). This rests upon two, crucial, concepts. First, the empirical is never entirely given; rather, it is interpreted through an existing framework. Second, the framework for an individual (scientific) knower is entirely a manifestation of the thought collective. Not the pre-existing individual, but the community as embodied in the person is, for Fleck, the thinking being. These paired conceptions bear tremendously on how Fleck approaches the origination of empirical fact. Providing the frame through which to view experienced empirical sense-data, a thought collective not only conditions the analytic approach, but the very way of seeing which its members apply. This is conceived as social because it transcends formalized experimentation and bleeds into the more encompassing lived experience of the individual-as-being. How the individual sees is a manifestation of the thought collective. Furthermore, fact thus becomes (if, perhaps, it was not already) something which must be amenable to the epistemology and means of communication of the thought collective. The knock-on effect of this is that scientific fact is both born and accepted entirely within the confines of the thought collective. Its truth-value is measured within the parameters of the collective and is recognizable in relation to its association with other facts which inhabit the shared world of the collective. (While this may suggest a type of total relativism, perhaps verging upon nihilism, Fleck maintains that this need not be the case.) This gives rise to Fleck’s “interlocked system of ideas” which compose the scientific world of the thought collective.

Fleck’s work is sparkling in its clarity and crucial for its far-seeing anticipation of later theoretics within the sociology and history of science. However, one aspect of his system is unclear. The formation and transformation of the theoretic within the thought collective seems unaccounted for. The interpretation of empirical sense-data occurring through the existing framework of the thought collective begs the question of the genesis and development of the existing theoretic framework itself. Fleck sets-up a tripartite relationship between the fund of knowledge within the thought collective, the empirical within the world, and the knowing individual as the manifestation of the collective. His work treats, at length, the relationship between the individual and the empirical, as well as the empirical and the fund of knowledge (via the individual), but does not specify the relationship between the fund of knowledge and the knowing individual – which would, ostensibly, form the theoretic component through which the individual experiences the empirical. We are left wondering how the theoretic component itself is transformed over time; if the thought collective conditions how the individual sees the world, how is this interpretive frame transformed? Such concerns are potentially problematic if we are to account for the transformation of scientific understanding. It is to this difficulty that I want to offer one possible solution, potentially providing a type of refutation to Fleck’s claim that the relationship between empirical sense-data and theoretic conceptions is not formal (p. 28).

Fleck maintains that it is not the individual, but the community within the person that thinks (p. 47); it is from here that the theoretic component within the scientific knower arises. The application of the theoretic here bears resemblance to the 20th century philosopher F. S. C. Northrop’s critique that the Kantian a priori, as pre-existing within the knower, is not necessary as such, but is rather contingent and subject to change. Himself a careful reader of science and of Whitehead, in Northrop’s 1947 review of global understanding, as differentiated between the Occident and the Orient (The Meeting of East and West: an inquiry concerning world understanding) the philosopher, similar to Fleck, characterizes the theoretic and empirical components of human knowing as compliments to one another. Northrop similarly treats the individual as a manifestation of the social thought collective (though not a term he would use) within which the person resides. Northrop’s more explicit treatment of the theoretic and empirical in relation to one another leaves him dissatisfied with the blind imposition of the Kantian a priori without a treatment of the transformation of the a priori itself. Both Fleck and Northrop recognize the theoretic component as crucial to how empirical sense-data is understood; for each it remains to be understood how the theoretic component is arrived upon, if not via a thoroughgoing empiricism.

Each does well to recognize a type of duality in thought, which we might term as typically western, in the theoretic and the empirical – though Northrop makes this duality explicit. The emphasis upon the individual as a manifestation of the theoretic of the broader thought collective seems problematic in relation to the formation of the theoretic. Yet, Fleck recognizes that the individual belongs to several thought collectives at once (p. 45). Ostensibly these different collectives will bear differently upon and within the individual – otherwise the differing collectives would be identical. If the individual is the manifestation of differing, perhaps somewhat overlapping, thought collectives then it stands to reason that each individual is a unique arrival of differing theoretic components brought together in relation to the experienced empirical. This would be a type of embodied multiple identity which we find at home in modern discourse. It is the embodied difference of this multivalent individual set against the backdrop of a given thought collective which allows for the transformation of the collective, and, potentially, the theoretic component which it manifests and through which the collective becomes manifest. Such an account potentially provides for the difference of the individual, while still grounding the individual within society(ies) which help us to appreciate the theoretic component through which experience is interpreted. The multivalence of the individual simultaneously allows for Fleck’s position that the thought collective is that which thinks within the individual without demanding that one thought collective is all that the individual brings to bear at any one time. The differing lived-history of each individual allows for differentiation in the unique theoretic component of the individual, while still providing for the fact that the influences of differing thought collectives will not be symmetrical in breadth or extent. It is this difference of the individual as a social being which allows for the unique work and rare work of ‘genius’ and provides the possibility that individual insight can, through the always tricky avenues of communication, impact a/the  broader thought collective. The extent to which this happens recognizes a type of dynamism within the collective through which the theoretic component may change, but not necessarily that it must be found in any particular conceptual locale. To whatever extent the thought collective transforms, so too will it yield transformed individuals.

The approach taken above might give clarity to the difficulties we encountered with Fleck. Though Northrop explicitly highlights the difficult reconciliation of the empirical and the theoretic, we can see that conclusion is primarily derived from Fleck’s analysis. In positing the individual as the embodiment of the thought collective, while simultaneously recognizing that an individual participates in/embodies multiple collectives, Fleck provides for the possibility of the transformation of a given thought collective. Crucially, it is by allowing for the multivalent identity of the individual that this becomes possible.

Fleck, Ludwick. 1935. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Edited by Thaddeus J. Trenn and Robert K. Merton. Translated by Fred Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn. 1979 ed. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Northrop, F. S. C. 1947. The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding. New York, NY: MacMillan and Co.

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