Social Sci inferiority complex

Dan Jorgensen (dwj@JULIAN.UWO.CA)
Fri, 17 Dec 1993 10:32:53 -0500

I like the spirit of many of Danny Yee's remarks, but would also point out
that everybody seems to be envying everyone else these days. There is
ample evidence, for example, that many anthropology professors and
students (North American ones, who are not the entire tribe, only a clan
or perhaps phratry) also wish for a make-over and new identity as artistes
or arty-types, as witnessed in an ad reported by M. Sahlins in his
"Waiting for Foucault" piece:

*The Poetics of Culture, I*

"Anthropologist wanted. No experience actually necessary.
Make more than most poets."

Nor is this the end, since the arts have their own problems, wanting to
look more sciencey -- or at least formidably intellectual -- by indulging
in theory fetishism, whereby theory as capital gets to be capitalized (not
theory, but Theory, something vastly more important). In fact, when
anybody looks, much of Theory seems to be spinoffs, castoffs, and
occasionally interesting elaborations of structuralist theory and its
latter-day incarnations (various forms of post-structuralism). That, of
course, is not all, for the arts have wanted desperately to convince those
people who pay for universities that what they do is *important*, and
one way of doing this is to claim that the arts are really about
Power (since everybody knows that the arts can't really be about Money, a
next-best choice). Having gotten nowhere talking about beauty and souls,
arts folks can now make their pitch in terms of brains and brawn. There
is, of course, some backwash, especially as certain social science
disciplines (anthropology foremost) have had trouble persuading the bagmen
that we're worth the price, and press notices from the culture wars have
encouraged the sincerest form of flattery. So we have, in effect, a kind
of ping-ponging effect between arts and social science right now, a kind
of mutual emulation society in which ideas go back and forth and
occasionally transmute, much the way yeast infections do.

Actually, not everyone plays this game. Physicists (as a couple of my
friends are) seem quite happy to be physicists and don't worry about
becoming athletes, cellists, or literary critics *except* as a healthy
spare-time activity. Now while I'm not saying that physicists (or any of
these other folks) are natural kinds, this may give us quite a different
clue as to why non-physicists envy them -- they don't seem to particularly
envy anyone else. Not worried about Joneses to keep up with.

Finally, before my quota is filled, a brief note on positivist notions of
truth. I always thought what was best in positivism was the sense that
(a) it was possible to be wrong and (b) that one wanted very much to find
out if this was the case. I think responsible scholarship (whatever brand
name you want to give it is irrelevant) seeks to accomplish whatever aims
it sets itself while trying its damndest to figure out if it was off the
mark. Not an easy thing to do when we're talking about anything
complicated, but worthwhile nonetheless.

As far as the discussions of Tarski and so on go, I always thought Quine's
piece on "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (which can be read in different ways)
was very good. He also has a brief note on incommensurability in a recent
issue of *Common Knowledge* that might be a propos here. One of the ways
in which he can be read is that theory is underdetermined by experience
and that all observation is theory-laden. This is one of our commonplaces
now, but he has also made it clear that he means that anything worth the
name theory has to be answerable to some form of experience (= data), and
that this is precisely where a lot of anxieties about incommensurability
turn out to be hollow.

Finally (this time for sure), about Goedel. I read the import of his
incompleteness theorem for us folks to run something like this: you can
go for completeness, but only at the expense of internal coherence, or you
can go for coherence, but only at the expense of completeness. You can
never, however, have both at once. Kind of an Abe Lincoln philosophy...

Now I'll butt out.

Dan Jorgensen Email:
Department of Anthropology Voice: (519) 661-3430 x5096
University of Western Ontario FAX: (519) 661-2157
London, Ontario
Canada N6A 5C2