Thought collectives and the role of critique

As a way of adding to the discussion started by Ralph in the last post I want to offer some observations, additions, and questions to the idea of the thought collective and thought styles. I would like to reflect more on the stable instability of thought collectives and the way that they are at risk from transformation from within and from without. I want to suggest that they may be powerful and enduring, but they are never rigid being subject to their own ruptures. Although thought collectives undoubtedly try to exclude patterns of thinking which do not conform to a particular orthodoxy, and can sometimes do so with some violence as we will explore below, this orthodoxy often has its own indeterminacies and internal contradictions, and challenges to it are likely to occur regularly and in every day ways both from ‘within’ and from ‘without’. Together the gesture of critique and orthodox response incorporate each other and produce a movement through which other ways of theorising are made possible.

I want to expand further on how the processes of domination and resistance are mediated by power relations and will draw on some of Foucault’s thinking to inquire into the social relations of ‘truth telling’. That is to say, as well as considering the way that orthodoxies dynamically maintain themselves by excluding and denying, it is also important to think about how resistance is mounted, and by whom. Having done this I will question whether the discussion pattern that Ralph points to between systems theorists and their critics could ever thought to be ‘stuck’, although it may feel that way from a synchronic perspective, what I referred to in a previous post as the perspective of the swimmer.

One of the quotations Ralph takes from Fleck’s book refers to what ordinary people think of as the ability of classical physics to produce stable facts. In everyday and perhaps naive views of science, physics is usually considered the principle scientific domain in which law-like generalisations are developed which help us to understand a world which is ‘already there’ to be discovered. It is this naïve view of science that sometimes gets replicated in the evidence-based management movement, where scholars are in search of stable paradigms of management which they assume can be taken up irrespective of context or time.

This reference to the supposed stability of physics put me in mind of Manjit Kumar’s book Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the great debate about the nature of reality[i], which tells the tale of the development of quantum theory from the beginning of the 20th Century, and which is anything but an account of a stable thought collective. It supports Fleck’s point that the development of scientific thinking is often bumpy and contested, and in this case there is no attempt to smooth over the disagreements. In interpreting the conceptual development of quantum physics Kumar draws on contemporary reportage, biographies of some of the leading figures, their autobiographies and their personal letters. One of the things that I notice in Kumar’s book is the way in which scientific ideas developed in intense discussions between people who were competing and co-operating to get things done. In this case physics is no exception. These disagreements did not just concern the major figures of Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg, who all radically disputed each others’ findings at various stages of the development of their ideas and had unresolvable differences, sometimes till the end of their lives. Nor did their disagreements just revolve around concepts. There were also deep personal rivalries and jealousies between the players which both constrained and enabled scientific activity. For example, the German physicist Wolfgang Pauli had a formidable reputation as a mathematician and was prone to sarcasm and cruel humour at the expense of others. He advised the American-German physicist Ralph Kronig not to publish his developing thesis on the spin of electrons because he told him it couldn’t possibly be true. Because Kronig was younger than Pauli and was in awe of him, he didn’t publish, although his theory has subsequently become widely accepted.

This is a very good example of what Fleck is referring to when he insists that scientific facts are forged in the cauldron of everyday messy realities of social life and what it is possible to think at any point in time. The development of practical physics experiments and calculations are also constrained and enabled by rivalries provoked by ambition and competition, disruptions, political game-playing and surprises. This is why the thought collective may take many years, even centuries to become more stable, and may reach back to ideas which were developed in previous centuries and were abandoned as dead ends. There is  no ‘end point’ in science. The theoretical physicist Karen Barad[ii] argues in her book Meeting the Universe Half Way that although some of the disputes about quantum physics have moved on to the degree that most physicists accept what is known as the Copenhagen interpretation (i.e. mostly Bohr’s interpretation) of the complementarity of particles and measurement, it would be a very difficult matter to get any group of quantum physicists to agree on precisely what the Copenhagen interpretation means for what we take reality to be:

The physicists who contributed to the Copenhagen interpretation displayed significant philosophical and interpretative differences in their    specific contributions, so that what is taken to be the Copenhagen interpretation is actually a superposition of the different views of a group of physicists who include Bohr (complementarity), Hesienberg (uncertainty), Born (probability) and von Neumann (project postulate), to name but a few key players. (2007: 414-15).

What Barad is pointing to is a continuing degree of indeterminacy about the concepts being investigated and what they might mean even amongst scientists engaged in the same intellectual project. It is these areas of indeterminacy and ambiguity through which new research becomes possible and the stability of the ideas is undermined both from within a thought collective, and from without.

It would be wrong to understand this constant probing of indeterminacy as necessarily being a peaceful social process of quietly collaborating scientists. Only last year we were reminded of another example of the struggle that ensues over challenges to scientific orthodoxies by the investiture of the Israeli chemist Daniel Schectman as Nobel Laureate for chemistry for his work on quasi-crystals. When he first published his results he had to endure an ad hominem attack from the double Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling who launched what Shectman has described as a ‘crusade’ against him. The head of his own research team handed him a basic textbook on crystallography and recommend that he re-read it since what he was claiming was simply not possible. Ultimately his boss dismissed him for bringing ‘disgrace’ on the team.[iii] Sometimes the challenge to a thought collective from within can result in exclusion from the collective. This is similar to the observation made by Norbert Elias about the way that established communities police the behaviour of their own members, as much as they do the infringements of the outsiders.

I have chosen these examples from the natural sciences because I think that they illustrate Fleck’s point well in a domain where the ‘facts’ are supposed to speak for themselves. In contemporary society there is often a rhetorical appeal to science, sometimes as a way of covering over contestation and discussion. We are constantly reminded that we should be governed by evidence-based policy, politicians remind us that we should be guided by ‘the science’ in our determinations about the environment, and some management scholars insist that we should aspire to evidence-based management.  Concealed in the appeal to what is an exacting and serious practice is also an invitation to self-silence in the face of incontravertability. The further we enter the realm of the social the more this becomes impossible where there can be less recourse to mathematics or electron microscopes as a way of resolving differences of interpretation.

In the previous post Ralph points to the ways in which thought styles are sustained and potentially transformed by social activity of the members of the thought collective and how they participate in sustaining it. I also want to consider challenges to orthodoxy from a social perspective and think about the implications this has for power relationships between adherents to thought collectives and their opponents. I will do so by drawing on the idea of critical engagement, an idea that Foucault locates in the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia or fearless speech. One way of thinking about this engaged criticality is as the opposite process of what Fleck points to in the way the thought collective moves to screen out views which contradict the prevailing and dominating orthodoxy of the thought collective. A critical perspective calls into question the prevailing orthodoxy and in doing so also threatens to destabilise the relationships of power between people and groups. It opens up the possibility of reframing the current regime of truth and provokes questions of identity, status and practice.

In his book Fearless Speech[iv], Foucault traces the development of the concept of parrhesia, or fearless truth-telling,in the Graeco-Roman tradition. He does so he says, because he became interested in truth telling as a social activity, rather than because he was particularly interested in the problem of what we take to be the truth. The question of what we consider truthful, he argues, is the basis of analytic philosophy, while the question of who can ask about truth is the basis for the critical tradition:

One side is concerned with ensuring that the process of reasoning is correct in determining whether a statement is true (or concerns itself with our ability to gain access to the truth). And the other side is concerned with the question: what is the importance for the individual and for the society of telling the truth, of knowing the truth, and of having people who tell the truth, as well as knowing how to recognise them. (2001: 170)

The book is an enquiry into the relationship between the truth-teller and the communities of which they are part in the Graeco-Roman tradition; who is able to tell the truth and about what, and what are the consequences of truth-telling? Parrhesia, argues Foucault, was a form of reflexive speech activity that described a relationship between the speaker and what s/he says, as well as the speaker and their community. It was considered an example of courageous speech because it challenged the majority view and thus involved a good deal of risk-taking, since the views of the parrhesiast were unlikely to be welcome to the majority and may well have been resisted, perhaps resulting in the expulsion of the truth-teller or their death, as in the case of Socrates. The parrhesiast always had status in the community of which s/he is a member, otherwise what they say would not be recognised. However, in order to be considered a parrheisiast their status would need to be less than the people they challenge, or there would be no rupture, no risk involved, and no courage needed.

The fearless speaker did not spend time sugaring the pill by drawing on rhetorical flourishes in order to convince and persuade; Foucault draws a stark distinction between rhetorical formalism and unadorned parrhesia, which was a form of  speech activity where the speaker tried to show as directly as possible what it is they actually believe. For the Greeks there was a close connection between moral character and truth-telling, a conjunction between what the speaker takes to be true, and the truth. Foucault notes that what would trouble us living in a post-Descartian world as to what evidential basis we would use to know whether the speaker is actually speaking the truth, would not have troubled the Greeks. The ‘proof’ of the parrhesiast is the conviction with which s/he speaks, and the courage s/he demonstrates in speaking out against the majority.

The parrhesiast felt a duty to speak out although no one compelled them to do so; in this sense it is also ethical activity. It is because parrhesiasts felt they had a duty to themselves and to others that they could no longer go on living with the discomfort of being true to neither. Parrhesia was a form of public criticism as well as self-criticism, and required self-knowledge as well as knowledge of a particular community. In this sense the idea of parrhesia, in Foucault’s terms,says something about the care and development of the self and its relation to the community of which it is part. The reflexive recultivation of the relationship between self and others in the rediscovery of what ‘we’ take to be the right and the good and is a prerequisite for a democratic community to function. Another interesting aspect of parrhesia that Foucault finds in the Graeco-Roman tradition is that it was considered a form of phronesis requiring practical judgement and timing about what to say and when to say it. For the parrhesiast, timing is all.

There are some similarities between what Foucault describes in Fearless Speech and the account that James C Scott gives in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance[v]although the latter is more concerned with resistance to political domination on the broad scale.

One way of thinking about Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is an act of fearless speech, a critique of what at the time was a dominant and majority positivist account of scientific discovery, and one by someone who had significant standing in the community which he was critiquing. Although at the time it attracted negligible attention (his monograph was published in an edition of 640 copies of which only 200 were sold) it has had considerable impact since. It made a delayed contribution to what we might think of as a counter-thought collective, which was in turn amplified by Thomas Kuhn[vi] and others, who read and admired Fleck’s work and further developed the tradition of thought which is usually now referred to as Science and Technology Studies. Historians of science in the critical and constructionist tradition are still in a minority, but nonetheless have grown to be a vocal and respected group and include Foucault himself.

Returning to what Ralph referred to as the ping-pong of the critique of systems theory from the perspective of complex responsive processes, and the reply from a dominant systems perspective, we can notice how there is an attempt to re-establish the orthodox narrative. This is inevitable but I am suggesting not terminal or necessarily stuck for the long term. Even a game of ping-pong, as Norbert Elias observed about tennis,[vii] requires each player to adapt and respond to the counter-attacks of their opponent. And in the to-ing and fro-ing between one position and another the ambiguities and uncertainties of each argument may become more visible and may offer opportunities for the emergence of different conceptions of what we take to be ‘truth’. If we are to borrow from Foucault’s account of parrhesia, this will involve continuous reflexive attempts to reimagine the relationship between ourselves and the communities of which we are part, it will depend on who we are and how we recognise each other, and it will depend on timing and courage, since calling into question orthodoxies involves risk. It will involve a struggle over and  negotiation of power relations and will call into question who we are and what we think we are doing.

[i] Kumar, M. (2009) Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the great debate about the nature of reality, London: Icon Books.

[ii] Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.

[iii] Guardian newspaper, 5th October, 2011, accessed 28th October 2012.

[iv] Foucault, M. (2001) Fearless Speech, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotexte.

[v] Scott, J.C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven, Yale University Press.

[vi] Kuhn, T. s. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[vii] Elias, N. (1978) What is Sociology?, New York: Columbia University Press.

6 thoughts on “Thought collectives and the role of critique

  1. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    I think these posts are really interesting. Two months ago I also wrote a post about how one could think about the emerging of different thinking styles. It was written from a perspective of developmental psychology and thus I see now in comparison with your posts that I had little bit of underlying assumption of “semi-autonomous” individual:

    It is also interesting that you brought “parrhesia” up. It is new concept for me but I think it touches something I was reflecting with my “organizational fear” post:

    For me it is interesting to think about how the different communities affect our thinking, talking, acting. You mentioned also the timing. My experience is that in conversations the communities we are belonging are also in negotiation. It can be that those are openly discussed or then one is reflecting upon them in the inner dialogue. In any case we sometimes start the conversation from one viewpoint and during it transfer to some other viewpoint.

    Example could be that I see myself as a Project Manager of certain company and products when I attend a meeting with my staff. During the conversations I start to see myself also as a subordinate of some other manager and finally remember my duties as a father of a family. The way I relate to the conversation, and how I think about it might transform subtly or even radically at the same times as the identity is changing. So here it might be also a matter of timing when certain gesture might get more attention than some other gesture. So, a skilled participant of the conversation might interpret from some clues of the conversation what are the best strategies to lead the conversation. It can be also thought the other way around – the clues (i.e. gestures) call forth some responses from the other participants and the skilled ones are them who will respond in meaningful way…

    So perhaps the change in identity is the change in the communities we are relating to. The act of conversation is then the more or less skilled play with how to change or use this activity of relating…?

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Ari-Pekka, thanks for your comments. I am interested in what you have to say particularly about shifts in identity, but a bit disturbed by a couple of the last observations concerning the ‘best strategies to lead the conversation’ and your concern to ‘change or use this activity of relating’. I suppose the very inature of a rich conversation is that, by its very nature, it is improvisational and who is actually ‘leading’ it might become unclear. Perhaps the richer the conversation the more there is a ‘struggle over the life process of the group’ as Mead expressed it. I am also not quite sure what it would mean to use the activity of relating – even if you were to try to ‘use’ it, things may not develop in the way you would like.

  3. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    Thank’s for the reply Chris. I try to be more precise of what I meant:

    In the conversation it often happens that one gets some ideas of how to contribute to / affect it. If I have some goals beforehand or emerging in the conversation, I might try to be sensitive to the switches in that conversation which would enable me to bring forth some ideas or suggestions I have on my mind. So to be more precise, by “strategies of leading the conversation” I actually meant just ways to affect the course of the conversation.

    The idea I got in my previous comment was that perhaps the shifts of identity are the important clues that I usually quite intuitively spot from the conversations. They might be shifts in my own identity, the groups that I see myself from/relate to, or shifts in some other persons identity that I anticipate or spot somehow.

    So by “changing or using the relating” I meant the activities and strategies I might develop in the conversation to try to make myself (and other people) to see my identity from certain viewpoint, or to affect how I or some other participant might see his identity. Probably this would involve something like bringing forth some associations to certain people or groups we are part of.

    I agree that the outcome of this improvisational conversation can’t be controlled. Probably most of the shifts in identity are happening without anybody planning them. But I also have experiences that it is possible to make conscious efforts to affect these shifts. This is reflexive activity which requires some kind of expertise. I do use this e.g. in my work in supervision / work therapy, where quite often important part of the dialogues concern clients’ relation to different groups and how their identity is forming in those interactions.

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