Style and Truth: Reflections on the Language of Science

By Mistichelli, William J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Style and Truth: Reflections on the Language of Science


Mistichelli, William J., Papers on Language & Literature


Possibly the world of external facts is much more fertile and plastic than we have ventured to suppose; it may be that all these cosmologies and many more analyses and classifications are genuine ways of arranging what nature offers to our understanding, and that the main condition determining our selection between them is something in us rather than something in the external world.

Until recently, it has been commonplace to discuss the works of science and literature as distinct in method and purpose. The tendency has been to view scientific descriptions of the world as objectively verifiable irrespective of any particular observer, and consequently, as essentially different from works of the imagination. Rare exceptions exist, as when Freud saw fit to credit the Oedipus myth with exerting a major impact on his perception of the human personality. It was not Freud's intention, however, to disclaim objectivity as a criterion for his work as a scientist, but rather to recognize in mythical accounts of reality a way of knowing that is more primitive than rational analysis. His appeal to objectivity remained as strong a basis for his professional judgments as it has remained traditionally among those in the Physical sciences. Subsequent to Freud, that appeal has infected the social sciences, as well, so that one finds the anthropologist Marvin Harris speaking in the following way: "Sociobiology has achieved instant popularity in part because the better-known social science research strategies cannot provide scientific causal solutions for the perennial puzzles surrounding such phenomena as warfare, sexism, stratification, and cultural life-styles" (140; ch. 5). The aim to imitate the methods of physicist and biologists here leads Harris to opt for explanations which Carl Hempel would call deductive-nomological, that is, explanations of human behavior which would appeal to specific laws or principles (Hempel 344-356).

One might argue that the intent to purge scientific thought of non-measurable and non-quantifiable influences has noble origins. The assertion could be made that such an intention follows directly from the ideal of reaching an unbiased understanding of nature, and, thereby, of eliminating superstition, harmful illusions, or distracting ideological directives from the pursuit of truth. Yet Freud's appeal to the Oedipus myth suggests something problematic in this approach. His admission of influence from outside the scientific community establishes a connection between works of the imagination and science which remains mutual and discredits an exclusively objective criterion of judgment. One might find a similar interchange in the opposite direction by examining, say, Darwin's influence on the works of Thomas Hardy and Newton's on eighteenth-century British poetry. If one accepts a perspective in which cultural interdependence is the rule in all human achievement, the privileged place that science has sought for its own enterprises seems shortsighted, at best, and potentially harmful. One might induce from their sense of exclusiveness that their claims of impartiality and their commitment to an objectivist epistemology have created in them a blindness about the nature and merit of their work.

The authority given to logical and mathematical arguments, for instance, has separated scientific renderings of the world from all others to the extent that they have realized superhuman status in our culture, a status similar to that formerly enjoyed by religious teachings. This gesture of acceptance supports in its curious way the notion promoted by science that truth comes to us from somewhere beyond our persons, as Moses receives the tablets of the law, Yahweh. Even the scientist herself, who represents the knower in this scenario, presumes to exist only as an unbiased reporter - an instrument rather than an active participant in what she knows. Her responsibility is to transmit an unvarnished version of the truth to others who receive it exactly as it came to her from the external world. …

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