Academic journal article et Cetera

Fifty Years Ago in Etc

Academic journal article et Cetera

Fifty Years Ago in Etc

Article excerpt

Our body of scientific knowledge is not spread evenly over all possible subject matter. People have been led to examine this or that facet of the universe for this or that reason; at any one moment there exists a variety of scientific statements, classed roughly under such rubrics as archeology, psychology, botany, linguistics, embryology, and so forth. It is never completely clear, at a given moment, just what relations hold between the statements of these different fields, for the operational definitions of one differ more or less from the operational definitions of another.

If the expression "unity of science" is taken to imply something more than merely a methodological agreement between scientists in different fields, that "something more" is in the nature of a constant compulsion on scientists to understand the interrelationships between fields. We reverse the Biblical injunction "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth"; we require, ideally, that the entire body of scientific statement be consistent. The statements of the chemist, for example, based on one approach, and those of the cytologist, based on another, should not contradict each other. The discovery of such contradiction serves, just as do inaccurate predictions, to stimulate reinvestigation and restatement.

In the course of this search for overall consistency, a significant fact appears: it is sometimes found, from a comparison of the operational definitions of terms in two different fields, that one field is markedly more general than the other. One of the statements of mechanics describes the motion of a falling body. The operational definitions underlying this law do not limit its application to inanimate bodies. The same law of motion covers the fall of a stone and of a cat. It is true that not all of the statements of mechanics have been tested with animate objects, but there is presumptive evidence that those statements, in so far as they hold at all, hold for all material bodies, regardless of those differentiae between stones and cats which the zoologist counts as important. The reverse is not true: the statements of the zoologist describe the behavior of animals, but not of stones. In this sense it seems legitimate to say that mechanics is a more general field than zoology.


The tricks which politicians have played with language through the ages to lead and to mislead people is the subject of a large literature. Usually the discussion is confined to the past rather than the present for the simple reason that current circumlocutions must not be recognized as such if they are to be effective. He who prematurely turns the spotlight on contemporary verbal legerdemain is likely to be not only without applause in his own culture, but also to be regarded as an ignoble fellow casting aspersions on Sacred Things. No better illustration of the phenomenon could be found than in the language of contemporary international affairs.

I do not know, for example, who invented the "isolationistinternationalist" dichotomy, nor whether he was aware that the imposition of such a framework succeeded in obscuring the whole issue and in largely preventing any intelligent or relevant discussion. Once a frame of reference of this sort is accepted, it partakes of the framework of nature itself and discussion in any other terms seems unrealistic. Yet a little examination readily reveals the essential obfuscation of the issues by this categorization. By the use of a word like "isolationist," to designate the opponents of a particular international program that comes to the front in the late thirties, one party distracted attention from the details of their policy and imputed to their opponents an imaginary position.

The phrase "isolationism" implies a policy of nonintercourse of any kind with other countries, a situation which probably cannot exist under modern conditions and which, in any event, has not existed in the western world for centuries. …

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