Show Us Your Biceps, Mister

Time for another of those exercises when I quote a few passages from interesting (if eccentric) thinkers. Today’s examinee is David Bloor, one of the founding whatsits of the ‘Strong Programme’ at Edinburgh University. A few sentences from the opening page of his influential book Knowledge and Social Imagery:

Can the sociology of knowledge investigate and explain the very content and nature of scientific knowledge? Many sociologists believe that it cannot….They voluntarily limit the scope of their own enquiries. I shall argue that this is a betrayal of their disciplinary standpoint…There are no limitations which lie in the absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity.

That’s from the first paragraph. One, it’s interesting that he resorts to rhetoric right at the beginning, with the word ‘betrayal’ for example. And the subtle implications or innuendo behind that sentence about voluntarily limiting the scope of their own enquiries. Is ‘voluntarily’ really the right word? Or is it there to suggest things like timidity, conformity, obedience, lack of imagination and daring and scope, and the like. Is the limitation really voluntary, or is it more or less forced by the nature of reality? Is it perhaps the case that sociologists of knowledge who limit the scope of their enquiries do so because they think they don’t know enough about a given scientific field to explain its ‘very content and nature’? That seems quite likely, and not unreasonable. And note how Bloor leaves that explanation out of his list in the last sentence. He seems to mention it, but in fact doesn’t. His list makes a show of exhausting the possibilities, but in fact it doesn’t. The ‘absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity’ are not the only inhibiting factors that might make nonintoxicated (to borrow a trope of Susan Haack’s) sociologists ‘limit’ the scope of their enquiries; others would be the nature and complexity of the subject; ignorance, humility, knowledge of one’s own limitations; and especially evidence. The uninebriated sociologists might simply realize that they don’t know enough about the subject at hand to evaluate the evidence, and therefore don’t know how to differentiate between knowledge that is based on evidence and knowledge that is not, or is not completely. It’s not a question of any ‘special’ nature of truth or rationality, it’s simply a question of limited competence.

What is the cause for this hesitation and pessimism?…The cause of the hesitation to bring science within the scope of a thorough-going sociological scrutiny is lack of nerve and will. It is believed to be a foredoomed enterprise.

Lack of nerve and will. Hmm. That’s very reminiscent of that remark of Jamie Whyte’s I quoted the other day – ‘Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth.’ One just has to have the will and nerve to decide that one can discover anything, even about subjects that tend to require many years of training to understand. (Mind you, it doesn’t work the other way. Strong programme sociologists don’t often write books wondering why physicists and geologists don’t investigate the knowledge of sociologists.) All very Nietzschean, or at least Riefenstahlian. All it takes is will!

Which of course is why they call it the Strong Programme. I guess.

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