Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Science and Knowledge

By Michael Foucault from "The Archaelogy of Knowledge"

"Knowledge is that which one can speak in a discursive practice, and which is specified by that fact: the domain constituted by the different objects that will or will not acquire a scientific status (the knowledge of psychiatry in the nineteenth century is not the sum of what was thought to be true, but the whole set of practices, singularities, and deviations of which one could speak in psychiatric discourse); knowledge is also the space in which the subject may take up a position and speak of the objects with which he deals in his discourse (in this sense, the knowledge of clinical medicine is the whole group of functions of observation, interrogation, decipherment, recording, and decision that may be exercised by the subject of medical discourse); knowledge is also the field of coordination and subordination of statements in which concepts appear, and are defined, applied and transformed (at this level, the knowledge of Natural History, in the eighteenth century, is not the sum of what was said, but the whole set of modes and sites in accordance with which one can integrate each new statement with the already said); lastly, knowledge is defined by the possibilities of use and appropriation offered by discourse (thus, the knowledge of political economy, in the Classical period, is not the thesis of the different theses sustained, but the totality of its points of articulation on other discourses or on other practices that are not discursive). There are bodies of knowledge that are independent of the sciences (which are neither their historical prototypes, nor their practical by-products), but there is no knowledge without a particular discursive practice; and any discursive practice may be defined by the knowledge that it forms." (p 183)

(c ) Knowledge (Savoir) and ideology

"Once constituted, a science does not take up, with all the interconnexions that are proper to it, everything that formed the discursive practice in which it appeared; nor does it dissipate - in order to condemn it to the prehistory of error, prejudice, or imagination - the knowledge that surrounds it. Morbid anatomy did not reduce to the norms of scientificity the positivity of clinical medicine. Knowledge is not an epistemological site that disappears in the science that supersedes it. Science (or what is offered as such) is localized in a field of knowledge and plays a role in it. A role that varies according to different discursive formations, and is modified with their mutations." (p 184)

"It is probably there, in that space of interplay [between Archaelogy and science], that the relations of ideology to the sciences are established. The hold of ideology over scientific discourse and the ideological functioning of the sciences are not articulated at the level of their ideal structure (even if they can be expressed in it a more or less visible way), nor at the level of their technical use in a society (although that society may obtain results from it), nor at the level of the consciousness of the subjects that built it up; they are articulated where science is articulated upon knowledge. IF the question of ideology may be asked of science, it is in so far as science, without being identified with knowledge, but without either effacing or excluding it, is localized in it, structures certain of its objects, systematizes certain of its enunciations, formalizes certain of its concepts and strategies; it is in so far as this development knowledge, modifies it, and redistributes it on the one hand, and confirms it and gives it a validity on the other; it is in so far as science finds its place in a discursive regularity, in which, by that very fact, it is or is not deployed, functions or does not function, in a whole field of discursive practices. In short, the question of ideology that is asked of sciences is not the question of situations or practices that it reflects more or less consciously; nor is it the question of the possible use or misuse to which it could be put; it is the question of its existence as a discursive practice and of its functioning among other practices." (p 185)

"Broadly speaking, and setting aside all mediation and specificty, it can be said that political economy has a role in capitalist society, that it serves the interest of the bourgeois class, that it was made by and for that class, and that it bears the mark of its origins even in its concepts and logical architecture; but any more precise description of the relations between the epistemological nature of political economy and its ideological function must take into account the analysis of the discursive formation that gave rise to it and the group of objects, concepts, and theoretical choices that it had to develop and systematize; and one may then show how the discursive practice that gave rise to such a positivity functioned among other practices that might have been of a discursive, but also of a political or economic, order." (p 185-186)

"This enables us to advance a number or propositions.

  1. Ideology is not exclusive of scientificity. Few discourses have given so much place to ideology as clinical discourse or that of political economy: this is not a sufficiently good reason to treat the totality of their statements as being undermined by error, contradiction, and a lack of objectivity.
  2. Theoretical contradictions, lacunae, defects may indicate the ideological functioning of a science (or of a discourse with scientific pretensions); they may enable us to determine at what point in the structure this functioning takes effect. But the analysis of this functioning must be made at the level of the positivity and the relations between the rules of formation and the structures of scientificity.
  3. By correcting itself, by rectifying its errors, by clarifying its formulations, discourse does not necessarily undo its relations with ideology. The role of ideology does not diminish as rigour increases and error is dissipated.
  4. To tackle the ideological functioning of a science in order to reveal and to modify it is not to uncover the philosophical presuppositions that may lie within it; nor is it to return to the foundations that made it possible, and that legitimated it: it is to question it as a discursive formation; it is to tackle not the formal contradictions of its propositions, but the system of formation of its objects, its type of enunciation, its concepts, its theoretical choices. It is to treat it as one practice among others." (p 186

Friday, February 23, 2007

Medieval Muslims made stunning math breakthrough - Yahoo! News

Aside from the back-handed compliment at the end, an intereseting article.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I was recently perusing through Arif Dirlik’s Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution and it was a remarkable read. I learned about Chinese revolutionaries who tried to re-chart history in the 20th century, an era which would soon witness many anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements. Despite the well-known extremes taken against the Chinese past by the certain communists decades later, most notably in some of the more bizarre practices of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the early anarchist revolutionaries (1905-1930) were about social transformation and therefore refused to uncritically emulate archaic norms. Their intellects were turned into weapons against the colonial world super powers (i.e. May 4th Movement in 1919) as well as landlordism, class oppression, and traditional Confucian strictures. As Dirlik himself writes, “The distinguishing feature of the Chinese revolutionary movement during these years…was a mass mobilization…which brought into the radical movement entire social groups (students, women, laborers) in pursuit of a new place for themselves in the revolutionary reorganization of Chinese society.”

To them authority should be questioned, the past can be re-interpreted, and metaphysical uncertainties must be uncovered. Granted, while the Chinese anarchists sometimes did fall into the trap of considering themselves to be scientifically “objective”, they never the less did not strait jacket one another into a rigid set of ideological dogmas or practice but rather, were organized around certain themes which led them to challenge the prevailing status quo and contemplate a more just social order. However true that this may have hurt their organizational strategy it also prevented them from lapsing into authoritarianism.

One can then recall the case of Jiang Kanghu and Taixu. The former was a teacher in Beijing but also managed to study in Europe and Japan. A lecture on “Socialism and Women’s Education” brought him much fame. Eventually he was to help form the Chinese socialist party in late 1911. The party’s platform consisted, among other things, of supporting a Chinese republic, heavily curtailing taxes, and ending the inheritance system. Taixu was ordained as a Buddhist monk but came under the sway of anarchic-socialist ideas, and at one time was associated with Kanghu’s group but he eventually broke with it. He believed that Buddhism had to be re-thought to suit modern needs and began supporting an even more radical outlook. His Social Party platform included inculcating an internationalist outlook, abolishing class divisions, and “…[to] eliminate all divisions among people on the basis of state, family, and religion…”

One of the most famous anarchists went by the name of Shifu who established the Cock-Crow society. Aside from emphasizing communal living, and teaching Esperanto his group managed to publish their own magazines and within a decade (by 1920) managed to organize over forty labor unions in the Canton province including membership among barbers, masons, and shoe-makers.

But this was not all. Some time earlier the Society for the Study of Socialism was established in 1907, founded by Liu Shipei and He Zhen. Despite being anti-modern agrarian socialists, they never the less challenged China’s pre-modern heritage. He Zhen was very much concerned with female oppression and took inspiration from Engel’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. She was critical both of rural oppression of women but also of current working conditions. The Paris anarchists who corresponded with the Tokyo group, may have been more radical in their rejection of China’s classical thought as they considered Confucius to be a thinker, “…of the age of barbarism…” and his teachings to be “…the source of the superstitions in Chinese society that had oppressed women and youth and served as an instrument of power…Superstition they believed, was the basis for authority...” And thus a “Confucian revolution” was needed. It is interesting to note that future communist leaders Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai also had links to anarchists when they were in Europe and the ideas of mutual-aid and the transformation of mental/manual labor ended up finding a place in Chinese communism including in Mao Zedong thought. The anarchists even worked with the Guamindong until the late 1920s/early 1930s where the latter began a crack down on leftist dissidents including anarchists, labor activists, and communists.

It can then be said that this was a very unique period in which almost no stone was left unturned. No doubt, this does not repudiate the classical heritage of China but it definitely allowed Chinese revolutionaries to free themselves of what they believed to be an unjust social order that had been buttressed by patriarchy and arcane scholastic points. It was not only the control of the means of production that were important but the social relations that surrounded it as well. Therefore one had to be mindful of the dialectical interplay of both. And for the current observer, it shatters Orientalist stereotypes about a “static” Chinese society, and or some cultural “essence” that compromises Chinese history throughout time. To be sure, with the rise of Chinese capitalism and the current predicament the contradictions of modernity/post-modernity are certainly not resolved but perhaps, a study of the Chinese anarchists can help one envision a more just social democratic order that simply does not mimic traditions of the past or the triumphalism of the present. And it is also for this reason that Dirlik’s book should become, if it is not already, a classic.
Recently Luke, KZ, and I attended an Islamic Law conference at the American University College of Law. One of the speakers was Anouar Majid, a Professor of English at New England University in Maine. His talk was quite subversive and entertaining but left us perplexed. We could not figure out his methodological approach towards the Islamic “tradition” and the “West”. With that in mind, I checked out a copy of his Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World.
The book itself addressed the issue of cultural identity caught in the matrix of a callous global economy. Drawing from writers as diverse as Karl Marx to Leila Ahmed, he argues that there is a dialectical interplay between the past and present, the result of which will determine the future. And as such, he pulls no punches in criticizing Western imperialism, liberal hypocrisy, nativistic reactions, and the tug and pull of a fetish consumerism mired in a capitalism which can not but create “Others” while appropriating their cultural symbols at the same time. As he writes, concerning the breakdown of traditional societies and the supposed “clash-of-civilizations” thesis, “The future map of the world, then, far from being static and determined by millennial tribal or cultural quarrels, ‘will be an ever-mutating representation of chaos.’” Ultimately, what is needed, and the book is primarily focused on the culture Majid is most familiar with, is the Muslim world to confront the challenges of post-modernity (?) in a dynamic way, thus breaking down false Eurocentric dichotomies and anachronistic interpretations of the faith itself. This combined with a humane outlook and sensitivity towards other people will allow for invigorating cross-cultural dialogue or as the author puts it, “Fault lines can be reimagined as innovative border zones where syncretic arrangements and cultural borrowings flourish outside states’ regulatory policies.”
In this regard his chapter “Can the Post-Colonial Critic Speak” is most welcome. His analysis of the “exiled”, “post-modern”, intellectual is very illuminating. No doubt much can be learned from the West, and a healthy sense of cosmopolitanism has given rise to such notable academians/public intellectuals as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak. Yet there is also a profound crisis where one’s “identity” seems to be suspended under a framework of an economic system which gives such intellectuals a place but never the less “otherizes” their people as well, thus being very much a legacy of colonial dependence. In the case of Salman Rushdie he comments, “There is no doubt that Rushdie’s naïve defiance of Islam is merely the heartbreaking scream of another casualty of colonialism and the confused elite it created in the aftermath.” And it is precisely that dependency that must be broken.
The Muslim feminist also finds herself in a predicament, caught between Western secular hubris and a stifling patriarchy. For Majid, however, this is a movement with much potential (here KZ, Luke, and I can easily recall the enthusiasm in which he spoke about the feminists at the conference!) and he criticizes both approaches, one which tends to demonize Islam all together and the other which freezes itself in time worn traditions. His discussion of Fatima Mernissi, the Moroccan feminist, for example, is fascinating. He admires her commitment to civil rights and in challenging the patriarchy but sees her falling into the trap of liberal bourgeoisie notions of human rights which can not adequately address the world’s problems. The political critic in him feels that the nation-state and the failures of pan-Arabism, to him an attempt to re-constitute the fractured ummah, must be questioned and the concomitant global inequalities unearthed. Again, only a lack of socio-economic dependency and a progressive Islam will allow for a renewal of Arab culture to flourish where people will be able to retain their cultural symbols and a sense of transcendence. His treatment of Islamic feminism synthesizes these points as, “…a careful articulation of an Islamically progressive agenda-democratic, antipatriarchal, and anti-imperialist-might provide the impetus for a new revolutionary paradigm.” Furthermore, to him this must be understood in a fluid way and not as a systematic elaboration of rote theological points. For Majid religion is not something to be “proven” but it is an experience that helps gives meaning to people’s lives; issues of the existence of God, and other explications of scholasticism ultimately can not be demonstrated in any conclusive sense and he makes it quite clear that, “…I have no interest whatsoever in theological disputes that seek to prove the truth of one religion over another. Because my primary interest in Islam is almost exclusively cultural (a historical consciousness combined with literary critical methodologies is bound to complicate the most sacred of foundational narratives)…”
All in all, I enjoyed his book and have brought out in my view the most salient points in it as relating to the blog. I have not discussed his analysis of Arab authors and their attempt to maneuver precariously through the complexities of the current day and age. I also wish that perhaps he himself had discussed more in depth the pit-falls and fluctuations of the current global economic structures. He seemed to have held capitalist post-modernity as a constant. In addition, I feel he was too harsh towards secularism and Arab nationalism as he seemed to neglect the entire totality (focusing mainly on the ideological and cultural), or just did not go into enough historical detail, from which the two were born. While I certainly believed that much of the project has ended up in failure, there were legitimate needs underlying the nationalist impulse. And while I can not go into the details here (the complex issue of nationalism must be postponed for other entries), I feel that some of the original goals of the nationalist project where noteworthy and that because of globalization one is “forced” into a myriad of relationships. Take the case of one of the speakers at the conference: Muslim, Canadian, human rights activist, feminist, teacher, etc. In other words, to overcome ones past is not to forget it. In the final sense, then, and this is where is emphasis is most strong and persuasive, it is about re-construction and not repudiation and that is exactly what is implied by Anouar Majid’s promotion of cultural dynamism.

Note: Anouar Majid has also written Freedom and Orthodoxy: Islam and Difference in the Post-Andalusian Age, Si Yussef, and his coming out with another book in 2007 titled A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam.

Note: I have not read his other books so I am unaware about the possible changes in his thought and or further elaborations of past themes.

Note: This post may seem like its not related to the “hard” sciences per se, but it is def. related to “social science” and the notion of “progress” and I am assuming (rightfully so I think) that this blog is inclusive in that regard. I think posts on the general notion of progress is also important because such ideas like “evolution”, “objectivity”, have permeated all disciplines and caused quite a controversy in the last 40-50 years as those very notions were then challenged.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Some Scientists Doing the Right Thing

This is a welcome sign, especially given the involvment of psychologists and psychiatrists in COINTELPRO.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Hello everyone. This is Faisal. I was invited to take part in this forum by my friends Luke and KZ. Taliba, I have yet to make your acquaintance but I am sure you are a nice person. Let me now proceed with some cursory remarks.

This blog considers science to be a hegemonic practice/discourse in contemporary society. Therefore its primary purpose is to open up avenues for critical discussion. I can see the links to other philosophy and social science websites. This indicates a common starting point for inquiry: what is science and how are we affected by it? No one will deny that there have been many technological and industrial gains since the enlightenment and scientific revolution. And surely most people have no problem reaping the benefits of bio-medical research. I certainly still treasure my grape flavored cough syrup!

Does such a historical trajectory, however, reflect "progress"? Is science only to be measured by its instrumental results? Are not value judgements inherent in such common place sayings as "look, that surgery saved my daugher's life and I am glad"? The "practical" man/woman may reply that these are arcane topics only disputed by ivory tower academics who have fallen victim to the "post-modern" fad. The practical man/woman also probably visits the local bookstore. There he/shefinds books such as the Bell-Curve, numerous guides to classical economicsand the follies of socialist economic planning, not to mention what the latestresearch may provide for his/her marriage.

Problem Solved? I think not. And the solution is far from in sight. Several points must be ascertained: what does history say about the development of the hard sciences/social sciences? how in various periods have philosophical developments affected research into biology, psychology, phyics, etc.? what does one even mean by social science? are there such things as iron clad economic laws, rules for social intercourse, static mating rituals, etc.? Or to stick to the topic at hand: the Bell Curve has racist overtones, some of the biggest critics of "actually existing (or existed) socialism" have been other socialists looking for a different type of socialism, and many women wonder why they are pushed into a failing marriage in the first place.

Naturally these issues are immense and one would need to be an Isaiah Berlin or a Will Durant in order to adequately address all these issues in a systematic historical fashion. Yet as has been mentioned, this website is to open up inquiry. Many of us will probably only discuss things that we are only beginning to feel comfortable with. And who knows, even if this blog doesn't even work out or is doomed to neglect, a single comment, quote, or one sentence aphorism can have a stimualting effect and quite frankly, make someone's day.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: Religion and Science

Monday, January 22, 2007

Problems for Reductionism

"Since the middle ages there has been a drive among thinkers to posit a theoretical unity of knowledge. This has traditionally been conceived as the result of the discovery of a universal science, one from which all of the special sciences can be derived. In modern times this universal science is taken to be physics. This kind of reduction is a very tempting prospect; it accords very well with a deductive nomological account of explanation and, if successful, offers to explain every significant fact about the world encountered in every special science. There are difficulties with this view, however."

More can be found here.

Medical Apartheid

Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman interview Harriet Washington about her new book "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present."

Pre-Columbian African Exploration of America

Articles making a case for the pre-Columbian exploration of the Americas by Africans and Muslims can be found here and here.