October 4, 2023

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Knowledge from its origins to the Anthropocene

Knowledge from its origins to the Anthropocene

He believed that the ambition and courage to extend the power of a concept over the entirety of human history had faded by the end of the twentieth century, leaving only the more than ninety-year-old Jürgen Habermas to raise the banner of the systematic philosophers, who are still engaged in a fascinating reconstruction of the genesis and development of philosophy. Western – Otherwise, with his latest monumental work, Jürgen Rehn, Director of the Max Planck Institute für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, intends to enroll in law thinkers longue duréewhere he made his name with a very strong group of composers ranging from Thomas Kuhn to Bruno Latour.

Indeed, the project that the German historian of science intends to implement in his latest book knowledge evolution. From its origins to the Anthropocene (Karucci, 2022) is a comprehensive examination of the evolutionary mechanisms of knowledge, with particular attention to the typical features of this evolution in the context of the Anthropocene—in which one of the basic methodological assumptions is to frame the history of science as a sediment and statement of a broader history of human knowledge and thus of all humanity.

But in order to fully understand a project that certainly does not lack minimalism, it is necessary to define the vanishing line, or rather the point of perspective from which it is proposed to reconstruct the broad ideal mentioned above. Starting from the introduction, in fact, Wren identifies those extreme wings of the scientific historical debate in connection with which he intends to present himself as the middle third, which pleases his ears to many but listens to none. In other words, he espouses the most defensive lesson of these positions, but considers both a closed course. On the one hand, we are dealing with theories that depend exclusively on the activities of human subjects in the sciences, that is, those whose linguistic constructions express a knowledge that makes things mere inert matter and incapable of speech; On the other hand, those positions which, on the contrary, claim to highlight the capacity of things to act, but which thus risk equating the latter with the deliberate cognitive activities of human beings.

The point, according to Wren, lies not so much in this alleged opposition between subjects and things, which has in fact dominated the last two decades of discussion on the sociology of science, as in knowing how to improvise a little from Münchausen: a gesture with which a meditation on science and its history draws itself, extracting himself by the tail, outside the narrow sphere in which he, like any specialized field, has been unwisely confined. The aim, then, is to appease a virtuous alliance between fields of knowledge in which theory exercises a renewed expansive capacity, and which knows how to ignore boundaries to go beyond the opposing moats that characterize the current debate and “return to experience again” (p. 26).

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The problem, which does not seem to me to be of secondary importance, is that such a subjective force of levitation from the ground rather than Euclidean leads to a rate of vagueness which can be found in an insignificant part of the whole. Lawsuit. But the desire to improvise here Devil’s Advocate, I intend to take up the line that is actually the most compelling, given the author’s area of ​​specialization. I am referring to that section which is the central nucleus of the whole system and which deals with offering a reconstruction of the history of mechanics, from the most embryonic and intuitive expressions – within the European, Chinese and Islamic traditions – to the most subtle. Futurism in the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

The middle line that Wren adopts here in an in-depth study translates not so much into the private discoveries and specific ideas of individual actors as about the broader social developments that make it possible to “transmit, accumulate and invent mechanical sciences” (p. 18). Thus, through the joint effort of an extended group of his collaborators, Renne was able – beginning with the writings of the early 1990s – to propose a typology of the history of mechanics, from antiquity to modern science.

Particularly indicative, within this classification, is the case of general relativity. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the epistemology of science knows very well that transformative processes aimed at creating, defining, and disseminating new theoretical paradigms require the formation of a set of contexts, conditions, and actors that cannot be confined within narrow networks of oneness.

Thus, the long-term influence of general relativity cannot be traced back to Einstein’s individual accomplishments, but must be traced back to a larger group of phenomena–including, the work of an ever-expanding community of scientists, and economic conditions and social developments thereafter. World War II, the gradual specialization of various disciplines – all of which contributed to the transition from classical to contemporary physics. Reine, however, must be given credit – thanks to his PhD training in mathematical physics – for detailing the various steps of such a transition very efficiently.

The first stage consists of the conceptual reorganization of the knowledge system by means of intermediate constructions aimed at collecting and re-referencing this system. The period from 1907 to 1915, which saw the theory originated, by Einstein and a few other collaborators, corresponds to this first phase. Then follows a process of preservation tending to refine the conceptual device developed and explore its potential areas of application: In the 1920s, the so-called formative period of general relativity, a small community of experts was investigating its implications for physics. And in astronomy – consider, for example, the phenomenon of diffraction of light in the presence of a gravitational field.

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Finally, as the new formalism gains authority and stability, the old scaffolding can be removed and the new paradigm embraced. After a period of ups and downs, in the expression of Jan Eisenstaedt, which ran from the 1920s to the 1950s, the sixties witnessed a vigorous revival of the theory, spurred on by its post-war renaissance, in the words of Clifford Weill, first, and in its golden age, in the expression of Kip Thorne, then: in In those years a new community of scientists emerged for whom general relativity was their “main professional concern” (p. 491).

In short, if one wanted to reconstruct the course of development of mechanics – this is the hypothesis that the case represents – it would be absurd to try to follow its creators, its heirs, the mass of influences it brought about, or the technological innovations it allowed. None of these variants, if considered a superlative search object, will be able to return motion that is already so networkwhich consists of Knotfor whom degree Specifies the number of connections each of them has with other nodes. Rin speaks to this effect Cognitive networksWhich includes social, physical and mental dimensions.

Besides the specific nature of these networks, it is interesting to try to involve fundamentally different factors in a theoretical reconstruction (for example, a debate between conflicting scholars, an article and the number of citations in it, the language in which the article in question was written, the technology that allows its reuse to be produced) – Or rather, the way in which all these factors lead to an interaction capable of involving other nodes and intensifying the connection between them, in a way that allows a broader continuity over time.

This explains why the knowledge developed in a single scientific field is insufficient, according to a saying repeated by Ren many times: the knowledge of each of these nodes requires a specialized technical language that allows defining their movements and evolution; But precisely because each of them connects to other nodes, technical specialized languages ​​should be able to create an alliance able to collectively train the entire network within a broader knowledge community. the Litmotivewhich is re-emphasized in the conclusions, is the effort to “integrate local perspectives and find new ways to combine problem-oriented research with teaching and learning within and outside academia” (pp. 635-636), in a way that enables the combination of speculative interest and reconstruction Wonderfully with a new awareness of the effects of the transformations that human knowledge is exposed to in this complex phase that is the Anthropocene.

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Undoubtedly, the book echoes a concern which I think indicates an inability to understand existing paradigms more than to effectively overcome them – as if page by page conveys the sense that, in the face of the uncontrolled explosion of centers of knowledge production, only 1:1 Cartography has been able to regain its proper function and that kind of utopia of detailed knowledge is the least feasible at present. So if the network model was certainly one of the happiest axioms of the last century in many areas of research, it is not clear what degree of innovation Renn could make interacting in a field as intentionally broad as human knowledge court shuffle.

Nor is it clear what multi-translational platform on which different niches could engage in new forms of negotiation and cross-contamination. The idea of ​​other proponents of the network model, such as proponentsActor network theory (which Ren partially distances himself from), is that such a platform simply does not exist; So, according to this logic, to assign epistemological privilege to the language of things is to really give up the claim that it can be found: each network, as a collection of private nodes, develops its own dynamics and its own language, which research should strive to bring out. Perhaps this is a very deflationary proposition for Rin. However, it is only when he tries to point to an alternative path that what we find at our hands is a solid but very traditional scientific history, which proposes very abstract concepts and is wrapped in specialized and sometimes very technical language.

Basically, knowledge evolution All round heirs to twentieth-century theory, one that makes you dizzy and makes universal claims: certainly deserving of the most attention, but nothing that makes you stun in terms of originality—if that’s true, as it is, Wren himself compares his approach to the most distinctive of his Late modern humanities, i.e. history of religions. In conclusion, if you are looking for strong cognitive feelings, focus on something else. On the other hand, if you want general but reliable pointers on how to conduct research in the field of the history of science, you can venture into these seven hundred pages of very powerful theory.