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Monday, August 13, 2012

The prestige of ideas. Styles of thought and reputational dynamics


 Draft. Do not quote without permission

I see the temples of the deaths and the bodies of Gods. I see the old signifiers.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass,, 1856.

C’est ça ma tradition, j’en ai pas d’autre
J.P. Sartre (1980, last interview, March 10)



So far, I have attributed my analysis of reputation to persons, labels and institutions that deliver those labels. I have defined the epistemological idea of reputation as a relation between an X (object or agent), an authority and an evaluation. The way in which the authority evaluates X influences X’s reputation. The idea that I have developed in the cases studies I have discussed, such as the one of wine labels reputation, is that reputation indicators crystallize social and historical information that are then used as shortcuts for trusting items and people.

In a sense, this vision of reputation provides an analysis for the external reputation that is socially attached to things and people by authorities and then perceived by other through the filter of these authorities. Here, I would like to pay more attention to the internal reputational dynamics, that is: once an item – an object, an idea, a person - earns a certain authority in our minds, it has to fight to maintain its reputation and there may be interactions with other items that crucially determine its reputational dynamics. What I would like to do here is to change the scale of the approach: once a reputation is acquired through an extended social network of practices, evaluations, cultural values etc., how it stabilizes and evolves in a narrower network of insiders.

Reputation, in its external sense, is an historical property. People and things earn reputation through time. Reputation condensates past action in seals of approval. People care about keeping their reputation because they care about trust relationships they want to endure. Things such, labels, prices, etc. keep their reputation because of their historical record.

So far, I have paid attention to the way people’s reputation is constructed and maintained. Even when I have talked about ideas and theories, I have presented their reputation as connected to the authority of those who promulgate these ideas. Here I will look at how ideas in themselves acquire reputation and, in doing so, contribute to changing or keeping paradigms in mainstream theories. This analysis, although it will explore the “life” of an idea inside a theoretical framework, how it blooms and how it loses its spell, will use also a different temporal scale: I won’t explore the encrustation of its prestige through time, but the shorter temporal dynamics of its rise and fall, the vagaries of its success and failure in the minds of its supporters.

This will link some of my concerns on reputation to more classical debates in philosophy and sociology of science on paradigm changes in sciences and theory constructivism. I think that the dimension of prestige, how it affects the fortune of an idea, is most lacking in these classical analyses (Kuhn, Fayerabend, Fleck, Hacking).

What is the prestige of an idea? Where does it display itself? It is not in the manners of Mme. de Cambremer , or in the personal charisma of Robert Opennheimer. It is neither through moral qualities of disinterestedness and trustworthiness that an idea can earn its prestige, because ideas don’t have neither manners, nor moral qualities. But ideas have style.

The notion of style of ideas or thought styles has been scatteredly approached in philosophy and in sociology of knowledge.
Oswald Spengler talks about the “Western style of thought”, but the German word Stil is not always translated into English with the word “Style”.
Husserl speaks of Galilean style of reasoning as “making abstract models of the universe to which at least the physicists give a higher degree of reality the they accord to the ordinary world of sensation” (Weinberg, 1976).

In his essay on Language, Truth and Reason, Ian hacking defines the notion of style of reasoning as “what brings in the possibility of truth and falsehood” (Historical Ontology, p. 167). In the end of the article, Hacking makes five statements about style:
1.     There are different styles of reasoning. Many of these are discernible in our own history. They emerge at definite points and have distinct trajectories of maturation. Some die out, others are still going strong.
2.     Propositions of the sort that necessarily require reasoning to be substantiated, have a positivity, being true or false, only in consequence of the styles of reasoning in which they occur
3.     Hence, many categories of possibility, of what may be true or false, are contingent upon historical events, namely, the development of a certain style of reasoning
4.     It may then be inferred that there are other categories of possibility that have emerged in our tradition
5.     We cannot reason as to whether alternative systems are better or worse than ours, because the propositions to which we reason get their sense only from the method of reasoning employed. The propositions gave no existence independent of the ways of reasoning towards them.

Arnold Davidson raises the question of “the style of reasoning” in his reconstruction of the emergence of psychiatry as a scientific corpus. In an essay entitled Styles of Reasoning, Conceptual History and the Emergence of Psychiatry, he characterizes the notion of “style of reasoning” trying to find a compromise between Hacking’s characterization and Foucault’s idea of regime of truth: “truth” is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. Truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and with the effects of power which it induces.  A regime of truth.

Wisely, he points out that neither conception implies a strong cultural relativism. What they both say is that we are in the boat we are building and nothing is visible or even speakeable from outside that boat.
Wölfflin's classical work on style in art bring about the idea of polar concepts: styles in art, contrast baroque style vs. classical style.

The most comprehensive work in history and philosophy of science on styles of thoughts is the three volumes essay by A. C. Crombie (1994) Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition. The work is an exercise of “internal” history of science, that is, an explanation of the dynamics of styles of thinking in the Western tradition that is kept independent from external social influences and psychological shifts in conceiving paradigms. As Ian Hacking says “Crombie’s idea is less about the content of the sciences than about their methods”. It is mostly a taxonomical work that Crombie has developed through almost 30 years. He distinguishes 6 typical styles of scientific reasoning: 1. Postulational, 2. Experimental, 3. Hypothetical, 4. Taxonomic, 5. Probabilistic and Statistical, 6. Historical or genetic.

On the other extreme of the spectrum, you may rank Foucault’s ideas on the order of speech, the episteme as a “style” of thought that is regulated, formatted, produced and controlled by a system of power. :
La production du discours est à la fois controlee, sélectionnée, organisée et distribuée par un certain nombre de procedures qui ont pour role d’en conjurer les pouvoirs et les dangers, d’en maîtriser l’événement aléatoire, d’en esquiver la loured, la redoubtable matérialité. (L’ordre du discours : 11)

Probably the most elaborate theorization of thought-style is to be found in Ludwik Fleck’s work. It is ironic, even if sad, that Fleck’s life and work are examples of an unstylish intellectual adventure. Born in Poland in 1896, he was trained as a doctor and developed a particular interest for bacteriology. Although he was fluent in German he developed ideas on the sociology of knowledge independently of
Ludwik Fleck: Thought style is a tradition of shared assumptions, invisible to members and rarely questioned. These shared assumptions define which questions are significant and prefigure appropriate answers (Harwood: 177) Role of perception. The thought-style gives us the categories for organizing a confused perception of the world.
Thought styles are gate-keepers. They filter information the gets into and is thus credible.
“We look with our own eyes. We see the eyes of the collective” (Fleck: 154)
Human reason is not static but socially and historically variable. Thought styles are the way in which human reason expresses itself through time and places.