Nietzsche’s Secret Garden

On the Solitary Cultivation of Ideas

Having made the case for the impersonality of science (if not the self-abnegation of the scientist) in Scientific Self-Abnegation, it now remains to make the case for the uniquely personal, private, and idiosyncratic side of science — if indeed there is any such side of science, or if there is any such case to make.

What would an idiosyncratic scientific research program look like? It is not difficult to imagine, as for the greater part of the history of human science, scientific research programs were nothing more than the life work of a single man — an Archimedes, a Galileo, a Kepler, a Huygens, a Newton. This is the de facto condition of science in human history, but not necessarily the ideal of science, and not the reality of the large-scale research programs of big science that have come into being since the industrial revolution.

Scientific research programs in the time of Archimedes were the insights and ambitions of one man, but by the time of Newton there were printing presses, universities, scientific societies, and scientific journals (on which cf. Boundary Conditions of the Scientific Revolution). Newton had a community of scientific researchers to which he could communicate his work and from which he could anticipate an informed response. Even if Newton and his colleagues did not have the instantaneous global communications that we take for granted today, books did make their way around the world, and some scientists were well-traveled and worldly men in Newton’s day. And this was true to a much greater extent than was the case for Archimedes in classical antiquity.

Archimedes was a man a Syracuse, and his fate was tied to the fate of his city-state. The greatest institutions of learning of which we know from the pre-modern world — Plato’s Academy, the library at Alexandria, and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad — could be said to be regional centers of learning, or even centers on a civilizational scale that attracted the best minds within that civilization, but it is nothing like the international scientific collaboration of today.

Kenneth Clark made an astute observation related to this:

Clark is right to point out that the church was an international institution (regionally confined to Europe) in the Middle Ages, and similarly the Roman world had its international institutions in the Mediterranean Basin in its time (though the use of “international” here is misleading and unhistorical). However, these earlier international institutions did not involve science, and despite their internationalism they were confined within a geographical region.

Science today thrives on a planetary scale, and so its institutions are planetary-scale institutions. But science began as a regional institution within Europe — this was science during the scientific revolution, from Copernicus to the industrial revolution — and before science was a regional institution, it was only the institution of gifted individuals and their immediate circle, if indeed a gifted individual had any circle at all. Many did not.

Previously I wrote about Nietzsche’s “secret garden” in Philosophies of the Secret Garden, in which I quoted the following:

I can strongly identify with this. I have been working on my philosophical ideas in isolation for so many years that I have layers upon layers of concepts that are my own, so that concepts that I worked out several years ago I have since used to work out additional concepts that presuppose these earlier concepts. I have iterated this process to several generations with my own ideas, and this makes it extraordinarily difficult to explain what I am doing to others. Any explanation would make use of concepts that would have to be explained in turn. I am sure than I am not alone in this.

It often happens that the bulk of a philosopher’s most original thoughts are to be found in their manuscripts. Probably every philosopher experiences what I have noted just above, and so holds back the strangest and least familiar flowers from his secret garden, instead presenting the public with only those arrangements that appear sufficiently conventional that they will not be rejected tout court.

Husserl wrote tens of thousands of pages in Gabelsberger shorthand, and Husserl’s industrious intellectual heirs have continued to transcribe, to edit, to publish, and to translate this enormous body of work almost a hundred years after this death. Gödel’s notebooks, also written in Gabelsberger, are only now beginning to be transcribed and published (though they are already available in digitized form to anyone who can puzzle them out). I previously discussed these efforts in The arc of cognitive astrobiology is long, but it bends toward rationality. The impact of these philosophical efforts — the secret gardens of Husserl and Gödel — will only be felt by the wider intellectual community in the coming century.

While philosophy in our time has started to follow the scientific model of international collaborative research, it is far behind science in this respect, and most philosophers doing truly original work do so in relative isolation, much as science was done in classical antiquity (though I might well argue that philosophy was an international collaboration in the ancient world, along the model that Clark described in the passage quoted above).

This is significant for science, because new scientific disciplines are suggested by novel philosophical research, and a new discipline in its nascent state is a fragile thing, easy destroyed if mishandled. It would be entirely understandable if a contemporary philosopher chose to work on ideas at the border of science and philosophy and kept this entirely to himself because this work would not likely be welcomed in either in the scientific community (being too philosophical) or in the philosophical community (being too scientific). Nevertheless, this is where most of the interesting ideas come from, and we tacitly and implicit rely on such efforts for the overall advancement of science.

I have often said that one of the advantages of the heightened individualism of western civilization is that it allows societies so organized to explore more possibilities at a lower social cost. Collectivist societies that insist upon joint social effort explore new possibilities at a high social cost, and failure can be catastrophic. This makes collectivist societies more risk averse than individualistic societies.

Additionally, the individualism of western civilization allows for the indulgence of eccentrics and splendid individuals, who, if they are successful, will be celebrated as individuals. And they may even be financially rewarded as individuals for their individual effort. Thus there is both a carrot and a stick for the individual researcher who attempts to make a contribution to scientific knowledge without being part of any wider research community or of any scientific research program beyond his own interests.

The paradigm of “big science” represents a mainstreaming of a particular research program — a program that defines the wider research community — which enjoys disproportionately large social investments: university facilities, funding, personnel, equipment, etc. This has been crucial for the growth of what Kuhn called “normal science,” which is an enormous cooperative and collaborative effort. And with the conceptual framework of normal science being more comprehensive and more adequate than ever before in the past, normal science practiced as big science can continue almost indefinitely.

This potentially indefinite growth of normal science has been further facilitated by an awareness of Kuhnian philosophy of science, and this has meant that scientists are more clearly aware than at any previous time of the ellipses incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge, and many are open to considering alternative theories as long as those theories are competently expressed in the technical jargon of the discipline. We know that general relativity and quantum theory cannot be brought together in our current physics framework, and we know that we cannot explain large-scale cosmology (which often invokes “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which are merely ciphers that mean, “something to explain gravitational anomalies” and “something to explain the accelerating expansion of the universe”), so that the scientific community is actively seeking more adequate formulations of these problems.

Be that as it may, the most striking developments of science are likely to come out of the work of philosophical scientists (as indeed the theories of relativity and gravitation came out of Einstein’s work, and Einstein has rightly been called a “philosopher-scientist”), and these philosophical scientists will probably develop the most crucial and distinctive concepts that later serve to advance science in a Nietzschean secret garden of their own.

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