Scientific Self-Abnegation

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, by Henry J. Brooks, 1904.

The institutions of civil society are greater than the individual in the sense that most (not all) institutions endure for longer than the individual life, they maintain relationships with a greater number of individuals than any given individual, they touch upon a greater variety of lives and circumstances, and they are more widely distributed in space than is any individual. Whether it be an institution of science (a scientific research program, a discipline, or the lineage of an idea), of learning and education (i.e., a school or university), of literature (poetry, the novel, etc.), of social or political order (some nation-state, or even a political institution that transcends the nation-state, such as those monarchies that have survived into the age of nation-states), these institutions represent the cumulative contributions of many individuals over the longue dureé of history, and so draw upon orders of magnitude more experience than any one individual can command.

The individual, in virtue of being a biological being, is, by birth, part of an institution — viz. the family — that transcends the individual, and the family is part of a community that transcends both the individual and the family. By using “transcends” in this context I am not attempting to smuggle in a valuation; I am not arguing that an institution, in virtue of being an institution, is better than, or superior to, or in any sense preferable to, an individual; I am only asserting that institutions are greater than individuals in the sense described in the above paragraph.

Given the inherited resources at the command of an institution — being the work of many minds over a period of hundreds or possibly even thousands of years — no individual is as sophisticated as some institution to which the individual might hope to make a contribution. The individual may have novel insights or unique experiences not yet integrated into the institution, and these insights and experiences may be assimilated by the institution, which is thereby enriched by the individual. However, sophistication does not derive from any one insight or experience, but rather from collective and organized experience that allows us to contextualize any one insight or experience by comparison and contrast with peer insights and experiences, which may supplement or check, may expand or limit, individual insight or experience.

No individual today can even approach a comprehensive grasp of human knowledge, so that one’s only hope of making an enduring contribution to a discipline is through specialization in a disciplinary silo. Each and every one of us works piecemeal on an edifice of human knowledge that is far greater than any one individual, and so transcends any one individual in a way that no individual can attain.

Let us focus on the institution of science in relation to the individual scientist, who hopes to make a valuable and lasting contribution to a scientific discipline and to scientific knowledge: in order to make such a contribution, the scientist must subordinate himself to the scientific institutions such as they are. The more he subordinates himself, the greater his contribution can be, since his effort and energy is channeled into achievements defined by the discipline and not by the individual. And it is the disciplinary structure of knowledge that is the measure by which we track the growth of human knowledge.

The ontogeny of the individual does not coincide with the phylogeny of the discipline. And though the individual must pass through a developmental process in order to arrive at the point at which they are capable of making a contribution to the development of the discipline as that discipline stands in his time, the discipline is unaware of and unconcerned with the individual development of those who contribute to its phylogenetic development.

In so far as the individual remains an individual, and wants to do justice to their own development as an individual human being, they will need to pass through all the stages of human development, and experience for themselves all of the errors that are part and parcel of the developmental process. But the institution need make no concessions to personal desires or the need to recapitulate a developmental process that has already been repeated with tiresome familiarity millions upon millions of times over. The institutions of knowledge gain the most when all individual development is placed to one side — bracketed, as Husserl would have it — and all development is focused on the state of the discipline as it is in the present, and not upon the individual and their needs for development.

If an individual wishes their contribution to science to be a personal contribution, and to carry with it the mark of their “distinctive” (read: human, all-too-human) personality, this individuality can only come at the cost of an admixture of highly sophisticated science alongside basic errors from the individual’s developmental process. In the case of science, this means making juvenile philosophical errors that philosophers would recognize immediately, and, in the case of philosophy, it means making juvenile scientific errors that scientists would recognize immediately. The interpolation of the individual and the personal into this transcendent body of scientific knowledge can only render this body of knowledge less perfect than if the individual and the personal were entirely excluded.

The scientist, in order to make a contribution, must utterly and completely subordinate himself to the institution of science, if not abase himself, and the more completely he subordinates himself, the more likely his contribution is to be of enduring value. As an individual, he has almost nothing to offer the institution of knowledge. This disciplinary subordination would constitute an act of scientific self-abnegation, completely surrendering one’s individuality to the institution that is more comprehensive and more sophisticated than any individual experience could ever be.

Only as a scientist who has fully embraced F. H. Bradley’s vision of My Station and Its Duties can the individual make a contribution to scientific knowledge by meticulously carrying out the duties of his station as a scientist and fulfilling that role as a role and not as an individual with a personal and private life understood to be intrinsically valuable in its own right. In his social role as a scientist, the scientist can contribute to scientific knowledge; in his role as sovereign individual, he has nothing to contribute to scientific knowledge. These two faces of the individual are disjoint as they relate to the production of knowledge.



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