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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

a psychological experiment

There are, in the notes for Repetition, a number of variations around the subtitle, which Howard and Edna Hong translate as “A venture in Experimenting Psychology”. Kierkegaard also tried “Experimenting Philosophy” and “Experimental-Philosophy”.

This is a suggestive subtitle for a book about – or at least entitled – repetition, since experiment itself is a form of human activity that, ideally, verifies the theories that it is meant to test by creating a situation that can ideally always be repeated by any competent operator. In the dialectical sense in which Constantine Constantius (who may be the experimentor of the book – or may be the subject of the book’s experiment), in a sense the experiment is already repeated even in its very first instance, since it is intended from the beginning to be repeatable – it is designed along the lines of repetition.

But there is another sense in which just the opposite is the case. In Hans Christian Ørsted and the romantic legacy in science, Robert M. Brain points to Ørsted’s distrust, perhaps via Goethe or Schelling, of the Newtonian kind of experimentum cruces on the grounds that what the experiment shows may well very with the angle of observation: “It is inherent in the infinitude of Nature that no observer can discover all that is implied by an experiment.” Brain argues that the Romantic fascination with the fragment served as an image for the experiment – which, instead of presenting itself as a designed repetition, becomes, instead, an insight into some particular in the infinite stream of nature. Schlegel’s aphorism goes:

“A fragment must be like a little artwork taken totally away from the surrounding world and perfect in itself, like a hedgehog.”

From this point of view, the design of an experiment, and its performance, was as singular as a poem or painting, requiring the high ingenuity of a … well, Dr. Frankenstein or Faust, to name the avatars.

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