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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Making experience

The experiment as mediator [Vermittler] of object and subject.


Notice, first, the word Vermittler – in an essay written in 1791, when the philosophical language that has come to characterize modern European philosophy, the language that Hegel employs, has not yet made itself irresistibly felt. It is in the egg. Goethe, who was extraordinary at picking up the faintest traces of an intellectual trend, is not so far away, here – the other shore is glimpsed. But still, in this essay Goethe works in the available Enlightenment thematic and uses a recognizably conversational vocabulary, even though he is turning against the Enlightenment idol, Newton, as well as against the reductionism of Enlightenment science. Remember, the Enlightenment was capacious enough to contain Swedenborg and Mesmer. Remember, remember – there is no capturing what the age sets loose.

The essay begins with Goethe’s notion of the natural attitude of Man towards objects [Sache]. Objects either please him or repulse him – on the affective level – or they are useful or dangerous – on the level of interest.

Goethe sees that this natural attitude won’t do for science – which will always bear the marks of its break from the natural attitude. Science is unnatural.

“Those undertake a far more difficult task whose living drive strives to observe the objects of nature in themselves, and in their relation to one another, for the sake of knowledge: for they soon find themselves lacking the measure [Massstab] that could come to their aid when they observe things in relation to themselves. They lack the measure of being pleased or displeased, of attraction and repulsion, of use and injurt; they have to entirely renounce these things, they must seek and investigate as indifferent [gleichgueltige] and even divine beings what is, and not, what pleases.”

Once we have established that the scientific interest, unlike the natural attitude, must dispense with the usual measures of judging and classifying objects, Goethe notices that we have to find a measure for individuating and combining our objects. “The further we advance these observation, the more we combine objects among themselves, the more we practice this observational talent.”

Goethe approaches a problem here that has recently attracted a lot of attention in the sociology of science – namely, how the scientist is shaped. Instead of assuming that the scientist is simply made by the knowledge he accumulates, his institutional credentials, Goethe – preceding Daston and Galison’s account of the epistemic “virtues” in which the scientist as a social figure becomes distinct from the virtuoso, the savant, the enthusiast – distinguishes the “clever” man, who observes and recounts facts, with the more difficult path of the true scientist:

“Only when the observer, even applying this sharp judgment to the testing of secret natural relationships – when he is in a world in which he is equally alone, watching his own steps, guarding himself before any hurried movement, having his goal continually in his eyes, without letting himself slip into the way of some useful or dangerous circumstance all unobserved; when he thus there, where he cannot easily be controlled by someone else, must be his own strictest observer, and must be suspicious of himself in his most enthusiastic: thus everyone may see that this is the case, how strong these requirements are and how little one can hope to wholly fulfill them, whether one applies this to now to oneself or now to others. Yet these obstacles, one might even say this hypothetical impossibility must not keep us from doing our best, and we will at the very least come furthest when we seek to imagine for ourselves a means in general, by which the most notable men have expanded the sciences: when we exactly examine the deviations on which they got lost, and one when after them, often for centuries, squadrons of scholars have followed them, until later experiences for the first time introduced the observer to the right path.”

Goethe’s language here is later picked up by Nietzsche – whose work in the 1880s associates, in high Goethian style, mistrust with the observer, and especially a mistrust derived from the history of the observer’s capacity for falling into Abwege – byways, deviations. This, of course, always presses on experience. Against the deviation, Goethe of course suggests the Versuch – the manufacture of experience. Observation, here, moves from a moment in which, as the scene of observation enlarges to contain the observer, the object of observation is in danger of being lost, to a moment in which the observer, as it were, constructs an experience that allows him or her to disappear. Seemingly.

The experiment is made out of experience, with the intention of being observed. It is here that Goethe joins together the special sociability of the scientific attitude with the especial anonymity of the experiment. In fact, the experiment is, ideally, not only based on its potential repetition, but depends, for its result, on the cleansing of the bias that may inhere in any one observer’s position. Goethe remarks that in his own work on colors and plants he has noticed that friends or companions have often remarked on this or that aspect of a phenomenon that Goethe himself has overlooked. One of the fictions that necessarily accompany the experiment is that some ideal collectivity will observe all aspects of the phenomenon. That collectivity links science with a sort of erasure of authorship:

If, for us, naturally attentive people are so useful, how much more general must the use be when instructed people work hand in hand! Already a science is in itself such a great matter, that it bears many people, even if it cannot support at the same time support one equivalent man. It has been observed, that knowledge, like an enclosed but living water, by and by lifts to a certain level, that the most beautiful discoveries are not made so much through people as through the times; as discoveries of very important things are often discovered by two or more practiced thinkers. If thus we owe so much in this first case to society and our friends, we will in this case be owing even more to the world and the century, and we can in both cases not recognize enough how necessary are communication, aid, memory and contradiction to keep us on the right path and bring us forward.”

Goethe points the contrast here with art – which, in this essay, is treated as a thing that must originate and make itself in the conscious of the artist alone, until it is ready to be presented to the world – and the world’s knocks. This is a contrast Goethe will later retract. I mention it as a hint of the discord that exists between experiment as an aesthetic and as a scientific term.

But to return to made experience: the experiment cannot be wholly squeezed from the time or its attendant spirits; the made intrudes even on its own unmaking. In the crowd of observers, there are those who would connect experiment to experiment without returning to the bosom of experience itself.

I’ll end this with a long quotation:

“The value of an experiment, be it simple or combined, consists mainly in the fact that, under certain conditions, with a known apparatus and with required skill, it can be brought back into existence every time that the conditioning circumstances allow of being reunited. We rightly admire human understanding, when we also only superficially regard the combinations that have been made for this purpose, and observe the machines that have been invented and, we can truly say, are being invented daily.

But as valuable as every experiment, viewed individually, may be, its value is only maintained as long as it can be united and joined with others. But even to join together and unite two experiments, that have some similarities with each other, requires more strictness and attention as can even be demanded from the strictest observer. Two phenomenon can be related one to the other, but yet not so nearly as we believe. Two experiments can seen to follow one another when between them there must still stand a great series in order to bring them into the right connection. One can’t thus emphasize enough, not to conclude too hastily from experiments: then by the transition from experience to judgment, from knowledge to application, it is as in a pass where all the inner enemies of a person lay in wait. Imagination, impatience, hastiness, self-satisfaction, stiffness, thought forms of pre-conceived opinion, comfort, frivolity, fickleness and however the whole squadron with their followers may be called, all lie here in their secure places and will, unseen, overpower the practical worldly man as even the quiet ones, the observer who seems to be secured against all passions.”

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