Sunday, December 21, 2008



      Medieval Latin scientificus producing knowledge (from Latin scient-, sciens + -i- + -ficus -fic)

Date: 1589


      Greek technikos of art, skillful (from technē art, craft, skill; akin to Greek tektōn builder, carpenter, Latin texere to weave, Sanskrit takṣati he fashions)

Date: 1617

We — modern humans, that is — strive for two epistemological goals, in most cases with unequal efforts: to know and to know how — knowledge vs. know-how.

The physicist may "know" the laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism at work under the hood of a car, but it is the skill of the auto repair person that you rely on to keep your car running. (What's the difference between a quantum mechanic and an auto mechanic? A quantum mechanic can get his car into the garage without opening the door.)

Thus we have what seems to be two worlds: the scientificus (from Latin) and the technikos (from Greek) — the scientific and the technical — populated by scientists and technicians respectively. (There is another creature who supposedly lurks between scientists and technicians: the technologist. But enough confusion already. And a poet, as should be clear from the etymologies, is more akin to a technician than a scientist.)

But there is another world beyond these two, so it is said: the philosophical*, which is generally viewed as being populated by those seeking a systematic, stable foundation (epistemologically speaking) for the scientific. However, the two landmark books on deconstructionism from the 1970's**, Derrida's of Grammatology and Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (the second one is readable, unlike the first, which actually coined the term "deconstruction" in its previous French version), portrayed many cherished boundaries as being artificial — much like what Quine did with the analytic/synthetic "divide".*** Specifically, Rorty's book deconstructed the barrier between philosophy and science, or, in other words, set out to expose the search for a foundational basis for scientific knowledge that could be marketed by philosophers as being a fruitless one. (For Rorty, deconstructionism is really a species of pragmatism.)

Here's the point: If this philosophical/scientific deconstruction holds, then so must the scientific/technical, since if there is no foundation to knowledge, then how is knowing really any different from knowing how?

I.e., we are all "mere" technicians now.


The 2008 winter solstice (12:04UT) occurred as I was writing this post. I knew how to look that up. (OK, it's the summer solstice for Aussies, etc. Technically speaking, that is.)

* Now here is where the theologian chimes in: "The scientist may tell you the about the laws of the nature, but we tell you about the lawmaker, and why shit happens!" But to this the deconstructionist Nietzsche replies, "God is dead ... We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers ...!" (The Gay Science, 1882)

One can see the jokes coming: A technician, a scientist, a philosopher, and a theologian walk into a bar ...

** Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, English translation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Johns Hopkins University Press (1976, revised 1998)

[Here, Derrida deconstructs the spoken/written distinction, or the "fallacy" in Western philosophy of phonocentrism (the primacy and priority of speech over writing, which Derrida also uses as his main example of logocentrism). Thus begins the examination of assumed hierarchies and distinctions — analytic/synthetic, spoken/written, theological/philosophical, mind/brain, philosophical/scientific, scientific/technical, ... — in a fresh light.]

   Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press (1979, paperback 1981)

*** Could all three (Derrida, Rorty, Quine) be standing in the shadow of Wittgenstein?