Published  01/02/1971

The Sociology of Knowledge

The sociology of knowledge: Art and technology 22

"The sociology of knowledge is sure to be an eventful area of debate over the next few years"


(This article was first published in Studio International, Vol 181, No 930, February 1971, pages 47-48.)

Last March I related the work of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science to the question of the artist's social responsibility. Since then the BSSRS has been active and its reputation is growing. One phrase in my article calls for qualification: arguing that 'real intelligence' was lacking in the society's meetings, I contrasted what I meant by 'real intelligence' with the kind of classifying and quantifying mental discipline which many sociologists bring to bear on social problems. I would now add that there are some social scientists who are making very intelligent and radical contributions to what is sometimes called the sociology of knowledge.

One relevance of such research to art may be summed up by a warning recently uttered by the biologist Brian Goodwin, who was discussing how the gap between the arts and the sciences may be bridged:

'In this effort, there is a constant danger that the gap will be bridged by the reduction of art to the style of "objective" science, a sort of "objective" art which is dedicated to the elimination of all human bias or subjectivity in its composition. The detailed exploration of certain visual effects or the generation of purely random tonal sequences by computers can expand our range of sensitivity; but they can also become deliberate evasions of the central issue: an understanding and representation of our total being, of our experience and knowledge of ourselves and the world. This is the only possible valid goal of art; and it is also the only possible valid goal of science.'1 [my italics].

Dr Goodwin does not commit himself to deciding whether or not science is objective. This question is the subject of much debate at present. T. S. Kuhn sometimes appears to argue that scientific objectivity is illusory: that, for instance, when a major scientific revolution occurs a new world is, literally, created. For 'we are all deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. But need there be any such goal? Can we not account for both science's existence and its success in terms of evolution from the community's state of knowledge at any given time?'2

Kuhn's arguments have generated much academic heat, but the debate does not seem yet to have been aired in the public arena. For instance we find Lord Snow reasserting recently, without any sense of controversy, that 'Science is cumulative, and embodies its past'3 (the conventional theory, which Kuhn criticizes at length) in support of his treasured distinction between 'two kinds of understanding . . . two ways of dealing with experience . . . two kinds of knowledge'—the humanist and the scientific.

Comparable doubts about the completeness of scientific 'truth' may be found in very different intellectual traditions: for instance, the phenomenological school of philosophy, especially Merleau-Ponty, who wrote:

'Intellectualism and empiricism do not give us an account of human experience of the world; they tell what God might think of it.'4

'[Objective thought] has for its constant function the reducing of all phenomena which attest the union of the subject and the world, and the substituting for them of the clear idea of the object as "in itself" and the subject as pure consciousness.'5

'The existence of other people makes a difficulty and a scandal for objective thought.'6 Or we may turn to the more visceral insights of poets like Blake, Lawrence and Yeats.

Some scientists cling to their belief in objective truth like a priesthood only dimly aware that its dogmas are losing credibility. Not surprisingly, we see around us extreme and indiscriminate reactions by many non-scientists against reason and method. At the same time, there is an intense interest in the source and definition of 'creativity'. The Snovian 'two cultures' notion, once plausible enough as a crude description of a cultural situation, is now (unless I am mistaken) yielding to a unitary view of creativity, culture and communication—of which view Goodwin's statement quoted above is representative. If there is one term generally applicable to the results of artistic creation, linguistic description, critical interpretation and scientific hypothesis, this is probably a term borrowed from mathematics: 'model'—i.e., a structure of dynamic relations which represents or simulates what we take to be 'real' processes from our experience.7

The sociology of knowledge is sure to be an eventful area of debate over the next few years. The disciplines drawn on will be diverse. Among the most interesting participants so far, Mary Douglas is a professor of social anthropology and Basil Bernstein of educational sociology; another, Jonathan Miller, eludes vocational classification.8 However, the most challenging approach I have yet come across in the context of 'science and society' was a paper by Robert M. Young delivered at the BSSRS's London conference last November on 'Social Implications of Modern Biology'.9

Rather than try to summarize Young's rich and cogent paper, 'Evolutionary Biology and Ideology: Then and Now', I have distilled from it a diagram showing how the different branches of science fit into a continuum, between the 'objectivity' of mathematics at one extreme (though Dr Young argues that 'all facts are for or against some theory') and at the other extreme the permeation by ideology of all thinking about man and society, even when it takes on a guise of disinterested descriptive science. I hope the diagram does not oversimplify Young's case too grossly. Young quotes from Marx: 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence which determines their consciousness'; and concludes that, because 'ideology is an inescapable level of discourse' we must 'paradoxically... relax the authority of science and see it in an ideological perspective in order to get nearer to the will-o-the-wisp of objectivity.'

The implications of such arguments are wide. I shall confine myself to two conclusions of special relevance to the arts.

I. Nearly all recourse to science, nature, life, etc. in arguments about art and culture is heavily laden with values and ideology. Illustrations from my own column in Studio could of course be found. I shall give but one example, however: from a recent article by Patrick Heron, where he uses 'objective' quasi-scientific terms to support his use of small Chinese water-colour brushes to paint sixty square feet of a single colour: 'One merely knows that surfaces worked in this way can—in fact they must—register a different nuance of spatial evocation and movement in every single square millimetre'. Here is an apology for painterliness as a craft and as a life-style.10

2. In art and design education, as in education as a whole, there is much debate about integrated courses. In an important paper Professor Bernstein has written:
'In order to accomplish any form of integration (as distinct from different subjects focusing upon a common problem, which gives rise to what could be called a focused curriculum) there must be some relational idea, a supra-content concept, which focuses upon general principles at a high level of abstraction ... The particulars of each subject are likely to have reduced significance. This will focus attention upon the deep structure of each subject, rather than upon its surface structure.'11

To put the matter very simply a lot will depend on the general principles underlying an integrated curriculum. Such principles are bound to be well towards the 'soft', value-laden end of my illustration.

The sociology of knowledge: Art and technology 22. Studio International, Vol 181, No 930, February 1971, p. 48.

The BSSRS (70 Gt Russell St, London WC1) will hold the first of a series of monthly evening meetings at the ICA on Monday 15 February at 8 pm, when Professor Lakatos and Dr J. Ravetz will speak on 'Science and Anti-Science'.

1. ICA Eventsheet, August 1970, from lecture 'Rhythmic Organization of Cells and Embryos'.
2. T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962), chapter 13.
3. C. P. Snow, 'The case of Leavis and the serious case', TLS, 9 July 1971.
4. M. Merleau-Ponty, La Phénoménologie de la Perception (Paris 1945), translated, p. 296.
5. Ibid., p. 370.
6. Ibid., p. 401.
7. See, for a fuller argument, my article 'Language, Ecology and Art: New Structures for Education', The Structurist (University of Saskatchewan), no. 10, 1971.
8. One reason why he has been able to write such a uniquely devastating, and at the same time constructive, critique of Marshall McLuhan as his just published McLuhan (Fontana Modern Masters series, 6S).
9. To appear in Social Implications of Modern Biology, proceedings of BSSRS conference, ed. Watson Fuller (Routledge, in press).
10. Patrick Heron, Two Cultures' [British and American art], Studio International, Dec. 1970, p. 247. This article, though very readable, occasionally reminded me of Lord Stokes defending the workmanship of British motor exports, thus emitting a smokescreen when many are criticizing the entire industry in both countries on different and broader grounds.
11. Basil Bernstein, 'On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge', to appear in Knowledge and Control, ed. M. Young (Collier-MacMillan, in press).

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