We have a curious relationship to science, and this makes understanding science, specifically understanding its role in society and its relationship to culture, difficult. We (as a society) are asking more and more of science: now we would like science to solve some pretty big problems, many with social causes like antibiotic resistance and climate change. And formal science publications are increasing at an astonishing rate and technology transfers are abundant. Science proceeds apace and is visible in more and more aspects of our technoscientific lifestyles, cultures and societies.
Across our thought communities we privilege our theories of the world above our experiences of the world; we construct and share concepts, categories and typologies to order our world. We have been doing this for a very long time and, in Feyerabend’s words, this ‘conquest of abundance’ has resulted in a world that is compacted (Feyerabend 1975).
This project is an experiment in thinking to escape from a pattern of thinking and language that we have, in Western Europe at least, inhabited for at least two and a half millennia since the time of the Presocratics. And where could we go to? A clue is provided in the chronology: if the structure of our thought changed at the time of the Presocratics – and many philosophers of science, notably those diametrically opposed thinkers Paul Feyerabend and Karl Popper, agree on this – then perhaps we could try and take a step back in time to allow us to see a future pathway?
There is only one significant pre-Presocratic text that exists: the works of Homer. Homer’s Iliad, in particular, provides an amazing exemplar of thinking and writing differently. The differences are legion, but I will highlight three things. Firstly, Homer’s style is paratactic not syntactic: there is no ‘hierarchy’ in a Homeric sentence, unlike our current language – a flat horizon is produced. Secondly, Homer uses hardly any metaphors, but our language is awash with them. Thirdly, Homer’s method, whilst clearly epic, is to take a very large thing (a 10 year war) and cut it down to something much smaller to focus on important detail. The result is the remarkable poem that is both alien to us and incredibly significant to us.
So, what would Homer say if, rather than writing about the battlefield outside the walls of Troy he were to look at the contemporary science laboratory? I think it is worth the effort to try and break free from our entrenched and repetitive mode of analysis, and using Homer allows us to bring together, to unify, our different understandings.
What I am proposing is a thought experiment that can free up and challenge our stagnant ways of thinking. My proposal is to try and connect the writings of Homer, specifically the Iliad, with the activities of contemporary formal science; trying to find connections across about 2,700 years that will both join different modes of thought but also disrupt and irritate our contemporary understanding of formal science.
Erickson, M. (2015) Science, culture and society: understanding science in the twenty-first century. 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity.
Feyerabend, P. (1978) Against Method, London: Verso.
Feyerabend, P. (2016) Philosophy of nature, Cambridge: Polity.
Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hawking, S.W. and Mlodinow, L. (2011) The grand design, London: Bantam Press.
Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. (1979) Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts., London: Sage.Wittgenstein, L. ( 1958) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Further materials are available from: blogs.brighton.ac.uk/homer