Paths of Curiosity – Orders of Knowledge Are Social Orders
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, investigated the connection between religion and society. Religious phenomena presuppose a division of the world between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the holy and the profane. What is holy is protected by prohibitions and isolated from the profane. Profane things are those that are affected by these prohibitions and that must be kept at a distance from holy things. Systems of religious belief are representations expressing the nature of the holy and relationships to the profane.
With its historical rise, modern natural science took on some of the social functions that were formerly the provenance of religion. The distinction that science makes between the person who knows and the person who is ignorant is analogous to religion’s distinction between the holy and the profane (the French word for laymen is les profanes). The sacred centers of science are to be found in the precinct of science, which is considered untouched and beyond the influence of any human action or intervention. This is the hard epistemic core of natural science that is grounded in the laws of nature and provides the basis for the conviction that this core knowledge is about nature’s laws. This knowledge is the source of the collective force of the natural sciences and contains the social energy to unite its members. It is the basis for epistemic and social authority with which the scientific community speaks in the name of a higher order of knowledge that is beyond human control.
From this firmly anchored conviction grows natural sci-ence’s characteristic and sometimes vehement resistance to all attempts to uncover the social roots of its order of knowledge. Their existence, of course, cannot be denied because it is incontrovertible that science consists of a great number of societal and cultural practices. It is equally uncontested that science is a social institution that stands in a complex mutual dependency with its respective society. The production of scientific knowledge is thus always part of a comprehensive process of contex-tualization. But what is contestable is how great a role the social order plays in the order of scientific knowledge and the way that the latter depends on society in the production of new knowledge. Like other creative activities, science needs free space for curiosity and curiosity’s pleasure in experimenting. Science claims to have found a privileged access to the order of knowledge that is removed from the grasp of every social order. So to protect its access to this higher order of knowledge, it must minimize its part in the social order. It must insist on the strict separation between a holy order and a profane order, thus pre-venting an unwanted and unacceptable contamination by the social order.
Nonetheless, despite all productive misunderstandings and sometimes destructive controversies and despite all under-standing for science’s defenses against permitting the normative, societal order to have more say in science’s activities, science and the social order are interconnected. Every society is also an order of knowledge and is based on the existing knowledge that its members have from and about each other and about their common natural and social world. This interconnection does not mean that the one order can be reduced to or is the cause of the other. In particular, the production of scientific knowledge cannot be reduced to what is “socially constructed,” even if investigations of the subtle influences of societal frame-work conditions, questions, and the framing of the questions and of research priorities have shown that the processes of producing knowledge are not independent of their societal context.
There is in fact something that is present “out there” in a reality we perceive as objective, that does not answer to our desires, and that is only partially accessible to our interventions. But that we know this and how we know it would be impossible without the social order. Human curiosity is itself the product of nature and society—a mixture of biological, neurological, and cognitive preconditions, processes, and cultural practices that have arisen in the course of biological and cultural evolution. The instability of curiosity made it possible to bring forth the new and to institutionalize this dynamic culturally, economically, and politically. The speed of today’s developments calls for a culture of dealing with the new and its innovations. It demands that we once again think of the order of knowledge and the social order together in their mutual dependency and interlocking.
One of the difficulties of describing the transitions—from the level on which untamed curiosity begins acting, through the emergence of the new (which begins stabilizing in the laboratory), to the level of the macrosystems (whether large-scale technological systems, the global economic system, or “society”) where the new unfolds its effect as innovation—is that what is initially invisible must be made visible. The process of description turns the unexpected and unforeseeable into something that now seems possible to foresee and plan. In the process of description, which reconstructs its genesis, what cannot be (because no one has ever conceived or imagined it) becomes something self-evident that everyone always already knew.
Description serves to make explicit what is initially implicit. Description names the new, gives it a language (without which it cannot become socially mobile), and provides it with understandable attributes. In short, description gives the new a social form. But the phenomena that are described are never merely a product of the imagination—even if imagination is always in play in them. They are there, already scientifically graspable though they have just arisen and become. Their emergence is closely interwoven with the process of describing and with their social perception. In this sense, the knowledge order and the social order meet. In the process of the emergence of the new and in the process of describing this emergence, the two orders are interlocked.
What plays out within an experimental system in the laboratory first becomes interesting when there are results. Describing the routine, the frustrations, and the failures interests us only as part of a story that leads to a good or bad ending. In the case of the laboratory, the results are objects of knowledge that stabilize enough to be reproducible and that other research-ers in other laboratories can observe, produce, describe, measure, and make serviceable for further experiments. Making what happens in the Klondike space visible becomes interesting and worthwhile only if one of the search strategies used shows success and if the gold seeker find something between the “plateaus,” “canyons,” and “oases,” puts her insight down on paper, or presents it in another way that makes it understand-able to others. Only then can evidence be brought that the idea, the concept, the design, or the prototype was suitable to solve one of the problems posed. The process of searching for gold, the inspiring idea, or the brilliant solution is interesting only because it has led to a result that others can take part in. Making the result visible is indispensable so that the new can be taken up, used, appropriated, and changed by others. It is the precondition for enabling the social order to be creatively active.
The process of describing and naming must mediate the temporal discrepancy between what is not yet, what is becoming, what is in the process of becoming, and what is present and perceived as new. It is itself process and must reproduce a process that played out independently of it. It must do this with means and in a register appropriate to itself, just as the process of the emergence of the new has its own proper register. What is becoming is still invisible or skillfully hides behind the old. It quietly does its work, and even if it is sometimes announced loudly and shrilly, it never announces itself loudly and shrilly. The emergence of the new is inseparably tied to people because new ideas and insights arise in and through individuals. But the meshwork of their relationships to others, the conversations connecting them to others, and the coincidences that take them to certain places at certain times are equally still invisible and inaccessible to description. Their reconstruction is difficult and can never be complete, even retrospectively. It is no coincidence that we do not encounter any people in the experimental systems of the laboratory. The laboratory as a local site and social organization does not interest us until the result makes its public appearance. Then the laboratory receives its place in a scientific publication, where the names of the authors and the site where they carry out their scientific work are listed. The social order is needed to have the order of knowledge appear.
Similarly, the social order becomes visible only gradually in the process by which the new emerges from the order of knowledge. It takes on significance only to the degree that it provides results that are socially and culturally esteemed, taken up, and further used. Fully developed, consolidated, and exert-ing their powers, they appear in the macrosystems. In them, the selection made can be perused. The respectively dominant selection criteria have done their work. The economic and political driving forces that are at work show their effect. Preferences are articulated, set directions, provide incentives, and sanction what is not desired. Constellations and conflicts of interests must be regulated, and transparency and a rendering of accounts are increasingly demanded. The new knowledge and the new technologies then appear as shaped by society and adjusted to an economic logic or other purposes and goals. Curiosity at first acted within a more or less responsibility-free space, but every macrosystem seeks to gain and preserve control over its innovations. The unforeseeable that it tried to lure and stimulate is now mercilessly checked for side and long-term effects. The social order tries to deal with its inherent vulnerability by carrying out risk analyses or by relying on the precautionary principle. The shaping power of what has now become visible is overestimated, just as the previously invisible was underestimated. The description of the new tends to be socially overdetermined.
The connection between the order of knowledge and the social order may become clearer if we conclude by changing yardsticks, spatially as well as temporally. The laboratory, in which epistemic and technological things are interlocked, tells a story of traces and things. It should be supplemented with a story of cultures and things. Of course, the historical and empirical material thereby remains fragmentary, and the categories that are used remain coarse and inadequate. So an urgent warning against premature and inadmissible conclusions is in order.