Some Thoughts on Jasanoff, “Science and Reason in the Public Sphere”: Symmetry and Realism

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Sheila Jasanoff give a talk as part of York University’s STS Program’s Seminar Series, in which she spoke on the subject of “Science and Reason in the Public Sphere.” For good reason is she one of the more prominent scholars in STS. I have seen Jasanoff speak once before and have read a variety of her works, and overall, she strikes me as a careful, measured, and eminently reasonable scholar.

However, I find myself at odds with various aspects of her work, especially the broader ways she conceptualizes science, its public role, and “our” relationship to it as STS scholars, and a lot of these issues were prominent in her talk. What follows is not meant to be a rigorous critique, just a general reflection, or perhaps, that convenient way of deflecting criticism and meandering around ideas, a “provocation,” about some of the broader problems that I think surround these topics. Indeed, none of these issues are uniquely specific to Jasanoff, they are broad issues that permeate STS. Mostly, they are just things that I found myself thinking about while listening to her speak, which is testament to the fact that she gave an excellent talk.
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Some Pretentious Wittgenstein Name-Dropping

“Hastings-on-Hudson is a village, in a Wittgensteinian sort of way,” Mr. Wallach said.  (Quoted in “Creating Hipsturbia“)

Intellectual name-dropping is a favourite pastime of pretentious people and a common facet of academic life. In his book, French Theory, François Cusset has a good section about this phenomena which he calls “The Politics of Quotation” (which is, to be frank, a pretty pretentious thing to call pretentious name-dropping – how was that Cusset name drop, by the way?). He notes that like all name-dropping, to cite certain works is to elevate one’s own work by association. In academic works or discourse it is most effective if the audience is only tangentially familiar with the works of the thinker being name-dropped, but nonetheless impressed by their repute because they (by which I mean the audience – the pronouns are getting a little messy in this sentence) heard other people say smart-sounding things about them (by which I mean the thinker). This way the name-dropper doesn’t have to face any uncomfortable call-outs on the potential vacuousness of their reference.
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Easter Eggs in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has been an invaluable resource in my studies, and to my general philosophical thought, since my undergraduate days. While decidedly British and “analytic” (whatever that means) in tone and focus (e.g. Bertrand Russell’s entry is fairly long, while Foucault’s is fairly short), it is by far the most comprehensive and useful philosophical reference work I have come across. It astounds me that every entry was written by a single author. I can’t imagine how to begin writing such a work. With the letter “a”, I guess. Anyway, what makes this reference work particularly interesting is that Blackburn does not shy away from letting his own voice and implicit arguments emerge throughout the text, instead of trying to feign impartiality and authoritativeness. Over time, Blackburn’s philosophical leanings and sympathies reveal themselves as one gradually reads through the entries (making Blackburn’s entry on hermeneutic circles nicely reflexive). Overall the picture one gleans is of a philosopher with an expansive generalist grasp, and all around sensible interpretation of a vast range of philosophical issues. But one peculiarity that also reveals itself through repeated use of the book are the Easter eggs – small offhand jokes and cattily dismissive entries – that Blackburn injects throughout the book. Here are some examples:  Continue reading