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499 Words: Tuzet’s Cosmos

The philosophy of science directs its attention mostly to successful science—to Darwin, not to Lamarck or Driesch—and even when it turns to theories that have proved false, it tends to study only the “honorable” failures.
Tuzet: book cover
It avoids the Helmonts and Fouriers, the Fechners and Josephsons—those who have sinned (or so it thinks) against reason, and given too free a rein to imagination. After all, if your aim is to understand how reason works, how knowledge is most efficiently attained, you will want the best specimens; the ill-formed, the dubious, the fake, you leave aside.
The past of science, especially before 1900, presents a much more heterogeneous picture than one would gather from the carefully tended cabinets of the philosophers. Where established truths are sparse, the imagination roams freely; and, as Descartes and Kant have warned us, to speculate beyond experience (let alone “all possible experience”) puts us at risk not merely of believing falsehoods, but of allowing the spirit of pure inquiry to consort with phantasms of desire.
Cosmology—the study of the translunar universe, and (latterly) of the earth itself as one world among many in that universe—has given ample scope to both fantasy and desire. Hélène Tuzet’s study, first published in 1965 …
… and still in print, has as its epigraph a line from Victor Hugo, who did his share of travelling among the stars:
Les Univers, d’où sort l’immense essaim des rêves.
Following Hélène Metzger, Gaston Bachelard, Marjorie Nicolson, and her advisor Pierre-Maxime Schuhl, Tuzet studies the imagination in science, in its own right and not merely as an accessory, as part of the dispensable décor of an otherwise wholly rational project. Like Bachelard in his studies of the four elements, she treats on an equal footing with respect to their quality as imaginings the works of poets and astronomers, of respectable figures like Kepler and doubtful dreamers like Camille Flammarion.
And like Bachelard, she does so without prejudice to scientific truth: “We do not mean to say that all views of the world are purely subjective, that all are to an equal degree illusions, mirages”. The nebular hypothesis of Kant and Laplace, which is contemporary with the astral physiology of Charles Bonnet, Restif de la Bretonne and others, for whom the stars are living things, are alike imagined; but only the first approaches what we regard as the truth.
It is one of the virtues of the French tradition in history and philosophy of science—of épistémologie—that it does not rush to judgment. It has no trouble distinguishing truth from falsehood, or reason from fantasy, but it observes the latter benignly, regards it as evidence for a “psychology of the imagination”, which, when included in the study of scientific change, will illuminate the ways both of error and of truth. Canguilhem said of Foucault that he had the least sense of the pathological of any historian. He intended that as praise, and I’m inclined to agree.

LinkOctober 2, 2011 in NewAPPS