the ways in which

Have you ever heard the phrase “interested in the ways in which”? If you have, it was probably uttered by a scholar in the humanities or social sciences, describing their research interests. There’s a good chance that the explanation that followed was rich in jargon, heavy on social theory, and an mostly opaque to anyone not in the same field as the speaker. It was probably also an American or a Brit. (If this doesn’t ring any bells for you, take a look at the search results for “interested in the the ways in which“.) As a fellow graduate student pointed out to me, “the ways in which” has a very strong connotation, marking a certain style of thinking and writing about history and society. Most people that come through giving talks to my program, whether for job talks, colloquia, or some other lectures, can pretty easily be divided into “ways in which” types and people who know how to hold an audience’s attention.

Reflecting on the problems of jargon that come with writing history that is only meant for other historians, I’m working on a paper: “The Pedagogical Semiotics of Interlinguistic Anglophone Discourse, 2008-1999”. On a closely related note, the grad students are think of doing either drinking games or jargon bingo to spice up future talks. “Blah blah blah, blah blah actor’s category, blah blah.” “Bingo!”

On another related note, every would-be historian needs to watch the latest The Simpsons, “That 90s Show”, if you haven’t already. See a few clips here. Choice quotes:

  • Suede-elbow-patched associate professor: “Look at that lighthouse! It’s the ultimate expression of phallocentric technocracy violating Mother Sky.” Marge: “I thought they were just tall so boats could see them.” Professor: “No, Marge, everything penis-shaped is bad.”
  • Marge: “Did you know that history is written by the winners?” Homer: “Really? I thought history was written by losers!”

Bonus link: PhD Comics on thesis titles

The pope, Feyerabend and Galileo

Anytime you see a reference to Paul Feyerabend in the news, you can be almost certain that he’s being misinterpreted or taken out of context.

As newspapers have been reporting, the pope canceled a planned inaugural speech for the beginning of term at La Sapienza University, in response to the vehement objections of a group of scientists there. As the news reports would have it, the issue was that the pope (then Cardinal Ratzinger) had defended the heresy trial and conviction of Galileo, quoting philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend that the judgment against Galileo and his heliocentric theory was ‘rational and just’.

In this case (according to seemingly knowledgeable philosophers on the HOPOS mailing list and in the comments of this Leiter Reports post), Ratzinger invoked Feyerabend as one example of anti-rationalist thought, not necessarily as his own view. And the quote, while perhaps literally accurate, is a translation from the Ratzinger’s Italian speech, probably based on the German version of Feyerabend (either Against Method or Farewell to Reason). Feyerabend argued that the church’s position was rational in that the weight of scientific evidence really did favor heliocentrism at the time, and (to quote Barry Stocker’s comment from the Leiter post) ” had the right social intention, viz, to protect people from the machinations of specialists. It wanted to protect people from being corrupted by a narrow ideology that might work in restricted domains but was incapable of sustaining a harmonious life.”

That is, neither Feyerabend nor Ratzinger were suggesting that the judgment was just in the sense of Galileo having been wrong about heliocentrism (or his interpretation of scripture to square with heliocentrism).

But to be fair to the scientists protesting the pope’s speech, their main issue is not Galileo but the Vatican’s positions about the relationship between science and the church. As one professor explained on the CBC’s As It Happens (part 1, about 18 minutes in), it’s the tension between a religious authority and a secular university that’s the real issue; the pope has no place in the secular scholarly activities of the university, he argues.

But Galileo vs. the Church is always a good hook for a story. Don’t expect the misuse of the Galileo Affair, or of Feyerabend, to go away any time soon.