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Storytelling and post-modernism

Jean-François Lyotard

What is the intellectual foundation of science? What is the basis of the claim of scientists to have access to a higher form of knowledge? Often scientists simply assert the claim, without bothering to probe the philosophically murky foundation on which all knowledge ultimately rests. According to scientists, research is conducted in an objective spirit of scientific inquiry, that discoveries add to our ever-growing knowledge about the universe, and that it is self-evident that science will in due course improve the lot of humanity. Television reinforces such views with the use of laboratory technicians as a source of evidence about the germ-killing properties of a particular brand of bleach, or the clinically-proven ability of a mouth wash to fight bad breath.

In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard was asked by Quebec's Conseil des Universités to review the state of scientific knowledge and information in the late 20th century. He looked at how knowledge comes into being, who controls it, who has access to it, and how it becomes accepted as valid. He concluded that science's claim to possess a higher kind of knowledge was seriously flawed.

For Lyotard, scientists have no more direct access to the truth than philosophers or historians, or anybody else for that matter. For him, scientists are storytellers. Thus it is not possible to describe the result of an experiment except by telling a story. The narratives that scientists produce, such as research papers, hypotheses, histories, are always governed by the protocols of the field in which they work. Each discipline is like a game. It has a special terminology which only makes sense within its own boundaries. In practice, a theorist or researcher is not faced with infinite possibilities to explore, and can only play within the limits of a system of permissible moves. The scope of permissible moves is determined by the power structure of the particular branch of science in which the scientist is working, which is just as political and unscientific as any other human activity.

Thus, according to Lyotard, narrative is not a sub-branch of science. The truth is exactly the opposite: science actually comprises particular branch of narrative. In effect, science is a sub-set of storytelling. Science is made up of language games which generate particular forms of narrative. Lyotard's view goes against the common sense view of science as a superior form of knowledge. It also contradicts modern science's view of itself.

For science to maintain its privileged status, it has usually tried to deny its own involvement in storytelling, denigrating storytelling as the epitome of the unscientific, the very thing that science must fight against, and expel from civilized discourse and education systems.

Science thus pretends to be beyond narrative. How does science do this? Ironically, it appeals to a story, or what Lyotard calls grand meta-narratives. A meta-narrative is an over-arching story, which can supposedly account for, explain, or comment on, the validity of all other stories. It is implicitly a universal or absolute set of truths, which transcends social, institutional or human limitations. Thus, a small local narrative, such as the result of a scientific experiment, or an individual action, is usually granted significance only by its ability to reflect or support some broader narrative which people generally support, like the pursuit of truth, justice, or economic growth.

Lyotard argues that some time around the 18th century, science developed the view of itself as the source of enlightenment. Prior to this, appeals to religious narratives had often been used to guarantee truth. Now, building on its practical successes and on the theoretical work of Francis Bacon and others, science took over and put forward the claim that it alone was the source of truth. It suggested that being scientific or rational was the sign of credibility. Possessing scientific knowledge implied that you could get behind mystification and superstition, reveal the facts about world and lead all of humanity to a brighter day. The underlying assumptions were:

  • science is progressive, moving towards a state of complete knowledge;
  • science is unified, with many different areas, but all sharing the same goal;
  • science is universal, working for the good of all of us, and
  • science aims at total truth that will benefit all of human life.
  • Thereafter, science justified itself through the neat trick of claiming that science needed no further justification. Thus, it took advantage of the idea that its activities were pursued in the name of the timeless meta-narratives of progress, emancipation and knowledge. By appealing in this way to ideas whose meanings were quietly assumed to be self-evident and universally agreed, science was able to masquerade as a single project, objectively carried out for the good of the entire human race.

    More recently, particularly in the last few decades, scientists have had growing difficulty in getting away with these claims, and cracks in the facade of science's grand meta-narrative have been appearing:

  • science's own contribution to ecological problems and the development of nuclear and chemical weapons has made obvious that science is not always directly beneficial to the human race;
  • groups who perceived themselves as disadvantaged by the existing political and institutional arrangements (women, developing countries, the poor) have argued that the science's claims to benefit the entire human race have often turned out, on closer inspection, to be linked in practice to promoting the interests of privileged minorities.
  • the outcome of scence - technology - was supposed to save time and reduce stress, but few people today feel as though they are enjoying the fruits of that promise. Technology often seems to make life more complicated, more hectic, more stressful, with time feeling every day more scarce, and everyone's nerves more frazzled.
  • the unscientific politics of science has come under the scrutiny of writers like Thomas Kuhn, in his depicting of the social processes of science and the phenomenon of paradigm shifts;
  • complexity theory and quantum mechanics have highlighted the fundamental uncertainty in understanding the world;
  • private sector funding of science has given rise to suspicions that theories and discoveries are based on contributions to performance and efficiency and contributions to the bottom line as much as on truth or purpose.
  • public sector institutions are sometimes perceived as pursuing their own agendas, driven by the internal interests of the institutions themselves, independently of the genuine public purpose.
  • even scientists have largely abandoned the goal of penetrating truth or finding the answer, in favor of the pursuit and promotion of the perspective of their own particular sub-topic.
  • scientists themselves are sometimes perceived as interested in putting out work which will generate more research funding and add to their own power and prestige within the academic "market-place".
  • science has splintered off into a mass of specialized sub-topics, each with its own language, pre-occupations, priorities, agendas, and politics, and each seemingly disinterested in the work going on in other sub-topics. Some funding sources such as foundations encourage inter-disciplinary research, but the overall dynamic is that of knowledge silos.
  • the overall result of this mass of fragmented, and only partially-compatible, activity on separate sub-topics is not necessarily enlightenment and the betterment of the human race, but often noise and a degraded quality of life for all.
  • an underlying issue is that many of the elements excluded by definition from the purview of science, because not directly observable, turn out to be some of the things that make life most worth living. It is painful to think of the coming millennium being based on such a stunted vision of human life.
  • References:

    Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007)

    Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 7, 12.

    Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1960)

    Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 1979.

    Glen Ward, Postmodernism, London, Hodder & Stoughton, (1997)

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