Saturday, March 2, 2013

Conceptual Evolution

Hans Blumenberg, in "On a Lineage of the Idea of Progress" traces the notion of progress in astronomy back to Hipparchus and his star catalog:
… said to have listed 1,022 stars according to position and brightness, [that] was laid down as an instrument for future comparisons. [p.  9]
This revolutionary notion introduced a "coordinative relation between the quantum of time and the quality of achievement" [p. 6], the idea of postponing or deferring present assertions of knowledge until the necessary data and accuracy could be accumulated and realized in the future.

Copernicus, according to Blumenberg, built on Hipparchus' data but looked at where he fit into this notion of progress differently.

For all the time it takes, the theory of the universe struck him as a finite task ending with him. [p. 18]
While recognizing himself as a beneficiary of the time that had passed since Ptolemy, he gives no sign of sharing the ancient astronomers' sense of a vast future time as a continuing astronomical need. [p. 19]
If this seems a bit hubristic, it is at this point where astronomy, and the sciences more generally, took off.  Bruno, following Copernicus, seems to have looked at progress the same way.
Copernicus must not be judged by things whose accomplishment was beyond him; after all, he had been no more than the dawn that precedes the sunrise of true philosophy – by which Bruno meant none other than his own. [p. 24]
The evolution of science seems to have really gotten underway as a Hegelian progression where each new conceptualization, after correcting flaws in previous ones, takes itself as the "absolute," final, consistent and complete encompassing of the matter.

With Galileo, however, this hubris came to be publicly tempered.  As Blumenberg puts it:

We must not state that the Copernican doctrine is true, but for this very reason we may continue our intensive research into the objects it refers to. Progress is merely the by-product of this enforced uncertainty, and of the corresponding effort in which we refuse to admit to ourselves that it is as futile as it is declared to be. [p. 26]
This recalls Peirce's insistence on fallibility, and seems common enough today, but what I find interesting is that, despite the professed uncertainty, "we refuse to admit to ourselves that it is as futile as it is declared to be."  If concepts are to evolve, perhaps it is essential that each, in its heart of hearts, see itself as absolute.

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