Ludwik Fleck on “thought collectives”

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

A thought collective is defined by Fleck as a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction (1935a, II.4). Members of that collective not only adopt certain ways of perceiving and thinking, but they also continually transform it—and this transformation does occur not so much “in their heads” as in their interpersonal space. It is easy to observe this phenomenon in everyday life. When a group of people speak about something important, they start to speak about things which would not cross their minds if they were alone and which they would not tell if they were in another group of people. There arises a thought style characteristic for that group. There also arises a certain collective mood which straightens up the ties among the group members and inclines them to act in a certain way.

Some collectives last shortly—even only as long as an individual conversation lasts. When social forces connecting people operate for a long time, there arise thought collectives lasting for many generations. They take forms of religious movements, folk traditions, art or science. Long-lasting collectives create social institutions which enable and regulate the method by which next generations are added to a given collective: educational systems and social rituals accompanying the admission of new members.

All members of small ethnic groups belong to the same thought collective: everybody perceives and thinks in the same way, just like everybody performs the same or very similar actions. Within more developed societies there are many various collectives: religious, artistic, scientific, astrological, and those related to fashion, politics, economy, medicine, quack, sport, etc. When a thought style, developed and employed by a collective, becomes sufficiently sophisticated, the collective breaks into a small esoteric circle—a group of specialists which “are in the know”—and a wide exoteric circle for all those members, who are under the influence of the style, but do not play an active role in its formation. Members of the first group are those “initiated”—priests and theologians in the case of religion; artists and art critics in the case of art; scientists in the case of science etc. The corresponding exoteric circles for those groups are: lay believers; art-lovers; school teachers of physics, chemistry, and biology, and also engineers and all people interested in science.

Exoteric circles have an access to a proper thought style only through esoteric circles—for example through listening to sermons given by priests, or reading popular literature written by scientists. Members of exoteric circles trust the initiated. But specialists and members of esoteric circles are not independent of exoteric circles: this is the “public opinion” which justifies the efforts of specialists and gives them a stimulus to continue their work.

In contemporary societies almost everybody belongs to many thought collectives; e.g. a scientist may be also a member of a certain church, political party, mountain climbing club. An individual usually belongs to distant thought collectives, so that conflicts between thought styles coexisting in him/her do not arise. Most of people belong only to exoteric circles; only few become members of any esoteric circle, sporadically belonging to more than one. Everybody also belongs to a wide “everyday life” collective (which also differs from culture to culture).

Within the esoteric circle Fleck distinguishes the following subgroups: (1) vanguard, “the group of scientists working practically on a given problem”, (2) the main body, “the official community”, and (3) the group of stragglers (1935a, IV,4). In other places he omits stragglers and introduces a distinction between professionals (specialists sensu stricto) and more general specialists (1936, VI).

I care about this because I have a strong desire to point out that exoteric “believers” in scientism are more similar than dissimilar to the exoteric believers of a religious viewpoint. Everybody is taking someone’s word for it and talking in ways that are clichéd. But even among professionals, competency is so limited by human finitude, that I am not sure that life’s really difficult questions are fully within our reach. Scientism has a methodological problem with value, but its exoteric adherents are happy to trust their “studies” to deliver technique and call it value.


Fascinating claim on the importance of “social pressure” for research: “[the constitution of a research collective] happens when an appropriate mood arises… [A example given by Fleck was] a common demand for effective means for curing syphilis which was considered as an embarrassing and reuptation-damaging disease. (Fleck brought forward a controversial claim that the absence of any analogous success in the struggle with tuberculosis was related to a common approach to tuberculosis as ‘romantic’, which in turn resulted with insufficient social pressure to overcome it.)” SEP

Descartes’ Discourse on Method

Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Clearly and Distinctly Summarized


Once upon a time in a century not too distant from our own, there lived a man named René Descartes who put forward his “paths” to knowing as if in a “fable” encouraging men to follow his trail. This Descartes lived in a world where all men were endowed with “good sense” (by virtue of their form or nature being consistent). Therefore, all that was necessary to bring about agreement was a sufficiently well established path, a method. So this Descartes set out to do a service to his fellow man by laying a path that could not cause stumbling, an indubitable one. (And all men lived…dare I say happily ever after?) This path is the topic of his Discourse on Method.

From the beginning of his Discourse, Descartes is clearly troubled with difference in belief. Moreover, it seems to be a source of great discomfort for him not to know whom or what to believe. But this troubles us all. For Descartes the situation is worse because he also believed that reason is the form of man that all men held in common.[1] So for Descartes the difficult question is not if truth exists (as we ask), but how is one to account for error? He is left in the doubly difficult position of explaining difference of opinion and holding a strong account of universal Reason.

Reason is for Descartes the (God given) power for judging what is by way of clear and distinct ideas. The notion of “clear and distinct” is similar to Plato’s notion that reason contains forms that it matches with images produced by the imagination to accurate perception. Descartes seems to think that reason is primary in this way, that perception or imagination (with which it cooperates) only serve reason with impressions of the outside world that reason takes full responsibility for.[2] So it is, Descartes presents as a paradigmatic rule that any idea which reason accepts must be “so clearly and so distinctly” to be beyond doubt. You might call this a snap-to-grid account of reason. When an idea is clear, you have clearly hit a gridline of reality. The source of error is undisciplined ventures of belief by people who accept as true what was not “clear and distinct.” These accepted false notions must be cleared away to pave the road for clear and distinct knowing. So Descartes lives as a “spectator” for nine years traveling the world, essentially living as a modern Socrates. The effect of his travels is to convince him that he does not know a great many things; it effects a clearing away of his knowledge by mere custom.

Next, secluding himself, Descartes seeks to lay sufficiently firm foundations (indubitable) for his entire project of knowing. He applies himself to doubting everything, opinions of morality, sense perception, even mathematics. He finds that while doubting he is thinking and he cannot doubt that he is thinking: cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore, I am.” This is his first principle of knowing, and from here he understand the essence of his nature, a thinking person independent of matter. From here he judges that what he could conceive very clearly and distinctly is true. And since he can conceive of a being more perfect that himself, it must both exist and must not be sourced in himself. This idea is of God and must be sourced in God.[3]

Finally, once Descartes has established the existence of God on the basis of his idea of him—God being more perfect than Descartes—he has good reason to be certain about clear and distinct ideas being true, and can build on this.[4] From here he proceeds to astronomy—though he does not publish this work—and then to the nature of fire. The fact that fire can sometimes produce heat and no light and vice versa, leads him into an inquiry of fire in the human heart. He describes this in great detail in part five. He concludes his work by setting out some principles for continuing his work after his death.


Evaluating Descartes one is tempted simply to throw one’s hands in the air and say “how naïve!” But it is important to understand Descartes in his social setting. It is important to see that while Descartes is typically talked about as the first modern, he was not himself modern. He was remarkably ancient in his epistemological convictions. He treatment of reason and perception for instance follows typically Platonic and Aristotelian judgments, but with the caveat of being more inclined to see error.[5] Further, Descartes thinks that man is vegetative and sensitive on account of God kindling “in the man’s heart one of those fires without light.”[6] It is really unfair to judge Descartes more harshly for his errors that come from his social context than we do others for their errors with the same source. In one sense, Descartes is not modern.

And yet, in another Descartes is the cardinal modern. Descartes seems to begin modernity in two related ways. First, Descartes is really concerned with difference in belief. There are historical reasons for this concern coming to the foreground at this particular moment, but the important point is that it continues to today. Negotiating difference of belief is the principle cause of the entire epistemic turn. Second, Descartes seems to be the first to flip the priority of epistemology and metaphysics.[7] In other words, Descartes at least makes methodological claims to start with epistemology rather than starting with faith seeking understanding. This is a massive shift in method that gets taken up with greater consistency by later philosophers to devastating effect on religious belief.

[1] In an Aristotelian sense, or “nature.

[2] For instance, he wonders in Meditations how we recognize wax as wax when its properties are altered through melting. He notes that bare perception would be confused, but that reason still recognizes it.

[3] This is obviously a very insufficient summary of the argument due to space limitations. The key moves are 1) ideas of things more perfect than Descartes cannot come from nowhere, and 2) ideas that exist clearly and distinctly must be true. It should be obvious that Descartes’ “foundation” relies on a massive set of assumptions about the nature of reason and reality and their relation.

[4] He says, “[W]e should never allow ourselves to be persuaded except by the evidence of our reason.” René Descartes, Discourse on Method, translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

[5] I have written a paper comparing Descartes and Aristotle’s accounts of error. They are remarkable for their similarity even though Aristotle famously says that sense perception cannot err in what is proper to it and Descartes doubts it all.

[6] Discourse, 26.

[7] Interestingly, there are two senses in which Descartes seems to be contradictory on this point. First, he claims not to have abandoned his religious beliefs. But later he talks of abandoning all beliefs. I take it that Descartes is simply deceitful about always holding to his religious beliefs; this is inconsistent with his stated methodology. He would have reason to be deceitful, something he explicitly admits in part six. But second, he is inconsistent even with his methodological claims since he does have some metaphysical assumptions that he cannot rid himself of. Later philosophers, like Hume, more consistently adopt his methodological claims without his metaphysical assumptions.

Richard Mouw: Who knows him better?

Preaching at TEDS, Dr. Richard Mouw gives an illuminating illustration warning about the dangers of pietism. He recounts a oft repeated illustration about knowing Abraham Lincoln. I’ve reproduced it as he gave it below.

Imagine a professor at Harvard University who knows everything there is to know from the public record about the life and career of Abraham Lincoln. This guy can tell you about how Lincoln coming out a life of poverty taught himself, how he got into Illinois politics and eventually into national, as President of the United States. He can tell you the details of the debates that Lincoln had with Douglass. He could tell you about what Lincoln was thinking about in the third week of his presidency. He could tell you in detail the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking about the institution of slavery. He can even tell you what went into Lincoln’s decision to purchase Alaska. He could tell you everything there is to know from the public record about the life and career of Abraham Lincoln.

Now imagine a little girl who lived next door to Mr. Lincoln. Unlike that scholar who teaches today at Harvard University—that scholar did not know Lincoln personally—she did know him personally. Mr. Lincoln would come out in the morning and there would be a horse drawn carriage waiting to take him off to his important duties. But he would tell the driver to hold it. He would see the little girl playing in the yard next door. And he would go over and would talk to her, whisper in her ear, tell her a story, sing a song, play a game, give her a hug… She knew nothing about the purchase of Alaska. She couldn’t tell you anything about the institution of slavery. She could not offer anything like a definition of the difference between the legislative and executive branches of government, but she knew Mr. Lincoln, as a living, breathing, warm human being. 

Who knows Lincoln better? The scholar who knows all the facts about him, but has never met him personally? Or the little girl who may not know any of the facts about him but she knows him as a living, breathing, warm human being?

But Mouw goes on to emphasize that this is a form of pietism that stresses intensive knowing (closer and closer, warmer and warmer) versus extensive knowing. He illustrates the danger of this approach by giving the illustration again slightly altered.

Imagine a journalist, a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who knows everything that there is to know about a leading mob figure in the city of Chicago. This guy can tell you how this guy started off selling marijana in some local neighborhood, then went into the distribution of pinball machines. From there he went on to accepting protection money from local business in a certain precinct in Chicago. And finally, he got to the point where he was the mobster of the whole mob organization in the Chicago area. This reporter knows everything that there is to know from the public record about this mob leader, but he never met him.

And now imagine a little girl who lives next door to the mobster. And every morning he comes out and there is a stretch limo waiting to take him off on his nefarious, wicked business of the day, but he tells the driver to wait and he goes over to talk to the little girl, plays a game, tells her a story, whispers in her ear, tells her a joke, gives her a hug. She doesn’t know anything about organized crime. She’s never even seen an episode of the Sopranos. She knows nothing about the extent of the reach of organized crime in the state of Illinois. But she knows that mobster as a living, breathing, warm human being.

And I ask you, who knows that mob leader better? The journalist who knows all the facts about him, but has never met him personally? Or the little girl who doesn’t know any of the facts about him, but knows him as a living, breathing, warm human being?

Interpersonal knowing is obviously a complicated affair. It’s a good illustration and even a reminder that we may not really know the people whom we think we know.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s Critique of the “Human Sciences”

“The exact sciences constitute a monologic form of knowledge: the intellect contemplates a thing and expounds upon it. There is only one subject here–cognizing (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the subject there is only a voiceless thing. Any object of knowledge (including man) can be perceived and cognized as a thing. But a subject as such cannot be perceived and studied as a thing, for as a subject it cannot, while remaining a subject, become voiceless, and consequently, cognition of it can only be dialogic.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 161.

Alan Jacobs explains:

“It is true that the constant emphasis of Bakhtin’s career lies upon dialogism as the form of consciousness: Each human mind is heteroglot, composed of multipole, overlapping, and often contradictory voices of others. Bakhtin notes that we speak of monologues and monological thinking, but in the strict sense they cannot exist. Yet we do speak of monologue, and we do so because monologism is a potential ethical stance, if not a possible epistemological condition.” (A Theology of Reading, 51)

Jacobs is emphasizing the relationship between the descriptive (the what is, the dialogical nature of the human consciousness) and the prescriptive (the what can be willed, the possibility of monologue). Jacobs is trying to highlight the role of the will in hermeneutical choices, opening up the possibility of loving interpretation.

I find Bakhtin’s critique of the human sciences to be illuminating especially as it helps to explain my own discomfort with the “self-reporting” methodology, which strikes me as so problematic. When we recognize the dialogical nature of our own consciousness, we recognize that we very often will to see our situations and ourselves in certain ways. This threatens to make self-reporting merely a reflection of the collective will of the subjects as objects.

W.H. Auden on the Morality of Knowing

In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?–to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge we can live up to–that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essay, 272.

Patrick Deneen on “Critical Thinking”


In spite of the praise for and embrace of “diversity” on nearly every campus in the nation, there is one orthodoxy upon which all campuses now largely and uniformly agree: the aim of a university education is to inculcate among students the skill of “critical thinking.” As various requirements in humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences are eliminated, reduced, or replaced by a set of “distribution requirements,” colleges and universities increasingly signal that it is less any particular content or specific knowledge that matters than the ability to think critically about any and all issues. The skills that one learns in any given course – whether geology, philosophy, literature, sociology, physics, theology or political science, and so on – are fungible and transportable, a set of tools that can be used to analyze any topic or idea that falls within the general family of inquiry that is learned in a given course. “Critical thinking” is now effectively the core curriculum, or its functional equivalent, at most of our colleges and universities.

This is a striking fact given that there is almost no discussion about what “critical thinking” is. There is a general low-level and largely underarticulated agreement that it is a good and desirable thing, and a shared sense that both “criticism” and “thinking” are praiseworthy, by themselves and especially in combination. In contrast to the curricular “culture wars” of the 1980s – during which debates over the content of curriculum were vehement and heated, stoked in part by protests against “Western Civ” and Allan Bloom’s broadside The Closing of the American Mind – there is today almost no discussion – whether national or local – about what is meant by “critical thinking.” This absence of discussion gives rise to the suspicion that what mattered for many participants in the “culture wars” was not so much the content of the curriculum per se than its ultimate evisceration.

The article certainly raises the question, is “critical thinking” a (content neutral) method of reasoning or is there specific content to thinking well? It would be interesting (with more time) to tease out an answer to this question, or even if the question is meaningfully put. My recent reading in Charles Taylor and G.K. Chesterton makes this article particularly interesting to me.

Polanyi, “they know many more things than they can tell”

“These observations show that strictly speaking nothing we know can be said precisely; and so what I call ‘ineffable’ may simply mean something that I know and can describe less precisely than usual, or even only very vaguely. … Although the expert diagnostician, taxonomist and cotton-classer can indicate their clues and formulate their maxims, they know many more things than they can tell, knowing them only in practice, as instrumental particulars, and not explicitly, as objects. The knowledge of such particulars is therefore ineffable, and the pondering of a judgment in terms of such particulars is an ineffable process of thought. This applies equally to connoisseurship as the art of knowing and to skills as the art of doing, wherefore both can be taught only by aid of practical example and never solely by precept.”

“It is not difficult to recall such ineffable experiences, and philosophic objections to doing so invoke quixotic standards of valid meaning which, if rigorously practised, would reduce us all to voluntary imbecility.”

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 87-88.