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

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.

Musings on Social Judgments

It is widely acknowledged that even people who believe that they are not racist, sometimes demonstrate implicit racism, which is deeply hurtful to those who experience it. One such place where implicit racism is manifest is in social settings where new introductions are being made (such as church or occasions for business networking), where there are abundant opportunities for forging new relationships. But these opportunities are often are undeveloped. The reasons for this are complex, but seem to consist of the following factors: 1) humans have the capacity for a limited number of intimate relationships; 2) we make contact with a much higher number of people than we have capacity to know intimately; 3) as a result we develop the skill of screening our social contacts, that is, assessing what relationships we would like (cautiously) to develop. People limit their relationships to the number of people that they think they can handle.

This screening behavior seems to be largely subconscious, though people sometimes do talk about it. But insofar as this remains a subconscious activity, the reasons that underlie our judgments (in the philosophical sense) remain mysterious. I contend that this is a significant area where racism remains in our society. But racism can be only one facet of this judgment. The answers to the standard questions also go into the judgment: What do you do? Where are you from? How long have you lived here/done this? What brings you here? We all have predispositions for answering the question, “would this person be worth knowing better?”

Two other factors that contribute to our social judgments are beauty and competence. “Uglyism” or “Dumbism” seem to be as problematic as racism, but without the well defined boundary markers. I remember a particular example while in seminary when I was working at Wells Fargo Bank. A good looking and intelligent customer was making a transaction with a coworker who did not match his looks or intelligence. She made a joke to him and he stopped what he was doing, looked her in the eye, and said, “you’re not cute.” It always struck me that this comment could be taken as a double entendre. He explicitly meant “witty” or “funny,” but implicitly meant “attractive.” In other circumstances, this customer was more than willing to joke with my other more attractive coworker.

I hope that these musings may push us to think of the hundreds of little judgments we make every day, and particularly with respect to our personal connections. It is worth asking whether the ease with which we transition in and out of relationships with people is not problematic. Perhaps it would be better to restrict our circles of contact somewhat in order to treat well even those who might otherwise fail our screening process.

Further, there is something to be said about the fact that these little judgments mean so much to us. Entire industries are driven by the urge to pass these judgments (health, surgery, teeth, education, etc.). And when we do not pass these judgments, we often assign reasons for it which soften our culpability: this person is prejudiced or they don’t really know me. Ultimately, we all want to fall under the right verdict. There is something profoundly calming in reflecting on the nature of Christian salvation, which includes both justification (divinely initiated positive verdict) and sanctification (divinely initiated process of renewal). These two elements can provide a powerful antidote to the drive for self-justification in that the first provides a positive verdict in the middle of our personal histories and the second provides hope for transformation.