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Record Type: Review   ID: 336

Wild Knowledge: Science, Language, and Social Life in a Fragile Environment

Wright, Will

The thesis of this book is closely and beautifully argued by a professor of sociology at the University of Southern Colorado. He presents a radical conception or reconceptualization of science and knowledge that would undergird the sustainability of life on our planet rather than promoting its destruction, which is what Western science is engaged in, intentionally or not. It is an exciting book because his revolutionary ideas are lucidly set forth and make such liberating good sense. The problem is encapsulating his views in a brief summary. Having made several attempts each longer than the last. I will instead present Wright’s own chapter summary, on no. 19-20, which provides as brief a summary of his argument as is possible. His aim is "to demonstrate the conceptual and ecological incoherence of ‘objective nature’ and to articulate an alternative and linguistic idea of valid knowledge" (p. 19). In the summary, to follow, he does not specifically define what he means by "wild knowledge." Wild knowledge is reflexive, critical, and ecological. It is not bound to any worldview, as are science and religion. Rather, it maintains a critical stance toward any idea or potential action, measuring it against the conditions for ecological sustainability. "The idea of knowledge ... cannot be ‘captured’ and ‘tamed’ by some particular set of social institutions. ... it legitimates a social order based on individual critical access rather than ‘natural’ individual motivations" (p. 21). This book itself is an exemplar of the exercise of this open critical ecologically-bound reflexivity, and there follows Wright’s own chapter summary. "I will begin, in chapter 1, with a discussion of the epistemological incoherence of science, arguing that this incoherence must be recognized as the basis for analyzing science as a social belief system, rather than as only the basis for more epistemological scrambling. In chapter 2 I will compare science and religion as legitimating belief systems, arguing that scientific knowledge must begin to be approached anthropologically, in terms of its inherent legitimating commitments, just as we have routinely approached religious knowledge. I will also argue, however, that science and religion have quite different legitimating commitments, and in chapter 3 I will show how scientific explanations were originally formulated as much for political and class legitimization against the feudal order as for the explanation of natural processes. In chapter 4 I will continue the anthropological argument by showing how the scientific idea of objective nature, as it appears in physics, incorporates inherent legitimating commitments within its basic explanatory framework, the framework of a detached mind directly observing mathematical nature. These legitimating commitments pervade such scientific terms as electron and force because these terms are defined mathematically, as part of a mathematical reality, and it is through mathematics that scientific knowledge established its basic legitimating image, the image of the "natural," a priori individual.

This is the foundational individual of scientific knowledge, the individual that legitimates all scientific social practices, and so in chapter 5 I will show how this legitimating individual arises out of the conceptual structure of physics. In this way physics will be shown to contain inherent but hidden legitimating commitments point in a different institutional direction. In chapter 6 I will conclude the anthropological argument by showing how this scientific individual has legitimated only certain kinds of scientific social institutions and only certain kinds of scientific social theories. Then, in the last three chapters, I will use the anthropological analysis of science as a basis for developing an alternative and more coherent conception of knowledge, a conception that recognizes and incorporates its own legitimating dimensions, as an issue of reflexivity. Such a conception would make knowledge an issue of sustainability, in the same sense that medicine should be an issue of health, and it would refer the idea of knowledge to the formal structure of language, as an active structure that strives to sustain its own formal possibility. The crucial issue, as I will argue in chapter 9, is to articulate an idea of knowledge that legitimates absolute critical access for all individuals in the name of sustainability, even if the criticism is directed at the institutions legitimatized by that idea of knowledge (pp. 19-20).

Publisher Information:Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. 236p. Bibl: 224-232; Works cited: 221-224
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