Dr. Shah Will Speak On…

“Object” and “Subject” in STS: How and Why do we know What we know?

Having been trained as an engineer, I had to unlearn a lot when twenty years ago I first started engaging with social sciences and humanities. In these two decades I have struggled to learn the art of reflextion, to acquire the spirit of what Paul Ricoeur calls “hermeneutics of suspicion”. Applying this suspicion, further in Ricoeur’s words, “telling the story” of science and technology “otherwise”, has taken me to anthropology and history, to debates on globalisation, modernity and development and recently to philosophy.

In my first session on 18th May on “objects” I will look at the debates in STS (Science & Technology Studies) on the making of objects – facts and artefacts (technology included). “What there is” and “the study of what there is”, or in other words, what is the object of the study and how it reflects the object in itself. To situate the debates in the history of ideas, I will only briefly begin with the age-old question asked in philosophy: do our knowledge of the object corresponds the object in itself, focusing more emphatically on why is that we need to even ask this question. Getting past this question, in the main part of the session I will look at the debates in STS on the way objects (facts and artefacts) are created, constructed, performed, and enacted in our social, political and cultural world and how they are studied within disciplinary boundaries. In the last part of the session I will engage with the most recent debates in STS on what is called empirical ontology or “turn to ontology” that is allegedly centred on the question: how objects are enacted in practices and how they are invested with political rationality and normativity? In my second session on the 18th May I will discuss the way the reductionist concept of the particulate gene emerged and undergone transformation over the twentieth century. The question that I ask is: what do we know of the ontology of the gene and what are the political implications of what we know?

In the last three years, responding to my own inability to fathom the deeply troubling questions in my own personal life, my research focus has shifted from understanding and explaining the objects to making sense of the subjects: who is the scientist-subject who desires to know? Towards the end of his life, Freud was also asking similar questions in his last work on Moses and Monotheism (1939): What are the psychic pre-requisites for the advancement of knowledge? How the analysis of the soul is structured vis-a-vis the analysis of science? The same question is asked differently in recent times. “Is Science emotional?” asks science historian Paul White. Such a question about science might even mean a heresy. The view that science, supposed to be objective, depends in essential ways upon highly specific constellations of emotional and existential – subjective – experiences is fundamentally paradoxical. In fact, in history of science, subjectivity and objectivity are commonly arrayed in opposition. Not only that subjectivity disrupts objectivity, but the role of individual scientist’s subjectivity in the making of science is often obliterated, treated as merely incidental, designated as mind reading, or relegated to biographies. Even when subjectivity is accounted as co-implicated with objectivity, it is treated only as mental states of the collectives. And when the scientist’s subjectivity is indeed treated in individual capacity, it is predominantly constructed as the neo-Kantian ideal – a unified and wilful, self-determined, self-regulated, active and autonomous, rational subject wilfully driven by social and scientific ethos. Another approach popular among historians is to portray the scientist-subject as a Foucaultian construct, whose subjectivity is often entirely reduced to nothing but merely the effects of power. I will introduce some of the key texts in history of science that foreground the question of subjectivity, will also briefly introduce feminists epistemologies in which the idea of what can be counted as objective science and who is the knowing subject have been revised from their positivist and foundationalist predecessors.

Lastly, I will end the session briefly discussing my own position that I have elaborated in the recently completed manuscript on Affective History of Genetic Science in which discussing life histories of six scientists who had pioneering influence on the making of genetic science over the twentieth century, I have posited that scientists’ particular ways of being and belonging pioneer the structures of rational and cognitive thought, here I have claimed that intellectual paradigms are affect worlds, in other words, the conceptual theories are isomorphic with the world emotionally and existentially desired, or in the words of Michael Polanyi (following Sartre) I have shown how existence precedes essence. Unfortunately there will not be sufficient time to discuss one of the chapters of the book, hopefully that will happen sometime in the future.

– Esha Shah



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