When Words and Things Lost Their Way, and Beer

One of the professors at my grad school, Roger Bohn writes an interesting blog called Art2Science where, among other things, he lays out how the medical industry could massively improve its safety record and outcomes by learning from the aviation industry. Early pilots, just like today’s doctors, depended extensively on their own judgement, and frequently made deadly errors, and standardized practices such as checklists led to a lot fewer crashes.

Lately, however, he’s run into some issues with his terminology. While the phrase “art to science” can generally capture the sense of replacing intuition and superstition with a general, comprehensive, and systematic understanding, it leave as lot of vagueness as to what the practitioners are specifically doing. We can talk about the art of aviation and the art or practicing medicine, but these don’t give us much insight into what pilots or doctors do on a day to day basis, or how they can improve. And while science probably has something to do with their improvement, we expect our pilots and doctors to be improving based on the lessons of science, not to actually become scientists. I do think he’s in for a world of hurt in trying to come up with precise terminology though, and here’s why:

The reason “art to science” works, is we all have a general understanding of how such a process proceeds. The tinkerer and the craftsman were put out of business by the scientist and the engineer (by way of the corporation and the modern state). The apprenticeship gives way to formal education with a standarized curriculum. Brewers were able to make beer before yeast was discovered, but their belief that fermentation was a blessing from God is now a bit laughable. And even if an alchemist were able to re-discover how to make porcelain, we’d be unlikely to to employ their services over the chemist’s, who could explain (after the fact) how this was accomplished. “Art to science” captures. in a general sense. the progress in each of these specific areas.

The problem with moving beyond the general understanding to more precise terminology is that many of the developments in the above areas corresponded with the undoing of our language. Well, not precisely, but they undid our confidence in a certain picture of how language worked, one in which words have fixed correspondence with specific things in the world outside our heads.

This picture of language is, according to Wittgenstein, best supplied by Saint Augustine learning a new language. Something is pointed out and a sound is uttered, and he learned to associate that sound with that thing. We can imagine pointing out the window of a moving car at a sheep, and saying “sheep,” and the child (in the back seat for safety reasons) repeating “sheep.” Later, we drive past a cow and the child says “sheep,” and we correct them, saying “cow,” but nonetheless congratulating ourselves on having such intelligent progeny that is able to identify a category of things which we call “four-legged animals,” a concept the kid will get to in due time.

The natural sciences made progress cleaning up mumbo-jumbo in terms of relating our words to things in the external world in certain domains. There was a time when whether a rabbit was a fish or not was a matter of theological and philosophical debate. Because the Church determined it was a fish, French monks went to extreme efforts to domesticate this excitable creature, as it could be consumed on Fridays. Natural philosophers in Prussia called the sun a kitchen furnace, the pyramids volcanoes, but all this ridiculousness was done away with by the late 19th Century. When Ishmael insists that a whale is a fish, there is a sense of poetic and tragic assertion, just as the hero in Notes from Underground rails against the immovable wall that is science.

But while they were able to kill off natural philosophy, the natural sciences and the scientific method more generally ran into their own wall when it came to clarifying and studying the problems of human social, ethical, and political life. What was “good,” or “true” was still largely a matter of interpretation, and as a result in these domains philosophy and an applied derivative, ideology (and increasingly propaganda), still held sway.

Developing an ideal language that would be free of the frustrating ambiguities of natural language was the last great project of philosophy and one at which the discipline failed (and consequently lost any claim of being a scientific discipline).

This picture of language is as pernicious as it is powerful and there’s a reason that one of the most important philosophical works of the last century was devoted to helping people see past it.

It’s power comes from its usefulness in scientific contexts. “What causes fermentation?” is a great scientific question, that can be answered with precision. We can not only talk about yeast, but types of yeast, and while there is plenty to be discussed, there’s certainly no need to consider our picture of language, much less God’s judgement on the brewer.

But once we move beyond a precise scientific domain, language quickly starts to lose its precision in the sense conveyed in the above picture. And we run the danger of interesting but endless philosophical rabbit holes (What is Truth? What is Freedom?) if we cannot accept a bit of imprecision and need to clarify based on audience and context. Dr. Bohn has proposed to replace the term “art” with “craft,” borrowing from lines of the progression outlined above, in which the craftsmen were put out of business by modern science and engineering. Along these lines we might think of a master brewer in medieval Germany as being a practitioner of a craft, one which he apprenticed under a previous master. But Anheuser-Busch wouldn’t trust any of these men to run any of its brewing facilities unless they went back to school for a rudimentary education in brewing science.

At the same time, however, craft brewing has got Anheuser-Busch scared and defensive and is putting the modern German beer industry (finally) on notice. Does this mean that science is giving way to craft? Well, not exactly, craft here has more to do with the sense of small scale/artisan/high quality (though it doesn’t necessarily mean any of those either). Craft has simply acquired a new meaning, which is related, but different to its old meaning. Not a problem, we give new things the names of old things all the time,

But we can see the problem for Dr. Bohn, this new meaning for craft already presents potential for confusion. Craft is at the same time what is out of date and what is cutting edge. This is not insurmountable perhaps, but  enough to undermine precision. And finding a precise term for better, more scientific management may prove even more difficult.

The rise of the sciences has not meant the end of confusion. One of the most dangerous places to be is between people with precise (but varying) terminologies and the common uses of language, “babbling equilibriums” (to use Elinor Ostrom’s terminology) are a common occurrence.

One thought on “When Words and Things Lost Their Way, and Beer

  1. I didn’t realize the terminology issue was this fraught with traps. I particularly liked this:
    “Developing an ideal language that would be free of the frustrating ambiguities of natural language was the last great project of philosophy and one at which the discipline failed (and consequently lost any claim of being a scientific discipline).”

    Were rabbits really ever classified as fish? Apparently mammal fetuses were, since they lived “in water.” http://www.fao.org/docrep/x5082e/X5082E03.htm

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