Awakening the Sleepwalkers
Isabelle Stengers' plea for 'slow science' as a means of rousing Hannah Arendt's unthinking people
“What of taking the habit of demanding that when colleagues speak about issues that are beyond their field of expertise, they present the information, learning and collaborations that allow them to do so? What of paying attention, when expertise is needed about an issue of common concern, that co-experts are present and able to effectively represent the many dimensions relevant to the issue? From the point of view of fast science, all such proposals have a common defect. They all mean a loss of time, or worse, the duty to cultivate an active lucidity about the partial character of one’s own questions - the awakening of the famous sleepwalker.” - Isabelle Stengers, “ ‘Another Science is Possible’, a plea for slow science”
Despite her attacks upon orthodox visions of both knowledge and the university, the Belgian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has not been the subject of ad hominem attacks in the manner of the damnation of, say, Paul Feyerabend. This is all the more exceptional since Stengers practices philosophy in the manner of the most brilliant twentieth century philosopher to escape the notice of his peers: Alfred North Whitehead. She zealously takes up the banner he raised, that the task of the university is the creation of the future of rational thought and civilised appreciation. Even in 1939, Whitehead himself knew that these possible futures were rich with “every possibility of achievement and of tragedy”.
Stengers popularity has soared partly as a result of her taking up of environmental concerns and challenging what she, along with fellow chemist Phillipe Pignarre, amusingly dubbed ‘capitalist sorcery’. She has had markedly less impact with her devastating critique regarding the methods by which knowledge is pursued within universities, a crusade that the French sociologist Bruno Latour took up from her. This concern ought to have been crucial - especially in philosophy! - since as Stengers herself warned, once the eligibility for hiring a philosopher depends upon supposedly ‘objective’ benchmarks, philosophy at the university has been ‘killed’. Beyond imminent, we have already befallen this particular tragedy.
Sickness is the metaphor Stengers prefers for our sleepwalking into a weirdly disembodied vision of science. She warns that the practices for creating knowledge at universities now suffer from a radical lack of balance, exacted huge tolls. One diagnosis she offers for this problem is ‘fast science’ - a false sense of urgency that compels every research project to rush, partly out of the presumed necessity of planting your flag first. This importing of the anxieties of market competition into scientific discourse is the inevitable consequence of enslaving the sciences to technology, as if the only value we could place upon knowledge was the money it might earn.
Against this, Stengers and others have proposed ‘slow science’, a movement capable of gathering together possible paths for recovering from this impairment of thought. Within the fever dream of our sleeping-sickness, we fail to notice that haste is incompatible with the scrupulous pursuit of knowledge. Hence the suggestions within the opening quote, written in 2011 yet eerily prescient for the calamity humanity recently inflicted upon itself out of fear of a disaster we managed to exacerbate. It all could have been prevented by ensuring the participation of a wider range of expertise, the necessary gathering of those who might “effectively represent the many dimensions relevant to the issue”.
The “famous sleepwalkers” Stengers refers to here are Hannah Arendt’s unthinking people, those who blunder forward mindlessly into tragedy. This is the true crisis we have collectively chosen to sweep under the academic carpet: we have lost all measure of clarity about our questions. Authentic knowledge is the result of following the questions wherever they lead - even and especially when they lead down that slowest path that brings us to further questions. Desire for rapid decisions cannot be allowed to undermine our commitment to collectively pursuing the truth at its own speed. Otherwise, we should be in little doubt that the catastrophe we just lived through will not remain an isolated event…
Whenever we let fear of calamity overwhelm our clarity of thinking, we place ourselves in immense danger - and all the more so, because ideological fault lines shatter clear thinking whenever science and politics intersect. Prudent scholars are capable of defending against precisely these kinds of risks, but only if we are willing to listen to everyone who can bear on a given problem. ‘Slow science’ must move at the speed of discourse if we are to awaken the sleepwalkers together.
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