Walker Percy Wednesday 175


THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD issues in statements about the world. Whether one is a realist, pragmatist, operationalist, or materialist, one can hardly doubt that the various moments of the scientific enterprise–induction, hypothesis, deduction, theory, law–are all assertions of sorts. Even observation and verification are in the final analysis not the physiological happenings in which the retina and brain of the scientist receive the image of pointer readings–a dog might do the same. They are rather the symbolic assertory acts by which one specifies that the perception, pointer on numbered line, is a significant reading.

It shall also be my contention, following Ernst Cassirer, that the main elements of cultural activity are in their most characteristic moments also assertory in nature. The central acts of language, of worship, of myth-making, of storytelling, of art, as well as of science, are assertions.

What I shall call attention to first is a remarkable difference between the sort of reality the scientific method is and the sort of reality it understands its data to be. To be specific: The most characteristic product of the scientific method is the scientific law. Perhaps the ideal form of the scientific law, the formulation to which all sciences aspire, is the constant function, the assertion of an invariant relation between variable quantities. In physics, the function takes the form of the functional equation, E = f(C), in which variable C (cause) issues in dependent variable E (effect) in a determinate ratio f. This formula is, of course, an assertion. It asserts that such a function does in fact obtain between the variables. What takes place in the phenomenon under investigation, however, is not an a·ssertion. It is a sequence of space-time events, an energy exchange. Thus we have two different kinds of activities here: (l) a space-time event in which state A issues in state B; (2) a judgment which asserts that such is indeed the case. Thomas Aquinas called attention to the qualitative difference between the events which take place in the world and the act by which an intellect grasps these events.

Secondly, I wish to investigate the state of affairs which comes about when the scientific method is applied to this very activity of which it is itself a mode: the assertory phenomena of culture. I think it will be possible to show that when the method is used, with the best possible intentions, to construe assertory behavior, it falls into an antinomy. Examples will be given from ethnology, from semiotic, from current philosophies of science, to illustrate the kind of antinomy into which the method is driven when it seeks to explain as functions those activities of man which are not primarily physiological or psychological but assertory: language, art, religion, myth, science-in short, culture.

Finally, a suggestion will be made toward the end of a more radical science of man than the present discipline known as cultural anthropology or ethnology, which, it will have been my hope to show, is essentially a nonradical science.

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