We talked this week with Bob Dilworth, Professor of Art at the University of Rhode Island. He is currently showing “Revisited, Reframed, and Reconstructed" in the URI Fine Arts Center gallery. Below, an interview with Bob about his work, and some examples of his art:
Monday on the Beauty Salon we discussed etiquette, manners and decorum. Roughly, decorum is the general expectation that a person will observe and follow the informal rules of behavior in a given place. Manners are the proper practice of these particular behaviors in different settings. Etiquette is the art of understanding and interpreting both the rules and behaviors and of being able to decide the most appropriate course when faced with uncertainty or clashing sets of expectations. Think of it this way: a sense of decorum is a will to do right by others, good manners are the practice of this will, and etiquette is the art of figuring out, when we don’t know or come into conflict, the way that does the most right by everyone involved. It’s interpersonal diplomacy.
In A Social History of Truth, Steven Shapin (Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University) investigates the role of decorum—that will to do right by others—in shaping the search for truth in science. Essentially, the practice of modern science has been deeply influenced by the British Royal Society, whose ranks were made of aristocratic gentlemen who practiced science as a leisure activity. Proper decorum would dictate, then, that one seek to do right by and thus meet the expectations of gentlefolk. From the will to meet aristocratic expectations of behavior arose a set of manners, proper practices that respected the standing and word of others. To resolve conflict or ease uncertainty, there develops an etiquette of scientific practice and communication that emphasizes not truth in a bare sense but maximal respect for the participants in discussion.
My brief summary doesn’t really do justice to Shapin’s full argument, so rather than painfully rehash a complicated position, let’s investigate a single passage. First, the selection in full, then a few comments:
To value truth above good manners was not decorous; it was to disrupt civil conversation; it was the mark of the pedant. In 1669 the Belgian mathematician Rene Francois de Sluse wrote to Oldenburg about a geometrical quarrel between Fermat and James Gregory. He hoped that their dispute would keep within civil bounds: ‘For in my opinion learning is not so great a thing that one should be forgetful of good manners on its account.’ Gentlemanly conversation worked with and enshrined a conception of truth as adequate to the practical task. And that task was the continuance of the conversation itself. Insofar as the English experimental community had relocated gentlemanly codes into the practice of natural philosophy, that conception of conversation was available for the practices by which adequate truth was itself recognised and produced.
Lowered expectations of philosophical accuracy, a more reserved way of speaking, a less passionate attempt to claim exact truth for one’s claims were justified on explicitly epistemic as well as explicitly moral grounds. It might be reality itself which demanded a more decorous and reserved way of speaking about it. The world might be such a storehouse of experiences which sustained as competent and sincere a range of differing accounts that practitioners offered of it” (Shapin, A Social History of Truth, 308-309).
As “natural philosophy” became increasingly practiced by gentlefolk, the social environment and expectations changed. Codes of behavior were no longer set by academics but by aristocrats—and that behavior and its practice (its manners) were all geared toward giving maximal respect to all participants. Did my experiment not replicate your results? Must be a difference of air, or a mistake on the part of my servant. Are my results theoretically impossible? The world is too vast to be described by any one theory. Very interesting nonetheless, thank you! As Shapin says, this posture of flexibility, that allowed for all to be right and respected, was not just moral (doing right) but also epistemic (being right, as in true). The truth of the world, in other words, was that it could never be entirely captured by a single theory, observation or experiment. So long as the subject was open to different possibilities, it was worth discussing. But debate it? No! Debates end, decisions are rendered. For the gentlefolk of the Royal Society, demanding a decision was tantamount to taking your ball and going home: bad sportsmanship. Not just unsporting and bad mannered, it was false. Perfect clock-worlds and logical structures are for nerds, geeks, pedants, bores and God-botherers. The real world can be seen in pieces of experience but never as a whole.
I’m right, you’re right and we should definitely do this again next week. Sir Harry has evidence of ghosts. I’ve read the paper and it is fascinating. Poor Reginald will hate it, but it’s his fault for being a Vulcanist. Fire, really? Anyway, we can discuss the aether next week. Love to Chrysanthemum and the Baroness.
The Honor’s Colloquium conversation with Angel Taveras on aesthetics and education has been canceled because Mayor Taveras will not be attending. We deeply regret that the event will not take place.