August 18, 2006

Umberto Eco and the spirit of the Enlightenment

Are you among those who believe that “all that there is to understand has already been understood by long-vanished ancient civilisations” and that “it is only by humbly returning to that traditional and immutable treasure that we may reconcile ourselves with ourselves and with our destiny”? Ok, you are not the kind of reader Umberto Eco were targeting when he wrote the following notes on science, ideology of progress (the so-called spirit of the Enlightenment) and their detractors. Or better still—to be honest with you—I suggest that you don’t read them, unless you are very open-minded...:

Science is frequently criticised by the mass media, which hold it responsible for the devilish pride that is leading humanity towards possible destruction. But in doing so they are evidently confusing science with technology.

It is not science that is responsible for atomic weapons, the hole in the ozone layer, global warming and so on: if anything, science is that branch of knowledge that is still capable of warning us of the risks we run when, even in applying its principles, we put our trust in irresponsible technologies.

The problem is that in many critiques of the ideology of progress (or the so-called spirit of the Enlightenment) the spirit of science is often identified with that of certain idealistic philosophies of the 19th century, according to which history is always moving on towards better things, or toward the triumphant realisation of itself, of the spirit or of some other driving force that is forever marching on towards optimal ends.

At bottom, however, many people (of my generation at least) were always left in doubt on reading idealist philosophy, from which it emerges that every thinker who came after had understood better (or "verified") what little had been discovered by those who came before (which is a bit like saying that Aristotle was more intelligent than Plato). And it is this concept of history that the Italian poet Leopardi challenged when he waxed ironic about "magnificent and progressive destinies".


Modern science does not hold that what is new is always right. On the contrary, it is
based on the principle of "fallibilism" (enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, elaborated upon by Popper and many other theorists, and put into practice by scientists themselves) according to which science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, admitting its own mistakes - and by considering that an experiment that doesn't work out is not a failure but is worth as much as a successful one because it proves that a certain line of research was mistaken and it is necessary either to change direction or even to start over from scratch.

And this is what was proposed centuries ago in Italy by an institute of learning known as the Accademia del Cimento, whose motto was " provando e riprovando ". This would normally translate into English as "to try and try again", but here there is a subtle distinction. Whereas in Italian " riprovare " normally means to try again, here it means to "reprove" or "reject" that which cannot be maintained in the light of reason and experience.

This way of thinking is opposed, as I said before, to all forms of fundamentalism, to all literal interpretations of holy writ - which are also open to continuous reinterpretation - and to all dogmatic certainty in one's own ideas. This is that good "philosophy," in the everyday and Socratic sense of the term, which ought to be taught in schools.
[Read the rest]
[An Italian

Whether or not such a good “philosophy” should be identified as the (almost?) exact opposite of that of the postmodernist thinkers—as Professor Norman Geras seems to suggest in his very interesting comment to Eco’s article—it’s a complex question. I consider myself pro-science but wouldn’t say that being such is contradictory (for instance) with my personal views on the post-modern philosopher Richard Rorty. Of course I am not affected by scientism, namely the “exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”, to quote the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

To give an example, I wouldn’t ask the scientists to show me the meaning of my life, but I am among those who feel gratitude for the people who gave an Italian five-year-old boy who suffered from Thalassemia the opportunity of having a normal life:

Italian Boy Cured by Cells from Twin Baby BrothersMon 6 September, 2004 18:58

ROME (Reuters) - An Italian boy has been cured of a potentially lethal form of anemia by a new type of stem-cell therapy, using cells from the placenta of both of his recently born twin brothers, the health ministry said on Monday. The five-year-old boy suffered from Thalassemia, a genetic disorder which stops the body producing enough hemoglobin, the substance in the blood which carries oxygen around the body.
The innovation of this operation was that it used two different batches of placenta blood from each of the brothers.
One batch of blood was rich in stem cells -- basic cells that can grow into a variety of different cells. The other had been altered in vitro to combat the disease.
Thalassemia patients are usually treated by regular blood transfusions and regulation of their blood-iron levels.
The operation carried out at San Matteo clinic in Pavia, northern Italy, is an alternative to the usual cure -- a bone marrow transplant which is often complicated by the need to find a compatible donor.

[This post was first published at on September 8, 2004. The comments to the original post are worth reading.]

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