Knowledge, from extraction to production

The approach to Giles Gilbert Scott’s menacing Ministry of Truth building in Cambridge is designed to diminish and belittle the pedestrian penitent, to crush their spirit with the giant phallus of authority that rises above its forbidding entrance, looming over the city like a threat. However, if one is forewarned that this ‘magnificent erection’ (as Neville Chamberlain dubbed it) houses the Cambridge University Library, the inevitable sense of foreboding may be eased somewhat, and one might feel a little safer braving the appraising gaze of the front desk, bearing right to follow a staircase down into the bowels of the building. This is where those unfortunates not blessed with membership of the university can petition for admittance to the library, and where temporary exhibitions are housed. Here, at the threshold of an epistemological domain, at the symbolic boundary between the gnostic and the taxonomic, a tale is told of the transition between two historic modes of thought.

Michel Foucault outlines an account of human knowledge ordered historically by ‘epistemes’, ways of knowing specific to their times and places, within which only certain forms of truth are visible or speakable. Transitions between them are not clean or immediate, but disordered and haphazard, proceeding in different places at different times, and one cannot nail them down without protracted scholarship (or probably even with it). However, Foucault himself identifies a medieval or Gothic episteme, within which knowledge is in God’s gift, and is as such perfected and completed, a vast domain of which humankind can see only a little, and with which it is a scholar’s duty to keep faith, to conserve and transmit it. This is succeeded, in certain times and places, by an episteme in which knowledge is not inherited or extracted, but produced, accessed not by the examination of what is written but by active and empirical processes of discovery: reason, observation, research. The dialectic between these two epistemes is memorably dramatised by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, and while it is easy to assume that the later mode of knowledge has simply replaced the earlier, we can see echoes of Eco’s debates between Jorge of Burgos and William of Baskerville all over the world today, in the ongoing millennial struggle between religious and materialist ideologies, and in the contested territories of post-truth politics.

Roger Bacon, the thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar that William of Baskerville claims as his mentor, is often credited as a founder of Western empirical thinking, and the transition from acquired to produced knowledge proceeded by fits and starts through the centuries after his death, but it was still incomplete in Cambridge at the beginning of the nineteenth. At this point there were some professors in the sciences, but their subjects were not examined, and the University did not award degrees in them. For most scholars the old episteme held good, and the proper object of study was some form of literature – that which was already written. Scientific enquiry proceeded apace, indeed it was transforming the world, but Cambridge was an intellectual backwater, and for this reason a group of scientists instituted an organisation to foster the active, material production of knowledge. It is to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of this Cambridge Philosophical Society that the current exhibition has been curated.

Discovery is a one-room show, whose subject is the founding body of several of the University’s most impressive museum collections; as such, it’s impossible for it to offer a real material representation of the Philosophical Society, but its curators have written a particular story, and the objects that illustrate it have been well selected and displayed. There are scientific instruments, collecting tools associated with prominent members, and also quite a number of books and documents. This seems reasonable for a show in a library, but it’s not always easy to make such visually unforthcoming objects pay their way in an exhibition. However, to see a typescript copy of A Brief History of Time, or handwritten annotations by such figures as Isaac Newton (in his own Principia), Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and others is an extraordinary experience for anyone even vaguely informed about the history of science.

The exhibition deals mainly with the early history of the Society, and a consequence of this is that it re-inscribes some of its deficiencies. Only two displays celebrate the work of women: one is a notebook belonging to Mary Somerville, the Scottish polymath who was the first person to be referred to as a ‘scientist’. She was, jointly with Caroline Herschel, the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society, but she was denied entry to the Cambridge Philosophical Society on procedural grounds (yeah, right). The other display discusses Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of the pulsar, for which her male supervisor received a Nobel prize, and consists of a large text panel, along with the original chart-recorder output on which pulsar PSR B1919+21 appeared. I was informed by Parent (my inside source on all things University related) that this was added as an afterthought when the anonymous curators realised that women were drastically unrepresented in the exhibition, which was to open on International Women’s Day. The text is consequently displayed on the door to the ladies toilet.

Discovery does not always clearly distinguish between relating the history of the Cambridge Philosophical Society and the history of science at Cambridge University. Clearly they are closely entwined, and in the early days of the Society they were effectively synonymous, but the founders’ ambitions to have the University recognise and support science were quickly realised, and there is no clear description of how the Society’s role has changed over time. It became important in the dissemination of knowledge, and many members joined for its library, but once research became a University priority one imagines it was superseded at the coalface of knowledge production by the various scientific departments and laboratories. I came away without any clear idea of how the Society functions today: it publishes two scientific journals, but I’m guessing their contents are selected now from open submission rather than from the work of Society members, or papers presented at Society meetings. Is the Society now primarily a research funding body, or does it continue to foster discussion and the exchange of ideas? Perhaps it is a function of the exhibition’s position just outside the threshold of the library that we are left to wonder. Notwithstanding these unresolved questions it’s a well conceived and professionally executed show, that communicates a great deal about the arrival of the scientific mode of knowledge production in Cambridge.

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