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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

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 assertion. It is a sequence of space-time events, an energy exchange. Thus we have two different kinds of activities here: (1) 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.




If one examines the characteristic moments of the scientific method, one will discover that they are basically assertions. Even if one happens to be an operationalist and maintains that the business of science is defining the physical operations by which concepts are arrived at and properties defined, the fact remains that the terminus ad quem of the operationalist method is the scientific formula or assertion. Indeed, the operationalist cannot even express his operationalism without using assertions.

The three characteristic assertions of the scientific method are:

(1) The Naming or Classificatory Assertion. This form of the assertion is a pointing at and a naming, or, in semiotical language, an indexical sign plus a symbol.

This is grass is such an assertion. The assertion could be made simply by pointing at the grass and uttering aloud the symbol grass. So also is the scientific classification: Certain plants which bear functional similarities toward each other because of a common phylogenetic origin we agree to designate by the symbol Graminae. The latter is a scientific and definitory abstraction. But the former is also an abstraction, though of a much more primitive or “concrete” sort.* Both statements assert that that something over there is one of these.† The simplest act of naming and the understanding of the act by another is the assertion and grasping of the assertion that there is a family of plants with bladelike leaves and hollow jointed stems and that that one there is one of them. The two types of classification overlap but do not coincide. The primitive classification This is grass may include grassy-looking plants which are not related phylogenetically to the family Graminae. The scientific classification Graminae, on the other hand, includes bamboo, which to the layman is not at all “grassy.”

(2) The Basic Sentence. This sentence asserts a scientific observation or “fact.” It can be verified by the observation or experiment of another.*

Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade at 760 mm atmospheric pressure.

The human heart has four major chambers.

The Tiobriand Islanders are matrilmeal.

The form is S is P, in which S is the subject designated by the naming sentence above, P is the predicate, property or quality, “is” is the verb which specifies the nature of the relation between S and P and also asserts that it holds.†

(3) A scientific law.

Bodies attract each other in direct proportion to the product of their masses and in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them.


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