Eighth Narrative Science Seminar: Metaphor reconfiguring physiology and plotting nineteenth century geology
Author: Dominic Berry
Our two speakers this week tackled physiology and geology in the nineteenth century, the former being addressed by Annamaria Contini, the latter by Adelene Buckland. Summaries of their talks and the questions they generated can be found below, but it is also worth mentioning that our own Mary Morgan first met Annamaria at a conference organised by the ‘Centre for Narrative Science’ in Switzerland led by Hans Fuchs, which you can learn more about on their site. Also that Annamaria herself leads the ‘Metaphor and Narrative’ research centre at UNIMORE .
Annamaria Contini (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia)
Metaphor as narrative reconfiguration: an example in the French physiology of the late nineteenth century
Contini began with the observation that metaphors and stories as tools for thinking. One of the most important functions that metaphors play is building connections between two different domains or subjects. Here she built on the interactionist interpretation of Max Black, particularly in his Models and Metaphors (1962). The purpose of the talk was to explain a little more about how metaphors work, according to people such as Black, and also Paul Ricoeur, and then demonstrate such reasoning in the sciences.
Max Black divided metaphors into two parts. First, the focus (or secondary subject), and second, the frame (or primary subject). The focus for Black is the metaphorical expression, while the frame is the remaining part of the sentence in which the focus is inserted. Contini talked us through the example of the phrase ‘Man is a wolf’ in which the focus would be the wolf, and ‘what a man is’ would be the frame. Black’s analysis therefore puts different subjects in an interactive relation (hence ‘interactionist’). Where others had left the nature of these interrelated subjects at the level of ideas, or between the meanings of two sets of words, instead Black emphasised their significance as different semantic systems. I.e. ‘man’ has a set of meanings that revolve around it, as does ‘wolf’. So what is happening in a metaphor is that the audience is being asked to put two different sets of meanings into dialogue with each other. Doing so requires drawing out only the most salient and valuable or meaningful interconnections, a process that Contini likened to filtering or sorting. Working out what might be implied by metaphors, filtering and sorting the meaningful tensions from the unhelpful or less meaningful, often involves telling oneself a story. The connections between metaphors and stories is a subject she has recently addressed elsewhere with co-authors. New knowledge emerges from these initial ‘heuristic-fictions’ that the metaphor put in play i.e. that there is some meaningful relation to be found between these two otherwise unrelated things and that stories are involved in figuring out this relationship.
The talk then shifted to seeing how this operates in the sciences. For starters, we know that theoretical models are used to acquire further new knowledge in a range of ways, but in particular by allowing us to transfer from well-known cases to little-known cases. Models are themselves then a way of reaching into the unknown from the known. This is the heuristic-fiction in action. To give a more concrete example Contini turned to nineteenth century French physiology, and the figure of Claude Bernard. Defining life as creation, while avoiding mechanistic or deterministic conceptions of biological function, Bernard explicitly resorted to a metaphorical model of ‘creativity’ as a fundamental feature of life. He explicitly acknowledges in his writing that a physiologist cannot confer objective reality to terms like “vital creation”, “guiding idea”, “creative idea”, terms which he sought to use to describe life’s fundamental features, but nevertheless that can be used both for convenience of language and also to represent certain phenomena better. Pursuing a more thoroughgoing investigation of Bernard’s writings, Contini argued that it seems clear that the ‘focus’ here is artistic creation, through which he ‘framed’ biological processes. “Bernard projects onto the ‘primary subject’ (organic creation) some properties and relationships that characterize the ‘secondary subject’ (artistic creation).” Narrative science is therefore operating both within and through Contini’s case.
In the question period we sought for more of a distinction between the small kinds of story that Contini saw as playing a role through heuristic fictions, and a more general role for metaphor as being just an essential and inescapable part of discourse. One person appreciated how the interactive element of this approach to understanding the practice of working with models, which had tended to ask ‘what is similar between these two’, ‘what is dissimilar between these two’, and then only attempt to make productive use of whatever remains. Whereas on an interactionist view two different cases can be brought into direct relation. This seems a key pay-off for focusing on the semantic level rather than through the physical etc.
Adelene Buckland (King's College London)
Plot Problems: Geological Narratives, Anti-Narratives, and Counter-Narratives in the Early Nineteenth Century
Buckland began by explaining it has been a pleasure to revisit some of the arguments she articulated in her first book, Novel Science, which the invitation to this seminar provoked. She explained that she saw her project in that book as both building on and also reacting against certain features of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots. Extending this approach to geology, Buckland argued, was not as straightforward as many had otherwise believed. For instance, the putative distinction between uniformitarian and catastrophist geologies, which otherwise has a whole host of significances attached to it (including a supposed embrace or refusal of evolutionary narratives), did not actually hold within the period it is supposed to describe. Narrative and its role in scientific thought and practice has been a casualty of a too speedy willingness to project back onto the early nineteenth century a putative distinction that only emerged later.
Instead Buckland wanted to show how key geologists often deliberately avoided giving big public announcements on grand geological narratives, full stop. Charles Lyell, a central figure in the professionalization of geological science, perceived geology as being undermined by too close a relationship with narrative and storytelling. Instead geology needed to set the big picture to one side and focus on the steady accumulation of fact. Such a commitment was indeed built into the Geological Society of London when it was formed in 1807, explicitly embracing ‘enumerative induction’. Lyell would take geologists to task for straying from this method in his hugely influential Principles of Geology, which Jim Secord has called an “anti-narrative”. What this refusal did not entail, so explain Buckland, was a dismissal of narrative as an epistemic tool. Indeed it was precisely the ability to identify and set aside moments of ‘progressive’ narrative, or accounts dependent on teleological reasoning, and knowing how to replace them with something else, which Lyell saw as making geology such an imaginative science. The poverty of geology’s evidentiary sources should not result in the creation of fanciful and unexaminable narratives, so argued Lyell, but instead accounts that gathered ruptures, reversals, ill-fitting stories and so on, these should be prized instead.
For Lyell, and those like him, an attention to ruptures etc. were signs of a very healthy and well cultivated epistemological skepticism, one that helped build up geology as a science. His preferred literary hero was then Byron, an author he admired for effectively getting rid of plot, instead having characters and stories that wander, not knowing where they might be leading next. Ultimately Buckland argued that these kinds of analysis, and the deep appreciation that geologists had for narrative as a way to think things through, are only recoverable by thinking of narrative as a scientific practice, a move that we already habitually make for map making, model making, and so on. Narrative is not, in Buckland’s words “a belated representation of knowledge”, but “a form of scientific practice in the moment of producing knowledge itself”. This perspective helps to illuminate narrative knowing. Plots, or kinds of plot, could and were explicitly suppressed by different geologists in order to promote their different hypotheses, but for Lyell this was not about denigrating narrative, but using it to think through the problems and pitfalls that come with making an historical science. Narrative, what it is and how to use it, was a conscious part of the nineteenth century geological enterprise.
In the question period we wondered about the way in which Buckland sees the science of geology as unfolding as part of different literary and discursive cultures in particular genres. She responded that “scientific genres are developing in a literary marketplace in the period”, and publishers shared by scientists and literary authors are a helpful way to think about this. Elsewhere she has looked at Dickens and his responses to science, in particular to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and also a review he wrote of The Poetry of Science. There is much more to be discovered here. This led her to say more about the ways in which geologists had a productive wariness of how to use narrative properly, as did literary authors.
The next seminar took place on the 12th of March and featured Vito De Lucia. Unfortunately Sarah Dillon’s talk is having to be rescheduled. A post summarising De Lucia’s talk will follow soon!