Sunday, January 18, 2009

Canetti and De Finetti

As an introduction to the main theme of this blog, here is a quote from the opening of Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power" ("Massen und Macht" in the original German). It goes:

"Man fears nothing more than the touch of the Unknown. [...] . It is only in the crowd that man can be liberatated from his fear of being touched."

Canetti's insight applies to any event falling outside the semantic model that shapes a community's shared reality. As Bruno De Finetti put it, "the professionalization and departmentalization of the several branches of science have become an obstacle to the necessary continuous renewal of science itself". Indeed a 'specialist' cannot question the adequacy of the prevalent semantic models without implicitly questioning the pecking order of the academic community, thereby jeopardizing his/her own status within it.

None of this is really new. Pharnakes quipped a long time ago "... we are faced again with that stock manoeuvre of the Academy on each occasion that they engage in discourse with others they will not offer any accounting of their own assertions but must keep their interlocutors on the defensive lest they become the prosecutors" (Plutarch, De facie in orbe lunae, 6). Or, as Upton Sinclair said : "it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon not understanding it."