Kitchen Notebooks - Gramsci and Scientific Method

Like Antonio Gramsci found himself confined to Mussolini's dungeons, having to jot down short lines of thought in small notebooks, I at times find myself confined to the kitchen table, by a laptop, forced by an uncontrollable impulse to comment on something I have seen or read, to write a few short lines about some subject.

I recently started reading Monthly Review Press’ edition of Antonio A. Santucci’s Antonio Gramsci. As I had just been lecturing a group of engineering students on the topic of scientific method, and common errors of thought that can create obstacles in scientific thinking, I did not get further than Joseph A. Buttigieg’s foreword, before stumbeling upon a connection I had to comment.

In describing Gramsci’s criticism of Bukharin’s rather dogmatic and deterministic understanding of history, Buttigieg quotes Gramsci writing “There are those who believe that science must absolutely mean ‘system’, and therefore they construct all kinds of systems that have only the mechanical outward appearance of a system” (Q7, §29)

Buttigieg, in a foreword which also focuses on the misuse of Gramscian quotes and single bits of information and analysis taken out of context, thus puts his finger on two of the most important errors of thought, (or worse: strategies of deception) that are reason to many perversions of science. One is the human condition as a “pattern-recognizing animal”, another the well known strategy of “cherrypicking”.

It has been well described, several times, how the human ability to see patterns, often cause us to se patterns where none exist. Both psychological experiments (see i.e.Barry Singer), and popular examples like the famous “Face on Mars” show us that we have a definite tendency to see patterns in our own mind, that do not represent any external reality. It is not a huge stretch of the imagination to think that this was a psychological component to the development of the deterministic view of history that dominated parts of the 2nd international. A view Gramsci has been given the credit of breaking away from.

(Some evolutionary bilogists believe the urge to over-zealously recognize patterns is a fundamental biological trait, as it is better to recognize one tiger too many in the grass, than one too few. Wether all traits linked to "pattern-recognizing" can be linked to such simple mechanizms remains to be seen.)

In the same manner - the process of “cherrypicking” - pointing only to those isolated facts, quotations or anecdotes that support your pre-determined conclusion, while neglecting anything contradicting it, is a central element of many forms of pseudoscience. It is no surprise that this strategy rears its not-so-good-looking head also in the area of Gramsci studies.

With a consciousness of these, and other errors of thought, and rigor in scientific honesty, their influence can however be greatly diminished. But only by being aware of our human weaknesses, can we overcome them!

The author outside the Gramsci Museum in Ghilarza

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