The history of ideas in the XX Century: voices and paths within complexity

By Umberta Telfener e Luca Casadio

The history of ideas in the XX century

Ludwig Wittgenstein observed in his Philosophical Investigations (1953, no. 18) that language “can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight, regular streets and uniform houses.” In our view, this analogy also captures the evolution of the various forms of knowledge (collective, individual, family, cultural, aesthetic, religious, etc.) and scientific knowledge in particular, with its “constructions”, interaction with other styles, and landscape.

The metaphor of the city thus enables us to imagine the coexistence of new and old buildings, “historical” neighbourhoods inhabited by peaceful, long-established paradigms and busy crossroads where the foundations are being laid for the construction of new edifices, new viewpoints, new ways of understanding the city itself, new ideas. And ideas are born and ripen like fruit on trees. The convergence of different ways of looking at the world leads to the emergence of ideas that are very similar even when they regard distant spheres. These similar ideas multiply, one new metaphor gives birth to others, new ideas are “invented” or simply “picked up” by those capable of recognising and appreciating them. The same ideas are sometimes translated into theories by authors who do not even know one another, are concerned with different subjects and have not travelled the same paths, but are in some way visiting the same city and the same district. Because science is not an independent variable and does not describe trajectories that are defined, consequential and “natural”. It is rather an unorganised set of possible pathways, an open system, dependent on the context, the economic, cultural and artistic matrix, the moods and the landscapes that fill the gaze of scientists, providing constraints and new possibilities. Science is an open system closely connected with the events in its context, influenced by the world outside and responsive to the cultural changes underway and the ideas in circulation. It can be described as a complex social activity, just like the appraisal of knowledge.

If it is true, as Kuhn (1962) argues, that science changes and evolves in terms of paradigms, it is equally true that the ways of knowing nature and mankind are not subject to wholesale replacement. Anew cityof knowledge is not founded every time there is a revolution. There is rather a change in location, in the relations between the centre and the outskirts, the places that attract visitors and those now deserted, the fashionable haunts and the backwaters. In every city, as in every cultural panorama, there is thus always something new and something old, elements that coexist, coming into contact and collision to generate new configurations and ideas.

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