Assignment 1.3 – Reflections on Chamberlin

In telling the story of a Gitksan land claim (219-221), Chamberlin touches on a familiar point alluded to many times throughout If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, but there is a certain culmination of all his prior points in this particular story. It is the “scientific ceremony” (Chamberlin 220). It is science as a story, as a fiction, and scientific method as a ceremony of belief. This thought brings me to Adam Smith’s History of Astronomy. He asks why human beings theorize at all, coming to the conclusion that it is to quell uncertainty when faced by wonder or fear. Rather than an “abstract drive for truth,” scientific inquiry is spurned by “promptings of anxiety” and discomfort with the observable world (Heilbroner 15). Through classification and categorization, we create order and, importantly, comfort. Science, then, is a story that we believe because it is part of a ceremony that we have created in order to make a ‘reality’ out of reality. A view of science as such allows us to pair it with other sources of knowledge and belief, strengthening a common ‘reality’ across cultures.

 

My attention was also caught by the story that Chamberlin tells of a woman named Martha Demientieff, who was stricken with grief following the death of a close friend (205). She lay on a barge on the Yukon River, listening first to the sound of the ice breaking up, then flowing down the river, hitting the barge in large pieces, and then as smaller chunks as time passed. Eventually, all she heard was the sound of the river flowing. This is the story that Demientieff related to her grief for her lost friend, and it is a story that allows her experience to resonate with those who hear or read it.

Demeintieff’s story  shows us how story can be used to create a kind of territory that a reader or listener can use to ground an abstract concept in human experience. This power of stories should be harnessed in teaching philosophy. In postmodern theory, where little is grounded and almost all is conceptual, story is a powerful ground that can be used to inspire understanding. Non-positive arguments that do not follow the institutional preference for positivism require belief. Bridging the contradiction between imaginary and real, story can advance a critical, postmodern attitude in ways that strictly academic language will never be able to accomplish.

 

The concept of “underlying title” gets at that heart of what this course is about – it is a story about ownership, or right, or privilege (Chamberlin 229). Such title is fiction, a “trick,” and it embraces a contradiction between reality and imagination (ibid.). “Why not change the underlying title back to aboriginal title?” (ibid.). Chamberlin argues that a change in story “wouldn’t change anything at all” (230), and that his property would remain his due to the protection of “the courts and Parliament” (231). All that would change are our understandings by replacing one fiction with another.

Here, I believe that he is wrong. Those executive and judicial bodies have the power to protect Chamberlin’s property precisely because of the current story of underlying title. To change that story would be to invert the power held – it would flip our understandings of Us and Them, of where Us and Them come from. Yes, “we’ll get used to it” (Chamberlin 231), but the practical implications are far less shruggable than Chamberlin makes them out to be.

I do not mean to enter a discussion on justice or morality. I am not saying that underlying title should lie with any particular person or group. Rather, I am highlighting that Chamberlin glazes over tremendous changes that would occur should the story be changed. It is not enough to posit that “the lawyers would work it out” (Chamberlin 231). The lawyers, with legal power granted to them through standing institutions, all of which converge at some point with the story of settler’s underlying title, would be of no effect. This does not refute what I believe is Chamberin’s more central message, but rather bolsters it. This kind of change that would affect such a large number of people is the true power of a story.

 

Works Cited

“Aboriginal Title.” Defenders of the Land. Defenders of the Land, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.

“Aboriginal Title.” Indigenous Foundations. The University of British Columbia, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.

Feigl, Herbert. “Positivism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016Web. 19 May 2016.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Essential Adam Smith. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987. Print.

Kwangsu, Kim. “Adam Smith’s ‘History of Astronomy’ and View of Science.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 36.4 (2012): 799-820. Web. 19 May 2016.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Assignment 1.3 – Reflections on Chamberlin

  1. CamBullen

    Thanks for a great post Nick! I was particularly struck by your discussion of Science and the Scientific Method. I found myself reading and re-reading the paragraph because on the one hand I completely agree with your analysis, but at the same time – as someone who likes to think of himself as a rookie biologist – search as I might, I don’t recognize these sentiments in myself. I think the disconnect might come from an incompatibility of scale.

    I would argue that the “promptings of anxiety” that Smith refers to occur at the larger scale of humanity (and/or society). Our collective focus on science, and particularly the formalization of this focus into the scientific method, is driven by our need to create order from chaos, and as you said, create comfort. On the other hand however, I believe that scientists themselves (at least the good ones) are only ever driven by insatiable curiosity. And I think this curiosity is present in everyone to some extent. Even if formalized ‘science’ were to drop off the face of the earth, I would like to think biologists would still be standing on the beach or in the forest looking at the world around them saying “I wonder…” But then again, maybe I just need to think this way for my own sanity 🙂

    • NickBabey

      I think that the “insatiable curiosity” that you are talking about and the “promptings of anxiety” that Smith is talking about might be the same sentiment, born in wonder of the unknown or unexplained. Smith goes on to discuss religion, saying that it fills the same role that science does, explaining that which we wonder about. Any way one goes about it, the process of explaining is the telling of a story, whether it is a “story” that we are more likely to recognize (as in literature), or some kind of more hidden story (as in the scientific method).

      I personally find the same sort of sentiments in myself. Much of International Relations revolves around the central questions of “why do we act?” and “how should we act?” Of course, there are no final answers to these questions, but we have created many a theory to answer them in more or less systematic ways. When presented with uncertainty, we want to make order.

      The question of order is also an interesting one that Smith discusses in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” To him, we desire order because it brings with it beauty. We find ordered things more beautiful: the symmetry of a face, the sharp lines of a building, and so on. So we go from wonder to story to order to beauty. Of course, I am generalizing a complex theory from the Scottish Enlightenment, but I hope you find it interesting nonetheless! I sure do.

      Thanks for the comment, Cam.

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