Siegfried J. SCHMIDT
University of Münster
|This extract is part of an article published in Susanne Janssen and Nel van Dijk (Eds.) The empirical study of literature and the media : Current approches and perspectives, Rotterdam: Faculteit des Historische en Kunstwetenschappen, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, 1998, pp.91-108. It is not a direct answer to Prof. Dongala's piece. Reprinted with the author's permission|
|On objects, problems and observers|
Science can, I assume, plausibly be regarded as a social system in which people try to observe phenomena and to solve problems (i.e., to produce knowledge) in socially acceptable ways. Problems as well as phenomena, however, only exist for people (technically speaking: for observers) in biographical and socio-cultural contexts, because observing is a 'real operation' in a 'real environment'. Yet, observers can only observe within the range of their biological, social and cultural constraints. In other words, it is observers and not environments that break the symmetry of the relationship between system and environment. Consequently, all observations are observer-dependent and whatever is said, is said by observers to other observers of their kind.
Leaving aside further details of the epistemology of operative constructivism, if we take seriously the problem of the human observer two things become clear:
(ii) any object constructed in this way is not an entity in the traditional ontological sense, but a phenomenon, i.e., a function of observation, a time-bound result of empirically multi-conditioned sensorimotor, cognitive, emotional and communicative processes.
It follows from these considerations that literary scholars do not speak of an entity called 'literature' but about the socio-culturally conditioned problems of observers, emerging from encounters with literary phenomena in special situations. The traditions and customs of the academic community require that such problems have the status of intersubjectively plausible inquiries into the nature of literary phenomena, or be forged, by way of suitable discourse, in such a way as to acquire it. Why do particular problems affect observers at a particular time, and by what communicative ploys do such problems become (rather) generally accepted: all this can only he clarified by historical and empirical research. It is, in a word, contingent.
According to the traditions and customs of the academic community, observations, problems and their solutions acquire scientific relevance only when they are made available in an appropriate communicative format by discipline-specific traditions and often fairly rigid expectations and requirements. In brief, successful (and thus consequential) communication within a discipline depends on acceptable thematic contributions within the framework of a/the discipline-specific discourse. Such contributions must not only be thematically viable, they must also meet discourse-specific expectations with regard to genres, styles and registers, and they must even be compatible with the guiding metaphors of particular discourses. It is by discourse-specific rules of communication that a discipline selects system-specific contributions and draws a system-specific boundary which, by and large, secures and maintains system-internal self-reference and self-organization, i.e., relative autonomy of the respective social system.
For reasons of both history and the construction of identity, scientific disciplines are compelled to handle differences on two fronts: on the one hand, they must visibly differ from non-scientific problem solving (science v. non-science); on the other, they must attain sufficient stabilization of their distinctive character with regard to other scientific disciplines in order to survive (e.g., the difference between a science of literature and media studies or philosophical aesthetics).
It follows from this argumentation that nothing in the field of literary studies (as elsewhere) is 'natural' or 'self-evident' apart from the blind spots in our observation. Consequently, all research designs in literary studies must be developed in a self-referential and self-reflexive way. The observation of what is to be observed, and how this is to be done, must be explicitly spelled out. In other words, all literary studies performed in the domain of a literary science have to be organized and controlled from a second-order level of observation, and as second-order observers we have to take into account the fact that every research task is (historically) contingent, although it is (actually) far from arbitrary.
These considerations inevitably lead us to the metatheoretical question: How does a science of literature solve problems considered to be relevant in the academic community ?
|What 'empirical science' can mean for a constructivist|
Our experience shows that there is no consensus on the concept of science in literary studies. Even the question of whether or not literary studies should strive to acquire scientific status is still under debate. Yet, since literary scholars cannot very well wait for a solution of these problems to be provided 'from outside', for instance by the philosophy of science, they must be all the more concerned with finding a solution 'inside'. I should like to submit the following proposal for such a solution.
My proposal does not rest on the separation of arts and sciences, or of hard and soft sciences, but takes as its starting point the distinction 'scientific v. non-scientific' in order to reach a 'monistic' conception of science. The initial hypothesis is as follows: in scientific and non-scientific behaviour and communication, our central purpose is to create experiences and solve problems, such activities being, as a matter of course, emotionally loaded and normatively value laden. The difference between the two kinds of experience and problem solving lies primarily in the explicitness of operation, and its regulative parameters. In other words, the difference lies in the strategic change of the point of observation from first-order to second-order and (occasionally) third-order observations.
The specific character of scientific problem solving in its broad sense may be expressed concisely by the formula: systematic problem solving by means of explicit (=operationalized) procedures.
To follow this specification, certain requirements must be met; these are, however, not to be regarded as norms prescribed by a philosophy of science, but as conditions of being able to solve problems, explicitly, by means of procedures which have proved their worth in past practice. First, there must be a systematically ordered conceptual framework for the constitution of phenomena and problems: in brief, an explicit theory as a conceptual strategy for problem solving. To meet the criterion of explicitness, the logical structure of this theory must be apparent and its central concepts must be rigorously defined or demonstrable by exemplar (= postulate of specialist terminology). Only on such a basis may one expect the theory to be used in an intersubjectively replicable and controllable way.
As soon as the problems, whose solution is considered relevant by a community of investigators, have been explicated theoretically, an operational procedure must be found which specifies all the steps leading to the solution of the problems (= methodological postulate) as well as to the point where the problem may be considered solved. Methods are means to decide between truth and falsity with reference to specific decision criteria. They force the observer to move to the level of second-order observation. Only on the basis of such explicit interrelating of problems, problem-solving strategies, and problem solutions, does the problem-solving procedure become applicable and testable intersubjectively, and only then does it become possible to assess its potential applicability to other problem-solving contexts (= postulate of applicability).
The requirements of scientific problem solving described so far are furthermore essential both for the teaching and learning of theories, and for interdisciplinary cooperation which aims at the reasonable interrelation of research projects rather than producing a patchwork of rather isolated studies conducted on mutually incompatible theoretical and methodological premises. They may not only help to secure the continual recruitment of high-quality professionals, but also improve the ability to promote permanent learning as well as the transformation of one's stock in coevolution with other disciplines. Both aspects are, as one may have become aware in the meantime, neither self-evident nor trivial.
If, as I have tried to argue since the late 1970s, we want to establish a type of literary science with a clear-cut format of problem-solving activities (see above) on an explicit, epistemological, metatheoretical, and methodological basis a science whose activities are learnable and teachable, are open to interdisciplinary inspection and confirmation, and whose results are applicable inside and outside the academic realm then we have to opt for an empirically oriented type of literary studies. 'Empirical' does not refer to 'the reality itself' and to first-order observation (= immediate observation) but to the production of facts (= in the sense of logical, pragmatic, mental and social stabilities which are regarded and treated as independent objects) by means of theoretically and methodically controlled procedures. The kind of intersubjectivity resulting from empirical research is not guaranteed 'by reality in itself' but will be considered valid as long as its effects on scientific communication remain stable. It will end as soon as it fails to stand up to second-order observation.
In response to the framing remarks made up to this point, an answer to the question of what characterizes scientific empirical research may be based on two fundamental beliefs, as follows: (i) Since the systematic question of empirical evidence is one of second-order observation, the question of scientific empirical research must accordingly be posed on the level of the relationship between first-order and second-order observation. (ii) If we link the distinction 'empirical v. non-empirical' to social criteria of experience and its results, then scientific empirical research must also be subject to the sociality/culturality and thus contingency of knowledge.
 'Observation' is used here in the technical meaning of drawing and designating distinctions. This operation is performed by a (cognitive) system within an environment. This is what 'real' means here.
 Cf. Luhmann, Niklas, 1990. Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp; Luhmann,1990a. Soziologische Aufklärung 5. Konstruktivistische Perspektiven. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag; Foerster, Heinz von, 1993. Wissen und Gewissen. Versuch einer Brücke. Edited by S.J. Schmidt. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp; Schmidt, Siegfried J., 1994. Kognitive Autonomie und soziale Orientierung. Konstruktivistische Bemerkungen zum Zusammenhang von Kognition, Kommunikation, Medien und Kultur. Frankfort/ M.: Suhrkamp; Schmidt, 1997. 'A systems-oriented approach to literary studies' in H. van Gorp, A. Masselein, D. de Geest and K. Gedolf (eds.), 'The study of literature and culture: Systems and fields.' Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 24 (1),119-136; or Mitterer, Josef, 1992. Das jenseits der Philosophie. Wider das dualistische Erkenntnisprinzip. Wien: Passagen Verlag.
 'Contingent' certainly does not mean 'arbitrary'. It means that other possibilities could have been chosen.
 'Monistic' is not to be misunderstood in the reductionist sense of this term in neo-positivistic positions. It is supposed to indicate that I do not start from differences within the body of sciences, but from the difference 'science/ non-science'.
 On the problem of the applicability of knowledge produced by a science of literature, cf. Schmidt, Siegfried J., 1997 'Anwendungsorientierte Literaturwissenschaft: Perspektiven eines Projekts' in:G. Jäger and J. Schönert (eds.), Wissenschaft und Berufspraxis. Die Vielgestaltigkeitder neuen Studienangebote, 135-144. Paderborn [etc.]: Schöningh.
 This problem becomes very evident in the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL) framework in which most of the empirical projects us conducted by psychologists and sociologists who, of course, we culturally embedded in the traditions and routines of their disciplines. Compared to genuine literary scholars, who we (so to say) second-hand empiricists, they clearly possess the better methodical experiences and knowledge. On the other hand they very often differ in the evaluation of the relevance of problems to be solved and the reliability and validity of methodical procedures. This situation can only be changed if both sides meet the requirements of scientific behavior described above.
 Foerster, Heinz von, 1993. Wissen und Gewissen. Versuch einerBrücke. Edited by S.J. Schmidt. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 206ff.; cf. also the comments in Schmidt (1996), 'Trivialization and empiricity' in: R. Glanville (ed.), 'Heinz von Foerster, a Festschrift.' Systems Research 13 (3), 385-392.
|Siegfried J. SCHMIDT studied philosphy, history, German literature, linguistics and art history in Freiburg, Göttingen and Munster. In 1971, he obtained his first chair for linguistics at Bielefeld University, transferred to a chair for literary theory at the same university in 1974, and again to a chair for German literature and literary theory at Siegen University, where he established the LUMIS-Institute for empirical research on literature and the media. Since 1997, he has been a Professor of Communication Theory and Media Culture at the University of Münster. (See home page). He is the author of many books including Der Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1987 Die Selbstorganisation des Sozialsystems Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1989. Fusstapfen des Kopfes. Friederike Mayröckers Prosa aus konstruktivistischer Sicht. Münster: Kleinheinrich 1989 Hrsg. Gedächtnis. Probleme und Perspektiven der interdisziplinären Gedächtnisforschung. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991 Grundriss der Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft. Mit einem Nachwort zur Taschenbuchausgabe. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991 Der Kopf, die Welt, die Kunst. Konstruktivismus als Theorie und Praxis. Wien: Böhlau, 1993 Kognitive Autonomie und soziale Orientierung. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1994 Die Zähmung des Blicks. Konstruktivismus - Empirie - Wissenschaft. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1998 Kalte Faszination. Medien - Kultur - Wissenschaft in der Mediengesellschaft. Weilerswist: Velbrück 2000. Interview with Siegfried J. Schmidt.|