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Biomedicine in museums

The inability of contextualism to explain disruptions and surprises

Last time I presented a paper criticising contextualist thinking was at the annual History of Science conference in Washington DC in November 2007 — that’s almost five years ago!

I haven’t had much time over to think about the individualism/contextualism/holism issue. This museum, and a couple of kids, have taken all my time. But a recent talk by Graham Harman has reinvigorated my spirits. Here the abstract to an audio of a keynote titled “Everything Is Not Connected” that Harman gave in Berlin, 2 February 2012:

The idea that everything is interconnected has become a staple of intellectual life. As a related phenomenon, “contextualisation” is now the method of first resort throughout the humanities. This lecture opposes the general trend of emphasising systems and wholes over autonomous individuals. Among the greatest drawbacks of holistic ontology is its inability to explain disruptions and surprises in any system it studies. At best, one posits some sort of “materiality” lying outside all formatted systems that serves as their underground source of change, a theory that fails for a variety of reasons.

Couldn’t agree more!

I’m less sure about Harman’s remedy, object-oriented ontology:

The only alternative is to adopt an object-oriented model of fully formatted entities lying beyond the grasp of the human mind and even of each other. After providing some theoretical background for this claim, I will consider several recent political phenomena that are better understood by an object-oriented approach than a holistic one.

But so far that’s peanuts compared to his criticism of contextualism.

(thumbnail credit: DWinton’s flickr photostream; Creative Commons license)


Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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