There is a Vulcan philosophy called Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations; it's kind of a super-multiculturalism supposedly dictated by logic or at least so closely related to the way that Vulcans practice logic that the two are indistinguishable. Not being Vulcan myself (at least, not as far as I know :-) I can only present a surface-level account of the stance, but it seems to me to involve a healthy respect for contingency and the uniqueness of actually existing situations. Things are the way that they are, and take the course or action that they actually do take, not because of cosmic natural necessity or because of any innate dispositional character of the materials at hand, but because the possibilities of the universe constitute a countable infinity of potential combinations. Hence one has to appreciate the particular way in which things come together, because there is a potentially limitless number of other ways that they could have come together, and thus a potentially limitless number of alternative pathways.

I bring this up not just because it's relevant to my s/s/f class' ongoing discussion of Star Trek this week and next week (since Star Trek is in many ways a depiction of an analogical America, IDIC is kind of a utopian extrapolation of what American respect for diversity might become -- this utopian extrapolation is the usual role played by the Vulcans in the Federation, and also underpinned Roddenberry's conception of characters like Spock. Do not get me started on how this gets completely frelled up in Enterprise). I also mention it because it seems an apt account of how class discussions proceed, especially from year to year. This semester I am teaching two courses that I have taught before: the s/s/f seminar, and my Conduct of Inquiry course for the Ph.D. students. The syllabi for each course changes slightly from repetition to repetition; s/s/f this year features a new unit on the politics of scientific knowledge, and C of I features the addition of Andrew Abbott's brilliant book Chaos of Disciplines. But in basic outline and design the courses remain broadly similar across time.

What fascinates me -- along the lines of IDIC -- is how a discussion of the same material can be so radically different with a different group of people at a different point in time. This week s/s/f discussed Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and focused largely on the feasibility of the (libertarian) society that he outlined; two years ago the discussion was much more centered on Mike the intelligent supercomputer. C of I discussed Wittgenstein's Tractatus last week, and discussed Hempel's essay "The function of General Laws in History" this week; the discussion centered on the practical implications of these broadly positivist stances for conducting actual research, whereas past years' discussions have been more concerned with the ontology of logical positivism or the socio-political project embodied in the drive to eliminate metaphysical claims from our stock of putatively "scientific" knowledge.

What changes? The text(s) remain the same, in the sense that the same words appear on the same pages; I keep teaching the courses, although I know that I'm not exactly the same person I was last time around (are we ever?). Obviously the group of students is different, bringing with them different individual and communal concerns, and the environment within which we discuss things is different. Talking about space as "the final frontier" and examining how the notion of Manifest Destiny is explored in the Star Trek megatext, as well as in Heinlein's novel (which might just as easily have been called Manifest Destiny on the Moon), is obviously a different matter during the War on Terrorism and in the presence of a newly aggressive vindicationist American foreign policy. And the blogging changes classroom dynamics in unpredictable ways too, since people can provisionally formulate and advance ideas outside of class in ways that they couldn't before.

Sometimes -- often -- I just want to step back and watch the grand panoply of joint action unfold. Conversations are collective products, and their variety is endlessly fascinating to me. IDIC indeed.

[Posted with ecto]

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