Paradigm, No 4 (December, 1990)

Fictional Forms and Science Textbooks

Greg Myers

Department of Linguistics,
University of Lancaster,
Lancaster LA1 4YT


[Author's note: In keeping with the idea of fictional forms, this dialogue was written before the colloquium. But some of the questions were so good, I worked some of them in on the train home. My apologies to those who find their real questions attributed to someone with a funny name.]

Greg Myers presented an idiosyncratic list of texts that use fictional forms such as dialogues, parodies, and parables to convey scientific information. He focused on dialogues by Boyle and Galileo in the 17th century, and Jane Marcet in the early 19th century, but he showed they have also been used in a surprisingly wide range of 20th century, academic and popular works. He asked whether they were "A Good Thing". Authors and commentators have suggested dialogues allow the consideration of opposed points of view in a controversial matter and that they follow students’ own processes of learning a subject. Recently some sociologists of scientific knowledge have experimented with dialogues and other fictional forms to dramatize the possibility of varying interpretations of their own texts. Myers argued that the fiction of the dialogue does not allow an escape from realist form; the dialogue form itself suggests an authority lying behind it. He devoted most of his talk to outlining the kinds of characters used in dialogues, especially the Simpleton and the Author figures, and to presenting a plot pattern of the arousal and delayed satisfaction of curiosity that works through interruptions, digressions, and questions and answers, and that has to deal with the problem of an ending. While he did not see the dialogue form as leading to open inquiry, as some have argued, he did find them interesting in the idealized pedagogy they presented, which enables us to reflect on the pedagogical discourse at each of these periods.


Fictional Discussion Following the Paper


Chris Stray: I’m sorry to have to cut you off here, Greg, but we are running out of time and we want to save a few minutes for questions. You have certainly given us a lot to think about. Who would like to open up?

(8 seconds silence)

Kirk Smeaton: Well, while you’re all thinking I’ll start the ball rolling. I wonder if you see the books on your list as comprising a tradition of dialogue writing from Galileo -- or Plato -- to Ashmore and Higgins

GM: Well . . .

KS: Because if you do, it seems to me that it is a highly implausible one. As far as I know, Mrs. Marcet and your other 19th-century examples didn’t read Galileo or Boyle, and there’s no evidence that Ashmore or Higgins read any of them. All you’ve got to link these together are a few explicit modern attempts to imitate earlier dialogues, like Jauch. Some are serious science for other scientists, some are textbooks, some are popularizations.

GM: Thanks. You’re right. But I’m not saying that there is a tradition here like the one Leavis (rather improbably) traces for the English novel. This is a series of authors turning to the same form for different reasons. The only traditional models I can see are Plato and the catechism. A different study would look at the earlier dialogues, as Multhauf has done, or at those of the 17th century, as Shapin and Schaffer have done, or at those of the 19th century, or at the New Literary Forms, each use in its own context. But I haven’t. And as for the distinction of popularisers like Mrs. Marcet and great scientists like Boyle, that’s just the sort of distinction I want to blur.

Edith Weston: I was also wondering if you might make more sense of your l7th-century examples if you set them more carefully in their time. You are undoubtedly familiar with the works of Comenius on dialogue in pedagogy

GM: Umm. Well . . .

EW: And especially his Consultation. Comenius was in correspondence with Boyle and Wilkins, and from that perspective we can see the dialogue emerging as the natural pedagogical form.

GM: That’s interesting because Roger Higgins, one of my modern dialogue writers, said he was inspired by Comenius. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Stoke Rocheford: I think we can look back further than that for sources. Dialogues -- really contextualized lists of vocabulary -- have been used in language teaching texts since the 16th century. Look at Caxton’s Familiar Dialogues.

KS: Well if you’re going to include linguistics and language teaching as a science . . .

GM: Happy to do it . . .

KS: Then you could include Samuel Ward’s plays, written in the 17th century to illustrate grammatical patterns. He was a devout Puritan, opposed to plays of course, and when asked why he persisted in writing them, he said that he produced them as he produced children, out of pure pleasure.

GM: Sound like that ties in with the driving force I’m suggesting for dialogue plots.

Burton Coggles: You might also look at Robert Recorde’s mathematical works in the mid-16th century. He certainly has lots of this initiation-response-feedback pattern -- the students illustrate the wrong answers. And he has an ingenious ending -- the teacher is hauled off to jail. This is autobiographical -- he died in prison a year later. But Recorde’s works have just two characters -- I think you’ll find that true of Joyce, Parkes, and others as well. I think the asymmetry in their roles has a very simple explanation -- the reader identifies with the students and learns from the teacher.

GM: But what about the dialogues of Galileo or Boyle, or the sociologists -- they claim they have some balance.

BC: That just shows you don’t have one category here.

KS: I haven’t yet had the . . . mm . . . pleasure of reading these high-flown sociologists you tell us about. But I would have thought their attitude towards knowledge is in fact a very traditional one. Isn’t it a fact that it was a traditional form of education in say theology to present formal disputations, as far back as the middle ages? And in some universities those formal presentations continued until very recently.

GM: I didn’t know that. But it might explain why, as Stillman Drake notes, the dialogue form was very common in Galileo’s time.

KS: And of course there is the catechism as a model -- but no one takes that as a form allowing for varying interpretations.

GM: Indeed, Samuel Parkes, who wrote A Chemical Catechism, had to warn readers of later editions he didn’t mean for them to memorize the whole thing.

EW: While we’re looking for parallels, if not models or sources, what about the Talmud?

GM: Indeed, I thought of that, reading Michael Billig’s book Arguing and Thinking. Does anyone want to push this tradition further back into the past? Well there’s Plato, of course, but it’s striking that while some of these dialogues refer to Plato, none of them refer to the form of Plato’s dialogues.

Brandon Claypool: While we’re on the subject of Plato, you keep talking around what seems to me to be the key issue, the distinction between speech and writing.

GM: Yes, I think I know what you mean. But it isn’t all so dear as it might seem. One would think that these people write dialogues to put individual original present voice back into scientific writing. They go to all the trouble to create situations and characters and some sort of representation of conversation. But when they’ve done this, their characters nearly always sit around talking about books. At the end of the first day of Two World Systems, Galileo’s Salviati praises writing above all human inventions. And well he might, because Galileo’s science is imaginable only in writing or more precisely, only in print. It is writing that enables him to compare tables of various astronomers, or to present tables of ballistics. And his proofs are just too hard sometimes to work as talk. In Two New Sciences, Sagredo has to ask for a written copy to take home and study at leisure. Ironically, the turn to dialogue nearly always seems to emphasize the written nature of science.

Stoke Rochford: You know there was a great deal of criticism of some 19th-century books for children for including low language -- they said children would imitate any errors. Was there any criticism of Mrs. Marcet and others like her for allowing the statement of wrong ideas about physics or chemistry?

GM: Not that I know of. But I think what you are suggesting is that there are two different views of the textbook. One is that it contains the sum of knowledge, so every statement in it, taken by itself, should be correct. That’s a view a lot of our students have. The other view is that knowledge is a narrative, going from point to point, in that view, it doesn’t matter at all if someone says something wrong, as long as it winds up in the right place. Anyone who wrote a dialogue would take the second view.

Burton Coggles: While we’re talking about the 19th-century examples, I was surprised you didn’t mention what for the modern reader is the most striking thing about them, the constant moral lessons, not only about God’s Providence, putting us in the temperate zone of the third planet from the sun, that sort of thing, but also references to proper scientific behaviour. Do they all agree on that?

GM: They all -- I think I can say this without exception -- they all dramatize some proper scientific practice as against improper practice. Most of them for instance, are concerned with the careful definition of terms, the students coming with vague or popular definitions and being set straight. Boyle and Galileo both have clear philosophies of science to present, but as far as I can tell they are different. Galileo’s Salviati and Sagredo prefer mathematical demonstration to experiment, while Boyle’s Carneades insists that there is only time, before supper, for the experimental results supporting each case, not for the "reasons". The sociologists too can have a rather moralistic sound when talking about other sociologists who keep using conventional forms. Dialogue seems to invite this sort of evaluation.

Dr. Doddington: I’ve been reading Bakhtin and I wonder how this use of the dialogic is related.

GM: It isn’t .

(4 seconds silence)

Bentley Skellow: I’d like to change the subject. You mentioned early on Searle’s question, "Why bother?" Is it necessary to pose such a question? I mean why is it that the logical status of fiction is a problem? If you start like some philosophers with the logical proposition as the basic form of age, and the conveying of information as the main purpose, and extend it to categories of speech acts like assertions, you have to invent machinery for the most common uses of language. But if you start with a wider range of possible uses for language, then it is what Searle calls the assertions that need explaining. So these dialogues don’t need justification -- it is the scientific article or the treatise that looks a bit strange.

GM: Yes. But as I said. all these writers, without exception, make some attempt to justify their use of dialogue. The textbook or treatise doesn’t require any explanation. But I take your point.

BS: To follow that at up, you know Searle calls the opposite of fictional utterances "serious utterances". Are you serious?

GM: I hope not. When Roger Higgins sent me a copy of his dialogue on Navajo classifiers, he had to assure me that "Linguistics is a very serious science". I don’t doubt it -- I’m in a linguistics department. But no one ever says "Physics is a very serious science". Pierre Guillet de Monthoux’s view is that "seriousness" goes with a false objectivity and a lack of commitment, the sense that one has no choice. In this sense, Ashmore is not serious -- just look up "non-serious" in his index if you don’t believe me. And I think Higgins is not serious either, in this sense -- there is a playfulness in his imagining what it would be like for students to find out something in generative phonology for themselves.

Blythe Ranby: I’d like to raise a serious question. It seems to me that the odd one out in your list is Mrs. Marcet. You put her in the context of enlightenment ideas about science and education, but you don’t even mention that hers are about the only dialogues on your list that involve females. What do you know about her background?

GM: Only what I’ve read in the Dictionary of National Biography.

BR: Well does she always write for Mrs B. and these two girls?

GM: In the dialogues I’ve seen, yes.

BR: So Mrs. B is their mother?

GM: No. And I don’t think she’s the governess either -- she seems to be an independent gentlewoman, because she attends lectures on her own and can impart her knowledge to these girls or not, as she chooses.

BR: Does she ever comment on the fact that these dialogues involve females?

GM: Yes, in Conversations on Chemistry she says she is writing when popular science institutions are being opened to women -- to gentlewomen that is.

BR: I’m asking all this because it seems you really miss the point just doing a formal analysis of texts and showing that these works are a lot like other dialogues. What matters is the context in institutions then, the way this text actually entered the discourse of popular science or education for women or education for workers. You say that despite their different purposes, all these writers used the same genre, but what I’m saying is that despite using the same genre, the texts could be inserted in discourse in quite different ways. You really need to start say with the Longman’s archives, and situate her in relation to. the production of these very popular books. The appropriate comparisons might be Eleanor Fenn, who wrote as Mrs Lovechild


BR: Or Sarah Trimmer (you could talk to Pauline Heath about that)

Other voices: Or Arabella Stewart, who wrote in the 1870s . . . or Mrs. Marcum . . . or Mrs. Wakefield . . . Who is it wrote The Fairy Geography?

GM: That’s a different paper. I’ll try to find them and add them to my list.

BP: Let me get this straight -- after digging up these dialogues, you don’t think they’re "A Good Thing". You are going to publish this thing as a straight academic paper with footnotes, constructing an object called the Scientific Dialogue and conveying knowledge about it.

GM: Exactly. The undermining is your job -- and I must say you do it pretty well. But as I say, I like reading these dialogues. I think they very well as pedagogical tools. I think that’s what I’ll be looking at as I revise this paper -- the experiments in these imaginary classrooms. I’m particularly interested in

Chris Stray: I see the Porter at the back of the room to tell us the tea is ready, so I think we’d better break this off here and thank St. Peter’s College for their hospitality today.

[Dr Myers has a bibliography of scientific and other texts using fictional forms, which will appear in number 5. Ed.]

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