JUSTDOLIT: a single tool to analyse all texts


1 Discourses of knowledge

Mystery and otherness: What we called 'dimensions' (St. Augustine) and 'fear' or 'yearning' (Riemann) can also be referred to as 'mystery' or 'other':

  • When we communicate with somebody (St. Augustine), we address somebody else, an 'other', a term first made fashionable by an important philosopher and literary theorist called Mikhail Bakhtin.
  • And when we fear something (Riemann), we fear it because it is mysterious. The Aliens tetralogy proves that the oftener we see the monster, the less we fear it. By apprehending it visually we get to understand it, and so we deprive it of its 'mystery'.

In a way, all reality is mysterious, is other. This is why, from the very beginning, human beings have devised a whole range of discourses, some academic, others less so or not at all, designed to know that mysterious other. I will call them discourses of knowledge or epistemological discourses.

The motivation behind such discourses and the knowledge they promise can be positive or negative. Take curiosity, for example: in the past, it was believed that too much curiosity was bad. In contemporary culture, it’s long since curiosity killed the cat, and now curiosity is one of the most potent forces, nearly on a par with our most basic drives, the desire to understand, to achieve a partial fusion with the other. The booker-prize winning novel Possession makes this interest in curiosity one of its central issues.

What epistemological discourses are / should not be: What about a negative motivation? Imagine your penpal lives a hundred miles from where you live, and you take the train to meet her, to know her better. Imagine that you want to read Shakespeare's Macbeth (I happen to like it very much) and you don't know English, or Elizabethan English, so you use a pocket translator. An epistemological discourse would be the train that takes you to your penpal, and the pocket translator which helps you understand Macbeth. This then is our first stereotype: epistemological discourses exist because of the object, i.e. the other, they study.

On the other hand, you discourse is never your penpal or Macbeth, they are emphatically not that other. If they are treated as penpals and Macbeths, they stop being means to the end of understanding the other. Literary analysis will then have to deal with them.

2 Discourses and stereotypes

Every epistemological discourse naturally studies one of St. Augustine's dimensions: At their most simple we think epistemological discourses naturally study one of the four dimensions of otherness:


Epistemological discourse
Dimension it studies
theology, magic, voodoo,
any of the natural sciences
history, politics, sociology


Every epistemological discourse can be related to any dimension: Although every discourse naturally studies one of the dimensions, this natural identification of discourse and dimension is only an initial one. It takes place in our collective subconscious and expresses itself in our expectations. In a text, however, discourses may be linked with any other dimension. Thus, for example,the science of van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula looks like magic, theology in the Da Vinci Code becomes nature and politics, and in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, history becomes metaphysics, society, and nature.


van Helsing's science looks like magic Van Helsing is Dracula’s nemesis. Much of his scientific knowledge mimics Dracula’s magical and religiously informed powers: to combat Dracula, he dabbles in hypnotism and pre-scientific blood transfusions, and uses garlic, crucifixes and consecrated hosts
Da Vinci Code theology becomes nature and politics see module 2.2: metaphysics
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters history becomes metaphysics, society, nature history is defined as “soothing fabulation”, “good at finding things”, not “what happened [but] what historians tell us”, “progress”


In doing these things, discourses leave the dimension they are naturally associated with and enter new dimensions. This is so in texts, but also in real life: imagine

  • a scientist who falsifies historical findings and interpretations to arrive at a new theory and get promoted. This would constitute an example of science socialised.
  • another scientist who comes up with a new theory which is totalitarian, which claims to explain everything to the extent of doing away with religion. This would constitute an example of science rendered metaphysical.
  • this same theory to be used to oppress people. This would again constitute an example of science socialised.

Where discourse leaves its object of study or stops treating it with the necessary “respect” an other requires, the dimension natural to its aim of enquiry may also be substituted for another.

3 Science

Science is the most important epistemological discourse of modern culture: If nature (a special kind of nature) has become the most important dimension of modern culture, this has much to do with the rise of the hard sciences or science to prominence. Alone among the different discourses, science has been able to understand nature so completely that it can predict what she is going to do under many circumstances, and so has the tools - provided by technology - to dominate nature and even change her. In a way, there is an important paradox about our belief in nature and science which, for our belief in one depends on the belief in the other. Expressed schematically, the paradox runs thus:



What we believe


What is the case





Of course, scientific truth is a truth, but no more, and no less, than a manipulative truth. Click on the picture below for a classic example of scientific truth and manipulation:




Science, truth and manipulation

Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

4 Newton and Einstein

There is not one science, but when we think about science at its hardest, most exact and mathematical, we tend to come up with physics. Inside physics, we tend to live with two models: the Einsteinian model and the Newtonian model. The Einsteinian model is more accurate, but counter-intuitive, the Newtonian is more intuitive, but less accurate.

A table set for dinner may be described as knives and forks neatly placed and separated by empty space in an eternal now. That's the Newtonian model. That very table may, however, just as well be described as an energy field with energy clusters in and depending on space-time, and one in which the person who eats is part of the field, rather than simply a consumer. We have trouble with such a description because we still see the table set for dinner as a collection of objects in a vacuum, and so Newtonian science remains the unacknowledged theoretical basis on which our common-sense perception of reality stands or falls.

5 Rationality and irrationality

Science and rationality: The science we thus think about intuitively is Newtonian science. This is the stereotype we first think of. This leads to a series of binary oppositions which we have to take into account as starting points of our expectations:


hard science (physics)
hard fact
mathematics, logic
nature, objectivity
metaphysics, society, the subjective


The upper right box of the table has been left empty, precisely because any discourse - theology, history, art, literature, philosophy, mysticism, sociology, psychology, and a long etc. - is expected to belong there as long as it is opposed to hard science.

Rationality in the absence of science: But just imagine hard science leaves its allotted space in the upper left box. After all, not every text wants to talk about hard science. In the absence of science, the position can be taken up by any other discourse. What often seems important then is that the distinction is maintained along the rational-irrational, material-immaterial, matter-of-fact-flight-of-fancy divides.

Magic-Religion-Science: In Western culture, when we think about the historical development which leads from primitive to developed societies, we tend to believe that the main epistemological discourses which have existed and succeeded each other both in time as well as in degree of complexity are

  1. magic
  2. religion
  3. science

What exactly magic and religion mean is not necessarily clear, but it is of course easiest to place magic and religion on the side of irrationality, and science on the side of rationality.

6 The turn against science

Science started to change the world when it was able to use technology to make money. This change, which started towards the end of teh eighteenth century, was beneficial in many ways, but in other ways, it also led to extremely hard working and living conditions, and it had disastrous consequences for the environment. From the beginning, many people were aware of these disastrous consequences. This changed the perception of science and nature in many ways.

Although science is supposed to study nature, in some ways it became fashionable to think that science attacked and destroyed nature. This criticism has been levelled especially at traditional, Newtonian science. Because it thinks about individual objects as existing in a vacuum, Newtonian science is often accused of only paying attention to the parts and not the whole. On the other hand, Einsteinian science and many other expressions of modern science are often valued more positively, because they tend to be more receptive to the environment in which the scientific object is studied.

This creates a curious inversion. For if Newtonian science is our unwitting standard, and that standard is criticised, we are back to a situation in which a move forward in search of a better science may imply a move backward to those things which traditional Newtonian science (thought it) had left behind, things such as a new sensibility towards environment, a blurring of border between what is intuitively natural and what is more metaphysical. This creates a situation in which new ways of understanding science may be further away from Newtonian science than primitive forms of knowledge in which the observer was not radically separated from the phenomenon he observed, such as magic.



For an example of the relationship of science with rationality and irrationality, magic and religion, click on the picture below:




irrationality / rationality < SCIENCE > magic \ religion

Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow

acknowledgement of sources for pictures:


daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann