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  • Science and Literature and Philosophy: The Case of Chaos Theory and Deconstruction
  • Stephen H. Kellert (bio)


The relationship between the scientific investigations known as chaos theory and the interpretive methodology known as deconstruction has been characterized as one of surprising similarity by Katherine Hayles in Chaos Bound, while Alexander Argyros characterizes it as one of factual incompatibility in his book A Blessed Rage for Order. In their book Higher Superstition, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt assert that the two have nothing to do with each other at all. How are we to determine the relationship between a scientific discipline and a literary-philosophical method? And what can philosophical analysis contribute to the contentious interface between science and literary theory?

It is not the special role of philosophers to discover or legislate a priori “preconditions” for the legitimate investigation of relationships between disciplines. Although the field of philosophy of science has played an important role in twentieth-century discussions of the nature of science, philosophy has no special authority to decide what counts as an appropriate use of nonlinear dynamics. Philosophers must balance the two sides of our professional training. On the one hand, philosophy has inherited the tradition of speculation (although scientists are often more willing than philosophers to engage in speculation these days). Speculation includes many activities, one of which is the attempt to make connections between widely disparate fields of human experience. This aspect of philosophical [End Page 215] training makes me highly sympathetic to the search for a bold new synthesis of different areas of knowledge.

On the other hand, twentieth-century philosophy in the English language has been strongly identified with conceptual analysis and criticism of arguments. It is this philosophical tradition that makes me highly suspicious of any casually flexible use of language or suggestive but tenuous leaps of reasoning, such as are found in some uses of chaos theory.

In what follows, I will attempt to employ both these philosophical roles to examine some of the ways in which researchers have figured the relationship between chaos theory and deconstruction. While focusing on one specific point of contact between science and literature, this analysis is directed at a wider set of discussions within which philosophy of science can help investigate general questions of how research in the physical sciences is and ought to be translated across disciplines. 1

Metaphorical Extension

One way to use chaos theory is to apply the quantitative techniques of nonlinear dynamics to systems outside the natural sciences. While it is not possible to apply these techniques to textual criticism, the application of technique shades into another possible use of nonlinear dynamics, which I will call metaphorical extension. By metaphorical extension I mean the use of nonlinear dynamics as a new conceptual resource for other disciplines. In some sense, the application of techniques from nonlinear dynamics to a new experimental system always involves a certain metaphorical reinterpretation of the system under study. A large body of philosophical work has addressed the use of metaphor in science, and I will not discuss here the technical analysis of scientific metaphor and its role in the application of quantitative techniques. Instead, I will examine some of the actual metaphorical uses to which chaos theory has been put. My hope is that examining the fruitfulness of these extensions will reveal some patterns that allow us to analyze—and critique—these metaphorical uses. In other words, I consider metaphorical uses neither so inherently free-wheeling as to be immune from criticism (“it’s only a metaphor, so we must not fault them for misusing the science”) nor so irrelevant to scientific inquiry as to be unworthy of criticism (“it’s only a metaphor, so it is merely an inspirational technique”). [End Page 216]

A metaphorical extension of chaos theory may serve as a useful antidote to a previous importation of conceptions from linear dynamics. The success of linear models in the physical sciences led some social scientists to assume that social phenomena must be linear as well. But if social systems are sometimes nonlinear, we should reject the so-called big-big strategy of explanation: momentous events do not need to have proportionately great or important...

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