From Vera Keller, “The ‘new world of sciences’: The temporality of the research agenda and the unending ambitions of science”

The notion of intellectual voyaging has persisted, although desiderata have fundamentally changed. They now include lists of already extant mundane objects (such as specimens and books), which Bacon would never have considered desiderata. Philosophers still also compose ambitious epistemic desiderata, which for some play a central role as goals toward which scientific inquiry continually advances.22 Perhaps most novel, and most at odds with Bacon’s intentions, has been the recent evolutionary concept of “biological desiderata.” Biological organisms, parasites, and even parents and children have sometimes coinciding and sometimes conflicting desiderata lists. Such lists are dictated by the inexorable if nonteleological demands of reproduction, not by conscious human authorship, and they are fulfilled not by collaborative human effort but by genetic code. Rather than a means to unite humankind against nature, the concept of desiderata now divides individual organisms, both from each other and from human-authored cultural and moral goals.23


The “New World of Sciences, or Desiderata” envisioned by Bacon has changed beyond recognition. However, its former shape contributed to the idea of interlocking research specialties moving forward in concert. Researchers continue to conceptualize the advancement of knowledge as a process of filling in the gaps of scholarly literature. But advancement toward what? For Bacon, a new world lay at the end of the journey. Failure to reach that world has bequeathed to us the idea of unending advance. The edge of the horizon always retreats before us, and knowledge remains continually at sea.


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About Constance A. Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, PhD, is Project Director of the non-profit Foundation for Psychocultural Research, which supports and advances interdisciplinary research and scholarship at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health and illness. She is co-editor (with Carol Worthman, Paul Plotsky, and Dan Schechter) of Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (with Laurence Kirmayer and Rob Lemelson) the forthcoming Re-Visioning Psychiatry: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Neuroscience, and Global Mental Health (Cambridge, 2015). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

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