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Definitions of Discovery and the Revelation of Human Acts Essay

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Updated: Sep 21st, 2021

Scientific discoveries are always associated with novelty, and everyone, who tries to imagine this term, first and foremost sees a hard-working scientist, whose ground-breaking findings resemble a feat. Percy, Kuhn, Tompkins and Pratt describe different dimensions of discovery and implicitly theorize it, so that after reading their works one can create a framework of discovery, including its structure, categories and barriers. The present paper shifts the term into a more practical realm and studies the book “New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan ” by Jill Lepore through the prism of the four theorists. The paper focuses on the stage that normally precedes discovery, which is inquiry and research, and discuses the problem of one-sided evidence, suggested by Lepore and implied by the theorists.

The main point of the writing is the alteration of the notion of liberty in the 18th century New York society, after the so-called slave conspiracy ( the “plot”) in New York. The writing focuses on the ‘revelation’ of the conspiracy, which in fact might have appeared merely fiction, or tale, invented by the government and investigators in order to intimidate the local slave community, as the author suggests, the trials over the ‘plotters’ were initially biased in order to establish a powerful deterrent and restrict the slaves’ ‘freedom’ of movements. Furthermore, the scholar suggests that white community perceived the alleged conspiracy as a political movement and therefore sought to oppress it, as the “experiment in political liberty” (Lepore, 2005, p. 219) jeopardized the existing polity.

The author conducts an in-depth analysis of the documents that relate to the “conspiracy”, which began in the spring 1741 with a robbery, into which two slaves and a tavern owner were involved and later spread rumors about Manhattan blacks’ violent plans to seize the city. The ‘conspiracy’ reached its climax in autumn, when several arsons took place, and when a mayhem of accusations and confessions resulted in the arrest of 152 blacks, 20 whites and the execution of thirty-four New York dwellers. Lepore writes that political divisions, brought about by the Zenger Crisis (a political rebellion in the colony in the 1730s) had increased white’s fears of upheaval and, more importantly, of political restructuring among factions, as “It is impossible to understand how faction and party worked in New York…without considering slavery, and how real and imagined slave conspirations functioned as a phantom political party” (Lepore, 2005, p. 219).

As one can understand, the court trials, which followed the arsons gave a chance to the political elite, whose power had been challenged by the experiment of political liberty, to reinforce their control over both black and white communities. The notion of conspiracy might have been invented by political circles for two reasons: due to their fear of the further upheavals and the resulting sociopolitical transformations and because of their desire to re-establish their positions. Another important issue the scholar puts forward is the contemporary legal procedures over slaves, in which the accused was not entitled to keep from self-incrimination and the trails themselves were based upon really hostile confrontation, which had little in common with impartiality and objectivity of justice. The members of jury were greatly controlled by Crown officials, therefore, court verdicts as legal documents cannot serve as a confirmation of the conspiracy as fact. More profoundly and precisely, these attributes of the contemporary judicial system also pointed to the government’s and influential political factions’ resistance to the liberty and the establishment of pluralism. Accordingly, Lepore’s analysis of the trials in relation to the conspiracy clarifies the cause-and-effect picture of those events.

As one can understand, Lepore deals with the notion of discovery in very concrete way – through depicting the discovery of the conspiracy and the dubious evidence that confirms the fact of ‘plot’. In the context of scientific discoveries, the problem of substantiation is less acute and relevant, especially it relates to the natural sciences, in which any findings are experimental, so the researcher’s central task in this sense is taking thorough and precise notes on the process of the experiment. Nevertheless, even in the exact sciences reexaminations and additional check are necessary to confirm the findings: “The reexamination began during February 1776 and within a year had led Lavoisier to the conclusion that the gas -was actually a separable component of the atmo­spheric air which both he and Priestley had previously thought of as ho­mogeneous” (Kuhn, 1987, p. 3). Kuhn emphasizes the importance of re-conducting the experiment in order to validate the evidence and make it serve society as well as the purpose of pure knowledge instead of supporting one’s own interests. In the context of Lepore’s work, the true revelation of crime requires legal proceedings and gathering evidence like witnesses’ testimonies. In order to challenge the validity of the discovery of the conspiracy, the scholar firstly specifies the contemporary political settings, which might have pointed to the presence of favoritism and corruption in court trials, aimed at verifying the discovery. This means, additional term should be introduced – pseudo-discovery, as it reflects Lepore’s initial argument about the reliability of court verdict: according to her book, there is a number of documents, stating that a number of witnesses were bribed. Furthermore, using Kuhn’s classification, this pseudo-discovery was expected rather than sudden, whereas most contemporary politicians sought to present them as spontaneous.

In the context of Lepore’s writing, Percy’s and Tompkins’s arguments seem particularly useful. For instance, Percy warns individuals against relying upon the so-called ‘experts’ and drawing their own conclusions. Lepore in her book notes that there is number of documents, produced by contemporary historians and members of jury, who used information, which they hadn’t checked on their own experience. For instance, Horsemanden, who directly participated in judging the ‘plotters’, seemed to rely greatly upon the statements, made by lawyers and other experts, whose independence hadn’t even been checked, this means, even the competent specialists (who are experts themselves), which hold human fates in their hands, can be mislead by unprofessional and favoritist opinion. Thus, such specialists to certain degree resemble the laymen, depicted by Percy: “The highest role he can conceive himself as playing is to be able to recognize the title of the ob­ject, to return it to the appropriate expert and have it certified as a gen­uine find” (Percy, 1996, p. 11). Merging the ideas of both authors, one begins to consider and comprehend two important points: firstly, it is highly dangerous to depend upon the experts, as their arguments could be biased; secondly, it is important to have an independent perspective on the issues of interests, since even the experts can rely upon the dilettantish and unprofessional judgments. On the other hand, interweaving the two texts, one can assume that Percy’s argument doesn’t include one important notion, which is human motivation. Due t the fact that the scholar speaks primarily about discovering the world and self-exploration in general, it is redundant to put these issues under the umbrella of motivation, as both processes are natural and are viewed as an end in themselves. On the contrary, in Lepore’s book, the discussion of the incentive for independent research, or more precisely, the absence of such motivation at all social levels, is very notable. Lepore states that due to the existence of slavery, practically all whites were opposed to performing additional inquiries and successfully prevented the penetration of additional facts into the court hearings. Thus, another important statement should be formulated: individuals should be motivated for well-structured discovery that accords to objectivity principles. Returning to Kuhn’s work, one can notice that the most revolutionary and important discoveries were made by the persons, absolutely devoted to science ad therefore seeking to move it forward as far as possible. In Lepore’s book, the opponents of reexamination were primarily devoted to their own well-being and therefore discriminated against the accused or accepted bribes.

Tompkins, who writes about Indians, describes the hardships she encountered when trying to discover the true relationships between the New English and Indians. Her article focuses on moral judgments of certain facts: “The idea that all accounts are perspectival seemed to me a superior standpoint from which to view all the versions of “what happened,” and to regard with sympathetic condescension any person so old-fashioned and benighted as to believe that there really was some way of arriving at the truth. But this skeptical standpoint was just as firm as any other” (Tompkins, 1999, p. 9). As one can assume, moral evaluation is a complicated process, – in this context, making right verdicts in criminal proceedings is much more difficult, as this case involves a huge scope of factors from the personal characteristics of the accused to the presence or absence of specific alibi for the moment of crime. As Lepore alleges, almost two hundred people were sentenced for the ‘intents’, which underlie unstable ground of confirmations. Tompkins, who spent decades studying different primary and secondary sources, nevertheless confesses her inability of evaluating the behaviors of both sides in Anglo-Indian conflict and therefore suggests that her future discovery is unlikely to be completely impartial, whereas in Lepore’s writing, the justices and jurors utilized the proofs, provided by merely one side of the confrontation and didn’t try to validate their criminal discovery through paying attention to other standpoints and people, whose voices were weaker, but whose argument might have radically changed the outcomes of the hearings. Both Tompkins and Lepore remind that human acts should be assessed according to a multilateral scale, which would be sensitive to newly-emerging facts and factors.

In Pratt’s work, the process of exploring and discovering is structured, and there is one important point that closely relates to Lepore’s work: at the beginning of her article, Pratt fixes her role as a scientist: “I was asked to speak as an MLA [Modern Language Association] member working in the elite academy” (Pratt, 1992, p. 2). This means, each self-respecting investigator or scientist should first of all consider the role they will take in the study: in Kuhn’s writing, the famous discoverers acted for the sake of science, whereas the jurors and experts in criminology, described by Lepore, seemed to shift between the roles of unbiased ‘administrators of justice’ and protectors of majority’s interests. Due to the role conflict in the experts’ positions, they probably decided to accept the verdict, dictated by the majority due to the existing social conditions, in which slaves were regarded as property, so that they perceived their own verdicts as the combination of both roles.

To sum up, active reading of all texts allows comprehending the nature of discovery in criminal proceedings or in judging human deeds from moral viewpoint. The essay suggests that such revelations require the multiplicity of evidence as well as the researcher’s (investigator’s) ability to decide on their role in this situation and their motivation for engaging into additional examination or using certain evidence- either credible or unreliable.

Works cited

Lepore, J. (2005). New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. New York: Alfred A.Knopf.

Kuhn, T. “The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery”. In Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford: New York, 1987, pp. 338-349.

Tompkins, J. ““Indians”: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History”, 1986.

Pratt, M.-L. “Arts of the Contact Zone”. In Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, 5th edition, edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999

Percy, W. “Loss of the Creature”. In Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, 4th edition, edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford, 1996, pp. 511-528.

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