Eloquence and incommensurability: An investigation into the grammar of irreconcilable differences

01 March 2010

Javier Lezaun

Social Studies of Science 40: 349 originally published online 5 March 2010 DOI: 10.1177/0306312709358119

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On the seventh day of the trial of The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, William Jennings Bryan was cross-examined by Clarence Darrow. What ensued was one of the most famous exchanges in American legal history, and a constant referent in the struggle between religious Fundamentalists and defenders of academic freedom and natural evolution. Many saw in Darrow’s interrogation of Bryan a moment of revelation, a dramatic instantiation of the irreducible conflict between ‘ancient religion’ and ‘modern reason’. This paper returns to the transcript of the trial to examine what form of incommensurability was produced in the course of that celebrated examination. Contrary to the conventional interpretation of the Scopes trial as a moment of mutual untranslatability between irreconcilable positions, an analysis of the conversational structure of the exchange suggests a surprisingly robust and productive dialogue. It reveals a form of difference sustained by a shared grammar of mutual accountability.