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SCIENCE AS SOCIAL EXISTENCE
Science as Social Existence
Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
© 2017 Jeff Kochan
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Jeff Kochan, Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129
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Chapter One TheSociology of Scientific Knowledge, Phenomenology,and the Problem of the External World
Scepticism and SSK
SSK and External-World Realism
Phenomenology and the ‘Natural Attitude’
The Phenomenology of Subjectivity in Heidegger’s Being and Time
Heidegger’s Response to External-World Scepticism
A Heideggerian Critique of SSK’s Response to External-World Scepticism
Chapter TwoA Minimal Realism for Science Studies
Heidegger’s Existential Conception of Science
Getting at the Real
A Phenomenological Reformulation of SSK’s Residual Realism
Rouse on Heidegger and Realism
Minimal Realism and Scientific Practice
Chapter Three Finitude, Humility, and the Bloor-Latour Debate
Kantian Humility and the Thing-in-Itself
Latour’s Attack on Social Constructivism
Bloor’s Defence of Social Constructivism
Where the Dust Settles in the Debate
Heidegger and the Thing-in-Itself
Putting the Bloor-Latour Debate to Rest
The Humility of Science Studies
Chapter Four Things, Thinking, and the Social Foundations of Logic
Heidegger on the Unity of Things and Thinking
Heidegger’s Phenomenological History of Logic: Plato
Heidegger’s Phenomenological History of Logic: Aristotle
Heidegger’s Phenomenological History of Logic: Descartes
Heidegger’s Phenomenological History of Logic: Kant
‘The Argument Lives and Feeds on Something’
Time and Tradition at the Existential Root of Logic
From the Phenomenology of Thinking to the Sociology of Knowledge
The Social Foundations of Logic
Chapter Five Mathēsis and the Emergence of Early-Modern Science
Modern Science as Mathēsis
Renaissance Regressus and the Logic of Discovery
From Renaissance Regressus to Early-Modern Mathēsis
Mathematics and Metaphysics at the Cusp of the Early-Modern Period
Nature, Art, and Final Causes in Early-Modern Natural Philosophy
Chapter Six Mathematics, Experiment, and the Ends of Scientific Practice
The Galilean First Thing and the Aims of Experiment
Releasing Experimental Things
Boyle versus Line: A Study in Experimental Fact-Making
Social Imagery and Early-Modern Science
Chapter Seven Conclusion: Subjects, Systems, and Other Unfinished Business
© Jeff Kochan, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129.08
One sure-fire way to write an unsuccessful book is to try to make everyone happy. Because I had hoped to write a successful book, I started out by making a number of choices which I thought would make at least a few people unhappy. First, I chose to write a book promoting Martin Heidegger’s existential conception of science. Second, I chose to write a book promoting the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). Third, I chose to argue that the accounts of science presented by SSK and Heidegger are, in fact, largely compatible, even mutually reinforcing. Hence, my choice of title: Science as Social Existence. In this book, I combine Heidegger’s early view of science as a form of existence with SSK’s view of science as a social activity. Through this combination, both accounts turn out to be more vital and interesting than they may have been when left to themselves. The book thus presents a tale of intellectual friendship between two perhaps unlikely companions. Of course, no friendship, no matter how promising, will please everyone. But this one happens to please me, and I hope that it will please you too.
SSK emerged in the 1970s, predominantly in the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh. The ‘Edinburgh School’ introduced what they called the ‘strong programme’ in SSK. This signalled a dramatic step beyond what was now, retrospectively, identified as the ‘weak programme’ in the sociology of science. The weak programme focussed mainly on institutional studies of the scientific community: how scientists were organised into groups; and the social relationships which existed between them. The actual products of scientific activity — theories and facts — and the means by which they are produced — techniques and methods — were excluded from sociological analysis. These were thought to form the hard centre of science, the rational core, which sociology was not meant to touch.
In the 1970s, SSK practitioners began to touch this core. This disturbed some people. In the view of critics, SSK was undermining the rationality of science by addressing its conceptual and methodological core in sociological terms. Effectively, this meant that scientific rationality was being treated, through and through, as a social phenomenon, a phenomenon necessarily dependent for its legitimacy on local social and historical circumstances. Critics of SSK urged that this was wrong-headed, and they educed diverse intellectual arguments to support their view. Perhaps more importantly, however, these critics felt it was wrong: their distaste was not just intellectual, it was also moral — it came from the gut. For SSK practitioners, none of this appears to have been surprising. They saw their critics as harbouring a quasi-religious desire to preserve the alleged ‘sacredness’ of scientific rationality against the secularising impulses of a self-consciously naturalistic and methodologically empiricist social science. As social scientists who set out to study science itself, SSK practitioners were determined to treat scientific rationality in wholly secular terms, as a completely natural phenomenon, produced by instinctively gregarious, historically embedded, and fundamentally biological creatures.
A proper disciplinary history of these events has yet to be written. My own suspicion is that SSK practitioners have tended to overplay the secularisation angle, no doubt because this bolsters their own self-presentation as hard-boiled scientific naturalists. Accusing your critics of theological tendencies is, at least in the current Euro-American academic context, a good way to score a few rhetorical points. In my view, however, questions about the sacred or secular nature of knowledge are, at base, questions about what it means to be a human being. To claim that scientific knowledge draws its authority from a source which transcends local social and historical circumstances is to make a substantive claim about human beings as the producers and carriers of that knowledge. Likewise for the contrasting claim, that the authority of scientific knowledge cannot be extricated from the social and historical circumstances in which that knowledge is produced and sustained. In the first case, some aspect of the human being — an aspect tied to knowledge — is thought to transcend its local circumstances. In the second case, such transcendence is deemed impossible.
For the critics, SSK’s claim that there is nothing transcendent about scientific knowledge seems to make no sense. In their view, this amounts to a rejection of the objectivity of science. If the authority of knowledge is necessarily tied to local circumstances, then how does one explain the universal validity of, for example, simple rules of logic like those for deduction? From the critics’ perspective, SSK practitioners appear to be rejecting the objectivity of logic and other unquestionably reliable techniques of knowledge production. Here, it may be useful to distinguish between descriptions and explanations of objectivity. If we consider our experience of objective knowledge production — for example, deducing from ‘All humans are mortal’ and ‘Socrates is human’ the conclusion ‘Socrates is mortal’ — then we seem to be faced with a procedure which cannot but be objective, regardless of local circumstances. The objective validity of deduction feels universal, as if it, necessarily, holds everywhere and at all times. In other words, it has normative force. This is a description of our experience — or, one may say, the phenomenology — of deductive inference. SSK does not dismiss this phenomenological description as false, but seeks to explain it without recourse to the notion that human knowers, when they engage in deductive reasoning, transcend their local circumstances. Hence, it is at the level of explanation, not description, that the dispute fundamentally operates. Whereas the critics seek to explain the normative force of deduction in terms of a transcendent feature of human cognition, SSK practitioners seek to explain it in wholly local and naturalistic terms. In the former case, our compulsive feeling that deduction must be objectively valid is the result of its transcendent nature. In the latter case, this feeling of compulsion, of logical necessity, is instead viewed as the result, in necessary part, of one’s embeddedness in a particular social context, a context in which one learns and is afterward under recurring pressure to experience deduction, without deliberation, as an objectively valid technique of knowledge production. Normative force is thus social force rather than transcendental force.
Based on their radically different conceptions of what it means to be a human knower, these competing positions seem to lack sufficient common ground for their differences to be resolved through rational discussion. At least, the often acrimonious and mostly unproductive debates which have erupted with varying intensity over the last four decades would seem to suggest as much. I will have little more to say about this conflict in what follows. My own view is that, as more rigorously naturalistic models of human knowing continue to gain credibility across the disciplines, the original intellectual and moral motivations driving SSK will be largely vindicated. There is, however, another conflict, more central to my interests, which this first conflict helps to illuminate. This is a conflict between SSK practitioners and those in the slightly younger interdisciplinary field of science studies who argue that SSK did not go far enough in its rejection of past transcendental models of the scientific knower. Indeed, according to this line of criticism, the conception of the scientific knower promoted by SSK is still a transcendental conception. The only difference is that this knower is no longer viewed as an individual person, but has instead been replaced by society as a whole. On this reading, it is not, ultimately, the individual but society which develops and sustains knowledge of the natural world.
Central to this line of criticism is the claim that SSK trucks in a strong theoretical dichotomy between society, on the one hand, and nature, on the other. By allegedly taking this dichotomy for granted, SSK practitioners are said to gather all the activity relevant to knowledge production on the society side, leaving the nature side thoroughly inert or passive and, as a consequence, completely unnecessary for explanations of scientific knowledge production. But, so the science studies critics continue, it seems patently absurd to claim that nature plays no role in our knowledge of it. Such a claim amounts to a form of sociological idealism, where knowledge is explained solely in terms of the realm of ideas created and sustained by society, with the concrete reality of the natural world being left entirely out of the picture.
Interestingly, this criticism has much in common with the earlier criticism. In the earlier case, the worry was that SSK, by insisting that all knowledge must be explained in terms of local circumstances, fails to capture the universality of some well-established scientific knowledge claims. In other words, on this model, all that scientific knowledge ends up ultimately pointing to are the local social and historical situations which gave rise to and continue to sustain it. It does not, and cannot, point to the objective reality which exists independently of those situations. This too, then, is an accusation of a kind of idealism, where historical and sociological circumstances are placed front and centre, while the actual natural reality which science is purportedly meant to study is left to languish by the wayside. In the view of the first critics, the solution to this idealism is transcendence. Only by reference to an aspect of human cognition which transcends local circumstances can we explain how science succeeds in producing objective accounts of nature.
The more recent science studies critics employ a different strategy in response to SSK’s alleged idealism. Like SSK, they too reject transcendence. From their perspective, to invoke transcendence is to offer an implausible solution to a pseudo-problem created by the dichotomous separation of society and nature. Rather than trying to resolve this supposed problem, they argue, we should simply reject the society-nature distinction which gave rise to it. No dichotomy, no problem. These critics propose that society and nature not be treated as fundamental resources in explanations of knowledge, but instead as topics which are themselves in need of explanation. As we will see later, their preferred alternative method is to explain society and nature in terms of the allegedly more fundamental concept of ‘practice.’ The idea is that stabilised phenomena like society and nature arise from the dynamic heterogeneity of ongoing practical activities which constitute the very fabric of existence. To remain stuck at the level of the society-nature distinction is to ignore practice as providing a more fundamental level on which to base explanations of scientific knowledge production.
My brief here is not to give a detailed account of, much less an extended critical commentary on, this alternative to SSK, although I will give it some further attention in Chapters Two and Three. For the time being, I would like to emphasise that this rejection of the society-nature distinction is intimately related to a more general critique of modernity which has been characteristic of this theoretical wing of science studies. In this context, the term ‘modernity’ is meant to pick out that aspect of our cultural condition which has given rise, above all, to ecological disasters. The connection between concrete ecological catastrophe and the abstract theoretical separation of society and nature seems to be that this abstract concept, in consequential part, enables human beings to view nature as a passive medium, devoid of intrinsic value and so freely available for manipulation in accordance with human imagination and intentions. By rejecting this distinction, these theorists hope to contribute to a reformulation of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the natural world, a reformulation in which the threat of ecological catastrophe will be dramatically diminished.
As critics of modernity, these science studies theorists follow an intellectual path which had been cleared by scholars working earlier in the twentieth century, one of the most prominent of whom was Martin Heidegger. Yet, as we will see, an influential stream in practice-based accounts of science, while acknowledging a debt to Heidegger’s earlier critique of modernity, also criticises Heidegger for not having gone far enough. In this respect, Heidegger is admonished for much the same reason that science studies scholars also admonish SSK. In both cases, an innovative step forward is acknowledged, but then immediately rebuked for nevertheless still falling firmly within the circle of an untenable modernist ideology.
One of my main objectives in this book is to demonstrate that these criticisms of SSK and Heidegger, despite their influence, are in fact largely mistaken. Indeed, both SSK and Heidegger have much more to offer a practice-based approach to science than has been allowed for by their critics. A key issue in this dispute is the methodological question of how best to address the conceptual problems generated by the modern theoretical separation of society and nature. This was, in fact, a question which, in a somewhat more abstract form, preoccupied Heidegger for much of his life. However, he responded to it in a dramatically different way than have many prominent science studies scholars. While the latter have counselled the rejection of the society-nature distinction, Heidegger instead advised its deconstruction. To this end, he spent much energy attempting to trace the history of this distinction back to its earliest conceptual manifestations. One principle guiding this methodology was Heidegger’s conviction that human beings are fundamentally historical creatures. Hence, our present actions, including our conceptual acts, are inextricably bound together with the history of thinking and doing which informs the community to which we belong. For this reason, Heidegger was preoccupied with an intellectual excavation of the European intellectual tradition. Science studies scholars who counsel the rejection of the society-nature distinction seem, in contrast, less convinced of the historical dependency of our thinking, believing instead that such traditional structures as the society-nature distinction may simply be sidelined in favour of radically new, historically unprecedented, intellectual tools. Once again, we see that an intractable theoretical dispute about knowledge may be rephrased as a fundamental disagreement about what it means to be a human being. The science studies scholars in question seem to believe that human beings can, at least in some aspect, liberate themselves from history. For Heidegger, in contrast, human existence is, before anything else, historical. From Heidegger’s perspective, it follows that science, as a form of human existence, must also be a fundamentally historical phenomenon. As a result, Heidegger’s largely philosophical account of science turns out to be highly compatible with the methods and goals of many historians of science. This compatibility with the history of science is yet another characteristic which Heidegger’s conception of science shares with SSK.
One consequence of deconstructing the society-nature distinction is a recognition that it is but one special instance of a more general distinction between mind and body, or, in more theoretical terms, subject and object. It is towards this general distinction that both Heidegger, mainly in work preceding the Second World War, and more recent science studies scholars have directed most of their critical energy. In historical terms, the main lineage of the subject-object distinction emerges from the work of the seventeenth-century philosopher, René Descartes, as well as its subsequent formal elaboration in the eighteenth-century writings of Immanuel Kant. As we will see, Heidegger’s deconstruction of this distinction involves a substantial critique of both Descartes and Kant. This deconstruction furthermore pushes Heidegger into a detailed engagement with the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In Heidegger’s view, the seventeenth-century subject-object distinction did not spring from nothing, but instead grew out of a specific set of intellectual possibilities introduced by ancient Greek thinkers. Heidegger’s goal was to trace the roots of the distinction back through the history of philosophy, with the intention of disclosing new — potentially liberating — possibilities which were left latent in the work of earlier practitioners. His method is thus a deeply historical one, one which acknowledges the inescapably historical nature of our forms of understanding, and one which also views history as a dynamic and heterogeneous means by which to overcome the potentially threatening limitations of the more orthodox, familiar, and often taken-for-granted threads of the European intellectual tradition.
SSK practitioners share Heidegger’s desire for an alternative to the intellectual orthodoxy, an alternative which more accurately depicts the conditions of lived experience. Hence, they too adopt a critical stance towards the orthodox subject-object distinction, challenging, in particular, the individualism presupposed in its model of human subjectivity. As I will argue, however, SSK’s challenge to individualistic models of the subject nevertheless leaves crucial aspects of the modern subject-object distinction intact. As a consequence, SSK practitioners have remained vulnerable to attacks from their allegedly more radical competitors in science studies, who exploit SSK practitioners’ residual adherence to the subject-object distinction in promoting their own, quite different, accounts of scientific practice. I wish to demonstrate that SSK may be defended against these attacks through its combination with Heidegger’s deconstruction of the subject-object distinction, as well as with his phenomenological analysis of the basic structures of human subjectivity. In turn, I wish to also demonstrate that Heidegger’s theoretical position may be rendered more concrete, interesting, and useful through combination with empirical studies and theoretical insights already extant in the SSK literature. This will give grounds for my claim that SSK and Heidegger’s early existential phenomenology present not just complementary but also mutually reinforcing models of the way scientists get things done.
Before moving into a summary of the chapters which follow, I should emphasise one last time that the goal of this book is a constructive combination of Heidegger’s early existential conception of science with the sociology of scientific knowledge. In order to stay focussed on this goal, I have chosen, with some significant exceptions, to minimise critical engagement with the large secondary literature which has arisen in response to the works of both SSK practitioners and, more especially, Heidegger. This restriction has allowed me the freedom to develop my argument in a more straightforward and streamlined fashion, with the result being, I trust, of greater benefit to a majority of the book’s readers. Yet, I should also note that, particularly in the case of Heidegger, by sticking almost exclusively to primary texts, I have ended up with an interpretation which is sometimes at odds with the established scholarship. This is not what I had expected, but the outcome has, I must admit, been cause for some excitement. I hope that readers, in retracing my path through these texts, will also experience some of that same excitement.
Chapter One begins with a nod to the so-called ‘science wars,’ a heated intellectual dispute which took place in the 1990s. One battle in this multifaceted dispute was over the purported idealism of SSK practitioners. This charge of idealism was motivated by SSK’s alleged philosophical scepticism about the existence of the external world. The assumption underlying this criticism was that science entails the existence of the external world, and so scepticism on that count amounts to an assault on the legitimacy of science. However, as I demonstrate, SSK practitioners have almost never denied the existence of the external world. On the contrary, they have often educed arguments against external-world scepticism, and they have usually insisted that a belief in the existence of the external world is central to SSK’s method of social-scientific explanation. Nevertheless, I argue that SSK practitioners’ attempts to deflect external-world scepticism are less successful than they could be, and hence that their method continues to be vulnerable to sceptical attack. The goal is not, however, to develop a more robust solution to the problem of the external world, but instead to question the very intelligibility of that problem. I suggest that external-world scepticism presupposes a specific model of human subjectivity, one in which the subject is separated from the world, a world external to it, and so it must then build a bridge to this external world in order to grasp it as an object of knowledge. In other words, external-world scepticism presupposes the fundamentality of the modern subject-object distinction. Although SSK practitioners have sought, in various ways, to shake off the more troublesome aspects of this distinction, I argue that they nevertheless have remained committed to it at a basic, tacit level. This commitment is evinced by their acceptance of external-world scepticism as a legitimate problem of knowledge. I attempt to help SSK out of this bind by combining it with Heidegger’s phenomenology of the subject as ‘being-in-the-world.’ I suggest that by adopting Heidegger’s alternative account of subjectivity, SSK practitioners will no longer be vulnerable to the threat of external-world scepticism, since they will no longer be wedded to the model of subjectivity which fuels that threat.
In Chapter Two, I address the question of ‘realism’ which emerges from the preceding discussion. Heidegger’s diagnostic response to external-world scepticism is accompanied by an explicit rejection of both realism and idealism as legitimate theoretical positions. However, I argue that a ‘minimal realism’ may still be drawn from Heidegger’s considerations. Heidegger affirms that things are, that they exist, independently of subjects, but rejects any attempt to determine what they are independently of subjects. This distinction between that-being and what-being gives grounds for minimal realism. It allows us to accept the core realist doctrine of independent existence (thatness), without also committing to the doctrine of independent essence (whatness). I then demonstrate that Heidegger’s minimal realism is remarkably compatible with SSK’s ‘residual realism,’ which affirms the independent existence of an external world, but rejects the claim that scientific truths are determined by that world. This compatibility can be further strengthened through the work already done in Chapter One: relieving SSK of its vestigial commitment to the orthodox model of subjectivity, and equipping it instead with Heidegger’s alternative. With this combination in place, I go on to consider Joseph Rouse’s criticisms of SSK and Heidegger. Rouse argues that both are committed to a theory-dominated account of science, and he instead promotes a practice-based account of science. I argue that Rouse has misunderstood Heidegger’s account of science, not least because he overlooks Heidegger’s distinction between that-being and what-being, existence and essence. Furthermore, although Rouse’s criticisms of SSK do have some merit, I demonstrate that they are also marred by misinterpretation. Finally, Rouse’s meritorious criticisms of SSK can also be deflected once SSK has been combined with Heidegger. Indeed, I conclude that this combination — along with the minimal realism accompanying it — offers a more coherent and serviceable basis for a practice-based account of science than does Rouse’s alternative.
Chapter Three continues to develop the implications of minimal realism, largely through a discussion of the high-profile debate between the pioneering SSK practitioner, David Bloor, and the influential science studies scholar, Bruno Latour. At the centre of their dispute is the Kantian concept of the thing-in-itself, a thing to which we can attribute independent existence, but about whose independent qualities, or essence, we can know nothing. This concept is presupposed by minimal realism, and also by SSK. Latour attacks it as incoherent, and consequently rejects SSK as an unfit method for science studies. I begin by first reviewing Rae Langton’s commentary on Kant’s thing-in-itself. Langton argues that this concept follows from an acknowledgement of the finitude of human knowledge. To recognise the existence of things-in-themselves is to admit our inevitable ignorance in the face of nature. This recognition manifests itself in the humility we feel in our encounters with the natural world. I then turn to the Bloor-Latour debate. In Latour’s view, Bloor’s endorsement of the thing-in-itself fits hand in glove with his allegedly uncritical adoption of the Kantian subject-object distinction. Latour rejects this distinction, and the concept of the thing-in-itself along with it. Nature, on Latour’s alternative account, does not outstrip our power to know it, but is itself a wholly constructed phenomenon, one constituted in a field of continuously circulating practices. As in the case of Rouse, Latour exploits weaknesses in SSK’s treatment of the orthodox subject-object distinction. And, as in the case of Rouse, I argue that SSK, once combined with Heidegger, can successfully counter Latour’s criticism. Indeed, Heidegger deconstructs the Kantian subject-object distinction, reformulating the thing-in-itself in a way commensurate with his own model of the subject. Crucially, the thing-in-itself correlates with the ‘affectivity’ of the subject. We know the thing exists because it affects us, because we experience that it is, even if we may fail to grasp what it is. Heidegger argues that this peculiar experience is marked by a feeling — an affective state — of anxiety. His reformulation of Kant preserves human finitude and humility, but rejects the Kantian notion of transcendence. It also preserves minimal realism. I conclude with a brief survey of clinical studies of anxiety which seem to provide empirical support for a belief in the thing-in-itself, as reformulated in the context of minimal realism.
Chapter Four begins a transition to themes more typical of the history of science. I start with a review of Heidegger’s phenomenological history of logic, wherein logic is construed as the science of thinking. In Heidegger’s view, this history is inextricably entwined with the history of the modern subject-object distinction, in particular, and the history of scientific subjectivity, more generally. He reads the history of logic as growing out of earlier attempts to understand the fundamental relation between thinking and things. This was viewed, above all, as an intentional relation, a relation manifest in the subject’s experience of its being directed towards things. This relation then came to be construed in the modern era as one between a propositionally structured mental substance, on the one hand, and a property-bearing physical substance, on the other. Heidegger locates the original impulse of logic in Plato’s claim that ‘the good’ guides thinking in its directedness towards things. Aristotle then formalised this idea by modelling thinking on the proposition, with the good now being denoted by the copula (‘is’), which combines subject and predicate in an intelligible sentence. This move marks the beginning of logic as the formalising study of thinking. Heidegger argues that Descartes later shifted the organising principle of intelligibility from the ‘is’ to the subject position of the proposition, above all, to the first-person singular subject, ‘I.’ Kant then submits the Cartesian ‘I’ to a phenomenological critique, disclosing its content in terms of rules of reason. These rules guide thinking in its directedness towards things, ensuring that the relation is a ‘good’ one, productive of intelligibility and understanding. According to Heidegger, this history traces the way in which the informal and implicit rules guiding thinking were first identified, and then formalised as a set of explicit rules governing the structure of thought. He calls this formalisation process ‘thematisation.’ Heidegger then offers his own contribution to this history, arguing that the soil from which logic grows is thoroughly historical, that the rules directing thinking are rooted in a shared tradition, in the subject’s inescapable ‘being-with-others.’ This move, I argue, allows for a powerful point of contact between Heidegger’s phenomenology of logic and the sociology of logic. Indeed, SSK practitioners also emphasise the rootedness of formal logic in the informal rules of a shared tradition. Moreover, they have developed this insight to a far greater extent than did Heidegger. Here, the combination of SSK with Heidegger allows us to strengthen and expand on — to more thoroughly thematise and articulate — Heidegger’s somewhat rudimentary considerations. At the same time, I argue that Heidegger provides grounds for a non-propositional, naturalistic account of intentionality which can help assuage the worry of SSK practitioners that intentionality, as a philosophical concept, conflicts with the naturalism of their own research methodology.
Chapter Five shifts focus from the history of formal science to the history of natural science, including medicine. In doing so, it builds on the argument from the previous chapter that science is a process of thematisation in which informal and indeterminate knowledge is thematised and articulated in a more formal and determinate way. This raises a concern, however, because it suggests that scientists only discover what they already know. Both SSK and Heidegger attribute a circularity to scientific reasoning. Yet, I argue, this circularity is not vicious. Indeed, it was already recognised by the second-century Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon, and became a topic of concentrated interest for physicians at the University of Padua during the Renaissance. These physicians argued that a determinate knowledge of the informal rules governing their medical practice could be articulated through an incremental process of working with things. The movement from informal to formal knowledge is thus an importantly empirical one. According to Heidegger, this process was carried over into the early-modern period, but not without radical transformation. He argues that, in this period, the rules guiding empirical thinking and doing were ‘mathematicised,’ that is, consolidated as a coherent set of basic principles, which Heidegger described as a ‘basic blueprint’ governing scientists’ understanding of the thingness (whatness) of things. This process of mathematicisation grew from a ‘reciprocal relation’ between empirical work with things, on the one hand, and the metaphysical projection of the thingness of things, on the other. I thus argue that Heidegger offers an account of early-modern science which combines both mathematical and empirical elements, comparing his account to the respective metaphysical and empiricist accounts of the historians of science Alexandre Koyré and Peter Dear. For Heidegger, the emergence of early-modern science was neither an exclusively metaphysical nor an exclusively empirical event, but instead a radical transformation in the reciprocal relation between metaphysics and experience. I argue that this was, above all, a transformation in the role played by Aristotelian ‘final causes’ in early-modern natural philosophy. This challenges the historiographic commonplace that final causes were abolished from the new natural philosophy, a claim often supported by pointing to the alleged breakdown of the Aristotelian art-nature distinction. Extrapolating from Heidegger’s work, I argue that there was no such breakdown, and that the art-nature distinction, as well as final causes, despite seventeenth-century rhetoric to the contrary, remained central to early-modern scientific practice. Indeed, both concepts figure as key resources in Heidegger’s mathematical explanation for the emergence of early-modern science.
In Chapter Six, I undertake a discussion of the emergence of early-modern experimental philosophy, especially as exemplified in the work of Robert Boyle. I challenge SSK practitioner Steven Shapin’s attempt to insulate Boyle from mathematical culture, arguing instead that Boyle was a mathematical philosopher in Heidegger’s sense. First, however, I review Heidegger’s claim that Newton’s First Law is a formalisation of Galileo’s mathematical conception of the thing as being ‘left entirely to itself.’ This conception provided the metaphysical blueprint for what I dub the Galilean First Thing, and I argue that, for Heidegger, the First Thing provided a condition of possibility for the early-modern experiment. This metaphysical blueprint emerged through its reciprocal relation with empirical experience. Drawing on recent work in the history of science, I develop this point through a discussion of late Renaissance and early-modern artisanal culture, with an emphasis on the uniform manufacture of pure metals. These metallurgical manipulations, I suggest, may have encouraged experimenters’ metaphysical conception of the thing as a uniform and autonomous First Thing. On this basis, I propose that the fundamental aim of the early-modern experiment was to release things from environmental interference in order to let them be what they, essentially, are — that is, instances of the First Thing. This essential image thus operates as the final cause towards which physical things are naturally disposed, and towards which experimental manipulations seek to artfully direct them. I find support for these claims in Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s classic SSK study of Boyle, focussing on Boyle’s dispute with Francis Line. I demonstrate that Boyle’s response to Line can be explained by attributing to Boyle a tacit commitment to the First Thing, as the blueprint or final cause guiding his experimental practice. I furthermore locate the difference between Boyle and Line in the fact that Boyle was committed to such a blueprint while Line was not, that Boyle experienced nature in terms of a uniform model while Line experienced it in a less unified, more heterogeneous way. This conclusion lends support to Heidegger’s claim that the early-modern period saw experience as increasingly consolidated under a single ‘world picture.’ I conclude by comparing this claim with Bloor’s observation that scientific knowledge is governed by ‘social imagery,’ that is, by images of society construed as a whole. On the one hand, Bloor’s work suggests ways in which Heidegger’s concepts of ‘world picture’ and ‘basic blueprint’ might be rephrased and further developed in a more sociological idiom. On the other hand, Heidegger’s claim that these concepts apply only to the early-modern period and later suggests that Bloor’s concept of ‘social imagery’ may prove useful only within a limited historical range.
Chapter Seven does double duty, first, as an unsystematic review of key themes from the preceding chapters, and, second, as a roughly sketched roadmap for future work. Here, I will discuss only the latter. Up to this point, my discussion of Heidegger will have been largely restricted to his work from the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, in my view, he is centrally concerned with the phenomenology of scientific subjectivity. Later, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, his attention shifts to more critical meditations on the dangers posed by scientific thinking to society in general. Indeed, he argued in the 1950s that modern science prepares the way for a comprehensive technologisation of society. I begin by reviewing Heidegger’s friendship, from the mid-1930s until his death in 1976, with Carl von Weizsäcker, a noted physicist who had studied under Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Von Weizsäcker was convinced that Heidegger’s analysis of subjectivity could help him to address conceptual problems resulting from the rejection, by the new physics, of the orthodox subject-object distinction. However, he also believed that Heidegger’s own search for a solution was handicapped by Heidegger’s superficial understanding of the new physics. Heidegger attributed the technologisation of society to what he called ‘enframing,’ a phenomenon which Heidegger felt limited the existential possibilities of the subject. Von Weizsäcker affirmed Heidegger’s concept of enframing as an outgrowth of modern science, but insisted instead that it offered new, potentially liberating possibilities for humankind, especially in the form of systems theory, or cybernetics. While von Weizsäcker advocated for deeper engagement with cybernetics, Heidegger attempted to reconceptualise the thing in a way which radically departed from its conceptualisation by modern science. I argue that Heidegger’s considerations may be usefully translated into the terms of an interactionist social theory, as commended by SSK pioneer, Barry Barnes. Enframing is thus viewed as a social phenomenon, constituted in the historically contingent interactions of naturally gregarious subjects. On von Weizsäcker’s reading, in contrast, enframing is a system which organises autonomous subjects into a social whole. While the interactionist emphasises the subject over the system, the cyberneticist emphasises the system over the subject. I naturally opt for the former method, and conclude the chapter, and the book, by arguing for a strong compatibility between Heidegger’s attention to the affectivity of the subject, on the one hand, and Barnes’s interactionist attention to the internal emotional dynamics of ‘status groups,’ on the other. From this perspective, von Weizsäcker’s commitment to enframing evinces his membership in a status group whose interpersonal dynamics enforce that commitment at an emotional level. A concentrated research focus on the emotional dynamics governing scientific status groups flows naturally from the arguments advanced throughout this book. The book thus sketches a road forward for those intrepid science studies scholars keen to produce innovative and exciting new work.
© Jeff Kochan, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129.01
A leading contributor to the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), Harry Collins, invites us to consider the following parable.
A scientist, a philosopher, a sociologist of scientific knowledge and a science warrior are aloft in a balloon. The balloon begins to deflate. The scientist says: ‘A micro-meteorite might have punctured the envelope — do we have any sticky tape?’ The philosopher says: ‘My inductive propensities convince me that if the balloon deflates we will fall to earth — I must work out the rational basis for this belief.’ The sociologist says: ‘I wonder how they’ll reach a consensus about the cause of our deaths.’ The science warrior says: ‘Told you so — there is an external reality!’1
No prize for guessing the odd person out here. The science warrior’s non sequitur seems itself to be strangely disconnected from reality. For who among the other passengers challenged the existence of an external world? The answer is: no one. If, however, we instead ask who the science warrior believes to have challenged the existence of an external world, then we get a different answer. In this case, the culprit is the sociologist of scientific knowledge. And yet, the real peculiarity of the so-called ‘science wars,’ which erupted in the 1990s, is not so much that science warriors accused sociologists of denying the existence of an external world. We know, after all, that the first casualty in war is truth. The real peculiarity is just how many otherwise reasonable scholars imbibed this falsehood and hence felt compelled to also pick up the cudgel.
It has been common for philosophers, in particular, to think of SSK practitioners as radical sceptics who dismiss the very idea that nature has a role to play in the formation of scientific knowledge. The heat of the science wars only heightened their passion, and some of them became full-fledged warriors themselves. Philip Kitcher, for example, charged sociologists of science with a ‘global skepticism,’ because they ‘inscribe on their hearts’ the dogma that ‘no system of belief is constrained by reason or reality.’ Christopher Norris alleged that members of the ‘Edinburgh school’ in SSK ‘routinely deny […] the existence of a real-world (mind- and belief-independent) physical domain.’ John Norton claimed that SSK endorses a ‘complete scepticism’ which rejects any role for evidence in scientific research.2
Strikingly, the natural scientists among the science warriors were more circumspect in their criticism. Indeed, the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm to serve repeatedly on the front line, only characterised SSK as ‘ambiguous in its intent.’ On the one hand, SSK practitioners appear to endorse a ‘general’ or ‘radical’ scepticism. On the other hand, they claim to be pursuing a genuinely scientific research programme.3 Sokal and Bricmont argue that these two positions cannot be held together, because a general scepticism about the existence of an external world is unscientific: ‘if one wants to contribute to science, be it natural or social, one must abandon radical doubts concerning the viability of logic or the possibility of knowing the world through observation and/or experiment.’4 If SSK practitioners claim only that sociological principles must play a role in any causal explanation of scientific beliefs, regardless of whether we evaluate those beliefs as true or false, rational or irrational, then Sokal and Bricmont write that they would have ‘no particular objection.’5 However, if they furthermore insist that only social causes may enter into such an explanation, then Sokal and Bricmont say they would strenuously disagree.
Fortunately, SSK practitioners have never made anything more than the first claim, so the apparent ambiguity in their intent dissolves, and Sokal and Bricmont may thus rest content that SSK defends a theory of science to which they would, by their own admission, have no particular objection. Indeed, Barry Barnes, a co-founder of SSK’s Edinburgh School, has more recently written that SSK, ‘[c]ontrary to what at one point was widely claimed by commentators and critics indifferent to what we had set down in print, […] nowhere denies the existence of an external world.’6
Sokal and Bricmont draw a helpful distinction between ‘specific scepticism’ and ‘radical scepticism.’7 One may have, they say, legitimate doubts about a specific theory, but one should not use general sceptical arguments to support those specific doubts. For example, one may legitimately doubt a theory of evidence which explains evidential force by reference to a mind- and belief-independent world, but one should not try to support such doubt with a global scepticism about the very existence of that world. This distinction is helpful because it exposes the source of difference in the respective reactions to SSK of the scientists, Sokal and Bricmont, on the one hand, and the philosophers, on the other. SSK casts doubt not on the idea of evidence, as such, but instead on specific philosophical theories of evidence which insist that evidential force must be explained in exclusively non-naturalistic and/or non-social terms. Since Sokal and Bricmont, as natural scientists, have no vested interest in these particular philosophical theories, they can treat naturalistic and sociological explanations of evidence as unobjectionable. The philosopher warriors, in contrast, were largely trained and continue to work in a tradition deeply invested in individualistic and/or transcendental theories of evidence, and so their reaction to SSK has understandably been less relaxed. Furthermore, these philosophers have apparently had a hard time recognising the difference between their own specific theories of evidence and a general belief in the existence of an external world. Hence, they have tended to mistake a specific scepticism targeted at the former for a global scepticism also encompassing the latter.
Returning to Collins’s parable, we see that philosophers are often in the business of working out the rational basis for the acceptance of belief. Sociologists, in contrast, seek to explain consensus concerning the acceptability of belief. These two approaches are closely related, and their proximity explains the friction between them. Both philosophers and sociologists investigate the reasons for accepting a belief.8 For the sociologist, this entails describing the social negotiations through which reasons come to be agreed on. For the philosopher, in contrast, the focus is on the rational rules determining such agreement. Where the sociologist speaks of social negotiations, the philosopher speaks of rational rules. It is precisely on the question of how social negotiation and rational rules relate to one another that the two sides part company, for the sociologist insists that the validity of rules is a matter of social negotiation, while the philosopher typically insists that it is not. In other words, the sociologist endorses, and the philosopher rejects, the view that rationality is a necessarily social phenomenon.
In the natural sciences, the reasons grounding a belief include the evidence educed in its favour. Empirical data, produced and selected using rational methods, may count as evidence in support of that belief. The job of the philosopher is to work out the rational basis for a scientific belief by demonstrating the rationality of the methods by which the evidence for it was educed. Only if those methods are deemed rational can one feel confident that the data successfully represents the world as it really is. Hence, from the philosopher’s perspective, according to which the rational and the social must be strictly separated, the sociologist’s attempt to model rational method in sociological terms is viewed as an attack on the ability of science to produce authoritative representations of the natural world. If scientific methods are stripped of their authority, then scientific beliefs will lose their purchase on the world. The result will be a global scepticism about the existence of an external world — that is, a world existing external to, or independently of, the system of beliefs and methods partly constitutive of the scientific enterprise. But SSK practitioners are not global sceptics. They do not reject science’s authority to successfully represent an external world. They instead reinterpret that authority in sociological and naturalistic terms. For those philosophers whose confidence in science is heavily invested in a non-sociological and/or non-naturalistic conception of its methods and results, this reinterpretation is both objectionable and antiscientific. Hence, they mistake SSK practitioners’ rejection of their specific philosophical conception of scientific authority for a more sweeping, global rejection of the authority of science, as such. Taking scientific method to be an instrument of theory, David Bloor, another co-founder of SSK’s Edinburgh School, writes that ‘[i]t is not theories but theorists who generate the evidential force of experimental results.’9 Bloor does not reject evidence; he rather advises its sociological reinterpretation.
It is not clear that philosophers’ worries about the allegedly antiscientific and objectionable nature of SSK also reflect the worries of scientists. Returning to our physicist warriors, Sokal and Bricmont, we find that they do not share the philosophers’ need to rationally ground the belief in an external world. Indeed, Sokal and Bricmont even declare global scepticism ‘irrefutable,’ which implies that the philosophers are, from a scientific point of view, wasting their time in attempting such a refutation.10 These physicists have no particular interest in justifying the authority of science by working out its rational basis, much less in ensuring that that rational basis is strictly protected from sociological study. They simply take it for granted that science rationally represents the world, and they get on with their research. Hence, there is, from their point of view, nothing particularly antiscientific, nor, as we saw above, otherwise objectionable, about SSK’s move to introduce sociological categories into naturalistic explanations of scientific rationality.
As we will see in this chapter, SSK practitioners find themselves stuck somewhere between scientists and philosophers on these issues. As social scientists, they too are inclined to simply ignore the threat of global scepticism, taking for granted that their methods rationally represent the world, and so just getting on with their research. On the other hand, as social epistemologists, they also show signs of wanting to construct a global account of scientific knowledge which reveals its ineliminably social elements. The tension between these two goals has sometimes created confusion and conflict in SSK’s ranks over the question of its relationship to scepticism.
I will not seek in this chapter to further defend SSK against the science warriors’ erroneous accusations of global scepticism. I will instead take up the more interesting challenge of strengthening SSK’s genuine but underdeveloped anti-sceptical orientation. First, I will outline the confusions and conflicts among SSK practitioners regarding scepticism; I will then identify the root cause of those confusions and conflicts; finally, I will suggest a resolution to these difficulties by drawing from the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger.
Although SSK practitioners have often represented their research as being committed to some form of scepticism, there is no consensus among them on what precisely underpins this commitment. Indeed, in some cases there is outright disagreement. This is most evident in their divergent attitudes towards the challenge presented by external-world scepticism. One camp defends an explicitly realist position regarding the existence of an external world, while the other camp shows no interest at all in defending such realism. I will argue that this disagreement is largely superficial. My argument turns on the idea, taken from Heidegger, that external-world scepticism is an epistemological problem which leaves unexamined a number of important metaphysical presuppositions. The most important of these presuppositions is that our experience of things is best interpreted in terms of a fundamental ontological distinction between a ‘subject’ and an ‘object.’ On this interpretation, the subject experiences itself as a discrete, cognising agent seeking access to the world experienced as an external object. The question of how such access may be achieved is often referred to as the ‘problem of knowledge,’ a core concern of orthodox epistemology. Crucially, the legitimacy of this problem presupposes the validity of the subject-object distinction. As we will see, a commitment to this distinction, and hence to the intelligibility of the question of access, is the engine driving external-world scepticism. In treating external-world scepticism as a legitimate threat, to which a response must be made, SSK practitioners of all stripes demonstrate their shared ontological commitment to the subject-object distinction. As a consequence, they are at perpetual risk of attack by the external-world sceptic. Their internal dispute over how to properly respond to the sceptic is a symptom of their residual adherence to an orthodox model of subjectivity, a model which asserts the fundamental separation of subject and object, mind and world.
After thus diagnosing the shared conceptual ailment of SSK practitioners, I will turn to the work of Martin Heidegger for a suitable treatment. In response to external-world scepticism, Heidegger launched a phenomenological inquiry into the basic ways in which a cognising subject experiences its relation to the world. He conceptualised this experience in existential terms as an experience of ‘being-in-the-world.’ On Heidegger’s account, the most basic form of being-in-the-world is an experience of immersed involvement in a world of work.11 The epistemological problem of how the subject gains access to an external world is neutralised once one recognises that subject and world were never separated in the first place. The chapter will conclude with the suggestion that, by adopting Heidegger’s existential phenomenology, SSK practitioners can overcome the conflicts and confusions which have, until now, rendered their position vulnerable to sceptical attack.
Central figures in SSK have clearly emphasised the importance of scepticism for their work. Reflecting on the issue in his 1974 book, Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory, Barry Barnes writes that ‘the epistemological message of the work […] is sceptical.’ Harry Collins has likewise applied ‘philosophical scepticism’ explicitly in his own research, and Steven Shapin has declared pointedly that ‘SSK is […] a form of scepticism.’12 Yet, although Barnes, Collins, and Shapin have made striking use of sceptical techniques in their work, they have not offered any substantial reflections on scepticism as a method of sociological analysis. David Bloor has proven more forthcoming. His pioneering work in the methodology of SSK explicitly discusses and extensively builds on sceptical techniques. Given these credentials, it is noteworthy that Bloor offers a somewhat more guarded assessment of SSK’s relation to scepticism than do Barnes, Collins, and Shapin. Rather than identifying SSK as a form of scepticism, Bloor draws a clear line between the two while at the same time stressing their productive interaction.
Scepticism will always find the sociology of knowledge useful and vice versa. But there are profound differences between the two attitudes. Sceptics will try to use the explanation of a belief to establish its falsehood. […] The conclusion will be a self-defeating nihilism or inconsistent special pleading. It is only an epistemological complacency, which allows us to feel that we can explain without destroying, that can provide a secure basis for the sociology of knowledge.13
Bloor rejects an identification of SSK with scepticism because SSK seeks to explain scientific knowledge whereas scepticism is, in his view, corrosive of all such explanatory attempts. According to Bloor, if SSK were itself a form of scepticism, then it would end up undermining its own explanatory project.
There appears, then, to be a significant disagreement between Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, on the one hand, and Bloor, on the other, over SSK’s relation to scepticism. However, this apparent disagreement may be resolved by introducing a distinction between ‘radical scepticism,’ on the one hand, and ‘mitigated scepticism,’ on the other.14 Radical scepticism is as Bloor describes it: a persistent acid of relentless doubt which dissolves any and all claims to knowledge. It endeavours to push us into a state of complete disbelief, leaving us without any signposts by which to take our bearings in the world. Mitigated scepticism, on the other hand, attempts to absorb the full impact of sceptical doubt without having to thereby relinquish all claims to knowledge. It relies on a distinction between knowledge in an absolutist and a relativist sense. Mitigated sceptics agree with radical sceptics that knowledge in the first sense is impossible, but they also argue that knowledge in the second sense is both possible and defensible. Hence, mitigated scepticism is not corrosive of belief in general; rather, it isolates and rejects the specific belief that knowledge, as such, must necessarily rest on an absolute foundation, that is, a foundation which transcends any and every contingent social and historical circumstance.
Thus, when Bloor proposes that we exercise ‘epistemological complacency’ in the face of the sceptic’s challenge, he is specifically concerned with radical scepticism. What Bloor proposes is not so much a direct defence against the sceptic as it is a strategy whereby the sceptic is simply ignored. He appears to hold that certain of our beliefs must be taken for granted, regardless of whether or not we can ground those beliefs in a way which satisfies the sceptic. Here Bloor seems to agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who observed that, when it comes to following the rules which guide thinking, just because a rule may lack a rational ground, this does not necessarily mean that we have no right to follow it.15 In such cases, writes Wittgenstein, we follow the rule blindly. The philosopher Paul Boghossian describes this as a ‘blind entitlement’ to follow a rule or to assert a belief.16 For example, as we shall see in the next section, Bloor claims that we are blindly entitled to assert a belief in the existence of the external world, and so scepticism regarding this belief should be met with a deliberate complacency.
When Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, on the other hand, urge that SSK be understood as a form of scepticism, they are specifically concerned with mitigated scepticism. According to them, SSK is sceptical because it rejects an understanding of knowledge in terms of absolute truth. This does not mean that knowledge becomes impossible, but only that it can never be rendered certain in an absolutist sense. For Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, SSK can be sceptical and yet still affirm the possibility of knowledge by accepting a more modest, or mitigated, conception of truth and validity.
The apparent disagreement between Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, on the one hand, and Bloor, on the other, thus turns out to be largely superficial. In their respective assessments of the relationship between SSK and scepticism, each side has a different brand of scepticism in mind. In fact, both sides endorse a mitigated scepticism which stands opposed to an attitude characteristic of those whom Bloor calls ‘believers.’ Believers, he writes, ‘conflate the common currency of talk about the true and the good with specific theories of the real and ultimate nature of the True and the Good.’17 In other words, believers reach beyond the realm of everyday experience in order to make absolutist claims about the nature of knowledge and reality. For this reason, they might also be described as fundamentalists, or dogmatists.18 The benefit of scepticism for SSK has been its role in revealing the dogmatism at the heart of epistemic absolutism. SSK accepts the general sceptical claim that absolute knowledge is impossible, but rejects the radical sceptic