Monday, January 28, 2013

My Philosophy of Science

"Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion—but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates." (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)

"One might give the name 'philosophy' to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions." (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §126)

This is the first day of eight weeks of rigorous blogging. There'll be a new post up every weekday at 7:00 AM (Copenhagen time). In the old days, it would just have been written (in the half hour before being posted), but I'm trying something new this year, which is to live a little less in the now and develop my ideas more at their own pace. Not entirely at their own pace, mind you. That would mean you wouldn't hear from me pretty much ever. But I want to give my thoughts a bit more time to get themselves together before making them public.

I'll still be writing every morning in support of a claim or series of claims that I will have articulated the night before. That is, I will still be trying to set a good example for academic writers (who should be doing the same sort of thing). But these claims will be fitted into posts that will be scheduled for later publication and will, hopefully, also be revised before they go up.

In this first post I want to announce the provisional result of some "identity work" that I've been carrying out. For years now, I've struggled with my identity as an intellectual, academic, scholar, writer, consultant, coach, philosopher ... I've even entertained the idea that I'm a poet. And I'm by no means through with these reflections, nor anywhere near settled in a job that might answer this question for me. But one thing became clear this weekend when I got into a twitter exchange with Steve Fuller and Babette Babich about the comparative value of science and philosophy: I am, whatever else may be true, a philosopher of science.

That is, I am engaged in systematic reflection about the nature of science and its value to society. I worry about it a great deal, even as I do my part to improve the discourse by supporting the efforts of scholars to become better writers. As a result, I have a lot of ideas about what constitutes knowledge (both in the sense of what "counts as" knowledge and what provides its principled foundations). And I also have some opinions about how well we know things these days, especially as regards the social sciences and, specifically, organization science.

Frankly, I think the situation is critical. I think there's something terribly wrong in the social sciences, both at the level of theory and the level of method, and, indeed, in the way theory and method are brought together. I think what is now simply called "the crisis" is deeply rooted in a crisis of the social sciences. I think the economy is coming apart, not because we don't know enough about it (we never have enough knowledge about society), but because we are, as Kierkegaard put it, confused by the many things we do know. We think we know too much. We are too certain that our problems derive from the ignorance that remains, and which we should run out and conquer as quickly as possible. Or, worse, that we already know what the solution is and it just needs to be implemented (Kierkegaard's new "republic").

I think, rather, that our problems derive from a lack epistemic humility. A lack of understanding, not knowledge. And I think it is the proper function of the philosophy of science to identify and insist upon the limits of the known (and knowable) so that we don't rush ahead based on cognitive models of social life that are simply unfounded. It is better to act in honest ignorance than merely "plausible" knowledge. And our philosophers are there to keep us honest in precisely that sense.

They must not just be critics of false knowledge. They must make us better able to live with what we know and don't know. They must keep the growth of knowledge from becoming malignant, a hindrance to life rather than an amenity. Much of this can be accomplished by a healthy intellectual lifestyle and proper mental hygiene. But every now and then an error must be surgically removed. I try to make myself useful in both ways.

My aim is to help us to live better with the knowledge we have, and don't have, about how organizations work. As a philosopher, I want to make it clear, I am not going to make any new discoveries about how they work. I will leave that to the scientists.

1 comment:

Ionut said...

This is a great post. We are so eager to report new findings but so unbalanced when it comes to assumptions, limitations, etc. We need more posts about "epistemic humility". Thank you.