Monday, March 17, 2014


'We are quite sure of it' does not mean just that every single person is certain of it, but that we belong to a community which is bound together by science and education. (Ludwig Wittgesntein, On Certainty, §298)

Here's one way of reading Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is an armchair sociology of scientific knowledge, Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, an armchair history. By "armchair" I mean simply that professional sociologists and historians are often not very impressed with the nature of the underlying "data". Foucault's accomplishment, I sometimes say, was to re-interpret Heidegger's "existential conception of science" in historical terms, i.e., to flesh out Heidegger's account with historical detail. (Heidegger's account can be found already in Being and Time but the comparison to Foucault is much more striking alongside Heidegger's account of "modernity" in "The Age of the World Picture".) Kuhn, meanwhile, was in effect (and perhaps less consciously) grappling with the influence of Wittgenstein on our sense of our epistemic foundations. (What Kuhn called a "paradigm" is really a scientific "form of life".) At bottom, Kuhn and Foucault were providing detailed cases to illustrate what Wittgenstein and Heidegger had discovered, namely, that even the most abstract theories are rooted in the concrete practices of those who theorize. The whole field of Science Studies emerges from this insight.

In his post-script to Structure, Kuhn emphasizes the importance of identifying the "community structure" of a scientific paradigm, apologizing a little for the circularity of his reasoning. "A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men who share a paradigm." This leads to a methodological consideration for post-Kuhnian sociologists of science: "Scientific communities can and should be isolated without prior recourse to paradigms; the latter can then be discovered by scrutinizing the behavior of a given community's members." That is, if you want to do an empirically grounded but nonetheless "epistemological" investigation of a science, you have be able to first identify the "scientists" by their community structure, not by their ideas. You have to decide who the scientists are and how they are organized before you try to understand what they are talking about. Their intellectual foundations can then be characterized by describing the elements of their "disciplinary matrix": symbolic generalizations, metaphysical models, values and exemplars.

We can easily see why. If you want to understand, e.g., how physicists working in the field of quantum mechanics know what they know, you can't begin with people who talk about quantum mechanics, or a bunch of books about it. After all, there are a lot of popularizers out there, and not a few charlatans. You have to choose your experts wisely, and the only way to do that is to situate them in the communities that actually produce knowledge of quantum phenomena. Once you've done that, you can go on to "scrutinize" what they know and how they know it. Interestingly, this is also how we enter our own scientific disciplines. As students, we come into contact with the outer boundaries of various scientific communities through our teachers. We become "certain", as Wittgenstein puts it, of some things, and not others, because of the education we get. We come to "share", as Kuhn puts it, a paradigm. We don't, at least not usually, start with some transcendental standard of knowledge and wait to say we "know" something until we run into an idea that meets that standard. Rather, our knowledge is rooted in our social bonds.

There is something obvious about this, a sense in which it has to be this way. But there is also something disturbing about it, something that offends our sense of what science ought to be. That will be the subject of Wednesday's post.


Andrew Shields said...

My hunch: on Wednesday, you will distinguish between science as a social process (as discussed here) and science as a measuring of the world ("what science ought to be").

Thomas said...

Pretty close. We might also say I will be distinguishing between the truth and the justice of scientific research.