On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay

On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay

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Epistemology, as generally understood by philosophers of science, is rather remote from the history of science and from historical concerns in general. Rheinberger shows that, from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century, a parallel, alternative discourse sought to come to terms with the rather fundamental experience of the thoroughgoing scientific changes brought on by the revolution in physics. Philosophers of science and historians of science alike contributed their share to what this essay describes as an ongoing quest to historicize epistemology. Historical epistemology, in this sense, is not so concerned with the knowing subject and its mental capacities. Rather, it envisages science as an ongoing cultural endeavor and tries to assess the conditions under which the sciences in all their diversity take shape and change over time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804762892
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2010
Series: Cultural Memory in the Present
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He is the author of Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford, 1997).

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An Essay
By Hans-Jörg Rheinberger


Copyright © 2007 Junius Verlag GmbH
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6289-2

Chapter One

Fin de Siècle

The ideal explanation of nature, as it was articulated in an increasingly radical fashion after the brief interlude of Romantic nature study in the nineteenth century, was a mechanical one. The view was repeatedly expressed that natural science ultimately aimed at reducing all phenomena down to the movements of their smallest parts and to the forces acting between them. Where this could not yet be attained, as in the case of the fundamental phenomena of life, it was hoped nonetheless that this goal would eventually be achieved with more refined methods. In certain fields, it indeed seemed that research into the depths of matter had already reached this point. Following, as its methodology, the secure guiding threads of induction, the historical course of scientific knowledge presented itself as essentially cumulative.

To the electro-physiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond, working in Berlin, it even seemed that "the historical course of the inductive sciences is in general almost the same as the course of induction itself." In the ideal case, therefore, it was not just research and its representation that coincided, but also the method of obtaining knowledge and the actual historical process of research. Aside from the "accidents of the business of discovery," the history of a science was seen as identical with the inductive process out of which it had differentiated. For the Berlin physiologist, it was consistent with this to envisage an essentially didactic role for the history of science, a view that was echoed two decades later by Pierre Duhem: "The legitimate, sure and fruitful method of preparing a student to receive a physical hypothesis is the historical method." In contrast to Du Bois-Reymond, however, Duhem did not share the view that a system of hypotheses could be obtained from experience by pure induction; for him, the historical method should provide a presentation of those "destinies" which had led to its introduction and enforcement. Historical representation, in Duhem's view, thus had a fundamental lesson to teach about how knowledge is attained. Neither Du Bois-Reymond nor Duhem, however, gave special treatment to this history and its methodical preconditions; the sequence of historical events remained largely unproblematical in its narrative structure.

Du Bois-Reymond gave another speech in 1872, the same year as his above-mentioned speech on the history of science at the Berlin Academy of Sciences. At the annual conference of German scientists and medical doctors in Leipzig, under the title "The Limits of the Knowledge of Nature," he drew a particular conclusion from his presentation of the progress of knowledge. Here he saw mechanical knowledge of nature-even, or indeed especially, on the assumption that it would eventually be complete-as confronting two barriers, with no way in sight as to how these could be overcome. On the one hand, mechanical knowledge was not in a position to account for its basic concepts-matter, force, movement; it could only posit them, but not according to its own inductive rules. On the other hand, it stood powerless before the phenomena of perception and consciousness. For Du Bois-Reymond, they indeed had a material foundation, but could not be derived from mechanics as understood. The fact that there was no ultimate foundation for the basic concepts with which the mechanical paradigm of scientific knowledge operated led Du Bois-Reymond to the rather radical conclusion that mechanical explanation was basically only a surrogate account, one that he liked to call an "extremely useful fiction."

Here we see how the principle of a mechanical explanation of nature, when applied as it were to itself, collapses into agnosticism. This is the starting point of a line of thought that near the end of the nineteenth century carved out an increasingly large niche for itself under the general name of conventionalism, especially in physics and its philosophical reflection, to which I shall return. At all events, Du Bois-Reymond, with the "ignorabimus" at the end of his speech, provided the motto for a protracted debate, still echoing half a century later in the program of the Vienna Circle. The focus of scientific policy, however, had changed in the meantime. In the late 1920s, against an increasing antiscience movement, members of the Vienna Circle were once more struggling for a unified science with no internal borders, if only this endeavor could be freed from the dead weight of metaphysical pseudoproblems.

Du Bois-Reymond, by positing the nonreducibility of consciousness to matter, had taken a step away from the narrow path of mechanical thinking; on this basis a dichotomy of knowledge in the form of a firm distinction between natural and human sciences could increasingly take shape. This dual distribution of competence formed the key point of attack for contemporary critics who saw Du Bois-Reymond as betraying the mechanical worldview. He met with violent, ontologically motivated resistance from the mechanically minded monist side.

Ernst Mach similarly referred both to the scope and the limits of Du Bois-Reymond's act of despair when he remarked almost a quarter of a century later:

Dubois-Reymond's recognition of the insolubility of his problem was an immense step in advance; this recognition removed a weight from many men's minds, as is shown by the success of his work, a success which is otherwise scarcely intelligible. He did not, indeed, take the further important step of seeing that the recognition of a problem as insoluble in principle, must depend on a mistaken way of stating the question. For he too, like countless others, took the instruments of a special science to be the actual world.

Not to confuse the instruments of a special science and the "actual world"-the possible relativization of knowledge claims that this warning indicates shall be pursued below in the extension and in the concrete forms this relativization assumed near the end of the nineteenth century.

First of all, we must glance at how Mach himself attempted to escape the problematique that he considered as confused. His historical and critical Science of Mechanics can serve here as a point of departure. Mach represented research in a light that deserves closer consideration. In contrast with Du Bois-Reymond, he saw scientific knowledge less as aporetic than as a project that was on principle impossible to bring to an end. In a distant echo of Auguste Comte, Mach distinguished three epochs. The first was the animistic mythology of the old religions; the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries then saw the rise of a mechanical cosmology, still in the context of an underlying theological foundation, which in the course of the eighteenth century freed itself from religion and became the "projected world outlook of the Encyclopedists," as a mechanistic mythology. Finally, in the late nineteenth century, this mythology was overcome in a more considerate age, though it still remained to be seen how it would develop: "The direction in which this enlightenment is to be looked for, as the result of long and painstaking research, can of course only be surmised. To anticipate the result, or even to attempt to introduce it into any scientific investigation of today, would be mythology, not science." Mach claims here that what he distinguishes as science from mythology-in the foreword to the first (1883) edition of his Science of Mechanics he characterized his own position as an "anti-metaphysical tendency"-is essentially determined by the lack of closure, and above all by the unpredictability of future development: on principle, we cannot see how things will turn out in the future. On the same page as cited above, Mach describes the highest form of philosophy to which a natural scientist can gain access as "toleration of an incomplete conception of the world and the preference for it rather than an apparently perfect, but inadequate conception." He certainly also considered his own work as a moment in an overarching historical process. He had not completed his science, but was a participant who had opened new prospects for it. On the one hand, he maintained, it was useful to make the systematic petrifications of present-day knowledge visible rather than to see these petrifications as something fixed and given once and forever. On the other hand, historical consciousness also made it possible to seek new and previously untrodden paths, "in so far as what exists is in part precisely experienced as conventional and accidental." For Mach, the development of mechanics could have proceeded quite differently, and its present form was due to a contingent chain of historical circumstances. A theory of the history of science, however-unless his own three-stage sequence is misinterpreted in this light-had as little place in Mach's philosophy as in that of Du Bois-Reymond. It would arise only upon reflection on the break that positions such as Mach's introduced into nineteenth century's optimistic view of scientific progress.

In a broader historical perspective, Mach argued, the development of the sciences was bound up with the developing division of labor in society. This division created for the first time, indeed as its precondition, the need for an efficient transmission of existing knowledge in particular areas. The social origin of science out of transmission, which for Mach was ultimately based in the biological-organic nature of man, lay at the root of his view that the nature of science really consisted in nothing more than an "economy of thought." One could state in Mach's sense that thought and its economy were ultimately the fruits of an economy of social life as this became increasingly differentiated. Concepts replace experiences that others have made and that do not have to be constantly repeated in their traditional context-a point that we shall return to, from a slightly different slant, with Edmund Husserl. Concepts are thus abstractions that can stand in for experiences at particular points. They are symbols for complexes of perceptions that show a certain stability.

Here Mach takes a definite step forward in relation to his colleague Hermann von Helmholtz. Helmholtz, with his own sign theory of perception, proceeded from the assertion that perceptions are to be understood as nerve signs for external stimuli that through experience are placed in a meaningful connection; only in this way do they become perceptions in the strict sense. Sensation is a physiological process, perception must be learned. Mach sharpened this argument almost to the point of reversing it, maintaining: "Sensations are not signs of things; but, on the contrary, a thing is a thought-symbol for a compound sensation of relative fixedness." In the last analysis, it is not that we recognize unchangeable things in the external world, but rather that they are, in their thing-ness, the result of an effort of abstraction. There is no such thing in nature as cause and effect-concepts that Mach calls "things of thought, having an economical office"-but merely concrete connections in which similarly concrete individual subjects with their perceptive capacity always already find themselves.

This does not mean, however, that the conventional and the accidental in the development of knowledge are lacking in rules. Indeed, if Mach locates the genesis of these "things of thought" with their "economical office" in the biological-organic, this is not the case with their enforcement. These things are rather subjected to a historical regime of economy which prevents their random development in any direction. Mach thus describes science in general as "the least possible expenditure of thought." The basic concepts that a science such as mechanics deploys are the result of a principle of least expenditure of thought: the way they represent the mechanical facts of experience can be undercut at any time. What is still more important: "The science of mechanics does not comprise the foundations, no, nor even a part of the world, but only an aspect of it." Mechanics no longer forms the center of the natural-scientific explanation of the world on account of its ontologically privileged object, as was still the case with Du Bois-Reymond. Its only justification is that of a proven economy of thought. Every such economy, however, grasps only one aspect of the world; it is an abstraction from one particular perspective. And the perspectives from which the world can be grasped are on principle limitless, with none of them being specially privileged. There are other sciences that abstract according to other principles, and these can have the same validity as mechanics.

* * *

Henri Poincaré in turn was one of the most prominent representatives of a theory of science that went under the already mentioned name of conventionalism. Before we compare his line of argument with that of Mach, however, we should briefly consider Émile Boutroux-one of the most influential philosophers of science in France in the late nineteenth century. His work on the sciences broaches themes that we shall discuss in their later elaborations, while also linking up with Du Bois-Reymond and Mach. Unlike his German peers, Boutroux was a trained philosopher, though he concerned himself intensively with the sciences of his time. He can be seen as one of the fathers of a rapprochement between philosophy and the natural sciences in France, which later was to flow into a special form of historical epistemology. His 1874 dissertation The Contingency of the Laws of Nature articulates all the themes that are relevant to our present concern.

Contingency was the key word for Boutroux, with which he sought to break up the determinism of classical mechanics. His line of argument requires closer examination. According to Boutroux, we obtain our information about the world solely from the empirical sciences, which approach their objects by way of experiment: "All experimental finding is reduced, in the end, to confining within as close limits as possible the value of the measurable element of the phenomena." Yet "we never reach the exact point at which the phenomenon really begins and ends." In between there is a space of indeterminacy, which the determinist argues away by "interpret[ing] literally the principle by which any particular phenomenon is connected with any other particular phenomenon." This step, however, has no justification. A de facto space of indeterminacy exists at the heart of quantitative science, and nothing justifies us to make assertions about a realm that already escapes the experimental means of our assessment in the context of what Boutroux describes as the "static sciences." This holds all the more so for the "dynamic sciences"-the "sciences of being"-and naturally of course also for the historical sciences. It would be wrong, says Boutroux in his second major treatment of the concept of natural law, based on his lectures at the Sorbonne some twenty years later, "to say that mechanics, of itself alone, constitutes the entire science of the real. For in the present state of our knowledge, science is not one, it is multiple. Science, regarded as including all the sciences, is but an abstraction."


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction 1

1 Fin de Siècle 5

2 Between the Wars—I 19

3 Between the Wars—II 35

4 After 1945 51

5 The 1960s in France 65

6 Recent Developments 79

Conclusion 89

Notes 93

Bibliography 101

Index of Names 107

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