- Introduction: When Language Rebels
- The Challenge of Translation
- History as a Safeguard Against Anachronisms
- The Underlying Philosophical Stance
- Clarifying the Nature of the Argument
- The Role of Models
- Degrees of Likeness
- Globalization and the Quest for the Underlying Unity of History
I am, for example, acutely aware of the difficulties created by saying that when Aristotle
and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum. The same difficulties are presented in an even more fundamental form by the opening sentences of this section: though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterwards works in a different world. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we must learn to make sense of statements that at least resemble these. (Kuhn 1970, 121)
Introduction: When Language Rebels
When Thomas Kuhn began to write The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, language model epistemology had just been smuggled out of departments of philosophy and linguistics and lobbed like grenades into unsuspecting departments of history of science. The traditional ties between language and reality external to language were threatened on the ground that language is the very structure of mental life and no meta-language can ever stand outside itself to observe reality external to itself. Thomas Kuhn thought the problem of translation from one language to another is mirrored in the problem of interpreting one scientific worldview in terms of a different scientific worldview. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that, whereas members of one linguistic community generally recognize that other communities may have their own, equally valid languages, the members of a given scientific tradition usually consider that theirs alone is genuinely scientific. Consider for instance, Sir Peter Medawar’s
Some reviewers hereabouts have called it the Book of the Year—one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of tedious metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There’s an argument in it, to be sure—a feeble argument, abominably expressed. (Medawar 1983, 242)
Structure dealt a blow to facile generalizations about the nature of science and ushered in a period of soul-searching that shows no sign of abating fifty years later. The first section of this paper pays tribute to the memory of Thomas Kuhn and discusses his stimulating ideas about the quirks of language; the second section examines how historians and philosophers of science have tried to interact.
The Challenge of Translation
The quest for the scientific method that underpins all scientific research has proved as elusive as the search for a universal grammar that underlies all languages. Kuhn never disavowed his belief that a scientific revolution marks a break between two incommensurable points of view, but after the publication of his work he relentlessly sought a way of moving from the perspective of one group to that of a different one. Whereas a gestalt switch was the analogy invoked in Structure, Kuhn came to favor a comparison with the acquisition of a foreign language by a culturally and socially sensitive anthropologist. Neither incommensurability nor untranslatability need debar us from the understanding of scientific texts if we have the required intelligence, determination (and modesty) to live with them and to learn from them. What Kuhn would not grant is that understanding implies total comprehension. The constellation of theoretical concepts, practical insights and mathematical techniques that cluster around the key notion in a given body of scientific knowledge cannot be fully evoked by even the best translation into a different system.
The case is analogous to that of poetry. A good French translation of Intimations of Immortality can capture most of Wordsworth’s ideas. It may even recreate the atmosphere of the poem, but in order to do this it will have to forgo literal translation for literary creation. Kuhn stressed that we cannot translate an older scientific text simply by enriching the contemporary lexicon. A word alone, even a family of words, will not do. A scientific revolution is like a landslide: it moves whole layers of the lexicon to different places where they soon acquire their former deceptive naturalness and apparent permanence even though they no longer support the same superstructure. The delicate problem is the nature of the landslide, is it merely epistemological (i.e., a feature of our language about the world) or is it ontological (i.e., a feature of the structure of reality) as well? Kuhn sometimes wrote as though the structure of the world changes with each lexical shift, but he nonetheless maintained that we can use two different lexicons to describe the same phenomenal reality. It is difficult not to suspect that what Kuhn was groping for was an updated version of the Kantian noumenon / phenomenon dichotomy, although he framed his discussion in terms of access to manifold worlds of words.
Members of various linguistic communities organize the world in ways that need not be identical, and Kuhn even contemplated the abyss of saying that they need not overlap before withdrawing from an assertion that would preclude the possibility of the partial knowledge he wished to defend. Kuhn was no black-hole epistemologist. He did not believe that we are sealed in a linguistic house of mirrors even if he chose, at times, to use dazzling lights. What he conveyed to us is a vivid sense of the fact that the connection between the verbal signifier and the mental thing signified is more understandable and easier to describe than the connection of either with the world we revealingly qualify as “out there.” Kuhn has sometimes been branded as an anti-realist, but it seems to me that he avoided this pitfall with the same kind of instinctive little lurch of faith that takes us out of bed every morning confident that the floor will be where we left it.
Observations are never made in a cognitive void and even the most apparently factual report comes to us tinged with anticipations and shrouded in some conceptual garb. This theory-ladenness, however, is neither as permanent nor as objectionable as it may sound. To say that I cannot get something without an instrument is not the same thing as stating that it cannot be reached. There is a kind of purity that is just another word for nakedness! Kuhn himself gave an excellent account of various ways in which such terms as force, mass and weight can be acquired. He offers a cautionary tale about the perils of trying “to straighten out the facts” before “getting the facts straight,”—in other words, of doing philosophy of science without history of science.
For Kuhn, the worlds of science, arts and philosophy are coterminous; several strands are intertwined and there is a constant interchange of information at the boundaries. Kuhn was aware of cross-fertilizations that may have been startling when they occurred or baffling to a later age but that make excellent sense when constructed with historical sensitivity. Consider, for instance, Emanuel Swedenborg’s
History as a Safeguard Against Anachronisms
From the vantage point of any particular moment in the development of science, what happened before the discovery of the current method can easily be misunderstood. There is a natural tendency—conscious or unconscious—to mould great scientists of the past into the image of present-day scientists. Galileo
What is interesting is not so much the attempt to foster an empiricist philosophy of science on Galileo
A deeper or, at least, a thornier problem is posed by the ambiguities that are almost always bound up with an early formulation of a new law. It is not only that there are many possible worlds, but that each world is open to several possible interpretations. Here again, the easy solution is the anachronistic one; the ascription to one man of the process that began long before him and was probably not completed until long after. A distinguished scientist and philosopher like Ernst Mach
Galilean scholarship has swung the other way since Mach
The word inertia in its technical sense was not introduced by Galileo
If all external impediments are removed, a heavy body placed on a spherical surface, which is concentric with the Earth, will be indifferent to rest and to movement toward any part of the horizon. And it will maintain itself in that state in which it has once been placed [...] Thus a ship, for instance, having once received some impetus through the tranquil sea, would move continually around our globe without ever stopping. (Galilei 1890–1909a, 134–135)
Just as there is a continuous and intelligible path from Buridan
In The Equilibrium Controversy, Jürgen Renn
The extensive research that led to The Equilibrium Controversy began in 2006 when the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science acquired a copy of Giovanni Benedetti’s
A crucial problem was the exact relation between the key concepts of center of gravity and positional heaviness. Guidobaldo del Monte
The Underlying Philosophical Stance
Philosophers of science clearly need historians of science if they are to avoid anachronisms, but historians of science can also learn from philosophers of science. I believe that Kuhn saw at least two ways in which philosophical considerations can prove useful to historians, namely (a) by elucidating the interpretive frameworks and the concepts employed, (b) by analyzing underlying methodological assumptions and (c) by clarifying the meaning of models and theories. I shall say a word about each aspect.
If history is to rise above a mere collection of anecdotes, it must be written from some point of view and with some unifying theme. It is here that the philosopher has a contribution to make by supplying some distinctive perspective, such as Kuhn’s view about paradigms, normal science and revolutions. The two examples that were discussed above concerning the falsification of Galileo’s
Clarifying the Nature of the Argument
The philosopher of science can also cast light on the cogency of scientific reasoning. It is not enough to determine with historical accuracy what premises were employed to understand a scientific argument used in the past. To see the value of the argument one has to know whether the premises entail the conclusion or make it probable in the light of the evidence available at the time. The philosopher of science should be able, by virtue of his logical training, to examine the relations between the premises and the conclusions.
No one will deny that it is of intrinsic interest to discover whether an argument actually employed by a scientist of the past is cogent, but some might deny that this is history of science. The historian, it could be said, should ponder what the argument is, not whether it is any good. But this would be a narrow and ultimately stultifying approach. One of the most interesting questions in intellectual history is the determination of the value of arguments at the time when they were formulated. It is a task that requires the skills of both the philosopher and the historian of science, since we have to assess both the validity of the logical procedure and the nature of the evidence at hand. In this domain philosophical analysis can clearly compliment the historian’s craft.
Any effort to reconstruct the past must be accompanied by a critical examination of what, in the light of hindsight, we know to have actually been the case. For instance, in investigating the models of Maxwell, Kelvin, FitzGerald, Helmholtz and others, it is important to recognize the nature and thrust of the methodological assumptions that guided nineteenth-century physicists.4 In his paper on physical lines of force, published in 1861, Maxwell
The Role of Models
One need only raise these questions to realize that they are important if we are to understand what Maxwell
Mechanical models offer three-dimensional physical representations of objects such that, by considering them, we are able to know some facts about the original objects of study. The simplest kinds of these models are tinkertoy models of the molecule or of solar systems found in museums. They may be bigger or smaller than the original. They may also represent only those characteristics that a scientist is interested in. In this case, they may serve as an analog for the original as, for instance, when Maxwell
Theoretical models like the billiard-ball model of a gas, Bohr’s model of the atom, the corpuscular model of light or the shell model of the atomic nucleus, do not refer to a physical object that is distinct from the one of which it is a model but to a set of assumptions about the object that is itself under scrutiny.5 For instance, the billiard-ball model is a set of assumptions according to which molecules in a gas exert only contact forces on one another, travel in straight lines except at the instant collision, are small in size compared to average molecule distances, and so on. These theoretical models can be further characterized. First, they describe an object or system by attributing to it an inner structure or a mechanism that is intended to account for certain features of the object or system. In the case of the billiard-ball model, a molecular structure is ascribed to gases in order to explain observed relationships of pressure, volume, temperature, entropy, etc. Second, they are treated as useful approximations not exhaustive explanations. The billiard-ball model assumes that the only intramolecular forces are contact forces and thus ignores non-contact attractive and repulsive forces. This is useful in allowing a number of important relationships to be derived and in suggesting how the kinetic theory might be expanded. Thirdly, a theoretical model is set in the broader context of a more comprehensive theory. In the billiard-ball model, the behavior of the molecules always complies with Newton’s laws.
The third group of models, imaginary ones, refers to a set of assumptions about a system that are supposed to show what the system could be like if it were to satisfy certain conditions but for which no factual claims are made. An example is Poincaré’s
Armed with these distinctions, the historian can probe deeper into the status of Maxwell’s
Degrees of Likeness
There is much contemporary fuzzy-thinking about the meaning of theories. Although Kuhn was right in stressing that the framework of a given hypothesis determines to a large extent what questions can be raised and what views can be suggested about a particular problem, he did not manage to explain how different theories can be contrasted and appraised. On his view, one is practically driven to describe scientific change in revolutionary terms, to speak, for instance, of the “overthrow” of Aristotelian mechanics or the “victory” over phlogiston. As a result, theories seem “incommensurable” and their change can no longer be rendered intelligible in rational terms. This relativism is not, however, the outcome of an investigation of actual science and its history; it is merely a logical consequence of a narrow presupposition about the meaning of scientific terms. Positivists held that if the terms do not retain precisely the same meaning over the history of their incorporation into more general theories, then these theories cannot be compared, and the similarities they exhibit must be considered, at the best, as superficial and, at the worst, as deceptive and misleading. This claim rests on the assumption that two expressions or set of expressions must either have exactly the same meaning or must be completely different. The only possibility left open by this rigid dichotomy of meanings is that history of science, since it is not a simple process of development by accumulation, must be a completely noncumulative process of replacement.
The inherent weakness of this position turns out to be its retention of a positivistic concept of meaning. If anything the revolution is not radical enough! In spite of his spirited attack on the positivistic view that theories are parasitic on “observations,” Kuhn nonetheless approached problems with that distinction in mind. He applied the old classification to a new purpose in a daring way by inverting the respective roles of the two members of the classical distinction: it was now the “theory” that determined the meaning and acceptability of the “observation” rather than the other way around. Observations were now so embedded in a particular theory that they lost any identity of their own, and ceased to be comparable. But this did not solve the problem of meaning: it simply replaced the theory of meaning invariance with the doctrine of incommensurable meanings. An alternative is to consider meanings as similar or analogous: comparable in some respects while differing in others. The difficulty in this interpretation lies in the concept of similarity or degrees of likeness of meanings. It is here that much more work needs to be done, and an indication of the urgency of the task is the proliferation of works on the use of metaphors, beginning with the book of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003).
Globalization and the Quest for the Underlying Unity of History
An innovative thrust on how knowledge and history interact can be found in a book recently edited by Jürgen Renn (2012). The central theme is that there is only one history of human knowledge. There may have been many false starts, and there were probably many new and promising beginnings that were thwarted, wasted or simply forgotten, but there is a stream of cumulative discoveries that can be seen from a global perspective. Knowledge, whether scientific, technological or cultural, is now shared globally. But was this always the case? If we are tempted to say, “No,” we may wish to pause after having been reminded of the rapid spread of the wheel in prehistory or of Roman law to such diverse areas as the Byzantine Empire and Ethiopia.
Globalization has been much discussed in relation to capital and labour, markets and finance, politics and military power, but it involves knowledge in many other significant ways, and the homogenization and universalization that are characteristics of globalization are fraught with dangers as well as opportunities. On the one hand, there is the threat of a standardization of mass culture that would result in a “dumbing down” of linguistic subtlety, political awareness and moral sensitivity. On the other hand, there is the opportunity of creating a richer network of social relations where diverse belief systems and political institutions would become complementary and could provide a stimulus for devising a more humane society on a worldwide scale.
Comprehensive globalization results from a number of factors such as the migration of populations, the spread of technologies, the dissemination of religious ideas and the emergence of multilingualism. These factors each have their own dynamics and history, and it is the study of their interconnection that enables us to see globalization at work. Historians of science have often focused on who made a discovery and when it occurred rather than on how it was rendered possible by the context in which it emerged. In other words, they privileged innovation over transmission and transformation. Renn
If systems of knowledge are essential to the organization of epistemic networks in a given social and cultural context, their subsequent restructuring is also of paramount importance. A particularly striking instance is the elaboration of Aristotelian natural philosophy, first in a theological milieu in the Middle Ages, and later in the wake of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. The outcome did not leave unaffected the intrinsic structure of Aristotelianism but created hybrids that changed the overall history of knowledge.
The relations between specifically scientific knowledge and socio-economic growth are clearly of importance. It was mainly in Europe that science and engineering became bedfellows and that a new class of scientists-engineers began to assimilate the know-how of craftsmen. This led them, in turn, to question the theories they had inherited. But we may well ask: Why is science reproducible and transportable? It can be argued that it is not because of any methodological principle, but because it focuses on means. The successful expansion of science within Europe created a model that was exported worldwide, including the replication of institutional settings and canons of what constitute knowledge. Science grew at an astonishing rate and travelled at an unprecedented pace. This was largely due to networks that introduced a connectivity that had once been assured by other bodies such as wealthy patrons, religious societies, universities and scientific academies. The rise of a new and highly mobile class of engineers was decisive. As their contribution to the solution of practical problems increased so did their personal prestige along with that of science. Local knowledge has generally been challenged, and frequently ousted by globalization, but there are several instances when they were preserved and served to shape the way new knowledge was perceived and integrated into different cultural traditions. Historians and philosophers of science must engage in a renewed dialogue over the significance of these changes. Thomas Kuhn would have considered them challenging, hence welcome. We should follow suit.
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