Angèle Kremer Marietti

(Université d'Amiens)

Commentary on Mara Beller’s paper: « Neither Modernist Nor Postmodernist - A third Way”, ZIF-Conference „World and Knowledge”, Bielefeld, June, 18-20th, 2001

I do not think that there would be a third way for epistemology neither for philosophy of science.

I. A history of reason

At first, professor Beller gave us a history of contemporary reason, and precisely she showed a plausible way from modernity towards postmodernity. It is true that logical positivism changed into becoming more historical than logical, but it was with Neurath’s evolution not with Carnap who kept along his views on logic. Effectively, there was a pragmatic dimension joining together theoretical symbols and observed phenomena... However, Charles Sanders Peirce himself, who thought ‘pragmaticism’ and never had separated logic from scientific reflection, would never have overall accepted evaluating theory-choice according to considerations with extra-scientific criteria !

Therefore, I am afraid to find in Mara Beller‘s contribution a history in which everything present has already been living in the past ! Today, professor Beller makes the positivist Frank the fore-runner of our postmodern science studies and cognitive relativism, but she is doing so in order to prove that modern reason was never pure in its effective purpose : which however can be true.

According to an “almost irrefutable relativism”, professor Beller shows that the very epistemological question is now in the case of being able to distinguish science from non-science. Yes, today that is the question. Professor Beller refuses holism and incommensurability, but she accepts theory-ladenness of observation and underdetermination of theory by data ; for the two last issues, I would agree in a relative proportion.

I would effectively say that, firstly, one single isolated fact has no signification at all, and, secondly, that other new theories could be always conceived regarding some facts, but if they are seen in a particular way. I would say, exactly like Mrs G.E.M. Anscombe (1959) concerning actions “under description” ; and I would admit, like Auguste Comte (1830) in the first lesson of his Course of positive philosophy, that without a theory in order to combine observations, isolated facts have no scientific signification at all. Scientific theory gives signification to the facts and renders them scientific.

Epistemological relativism is qualified by professor Beller as a pseudo-problem concentrated on the notion of “theory-choice” which is – professor Beller writes – “an after effect on the ongoing communicative practice of scientific theorizing”. But she indicates also a continuity between all these stages and then justifies historically the existence of a relativist position.

II. An inadequate notion of scientific truth

About the notion of “scientific collective” – treated in the second part of her paper – Mara Beller comes to a notion of which Karl Popper has been seen as the fore-runner. Professor Beller approaches the notion of consensus which she refuses – and I agree with her – as an “inadequate notion of scientific truth” – as she refuses also the position of the Strong Programme of Sociology of Knowledge.

Mara Beller analyses consensus or “collective agreement” in a way that she finds at the end solidarity replaces now objectivity, at least for Rorty “et alia”. And the sociologist Emile Durkheim would be at the origin of such a consideration, when now sociologists of science would develop his proper ideas on closed and tribal communities and extend them to the scientific communities with a reference to the notion of “cognitive order”. However, science is not religion and many derivations must have been necessary in order to achieve the transformation from the primitive mentality into the scientific state of mind. All that is simply a treason relatively to Durkheim’s sociology ! We may ask : “Is Durkheim’s fault ?”

All that is perfectly clearly exposed by professor Beller and she is only speaking of psychosociological effects instead of speaking properly of facts of thought. Meanwhile, it is why she evokes Bruno Latour with his notion of “imperialism of networks of alliances”. It seams that Professor Beller‘s purposes are to show how much all these different heritages are similar in their effects : logical positivism as much as Durkheim’s sociology being become the strange grand-fathers of the present postmodernity and epistemological relativism.

Sure, our present situation has historical backgrounds, but all these comparisons do not make reason. Comparison is not reason : reason needs logical arguments. Besides, historical backgrounds do not justify the so-called “ingenious mingling” which we can learn nowadays here and there. I think it is time to come back to a reasonable solution, as to the construction of scientific truth which cannot be reduced to social-historical circumstances. One must say that scientific truth is the result of an intellectual labor joining experiments and reasoning, indeed elaborated under social and historical circumstances. When a new scientific truth is established, all scientists adopt it earlier or later. If consensus plays a part in the discovery of scientific truth, it is not a causal but a final part of the scientific research. When reason and experiment have done their effects, why then would no consensus follow ? But this consensus is based on the examination of the work already done.

Therefore, consensus is not “the basic notional evaluating and explanation of scientific results” which it is according to Mara Beller the way accepted together by positivists and constructionists. Further, is it acceptable to write that “the state of consensus cannot result in a rational scientific change” ? On the contrary, consensus is certainly the coronation of scientific research ; and it can come very late. For instance, the famous formula e=mc² was verified through particles’ accelerators, fifty years after it was found by Einstein. The consensus does not occur at the beginning of what is going to become a scientific truth, but happens at the end of a very long scientific verification.

III. What about a dialogic epistemology?

I have not much place to communicate my own conclusions on dialogic epistemology that professor Beller presented in the third part of her talk, and also when she writes : “In the dialogical approach disagreement, rather than consensus or agreement, provides the basis for scientific interaction and for ensuing change”. Her device ”without disagreement, not any science !” is still something foreign to science in itself. I know, dialogic procedures may be a manner of conducting exchanges between scientists who are thinking on data and hypothesis. Who would believe that cogito could be replaced by a serious cogitamus made by many cogitos in a real time? It would be so if individuals had knowledge only in a “derivative way” as long as they belong to a given community. However, could one reduce scientific knowledge to a social practice with a “knowing subject” being not an individual but an epistemic community ? At the end of the scientific work, it may appear that it is so. But disagreement is a very low level of reason. One would speak as it were never question of reasoning or experimenting. Dialogic discourse is literary ; in every case, it is more literature than epistemology. If consensus is a social reality, it is not at all a basis for speaking of general epistemology.
The dialogical approach would be the approach where controversies permit the opponents to come in a final agreement on telling the (same) truth. Indeed, dialogues have always existed, overall since Socrates and Plato ; from discussion comes truth, said Augustinus, but scientific truth was not yet the matter. Professor Beller is right and I would agree to say that dialogism does not explain the growth of knowledge, and, as she writes, it only “is a phenomenological approach”. Dialogism may be useful “for studying scientific texts”, as she also writes.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) whose philosophy is regarded by Mara Beller as being an epistemological key for our problems, was a cultural and literary theorist on language and texts. It appears that Bakhtin’s methods can be excellent for a literary work – exactly both for writing and commenting ; his methods are well used also for successful teaching and learning. Another set of activities in which dialogism must be of some efficiency consists of policy. And although Bakhtin’s ideas have effectively been seen as providing a theorical basis for certain rhetorical features appearing in scientific writing, they are very insufficient for explaining science and scientific success.

In fact, since Socrates, there has been a “dialogic tradition”, renewed in the work of Bakhtin; also in Gadamer with the search of fusion with the Other through the mutual articulation of truth. Though all that may be indeed very interesting, it does not help for a general epistemology. Even if he is important for us, the Other with whom we are speaking is not a sufficient condition in order to let us think scientifically. And we must say that dialogical exchange is possible especially in conditions which are rather the field of hermeneutics.

“Neither modernist, nor postmodernist” : what does mean this slogan when dialogic epistemology could be classified as a postmodern epistemology ? Maybe, defending and attacking scientific truth, as we are doing together, is simply something which results from our postmodern condition. Maybe, all of us, we are postmodernist without knowing it !

After all, locality, contextuality, historicity, dialogicity are comprehensible points of view regarding scientific activity, nevertheless they do not bring us to understand through formal methods and scientific practices why and how science changes. Besides, they do not establish at all scientific truth.

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