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Leftovers: Practical Strategy as Fractional Philosophy September 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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After working through my thoughts about the historiographical aims of Objectivity and whether or not the history of science’s turn away from the philosophy of sciences impoverishes its ability to write a history of ideas, I have one leftover question I don’t really know what to think about, and it is expressed nicely in Martin Kusch’s review of Objectivity as he confronts their attempt to construct a “historicist” history without being “relativist” (possibly, I may be misunderstanding).

(Here, by the way, “historicist” means that concepts, such as objectivity, are not transcendental, a meaning to be distinguished from a historical determinism, as in the Marxist dialectic.)

According to Kusch:

Only a century ago, and thus very much in the period at issue in Objectivity, the relationship between historicism and relativism was extensively discussed among the likes of Dilthey, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rickert, Simmel and Windelband.  Whatever emerged from this eventually abandoned debate, it certainly included the insight that the historicist can avoid relativism only by either positing a telos of historical development or treating the views of different periods as components of one overall truth.  Neither option now seems particularly attractive.

Kusch defends relativism here as something not to be equated with skepticism.  I have to admit I haven’t read enough of Kusch to know his opinions on the matter, but, having read enough of Harry Collins to understand how relativism informs his specifically sociological project (and with their jointly-written book still on my to-do list), I think I understand the defense as having to do with generating additional layers of explanation describing why rational actions can only make sense within specified social preconditions.

Rather than try and explain my understanding of what they mean by relativism any further at this point, I want to focus on the unattractiveness of seeing different views as components of an “overall truth”, because this is how I tend to see practice as informed by, or at least conforming to, philosophy, as discussed in my last post.  The basic idea here is that “epistemology”, writ large, contains a diverse array of strategies (empiricism, correlation, taxonomy, systems-building, modeling, etc.) that can be deployed in different ways to suggest plausible-to-reliable explanations.

This overarching epistemology defines different problems that may be encountered when employing different epistemological strategies (and these strategies and their problems may be conceptualized in different ways and in different times, which render them “historicized”).  Some individuals may privilege certain facets of epistemology in their practice, possibly making their work seem very limited in its scope or applicability (think 19th-century astronomers striving for ever-greater degrees of precision), where more ingenuitive inquirers may make more expansive use of the epistemological palette.  It is unlikely that any individual could have mastery of the entire palette.  Thankfully, specialization may be productive and legitimate, provided an appropriate division of intellectual labor is established that connects one facet of epistemology with complementary facets.  (I make a lot of use out of this notion in my forthcoming book on policy analysis, progress on which is currently out of my hands….)

The overall content of epistemology is constructed by humans—the development of statistics and probability, for example, represented a substantial innovation.  However, the construction must conform to some transcendental structure of possible knowledge-producing strategies, which we can only make efforts to describe.  It is exactly this transcendental quality that makes nature appear teleological, and why we can draw productive analogies, say, between animal populations and economic systems, or between computers and the brain: nature itself is capable of mimicking rationality.

It is this notion that different communities embrace different aspects of an overarching and interconnected systems of possible epistemological strategies that made me sympathetic to philosopher Kent Staley’s appeals to a “unity” of science, where Galison was keen to see “disunity” (not to mention Jed Buchwald’s and Allan Franklin’s criticism of the “disunity” trend appearing shortly thereafter).

Not being a philosopher myself (and therefore not being very eager to dive into yet another new literature unguided), I’m curious to know what are the objections toward such a fractional view, which Kusch mentions.  Am I understanding the views of people like Kusch and Staley properly?  Is the notion that different epistemological perspectives are “components of one overall truth” an objectionable view dependent on the notion that these components are in “different periods” (because I tend to see the components as distributed via divisions of intellectual labor in the same period, acknowledging that different periods come up with different divisions).  Is there someone I really ought to be reading on these points?  I’m a bit at sea here, but in the interests of openness and the prospects of getting a good tip, I thought I’d cop to it.

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