By Michael Roess

Michael Roess, Eckerd College

It has been well established that the pursuit of knowledge is an inescapably social activity. This is not only because we live in a world with others but also because, as Francis Bacon noticed, our inability to observe ourselves blinds us to the assumptions we use in inquiry. We become aware of these prejudices only by collaborating with others who, by making use of different assumptions, allow us to become aware of our own. For such collaboration, a community of merely like-minded inquirers will not suffice. Rather, what is needed, as has been noted by thinkers such as Feyerabend and Harding, is a genuinely diverse community comprised of differently minded thinkers who will be able to check one another and who also share a commitment to inquiry. Unfortunately, the need for such a community poses a problem. As Kuhn explains, genuine communication seems impossible between such radically dissimilar inquirers because they are discussing “different worlds” (111). If this is the case, then although we may be able to make progress within the constraints of a given set of tacit assumptions we will never overcome their limitations and will be ensnared by our own paradigm.

In what follows I will demonstrate that Kuhn’s description shows the scientific enterprise to recapitulate, in a higher form, what Peirce would call the authoritative method of inquiry, one in which there is no social forum whereby the authority of the institution is able to discover its prejudices. I will then apply aspects of Hegel’s explanation of the process of recognition, found in the “Spirit” section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, to the scientific enterprise in order to overcome this difficulty and secure a foundation for genuine inquiry (263-409).

  1. Peirce: The Necessity of an Open and Diverse Community of Inquiry

Charles Sanders Peirce was one of the most original thinkers to examine the social dimension of epistemology. He challenged the conception of experimentation as merely a means of verifying the results of a given theory for one’s self, claiming that its primary purpose is to facilitate the emergence of those social practices required to overcome the problems present in individual inquiry. In “The Fixation of Belief,” he describes the natural progression of methods used to create and defend truth claims from its beginnings in individual inquiry to a more social method of inquiry. By examining this progression, we will see clearly how a social component is necessary for successful inquiry. Peirce terms the first method used “tenacity” (12). By this method, which is more a natural predisposition to form habits than methodically to fix beliefs, an individual merely clings to whatever belief is initially formed regarding a given matter and, so far as possible, refuses to acknowledge counter-evidence. While this method may enable individuals to survive in favorable conditions, it cannot sustain itself, for people are inherently social creatures subject to what Peirce calls the “Social Impulse” (12), which compels people to interact with one another. The confrontation brought about by this impulse results in a diversity of beliefs, and thus allows a recognition of tenaciously held beliefs for what they are, leading the tenacious believer to question them and to begin the process of genuine inquiry.

The “Social Impulse” overcomes tenacity, but only to become “authority” (14). By this, Peirce’s second method, the beliefs of a community are coerced by an authority such as the church or the state. By educating the entire community in the same manner, the authority can prevent the development of contrary beliefs within the community and avoid the doubt that discredited tenacity. In effect, this method merely brings about an entire community operating as a single tenacious inquirer.

This method too, cannot sustain itself because the power of the authority to regulate belief is limited in scope. “Only [those] most important can be attended to” (14). In matters of lesser importance they will still be determined by “natural causes” (14), that is by tenacity. In addition, the beliefs mandated by the authority will slowly shift over time. Both the critical and the historical consciousness, then, will find themselves faced with contradictory authoritative beliefs which neither they nor the authoritative institute can reconcile. This irreconcilability betrays the instability of the authoritative method to its adherents and forces the development of a new method.

After the failure of both tenacity and authority, Peirce suggests the “a priori method” (15), a discussion based inquiry that he takes to characterize traditional philosophy. Historically, this method has proven the least effective. Indubitable truths come and go in fads just as do different styles in art. This can clearly be seen in the periodic reemergence of skepticism, as well as the recurring debate between rationalists and empiricists.

Peirce’s own pragmatic method for fixing belief makes use of experiment to provide a common ground in reality that may facilitate and direct discussions and thereby avoid the endless disagreements that beset the a priori method. An experiment is a transliteration of a belief into its pragmatic consequences, consequences that can be experienced by all inquirers and which therefore provide a common ground for inquiry among those holding different beliefs.

The upshot is that the individual cannot go it alone in the pursuit of knowledge. Genuine inquiry requires a community (in order to avoid the problems of tenacity) that is both diverse (in order to avoid the problems of authority) and open to both discussion and experimentation (in order to avoid the problems of the a priori method).

  1. Kuhn and the Impossibility of the Necessary

When taken at face value, the scientific enterprise seems to have embraced the highest stage of Peirce’s development. Experiments provide a touchstone that serves as a basis for open communication, and the co-existence of different branches of science and research programs within these branches appears to ensure a genuinely diverse community. Kuhn’s account of how so called “normal science” (Kuhn, 23-24) operates, however, calls into question the extent to which the implementation of these principles is successful. Specifically, Kuhn challenges the possibility of inter-paradigmatic communication–the genuine communication Peirce demonstrated as necessary for proper inquiry–and hence raises the question whether the scientific institution merely reinstates the method of authority at a higher level.

Before examining Kuhn’s analysis of the sciences, a few words are in order regarding the idea of a “paradigm” or “theoretical framework” which has lately come under attack by thinkers such as Davidson. Theoretical frameworks are mutually exclusive sets of theories and concepts that enable and inform observation itself. As different theories may be used to mentally organize and present the same event, two rational people may witness the same event and observe two very different phenomena. To the extent that two inquirers hold different interpretive frameworks they may be considered to be living in “different worlds.”

An example may here be helpful (Davidson 70-72). Phlogiston theory, the dominant paradigm in chemistry prior to the 1770s, understood the process of combustion as the release of some matter (phlogiston) into the atmosphere by the burnt matter. This accounted for the material’s alteration, specifically its weight loss. With the development of the air pump and realization that there must be different gases in the air, at least some of which must play active roles in chemical reactions, a plethora of variations on phlogiston theory emerged in order to preserve it in light of increasing difficulties posed by laboratory results.

Lavoisier, confronted with this multitude of theories, as well as by the anomalous weight gain some metals experienced when burnt, eventually proffered the oxidation theory of combustion, according to which burned matter actually combined with oxygen from the air rather than releasing phlogiston. Yet, even after Laviosier’s new theory was published and had gained many adherents, a number of scientists were unable to accept it, including Priestley who had separated oxygen prior to Lavoisier. The reason for this was that the paradigm that enabled phlogiston theory was not compatible with the notion that a part of the atmosphere could combine with solid matter and become a part of it. The Phlogisticon’s non-acceptance of the new theory, which explains much anomalous data, was not due to a conscious dogmatic refusal to accept it. Rather it was due to an inability to understand it, for it ran counter to the paradigm already held by many scientists.

It is clear, then, that conceptual schemes do play a large part in facilitating our observations. Priestley’s inability to understand Lavoisier’s oxidation theory also shows paradigms to be mutually exclusive, and not to allow for cross-paradigmatic communication. If different paradigms produce different experiences, and one is limited to the use of one’s own paradigm when interpreting experiments, then the common ground in reality Peirce posited as facilitating communication through experimentation does not exist.

This is the driving assumption behind Kuhn’s account of how “normal science” functions. According to Kuhn, every new scientist goes through an institutionalizing period in which she is given reductionist histories of science and performs paradigmatic experiments that serve to indoctrinate her. Once she has learned the paradigm, the scientist performs experiments, collects data, and otherwise “extend[s] the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing” (24). In so doing, she makes use of all the techniques required by Peirce’s methodology for genuine inquiry, performing experiments, publishing articles, and collaborating with colleagues; yet, insofar as all scientists are operating under the same paradigm they are essentially operating under a higher version of authority, one in which it is not the authority of a single person or an institution such as the church or the state, but the authority of the scientific paradigm that they accept unquestioningly.

According to Kuhn, since this state of science is far more productive than pre-paradigmatic or crisis science in which there is more work done attempting to prove one’s own paradigm rather than to increase knowledge within it, the attempts to appeal to observation to determine between them are inherently flawed, and much of the polemic is simply scientists talking past one another. “Normal” science, so long as it is producing fruitful research, is more desirable than non-normal science. That is because it allows the scientist to “concentrate . . . upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects” of inquiry, rapidly expanding knowledge within the paradigm without having to “attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced” (19-20).

In what purports to be merely a descriptive account of how the growth of knowledge occurs within the sciences, we can begin to detect prescriptive elements. Kuhn asserts that, since progress can be made only when the conceptual scheme has already laid out its possibility, to the extent that science desires progress it “holds creative philosophy at arm’s length . . . for good reason” (Davidson, 88). Also, since it is impossible to appeal to pure observation in order to decide between paradigms, a shift from one paradigm to another is not necessarily a progress toward truth, but rather a shift that will again allow for the productive research of a normal science. Kuhn thus tacitly endorses a recapitulation of Peirce’s authority at a higher level, that of the conceptual scheme or paradigm, rather than of any given person.

  1. Hegel’s Spirit: The Process of Recognition

Kuhn claims that it is neither necessary nor fruitful to promote inter-paradigmatic growth. His critics, particularly Paul Feyerabend, 1 hold fast to a commitment to the proliferation of paradigms, pointing out that the growth of the sciences is not propelled merely by theoretical concerns. They maintain that placing Kuhnian restrictions on science will fundamentally damage the enterprise. Yet, this critique is merely a negative one, asserting that Kuhn is wrong in describing how the sciences develop and does not address the theoretical concerns he brings up. The problem we now face is to discover how the scientist acting within the community can maintain a commitment to her own paradigm in order to maintain the growth of scientific knowledge while simultaneously acting in a way that undercuts this paradigm by constantly interacting with others whose paradigms are vastly incompatible with her own. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit addresses a similar problem as it occurs in the social sphere in its analysis of “the ethical substance” (Hegel 263-294). By examining the tension between the family and the community and its resolution in the development of Spirit, we can come to see how this problem might be overcome in the sciences as well.

The first major relevant insight of Hegel’s “Spirit” is that the abstract or isolated individual is a myth; humans always develop in families. We saw that this myth served as the starting point of Peirce’s analysis. Just as the individual always develops in a family it seems that the scientist qua inquirer always develops within a community of inquirers who share a paradigm. The family, like the scientific community, is diverse in that its members serve different functions (i.e. bread winner and home-maker v. botanist and physicist), have different expectations from the family (to be shown proper respect or to be fed and sheltered v. to contribute to the edifice of knowledge or to help produce technology), and even tolerate different personalities. In spite of this diversity, however, each member of the family is committed to act toward the “good of the family,” as it is the structure of the family as a whole that sustains each of its members. Likewise each inquirer works for the preservation and perpetuation of her paradigm.

The single family, like the individual, never functions in complete isolation. Rather, it always finds itself within a larger community and culture. Just as the duty to the family arose out of a consideration of the function of the family (to sustain each member), so the duty toward the community arises out of a consideration of its function. The community allows for different families to co-exist not just peacefully but in a manner that is beneficial to each. For example, the state acts as an arbiter between feuding families, preventing endless cycles of vengeance. Likewise, it promotes the formation of groups that help each member contribute to the good of her family more effectively, such as business guilds. This commitment to the peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence of different families is very similar to Feyerabend’s commitment to the proliferation of theories within the scientific community.

In this more social context we can see that Kuhn’s commitment to the rule of a single paradigm (duty toward family), and Feyerabend’s commitment to the proliferation and coexistence of theories (duty toward the community), need not be at odds with one another (as one should hope, since both claim to be descriptive rather the prescriptive). Yet, clashes do occur in the social context as well. Antigone presents an example of such a clash that Hegel uses as the basis for his discussion in which one is so blind to one’s adherence to a particular duty that she is blind to all others (261, 284). Just as Antigone’s fierce commitment to her familial duty led to a clash with Creon, whose adherence to the communal duty was just as strong, so too it seems that Kuhn’s commitment to the growth of knowledge within a paradigm clashes with Feyerabend’s commitment to inter-paradigmatic dialogue. What this example emphasizes is that it is fundamentally impossible for one to “lose” one’s commitment to one’s own paradigm in the commitment to diversity within a community. This is illustrated by the fact that it is clearly in Creon’s best interest to maintain the order of the Kingdom. Although one may adopt the standpoint of the community, as Creon and Feyerabend do, and criticize another for acting in opposition to the community in doing this, each still maintains his own paradigm.

In the “conscience” section (383-409), Hegel examines individuals qua epistemic agents. In this role, there is no higher court to which the agent might appeal in resolving conflicts as there was in the analysis of the ethical substance. This situation, then, closely mirrors that of the sciences as described by Kuhn. As a scientist one is committed to the growth of knowledge, and as one embedded in a paradigm the very act of publishing one’s results is taking a stand for the knowledge produced by that paradigm and asserting its primacy. However, in a truly diverse community, this will not result in mere accolades as it likely would from within a single paradigm, but rather will confront two forms of criticism: one from competing paradigms that dismiss the results as absurd and another from the standpoint of the community itself that dismisses the results as provincial and from a partial perspective. Kuhn addresses only the first of these criticisms.

Although communication may be impossible when the criticism levied is an absolute rejection of the other paradigm, this is not so when the critique is that one’s information is partial. One can admit this criticism while still maintaining the limited truth of the results one has reached. Perhaps Hegel’s most brilliant insight is that if one genuinely accepts this criticism, she not only perceives her own knowledge as limited, but also a path to the knowledge of the critic becomes open to her as a limited form of knowledge. The critic cannot maintain a stance of pure critique, but must herself have some other oppositional knowledge that led her to make the critique in the first place. This knowledge, which is cut off from other paradigms entirely when approached directly, may be approached from the point of view that, although it may not cohere with an opposing paradigm, it is still true from a limited perspective. This realization has put the one criticized in the same position as the critic himself.

Provided the original critic accepts the implications of her critique–namely that her own paradigm is itself partial–both parties now find themselves on the same ground. The acceptance of the situatedness of all knowledge provides a reasonably close approximation to the extra-paradigmatic realm that Kuhn claimed was unreachable. It is only after the realization is made that all knowledge is situated by a paradigm and thus subject to the critique of being partial, that civil discourse–the sort that Peirce demonstrated as necessary for genuine inquiry–is possible. Furthermore, the struggle to make one’s point of view clear to another, the struggle to allow another to share in one’s own situated knowledge, is the same struggle as making that knowledge clear to one’s self. For, if all knowledge is situated, then to truly understand any knowledge one must know how it is situated. Yet, one can only know this by coming to know other forms of situated knowledge.

  1. Conclusion: A Return to Epistemology

The key problem facing the sciences and epistemology is that notions that are considered social, yet which are essential to inquiry, are ignored. The model of knowledge commonly presupposed is one in which an individual is an absolute knower capable of acquiring a comprehensive account of all knowledge, and others are understood merely as useful checks helping her along her solitary way. We have seen that this conception of the self in relation to knowledge is itself flawed, and that the self can begin to acquire genuine knowledge about the world only when it first realizes itself as situated, with access only to partial perspectives. Furthermore, this place of situation, uncertainty, and partiality of knowledge can itself be discovered only when one is confronted by another perspective and accepts its critique. But how can contemporary society make use of this knowledge?

If we examine the sciences we find the popular conception of individual and absolute knowledge re-cast in the form of the quest for a “theory of everything” (Greene, 15) and the myth of the level playing field in the form of a drive toward the “impartial observer.” Any commitment to a potential “theory of everything” is a commitment to an absolute perspective. We now know this conception of knowledge, which claims an absolute knowledge and an absolute knower, falls prey to what Donna Haraway has described as “the God trick” (Haraway, 183-201). Even were such a theory attained, it would necessarily be an incomplete explanation of everything and given strictly from a situated perspective.

What is worse, that notion also spawns the ideal of the impartial observer. If there is a single explanation of everything, then a single observer should be able to attain it alone. Although one requires others to eliminate personal biases in order to understand everything, no additional content from others is required; the social is merely a negative aid to inquiry. Any attempt to attain this impartiality largely requires the elimination of the individual’s own situation and with it much of the partial ground to which she does have access. This can only result in the aggrandizement of a single perspective to the exclusion of all others and leaves all inquirers in a situation in which they can neither communicate nor acknowledge themselves as partial, situated observers. It is the ground of an ultimately flawed epistemology.

One may argue that this amounts to nothing more than relativism, and brings with it all the problems relativism entails; for if all perspectives are equally situated, then how is one better than the other? This is Kuhn’s justification for the adherence to the dominant paradigm in scientific inquiry. The answer to this criticism is simple. Yes, all knowledge is both partial and relative to our situation in the world, yet its own partiality implies it is a part of some true greater whole. Likewise, we are now in a position to realize that this critique itself is merely the critical consciousness and falls prey to its own judgment. We are all human beings and it is impossible to go through life holding only this contentless critical perspective. To commit an action is to commit to a partial perspective and be responsible for that commitment and its impact upon others. The moment we accept this responsibility we are subject to criticism, and it is this criticism that allows us to realize both that we are, and more importantly how we are, situated within our common world. Thus, all who are dedicated to inquiry must take steps to ensure that they adopt the best stance they can, one that promotes recognition of one’s own self as partial and situated and which fosters dialogue and understanding.



Works Cited

Davidson, Donald. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Transactions of the American Philosophical Association, 1974.

Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. U of Chicago P, 1970.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “The Fixation of Belief.” Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover, 1955.

  1. See Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 3rd ed. (New York: Verso, 1996), but also Solomon “A More Social Epistemology,” in Socializing Epistemology: The social dimensions of knowledge, ed. Frederick F. Schmitt (Linham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1994); Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

Michael Roess

Michael Roess graduated from Eckerd College in May 2005. He will begin graduate studies in philosophy in the doctoral program at SUNY at Stony Brook in August. His philosophical interests include Peircean pragmatism, social epistemology, German thought from Kant through Heidegger, as well as social and political philosophy.