Joseph Rouse * **
The Politics of Postmodern Philosophy of Science ***
Philosophy of Science, 58 (4)
Dec., 1991, 607-627
Department of Philosophy
HHC: Titles & Index added
Modernism in the philosophy of science demands a unified story about what makes an inquiry scientific (or a successful science). Fine’s “natural ontological attitude” (NOA) is “postmodern” in joining trust in local scientific practice with suspicion toward any global interpretation of science to legitimate or undercut that trust. I consider four readings of this combination of trust and suspicion and their consequences for the autonomy and cultural credibility of the sciences. Three readings take respectively Fine’s trusting attitude, his emphasis upon local practice, and his antiessentialism about science as most fundamental to NOA. A fourth, more adequate reading, prompted by recent feminist interpretations of science, offers less restrictive readings of both Fine’s trust and his suspicion toward approaching science with “ready-made philosophical engines” (Fine 1986b, 177).
Since the heyday of Vienna Circle positivism in the 1920s and 1930s, the philosophy of science has been thoroughly intertwined with what it is now fashionable to call the politics of modernity. In the case of the Vienna Circle itself, the parallels to modernist movements in other domains of culture are very strong. Peter Galison (1988, 200-20 1) has recently noted that the militant internationalism and antitraditionalism of the Vienna Circle’s manifestoes for unified science echoed the contemporary pronouncements of the Italian Futurists and the Bauhaus. But the parallel was more than just rhetorical. Logical positivism was a sweeping program for the critique of culture, whose basic motivation was formalist. Where geometrical form was the basis for the minimalism of modernist
*Received April 1989; revised October 1989.
** I would like to thank Mark Stone and Margaret Crouch, who offered very helpful comments upon an earlier draft of this paper; the two anonymous referees for Philosophy of Science, whose reports prompted several significant clarifications and extensions of the argument; and the audiences to whom I presented versions of it at the University of Connecticut, the College of William and Mary, and Oberlin College. The paper is an outgrowth of a presentation to Arthur Fine’s National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar in 1987, and I thank Professor Fine and the Endowment for their support.
*** Send reprint requests to the author, Department of Philosophy, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06457.
painting and architecture, the positivists grounded austere constraints on admissible discourse in an account of formal logic as both the structure of any meaningful language and the basis of mathematical truth. And, of course, the resulting rejection of metaphysics, religion, and traditional ethical and political discourse also belonged to the modern legacy of the Enlightenment attacks on superstition and tyranny. The positivists’ aim was the legitimation of those discourses which could be reconstructed in accordance with formally rational procedures. All other forms of inquiry could be rejected as noncognitive, nonsensical, or both.
Although the early critics of positivism and their scientific realist and social constructivist successors have largely rejected its formalism and its opposition to metaphysics, I believe they still belong very much within the philosophical tradition of modernity. What I take to be central to that tradition, at least in the philosophy of science, is the idea that a unified story ought to tell about what makes an inquiry (or its outcome) scientific (that is, a successful science). The importance of such a unified story is that, like the positivists’ proposed rational reconstructions, it would be of general scope, and would legitimate the autonomy and cultural authority of the sciences. Richard Boyd’s (1984) scientific realism is a good example. Realists typically reject the positivists’ attempts at a formal theory of confirmation, but they still represent science as employing a characteristic argument form, abduction. The successful employment of abductive argument serves to legitimate the authority and autonomy of the “mature” sciences by showing us that theories in these disciplines put us in touch with the real, mind-independent structure of the world.
Ironically, some of the most outspoken critics of both positivist and realist legitimations of science also belong within the philosophical tradition of modernity. Sociological constructivists, or radical postpositivists like Paul Feyerabend, may deny that either positivists or realists can make good on their claims to a global legitimation of scientific knowledge, but they are in full agreement that the autonomy and cultural authority of the sciences require some such unified legitimating story; otherwise, their insistence upon the failure of the modernist projects of legitimation would not have its proclaimed cultural and political consequence of challenging the preeminence of the sciences. Thus, I take the quintessentially modernist feature of much recent philosophy and sociology of science to be the posing of a stark alternative: either realism or rational methodology, on the one hand, or relativism and the debunking of the alleged cultural hegemony of the sciences on the other.
The debates cast in these terms have been notoriously unsatisfactory ever since they reemerged within postpositivist philosophy of science in the 1960s. Recently, however, several philosophers of science have suggested a way out of this frustrating dialectic. Arthur Fine (1986a, b, and
forthcoming) and Ian Hacking (1983), among others (e.g., Cartwright 1983, Galison 1987, Hesse 1980), cheerfully accept the postpositivist rejection of any global legitimation of science in terms of rationality or truth, but make no concessions to the allegedly relativistic or antiscientific consequences of doing so. They seem to deny that science is in any need of philosophical legitimation, or that the failure of the various legitimation projects has any profound cultural or political consequences.
In this paper, I explore further the cultural or political significance of adopting such a cheerfully postmodern debunking of the global legitimation (or delegitimation) of the sciences. Thus, I am less interested in the traditionally philosophical arguments proffered in support of Fine’s “natural ontological attitude” or Hacking’s “experimental realism” and “dynamic nominalism” than I am in reflecting on how such attitudes redound upon the cultural status generally accorded to the sciences, at least in the industrialized West. I will primarily discuss Fine’s view since he develops his opposition to any global legitimation project more centrally and explicitly, but I believe that similar arguments could be worked out for Hacking, Cartwright, Galison, and others, as well as for the pronouncements on science by more familiar postmodernists such as Rorty and Lyotard.
Before proceeding further, however, it may be useful to say something further about the taxonomies implicit in this project. The classification of “modern” and “postmodern” texts and practices is both slippery and controversial. Discussions of “modernity” or modernization typically invoke a disparate family of attributes - secularization, rationalization, formalism, individualism and/or the construction of the “subject”, capitalism and industrialization, Western imperialism, and so on. Different features often come to the fore when modernity is examined from the perspectives of politics, the arts, social theory, or science and technology. It is unclear whether “postmodernity” is supposed to represent a decisive transformation of culture, merely a new disguise for the reproduction of modernity, or a recognition that stories of modernity have always been fictions, and whether postmodernity is a situation we already occupy or a possibility which still needs to be achieved (or opposed).
My discussion of modernity and postmodernity in the philosophy of science focuses around the theme of global narratives of legitimation for several reasons. This theme provides perhaps the closest thing there is to a common denominator in recent discussions of modernity. Emphasizing this theme also allows me the advantage of remaining uncommitted to the accuracy of the various depictions of modernity: Even those who regard the stories of modernity as fictions agree that they have been influential stories. Most important, however, the emphasis upon narrative legitimation seems especially relevant to thinking about “modernity” in science
and the philosophy of science. On the one hand, the development of scientific knowledge and its technological applications has been crucial to every narrative legitimation of modernity (and to the counternarratives which reconstruct the story of modern progress as one of unfolding disaster). On the other hand, a central and increasingly controversial theme throughout twentieth-century philosophy of science has been the justification for interpreting the history of science in terms of a modernist story of progress or rational development.
We should not be deterred by the unusual bedfellows whom we find together when we think about “modernity” and “postmodernity” in this way. A philosophical taxonomy which associates Feyerabend or Pickering with Carnap, Laudan, and Boyd, but distinguishes all of these from Fine, Hacking, Cartwright, and Rorty will seem initially odd. It will seem less odd if we think of “modernity” not as a position, but as a shared field of conflict for which there must be a great deal of underlying agreement in order to make sharp and consequential disagreement possible (Hacking 1983, 3-6). Realists, rationalists (in a sense which includes empiricists), and constructivists tend to agree about the significance of being able to tell a certain kind of story about the history of science. Roughly, they agree that the cultural preeminence afforded the natural sciences in the “West” is in need of global justification. It is perhaps not so difficult to imagine them all offering similar descriptions (albeit different evaluations) of the hypothetical consequences if all attempts at such justification (including, for diverse example, those of Carnap, Laudan, or Boyd) were known to fail utterly. By contrast, Fine, Hacking, and Cartwright, or Rorty and Bernstein if one ranges more widely, are likely to view such across the board failures with some equanimity.
Fine begins his recent polemical papers (1986a, chaps. 7-8; 1986b; forthcoming) with broad attacks upon the standard realist interpretations of science and their most prominent antirealist alternatives (constructive empiricism, epistemological behaviorism, neo-Peircean pragmatism, and sociological constructivism). His objections concern not just the specific positions and arguments provided by various realists and antirealists, but also the shared assumptions which make the issues between these positions seem both intelligible and important. In their stead, Fine proposes not another position on the realist/antirealist axis, but an attitude toward science, the “natural ontological attitude” (NOA), which is supposed to remove any felt need for a unified philosophical interpretation of science.
The path to NOA begins with Fine’s observation that, despite all of the differences between realists and antirealists, they share a basic ac-
ceptance of scientific discourse. No participant in the realist debates, according to Fine, rejects the results of scientific research; each only wants to add an interpretation of what that research and its outcome really mean. Realists interpret scientists’ claims about electrons as true descriptions corresponding to a definite world structure. Empiricists accept these claims as empirically adequate. Pragmatists and constructivists take them to be true in some sense which is less robust than correspondence. Fine’s view is that we would do better to take scientific claims on their own terms, with no felt need to provide any further interpretation. Thus he cheerfully advises us that the “naturalness” referred to in NOA is “the California natural - no additives, please” (1986b, 177).
Underlying Fine’s California naturalism is the claim that science does for itself what the various philosophical additives were supposed to do for it, namely, situate science in an interpretative context:
What binds realism and antirealism together is this. They see science as a set of practices in need of an interpretation, and they see themselves as providing just the right interpretation. But science is not needy in this way. Its history and practice constitute a rich and meaningful setting. In that setting, questions of goals or aims or purposes occur spontaneously and locally. (1986a, 147-148)
In particular, Fine argues that science itself utilizes for its own purposes the supposedly philosophical concepts of truth, reality, justification, explanation, and so forth. These are not concepts which science needs but cannot provide for itself. They are the everyday material for scientific disagreement over what counts as adequate evidence, which phenomena are real rather than artifactual, and when a surprising occurrence has been satisfactorily explained.
The crucial difference between philosophical accounts of these concepts and their function within ongoing scientific practice is supposed to be that in the one case their application is global and essentialist, while in the other it is local and pragmatic. Thus, scientists are not concerned with whether unobservable entities exist, but rather with whether gravitational lenses or releasing hormones exist. They would not be concerned to provide a general demonstration that the results of some “mature” sciences are approximately true, but would settle for finding out whether the Weinberg-Salam model in high-energy physics, or some version of the Eldredge-Gould punctuated equilibrium view in evolutionary biology, is true (or merely empirically adequate). Thus, despite the claims of realists like Richard Boyd, abductive arguments for realism as an explanation for the success of science are not scientific hypotheses on Fine’s view in the sense that they occur at a different level than scientists’ concerns about explanation. Scientists’ concerns about explanations are localized
to a particular field of investigation, and their extension beyond that field is an open question which must also be settled locally.
On Fine’s account, these local questions which concern scientists can be answered adequately with the exercise of imagination and judgement. He illustrates what he has in mind in his criticism of van Fraassen’ s scruples about belief in unobservable entities:
Are we supposed to refrain from believing in atoms, and various truths about them, because we are concerned over the possibility that what the electron microscope reveals is merely an artifact of the machine? If this is our concern, then we can address it by applying the cautious and thorough procedures and analyses involved in the use and construction of that machine, as well as the cross-checks from other detecting devices, to evaluate the artifactuality (or not) of the atomic phenomena. If we can do this satisfactorily according to tough standards, are we then still not supposed to frame beliefs about atoms, and why not now? (1986a, 146).
The suggestion is that we are only compelled to doubt those scientific beliefs for which we have specific reasons underlying those doubts, where specific doubts are those which could suggest particular theoretical, experimental, or instrumental adjustments to assess their cogency. When all such specific doubts have been removed, or at least settled according to our best judgement, there can be no further reason to suspend belief.
This emphasis upon the local, scientific use of supposedly philosophical concepts does not mean that there is no place for philosophical reflection upon or criticism of the ways scientific practice trades in these concepts. Nor does it rule out generalizations about their use, although Fine does suggest that such generalizations are likely to be of limited use (1986b, 174-175). What the adoption of NOA would require is that philosophical discussion engage the actual scientific use of these concepts, and respect the contextualized concerns which circumscribe that use.
There are, then, two sides to the natural ontological attitude, and to postmodern philosophy of science more generally. Postmodernists generally adopt what Fine calls a “trusting attitude” to the sciences:
NOA... trusts the overall good sense of science, and it trusts our overall good sense as well. In particular, NOA encourages us to take seriously the idea that what the scientific enterprise has to offer is actually sufficient to satisfy our philosophical needs. (Ibid., 177)
This trust in the sciences is coupled with a thoroughgoing suspicion of interpretations of the scientific enterprise as a whole, or of essential features of science which supposedly underwrite its trustworthiness:
[NOAJ urges us to… approach science... without rigid attachments to philosophical schools and ideas, and without intentions for attaching science to some ready-made philosophical engine. (Ibid.)
The political issues raised by postmodern philosophy of science are highlighted by this combination of respect for the local context of scientific inquiry and resistance to any global interpretation of science which would constrain local inquiry. These issues concern the autonomy and cultural authority of the sciences. Can we distinguish a field of practices “internal” to the scientific enterprise whose credibility is enhanced by their relative freedom from “external” influence, and which ought to be protected from criticism or intervention on “external” grounds?
These questions are very much in the background of the various realist and antirealist interpretations of science which Fine criticized. These views all incorporate a version of the internal/external distinction, and in the case of all but some social constructivists, are intended to uphold the political autonomy and cultural authority of successful scientific practice. This concern is part of the modernist legacy of logical positivism, which had aimed to demonstrate the epistemic and cultural primacy of mathematical physics by showing that mathematics exemplified the very structure of rational thought, and sense experience the only basis for knowledge of the world. Contemporary realists and philosophical antirealists take up somewhat different lines of defense than the positivists did: Realists justify the autonomy and authority of science by showing that it gets us in touch with the real structure of the world, while antirealists typically show that it respects the boundaries of epistemic rationality. In both cases, however, there is a tacit presupposition that it would be culturally or politically undesirable to leave the autonomy of science, and the authoritativeness of its results outside of the context of scientific practice itself, to be the outcome of local judgement, unbuttressed by arguments which demonstrate the rationality of science in a general way (either directly or via its success in describing the real). Judgement alone, they fear, would open the way to irresolvable differences of judgement, with no way to defend scientific practice against those with fundamentally different beliefs or standards. This concern perhaps accounts for the vehemence with which many philosophers attack the views of Kuhn and Feyerabend, or more recently, of constructivist sociologists of science. Its mirror image (equally modernist) is often found in the rebellious glee with which some sociologists and philosophers claim to unmask the rationalist or realist pretensions of those who defend the authoritativeness of the sciences.
Against this background, how should we interpret the combination of
Fine’s trust toward the sciences and suspicion towards philosophical programs for interpreting them? I want to distinguish four ways to construe this combination. These four readings exhibit a conflict between Fine’s trusting attitude and his anti-interpretative stance, focused upon how one understands what is “local” in local scientific practice, and how its locality is established. The implications of this conflict should incline us to endorse the fourth, and most unrestrictive, reading of these two aspects of postmodem philosophy of science.
The first reading takes Fine’s trusting attitude toward the sciences to be fundamental, and his antiessentialism and his opposition to global interpretation to follow from that trust. The resulting view would be that both criticism and defense of the general autonomy and authority of the sciences are idle because the political program of philosophical defenders of the sciences requires no defense at all, but can be taken on trust. Fine’s rhetoric sometimes strongly suggests this reading. He concludes his criticism of van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism with:
The general lesson is that, in the context of science, adopting an attitude of belief has as warrant precisely that which science itself grants, nothing more but certainly nothing less. (1986a, 147)
He makes this point more colorfully in his response to realism:
[If] the scientists tell me that there really are molecules, and atoms, and ψ/J particles, and, who knows, maybe even quarks, then so be it. I trust them and, thus, must accept [this]. (Ibid., 127)
But interpreting NOA in this way as an uncritical endorsement of the autonomy and authority of the sciences seems to me a mistake. It mistakes the trust which Fine recommends for authority, and this confusion leads to serious misunderstanding. NOA does not require us to accept whatever scientists tell us, even on the rare occasions when a scientific community speaks with one clear voice. A careful reading of the texts suggests that all Fine asks is that we trust the context of concerns and practices within which particular scientific judgements are situated as appropriate and sufficient for their assessment. Such trust does not require us to take any such judgements as authoritative. The only constraint which this attitude places upon criticism is that it be continuous with the tradition of practices and concerns constituting the field within which that judgement is situated.
Thus, at most what NOA asks us to trust are scientific traditions where these are understood not as a consensus of authority, but rather as a field of concerns within which both consensus and dissent acquire a local intelligibility. The relevant notion of tradition was effectively described by Alasdair Maclntyre:
[W}hat constitutes a tradition is a conflict of interpretations of that tradition, a conflict which itself has a history susceptible of rival interpretations.
Although, therefore, any feature of any tradition, any theory, any practice, any belief can always under certain conditions be put in question, the practice of putting in question… itself always requires the context of a tradition. (1980, 62-63)
So long as philosophical interpretation actually engages the pragmatically intelligible disputes that can occur within a local field of scientific practice, NOA leaves the adequacy of that interpretation up to the exercise of reasonable judgement. This does mean that at any time one must accept most scientific practices as unquestioned in order to have resources and standards for the exercise of judgement. But which practices and results must be taken as exemplary in this way is entirely up for grabs.
So the first reading of Fine’s postmodemism is untenable. But suppose we take seriously the resulting suggestion that the alternative to global interpretations of science is a reliance upon particular historical traditions of scientific practice which establish a contingently coherent domain within which local, “internal” concerns can be distinguished from external and irrelevant matters. This suggests a second reading of Fine’s postmodernism in which Fine resembles Dudley Shapere. Shapere tries to uphold the autonomy and authority of the sciences, while avoiding anything like a global legitimation of scientific reasoning or realist success, by characterizing the contingent historical development of local forms of scientific rationality within particular scientific domains (1986, 1984). Shapere argues that there is no essential distinction between concerns which are internal to science and those which are not, but there is a contingent distinction between those considerations which we have learned to regard as relevant in the course of scientific inquiry, and those which have turned out to be beside the point. Thus, a strong distinction exists between internal and external issues in well-developed sciences. Shapere thinks we should respect this distinction because of its epistemic efficacy, but its formulation requires only local arguments within a particular historically constituted scientific domain.
In some ways, Shapere’s position may seem consonant with Fine’s postmodernism. Shapere presents his view as imposing no philosophical program onto the interpretation of science; he takes the sciences to be historically contingent enterprises, and he insists upon the primacy of local arguments internal to the particular history of the domain as the only arbiter of epistemic disputes. I nevertheless believe that Shapere’ s defense
of the internal autonomy of the developed sciences violates Fine’s objections to grand narrative. The reason is that Shapere is still offering a global interpretation of science as the activity of epistemic domain formation. His interpretation offers a standard narrative pattern in which to write the history of various scientific fields, which provides both a criterion of scientific success and a global legitimation of the authority and autonomy of those scientific fields which meet that criterion. Shapere claims that
the very adoption of the piecemeal approach to inquiry - the laying-out of boundaries of specific areas of investigation - automatically produced a standard against which theories could be assessed. Whatever else might be required of an explanation of a particular body of presumed information (domain), that explanation or theory could be successful only to the extent that it took account of the characteristics of the items of that domain. (1986, 3)
The history of scientific disciplines on Shapere’s view is fundamentally a story of progress. When disciplines begin, “the motivating considerations in selecting explanatory approaches might come from just about anywhere” (ibid., 4), but they develop through a
process… of a gradual discovery, sharpening, and organization of relevance-relations, and hence of a gradual separation of the objects of its investigations and what is directly relevant from what is irrelevant thereto: a gradual demarcation, that is, of the scientific from the non-scientific. (Ibid., 6)
His view is complicated by the ways in which consistency between domains, or even their unification, is scientifically valuable. Basically, however, those disciplines which contingently fail to consolidate a domain in the way he describes fall short of being scientific, and have no claim to the autonomy and authority which Shapere regards as appropriate to the sciences.
The objection to Shapere’s program from the standpoint of NOA is not that such histories of scientific disciplines are false; this would need to be examined case by case. Rather the problem is Shapere’s programmatic insistence upon the pattern of domain consolidation and its philosophical significance. Shapere’s program is still a case of what Fine would call “attaching science to some ready-made philosophical engine” (1986b, 177). Indeed, Shapere’s program promotes a characteristic feature of modernity, namely, the rationalization of autonomous domains of social practice and expertise. Even if Shapere were generally right about the actual history of scientific disciplines, we would still need a case-by-case assessment of whether this justifies the exclusion of concerns from outside
those domains. Considerations relevant to this assessment might well come from outside the domain itself. How were the boundaries of the domain constituted? What was excluded from consideration within the domain, and what were the effects of that exclusion? It will not do to insist in advance that these questions must be answered from a standpoint internal to the domain constituted by those exclusions.
Fine’s relation to Shapere is in some ways comparable to his treatment of social constructivism. Fine rejects such striking constructivist doctrines as consensus theories of truth (along with relativism, reductionist treatments of scientific practice as “really” just discourse or social negotiation or such, or the insistence that scientific decision making must be explainable solely in terms of interests or other social factors). What is left is a constructivist research program, which brackets concepts of truth and rationality, and asks to what extent the activities and decisions of scientists can be explained by appeal to social factors (Fine, forthcoming). Similarly, Fine can happily endorse Shapere’s piecemeal account as an internalist research program in the history of science, the mirror image of the constructivist approach, while rejecting Shapere’s aspirations toward a philosophical account of scientific rationality. But even the success of Shapere’s program for any particular discipline would still leave open the question of what cultural authority thereby accrues to scientific results in its domain, and even whether the internal autonomy which the discipline has exhibited so far ought to be sustained in the future.
What political consequences do these arguments have for science and its cultural context? The arguments against Shapere and metaphysical constructivism suggest that Fine will reject any political criticism or defense of scientific practice or belief which depends upon an essentialist interpretation of scientific practice imposing a unified narrative structure on the history of science. Such interpretations supposedly aim to close off some possibilities for historical variability in what science is and how it is done, even when their essentialism is as limited as Shapere’s piecemeal account of scientific domain formation. Thus, Fine insisted at one point that
the description of science as an historical entity was intended precisely to undercut at least one version of that idea [of a science of science], the idea that science has an essence… If science is an historical entity, however, then no such grand enterprise should tempt us, for its essence or nature is just its contingent, historical existence. (l986b, 174)
On the resulting third reading, Fine’s “trusting attitude” toward the sci-
ences would be regarded only as his assessment of what will happen when we do take seriously particularist criticisms of scientific practices. We thus seem to have come full circle from the first reading of Fine’s post-modernism. There, Fine’s anti-interpretative stance was derivative from and dependent upon a more basic trusting stance toward local scientific practice. Now we find that Fine’s trust is a highly contingent consequence of a more fundamental antiessentialism. We get the same constellation of trust and suspicion, but its significance - and where it might be open to revision on the basis of sympathetic criticism - has fundamentally changed.
This emphasis upon antiessentialism enables Fine to tolerate some specific political criticisms of scientific practices or beliefs without abandoning his basic attitude of trust toward the sciences. He clearly believes that any inventory of what scientific practices have contributed to human flourishing which is sufficiently fairminded to appeal to our best judgement will surely call upon us to preserve the substantial portion of our scientific beliefs and practices. The implicit idea that only philosophical justifications of science can preserve us from irrational rejection of science is implausible. On Fine’s view, I believe, the sciences provide what MacIntyre has called “goods internal to practices” (1981, 175), which cannot even be appreciated without some understanding and acceptance of these practices, rather than goods defensible by appeal to general rational principles independent of historical and social context.
But this suggestion raises an interesting difficulty about how Fine should treat those interpretations of the sciences which discount or criticize the goods internal to scientific practice. His original arguments against realist and antirealist accounts of science premised that science already provided the context for its own interpretation in terms of concepts like truth, reality, explanation and justification. Fine cannot claim in the same way that scientific practice provides the resources for its own interpretation politically and culturally. While scientific work does require considerable attention to questions of evidence, reality and explanation, scientists are usually professionally unconcerned with the political or cultural standing of their practices. Questions about ideology, power, social interests, gender relations, happiness or liberation do not usually arise within scientific practice (at least in the natural sciences) in the way that concerns about truth, explanation or reality do. When scientists are on occasion exercised to address such issues (e.g., when the effectiveness of political criticisms threatens to undermine their autonomy as scientists), they address these issues not by doing more research and publishing journal articles, but by stepping momentarily outside of their ordinary activities and engaging in what seems to be a different sort of debate. Political issues of this sort may require something more than can be provided by the local practices
and standards which could plausibly be regarded
as “internal” to science. How might
Fine respond to those critics who do not share his trust in the various
scientific traditions, and who regard modern scientific theories, practices,
and their technological extensions, as ideological, androcentric,
antiecological, or otherwise oppressive or destructive?
Do global political interpretations of
the place of science in a larger social context also count as objectionable
philosophical “additives”? This
question is not one which Fine has directly addressed, but my third reading,
emphasizing his antiessentialism, suggests a definite response.
If there is no essence of science,
then there are also no essential political or cultural consequences of
the authority and prominence it has within our society.
It is instructive that many critics of
science who do seem to adopt an essentialist line towards science or
scientific rationality (e.g., the
But there may still be a conflict between Fine’s trusting attitude toward science and his thoroughgoing antiessentialism. For if it is our scientific traditions which are to be taken as trustworthy, we may seem to need some account of what makes a tradition essentially scientific, or some other distinction between what is internal and what is external to the sciences. Indeed, Fine himself uses the internal/external distinction ironically to criticize philosophical interpretations of what is internal to science as themselves external impositions upon local scientific practice:
[In] science, as elsewhere, hermeneutical understanding has to be gained from the inside. It should not be prefabricated to meet external, philosophical specifications. (1986a, 148, f.n. 9)
Since Fine denies that we can systematically
demarcate the boundary between the inside and the outside of science, we
should not take his trusting attitude to depend upon such a demarcation.
We must instead see Fine’s attitude as
part of a generally trusting attitude toward local contexts of practice.
No authority can accrue even to the
historical tradition of scientific practice simply in virtue of its
being scientific. If some of our
scientific practices were to conflict with other practices or beliefs which we
take seriously, NOA could only counsel the same appeal to reasoned judgement
which it recommends in the case of intrascientific disputes.
Once we have done our best to
come, there is nothing more to say; but prior to such careful exercise of local judgement, for example, on grounds of philosophical principle, we have nothing to say at all. Even with respect to the place of scientific practices within culture, then,
NOA, as such, has no specific ontological commitments. It has only an attitude to recommend: namely, to look and see as openly as one can what it is reasonable to believe in, and then to go with the belief and commitment that emerges. (Fine l986b, 176)
The plausibility of Fine’s view on my third reading depends upon the appropriateness of a twofold classification of interpretations of the sciences: They must be either essentialist, with a unified philosophical story which the interpreter brings ready-made to the sciences, or else local, particularist and without any insistence on the relevance to all sciences of any particular category (whether that category is observation or social interest, abductive argument or gender). Some recent strands of feminist criticism of the authority and legitimacy of contemporary science seem to escape this dichotomy, so they may offer a sharp challenge to Fine’s amalgamation of trust in the sciences with an antiessentialist suspicion of global interpretations which underwrite or undercut that trust.
Let me first clear the ground by separating out those strands of feminist criticism which give Fine no difficulty. He can readily endorse the relevance and appropriateness (although not necessarily the accuracy) of feminist criticisms of gender bias, which appeal to and try to enlarge traditionally scientific norms of objectivity. Thus, feminist critics have frequently noted ways in which sexism has distorted inquiry, especially in the social and biological sciences, by the selective choice of experimental subjects, by the assumptions underlying the framing and answering of research questions, by the gender-blindered interpretation of results, and so forth (representative examples can be found in Tuana 1988; Harding 1986, chap. 4; or Hrdy 1981). The feminist origin of these criticisms is marked by the focus upon gender, but once identified, these criticisms could be appropriated by scientific communities which do not embody feminist commitments (which is not at all to say that they have been or will be widely accepted by nonfeminists). Such criticisms could be acknowledged by nonfeminists as the exposure of “bad science” rather than a critique of “science as usual” (Harding 1986), even when the practices in question remain all too usual.
A postmodernist like Fine can just as easily
reject the idea that science is essentially androcentric (e.g., perhaps,
fying, the neoromantic claim that science is essentially reductivist, and so forth. But such a strong essentialism is more often attributed to feminists by their critics than actually asserted by feminists themselves (hence the “perhaps” in the above citation). The most interesting cases of feminist philosophy of science, and the ones which challenge Fine’s residual use of internal/external and local/global distinctions, fall in between the liberal critique of bias and the essentialist rejection of science as androcentric. Such feminist philosophers argue that gender bias is endemic to much of contemporary scientific practice, that this is not accidental but is rather deeply rooted in the development of scientific practice and its recognition as authoritative, and that reform would involve substantial changes in the ways science is practiced and/or the range of inquiries which we would recognize as scientific.
Consider two examples which illustrate the scope of such criticisms and their challenge to the critical resources of Fine’s postmodernism on this strongly antiessentialist reading. Evelyn Fox Keller (1985, part 3) argues that gendered conceptions of objectivity and power have shaped scientific practice in a variety of fields. She focuses upon unarticulated norms of explanation and their influence upon theory construction, in the contemporary interpretation and use of quantum theory, in mathematical biology and developmental biology more generally, and in genetics. Keller’s arguments are not just objections to forms of unscientific bias, which could be assimilated to substantially unchanged scientific ideals, for she identifies gender at work in the most fundamental methodological concerns of particular disciplines. Her criticisms have to do with where the burden of proof lies (e.g., her discussion of the pacemaker concept in slime mold aggregation), what an adequate (causal) explanation consists in and consequently what questions must be asked in scientific work (e.g., her reflections upon “master molecule accounts” in molecular genetics, which easily extend throughout much of the biological sciences; the entire field of neuroendocrinology, for example, seems wedded to master molecule explanations), or how to assimilate significant conceptual shifts into scientific practice (e.g., her account of “cognitive repression” in the interpretation of quantum mechanics). If Keller’s concerns are to be satisfied, substantive methodological reflection and revision would be called for in the fields she discusses.
Ruth Ginzberg’s (1987) argument intersects Keller’s work in an interesting way. She suggests that a variety of activities which have been systematically excluded from social recognition as “science”, or even as knowledge, offer an already existing model for a “gynocentric science”. Where Keller looks at the gendered construction of inquiries which are widely recognized as scientific, Ginzberg looks at the role of gender in
constructing the boundary between inquiries understood to be scientific and those dismissed as unsystematic and unreliable. She notes:
In searching through women’s activities outside of those that have been formally bestowed the label of ‘Science’, I have come to suspect that gynocentric science often has been called ‘art,’ as in the art of midwifery, or the art of cooking, or the art of homemaking. Had these ‘arts’ been androcentric activities, I have no doubt that they would have been called, respectively obstetrical science, food science, and family social science. Indeed, as men have taken an interest in these subjects they have been renamed sciences - and, more importantly they have been reconceived in the androcentric model of science. (1987, 91-92)
Ginzberg’s and Keller’s insistence upon the far-reaching influence of the construction of gender may seem to offer a political parallel to the philosophical programs which insist upon the importance to science of sense experience, abductive argument, social interests, or such. Even if the actual effects of gender construction upon inquiry and its recognition as scientific must be examined case by case, the insistence that questions about gender are always relevant, and that they must be asked even in fields of inquiry which do not seem to make gender an important category in their own terms, might seem to make such criticisms a target of NOA’s antipathy to “ready-made philosophical engines”.
Yet neither Keller’s nor Ginzberg’s arguments can be easily dismissed as essentialist impositions upon local scientific practice. Ginzberg’s argument obviously hinges upon an antiessentialist account of science since she focuses upon the cultural and political significance of how the boundaries of science and knowledge have actually been demarcated. Keller’s (1985, part 2) appeal to Nancy Chodorow’s psychodynamic interpretation of the construction of objectivity might initially suggest an essentialist claim that the very idea of scientific objectivity is objectionably gendered. But when one looks at the specific cases where she employs this analysis to look at the sciences, this impression is not fulfilled. Keller is arguing that the working out of scientific conceptions of knowledge, explanation, and objectivity cannot be isolated from more general cultural and cognitive patterns. This has nothing to do with intrinsic features of science, or of objective inquiry, and everything to do with the larger cultural context within which particular scientific disciplines have actually developed. Gender can function constitutively within those scientific concepts and practices, without having been identified as such explicitly, because of the pervasive gendering of cognitive activity in the dominant culture. Yet this does not guarantee that any or all scientific practices will be debilitatingly gendered; the presence and actual impact of gender in science must
be demonstrated case by case. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the concept of “gender” itself is not unproblematic in her work, as her treatment of Barbara McClintock’ s research shows. Keller’s reflections upon science and gender leave neither science nor gender unchanged.
Furthermore, if Fine were to make this argument, thereby reaffirming a stronger version of his trusting attitude toward the sciences specifically, he would undercut his antiessentialism by privileging a particular account of what is internal to the tradition of the sciences. The objection to Ginzberg or Keller would be that their focus on gender was a large-scale program imposed upon science from the “outside”; but their argument is that gender functions very much “inside” the sciences, precisely by helping to shape what counts as inside or outside. Shapere, who provided the model for our second reading of NOA’s postmodernism, bases a philosophical program upon taking at face value scientists’ own interpretation of how their domains of inquiry are bounded. Fine, however, must reject both that critical hermeneuticism which insists that this face value must mask a deeper truth, and Shapere’s, which denies that the constitution of scientific domains is open to suspicion. To do otherwise is to beg the question between an internalist like Shapere, and the feminist critics.
This recognition offers a fourth reading of Fine’s postmodernism, one which I think Fine’s arguments ultimately should lead us to endorse. On this reading, what is at issue in reflecting about science is how a particular domain of concerns comes to count as a coherent field of inquiry. Because this is what is at issue, Fine rightly requires that
[NOA} does not prejudge the constitution of the scientific world; that is, whether the scientific facts and objects are essentially social or essentially objective, or whatever. Its attitude is to let the chips fall where they may. (Fine, forthcoming)
From the standpoint of the philosophical tradition of reflection on science, this may seem to place the philosophy of science more within the realm of social and political inquiry rather than its traditional home within epistemology and metaphysics. But that would be to miss the antireductivist force of this reading of Fine. It is as much a mistake to reduce science to politics or social construction as it is to restrict it to epistemology. Political, epistemological, sociological, or psychological accounts are on a par at the outset when we ask how (and whether) a distinct domain of inquiry has been successfully or appropriately constituted. There is no line of argument which can reassure us that we have (and will continue to have) the right language and the right locus of concerns to understand science.
This fourth reading of Fine’s postmodernism reduces the conflict we
have found between trust in local practice and suspicion of global readings by glossing both views in very unrestrictive ways. In contrast to its treatment by the third reading, NOA’ s antiessentialism would still leave considerable room for large-scale social criticism of the modern sciences (and for responses and countercriticisms of comparable scale), so long as they situate themselves within particular historical contexts and the critical resources specific to those contexts.  NOA’s trusting attitude would remain, but only in the sense that Fine trusts that the contingencies of history give us all the resources necessary to tell us what we need to know about science. This says nothing yet about which contingencies these are.
Thus, on this fourth reading of NOA, Fine’s frequent reference to trust in science is either misleading or mistaken insofar as “science” is identified with any determinate interpretation of what does or does not count as scientific. Asking that we take science “on its own terms” should not invoke an authoritative account of what are those terms. “Its own terms” denotes a field of interpretative dispute rather than a definitive vocabulary. Thus, if Ginzberg is right, understanding science on its own terms requires us to understand the ways in which the authentication of knowledge is gendered, and this leads us to explore gossip, midwifery and cooking, and the history of sexism, along with physics and geology. But there are no philosophical shortcuts. The only way to find out whether she is right is to look where she is pointing and see whether we can come to see what she finds there. Likewise with realists, constructivists, empiricists, and neoromantic visionaries.
This account of the critical resources available to someone who adopts Fine’s recommended attitude may seem anemic in its lack of general criteria upon which to ground one’s judgement, and its openness to unfamiliar interpretations of science. Fine himself recognizes that his appeal to good judgement is empty without the detailed work necessary to provide a local and particularist grounding for judgement in any particular case. This recognition is evident in his recommendation that
an open, social particularism… [is] the right corrective to philosophical (especially realist) distortions of science, and the place where lots of good work can be done too. Among the work to be done is to achieve some understanding of what is actually involved in rational acceptance and proof in science, of what, in Boyle’s words, deserves “a wise man’s acquiescence.” This job involves exploring the diverse range of contexts, historical and contemporary, in which inquiry is carried out. (Fine, forthcoming)
1. A similar position has been defended by Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1988) against what they take to be the apolitical postmodernism of Lyotard (1984) and Rorty (1982); my argument in this paper is deeply indebted to Fraser and Nicholson.
Such a recommendation would still be vacuous if taken out of context. What contemporary philosopher of science would deny having paid attention to “the diverse range of contexts in which inquiry is carried out”? But Fine has provided detailed arguments, and strategies for extending them, which show how many treatments of science which initially seemed historically sensitive and particularist could instead be cases of “attaching science to a ready-made philosophical engine”. The criteria for “wise acquiescence” can never be fixed once and for all, for they are inescapably open-ended and context-sensitive.
In the case of recent feminist philosophy of science, we can perhaps see more clearly how Fine’s program is less anemic than it initially looks. Keller’s and Ginzberg’s arguments gain credibility from several decades of extensive feminist research in a variety of fields which has repeatedly exposed and challenged the gendering of scholarly inquiry and authenticated knowledge. Such research would not have succeeded without frequently and substantially satisfying previously established scholarly standards, but it also partially transformed those standards in doing so. Without that range and depth of detailed research as background, Keller’s and Ginzberg’s claims would undoubtedly be unconvincing. But in that context, the burden of proof has to some extent now been shifted (Fuller 1988, chap. 4). It is now more credible that the substantive ideals of explanation in physics or biology are not gender-neutral; it is also now reasonable to demand a strong and detailed argument before expecting that the natural sciences will be different from other fields in being relatively uninflected by gender. These considerations alone do not suffice to make Keller’s or Ginzberg’s case, for we must still evaluate their specific arguments and evidence in this context. These considerations do, however, illustrate how the appeal to reasonable judgement in specific historical contexts is not entirely unconstrained, and how such standards of judgement might still be flexible and open to change. Just as it has always been reasonable to accept, reject, or suspend judgement upon various knowledge claims despite the absence of any plausible general theory of confirmation, it is also reasonable to accept, pursue, or reject various approaches to a political understanding of various scientific practices and disciplines in the absence of a general philosophical interpretation of science and its aims.
Such an historically sensitive and open-ended particularism is what I take to be fundamental to the natural ontological attitude on this fourth and final reading. When we adopt such an attitude toward science and its epistemic and political interpretation, we relieve the specific and fundamental conflicts disclosed within the other readings of Fine’s postmodern philosophy of science. More importantly, we take up an approach to the sciences which avoids both science-bashing and the foreclosure of
the intellectual resources needed to raise and begin to answer critical questions about the cultural and political significance of the sciences. Much more remains to be said about the positive implications of such an approach to the philosophy of science, and how it would relate to other discussions of “modernity” and “postmodernity” (the beginnings of such a constructive program are worked out in Rouse 1987 and explicitly connected to narratives of modernity in Rouse 1991). But the difficulties with alternative readings of Fine’s NOA suggest that such a thoroughgoing postmodernism offers the best hope for what Fine once called “a decent philosophy for postrealist times” (1986a, 113).
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