FEYERABEND, SELLARS, AND THE SCIENTIFIC IMAGE

For Feyerabend there is no such thing as the “scientific image”, and common sense (or so-called “folklore”) is for him often much richer than the pale abstractions one tries to replace it with on the basis of a handful of one-sided cherry-picked ill-analysed results that one has taken from one or other of the scientific paradigms enjoying scholarly approval at the moment. The “scientific image” for Sellars is the idealized convergence constructed out of the diverse particular scientific images. He still presupposes a monistic principle of convergence. The scientific image is not a formal or methodological notion prioritising a heuristics approach, i.e. it is not an image of thought in the Deleuzian sense. Rather, it is a substantive image in Heidegger’s sense of a world view, or a specific understanding of Being.

Sellars tells us:

“Thus the conception of the scientific or postulational image is an idealization in the sense that it is a conception of an integration of a manifold of images, each of which is the application to man of a framework of concepts which have a certain autonomy. For each scientific theory is, from the standpoint of methodology, a structure which is built at a different ‘place’ and by different procedures within the intersubjectively accessible world of perceptible things. Thus ‘the’ scientific image is a construct from a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world”.

It is clear that for Sellars the scientific image is
1) an idealized “construct”
2) out of the convergence or “integration” of diverse scientific images
3) on the substantive level, a unified “framework of concepts”, rather than a meta-level methodology.

Angelic views of science legitimate a common series of oppositions between philosophers and scientists (taken rather literalistically), between epistemology and ontology, between the scientific image and the manifest image that are rather non-dialectical. Posing these binary oppositions would inhibit boundary-crossing intuitions and block real research.

I cannot agree with the angelic view of science that is purveyed even by those philosophers who have the conceptual resources to know better. When Feyerabend talks about the “way of the scientist” in contrast to the “way of the philosopher”, he is talking about a small number of scientists who are both philosophically-cultivated and freely explore bold new speculative conjectures. The vast majority of scientists he considered to be “human ants”:

“As opposed to its immediate predecessor, late 20th-century science has given up all philosophical pretensions and has become a powerful business that shapes the mentality of its practitioners. Good payment, good standing with the boss and the colleagues in their ‘unit’ are the chief aims of these human ants who excel in the solution of tiny problems but who can not make any sense of anything transcending their domain of competence. Humanitarian considerations are at a minimum and so is any form of progressiveness that goes beyond local improvements” (Theses on Anarchism).

Feyerabend was a process-philosopher, although this is often not noticed. He drew his process thought from a combination of Hegel and Kierkegaard, whom he did not see as opposed on this point. He pluralised Hegel by means of Mach and Mill, and kept to this sense of processual pluralism that he found in the work of David Bohm, Niels Bohr, and Wolfgang Pauli. His idea was that there is not just one scientific image but many, and that this plurality is not just a sign of the uncompleted state of our research, but indicative of the nature of reality itself. Such a view makes the epistemology/ontology distinction largely irrelevant to understanding the heuristic nature of science, representing a superficial scholasticism that would shackle research in poorly analysed binary oppositions.

Ontological plurality goes deeper and wider than such naive binary logic can take us. It goes deepes because there is no way that one can simply dogmatically posit that “Reality is one”. That too is an assertion that is to be answered by research. Research implies necessarily the exploration of alternative views, so the hypothesis that reality is multiple must not be ruled out of court in advance. It’s no use loudly proclaiming that you are in favour of pluralism and heuristics and then proceeding to dogmatize, and to assert that Science is on your side. This is Feyerabend’s point, and he tries to protect us not only from arrogant conformist philosophers but from their equivalents in the sciences.

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2 Responses to FEYERABEND, SELLARS, AND THE SCIENTIFIC IMAGE

  1. cmkeys says:

    Is it possible to modulate the decision making of ant-like parochial researchers through collaboration with social scientists or philosophical fieldworkers? In my own work the idea is to integrate practitioners across the alleged two cultures divide within knowledge production venues. In the US, the Nanotechnology R&D Act of 2003 mandates such collaboration “inasmuch as this is possible.” The question remains: is it possible, useful, meaningful to modulate perceptions and evaluations of decision contexts in the laboratory? Perhaps the view of researchers as “human ants” was indicative of a historical situation that is amenable to strategic intervention.

    Sadly Foucault never wrote “The Birth of the Laboratory”. If he had, perhaps he would have pointed out historical contingencies that mediate this view of 20th century researchers as ‘human ants.’ In that fashion Foucault might have made resources available for intervention in the present day.

    Internalist dynamics that produce parochial researchers are mediated by inscription practices and communication ethics in science journals, conferences, banal daily activities, professional evaluations for tenure promotion, et cetera. Modulating inscription practices and communication ethics may be possible through addition of new social actors into the research venue. That is the basic hope of the method I’ve been working with, Socio Technical Integration Research. How to shift cultures of responsibility, which entails producing deliberative selves in the laboratory, is a research question in STS and S&T Policy these days.

    As for commenting on your point about pluralism: Nancy Cartwright seems to be on your side. If we live in a “dappled world”, where claims of universality in physics and economics become demonstrably dogmatic with destructive impacts on social policy (her work critiquing reliance on double-blind studies and case studies in public health research is very good), an enduring call lingers for integrating ethical considerations about how the world should be with technical claims about how the world really is. There is a trend in STS and S&T Policy circles calling for constructing venues for collective decision making (agenda setting, program management and evaluation, upstream engagement, forecasting, etc) that open up laboratories and research institutes to more broadly inclusive democratic and ethical demands. In my opinion, if we keep the discussion within the parochial ambit of the history of philosophy of science, our capacities for intervention will be stifled. Philosophical fieldwork is my preferred method, combining philosophy of science with on-site experimentalism focused on modulating decision-contexts in actual laboratories and policymaking contexts at different scales.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    Hello Cameron, nice to hear from you again. What you say about the human ant syndrome as being a socially and historically delimited, and thus mutable, phenomenon fits perfectly with Feyerabend’s analyses. He does not share the angelic view of science, but he does not consider it as intrinsically corrupted by some original sin either. Feyerabend is all for integrating elements and personnel from across the two cultures divide into a knowledge and research network, but he is also in favour of integrating people who do not “naturally” belong even to such a trans-disciplinary network, who have real but ill-defined competences, fuzzy unformated elements. A non-scientific example that he gives is the constitution of military intelligence networks.

    As to your own professional experience and practice it sounds very interesting and rewarding.

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