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Incommensurability Final

Incommensurability Final

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Published by Mrittika Ghosh

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Published by: Mrittika Ghosh on Jul 04, 2012
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05/02/2014

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SalvagingIncommensurability
Syed A. Sayeed
IThe manner and the extent to which a phenomenon—I am not referring to thestructure of a phenomenon but the phenomenon itself—is accessible to perception isdetermined by the extent of theoretical mediation and interpretation it requires. In extremecases of theoretical dependence, the phenomenon may be all but a function of the theory inthe sense that it is visible only when looked at through the lens of theory. In the latter case,we move from theory to fact in order to posit the phenomenon. When a theory that appearsto be valid in other respects predicts the existence of a phenomenon, we begin to look for itin the expected region of reality. And if some flaw is discovered in the theoreticalassumptions which prompted expectations of the phenomenon, and thereby the theory isinvalidated, we refuse to be distracted by the apparent visibility of the projected phenomenon in question. On the other hand, if it is an ordinary phenomenon, we wouldexpect the enquirer to start with an acknowledgement of the phenomenon and proceedtowards a theoretical explanation for it.With regard to the phenomenon of incommensurability, I think it is obvious that itis an ordinary phenomenon. It may not be a day-to-day phenomenon in the sense that thecommon man may not encounter it everyday. But whatever its infrequency, it is by nomeans an esoteric or theory induced phenomenon. In view of this fact, it is something of a puzzle that most discussions on this topic are conducted almost entirely in terms of the possible validity of the
concept 
of incommensurability as if the existence of the phenomenon itself were a minor distraction. In the case of this phenomenon, one wouldexpect the social scientists and the philosophers to begin by acknowledging the existenceof this phenomenon and proceed to enquire about its possible structure and only then ask questions about the appropriateness, coherence, validity etc of the concept we mightemploy to refer to the phenomenon of incommensurability and describe its structure. And if we find that the concept we have employed is somewhat askew, we would try to revise theconcept, that is to say we alter its relation to the other concepts together with which itconstitutes the theory, until the structure of the concept approximates to what we believe to be the structure of the phenomenon. But this has not happened with the phenomenon of 
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incommensurability. The reason probably lies in the fact that this phenomenon came toserious attention in a fairly complex theoretical context. But that really is no excuse tocontinue to debate the existence of the phenomenon of incommensurability on the basis of the supposed incoherence of the corresponding concept.Therefore, I suggest that we must begin by explicitly recognizing the existence andthe significance of the phenomenon of incommensurability and proceed to discuss theconceptual problems associated with it.Whether or not it is obtained between two consecutive scientific frameworks, asKuhn, at any rate in his early work, maintained, it definitely exists in many trans-discursivecontexts across many domains—social, cultural and political. That is why it is a pity thatthe concept of incommensurability should have fallen into disrepute at least intodesuetude – following the rather ambiguous fate of most of Kuhn’s more interesting claimsand concepts. I suggest that in the interest of some very serious pragmatic concerns, it isvitally important to restore some of its well-deserved respectability to this notion. Oneimmediate positive consequence of this move will be that those who feel the need for sucha concept while negotiating what one might call trans-discursive contexts but feel hesitantto invoke it due to its supposedly dubious status, will feel encouraged to use it without anyundue anxiety. This alone, I should think, more than justifies any time and energy we mightspend on recovering this valuable concept for the social sciences.There might be misgivings about this attempt to take the concept of incommensurability out of the history of (natural) science and relocating it in the domain of the
 practice
of social science. But the assumptions underlying such anxiety are, in thisinstance, quite wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking a theoreticalconcept out of its original theoretical context and placing it in other discursive domains.What determines the legitimacy or otherwise of such an attempt is whether there is asufficient degree of structural similarity between the original theoretical context and thecontext of application. Strictly speaking, no significant theoretical concept would beamenable to ready trans-theoretical application. It will need to be modified and taken to alevel of structural generality(which implies theory, and in the context of literature, philosophy taken as the destination through writing simply that one must not stop atwriting if one is studying literature as method of using a certain medium). The onlyquestion in such a context would be about the extent of such revision. If it is generalised beyond a point, the new concept will become an empty caricature of the original concept,and it will then not be possible to draw from the revised concept any of the explanatoryinferences that flow from the original concept. Since the whole point of such a move is thisheuristic benefit, it then becomes a totally futile exercise, amounting to no more than arather pointless rhetorical tactic.(Touche – the thin ness of the selection of material or theoretical structure for justification of the exercise is a lack indeed, but if philosophers aregoing to play hard to get what do you expect ? Sorry, that was a cheap shot, and yes, it
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fudges the issue. The trans-discurciev contexts for the application of the method of understanding can set up some sort of generality, if your argument must be that the theorywill be applicable. It ceases to be about literature and remains strictly about method,however) In the present case, I think the concept requires very little revision in order to bemade applicable in a broader contextual range. I say it with some confidence since muchdiscussion on this topic has been conducted on the assumption that the concept of incommensurability applies to the cognitive relation between any two genuinely distinctconceptual frameworks, and even critical interventions predicated on this premise, such asthat of Davidson, have not provoked any objection on that count. In other words, we cansafely take the notion of incommensurability as a basic concept and regard its origin or coming into prominence in a particular theoretical context as only a matter of the dynamicsof the history of ideas.IIWe might begin by briefly glancing at the decline in the status of this concept before we discuss its salience and talk about the justification for reviving it. One of thereasons for the erosion of this concept’s theoretical respectability is Kuhn’s own reaction(who along with Feyerabend
*
is supposed to have more or less created this concept) to thecriticism of his early work. He retracted most of his claims made in
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
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and did so at different times to different degrees, resulting in ageneral sense of ambiguity about the extent of his repudiation of his early views.Rationally, this need not have affected the fortune of this concept, at least to such an extent.But many people (even those who ought to know better) continue to entertain the rather strange assumption that the author or initiator of a theory must remain to the end the onlyor the best authority on its validity. The entire history of human thought constitutes amountain of counter-evidence to this assumption. But mere fact never being sufficient todislodge a prejudice, when a theorist abandons his own theory for whatever reason(sometimes, for all you know, out of intellectual fatigue), most people give it up without bothering to examine the evidence. At least in Kuhn’s case that is what seems to havehappened. Generally in such cases, the theory is taken up by someone else at sometemporal or theoretical distance from its point of origin and early development, revised,
*
This parenthetical allusion may give the impression that I regard Feyerabend’s contribution to the notion of incommensurability as marginal or derivative. Feyerabend’s version of this notion was distinctive and in fact, in terms of extending the applicability of this notion beyond the history of science, I would be inclined to follow his lead rather thanKuhn’s. The only reason for my apparent priority to Kuhn is that most discussants of the incommensurability thesis haveengaged with Kuhn’s version of it and therefore any defense of this notion must deal with those critiques
.
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