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Introduction

Tom Rockmore and Joseph Margolis

To raise the question of how the very process of history affects the validity of science and our conception of knowledge sounds straightforward enough. But it is fraught with all the complexities spawned by the emergence of modern philosophy from, say, the middle of the seventeeth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, which, in effect, has indelibly colored the question down to our own day. There is no settled answer that any creditable part of the academy would be willing to endorse without deep misgivings; and yet it is hardly possible to raise the matter in a serious way without conceding that knowledge and thought are indeed inherently historical. We are caught in a naive paradox here: science, we are inclined to believe, seeks out the most farreaching invariances that we can ascribe to the real world; and yet, we put all such discoveries at mortal risk by construing their achievement as the work of a contingent history that may well undo its own supposed success by a sudden turn in thoughts own temporal life. Can that possibly make sense? It would not be unreasonable to suppose that an untutored view of knowledge inclines toward a strong form of realism meaning by that, that the independent world pretty well is as we perceive it to be: even a straight stick that looks bent in a glass of water, we learn to say, looks exactly as it should in such a circumstance. Our naive intuitions confirm, for one thing, that we do know the way the world is independently of our beliefs; for another, that, on the whole, our beliefs do not distort our perception of the real world, and, for a third, that what we thus come to know is not affected in any essential way by the admittedly historical process by which we achieve our level of scientific mastery. So the paradox dissolves, according to the strong realist doctrine. Nevertheless, the philosophical labors spanning the work of Descartes, Kant and Hegel, which still constitute ground zero for our understanding of the legitimacy of science itself, calls into question in the deepest way both the possibility of ever knowing the independent world as it truly is independently and the intelligibility of construing scientific knowledge as ahistorical. Strange to say, this is still the stalemate of contemporary theories of science and history. There are almost no sustained analyses of the reconcilability of sciences claim to objective standing and the historicity of thought and inquiry.

History, Historicity and Science

The essays we collect here address this striking and important issue in a fresh way. The truth is, it is a puzzle that first dawned on the Western world in the brief interval more or less confined to a sense of the dynamics of history anticipating and reflecting the events of the French Revolution. It gathered enormous conceptual force in the currents of philosophical speculation connecting Johann Herders disappointed efforts to bring Kants attention to what was put at risk in his great Critique by the complete absence of any reckoning of the significance of the history of thought and the encyclopedic labor, begun by Hegel in the Phenomenology, at the very start of the nineteenth century, in part responding to Herder and in part reconceiving Kants project in the most uncompromising historicized terms. With Hegel, the entire question of the relationship between knowledge and history comes into full view armed with a sense of its likely resolution and of its unique role in marking the unity of the first four hundred years of modern philosophy. That the issue of history and historicity has been largely neglected in the most ambitious efforts, in the twentieth century, to understand the essential epistemological puzzle posed by the splendid work of the physical sciences seems much more than shocking seems well nigh unbelievable. In fact, what is perhaps the single most striking exception to the silence of the analytic tradition ranging over Anglo-American and Continental European philosophy Thomas Kuhns Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, 1970) was itself systematically marginalized, almost completely eliminated from professional discussion, by the end of the twentieth century. The great enthusiasm for the philosophy of science launched in Berlin and Vienna before the full rise of Nazism, partly at least still under the influence of Kant, however qualified by Hegels themes, that appear as well in Cassirers Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and in Cassirers subtle reflections on modern biology and physics, faltered rather badly over its own programmatic zeal. Much of late twentieth-century philosophy of science divided, self-consciously, between the continuation of the master projects of the reductive materialism and scientism of the first half of the century (though without much in the way of the fine-grained efforts of the early logical positivists and their closest allies: notably, among figures like Hans Reichenbach) and the relatively weak free-wheeling recovery of the problematic historicism of figures like Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend continued, for instance, in the study of actual laboratory life and the sociology of science suggested well before Kuhn by Ludwik Fleck. The partisans of these two currents rarely addressed the same questions or attempted to resolve the questions that divided them. It was a great irony that Kuhns enormously influential Structure, which had been well on its way to oblivion in the final decades of the twentieth century, should have been

Introduction

published in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which was edited by Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath. Carnap was actually pleased with the book: he had himself turned away by that time from the extreme scientism of his earlier success. The contributors to the present volume write with a deep sense of the remarkable continuity of Western philosophies of science and knowledge and the problem of realism running like a red thread through the whole of its modern history now stalled at almost the same impasse confronted in the late nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth centuries. The idea of historicity is the double-edged sword of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Eurocentric philosophy. Seen against the backdrop of Kants essential claims and the recuperative (but also corrective) import of Hegels counter-labor, it consigns Kants transcendentalism, together with Descartess account of a strong realism, to the deepest conceptual jeopardy. For its own part, historicity promises to replace, and render otiose, the supposed need for conceptual invariances and necessities of every substantive kind; but, in pursuing its own fortunes, it also faces reasonable questions about its own coherence and self-consistency. The classic contest that runs from Descartes to Hegel comes to rest in the seemingly unforeseen invention of the constructivist solution to the Cartesian paradox. We must bear in mind that Hegel begins his Phenomenology with a very clever rehearsal of the aporia of the Cartesian approach to the problem of coming to know the independent world by way of internal mental representations of that world, which, nevertheless, unaccountably secure (for Descartes and Locke) the objective reliability of our sciences. The argument is as much addressed to Kant as it is to Descartes, inasmuch as Kant falls back to Cartesian representations (Vorstellungen) in spite of his having implicitly shown the way to defeating representationalism by constructivist means. The peculiarity of Kants solution of the Cartesian paradox rests with the Fact that Kant conjoins transcendentalism and constructivism indissolubly. Admitting the historicity of thought breaks the bond between the two doctrines: a historicized constructivism let us say, Hegels or any post-Hegelian alternative, possibly even Kuhns, though Kuhn, of course, nowhere discusses Hegels innovation must unconditionally abandon transcendentalism, cognitive privilege, substantive necessities of any kind affecting the empirical work of the sciences. For example, the very idea of transcendental necessities may be converted, in historicized terms, into contingent, replaceable posits of what appear, as in the views of figures like Cassirer, William Whewell, C.I. Lewis or, more loosely, R.G. Collingwood, to be the best candidate transcendental constraints we can muster for organizing our epistemological vision as the necessary systematic ground of our actual sciences. There are

History, Historicity and Science

bound to be many different strategies for reconciling science and historicity or, alternatively, for assessing the competing claims of transcendentalism and historicism. What is so remarkable in all this is that there seems to be no better grip on these enormously important problems as much contemporary as early modern than what a careful reading of Kants and Hegels original treatment of these issues would reveal. The fact is, the largest and best prospects for philosophy in our new century depend on a proper grasp of just this slim thread of conceptual history. Eurocentric philosophy is now becalmed by its own sense of recycling more or less exhausted ways of addressing the persistent questions of our day without being able to put to rest the nagging puzzles of the Cartesian aporia, which should have been marked solved a long time ago. We are in the middle of an uncertain search for a commanding vision apt to yield a measure of fresh success in every sector of philosophical interest. It is hardly by chance, therefore, that the general malaise affecting contemporary philosophy should accord with what answers to the profound stalemate at the heart of the philosophy of science. The contributors to the present volume are aware of this aware, therefore, of the potential benefit of a close-grained analysis of the question before us. A pertinent discussion is likely to move through surprisingly diverse, possibly quite disparate, texts and topics; for, as we now understand matters, the issue posed by the historicity of science itself is, in its way, nothing less than a strategic glimpse of what looks to be the single executive question that, however much unrecognized, absorbs the whole of science and philosophy and cognitive inquiries of every kind. Constructivism and historicity are, we are all inclined to wager, philosophys best and amplest resource. It yields a general vision that is at least two hundred years old, but it remains largely unexplored. Apparently, conceptual change at its most global, or radical, moves with glacial majesty which is to say, it hardly moves at all. Perhaps the conserving needs of language at its grandest theoretical sweep must pause long enough to prepare a number of enabling public idioms in advance of its eventual acceptance. That may explain a great deal of Kuhns intuitive wisdom about paradigm shifts in the sciences, and may also, accordingly, bring Kuhn closer to Hegels larger doctrine stirring once again but in the archives. You must realize how radical a proposal it is to affirm, without ceremony, that constructivism and historicism that is, the union of the two doctrines, not either one without the other provide the best prospect for our philosophical future. You cannot think or say so, however, without rolling into a sentence or two a bold verdict on more than two thousand years of glorious history. And yet we must advance the charge, or fall back among our spent cartridges. That

Introduction

is to say, the short interval that spans Kant and Hegel was, philosophically, the most fateful and prophetic of the modern era, after its original selfdiscovery in the sixteenth century. Its quite possible that adopting a constructive historicism may, in a single blow, put too much at risk to expect an easy transition from (say) a Cartesian conception to a Hegelian one. But the record shows, let it be acknowledged, that both Kant and Hegel were triumphant enough in their own day and that all the variant forms of Cartesianism were duly defeated by their respective demonstrations. We may imagine that there still remain options that weve overlooked. Why not? But that alone would hardly justify ignoring the known promise of the constructivist counter-strategy invented expressly to correct and replace the stubborn appeal of the naive vision that (even if defeated) still holds the academy in thrall. Extraordinary. The point is not to hurry to formulate dismissals of an ill-remembered past. We would be well advised, rather, to lay out the arguments with due care, to connect them smartly with local histories to match them not only with a patient recovery of their original historical force, but even more carefully, to spell them out in fresh ways fitted to every change in the contemporary sense of what the pertinent arguments really come to. The interval spanning Hegel and Kuhn should have taught us that a large part of the best work of philosophy lies with revivifying certain otherwise vestigial arguments through their various living counterparts, past or newly fashioned for a changing sensibility, that might catch up the sittlich details of the actual problems that they are meant to collect and resolve. The failure of the original sweep of Hegels innovation to command philosophys loyalty down to our own day signifies the academys inertia and our need to retrace our steps again and again until the lesson is made secure. The rest is a matter of conviction and skill on either side of every important contest. Think of the challenge before us in the largest possible terms. Western philosophy, including the philosophy of science, has spent more than its first two thousand years committed to the idea that the independent structure of the world is changeless and yet also humanly and reliably discerned without inquirys distorting the way the real world is. Now, think of this single vision as collecting endless variant forms through philosophys entire trajectory down to our own day. Theres a stunning summary for you part history, part ideology. But imagine, further, that a fatal difficulty begins to make itself felt say, through the gathering reflections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries so that Kant suddenly springs into action, apparently from nowhere, hardly anticipated by his own speculations before the completion of the first Critique; he introduces a constructivist solution (that is, the inseparability

History, Historicity and Science

of cognizer and cognized at the point of admitting the initial data of any objective inquiry), but he leaves unchallenged the older notion of the invariant or necessary ground of any would-be cognitive order rightly fitted to the achievements of our science. Hence, his own invention yields an even deeper worry: he nowhere provides a convincing, uncompromisingly human ground for his own transcendental conjectures. For his part, Hegel, admiring Kants immense labor, attempts in the most scrupulous way to reconcile Kants solution of the paradox of knowledge with a dawning sense, informed by the perceived significance of the French Revolution, of the historically constituted, contingently evolving powers of human understanding. Hegel shows us, therefore, that the reflexive construction of a humanly contrived science (our science) must, in being historicized, be thoroughly contingent as well. So he shows us how historical contingency may take the form of apparent dialectical necessity. You see, therefore, how the entire run of canonical epistemological questions are suddenly put at risk. Historical regularities, subject to contingent and unforeseen change, threaten to displace changeless necessity itself and thus challenge human regularities to recover a convincing sense of the evolving order of the experienced-world. That is indeed the master theme of the deepest challenge to the Cartesian vision, which had itself originally appeared to weld the ancient and the modern world into a single continuous history. Subsequently, at the start of the nineteenth century, the old unity unravels, but is immediately reinterpreted along the lines of a supple historicism. Arguably, we ourselves are obliged to favor, in our own time, one variant or another of Hegels admittedly florid revision of the canon. We cannot ignore its magisterial guidance, though we may perhaps escape its system. Hegels achievement decisively breaks the spell of philosophys adherence to a single true thread of speculation running through its entire history. We cannot escape its lesson, though we may certainly misread it. At the very least, there is now an undeniable contest at the very heart of philosophys history. It is a contest that demands that we reconsider what we should mean by truth and knowledge and meaning and reason and reality itself. These are the obvious topics that remain which is to say, the whole of philosophy itself. Well then, it comes as a surprise that we are only at the anticipated beginning of the investigation needed. The collection of essays offered here is intended as a reminder of unfinished business and the need of a new beginning.