Troubling Knowledge

November 1, 2004

Helen Tewolde

The task at hand is to figure out Scheffler’s program. Is he truly criticizing Kuhn’s ideas on scientific revolutions from a meta-theoretical perspective or is he submitting to those ideas by preserving a scientific paradigm; namely, Reichenbach’s context of discovery and context of justification?

The inclination to “sit on the fence” on this issue is attractive. Sometimes Scheffler seems to be launching a bona fide attack on Kuhn’s claims and other times it looks as if he is merely resorting to his old notions of objectivity vs. subjectivity- dichotomies that Kuhn has already said are false. Here is an example:

“…we have, in effect, freed the concept of objectivity from its connections with fixity, and painted a picture of objective control as consistent with changing observations, languages, and beliefs.” (Scheffler: 67)

“The scientific game imposes the constraints of descriptive accuracy, theoretical coherence and logical discussion; it imposes no general limitations on passion, imagination, or flair.” (Scheffler: 68)

In the first quote it looks as if Scheffler has already explained the problems that arise with a fixed notion of objectivity in his previous chapters and that “objective control” is not inconsistent with paradigmatic shifts. So, Kuhn’s idea of an essentially irrational (or pre-rational) “gestault switch” is simply an overstated change in ideas that is actually governed by Scheffler’s proposed objective controls that are flexible and adaptive.

Yet in the second quote it looks like Scheffler totally misses the point. He says that the scientific game does not pose limitations on passion, imagination, or flair, which I don’t think has much to do with what Kuhn is saying at all. The constraints of the scientific game, what Scheffler takes for granted in the quote, is exactly what Kuhn problematizes: “descriptive accuracy, theoretical coherence and logical discussion”.

Another instance where it looks as though Scheffler is a case-in-point scientific paradigm preserver is when he says:

“It will be worthwhile to dwell a bit more on the distinction between the generation and the evaluation of theory, for the contrast will enable us to locate the most serious anti-objectivist arguments recently adduced on the basis of the history of science.” (Scheffler: 69)

His “pro” and “anti”-objectivist distinction here is quite indicative of a resistance to changing views on the incompleteness or arbitrariness of objective controls. But we have to look deeper to see if this is a substantive resistance (if he has a point) or not.

Scheffler’s stance is that science is also concerned with epistemology:

“There is, in general…no sharp line between the concerns of science and the concerns of epistemology. […] It is an oversimplification to present the man of science as purely a generator of new factual ideas, leaving to the epistemologist the tasks of idealization and normative criticism.” (Scheffler: 72)

Scheffler wants to show that Kuhn’s findings belong to the “context of discovery” and are therefore questions more suitable to the domain of psychology. This is because the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification is one that includes the paradigm switch that Kuhn speaks of; but also, it includes the objective controls that Scheffler talks about; as he says: “…objectivity characterizes the evaluative or justificatory processes of science rather than the genesis of scientific ideas.” (Scheffler: 73)

In general, Scheffler reduces Kuhn’s arguments to “psychology and religion” often enough to suggest that he does not take Kuhn’s arguments on scientific history seriously. It looks as though they are speaking different languages- something Kuhn says is characteristic of a paradigm shift within scientists themselves (they have conflicting world views) and between scientific communities (they don’t understand each other). Scheffler sees Kuhn’s revolution as minimizing the importance of deliberation while Kuhn is saying that deliberation as we know it has changed. Kuhn is offering new ideas and so he is the sceptic of objectivity in science who apparently has no prior baggage. Indeed, in the beginning of his article he says:

“Having been weaned intellectually on these distinctions and others like them, I could be scarcely be more aware of their import and force. For many years I took them to be about the nature of knowledge, and I still suppose that, appropriately recast, they have something important to tell us.” (Kuhn: 9, my emphasis)

But Scheffler says that Kuhn is full of baggage. He holds traditional views of science and transports them, as though they are innocent, into his scheme of non-“objective” paradigmatic shifts and puzzle-solving. As Scheffler writes:

“Paradigm debates cannot, then, be understood in terms of categories of rational argument. They must fail to make logical or cognitive sense, owing to a fundamental failure of translation, and hence, of communication. Now, there is an initial puzzle in the foregoing argument. If competing paradigms are indeed based in different worlds, and address themselves to different problems with the help of different standards, in what sense can they be said to be in competition?” (Scheffler: 82)

This is a good point. In Quine’s essay “On What There Is” we are introduced to ontology as the ground for meaning, the environment where language makes sense and what does not make sense. What Scheffler is saying is that if two paradigms are so different, where is the competition between them? Where is the apparent transition from one to another? Such transition couldn’t even take place because people do not fundamentally understand what the other paradigm is doing, explaining, revealing, etc.

Scheffler’s point is that there must be “some common framework” between paradigms (he wants to say it is the “objective control” of scientific method). He uses the example of art criticism. The art critics have one similar ground at least, regardless of what they critique, and that is that, at bottom, they all critique art. Similarly, scientists “..having appreciated the differing potentials of competing paradigms, the scientist, like the critic or indeed the historian, may step back and consider the respective bearings of the paradigms with regard to issues he holds relevant. Such consideration is itself not formulated within, nor bound by, the paradigms which constitute its objects. It belongs rather to a second-order reflective and critical level of discourse. This is the level on which paradigm debates take place, and the incommensurability of their objects is no bar to their reasonableness or objectivity.” (Scheffler: 83, my emphasis)

Scheffler writes as though he seriously believes that paradigm shifts can be objectively controlled. He really believes that the context of discovery is where the “leaps of faith” (Scheffler: 77) between one paradigm and another take place. This context of discovery is a concern for psychology and not for epistemology or science, since they are both centrally concerned with justification.

Despite his sincerity, though, Scheffler cannot see what we see in Kuhn’s arguments. He resists the notion of arbitrariness that Kuhn emphasizes is inherent in an “objective control”. I think that Scheffler is holding on to an idea of a workable, flexible objectivity; so it looks as though it would be too simplistic to say he is a case-in-point preserver of the scientific paradigms Kuhn thinks are problematic. It is important that he mentions how Kuhn is holding on to some notions that were previously relegated to the “scientific realm”- i.e. notions of falsification such as anomaly and crises. Is Kuhn using them after careful consideration or carelessly? Scheffler thinks Kuhn has been a little careless and overexcited. I am not really sure.

To be honest, I am still on the fence because I can’t really tell. But if this were an essay where I had to argue one side, I would say that Scheffler has tried harder to preserve Reichenbach’s distinctions more than he has understood Kuhn’s point: that historically scientific shifts have been more arbitrary than objective and controlled. This is evident when Scheffler says:

“The crucial matter is rather the existence of shared scientific institutions of control by which paradigms, once adopted, are tested.” (Scheffler: 87)

Again, since Kuhn is arguing a point that Scheffler has ignored- that it is these very institutions that are called into question, I think it is fair, for argument’s sake, to say that Scheffler has not shifted to the “other” side at all. He is preoccupied with his own notions of objectivity and justificatory practices in scientific progress.

© Helen Tewolde 2004

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