A Bluffer’s Guide to Science Studies and the Sociology of “Knowledge”
Ever since science became a going concern in the ancient world, people have
asked: “What is this thing called science?” An early answer was given by Aristotle
in his Organon, its focus being largely on the logic and methodology
of scientific reasoning. Even if its substantive claims are now no longer central,
it inaugurated a tradition of philosophical thought about science that has had
wide acceptance by many scientists and philosophers; in their different ways
recent philosophers such as Carnap, Popper, Lakatos and the Bayesians are all
within this tradition. It involves belief in, and the application of, principles
of logic, methodology and of rationality generally; on the whole such principles
have been instrumental in leading scientists, if not others, to hold the scientific
beliefs they do.
But these days this tradition has fallen out of fashion and has been replaced
by the burgeoning fields of sociology of science, cultural studies of science,
constructivism, postmodernism, and the like. Reasons for the change in fashion
are several, one having to do with the political, economic and social uses of
science, some of which, rather than enhance our lives, threaten our very existence.
By blaming these ills on science itself, rather than, say, the uses to which
it is put by the military, industry, commerce, governments and others, advocates
of anti-science have placed the philosophical "ideologists" who talk
of the rationality of science under a cloud of suspicion.
Another reason has to do with the status claimed by science. In countering
claims about its rational basis, attempts have been made to de-legitimate and
"demystify" science. Here the attack on the Aristotelian tradition
is at its most profound. Science is alleged to be no more legitimate than many
other non-scientific practices such as those embodied in "local knowledge",
"ethnoscience" and what the postmodernist Lyotard calls "narratives".
To claim otherwise is to indulge in philosophical metanarratives towards which
Lyotard invites us to be incredulous, this being his definition of the postmodern.
Nor, it is also alleged, can science claim to give us a picture of what the
world is like, or a picture that is better than that given in non-sciences.
It is not that science gives us, as many philosophers claim, either an ideal
model of the world that approximates reality, or a picture that has only truthlikeness.
Rather science is likened to a discourse that gives no picture at all since
it fails to represent anything. Here critics of the Aristotelian tradition join
hands with those who have strongly empiricist and anti-realist or irrealist
inclinations about science.
So, what are the causes of our beliefs in matters scientific if the canons
of rationality are to be abandoned as an unbelievable metanarrative, or if scientific
beliefs do not represent? The Ancient Greek Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes,
rather than Aristotle, gives us a clue. Xenophanes was a sceptic who denied
that knowledge could be obtained by us humans; at best we merely have beliefs,
the truth or falsity of which will remain largely unknown to us. Our beliefs
are not a response to reality – but something else. Xenophanes illustrates his
view in the case of belief about God, but it has wider application. He says
of the causes of beliefs in the gods, or God: ‘Each group of men paint the shape
of the gods in a fashion similar to themselves; the Ethiopians draw them dark
and snub-nosed, the Thracians red-haired and blue-eyed’. And he has similar
remarks about the gods that cows, horses and lions would draw if they had hands;
they would, respectively, look just like cows, horses or lions.
One of the several points being made here is that if the gods are believed
to be dark and snub-nosed, then the cause of this belief has nothing to do with
the gods themselves; rather its cause has to do with some feature of ourselves.
The gods themselves are not causally involved in our representations of them;
rather it is something about ourselves that leads us to make the representations
we do. It is as if the gods drop out of the picture as far as the causes of
our beliefs is concerned; something completely non-god-like plays a causal role
in the production of belief. In so far as this something else concerns social
aspects of ourselves, then Xenophanes is the first sociologist of "knowledge"
or, as we should more correctly say, the first sociologist of belief.
Subsequent sociologists have extended Xenophanes’ views on the causes of beliefs
about God to scientific belief itself. A Xenophanes-like account of scientific
belief has come to be adopted by a wide range of people such as Marx, Mannheim,
contemporary sociologists of scientific belief, Foucault, Nietzsche, to mention
a few. Surprisingly, even though they differ markedly over what they claim are
the specific causes of belief, they all espouse the same general form of explanatory
theory which is intended to replace explanations that appeal to scientific rationality.
For many of them, scientific belief is not a rational response to the world;
scientific "knowledge", as the title of David Bloor’s influential
book has it, is nothing but social imagery.
Karl Marx was one of the first to suggest that the sciences, along with
ideology, forms of consciousness, religious belief and the like, are also determined,
shaped or caused by the prevailing forces and relations of production. Marx
proposed a two-tiered view of all social factors in his doctrine of historical
materialism. Forces and relations of production constituted the economic foundation
of society while anything that has to do with ideas ("forms of consciousness")
is to be placed in the superstructure, which depends, in some unspecified way,
on the foundation. Marx bequeathed to the sociology of belief a problem that
it has never been able to solve, viz., what exactly the relation of dependence
is between beliefs or ideas and their alleged foundation.
In his programmatic pronouncements about historical materialism, Marx does
not specifically mention science in the superstructure. But some of his other
comments do indicate that he saw science this way, while yet other comments
indicate that perhaps science might not fit into such a simple two-tiered model
after all. Either the model is deficient, or science is simply a third item
outside the two-tiered model. His followers from Engels onward were not so ambivalent;
they see science as something "determined" by forces and relations
Put this way, there is an evident confusion between the very content of science,
such as its laws or theories, and other aspects of science such as the choices
as to which lines of research to pursue, what programmes to fund, what applications
of theory might be the most commercially promising, and so on. A case might
be made for forces and relations of production playing some limited role concerning
the latter; but they play no role in determining the former, the very content
of science. It is here that those within the Aristotelian tradition of understanding
science would claim that methodological principles play an important role (along
with other factors) as a cause of belief. But this is denied by those who follow
Marx and Engels in regarding such beliefs, even in the very content of science,
as arising from the interplay between forces and relations of production.
As an illustration of not just the claims that Marxists might make, but also
most sociologists of scientific "knowledge", consider Forman’s account
of how German physicists in the Weimar period were caused to believe in physical
acausality. In Xenophanes style, the causes have nothing to do with their purported
objects, viz., indeterministic laws and happenings in the physical world. Rather
it is the social milieu of the physicists of the Weimar period with its Spenglerian
hostility to science and causality that is the cause of their beliefs. Forman’s
story does not appeal to any forces and relations of production; so it does
not fit Marx’s model. But as will be seen it supports other sociological stories
about the cause of belief.
Such sociological explanations of scientific belief can be used to expose the
"false consciousness" of the kind of explanations offered by philosophers
in terms of (belief in) principles of rational methodology, and to debunk them.
Physicists in Weimar Germany were deluded if they thought that methodological
principles played a role in bringing about their scientific beliefs. Their beliefs
are "social imagery’ caused by "socio-cultural conditions" (or
by belief in such conditions). They are not caused by any (belief in) rational
principles which accompany their theoretical and experimental endeavours. The
"ideological" pretensions of rationalist philosophers, still working
within the misleading framework bequeathed to us by the enlightenment, is now
exposed, and debunked, by the rival explanations of the sociologists of "knowledge".
However one might well ask how the sociologists manage to establish their claims
about the causes of belief if the do not accept some principles of rationality.
What they need to show, but do not, is that that the physicists’ current beliefs
in physics, and in methodology, are causally impotent in bringing about the
Weimar physicists’ belief in acausality; what allegedly does all the work is
their concurrent socio-cultural circumstance, or their beliefs about this. A
necessary smoke screen is raised to obscure their failure to employ causal methodology
at some point.
Karl Mannheim held that the two important progenitors of the sociology of “knowledge" were Marx and Nietzsche. We will turn to Nietzsche shortly.
Mannheim himself proposed a sociology of "knowledge" in which, as
he obscurely puts it, there is an “existential determination of knowledge”.
Mannheim does not get much further than talk of bare relations of thought or
knowledge to "historical-social existence". But he does importantly
suggest that there are some areas of thought or knowledge, such as mathematics
and science, that are independent of historical-social existence and that evolve
according to their own “inner dialectic” or “imminent laws”. This liberality
towards the independence of science is criticised by advocates of the Strong
Programme in the sociology of scientific "knowledge". They claim that
Mannheim lost his nerve in failing to extend the programme of the sociology
of “knowledge” to science and mathematics.
The most recent incarnation of the basic ideas of Marx and Mannheim can be
found in the Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific "knowledge".
Its central causality tenet tells us that all scientific belief or "knowledge"
is to be causally explained by social, historical or cultural conditions (or
belief in such conditions, an important ambiguity in many formulations
of the doctrine often passed over). These operate in conjunction with non-social
causes which, because of their general occurrence across humanity, cannot be
used to explain variation in belief; this is something only variable social
factors can provide. Importantly, there is no mention of (belief in) any norms
of method in the causality tenet as a possible cause of scientific belief. These
are ruled out as explainers not only on the basis of the naturalism espoused
by the Strong Programme, but also on the basis of the all-important symmetry
tenet which says that the same kind of explanation must apply to all beliefs
regardless of their truth or falsity, or their rationality or irrationality.
Since on their view the only viable explanations are those which appeal to socio-historical
causes, the symmetry tenet then rules out all explanation of scientific belief
on the basis of normative methodological principles. Such normative explanations
are said to be an unnatural intrusion upon the causal realm in which only naturalistic
social (and naturalistic non-social) factors can be causally efficacious in
bringing about belief. Such restrictions are imposed by the scientism of the
Strong Programme in which, like any other science, only naturalistic causal
factors and causal laws are to be admitted.
While there is some debate among sociologists of scientific “knowledge” as
to the applicability of all the tenets of the Strong Programme, the symmetry
tenet remains central. Explanations on the basis of rational principles of method
are out. If such principles are admitted, then they are only accepted locally
as what the community endorses; they have no further underlying authority or
status. At this point advocates of the Strong Programme recruit Wittgenstein’s
doctrine of rule following to their cause. In fact they adopt the communitarian
interpretation of rule following in which what the community determines is the
ultimate Court of Appeal and there is no further fact of the matter concerning
the correctness of any rule of method. The crucial issue here is whether advocates
of the Strong Programme deny that there is such a thing as scientific rationality
expressed in methodological principles; or whether they think there are such
principles but they are only locally accepted as such, and so are simply more
grist to the mill of the causality tenet of their programme. If the latter,
then advocates of the Strong Programme have undercut the authority of methodology
(they believe it can be given no account) and instead of continuing the traditional
discussion of scientific rationality they have, in effect, changed the subject
Much criticism of the Strong Programme centres around the many case studies
its advocates have given of episodes in the history of science. One example
already mentioned is that of the physicists in Weimar Germany and the allegedly
social causes of their beliefs in acausality in physics. As always, the alleged
causes of belief are all socio-cultural with no role for principles of method.
But as already noted, principles of causal methodology have to be assumed in
order to establish any causal link between scientists’ social circumstances
and their scientific beliefs. So appeal to methods that are not merely locally
accepted as such cannot be avoided even within the Strong Programme if any case
studies in support of the central causality tenet are to be established. The
general verdict of outsiders is that causal methodology has been badly applied
and no convincing case has been established.
The power/knowledge doctrine of Michel Foucault bears a striking resemblance
to the claims of Marx, Mannheim and advocates of the Strong Programme. Where
he differs is in his claims about power and its alleged efficaciousness in bringing
about “knowledge”. In turn “knowledge” itself bringing about further power relations;
and so on in a spiral of successive connections. While Foucault denies that
“power is knowledge” he never makes fully clear what connection there
might be between power and "knowledge"; but he always assumes that
there must be one and never thinks that there might be none. He talks of power
producing "knowledge", or of their being no "knowledge"
without power, without further exploring the assumed connection. But as we have
seen, lack of clarity about connection is endemic in social studies of belief.
Foucault has many perorations about the nature of power. Since he conceives
it broadly as the effect that the actions of one person can have on the actions
of another (either opening them up or closing them down but not completely),
then power is simply everywhere, as Foucault notices. But this is more a defect
in his implausibly broad notion of power than a new interesting discovery about
its ubiquity. Nor does Foucault always talk about “knowledge” as being related
to power. Power is also linked to a whole host of other items such as truth,
discourses of truth, or simply discourses. Though many claim that Foucault restricted
his claims about power to "knowledge’ in the human sciences, there is in
fact evidence that Foucault also intended his doctrine to apply to other sciences
such as chemistry and mathematics. Whatever the scope of Foucault’s doctrine,
the boundaries of a plausible sociological investigation of aspects of science
have been burst and extended in a quite unfounded way into the sociology of
scientific “knowledge", that is, the very cognitive content of the sciences
themselves. Finally Foucault does claim that his own genealogy of power is a
better explainer of belief than, say, Marxism or Freudian analysis. But since
he never discusses what he means by "better explanation" in a methodological
context, or modifies the scope of his "power/knowledge" doctrine,
this quite late appeal to methodology can have little force.
Finally turn very briefly to Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to
power” strongly influenced Foucault’s "power/knowledge" doctrine.
Nietzsche’s doctrine shares the same form as all the other doctrines mentioned.
But it is broader in that the "will to power" is both a metaphysical
and psycho-social force at work in all of nature and life, including human life.
Understood as a primitive psychological drive within people, it is causally
efficacious in bringing about not only our beliefs in ordinary matters and in
morality, but also our presuppositional philosophical beliefs in logic, in the
identity that ordinary objects have and in the existence of ordinary everyday
objects themselves. Nietzsche’s doctrine is best illustrated in the case he
makes about the origins of Christian moral values such as altruism, pity and
the like. He famously claims that they are due to the resentment of those “slaves
of morality” who advocated them while overthrowing the values of "master"
morality. Here the will to power operates as a psychological drive of resentment
in people causing them to bring about, and maintain, certain moral beliefs.
In allegedly uncovering the sordid origins of Christian morality in resentment,
Nietzsche hoped to debunk it.
Nietzsche is a master at proposing theories of the origins of our beliefs that
rival those that are commonly accepted. In this way he hopes to unmask them,
and then debunk them. The double unmasking/debunking move makes him the darling
of postmodernism. This double move can be played out not only in the sphere
of moral belief, but in any sphere of belief, such as our beliefs concerning
logic, or truth, or our everyday framework of belief about objects. One of Nietzsche’s
prime targets in this respect is Kant who, like a good modernist, attempted
to give, as far as is possible, rational grounds for our ordinary beliefs and
for morality. But one can be a critic of much of Kantian philosophy without
accepting Nietzsche’s critique and its alternative worldview. What is important
for our purposes is that the Nietzschean unmasking and debunking moves have
wide application. Nietzsche extended it to a "genealogical" critique
of truth and our pursuit of it; and it can be extended to the sciences and the
methodological principles that many of a rational persuasion believe have been
instrumental in the growth of science knowledge.
Those of a modernist persuasion hold that principles of rationality and of
methodology can play an important role in bringing about beliefs in science
and elsewhere, for some of us some of the time. But this is not so for the writers
mentioned. Marxists regard all scientific belief as a response to the forces
and relations of production. Mannheim holds that most belief is a response to
the conditions of social existence in which we think and believe. Advocates
of the Strong Programme postulate a strong causal role for social, historical
and cultural factors in bringing about all belief. Foucault sees power is the
prime mover of all belief in the sciences. And finally Nietzsche claims that
the will to power operates even in the sphere of belief.
All these theorists have an in-house disagreement about what does the causal
work, be it forces and relations of production, existential conditions, socio-historico-cultural
factors, power or "will to power". But they all agree that, whatever
it is, it cannot be anything rational. Rational explanations of belief are mystifications
that need to be dragged out, unmasked and debunked. There are alternative explanations
for why we believe what we do (though the grounds on why they may be better
explanations remain obscure). In some cases they might be right – but not always.
Each case needs to be determined on its merits. Moreover, one might well ask
what kind of explanations do they offer. Often their model of explanation is
one that a rationalist could also accept; what they resist are any explanations
that appeal to rationality or methodology. But their reasons (assuming they
believe that holding reasons can be efficacious) for the wide scope of their
claims are quite lame.
What these theorists might also jibe at is that their own belief in the very
doctrines they proclaim is itself merely an instance of the social, historical,
cultural or psycho-causal theories of belief they advocate. More often than
not they advance what they take to be profound truths; but at the same time
they take themselves to be unmasking and debunking the failed modernist programme,
part of which is the unmasking and debunking of the very notion of truth they
employ. Their own views often fall victim to arguments similar to those Plato
first advanced against the advocates of power, rhetoric and relativism about
truth that he encountered in his own time from Protagoras to Callicles. The
first time these considerations were played out they might have been tragedy
(for Plato’s opponents); but to repeat them now is only farce.
Robert Nola’s most recent book is Rescuing Reason: A Critique of Anti-Rationalist Views of Science and Knowledge (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, V. 230), published by Kluwer. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland.