If I Had A Hammer: Why Logical Positivism Better Accounts for the Need for Gender and Cultural Studies
Women’s studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian studies programs, and the moving of non-western and non-“traditional” studies in general out of the anthropology and sociology departments and into the academy on their own terms is the great success story of contemporary higher education. This advance has come along with, and in large part happened because of, the rising influence outside of philosophy departments of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and Judith Butler who pull on insights derived from the writings of Nietzsche. Nietzschean perspectivalism lies at the heart of the standard justification for culture studies. While the desire for the intellectual egalitarianism that accompanies perspectivalism comes from a good place, perspectivalism has well-known problems at its core that stand broadly opposed to the entire purpose of culture studies. Perspectivalism succeeds at making all viewpoints equally cogent, but through its incommensurability thesis, it makes cross-perspective discussion impossible. The exclusion of the testimony of those outside the power elite is justified since it is not in the language of the elite to make sense of the insights of the other. This worry is kept as a dirty little secret out of the quite appropriate desire to maintain the value of non-standard perspectives.
But it is a case of false alternatives to hold that this is the sole possible justification. A better vindication of these studies which avoids all of the problems of perspectivalism is found in the last place most advocates would think to look-the works of the logical positivists.
It has been unfortunately lost to contemporary discussion that the analytic philosophers of the first half of the 20th century were quite progressive in thought and action. As a result, their social and political writings have been neglected. This is unfortunate because an examination of the social and political thoughts of these thinkers unveils a justification for the need to engage in widespread discussion of non-standard perspectives. I will examine one such piece, Hans Reichenbach’s 1918 essay “Die Socialisierung der Hochschule” and argue that its central arguments are easily and naturally extended from opening the universities of post-World War I Germany to culture studies in the contemporary state of the academy.
A Genealogy of Quarrels
To be an outspoken member of the fashionable part of the left is to pledge allegiance to the perspectivalism of Nietzsche and the quest for human authenticity found in Heidegger in one of their contemporary incarnations. To admit admiration of social thought deriving from the logical positivists is to willingly embrace hegemonic, patriarchal evil. To be analytic in one’s social and political bent, to search for objective truth in matters of justice, which extend to all independent of viewpoint, is to deny the deep moral truths which, because they are untranslatable into the incommensurable language of the advantaged members of the power structure, are unknowable to the privileged except through epiphanies derived from the piercing of certain sensitive parts of the human anatomy. To pursue justice through analysis is to place oneself firmly away from everything that is left-leaning. So it is with some.
The works of such Continental philosophers, whom we must thank for the only attempts to actively accommodate the wisdom of a diversity of perspectives hitherto ignored, pose no easy riddles. But these works possess one essential virtue over many of their authors-at least they are tolerant. These authors say of the analytics that they are white and male and some thankfully dead. If I may express a conviction, where I also possess an argument: I contend that they may be the reverse of this-that these investigators and deniers of the existence of a soul may be fundamentally brave, proud, and magnanimous animals, who know how to keep their hearts as well as their sufferings in bonds and have trained themselves to sacrifice all desirability to truth, every truth, even plain, harsh, ugly, repellent, unchristian, scientific, mathematical truths-for such truths do exist.
If we were to ask for a genealogy of such quarrels one might hear a story quite standard in some parts of the academy. Nietzsche and Heidegger urge us to be active in living, to see political power as the real underpinning of all that is supposedly epistemological, and then to seize and to value that which is personal and thus not forced upon us by the powers that be, such power being necessarily subverting and oppressive. The positivists, in their search for objectivity and truth, beg the questions “Whose objectivity?” and “Whose truth?” continuing a ruse long perpetuated by the powerful for their benefit only. In the gradual process that has seen at least the partial liberation of formerly ostracized social groups, it is the vision of Nietzsche and Heidegger and the replacement of the results of the positivists which we should thank for the freeing of people, if not their minds.
All hail the beneficent spirit that motivates these historians of social ethics! One thing is sure, however, that the true spirit of history has deserted them. As is the hallowed custom with philosophers, the thinking of all of them is by nature unhistorical. In times not long past, Nietzsche was to the Third Reich what Aristotle was to the Schoolmen and Heidegger was the Nazi’s willing St. Thomas, while the logical positivists, imprisoned and/or in fear for their lives, were some of the loudest voices on the socialist left. In all three of the foci of early analytic philosophy-Cambridge, Vienna, and Berlin-resided bands of thinkers, leftist to a person. This held especially true of those who found themselves at the center of each of these groups.
In Cambridge, Bertrand Russell used his nobility against the structure which provided it, standing for parliament three times before becoming a peer: twice for labor, and once under the banner of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. His first publication in 1896 was not one of logical analysis, but a political analysis, entitled German Social Democracy. Russell’s outspoken left-wing activism spanned his entire life spending six months in prison convicted of libeling the American army during World War I and a week in a prison hospital for inciting civil disobedience in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1961 at age of 89.
In Vienna, leadership of the Circle upon the untimely demise of Moritz Schlick was assumed by Otto Neurath who wrote extensively on leftist politics and economics and sought to make the Circle a source of political activism in addition to a philosophical movement. He refused a prestigious university post with Max Weber to aid the newly installed Social-Democratic government in Bavaria. After the right-wing overthrow of this government, Neurath was imprisoned, freed only by Austrian diplomacy. But his return to his homeland was short-lived. When the clerical government of Dollfuss overthrew the Socialist Municipality of Vienna, he was exiled to Holland.
In Berlin, Hans Reichenbach, in close contact with the Circle in Vienna, organized his group of logical empiricists. He had been a central figure in the socially progressive Freie Studentenschaft and head of the Socialist Student Union Berlin. In addition to his courses in philosophy of science and mathematics at Berlin, Reichenbach offered courses on the philosophy of socialism until he was forced to flee for Turkey and then the United States in the wake of rising Nazism.
If contrary to the present, Nietzsche and Heidegger were the darlings of the most repressive and powerful, and the positivists were those people actively risking their lives and well-being for the emancipation of humans from tyranny, the real question now emerges: “Why did the logical positivist mode of valuation branch off from the fashionable left and become considered its opposite?” Why are the words, deeds, and risks ignored and these brave figures of the left at such a dangerous time vilified?
Granting that political supremacy always gives rise to notions of philosophical superiority, it is not necessarily an exception if the politically powerful are themselves philosophers. Our question is how those now in control of the fashionable academic left have achieved their power and why they, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the positivist value equations good/just/objective/universal and maintain, with the furious hatred of the underprivileged and impotent that “only the poor at mathematics, the powerless with equations, are good; only the suffering, sick, and ugly when it comes time to balance a checkbook, truly blessed. But you scientific and mathematical ones of the earth will be, to all eternity, the evil, the cruel, the godless, and thus the cursed and damned!” Many of us on the left have lost sight of this inversion today simply because it has triumphed so completely.
The revolt in social ethics begins when ressentiment turns creative and gives death to values-the ressentiment of beings who, deprived of the direct outlet of creativity, compensate by an all too real vengeance. But what is the source of this ressentiment?
World War II ended with the most significant and worrisome application of scientific knowledge in the history of mankind. The resulting Cold War’s appetite for technological advancement in the shape of the arms and space races demanded a maximization of people pursuing all avenues technological and scientific. The language of these pursuits is mathematics; a language of unparalleled power to express, but which possesses an intensely intricate grammar. Those who mastered this language were praised. To exceed one’s peers was to be an Einstein. The archetype of the successful mind was the scientific genius whose insights led to the bomb itself, the raison d’etre for turning institutions of learning at every level into the farm system for the industrial-military complex-never mind Einstein’s actual pacifist and socialist words and actions.
Those who devoted their lives to the pursuit of science or applications in technology were given well paying jobs leading to houses in the suburbs with good schools to allow their children a chance at a successful mathematical/scientific education. Thus the mathematically inclined considered the concept “good” essentially the same as the concepts “useful,” “practical,” so that in the judgements “good” and “bad” mankind has summed up and sanctioned precisely its unforgotten and unforgettable experiences regarding what is useful-practical and what is harmful-impractical. The mathematically-inclined did not deem a person “bad,” but “bad at math”; they used “good” and “bad” in a fashion much more crude, narrow, superficial, and non-symbolic than we are able to imagine today.
The mathematically-inclined valuations grow out of technological self-affirmation. The current ethics, on the other hand, begin when those of other, non-mathematical turns of mind, who found difficult mastery of the mathematical language and the accompanying science and technology, are told “no” on assignments and assessments during their educational process. This “no” is its origination. Their lack of mathematical acumen is taken by parents and teachers as evidence of laziness, of sloth. Failure to achieve mathematical success becomes internalized as a failure of character. This projection of failure back onto oneself is the essence of ressentiment.
When these non-mathematical minds become professors of philosophy, English, or critical studies, truth becomes non-existent. “Objectivity” is deemed meaningless. Mathematics is seen as a tool of oppression. To request verification of testimony becomes hegemonic. The reader will have some notion of how readily the new system of valuations can branch off from the mathematically-inclined system of valuations and develop into its opposite. An occasion for such a division is furnished whenever the mathematically and non-mathematically-inclined jealously clash with one another in department or faculty meetings and are unable to come to terms. The mathematical valuations presuppose a rational, logical thought process, together with all the conditions that guarantee its preservation: argumentation, truth, validity, etc. The valuations of the non-mathematical are founded upon different presuppositions. So much the worse for them when it becomes a question of fallacies! As we know, non-mathematical people are the worst enemies to have. Why should this be so? Because they are the most logically impotent. It is their impotence which makes their hate so violent and sinister, so irrational and poisonous.
By the non-mathematical valuations, it is the subjective only that meaningful. Languages of those in different parts of the power structure are incommensurable making conversation across lines impossible. To speak of that which transcends place in the structure is to speak nonsense. These valuations have opened an abyss between person and person over which an Achilles of free thought could not leap, shutter how he may. In all fairness, it should be added, however, that it is only on this soil, the precarious soil of relativism, that humans have been able to understand the importance of the roles played by class, race, gender, and sexual orientation; that only here has the human mind grown both profound and isolated; for if I cannot understand the other, I cannot learn from her.
Also Sprach Reichenbach
The writings of the positivist left, woefully ignored, possess valuable insights and deserve revival. In that light, the socialist writings of Hans Reichenbach are some of the deepest buried. Reichenbach took his Ph.D. in 1915 from Erlangen in the philosophy of science after studying at Berlin, Munich, and Göttigen with Max Planck, David Hilbert, and Ernst Cassirer. He was one of eight members of Albert Einstein’s first seminar in relativity theory in 1919 at the University of Berlin where he was appointed to faculty seven years later thanks to the joint efforts of Plank and Einstein whose active lobbying were needed to avoid rejection on the grounds that Reichenbach had been elected chairperson at the founding of the Socialist Student Party Berlin.
From Berlin, he maintained close contact with the Vienna Circle and started his own Berliner Gesellschaft für Empirische Philosophie which included Richard von Mises, Carl G. Hempel, and Herbert Feigl and he joined Rudolf Carnap started the journal Erkenntnis to function as a vehicle for the writings of the Vienna and Berlin Circles. Reichenbach’s most well-known works concern the determination of the foundations of relativity theory and quantum mechanics and his attempt to partition the basic statements underlying these theories into sets of empirical, logical, and conventional propositions.
Less well known are Reichenbach’s social/political writings which advocate a non-Marxist socialism. Most germane to the current discussion is his 1918 piece “Die Socialisierung der Hochschule” in which he sets out the egalitarian goals of a socialist society and the central role that must be played by institutions of higher learning. While the academia of today is certainly different than that of post-World War I Germany, the arguments offered remain relevant and insightful.
Reichenbach grounds his social philosophy with the fundamental understanding of the existence of the other.
The thinking subject’s awareness of self constitutes the starting point of all laws governing the external world. Yet, in saying this, we must note that among the object of the external world, there exists one special class that can never be fully exhausted with the concept of an ‘object’, that can never be adequately characterized through observation of the object. Invariably, this remains a phenomenon that cannot be further analyzed, that can only simply be pointed out: that in addition to our own ‘I’, our own self, there exist individuals that are centers of consciousness in the same sense but which are nonetheless eternally separated from consciousness of our own self (136-7).
Objectification of the other is thus to be considered a foundational flaw, a most radical error in any social philosophy that entails or allows it; the goal of social philosophy is to determine which potential structure of relationships between selves maximizes the instantiation of spiritual [geistige] values for each self.
Such relationships amongst selves must be understood, Reichenbach argues, in terms of the fundamental distinction between Community and Society. Community is based upon the commonality of wills.
Community consists in that unification of human beings grounded in the experience of a common content of wills. Resting upon friendships between individuals, it is a bond in which spiritual values can become directly creative and which, exercising an outward influence, is able to bring about the extension of spiritual values to other persons. Cultural development will always rest basically upon community, and all creative periods will find their support in communities (137).
It is only by coming together with a common purpose that cultural progress may be made, but this coming together must occur in a larger context alien to the will of the community. But, Reichenbach argues,
[i]t would be a mistake to conceive of this surrounding environment as an enemy to the community. On the contrary, the efficacy of the community presupposes the existence of ordered relations in the surrounding environment and between it and the community. Society is the name for such an ordered association of people, mutual respect the basis upon which intercourse between various willing subjects is possible (138).
Society, therefore, stands as a precondition to the existence of community. It is only out of an ordered collection of different wills that commonness of vision may draw people together and this unifying vision yields friendship and cultural advancement.
This distinction is not a partition dividing groups of individuals into one or the other class, but rather is a duality of viewpoint from which to understand the relationships of the group members and the larger collection of selves. Groups are not absolutely determined to be communities or societies; rather, this distinction is one of perspective that may be assumed in appreciating a group, all groups being both communities and societies.
Every human association seeks, after some fashion, its justification in a goal, feels itself to be a band of warriors battling for its realization and, as such, set aside from the great mass of humanity, to which its members are bound solely through legal forms and to whom they stand in the relation of a community to a society. This community itself forms, in turn, a small society within which still smaller circles may be marked out as communities . . . .The clearest illustration of this duality is found in the party system in the state and the consequent endless subdivisions. A political party may be conceived of as a community with respect to the totality of the population, yet it separates into innumerable separate factions, from these intermediate steps it is still a long way to that narrowest form of relation that we designate as a circle of friends, as a community in the strictest sense. Society and community, then, are correlates. Every society requires a separation into communities; every community must be subject to a society if its existence is to be sustained (138-9).
Social interactions are complex and a full comprehension of the dynamics truly at work in society requires seeing how groups are structured both internally and externally, with internal structure giving rise to yet another layer of communal and societal interaction. Society on Reichenbach’s view is like a set nested Russian dolls which may be taken apart in several different ways, each means of division giving rise to dolls of different shape.
It is in oversimplifying the ways in which human societies divide up into communities that we see a fundamental flaw in Marxism. Marx used class as the sole means of establishing communities out of the larger society. The inequity in the distribution of social goods and the alienation of selves from their spiritual values are thought to spawn directly and solely from economic inequities. Prima facie, there is good reason to think this the case.
The materialist conception of history is the view that the evolution of spiritual and intellectual values is a direct function of economic conditions. Politicians who espouse its principles rest content with improving economic conditions, for they are convinced that a spiritual transformation then will follow and that battles for intellectual reform are therefore superfluous, serving merely to dissipate available forces. Their outlook begins with the fact that stratification of human beings according to their education and culture essentially coincides with stratification according to their standard of living; and they seek to employ for purposes of social reform the sociological law which gives _expression to this fact. That the existing state of affairs is as described must be conceded (140).
When we look generally, we do see, by in large, society divided into economic class-based communities and among these communities similarities among individuals. We do see, for example, in the materially less well-off a rampant hopelessness and the social effects that come along with it.
But this is a very broad-stroke generalization. Reichenbach, having just completed his dissertation a few years earlier concerning the physical interpretation of probability in cases of statistical mechanics, sees the Marxists as trying to achieve Newtonian certainty where only statistical correlation exists.
[E]xception must be taken to the way in which it is interpreted in historical materialism, for this sociological law has validity only as a proposition about average conditions. The intellectual and spiritual variety within each social stratum is so great that a poverty of intelligence and cultivation is encounter as frequently among the rich as cleverness and creativity among the poor-not to mention moral qualities, which are surely not a function of material possessions. Thus the relation between economic well-being and culture, insofar as it exists at all, is comparable not to an unambiguous one-to-one functional relation in physics, but to a law of probability which is compelled to reckon with a broad distribution of individual results. The economic leveling of human beings will not eliminate the differences in their worth (140).
Like many opposed to the standard socialist line, Reichenbach cites the existence of anomalous individuals as a problem for Marxism. There are bright members of the proletariat who will lift themselves up. But unlike opponents of economic redistribution and programs like affirmative action, who contend that these individuals prove the system with its inequities to be thereby just, Reichenbach contends that the economic aspect is a contributing factor but not the only factor. One’s place in a number of communities within the society at large must be understood. By limiting the scope of discussion to economic class, Marx has a successful first-order approximation-but it is only successful as an approximation.
The achievement of a society nurturing the spiritual and intellectual values of its people must have as one of its central institutions the university. The utilitarian value of the university as the educator of future leaders and as the producer of technology “is incidental.” Education, for Reichenbach, is an end in itself that is inexorably tied up with the well-being of the members of society.
However, Reichenbach saw the schools of his day failing the students and the society at large. The central problem is that the powers that control the university, the church and the capitalist, strive to make the university into a community, i.e., a homogenous group of faculty and students designed to perpetuate the status quo and eliminate all avenues of investigation deemed dangerous to the community and its values.
Under the influence of the ideology of this class, a certain caste mentality has developed in academic circles, excluding from universities certain intellectual schools of thought that undoubtedly possess proper scientific qualifications. I am thinking, e.g., of Freudian psychoanalysis and socialistic theories of political economy. Their exclusion is not grounded upon scientific objections, but on objections of morality or taste derived solely from the class attitudes of this narrow bourgeois stratum (147).
Reichenbach here does not advocate the truth of Freud’s theory or of socialist economics, but demands that all ideas be open to critical analysis within the university and that proponents of all ideas have a place at the academic table.
But this academic freedom requires a radical shift in the operations of the university. The vision will never be actualized until the model of university as community of scholars is replaced by the notion of a university as a society of scholars. The university must be socialized, i.e., turned from a club into a broad-based society maximizing internal diversity. The university must not be based upon the picture of a harmonious homogeneity, but upon people of wildly differing goals and beliefs.
Such a change at the very heart of such a longstanding institution will require foundational change in several ways. First, it will require economic changes with regard to students, “by eliminating, at least for poor students, all forms of university fees, that is, those for matriculation, registration, attending lectures, and sitting for examinations (155).” Second, for faculty-in both appointment, “men lacking in all scientific ability have frequently attained academic positions while those who are qualified have had to stand back (147-8)”, and compensation, “we demand that all teachers [including Privatdozenten] be paid full salary. They must also be included in retirement pension schemes, as long as old age pensions are not universally mandated (155)”; and for teaching assistants, “[w]hat applies to lecturers and students applies equally to assistants. While they are not yet actual university teachers, they are employed in teaching-far more in the modern university than they were in the past-and must therefore be paid (157).”
In addition to economic changes, political changes are required. First, is autonomy of the university “from surveillance of the state or any political party.” More important, however, to establishing a society within the university is diversity: “[w]e demand that all academic rights be made independent of class, party, church, sect, race, sex, or citizenship (158).” We cannot overcome the state of community in higher education unless the homogeneity of those who make up the university is destroyed.
Because of the times, Reichenbach felt compelled to elaborate upon his inclusion of sex in the above list. What results is the 1918 version of the debate over gender essentialism.
Equal rights for women are widely opposed, and alongside the crude objections of the ‘women-belong-at-home’ variety some serious grounds of opposition have been offered. Recently, some young intellectual radicals, calling themselves the anti-feminists, have formed a movement for the exclusion of women from science and learning. Hans Blüher, its leader, makes a distinction in principle between intellect and Eros and calls intellect a secondary sexual characteristic of men, while reserving for women the realm of Eros (158).
Reichenbach’s response is reminiscent of his rejection of Marx. We do see broad-stroke differences between the sexes, but that does not mean that to belong to one sex is to determine the nature of one’s self.
If we scrutinize Blüher’s representation of the male spirit more closely, we find that for him such secondary qualities are identical with the concept of the intellectual spirit. For him, the intellect is productivity, creative experience, imagination, artistic creation; a sum of characteristics that could, perhaps, be called masculine, but which are found in only a few individuals, even among men…If the anti-feminists would restrict themselves to bringing together in an intimate community people of their persuasion, they might succeed in creating something of cultural value, but their conception can in no way bring about a fundamental division of society. We must add that there is by no means an invariable and univocal connection between the artistic, creative spirit and the male as a sexual being. Insofar as it exists at all, it is merely a probability relation which may fail to hold in numerous cases: a wide distribution of results in to be expected with such laws of psychological correlation. Thus, a law of this nature may in no way serve as a basis for a division of society into classes. The exclusion of women from certain social functions would mean repression of a class in just the same sense that exclusion of the proletariat has amounted to repression heretofor (159).
Reichenbach freely grants that there are differences which one may point to in psychological disposition and perhaps even intellectual bent that can be correlated with gender, but at best this is a statistical relationship that requires examination of other social factors for its effectiveness as an approximation, should it be so effective. More importantly, establishment of such a law of sexual difference would still be, in principle, unable to justify officially sanctioned sexism.
Such sweeping changes in the academy are understood to be unlikely. But Reichenbach sees one force that is working in favor of socializing the university, the alienation of the bourgeoisie from the university and the alienation of the faculty from the bourgeoisie.
A certain favorable circumstance in prior sociological developments come to our assistance here. Industrial development has increasing deprived capitalists of peaceful enjoyment of their surplus value, forcing them to frenetically increase their capital, so they have had no spare time for the pursuit of intellectual occupations and have abandoned education and culture to their children and their children’s teachers. Gradually, capitalists and culture have become alienated; the administrators of education have become functionaries of the capitalists and have, generally speaking, been the architects of the ideology proclaimed and upheld by capitalism as the necessary form of society, yet in this process a part of the social stratum dispensing education have themselves become proletarians, that is, have become workers who are paid no more than the minimum required for subsistence. This intellectual proletariat, which is gradually becoming conscious of its position, will join the industrial proletariat wage class struggle to the end along with them (151).
Because of the time crunch involved in need of the capitalist for ever-growing affluence, the advantage of opulence, luxury, will be lost, taking with it education and culture. These will be left solely in the hands of a new breed of proletariat who will use these for their own purposes. And so were born, despite the distaste of administrators and boards of directors, women’s and cultural studies.
The Birth of Gravity
The addition of women’s studies, African-American studies, queer studies, Native American studies, and their relatives in the last twenty years have enriched the academy in a fashion so important that one must go back to the separation of psychology from philosophy to find a comparison. The standard justification for the value of such courses is given in terms of a Nietzschean perspectivalism focused through the lens of Foucault. The insight at the root of this move is that the overemphasis on the works of the privileged, coupled with a devotion to objective truth, has eliminated the insight of those not privileged by the power structure. The proposed remedy is to reject objectivity and with it the whole tainted traditional project of discovering the mind of God, i.e., eternal unchanging truth. Perspectivalism puts all perspectives on an equal footing, thereby satisfying our egalitarian intuitions and accounting for the previously ignored wisdom.
The problems with this view are well-known. Perspectivalism, with its incommensurability claims, does level the playing field, but at the cost of making cross-cultural dialogue impossible. If I cannot understand the other, then the other has nothing to teach me. We are reduced to subjectivism, or at least relativism, which leads to at intellectual solipsism that is self-defeating at best, simply not the case at worst. There is much to be learned from the experiences and perspectives of one another and to not do so is not merely tragic, but dangerous to us all. This gravity requires a new foundation for justifying women’s and cultural studies that opens the door to the value of multiple perspectives, but which does not shut off the lines of communication between human and human-lines which do exist. Such an understanding may be found in an extension of Reichenbach’s work in “Der Socialisierung der Hochschule”. His duality of community and society gives rise to a more nuanced position than either closed minded objectivism or dogmatic relativism and this may be used to explain why gender and cultural studies are vital to the success of the university.
It may be tempting to argue that we must separate Reichenbach’s political philosophy from his epistemology, but an investigation of his work during this period shows a firm connection. His argument for the need to turn the universities from a closed community of scholars into a broad-based society of scholars, and the epistemological foundation of his wissenschaftsanalytische Methode that forms the Grundlage of his logical empiricism are both grounded in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the relativistic theory of gravitation.
Superficially, resistence to Einstein’s theory within the university did put it on par with Freud and socialist economics as an academic theory non grata, but it is not the non-acceptance of relativity, but what Reichenbach sees as its application of a foundational insight into the nature of knowledge which contributes the formal basis of his thought.
At the center of early positivism, in the writings of both Reichenbach and Schlick, is the notion of eindeutig Zuordnung, or univocal coordination. This is a concept borrowed from David Hilbert’s axiomatic project. Hilbert distinguishes intrinsic definition that gives a term meaning internal to a language in virtue of its relation to the other terms in the language, and extrinsic definition which coordinates the language with the world outside. Reichenbach considers truths derivable from intrinsic definitions only truths of mathematics, while truths that rely upon extrinsic definitions are truths of physics. We see a distinction between truths of a system and truths of the world.
We see a similar internal/external division of truths surface in the theory of relativity. Einstein’s invocation of a principle of relativity as one of the two foundational elements of his theory show the importance that Einstein placed on the distinction between covariant laws and invariant laws. A law is covariant if it changes in form upon a change of reference frame, i.e., view point, and a law is invariant if it does not vary with frame of reference. For example, if I am talking face to face with a friend holding a mug in one hand and a cookie in the other, I will see the mug to left of the cookie, but she will see the cookie to the left of the mug. Statements of left and right covary with relative position. If she is instead holding just the mug between both hands, both of us will see the mug between the hands. Statements of betweeness are invariant.
In the theory of relativity, there are both covariant and invariant laws. The special theory of relativity is notorious for positing laws that turn what we thought were invariant quantities, e.g., length, duration, and mass, into covariant quantities. When we change reference frames from one to another in more rapid relative motion, lengths shrink and time lapses lengthen. This is what gives rise to puzzles and seeming contradictions such as Langevin’s famous twin’s paradox. These are not, of course, true contradictions unless we want to doggedly hold onto our basic observable notions as not being observer dependent, i.e., perspectival.
While there are, then perspectival truths in relativity theory, not all truths are. There are laws governing invariant quantities. The most important is the so-called space-time interval. While lengths and durations change, there is a particular mathematical combination of them that does not. If we add the distance and time lapse between two events together in a certain way, the resulting number-the four dimensional distance between the events-will be the same for all people no matter their reference frames. The components will change from perspective to perspective, but the combination of them-the four dimensional measure-is the same for everyone.
So there are both covariant truths, i.e., truths that exist only relative to a reference frame and invariant truths, i.e., truths that hold regardless of reference frame. It is absolutely true that for you the time between flashes of lightning was exactly one second, but it is not absolutely true for all people as some are in relative motion. That is not to say that all is relative, quite the opposite.
What Reichenbach found important in this theory, as he set out in his first book Relativitätstheorie und Erkenntnis Apriori, is that the covariant quantities of the theory-mass, length, duration, speed-are the ones that are observable, that form the world of experience, while the invariant quantities are governed by mathematical laws. We have the equations that take us from the individual’s perspective with the truths that only hold within that perspective to the truths that hold independent of perspective. For special relativity, these are called the Lorentz transformations. What these equations do is explain how every perspective is connected to each other and how one must translate experiences to be able to speak from one perspective to another. If one only uses the language of one’s own perspective, then the statements which are obvious truths of direct experience will be false in the experience of the other in her reference frame. But once we understand how all of the perspectives fit together in the overall geometric structure of spacetime, we learn to talk between reference frames. But the only way to find this overall structure is to begin by considering as equally valid the different and seemingly contradictory measurement experiences of different observers. By accepting them both as true, as mandated in the principle of relativity, we may learn of the bigger picture.
The weakness in the theory that led Einstein on to expand from the special case of the special theory to the general case of the general theory of relativity is that the equations governing the transition from covariant to invariant truths only hold for a group of reference frames, not all possible viewpoints. This limitation he thought insufferable and sought to generalize the covariance of the theory so that the laws of nature would hold for all, regardless of perspective. And thus we have the birth of relativistic gravitation theory.
We see this notion of individual and universal truths in Reichenbach’s notion of eindeutig Zuordnung. Coordination of concepts are univocal when they hold regardless of perspective even though the basic observed truths of the individuals world and environment must be relative, covariant truths since we live and experience the world through covariant qualities only. We may look at the world in a dual nature, what we experience as individuals apart and what we experience as individuals together and it is the job of science to figure out how the two fit together. That is why Einstein is Einstein, because he made the move to connect these two, the internal and external.
Relativitätstheorie und Erkenntnis Apriori was published in 1920. The year before Reichenbach was a member of Einstein’s initial relativity seminar in Berlin and the year before that saw the writing of “Der Socialisierung der Hochschule” also in Berlin. It is reasonable to hold that the mathematical duality between covariant and invariant laws, the epistemological distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic definitions, and the social duality of community and society were all in Reichenbach’s head simultaneously. The similarities should be striking. The thought, therefore, of looking at groups from different perspectives; an internal perspective granting truths to the group in its own language, but also an external perspective granting objective truth that is parsed differently by different social observers in different social reference frames.
If we take this duality seriously, we now have the justification we seek. The other has experiences that differ from mine. Both are equally valid according to a principle of social relativity, but occurring within the same world, the experiences are connected. It is only by analyzing my own experiences and those of the other that I may come to see what in my experience is a relative truth within my perspective only, what transcends my perspective, and what requires translation for understanding those in a different reference frame. We must come to understand how the reference frames fit together in the geometry of social space. We are connected, sharing environment and vital causal influences in the social, political, and economic spheres. These influences affect us differently, separating us into our reference frames, but an analysis of all reference frames will allow us to understand how they relate and with this understanding allow us to relate our experience to the other in the language of the other. With this understanding there is the promise of learning from one another. It is this promise that gives value to gender and culture studies.
For this project to succeed, these studies must be taken away from the sociology department. The social project, as the physical project did, starts with experience. The experience must be analyzed, at least at first, by those on the inside. Women must begin women’s studies; gay men and lesbians must begin gay studies; African-Americans must begin African-American studies. And so for the work of the university to be successful, we must echo Reichenbach’s call, “We demand that all academic rights be made independent of class, party, church, sect, race, sex, or citizenship.” We must become a society and not a community of scholars.
This essay first appeared in Studies in Practical Philosophy
which is here