The Context of the ‘Context’ Distinction

In document Companion to philosophy of science (Page 73-78)

Don Howard

3. The Context of the ‘Context’ Distinction

In the new historiography of the Vienna Circle, it is now commonplace to distinguish a ‘right wing’, at the centre of which stood Schlick and to which

Reichenbach was allied, from a ‘le wing’, whose members included the mathematician Hans Hahn and the physicist Philipp Frank, and whose leader was the economist and sociologist O o Neurath.5 Many members of the Vienna Circle were democratic socialists, including Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach, but even those socialists affi liating with the right wing followed the liberal democrat, Schlick, in insisting on a strict separation between science and its philosophy, on the one hand, and politics, on the other hand. Schlick, Reichenbach and the Carnap who famously declared all normative discourse

‘cognitively meaningless’ (Carnap 1932) were already rehearsing in the pre-emigration days of the early 1930s the standard, postwar, liberal trope of the value neutrality of science and scientifi c philosophy. The Vienna Circle’s le wing was populated with Austro-Marxists like Neurath. They repudiated Marxist–Leninist revolutionary communism, being also commit-ted to democratic social change, but they were Marxists nonetheless, espous-ing an Austrian home brew version of Marxism in which it was held that by combining Marx with Mach, that is, by giving Marxism a more sophisticated philosophy of science than one found in Friedrich Engels (see Engels 1878), one overcame the philosophical (and political) naiveté of ‘scientifi c’ socialism’s dialectical materialism. The le wing of the Vienna Circle argued that there was an ineliminable role for politics and values more generally in both the doing of science and the philosophizing about it.6 Moreover, like all good Marxists, the members of the Vienna Circle’s le wing took history very seriously, including the history of science.

The division between the right and le wings of the Vienna Circle was philosophical as well as political. The le wing tended to sympathize with Duhem’s theory holism and the thesis of the empirical underdetermination of theory choice, this contrasting importantly with the right wing’s defence of a verifi cationism that implied the complete empirical determination of theory choice. The right wing argued that, if each fundamental observation term possesses a strict empirical meaning, then so, too, does every cognitively meaningful proposition and scientifi c theory possess a determinate empirical content, and theory choice is, therefore, in principle, univocally determined by the corresponding experience. If this right-wing Viennese epistemology were correct, then there would be, in principle, no place for any non-empirical factors in theory choice, and so there could be, in principle, no place for politics or values of any kind in science. Neurath and the le wing disagreed.

Neurath regarded empirical underdetermination as a fact of scientifi c life.

He excoriated as ‘pseudo-rationalism’ any assertion that there is a purely empirical algorithm for theory choice (Neurath 1913), any claim that there is an ‘induction machine’ (Neurath 1935). Neurath argued that scientifi c objectivity required honesty about the role of social and political agendas in science, especially in the economics and social science that was his home

scientifi c terrain. Objectivity, for Neurath, required our exposing these agendas to public view and critical, even scientifi c, scrutiny. For Neurath, it was precisely the empirical under determination of science that opened the epistemological space in which values played an essential role. Liberals like Schlick argued, in the traditional Enlightenment way, that science for its own sake promoted human emancipation, on the theory that the unvarnished truth shall set one free. Austro-Marxists like Neurath argued that emancipation required science as a form of social action, a self-aware science that recognized a place for political agendas. Other things being equal, one was deliberately to choose the theory – in economics, say – that was judged more likely to advantage economically disadvantaged workers.

In its more narrowly philosophical aspect, the philosophical debate between the right and le wings of the Vienna Circle found famous expres-sion in the protocol–sentence debate of 1932–1934. This was ostensibly only an argument about whether a phenomenalist observation language (the right-wing choice) was to be preferred to a physicalist observation language (the le -wing choice). In important ways, however, the protocol–sentence debate was a proxy war. The real issue was whether politics, and values more generally, was to be allowed any role in the logical empiricist picture of science. For if the phenomenalists won the argument, then the kind of verifi cationism favoured by Schlick would have prevailed, with, again, the implication that theory choice is, in principle, univocally determined by expe-rience, so closing the door to any role for values in theory choice.7 It is widely believed that Neurath won the protocol–sentence debate, trouncing the empiricist foundationalism of Schlick and winning over Carnap, at least on the core philosophical issues of physicalism versus phenomenalism and theory-holism versus anti-holism. Neurath’s argument was that phenomenal-ism fails because one cannot reconcile the veridicality that the foundationalist empiricist needs in an empirical basis with the propositional form in which phenomenalist observation sentences would have to be cast were they to be capable of standing in logical relationships of consistency and contradiction with the theories among which we are supposedly to choose on the basis of those observation sentences (Neurath 1932).

With the demise of strict verifi cationism and foundationalist empiricism of the Schlick variety, the right wing had to retreat to some more defensible ground if it was to continue to oppose Neurath’s politicization of science and philosophy. That new ground was given its classic exposition in 1938 when, in the opening chapter of Experience and Prediction, Reichenbach premiered the context of discovery–context of justifi cation distinction. Kindred distinctions were to be found in the literature for some decades prior to 1938, including Karl Popper’s rehearsal of related themes in his 1934 Logik der Forschung (Popper 1934). What is distinctive in Reichenbach’s version is not just his

giving the distinction its now-classic name, but also, and more importantly, his making clear – if not explicit – that the target was the le -wing Vienna Circle assertion of a systematic role for values in science and the philosophy of science.

The crucial moment in Reichenbach’s presentation occurs when he is explaining that the context of justifi cation, the site of philosophy of science proper, comprises three tasks: the descriptive, critical and advisory tasks. The descriptive task involves only the aforementioned rational reconstruction of selected historical episodes through which to exhibit the essential structural aspects of science that are, themselves, to be revealed by the logical analyses carried out as the main part of the critical task. The logical analyses central to the critical task constitute the essentials of formalist philosophy of science in the context of justifi cation. But what about the li le bit of history that makes up the descriptive task? Recall its being explained above that the inclusion of rational reconstruction in the context of justifi cation is the exception that proves the rule, the rule being the consignment of history to the context of discovery. For the whole point of rational reconstruction is to rewrite history in a way that eliminates all of the real history, foregrounding only the alleg-edly essential formal aspects of the situation – in explanatory structures, evidential inferences and so forth – and doing this in accord with already assumed formal norms.

What is the advisory task? As it turns out, it is an empty category. Neurath would have argued that the scientist and the philosopher of science have an important role to play in advising the public and the political leadership about goals. Reichenbach disagrees. He argues that, properly understood, the advi-sory task collapses into the critical task, for on his view, the scientist and the philosopher advise only about means, not about the ends, progress towards which those means serve. Here is exactly how Reichenbach puts the point:

We may therefore reduce the advisory task of epistemology to its critical task by using the following systematic procedure: we renounce making a proposal but instead construe a list of all possible decisions, each one accompanied by its entailed decisions. So we leave the choice to our reader a er showing him all factual connections to which he is bound. It is a kind of logical signpost which we erect; for each path we give its direction together with all connected directions and leave the decision as to his route to the wanderer in the forest of knowledge. And perhaps the wanderer will be more thankful for such a signpost than he would be for suggestive advice directing him into a certain path. (Reichenbach 1938, p. 14)

While Reichenbach does not footnote Neurath here, it would have been obvious to any informed reader in 1938 that Neurath was the target, for the

metaphor of the lost wanderers was, famously, the starting point of the 1913 paper in which Neurath fi rst introduced (a) his Duhemian, underdetermina-tionist epistemology, (b) his assertion that there is an essential role for social and political values in theory choice within the domain of underdeter-mination, and (c) his favourite term of abuse, ‘pseudorationalist’, for those who would deny such a role for values in theory choice. That paper was titled:

‘Die Verirrten des Cartesius und das Auxiliarmotiv. Zur Psychologie des Entschlusses’ [‘The lost wanderers of Descartes and the auxiliary motive: on the psychology of decision’] (Neurath 1913).8

So, for the Reichenbach who a er World War Two would serve as a paid consultant to the Rand Corporation, one of the most infl uential, cold war think tanks, the scientist and the philosopher off er only technical answers to technical questions. For Neurath, by contrast, there is a proper role for the philosopher of science to play in articulating and assessing the values, the

‘auxiliary motives’, that drive theory choice within the domain of underdeter-mination. And advising about which social and political agendas thus self-consciously to deploy in theory choice is likewise, for Neurath, a proper responsibility of the philosopher of science.

This, then, is the context of the context distinction. Reichenbach’s intro-duction of the distinction and, therewith, his principled denial of the philo-sophical relevance of real history is, really, all for the purpose of legitimating a depoliticized, socially disengaged view of science and scientifi c philo-sophy. That a refugee from Nazism writing from exile in Turkey in 1938 would strike this pose makes obvious psychological sense, for historicizing science and philosophy, highlighting the historical contingency of science and philosophy, exposes them to the risk of the kind of political critique of science all too familiar to scholars, like Reichenbach, who had personally contended against the Nazi critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity as

‘Jewish physics’.

If the story ended there, it would be but a sad footnote in Reichenbach’s biography. But the story did not end there, for Experience and Prediction found a new, large audience a er World War Two, and it was then that the doctrine of the discovery–justifi cation distinction started to do its most important work. In the era of the ‘Red scare’ and McCarthyite political persecution, a new academic discipline like the philosophy of science was helped crucially in its ultimately successful struggle for institutional prominence by being able to present itself as inherently apolitical. The United States in the 1950s was not a welcoming home for the socially engaged philosophy of science of an Austro-Marxist like O o Neurath, just as it was no longer a welcoming home for the comparably socially engaged, pragmatist theory of science of a democratic socialist like John Dewey. That the Marxist historiography of Joseph Needham was one of the more prominent varieties of history of

science in the postwar period only made worse the prospects for a histori-cized philosophy of science to thrive in the 1950s.

The crucial philosophical move that eff ected the divorce between history and philosophy of science was, thus, itself in many ways a highly political act in a politically charged institutional and intellectual atmosphere. The divorce of history and philosophy of science in the middle of the twentieth century was one chapter in the larger political history of the cold war.9

In document Companion to philosophy of science (Page 73-78)