books book reviews

epistemology books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies

by Bruno Latour
Harvard, 1999, 324 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

S ome sociologists claim that science is a social construction of reality, while others say science is an icy summit of pure knowledge. Bruno Latour rejects this false dichotomy: he says science is a seamless web in which the research is a living thing. He likens it to a circulatory system.

Latour followed a group of scientists on an expedition to the Amazon and studied each part of their discovery process. He concludes that the concepts of ‘reference’ or ‘correspondence’, which divide the world from language, are inadequate because they cannot resolve the question of realism and relativism.

Data and observations become knowledge, he says, only when they are an interconnected chain that is reversible and traceable at each point. Truth-value circulates along a reversible chain of transform­ations, losing locality, particularity, materiality, multiplicity, and continuity, and gaining compati­bility, standardization, text, calculation, circulation, and universality. He calls this “amplification.”

The succession of stages must be traceable, allowing for travel in both directions. If the chain is interrupted at any point, it ceases to transport truth. . . . The word “reference” designates the quality of the chain in its entirety, and no longer adaequatio rei et intellectus.* Truth-value circulates here like electricity through a wire, so long as this circuit is not interrupted. [emphasis in the original]

Science, Latour says, mixes epistemological and ontological questions, but its goal is not to create an ontology (an explanation of the world). Nor is it the construction of a narrative; even less is it a way of creating myths to support a power structure. Its goal is to create a stable flow of reference between the world and its representation, which we call knowledge.

The more science makes connections between words, materials, signs, the public, and nonhuman things and institutionalizes the links or flows among them, says Latour, the more accurate science becomes.

These are very interesting ideas. If they catch on, they could lead to a radical new theory about how information relates to knowledge. The key element is the idea of revers­ibility, an essential component in many scientific theories such as chemical kinetics. We can now see where Latour was going in his 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern.

Bruno Latour writes mostly about Gaia and global warming now. But twenty years ago he was a philosopher of science, open-minded, and full of original ideas.

* Adaequatio rei et intellectus = [Truth is the] correspondence of the mind and reality. This is called the correspondence theory of truth.

Mar 01 2020


Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge

by A.C. Grayling
Bloomsbury, 2008, 208 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

E pistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, has been largely taken over by Woke Studies these days, but there are still a few, like A.C. Grayling, who can discuss interesting ideas.

Grayling says skepticism is a challenge to justify how we can be sure we know something, which makes it a fundamental problem in epistemology. Descartes thought a benevolent deity guaranteed it, but couldn't rule out a mischievous god who tricks us into thinking the material world is as we see it.

George Berkeley's solution was to say that matter does not exist at all. Only ideas are real, he said, but they're the same for different observers so it follows that the world is only an idea in the mind of God. This is reminiscent of the theological idea of divine conservation, which says that the world only continues to exist as long as God wills it. More recently, Bertrand Russell spent his career on the problem by trying to put philosophy and science on the back of mathematics.

Skepticism is not the same as relativism, and, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, neither these philosophers nor Kant created a basis for the idea that there is no such thing as truth. The ideas of po-mo philosophers like Rorty don't even qualify as skepticism, and in his other books Grayling treats them with disdain.

This book is a collection of some of Grayling's papers, discussing Berkeley, Russell (whom Grayling greatly admires), Wittgenstein, and Quine. Read the last chapter “Scepticism and Justification”, which is a readable introduction to the subject, first. This chapter should have been placed at the beginning.

Grayling also wrote Truth, Meaning and Realism, which is a mercifully short collection of technical papers on the subject, and The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, which is a philosophical version of Dawkins's The God Delusion but without the polemics, written for a general audience.

The second half of The God Argument is Grayling's alternative to religion: humanism, which is a sort of Enlightenment-based philosophy of just being really nice to people, reading philosophy books all day, and thinking for oneself. Compared with the brimstone, golden chalices, exorcisms, and heads spinning around that Christianity offers, it sounds awful.

jan 06 2020