Merleau-Ponty on Scientific Revolutions

By Low, Douglas | Philosophy Today, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Merleau-Ponty on Scientific Revolutions


Low, Douglas, Philosophy Today


Re-reading Thomas Kuhn's important 1962 work On Scientific Revolutions,1 one is struck with how his "postmodern" view of scientific change as mere paradigm shift was dependent upon his conception of a rather narrow modernist view, one that claims that there is only one rational world. It is the works of the great European philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty that offers explanations that come between these two extremes, either one rational world or none at all, that comes between positions that are now prevalent in both Anglo-American and Continental philosophy. In this essay I will first provide a brief summary of the modernist view of science and scientific change, next I will offer a brief characterization of Kuhn's position, and finally I will present MerleauPonty's theory as coming between these positions and offering solutions that neither extreme can provide.

Modernism and Scientific Change

Bertrand Russell, at least during certain periods of his scholarly career, is often considered to be a prime example of a Twentieth-Century modernist. His modernism is associated with logical positivism and can be characterized as follows. All knowledge must rest upon acquaintance. We are acquainted with or are immediately aware of specific sense data and even of some universals. The world is composed of individual things that stand in relationship to one another and that display various properties-- these relationships and properties are called facts. Propositions are composed of terms that refer to these facts, that is, to objects, their properties and their relationships to one another.2

Logical positivism generally relied upon some form of sense data that individuals were thought to be immediately aware of, that represent an objective reality, and that are available to all perceivers. Universals, though thought to be reducible to sense particulars, were also thought to be immediately comprehensible (SC 144). Sensation therefore provides data about what is actually the case, and the universal principles of language and logic, since they abstractly mirror the structure of reality, provide the framework for what can possibly be the case.

Taking a longer historical view, modernism has its more distant roots in Descartes, often cited as its progenitor, for he develops the principles of analytic geometry that were thought to match the very structures of one rational reality. More distant yet, certain fundamental themes of modernism can be traced back to the Athenian birth of philosophy, to the Platonic idea that nature is rational, forms a taxonomy of classes that fit neatly into precise species and genera, and that even represents the rational mind of God.

Assuming this sort of view (at least in general, if not in all its specifics), scientific change was understood as more recent and more accurate theories incorporating earlier and less accurate ones. Since there was only one rational reality, change was thought to be cumulative, with each new theory adding to and advancing earlier ones and enhancing prediction and control over nature because of their greater accuracy (SC 134).

Kuhn's Postmodernism

In his influential On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn argues that scientific change does not occur by the accumulation of knowledge of one rational world. He specifically argues that Newtonian physics cannot be regarded as a special case of the newer Einsteinian physics, that the former cannot be derived from the latter without significantly changing and narrowing the principles and predictability of the former.3 There is therefore no continuity of science. What we really have are paradigm shifts. At a particular point in history certain models or interpretive systems are used to frame and solve problems. When unsolved problems accumulate, these frameworks outlive their usefulness. New frameworks are called for, constructed, and often dramatically replace those left behind. …

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