If Science Has No Essence, How Can It Be?

By Scharff, Robert C. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

If Science Has No Essence, How Can It Be?


Scharff, Robert C., Philosophy Today


In his recent work, Michael Friedman argues that, contrary to the standard interpretation which depicts the logical positivists as a species of especially rigorous empiricists, they are better seen as in fact much more influenced

by late nineteen- and early twentieth-century developments in the foundations of geometry, logic, and mathematical physics to venture a profound transformation of the Kantian conception of synthetic a priori principles: principles that are necessary, certain, and unrevisable but also applicable to the natural world given in our sensible experience.1

Friedman's thesis is certainly revisionist, but as a matter of historical fact, the logical empiricists probably were as much influenced by the neo-Kantian tradition of transcendental philosophy as they were by Hume's empiricism.2 At the very least, Friedman shows that we should call the movement "logical empiricism," not "logical empiricism." I have my doubts, however, about the philosophical conclusion he draws from this work about the "enduring legacy" of logical empiricism's defense of the a priori in science. More specifically, I am not convinced that Friedman's renewed defense of the a priori puts him in a position to offer a "complementary" perspective to the one Thomas Ryckman works out in his study of Hermann Weyl, Husserl, and the phenomenological foundations of mathematical physics. In this essay, I will try to explain my doubts-by starting with Friedman's conclusion, working backwards towards some of its premises, and finally comparing his position with Ryckman's. The point of my title is that the Weyl described in Ryckman's project, but probably not Friedman, is in a position to embrace the Husserlian idea that it is not the sciences, taken in themselves, but the perceptual life in which they originate, to which one must look for their "essential structures."3

Rescuing the A Priori (Friedman's Retrieval of Carnap)

Setting the historical record straight is not, for Friedman, an end in itself. It is his vehicle for articulating a philosophical disappointment. When it comes to evaluating the logical empiricists' treatment of formal-logical methods in science, he complains, too many philosophers have tended to judge the movement in terms of the failure of specific projects like Carnap's lhe Logical Syntax of Language. In this way, Friedman argues, they obscure the important deeper (we should probably say Enlightenment) purpose that animates such projects. Carnap, for example, is not defending formal methods in science because he is a formalist. Rather, he wants to use these methods to "transform traditional philosophy into the new enterprise of language planning [in order] to bring peace and progress to the discipline" -just as "his work on 'the construction of an auxiliary language for international communication' is intended to contribute to world peace" (RLE, 232-33).

The story of how and why this dimension of Carnap's work was ignored is long and complicated, but what Friedman thinks was missed can be stated quickly. As Carnap viewed the intellectual landscape, science-minded philosophers were still failing to distinguish clearly between their own genuine formal-logical disputes concerning the non-empirical elements in scientific thinking and the "fruitless ontological disputes [they inherited] about the 'reality' or 'nature' of some contested class of entities" such as numbers. Regardless of what one thinks of Carnap's specific project, then, what his work most deeply intends is a radical reconceptualization of genuinely philosophical disputes, such that the fruitless (and hopelessly divisive) ones drop out. In Friedman's words, Carnap redefines the concern for a priori elements in science so that it is committed to nothing more than a "pragmatic" interest in "the logico-linguistic form in which the total language of science is to be cast." Once one attains a "Carnapian philosophical self-consciousness," says Freidman, one sees that this pragmatic question of language-planning has "no implications as to the Objects' and 'facts' in the world" (RLE, 232). …

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