THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, #5–Reflections on Axiality and the History of Science I: Kuhnian Themes.

By Michael Cifone

“Femme et Oiseaux,” by Joan Miró (1940)


THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, by Michael Cifone, is a series about philosophy, society, politics, and everything else, starting from New York City and radiating outwards, borderlessly and unboundedly.

He has worked on the philosophy and metaphysics of natural science, with a special focus on relativity and quantum theories, and on the philosophy of science more generally, especially including “Continental” treatments of science and the scientific worldview.

You can find out more about his work HERE.



#4: Thinking in End Times IV: Axial Consciousness Now

#3: Thinking in End Times III: Axial Consciousness and Post-Modernity

#2: Thinking in End Times II: Axial Consciousness Then

#1: Thinking in End Times I: Introduction


Reflections on Axiality and the History of Science I: Kuhnian Themes

“Composition VIII,” by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The idea of the axial age can be used to organize a number of intellectual problems and/or crises that we have faced since at least 1900.

The so-called science wars is a case in point. What was the reaction to Kuhn’s concept of “incommensurable paradigms” in science or in thought more generally)? Scientists took exception to the notion that this incommensurability means that there is no outside, value-neutral standpoint from which to judge the (relative) truth of competing paradigms.

Incommensurability of paradigms seems to mean that each paradigm constitutes for itself its own standards for evaluation and proof, which have little or no bearing across paradigms. Why was this not recognized as just a more specific variant of Gödel’s philosophical/logical realization of the independence of “truth” and “proof”?

In the minds of its opponents, incommensurability reeked of “relativism,” a rejection of the notion of objectivity and objective proof itself. If we look at it from the point of view of axial consciousness we get another perspective altogether: Kuhn’s thesis merely explicitly states that the axial standpoint is limited, that there really is no such thing as a “standpoint from nowhere” (that is, a value-neutral one), that scientific objectivity operates with a kind of guiding myth, but that, even so, each scientific paradigm (what Stengers calls “thought communities”) constitutes for itself its own (internal) standards that, only relative to the paradigm, establish (1) the very operational and functional meaning of objectivity internal to the paradigm, and (2) the means of adjudication between competing hypotheses or theories within the paradigms — but not across.

In effect what Kuhn realized is just that “objectivity” must be functionally/operationally defined (it serves certain purposes, those being what is useful for the paradigm) for it to be practically useful, so that objectivity is always relative — not that there is no objectivity!

The problem then becomes whether Kuhn’s idea here can account for a kind of cumulative growth of scientific knowledge, or whether, once a paradigm shift occurs, what was even considered as a truth, as knowledge, itself must be discarded and subsequently replaced by the new paradigm. Example: Newton to Einstein; classical to quantum; etc. Even discarding the Newtonian paradigm, the fact remains that Newton’s theory of motion is true — but only in a certain regime.

So this leads to the notion of “correspondence”: the new theory had better show that, under certain conditions, the predictions of the old theory will correspond with the observational data. It’s these observational data which seem to cut across paradigms: after all, whatever else it does, Newton’s theory describes pretty well what we can see (the rate at which objects fall, etc.).

The difficulty: Newton to Einstein is one thing, but it’s not an appropriate analogy. We don’t have many examples of dramatic paradigm shifts — the only major one is the shift from Aristotelianism to the New Science of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, etc. This was a huge leap it seems. I claim however that the move from Newton to Einstein is both narrower (Aristotelianism was a broad world-view and intellectual framework, not just a science of motion), and not yet fully understood — not least because the true meaning of quantum theory has yet to itself be fully understood (especially in relation to the “classical theories“ that come before it).

In short, we are at the origination moment, the birth, of something new — but we aren’t there yet. Indeed (and this applies to many things today) we’re in a kind of Gramscian “interregnum”: the old paradigm is dying and still debated, but the new one has yet to take shape. We are in the process of giving it shape! So, this further complicates Kuhn’s thesis, which was a retrospective historical thesis, not a prospective constructive-creative thesis about the becoming of new sciences.

Back to the main point about axial consciousness: Kuhn’s is a thesis that attacks the operating mythology of the axial mind, and gestures toward the mythopoeic/archaic strata of human consciousness that remain with it: the “embeddedness” of consciousness means that even when it seeks an exterior standpoint (which has been the existential core, the “ontology” of Western objectivity), it is caught within itself, and never fully steps outside. It can’t in a way. It is only human, all-too-human. Was this not also the fundamental point of Kant’s philosophy, a humble point about practical, inescapable embeddedness?

Thus the sciences like any other human practice are fully human (!), and operate according to the logic and dynamic of human consciousness. The only problem is with the ideology of science, how it’s practiced and taught: as if it has no subjectivity to it, as if it works in a special, morally neutral (“value-neutral”) safe space, detached from other spheres of human concern or need (both capitalism and science work in tandem in this regard). Kuhn dared to think that the sciences are “subjective” — that they have a self, are a self, lived as a “self” lives, that in a word, science has a life.

This is a most profound thesis indeed, but what has been missed is its profoundly Kierkegaardian dimensions. So Kuhn’s thesis is a portrait of science caught in the act of subjective truth, the appropriation of objectivity for itself, which then, paradoxically, tries to hide its subjectivity in the abstractions of the “objective.”

So much for its theories; but the payoff of science is in technology, what it makes possible. This is the paradigm-independent “truth” of the sciences. Here we need a new philosophy of science. The practical, the technological, always gets a bad rap — most especially in Western, Plato-inspired/shadowed philosophy. The theoretical cart is almost always put before the practical horse. This is a case of what Nietzsche realized: how philosophers (how we) often like to reverse the actual order of things to suit our preconceptions, to fit our idols. In reality science is as science does — its doing is its thinking. Hence the fundamental importance of the experimental tradition. The experiment proves that the theory can “work”: that the predictions and consequences it implies “happen.” It doesn’t prove the theory itself!

Another thesis here is important: the Quine-Duhem thesis of the compatibility of experimental predictions and observations with a whole host of mutually incompatible theories. This thesis only demonstrates the functional irrelevance of scientific theories in favor of practical, observable, realizable outcomes. The goal of theory is to get a better and more precise description of what we can interact with, manipulate, work with, move, displace, etc. — what can be brought within the realm of human practical experience.

Should we not then return to “positivism” and “empiricism” with new eyes?! With phenomenological eyes? “Metaphysical” ones? A Kantian humility: transcendental empiricism (at the same time a Deleuzian idea)?


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 7 July 2020

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