THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, #6–Reflections on Axiality and the History of Science II: Towards a New Critical Theory of Science and a New Kind of Science.

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.



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

#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 II: Towards a New Critical Theory of Science and a New Kind of Science

This is the most obvious observation, obvious but at the same time elusive: Physics is not itself “physical.” Biology is not itself “biological.”

The mode of conceptualization of the object of each special science excludes the being of the object itself. This is one sense, the most important, in which the sciences remain nihilistic.

Yet, in experimentation, conceptualization as such is excluded only in order that the science becomes in (and through) its object. Here and only here does physics become “physical,” biology ‘”biological” and so on.

However, one aspect of (profound) distance, and therefore of nihilism, remains: experiment excludes the designer, the experimenter(s). Someone or something must remain outside the experiment, overlooking it — the onlooker, the spectator must remain opposed to the experiment itself in order the judge and record and reflect on the effects produced by the experiment. The standpoint — a vertical-transcendent one — of “theory” as in theorein remains fixed, rigid, unsurpassable. A participation in idea only.

So, just when the science becomes itself, it loses a self inside the thing itself (the experiment). And when it is not itself, and seeking to be itself, it possesses a self in not being itself.

Where does this leave us? With science in search of itself as a self, always on the other side of what it is or wants to be. This is the very problem of subjectivity itself, the parallax effect that cannot be escaped. But can it be overcome?

The original meaning of “theory,” as Gadamer reminds us, implies a kind of participation. Supposing we understand participation in actual, practical terms, we must ask: what can participatory theory look like? Is it possible to be both inside and outside of an experiment? What would an “experiment” even be for a being that did not already understand itself distant from it?

There must be some kind of an original unity or relation between theory-bearer and the experiment designed to test it.

Here the Hegelian or Marxist will immediately reply: you have falsified the terms of the relation, already positing a duality of theory (idea) and experiment (matter) — each term of which is merely one-sided. You have not yet passed over into the dialectical movement between them which shows how the one (matter) is already and always the other (idea or consciousness), or vice versa.

We might accept this, but nonetheless insist that there is no such ‘dialectical’ science — and the question remains, what would it look like? Hegelianism notoriously founders precisely on this point, and remains yet still external to science itself — offering no practical transformation.

Only reconceptualization, which is not (radical) enough. Dialectics is still mere conceptualization; as such it gives only a false movement to the real being-becoming of science itself in its immediate concrete specificity. Not only the thinking of things, but the things themselves must be made to move differently — the re-conceptualization must entail a real change in the bodies studied and those studying. The point is not just to interpret the world (the sciences) but to actualize and effect a real change in it.

Let this constitute a working definition of a new, radical “critical theory of science.” Its sole project is exactly this: to first clarify the crisis of the sciences (and to therefore begin again, where Husserl left off), and to seek out the deepest roots of the problem; then, to work out a solution that is not merely conceptual but ‘real’ and adequate to the essence of the crisis itself.

But let us return to the problem as we have come to understand it. There was one aspect of the problem which makes it true crisis that we have not yet introduced into the picture: and that is that science is being forced to encounter itself as a self. What do we mean?

What we sketched out above — the real contours of the practice of science, seen in its existential depth as a conflicted endeavor that is what it is only when it excludes itself from the picture: physics is only physics when it is no longer theoretical but experimental, in which case it gives up on the objective standpoint, enters into a new subjective ground, only to have to return to the objective for someone to judge the results, and so on) — is no longer sustainable. The vaunted “ideal of the detached observer”, the objective standpoint of experimental observation, is in fact an approximation from some standpoint of participation which we cannot articulate clearly (and theoretically) as such. We can only insist that this schizophrenic switching between the two mutually incompatible standpoints is good enough, and works in practice.

Yet — we have no theory! That is: we have no understanding of the standpoint of primary participation (the primary unity or primary relation) of which the theory/experiment or observer/observed duality is a (mostly adequate) approximation. I claim that, should we find this (and let us hope this is the first fruit of our new critical theory of science), we will have succeeded in revolutionizing the sciences. They will be sciences done in a completely new way. We will have realized that our current sciences operate under certain conditions and under certain constraints that, once relaxed, yield an entirely new and unforeseen possibility space.

We can take a cue from Goethe: let the “phenomena be their own theory.” But this “science Goethean style” needs one additional step to move it out of the alienated conceptualist form it remains with (for it only remains a way of seeing — the “Orphic” science that leaves things be). We must not shy away from the great Promethean impulse of the sciences, which has us interfere with and engage the things themselves in order to liberate their spontaneity to the passive spectator, awakening him in order that he might participate with the things (the experiments). Not only must the phenomena be allowed to be their own theory — but the theory must be allowed to enter into the phenomena, that is: the theorist must be allowed to move inside the things themselves.

Or rather, the theorist and theory “is” things (thing-ing). We already have a methodological framework for this sort of “ontological” epistemology — and it is called art. Therefore, I claim that art is the proper form this new science (that participates, that moves us inside the experiment itself) must take. I say “the proper form” only, for we do not yet know what it will be like, specifically.

I have tried to specify what it will be like by exploring the possibility of music as a new kind of science. What we did only at a distance, now we should attempt to do further up close.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 14 July 2020

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