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p. 405. What about our conceptual structuring of the world?free

  • Stephen Gaukroger


‘What about our conceptual structuring of the world?’ considers how our sensory systems and our minds interact with the world to produce representations of it. Does what we bring to perception undermine its objectivity? Do cultural and linguistic groups structure the world differently? Is there a theoretical account of the world, of the kind offered in the sciences, where we order our conceptions of the world in various ways in an effort to understand it, but where these orderings may differ and be in competition with one another? Examples from philosophy, anthropology, language, and the history of science are presented.

We don’t just see things: we see them in a particular way, as particular things. Our sensory systems and our minds interact with the world to produce representations of it. How does this bear on the question of objectivity? There are three cases that we can distinguish. The first simply rests on the idea that we structure the world in perception. Although we all do it in the same way, nevertheless we all bring something to our perceptions, and the question is whether what we bring to perception undermines its objectivity. The second is the claim that different cultural and linguistic groups structure the world differently. Here the possibility is raised that there are different ‘ways of seeing the world’, each legitimate in its own right. The third case moves from perceptual structuring to a theoretical account of the world, of the kind offered in the various sciences, where we order our conceptions of the world in various ways in an effort to understand it, but where these orderings may differ and be in competition with one another. Here the question of whether we can make an objective choice between these arises.

Conceptual structuring

The publication of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 inaugurated a new era in philosophy, one dominated by the p. 41question of what contribution the mind made to our experience of the world: how it shaped what we experience. Kant argued that this contribution is far greater than had been imagined up to this point, and that the world that we grasp in perception and in thought is in effect constructed by the mind. Moreover, on Kant's account, we can have no knowledge of the world as it is in itself, for such knowledge requires us to access the world in some way, but the means of access always shape what we experience and know. We don’t have to accept Kant's conclusion here to appreciate that we need to investigate the means by which we access the world before we can make judgements about any correspondence between our mental representation of the world and the world itself. Moreover, the idea that all experience and thought involves conceptual structuring clearly bears on the question of how objective our theories about the world are, for such structuring is not something over which we have any control, and is not open to rational assessment or revision.

To get a sense of Kant's argument, take the examples of space and time. Are these part of the world, or part of our conceptual structuring of the world? Kant reflected upon the idea that we can imagine a universe without motion, a universe in which bodies are stationary. He also reflected on the fact that we can imagine a universe without matter in it, for example by imagining a universe in which the matter is gradually removed so there is none left. But, he noted, we can’t imagine a universe without space and time. We can’t think of a universe empty of matter and mentally remove space from it, because we simply cannot imagine a universe becoming spaceless. Now one thing this might mean is that space and time exist in a way that is more fundamental than matter. There could not be a universe without space and time, but there could be one without matter. Moreover, matter requires space and time for its existence, so somehow space and time are more basic than matter: they are, as philosophers would put it, ontologically prior to matter. But Kant's approach is different. The question is not one of metaphysics – what the constituents of p. 42the world are – but one of epistemology, what our access to the world is. He says that if we cannot even imagine a universe without space and time, this tells us something about us, not something about the universe. What it shows, he argues, is that we cannot think about physical events without thinking about them spatio-temporally, and this is a feature of our ability to think about physical events, not a feature of physical events themselves. The same considerations, he argues, hold for causality. Space, time, and causation are conditions of possibility of our being able to think about, perceive, and have beliefs about physical events in the first place.

On this view, the world is not differentiated into separate things in its own right. Rather, it resembles an undifferentiated continuum, upon which the basic categories of thought impose structure so that the continuum can be carved up into discrete things and properties. This carving up is an involuntary and unchangeable feature of how we experience the world, not something over which we have any control, rational or otherwise. The question here, however, is not whether this means that our experience of the world cannot be objective, but rather whether we should be thinking in terms of objectivity in the first place. If what we are talking about is a fixed and unchanging feature of experience in general, then this is something about which we can neither exercise objectivity nor fail to exercise objectivity. Of course, we may reject Kant's picture of space, time, and causation as being preconditions of experience rather than autonomous contents of experience, but in doing so we are not questioning his account on the grounds of lack of objectivity.

Cognitive and linguistic relativity

If we conceive of conceptual structuring as a universal feature of the mind, then there is no threat to objectivity, because questions of objectivity simply cannot arise. Sense organs and the brain do not just register the world. Our minds structure our experience p. 43and our thought in fundamental ways. To think that this in itself could compromise objectivity is to imagine that we could think without brains, see without eyes. To the extent to which this is Kant's point about our perceiving the world only as phenomenal (as it is structured by our minds) and not as it is in itself (as it is in its unstructured form), then this is just to say that we cannot think without minds any more than we can see without eyes. Unmediated perception (and thought) is not objective perception: it is not perception at all. As such, it cannot provide a model of objectivity to which we can aspire. However, once we move from the idea that conceptual structuring is a universal feature of the mind, to the view that this structuring varies in some way, for example from culture to culture or from language to language, it seems that objectivity faces a challenge, for the world now seems to be whatever we believe it to be, and these beliefs vary depending on a host of contingent cultural and linguistic factors.

In the late 18th century, there arose an attempt to understand human behaviour not in religious terms, or in terms of morals or political philosophy, but in terms of what subsequently developed as anthropology. The interests of late 18th-century and early 19th-century writers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt lay in history, philosophy, and that branch of linguistics known as philology. Different language groups, they argued, embody and express different cultural and cognitive traits. It is not just a question of linguistic differences: these linguistic differences encode different ways of thinking about and seeing the world. Humboldt's view was that Indo-European languages were naturally superior to those of other families, but when the linguistic relativity thesis was taken up again at the end of the 19th century, this was rejected in favour of an equality of all languages. The anthropologist Franz Boas argued that ethnographers studying other cultures could not engage in such study properly without first learning the language. Boas's student Edward Sapir offered the classic version of the linguistic relativity doctrine when he announced that ‘no two languages are ever sufficiently similar p. 44to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.’ The consequences of this were explored further in the work of his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, in what became known as the Sapir–Whorf thesis.

The Sapir–Whorf thesis holds that we impose structure on nature in terms of categories supplied largely by our language. The world presents itself to us as a flux of impressions which have little coherence in their own right. It is the task of the mind to organize these impressions into discrete ingredients, connect these by way of concepts, and ascribe significance to various parts of the world as perceived. What regulates this process, Whorf argued, was not some identifiable physical evidence which constrained us to come to particular conclusions about the world, but rather our similar conceptual understanding, which is dictated by our shared language. Without this shared language, we can expect very significant differences. Whorf advances a number of examples of what he claims are radical differences between European and indigenous North American languages. In the Hopi language, water, for example, is represented in a variety of ways which do not correspond to our usage. Similarly, Whorf claims, there are many words for snow in Inuit languages which are not capturable in other languages. Even more fundamentally, investigating the language and culture of the Hopi, he argues that even a fundamental category like time is variable. This is a particularly interesting case, because, as we have seen, it was one of the basic forms of structuring that Kant argued was a universal feature of the mind. Whorf's argument was that the Hopi treated time as a continuous flow, and had no words for discrete intervals like days of the week, or hours of the day.

There are two main problems with the view that different cultures and languages carve up the world differently. First, carving things up in different ways doesn’t necessarily have relativist p. 45consequences. Second, those who put a relativist interpretation on it tend to think of the carving up as the work of a single coordinated faculty, whereas in fact this is not the case.

On the first question, defenders of the Sapir–Whorf thesis often point, for example, to the fine-grained nature of the vocabulary for snow in Inuit languages, and the variations in colour terminology and classification in different languages, as evidence of the ways in which languages and cultures cut across one another in their classification of the world. But the fact that languages and cultures have different words for things, and have fine discriminations lacking in or cutting across those in other languages, in itself harbours no relativistic consequences. English nomenclature in organic chemistry (the drug LSD, for example, is (6aR,9R)-N, N-diethyl-7-methyl-4,6,6a,7,8,9-hexahydroindolo-[4,3-fg] quinoline-9-carboxamide) is far more fine-grained than anything to be found in the varieties of snow or water identified in Inuit languages. Moreover, this nomenclature cuts across many common distinctions while at the same time co-existing unproblematically with common usage. Similarly, there may be a shift from one understanding of a fundamental concept to another within a single culture without any relativistic consequences following.

Consider the measurement of time. Medieval and early modern communities measured time in a very different way from ours. The standard units of time that they employed varied in size from season to season. The day was divided into twelve sections on a sundial, for example, but since the length of the day varied from mid-summer to mid-winter, the length of the units varied: winter hours were much shorter than summer hours. In the context of allocating time for work in an agrarian subsistence economy, it is surely odd to say that the modern conception is more objective than the earlier one. The modern conception, which allows for precision in the measurements of time, such as those needed in the construction of clocks for calculating longitude, is simply p. 46suited to different purposes than the earlier conception. It is designed to do something different, and indeed the two conceptions can coexist. Modern (analogue) clockfaces, for example, while they enable us to tell hours and minutes, can only be read by someone trained to read the time, because clocks were originally designed to tell the hour, and the numerals on their faces only designate hours, not minutes: so 1:45, for example, is represented by a hand on 1 and a hand on 9.

If different conceptual schemes are at play in the examples adduced by advocates of the Sapir–Whorf thesis, they are quite compatible with one another, and harbour no relativist consequences. They are doing different things, serving different purposes.

On the second point, the Sapir–Whorf thesis works on the assumption of holism, that is, that the ways of carving up the world cohere and come as part of a package. This is crucial to the core thesis that what one believes shapes what one sees as much as does the thing seen. It is a matter of imposing a single structure on an undifferentiated continuum. But this is not how the brain works. Many of its functions are modularized. Modularization is an evolutionary response to increase in brain size, where increase in the number of neural pathways has to be balanced against the decrease in neural connectivity due to greater separation between nerve cells, which means it takes more time for signals to travel between cells. Primates, in particular, have evolved so as to segregate like-functioned neurones into highly connected modules, which have fewer long-distance connections: segregation of right and left hemispheres is just the largest and most obvious form of modularization of neural organization.

Modularity is manifested in human perception in a number of ways, not least in cases such as the Müller-Lyer illusion, where, in the illustration, the upper line looks shorter than the lower one, even though they are of the same length:

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The interesting thing about this illusion is that knowing that it is an illusion – for example, as a result of taking a ruler to the figures and measuring each of the lines – doesn’t affect our perception of the lines as being of different length. How we see them is quarantined off from our beliefs and from other similarly autonomously functioning modules. We do not know just how extensive modularization is in us. Some philosophers have suggested that modularity is rampant, and that it can account for our ability to hold contradictory views at the same time. But rampant or not, it shows that there are a number of cases where our beliefs do not, and cannot, shape what we see.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

We have seen that there can be different conceptual schemes which are quite compatible with one another, because they are serving different purposes. The problems arise when what is at issue is not carving up the world differently for different purposes, but alternative and competing ways of carving up the same world. The best examples here come from the history of science, in particular from the approach advocated in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and the works that followed in its wake.

p. 48The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not just philosophy of science, or history of science, or sociology of science. It was all three, with the addition of what might be called ‘psychology of science’ as a catalyst. Kuhn argued that major changes in scientific thinking – scientific revolutions – did not merely involve the rejection of one theory and its replacement by another, but a wholesale replacement of one worldview by another incommensurable worldview. The driving force behind the argument was a conception of science as consisting of conceptual schemes – the main ingredient in what Kuhn calls ‘paradigms’ – which determine how we see the world, and which vary not with cultural or linguistic differences but with differences in scientific theories. Because of the intimate way in which these conceptual structures and scientific theories are tied together, considerations that might be thought distinctive of shifts in conceptual structures – where a change in beliefs that alters how we see the world does not have to be motivated rationally or empirically – come to be associated with changes of scientific theory. In this way, it appears that objectivity is under threat.

Before the appearance of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the dominant account of the development of science supported a very strong and unqualified form of objectivity for science. The account had two mutually reinforcing components. The first was that scientific theories develop in a cumulative way. The story is one of constant improvement, as science gradually builds up results, correcting earlier theories and replacing them with new ones. The idea behind this is that the aim of science has always been the same, namely to mirror reality, and what matters is not so much where one starts from as the direction one is going in. This is where the second ingredient comes in, namely the idea that the history of science is unidirectional, and any account of it is essentially a form of genealogy, that is, a tracing of contemporary science back to its roots. The aim was to explain how we got to where we are now, which meant that the only context within which scientific theories – whether of remote p. 49antiquity or of the modern period – could be discussed was that of the present. This conception of the history of science, whereby it was a matter of shedding false theories and adopting true ones in a continuous development, was often accompanied by an account of the obstacles to this development, and here religion figured very prominently as the chief source of prejudices holding science back. What was identified as the characteristic feature of the road to truth was adherence to a scientific method. This is what the pioneers of the 17th-century scientific revolution had identified as what was wrong with the work of their Aristotelian predecessors: not lack of empirical information, or lack of ingenuity in dealing with it, but an approach to empirical matters which was wholly misguided.

Before the 18th and 19th centuries, discussions of scientific method were very much a matter of attempting to offer guidance in specific areas of research, and when the guidance took a more general form, it was still practical in orientation: how to avoid dead ends, what to do first in exploring a new area, how to educate oneself in a new area. In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the nature of discussions of scientific method changed from something essentially exploratory to something essentially didactic. In the 19th century, in particular, scientific method now comprised drawing methodological lessons from a successful model of scientific practice, typically identified with Newton's works. By contrast with earlier times, the guiding idea turned on examples of theories that embodied success, so the goal was to extract the active ingredient, as it were, from this model. However, there was never agreement on what exactly this scientific method was.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions broke with the assumptions underlying theories of scientific method. It abandoned the notion that scientific progress was cumulative, at the same time rejecting the idea that explaining how we got to where we are now was what understanding the development of p. 50science consisted in. What is at issue in the Kuhnian account is not the idea of prejudices and biases as an obstacle to scientific development, but the consequences of treating scientific theories in terms of conceptual structures for our understanding of objectivity. These conceptual structures, which Kuhn terms ‘paradigms’, determine or constrain what intellectual options are available and what strategies are likely to be promising. Paradigms fix the appropriate terminology, guide the interpretation of experiments, and determine the direction of subsequent research. Most scientific activity – in Kuhn's terminology, ‘normal science’ – proceeds within these constraints, contrary to the earlier view, which effectively assumed that scientific development is constraint-free. The earlier view had in fact already been increasingly rejected by historians of science before Kuhn, but not, in the main, by philosophers, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions forced the questions into a wider realm, lifting them out of the narrow ambit of specialist histories of science. Also recognized by some historians of science before Kuhn, but again foregrounded in thinking about science by him, was the question of the shift from one conceptual scheme to another. On Kuhn's account, this shift was not only discontinuous – in that there was no path, as it were, from the earlier paradigm to the later one – but also incommensurable. That is to say, there is no translation between the two paradigms.

Kuhn uses the analogy of a Gestalt switch to account for the shift from one paradigm to another. In Gestalt psychology, visual recognition is construed as a function of the form-generating capacity of the brain, which constructs figures and forms out of what would otherwise be discrete lines. Occasionally, there are alternative interpretations of perceptual experiences when the brain moves back and forth between the alternatives, but it is in the nature of the Gestalt that the different interpretations cannot be experienced at the same time. An example is the ‘duck–rabbit’ image, which can be seen either as a duck or as a rabbit, but not both at the same time:

p. 51Kuhn argues that the ‘Copernican revolution’ – the shift from a geocentric (Earth-centred) to a heliocentric (Sun-centred) account of the cosmos – embodies an analogous shift. It is not simply a matter of one theory replacing another, but of suddenly seeing the whole cosmos differently. Our picture of the world and our place in it changes. Kuhn's account has sometimes been read in such a way that the move from one paradigm to another is akin to a religious conversion rather than something that can be defended rationally and in terms of evidence. Kuhn himself used this analogy, but arguably as a way of capturing the experience of moving from one paradigm to another, not as something that was designed to throw light on how changes to the content of science are made. There may indeed be paradigm shifts that reflect no objectivity and are like religious conversions, but the ones that Kuhn described, which are very much the success stories of the physical sciences, are clearly not of this type. The move from Aristotelian to Newtonian to Einsteinian cosmologies is a progression with a clear rationale in terms of objectivity, which a move in the opposite direction, for example, would not be.

Still, a problem with incommensurability remains, and it is the most contentious claim in the Kuhnian account. It is also the one that harbours the deepest consequences for objectivity. The p. 52general problem is that once one allows that interpretations are theoretically motivated or theoretically guided, one must allow differences in these interpretations, and this may result in differences in what counts as evidence, in what counts as demonstration, and in what counts as a satisfactory explanation. The adequacy of theories is a matter to be assessed in terms of procedures dictated by the paradigm. When paradigms change, so do these procedures. As a result, it would seem that there is no absolute set of standards by reference to which all competing theories can be compared. Kuhn has to allow that, at some level, paradigm replacement is a matter of competing conceptual structures, for this is what motivates the replacement. But what sense are we to make of the idea of competing conceptual structures? For if we cannot make sense of it, all we have are worldviews replacing one another for whatever reason.

Kuhn tries to keep these questions within the confines of internal assessment, arguing that, as a paradigm develops past a certain stage, it may give rise to anomalies: it increasingly fails to reconcile the phenomena with the basic theoretical and experimental precepts of the theory. When these anomalies reach a certain stage, the paradigm is said to enter a period of crisis. What is distinctive about the crisis period is that scientists begin to look outside the paradigm for alternatives, typically questioning fundamental assumptions of the existing paradigm, and in time generating a rival paradigm.

There are three things to note as far as questions of objectivity are concerned. First, on Kuhn's account, the replacement of one paradigm by another is not a perpetual process. It is possible for a paradigm to get it right, so to speak, to resolve all the questions that it set out to solve. In such a case, the paradigm is a success, and it remains as a complete and permanent feature of scientific understanding. Kuhn gives the example of geometrical optics in the 19th century as a successful paradigm whereby all the basic p. 53problems to which the paradigm was devoted were solved and the development of the paradigm came to an end.

Second, the traditional view had secured objectivity by effectively assuming that the only issues in comparing scientific theories were empirical adequacy and explanatory power (often equated with predictive power). But what the cases of scientific revolutions highlight is that a major and radical scientific development can result from deciding that the wrong questions have been asked up to that point, and asking different questions. Objectivity is clearly beside the point if one is not asking the right questions. It is true that there are some accounts of scientific method on which the correct methodological procedures are self-correcting: that is, while in itself a procedure such as induction – inferring a general thesis from observation of individual cases – is not guaranteed to generate the correct results, repeated application of the procedure will eventually weed out errors. But there is no way in which repeated application of such a procedure is going to yield the right questions, because the procedure is locked in to particular questions. Any satisfactory account of objectivity must take account of the complex factors that surface in the sciences at various stages of their development: questions about what counts as an explanation, for example, and what counts as evidence. Such variations do not in themselves necessarily undermine objectivity.

Third, accounts of scientific development that, in the wake of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, focus on conceptual schemes, have explored just what objectivity amounts to in the case of internal criteria for deciding on the merits of a scientific research programme. The philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, for example, set out to refine internalist criteria for assessment by specifying more precisely and in some detail the difference between progressive research programmes and degenerating research programmes. His aim was to deal with questions of assessment without having to appeal to criteria that spanned quite different kinds of project. One such criterion that Lakatos and p. 54Kuhn rejected was that which Popper had argued for, namely falsification. Popper had treated falsification as absolute: if one proposed a theory and found evidence that contradicted it, then the theory had to be abandoned. But once cases of successful theory development in the history of science were subjected to detailed scrutiny, it quickly became evident that this was not always a promising path to follow. We have already looked at one such case, that of Galileo on the arguments for heliocentrism. While science was thought of as being simply a question of comparing competing theories with unproblematic evidence, it wore its objectivity on its sleeve, so to speak, and, as an account of the world, it was a paragon of reliability. The kinds of complexities generated by conceptual schemes considerations certainly undermine this simple picture, for what counts as appropriate evidence, for example, may be something that cannot be decided except by the theory in question. The tides were considered irrelevant to the question of whether the Earth moves before the 17th century, for instance, whereas they were a crucial piece of evidence for Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. These extra complexities do not militate against objectivity. Rather, they serve to alert us to the fact that objectivity can be contextually dependent in various ways.