Culture Machine, Reviews


Barbara Herrnstein Smith (2005) Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0748620230.

Barry Stocker

Smith's book covers an important area and is certainly worth reading, though it also contains some serious flaws. Scandalous Knowledge presents itself as an argument for a point of view, but on the whole the book serves better as a high-quality introduction to the field addressed rather than as a tightly argued monograph. I found it difficult to work out what Smith is arguing for in some aspects, in particular: whether she is arguing for a form of constructivism distinct from social constructionism, or whether she supports social constructionism; and whether or not she is arguing for relativism. Nevertheless the book is definitely recommended as a lucid overview of issues in philosophy and sociology of science, from the point of view of constructionism in the humanities.

Scandalous Knowledge begins with an appeal to think of knowledge in the humanities, and the study of the mind, in constructed and contextual terms rather than in rationalistic and representational ones. The topic of relativism is brought up with regard to attacks on 'post-modern' relativism and the precedents for it. The work and career of Ludwig Fleck are presented with regard to his influence on Thomas Kuhn and in opposition to Fleck's near contemporary Karl Popper. The discussion of Fleck is certainly very valuable in drawing attention to a figure who deserves to be far better known, and who presents an important alternative to extremes of scientific rationalism. Kuhn in general serves as an example of constructivism in mainstream philosophy of science; and Popper serves as an example of logical and empiricist purism. This section is followed by a critical look at the 'science wars' between constructivism and objectivism, and at attempts to mediate between them. The discussion includes work on cognitive science and philosophy of mind. The next step is a detailed attack on 'evolutionary psychology', mostly with regard to the work of Stephen Pinker. Pinker's innatism, i.e. a belief in innate cognitive capacities, is taken up with regard to the status of animals and humans. Smith argues that innatism is tied up with extreme objectivist views of science and with moral failure concerning the status of animals. Animal and human cognitive abilities are placed on a continuum which is taken to contradict both: the innatism of much evolutionary psychology and the denial of moral concern for non-human animals.

The 'objectivism' that Smith is criticising is a term used here to unify the various ideas about science and cognition attacked by her. Even though Smith's account is bold and inclusive, the inevitable cost of that is that she tends to flatten out differences. She assumes that Logical Positivism sets the terms for analytic philosophy and 'objectivist' views of science. But 'Logical Positivism' is a particular school belonging to a particular moment and place. It refers to the work of the Vienna Circle after World War One. Its core members included Carnap, Schlick and Neurath. Non-registered associates of the Circle, who did not share all the precepts of Logical Positivism, included Popper. Smith emphasises the links between Popper and the Vienna Circle to the degree of assuming an identity of position, which is an oversimplification. She mentions Popper's criticisms of Logical Positivism (74) but only to reinforce the assumption of underlying identity.

Smith's distinctions between the positive and the negative in thought about knowledge are many; they are partly tabulated in the introduction (12). The negative headings in the table are: Classic Realist, Rationalist, Logical Positivist Concepts; the positive headings include Distinctive Constructivist, Pragmatist and Interactionist Concepts. Representationalism and metaphysical realism appear as additional negative terms in the text; their positive counterparts are contextualism and metaphysical nominalism. Other oppositions include innatism versus interaction, correspondence theories of truth versus pragmatist theories of truth, and computers as a paradigm of cognition versus neural networks. Do these oppositions map out as a consistent set of positions all held as a unified group by individual thinkers? This could never be the case. These kinds of oppositions can have a heuristic value in constructing an argument, and that is the case here. The argument would surely have been improved though by reflection on the heuristic nature of the opposition. Smith even takes a very negative attitude towards any attempt at mediation between the oppositions she emphasises. Despite her entirely negative attitude to metaphysical realism, her assumptions about categories of thought about knowledge are implicitly realist. For Smith constructivism and anti-constructivism do name different real essences.

However, views within the Vienna Circle were rather more diverse than Smith acknowledges. The most obvious example is probably the relatively pragmatic view of the nature of knowledge taken by Neurath. A much quoted passage by Neurath refers to knowledge being like a ship at sea that sailors are reconstructing while sailing it. The point is they cannot scrap the ship and start from nothing, they have to work on the ship as it is as a whole. This contrasts with Carnap's tendency at that time to find pure sources for knowledge in isolated moments of perception joined by a pure logical notation. Neurath's position is evidently similar to the American tradition of Pragmatism endorsed by Smith. Pragmatism, partly under the influence of Hegel, looks at the context of beliefs, rather than trying to isolate pure perceptions as the normative basis of belief. The Vienna Circle tended towards both nominalism and phenomenalism because of their focus on isolating moments of perception. Since they were focusing on the moment of perception they had to exclude what was external to that moment, including independently existing physical objects and metaphysical universals. They did not take an explicit position on the reality of objects and universals, because of their commitment to eliminating metaphysics, but there is no doubt about the metaphysical implications of their views.

The anti-metaphysical militancy of the Vienna Circle was abandoned over time as they realised that there was no way of escaping from implicit metaphysical positions. Carnap (1956) developed a pragmatic view of metaphysics as a framework for science, a position which had its roots in his earlier interest in the logical analysis of language to expose metaphysical assumptions. Both Quine and Kuhn followed this aspect of Carnap's work. A reference to this is buried in a footnote (42, n.42), but only to report Laudan's view on the matter. Quine is partly endorsed by Smith as a pragmatically inclined philosopher, without noting any of the ways in which much of what he argued is a continuation, if a critical one, of Carnap's thought. A comparison between Quine's 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (in Quine, 1980), 'On What There Is' (in Quine, 1980), and Carnap's 'Empiricism, Semantic, and Ontology' (Carnap, 1956) is particularly instructive in that context. Kuhn is strongly endorsed by Smith, and she provides some very useful intellectual history with regard to Kuhn's interest in the work of the Polish biologist Ludwig Fleck. However, she overlooks the connections with the Vienna Circle, except in a very qualified way in the footnote mentioned above. Kuhn's landmark book on the history and philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1996), was published in the International Encyclopaedia of Unified Science, edited by Carnap and Neurath. The relationship is most notably investigated in 'Carnap and Kuhn: Arch Enemies or Close Allies?' (Irzik and Grünberg, 1995).

Smith refers only once and very briefly to Popper's key ideas: fallibilism and falsificationism, thus avoiding the issue of how Popper leads away from Logical Positivism and how he established ideas that were used against his own brand of logical and empirical thought. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1992) Popper replaced a Logical Positivist demarcation between meaningful and nonsensical sentences with a demarcation between science and pseudo-science. The demarcation rests on the possibility of falsification. On this view, science contains theories which can be falsified by experiments and for which it is possible to specify what experimental results would falsify the theory. The emphasis on falsification distinguished Popper from the Logical Positivist emphasis on confirmation of beliefs by perceptions. For Popper, all science is false, as all theories will be falsified. Popper also rejected the view that the mind has pure perceptions separated from more general ideas. The method of science for Popper rests on a philosophy of mind - emphasised strongly in his late work, Objective Knowledge (1972) - in which the mind is active in bringing theories into its perceptions of the world. For Popper all perceptions are theory-laden and all science rests on theory-laden perceptions. Kuhn resisted the most extreme 'strong programme' interpretations of his own work, as he explained in 'The Road Since Structure' (1990), where he clearly rejects constructionist notions of the world. Smith notes the 'strong programme' without acknowledging Kuhn's own distance from the program. The 'strong program' is a social constructionist position. There is a gap in Smith's account with regard to Lakatos, mentioned only once in passing. Lakatos placed himself between Popper and Kuhn (Lakatos, 1980). He criticises Popper for assuming that individual scientific theories can be tested independently of the broader research programmes from which they arise; he also criticises Kuhn for going too far in eliminating the autonomy of science from its social context.

Smith assumes that the Correspondence Theory of Truth belongs with logic, rationalism, metaphysics and so on. However, Frege, the logician, mathematician and philosopher, who is often regarded as the founder of analytic philosophy, strongly rejected the Correspondence Theory in 'Thought' (Frege, 1997). Another strong critic of the Correspondence Theory is Donald Davidson, who is anathematised by Smith for criticising relativism in Kuhn, Feyerabend and others (33, 37). Yet Davidson could just as well be grouped with the critics of objectivism in philosophy and has indeed been linked with European philosophy since Heidegger - by Rorty and others. Davidson's very logical-looking explanation of meaning and truth, in his essay 'Truth and Meaning' (in Davidson, 2001a) also refers to the impossibility of saying what the theory is, it has to be shown in the logical structure. There are clear echoes of Heidegger there, but also Wittgenstein and Frege. Davidson's later writings on language, such as 'A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs' and other essays collected in the 'Language' section of Truth, Language, and History (Davidson, 2005), emphasise the impossibility of determining the meaning of words for all circumstances and lean towards radical contextualism. Radical contextualism was always present in Davidson, who moved from Frege's idea that words have meaning in the context of sentence, to the context of language as a whole. Davidson chose to separate relativisim from contextualism, but this does not mean that he belongs with the extreme objectivists. His writings on mind and language, collected in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (Davidson, 2001b), emphasise that meanings do not exist as inner representations, of the kind condemned by Smith. Meaning combines internal mental life with external causes from the social nature of language. Hilary Putnam, who has broadly similar views on meaning and mind, is condemned as a rationalist and a realist (42, n.44), and no reference is made to Putnam's interest in Levinas (Putnam, 2002 and 2004). Finally on the history of analytic philosophy, though Smith links Pragmatism with nominalism, the first self-declared Pragmatist Charles Peirce was a fervent Realist in what he considered a return to the Realism of the Medievals.

Smith places the origins of her constructivist position in Nietzsche and Heidegger, carried on in Foucault and Derrida, and present in the whole field of 'post-modernism' and 'post-structuralism'. While Nietzsche can be identified as a nominalist in metaphysics, the same is not true of Heidegger. Heidegger strongly rejects nominalism and gives explicit support to realism, particularly in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1982). Smith assumes that Foucault and Derrida can be classified as 'post-modernists' and 'post-structuralists'. However, Foucault strongly condemned those terms and wanted nothing to do with them (Foucault, 2000); Derrida, typically, in a more suave manner only refers to those terms in order to note them as a way of understanding his work (Derrida, 2007). He never applied them to his own work. Bruno Latour is grouped with Derrida, though Latour explicitly says he is not a deconstructive thinker because he is seeking presence (Latour, 2003).

Moving on to the account of evolutionary psychology and innatism, Smith devotes a lot of space to criticising Pinker's dogmatic approach in which everything comes from inherited nature and nothing from the natural or social environment. Smith's argument builds up into a call for moral recognition of animals and of the animal in humanity. However, this is a different issue from the more deterministic aspects of evolutionary psychology. The most extreme determinist and innatist could still find a level of consciousness in animals sufficient to give them some measure of moral consideration. Evolutionary psychologists can certainly be excused from taking the animal out of humanity, their Darwinian project is to find the animal in humanity. Some of Pinker's rhetoric is over-emphasised to create a parody of innatist views. For example, Chomsky's followers are condemned along with Pinker, and there is an element of guilt by association with Pinker in this, while ignoring Chomsky's own comments on the moral significance of innatism. Chomsky believes that innate language capacities in humans show that human individuals are autonomous. For Chomsky this means that all power can be rejected. This leads him towards anarchistic politics and his famous polemics against the abuse of state power in international relations. Chomsky gives a special status to humans, but there is nothing in his position that denies some moral consideration for animals on the basis of their cognitive abilities.

Though the discussion in Scandalous Knowledge often relies on polarisation between positions, it certainly also contributes to crossing boundaries in the ways it does try to bring different kinds of material together in a common approach. Readers should be sceptical of the polarisations assumed, and should use the book as a useful starting point for investigating links between work in cultural studies, philosohy and cognitive science.


Carnap, R. (1956) 'Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology' in Meaning and Necessity: A Study in Semantics and Modal Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (originally published in 1950).

Davidson, D. (2001a) Inquiries in Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davidson, D. (2001b) Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Davidson, D. (2005) Language, Truth, and History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, J. (2007) 'Onto-Theology of National-Humanism', in B. Stocker (ed.) Derrida: Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2000) 'Structuralism and Post-structuralism', in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Frege, G. (1997) 'Thought', in M. Beaney (ed.) The Frege Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Putnam, H. (2004) Ethics Without Ontology. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.

Quine, W. V. O. (1980) From a Logical Point of View: 9 Logico-Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2nd edition, first published in 1953).