Incommensurability and Representation

Ruth Ronen
Tel Aviv University




Incommensurability occurs in science where two theories lack a common measure, a standard reference, or an external criterion that could have served as grounds for comparison. Yet, although incommensurability appears to stem from the absence of a world beyond theory, I will claim that there would be no place for the notion of incommensurability in our epistemology were we not giving our theories realistic interpretations. In other words, in order to assume that theories are incommensurable, we have to assume that each theory works as a conceptual net through which the world is seen differently. We have to assume that a theory employing the term 'star' sees an object through this term; and each theory can give the term 'star' a different realistic interpretation, that is, identify the term with another celestial body. Incommensurable theories, while each sees the star differently, all represent stars. Without realism towards theories and towards the entities they assume, theories would have been straightforwardly intertranslatable and commensurable.
The purpose of the present paper is to explore this particular interpretation of incommensurability in terms of the question of realism in art. Incommensurability between theories means that while a given theory assumes it can 'grasp' an object, the theory is also caught in the impossibility of really grasping it in any exhaustive way. In a similar sense, in assuming that art can realistically represent, both the artist and critic view an object through the mode of representation chosen while being caught in the impossibility of grasping the object in any exhaustive way. In art, as in science, each school and even each particular artwork, is fixated on a specific object, and is fixated on representing it in a specific way. Yet the object of representation is always also the object that escapes representation and we need the conviction of a representing agent (scientist or artist) to believe in the presence, a tentative and elusive one though, of the object through representation. To pursue this argument, I will first present a rather lengthy exposition of the concept of incommensurability in the philosophies of Kuhn and Feyerabend, an exposition that should provide the basis for the ensuing discussion of realism in artistic representation.


Incommensurability in the philosophy of science

Incommensurability is associated with Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science, although it can be shown to figure in other versions and formulations in the work of earlier philosophers. According to Kuhn incommensurability by definition undermines any claim to the growth of human knowledge or any claim that scientific propositions will gradually converge unto truth. The reason for this lack of validation procedure has to do with the fact that paradigms of science are discontinuous, each constructing a world differently. Scientific lexicons, even though repeatable from one paradigm to the next, are also incompatible because each scientific lexicon relates terms to phenomena in a different manner. After a scientific revolution, names and terms are often guarded intact, but the objects and phenomena assembled under them have changed (compare the sun, moon and stars as items in the scientific lexicon before and after Copernicus.)




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AS/SA Nº5, Article 3 : Page 1 / 12

© 1998, AS/SA

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1998.06.15