Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


When we try to reconstruct a system different from the one we hold and when we succeed in "penetrating into the new language and we are sure we master its insights", says Kuhn, an incommensurability will always remain. Even if the other system is reconstructed according to the methods of the anthropologist who adopts the point of view of the other system, once we succeed in producing meaningful statements about that system, the meaning-attributing terms will remain only partially comprehended, claims Feyerabend. No theory, no linguistic meaning and no symbolization, can contain an object. When we study cases of realism in the history of art, the same situation occurs; we can reconstruct the mimetic drive of the artist, yet, an incommensurability, a severance of the subject from the object of representation, is immanent to any system that wishes to grasp something of nature, to represent an object as accurately as possible. In the case of representing other minds, this severance is both reflected (language is sequential, public and verbal and hence cannot reproduce the mind whose relations to language are undefined) and denied (linguistic signifiers function as if they replicate the workings and mechanisms characteristic of the inner flow of thoughts).
When the author writes using specific techniques, his language works to produce and transmit information about the structure of a real object, and with this information, an illusion of an inner reality is invoked. Yet literary techniques, which are signifiers in the hands of an author, can never reproduce the object or its effect, only the distortion of both. Representation is a relation which always introduces a split by making the presence of the object an impossibility. Incommensurability inheres in every moment of representation. Yet the fact that each literary period interprets differently the way in which the reality of objects should be represented (should it fix on the external events, on social or private ones, on mental subjective states or on any other "piece" of the real) points both to the incommensurability between the reality to be represented and the representation itself, but also indicates the incommensurability that inheres in the relations between various modes of representing reality. Each stage in the history of mimetic art is incommensurable with its own artistic objective; at the same time the various stages in this history are consequently also incommensurable.
As noted above, some philosophers of science and of art, have provided ways of ignoring the object represented. For instance, mechanisms such as reference, translation and interpretation are instruments for suppressing incommensurability. They enable us to see continuity and a possibility of constructing a whole body of knowledge through a language. The suppression of the object in the doctrine of incommensurability is similar to the suppression of the epistemological question of the other mind in literary works that are called stream-of- consciousness novels - both are equally wrong in suggesting that realistic art or positive science can prosper without an object. Yet both in art and in science, putting the object in parenthesis can only help us ignore the whole problem of representation. Putnam claims (1992, 124) that the doctrine of incommensurability appeared in French thought decades before Kuhn, notably in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, who had considerable influence on structuralist and poststructuralist French philosophy.

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AS/SA Nº5, Article 3 : Page 11 / 12

© 1998, AS/SA

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