Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


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For Kuhn incommensurability, defined as lack of continuity or overlap between scientific ontologies, carries also an important epistemic consequence: there is no neutral language given to those holding to diverse paradigms, no third language capable of formulating both. This notion of epistemic split as part of the doctrine of incommensurability stands against a long philosophical tradition that in one way or another assumes the continuity of knowledge.
On face value, the picture of incommensurability appears clear and familiar enough, despite Kuhn's notorious reputation for vagueness of terminology. The concept of incommensurability has indeed been either dismissed or trivialized in philosophy because or despite its provoking connotations. Kuhn himself is however not very clear on what is the deeper cause for this lexical, epistemic and ontological incommensurability, this comprehensive split between theories. How is it, one could ask, that incompatible interpretations in the context of science, produce a radical situation such as incommensurability? Kuhn himself indicates that the incompatibility involved exceeds the bounds of language. This becomes apparent once one perceives that translation cannot solve this incompatibility. Untranslatability, or the partial communication between successive theories, has to do with what theories represent, or what they refer to: scientists can debate the choice between theories that share a vocabulary because each attaches terms of this vocabulary differently to nature (Kuhn 1970, 198). That is, new theories are called for, according to Kuhn (p.97), in order to resolve anomalies in the relation of an existing theory to nature. Incommensurability emerges at that specific point where the mechanism of signification in one theory cannot be accommodated with the mechanism implemented by another theory because these are brought about to make different claims about nature. Since the new theory comes in to solve a state of incompatibility between the old theory and nature, it is inevitable that the two theories will turn out to be incommensurable.
It seems therefore that what primarily determines incommensurability is the supposition that there is a nature challenging the explanatory capacity of a theory, that the scientist can posit phenomena that exceed the predictive power of a given theory. This is the most reasonable way to understand Kuhn's claim that differences between theories are not fictive but real, and that any attempt to retrospectively attribute meaning to terms of an old theory, will only result in "partial seeing". A change of paradigm is a change in the way of seeing, a translocation of a conceptual net through which scientists look out at the world. Against the natural tendency of the scientific spirit to describe a continuous history which guarantees that early theory of the phlogiston is connected to later theories of oxidation, Kuhn shows the failure in attempting to interpret earlier scientific terms in terms of current ones. The way for carrying out these interpretative acts is by necessity blocked by the fact that the later scientific point of view represents a "partial seeing" different from the old one.
This "realist" and even empiricist interpretation of Kuhn's outlook on science that I suggest here, in no way represents how his work is usually understood, as can be shown in figures I, II, II below that illustrate the difference between three modes of representing the relations between scientific theories and nature.







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AS/SA Nº5, Article 3 : Page 2 / 12

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1998.06.15