Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


This change of emphasis in Kuhn is related to the fact that most of his critics center on the question of translatability between languages when raising objections against the notion of incommensurability. Philosophers of science who criticize Kuhn's incommensurability see it as tantamount to untranslatability; they hence aim to show that two languages will retain referential relations even under substantial conceptual change.1 Both Kuhn and Feyerabend were criticized for denying the idea of "a third language", for overseeing the fact that as radical as a scientific change may be, at critical moments in the history of science, there is always a language in which this change is registered. No matter how discontinuous the choice of scientific theories may have been, scientists "must have at their disposal a range of terms adequate to the empirical testing of these theories, whose meaning was unaffected by the theories themselves".2 There is hence an idiom within which continuity is held, even if temporarily. Equipped with a third language, radical changes in meaning do not entail epistemic and ontological incompatibility. It can be shown, then, that there is no incommensurability once the difference between theories is reduced to a difference between two scientific languages.
Unlike Kuhn, Feyerabend (1988, 176) has suggested that a previous theoretical phase can be characterized as incommensurable, and still we can go on articulating the ideas contained in this earlier phase. In that Feyerabend further develops Kuhn's original view on incommensurability. For Feyerabend incommensurability between theories (world views) goes all the way down from terms to the very possibility of seeing and describing things.3
In most cases of divergence among theories, and Feyerabend surveys a whole range of such cases, one can describe, even if just partially, the relations between the languages involved. Feyerabend suggests a procedure for reading a prior method given that the describer or historian are viewing this method from the point of view of a later system. In formulating this procedure Feyerabend is instructed by the conviction that discontinuity among methods or 'styles' should not prevent one from learning another method, providing this learning does not follow the logic and language familiar to the historian, but rather is conducted out of a genuine effort to gain knowledge about a prior method. A detailed learning of another method should attempt to reconstruct what are the things that it is capable of representing and which elements lack representational value.


1. Margolis Joseph (1970). "Feyerabend on Meaning." Personalist 51, p.521. [RETURN]

2. Hung Hin-Chung (1987). "Incommensurability and Inconsistency of Languages." Erkenntnis 27, p.323-352; Hung shows how the paradox of incommensurable theories (the fact that they are both about the same subject-matter and differ in subject-matters) can be accounted for. Behind the intensional relation of inconsistency in the content of theoretical assertions there is an extensional relation of realizability. Hence incommensurable theories differ in internal subject-matter but they share an external subject-matter: true sentences of one language are realizable in a second language. For instance, Thermometry is the external subject- matter of both the Caloric theory and the Kinetic theory of heat. The resulting inconsistency between these theories is however an intensional notion. The relation of extensional sameness which guarantees realizability in a new theory (of the sentences formulated in another theory) also enables scientific growth. [RETURN]

3. Note that Feyerabend is more stringent than Kuhn regarding the source and implications of incommensurability; he insists that "incommensurability... is a rare event", that is, that mere difference in meaning does not lead to incommensurability and that even when theories (languages, points of view) are incommensurable, they are not completely disconnected Incommensurability only occurs when one theory resists a divergent point of view so that conditions of meaningfulness for the terms used for articulating this point of view are not available. Feyerabend, Paul (1987a). Farewell to Reason. London & NY: Verso, p.81; Feyerabend, Paul (1988). Against Method (revised ed.). London & NY: Verso, p.165ff.).[RETURN]

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