Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


In Against Method Feyerabend provides a detailed account of ancient culture, grounding his meticulous learning of that system on the assumption that formal features of a language or a style are in fact ontological features of the world to which this language gives shape. Feyerabend, in other words, gives a realistic interpretation to the notions of 'style' or 'language': "a particular style gives a precise account of the world as it is perceived by the artist and his contemporaries... every formal feature corresponds to (hidden or explicit) assumptions inherent in the underlying cosmology."1 Only by seeing that other languages are also shapers of events, that is, only under a realistic interpretation of a style, can incommensurability both be grasped and partially resolved.
In concluding this section, it should be stressed that incommensurability requires realism because this is the only way to problematize the relations between incompatible languages: only when a method or language is seen in its representational aims, as a shaper of events and a mapper of a cosmology, can we see how languages become incommensurable. When one remains on the level of signifiers, incommensurability is in fact just a difference in meaning and can always be translated away. Incommensurability emerges when one acknowledges the representational aims of a language.

Anti-realism and the historical dimension of incommensurability

Incommensurability, for both early Kuhn and Feyerabend, has to do with the very notion of language as representation. A language (or method or theory) that aims to represent a cosmology through its formal 'stylistic' features, is incommensurable with other languages because each shapes the world according to its own suppositions; the world itself is at the same time viewed as, to some extent at least, prior to its particular theoretical shaping. This prior existence of the world is crucial both to representation of nature by science and to the representation of the world by art: assuming that the object on which the artist or scientist sets his mind as an object of representation (the object of the drive and desire to represent), is an object shaped but not created through a particular mode of representation, is an essential condition for explaining why scientists, artists, critics and theorists struggle with the immanent partiality of representation. In other words, nature, or the world of objects, can be conceptualized in many incompatible ways; the visual artist can conceptualize the three-dimensional world as determined by the distance of the observer, or as determined by a projection on the retina __ each conceptualization will produce a very different realism. Evidently, the two modes are however incommensurable because no single one is capable of constructing the object in an exhaustive manner. Each particular mode of representation hence falls short of its object. Artists and art critics can therefore argue that visual perspective, as realistically effective as it may be, can only partially reproduce the three-dimensional object of the gaze; writers and literary critics can struggle with the fact that language is too oppressive a tool to be able to represent fully the way people think. In short, the fact that the world is always shaped from a particular point of view does not mean that the world is the result of theory-making but only that its shape is being determined by theory.2
It was shown that incommensurability results from a realist interpretation of theories and hence has to do with the very definition of a representational relation between signs or images and objects. The going account, however, incorporates incommensurability into an anti-realist doctrine and in that reduces the intricacy involved in this notion. Incommensurability is not a matter of a change of meaning but of a radical change of kinds of entities3 ; hence, incommensurability has complex relations with any anti-realist doctrine (and this is, in my opinion, why the notion of incommensurability has been widely misinterpreted).


1. Although the question of the prior existence of the world to language and theory is trivialized by anti-realists, I believe the implications to be drawn from the anti-realist doctrine that the world is a construct of belief or theory, are much more far-reaching for the notion of representation than anti-realists admit. See for instance Goodman (1978, 119) and Rorty (1982, 15); both see the question of 'the world's existence' as inconsequential. [RETURN]

2. Kordig, C.R. (1970). "Feyerabend and Radical Meaning Variance." Nous 4, p.399-404. [RETURN]

3. See for instance the analogy between Feyerabend and Stanley Fish in Kenshur Oscar (1984). "The Rhetoric of Incommensurability." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. p.375-381 (although Kenshur attempts to demonstrate that both unavoidably rely on facts about texts and about meanings). [RETURN]

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