Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


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Feyerabend and Kuhn apply incommensurability not only to science but also to cultural studies which, given to radical anti-realist and anti-essentialist influences for almost two decades, have widely adopted the idea that there are no facts outside texts or independent of theories. Yet, whereas for philosophers of science the claim that there is no objective basis for evaluating theories can be devastating, theories of culture appear to be more receptive to such views, as if theories about culture can do well even without facts or objects to validate them. The question of the kind of implications anti-realist precepts can have for theories of culture goes beyond the subject of the present paper, yet it should at least be acknowledged that epistemic questions arise with particular force when we deal with cultural phenomena that proclaim an explicit aspiration to represent as accurately as possible a picture of reality. It is one drawback of anti-realist notions about art and culture in general, that they do not discriminate between modes of expression that do and those that do not put the representation of reality in a central place.1 It is my claim in this paper that the notion of incommensurability, as here interpreted, can precisely deal with cultural and artistic phenomena that proclaim a realist attachment to the world. Incommensurability pertains to those cases where representation aims to approximate an object (whether the object of representation is three-dimensional space, inner consciousness, social reality or any other dimension of the real). The incommensurability involved indicates that modes of representation cannot "contain" or exhaust an object, just as any given scientific concept is always short of catching a corresponding natural phenomenon because that object is always shaped by the concept in use, and because there are other, incompatible ways of conceptualizing the object. Something of the object is hence always left out of its representation, to which the existence of other modes of conceptualization (in a previous scientific phase, for instance) attest.
Incommensurability is hence characteristic not only of the realist mode itself but it also applies to the relations between different modes of representation. Yet, when disengaged from the world determined by a past theory, we are capable, despite the incommensurability involved, of using linguistic mechanisms to reconstruct the conditions under which terms of that theory became meaningful. This is not to say that we are equipped with a third language neutralized of our own cosmology through which a full-bodied and exhaustive comparison of languages is possible. It is possible though, claims Feyerabend in response to Putnam's rejection of the incommensurability thesis, "to tell us that Galileo has 'incommensurable' notions and then to go on and to describe them at length".2 But why does incommensurability not counteract such reconstructing projects?
Both Kuhn and Feyerabend consider the history of representational art as relevant to the question of continuity and progress in the sciences of man precisely because within the history of representational art these questions of continuity and progress are crucial. Realist trends in the history of visual art, for instance, claim to represent the reality of the eye and the glance with growing success.3 That is, realism, as a type of artistic representation, emerges from the idea that art can represent reality without distorting it in any significant manner, and different phases of the realist project fix on ways for dealing with this representational aim. The realist mode is hence distinguishable from modes of artistic expression that do not aim at mimetism, and its history is the result of an incommensurability between realist and non-realist modes of representation.



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1. Even Cubist art can be claimed to represent general concepts, but clearly accurate representation of reality is not central to the Cubist agenda (see Hintikka Jaakko "The Concept as a Way of Seeing: On the Problem of Representation in Modern Art and in Modern Philosophy" (in Hebrew). Iyuun 25:3, 1974, p.139-157. [RETURN]

2. See Feyerabend (1987). "Putnam on Incommensurability: Comments on 'Reason Truth and History'." British Journal of the Philosophy of Science 38, p.76. The idea that incommensurable theories are comparable by various objective or rational standards, is also suggested by Hintikka, Jaakko. "On the Incommensurability of Theories." Philosophy of Science 55, 1988, p.25-38. [RETURN]

3. In literature there is a claim to a growing success and effectiveness in representing the inner world of characters (i.e., mental states, associative sequences, thoughts and fantasies) as we move from earlier forms of the novel to the stream-of consciousness novel. [RETURN]








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1998.06.15