Yesterday I came across the phrase “early modern knowledge regime,” and it teased my curiosity. What could this term mean? [I already have a short list of books to start reading, but I’ll begin first with what’s in reach and on top of my neck.]
It probably comes from Foucault: “Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (quoted from Rabinow’s Foucault Reader, 1991).
But the social dimension of knowledge regimes, while pervasive and important, is not the only dimension. Facts of experience have something to say as well. And, yes, while it is true that there is an undeniable social dimension to what counts as a fact, it is also true that the intrinsic character of the facts is something else. What I mean is this. Galileo makes the claim that bodies of unequal mass fall at the same rate. Such a claim, no doubt, is rife with conventional meanings – what counts as a body, what mass (or “heaviness”) is and how it is measured and who says, how one determines if objects fall at the same rate, and so on. [Though I wonder: just how much of one’s culture is reflected in such thin concepts? Couldn’t people from very different cultures get on the same page rather easily with regard to them?] There are further conventions about how such a thing is proven, by whom, to whom, who values it, and how the claim gets propagated to other people and cultures. But beyond all this, there is a fact: do they or don’t they? Galileo could have been wrong, just as (in fact) Aristotle was. The heavier mass could have fallen faster or slower than the smaller one. And this fact – that “facts are stubborn things” (John Adams) – is crucial to knowledge.
I can’t see how anyone could deny this without at the same time affirming it. But I suppose the thinkers who stress the social dimension of knowledge would insist that the packaging of stubborn facts, so to speak, or the give-and-take economy of them, is what they are talking about. People and institutions supply the “mechanisms and instances” that tell us which facts to attend to, how to employ them, and how to make sense of them. Astrologers and alchemists deal in facts as well: but our prevailing knowledge regime tells us that they are making the wrong use of facts, or they are interpreting them incorrectly. The whole affair of the vacuum pump experiments in the mid-17th century, recounted in Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump, closely documents how an institution, the Royal Society, came to determine what facts were being observed and what they meant. This determination was a mix of politics, religion, prejudices, and subjective preferences in kinds of theories.
Still: I tend to think that, even if the Royal Society had ended up making different determinations, and had (say) gone with Hobbes’ anti-vacuum view rather than Boyle’s view, over time the determination would have been reversed, and subsequent thinkers would have ended up with the view that actually prevailed. Why do I think this? Because, so far as I know, there really can be a vacuum, and nature is not a plenum, and there is no aether or subtle fluid pervading all things: those are the facts.
I can imagine two critical replies to this view.
- First, one could say “Yes, of course; those are the facts. But the point is that, along the way, social politics do have their influence over what people come to regard as facts; and in the alternative history you imagine, the social politics would also be influencing the later reversal away from Hobbes and back to Boyle. One should not ignore the social dimension, even if it is not the only dimension.” I would hasten to agree, and I can’t see why any reflective person wouldn’t. What would the alternative be?
- Secondly, one could say, “Maybe; and maybe not. The facts themselves do not force policy decisions about what groups of people should believe. Ranges of different or even incommensurate theories can be built up around the same observations, and theories are always underdetermined. Your confidence that there really is a vacuum does not reflect any stubborn fact. It only expresses your confidence in a theory that has come about in response to the facts, and your confidence only shows the power of the knowledge regime you serve.” Wow. Really? But then is the Foucaultian theory of “regimes of truth” and the social dimension of scientific theories itself somehow better established, more true to the stubborn facts, than contemporary physics? Should I be more confident of one than another?
“Yes,” I can imagine someone replying. “The theories about how people and societies behave when it comes to knowledge are more immediate, and more familiar, than theories about vacua and the aether. We know what we are talking about when we talk about ourselves; we do not know the non-human world nearly so well.” I have to admit, this strikes me as implausible, if only because I tend to think, as a skeptic, that we understand ourselves least of all. The incredible advances in technology serve as some kind of evidence for thinking we understand the non-human world pretty well, and I don’t think our history of understanding ourselves has yielded anything comparable to satellites and particle accelerators. [Or??] Yes, I have read Popper, and I know that accurate predictions and subsequent technological success does not prove a theory; but, barring ridiculously astonishing luck, it does suggest that the theory has managed to get something right. Maybe not everything, of course; and maybe many features of a prevailing theory are due to social forces; but this leads me back to the view on the first critical reply above.
Perhaps the fundamental question or confusion I’m wrestling with is this: does the influence of social forces on science have anything to do with the issue of scientific truth? One might say that science is of course true (or as good as we’ve gotten so far) and it is also shaped by social forces. I like each lobe of this view, but it is hard for me to put them together: if social forces are powerful, aren’t they likely to skew science in ways independent of what’s true? On the other hand, one might say that this is exactly what happens; or they might disparage this notion of “truth” altogether. But it’s hard for me to believe this, as I check BBC news on my phone, start up my car, and follow my satellite navigator to where I want to go.