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Leszek Nowak (founding editor)

Jerzy Brzeziski Marcin Paprzycki

Andrzej Klawiter Piotr Przybysz (assistant editor)
Krzysztof astowski Michael J. Shaffer
Izabella Nowakowa Piotr Ziemian (assistant editor)
Katarzyna Paprzycka (editor-in-chief)


Joseph Agassi (Tel-Aviv) Jerzy Kmita (Pozna)

Étienne Balibar (Paris) Theo A.F. Kuipers (Groningen)
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Address: dr hab. Katarzyna Paprzycka . Department of Philosophy . University of Warsaw

Krakowskie Przedmiecie 3 . 00-927 Warszawa . Poland . fax ++48(0)22-826-5734


Edited by

Evandro Agazzi, Javier Echeverría

and Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2008

The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of "ISO
9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents -
Requirements for permanence".

ISSN 0303-8157
ISBN: 978-90-420-2421-2
©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2008
Printed in The Netherlands

Evandro Agazzi, Javier Echeverría, Amparo Gómez Rodríguez,

Introduction: Epistemology and the Social . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7


Evandro Agazzi, Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop . . 19

Hervé Barreau, Historical and Transcendental Factors in the
Construction of the Sciences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Juan Urrutia Elejalde, Puzzles and Problems. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla, Normativity and Self-Interest in Scientific
Research . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71


Wenceslao J. González, Economic Values in the Configuration of

Science . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85
Ramón Queraltó, The Philosophical Impact of Technoscience or the
Development of a Pragmatic Philosophy of Science . . . . . . . . 113


Alberto Cordero, Epistemology and “the Social” in

Contemporary Natural Science . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
Jesús Mosterín, Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and
the Lysenko Affair . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
Valentín A. Bazhanov, Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic,
Epistemology, and the History of Science: The Case of Marxism . . 157


Juan Fco. Álvarez, Javier Echeverría, Bounded Rationality in

Social Sciences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173
Amparo Gómez Rodríguez, Rational Choice Theory and Economic
Laws: The Role of Shared Values . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 191
Brigitte Falkenburg, The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? . . . . 207
Peter Kemp, The Cosmopolitan Vision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 225
Evandro Agazzi
Javier Echeverría
Amparo Gómez Rodríguez


Epistemology on the one hand, and “the social” on the other hand, have
been considered alien to one another for rather a long while. Not only
when epistemology was understood as theory of knowledge in general
(something that is still normal in the English-speaking world) but also
when epistemology was understood in the more restricted sense of
philosophy of science (as is more customary today in other linguistic
areas). Indeed, epistemology understood as general theory of knowledge
seems to be specifically concerned with those cognitive operations that
are performed by an individual knowing subject and are supposed to be
essentially the same for every knowing subject, operations that, for this
reason, are often considered as performances of “the mind” in a rather
abstract sense. Society as such is incapable of knowing and, at most, can
act as a set of external conditionings that, rather than help, could disturb
the mind in the correct performance of its tasks. This situation does not
change when epistemology is considered as a synonymous of philosophy
of science, because in this case it is understood as the investigation of the
conditions under which science constitutes a form of knowledge (and
indeed the most advanced form of knowledge). Implicit in this view is
the tenet that epistemology does not have a descriptive role, but rather
also a normative one, in the sense that scientific knowledge is valid
knowledge par excellence, and epistemology is precisely entrusted with
the task of clarifying the conditions under which this valid knowledge in
science actually obtains. Therefore, any intromission of “the social” is
seen again as a disturbing factor of which epistemology should rather
teach us how to get rid.
A second reason for this distance was represented by the fact that, if
one considers epistemology as philosophy of science, it is implicit that it

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 7-16. Amsterdam/New York, NY:
Rodopi, 2008.
8 E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, A.Gómez

can be concerned only with scientific knowledge understood as a special

kind of knowledge. But what kind? As is known, for almost two centuries
the domain of the modern sciences was circumscribed, in the Western
culture, to mathematics and the natural sciences, and “the social” was
excluded from such a domain for a series of reasons that we are not
interested in indicating here: the study of the social was considered a part
of the “humanities” as distinct and even separated from the “sciences.”
Of course, there were important exceptions with regard to this view (for
example, Gianbattista Vico had maintained already in the eighteen
century that the genuine sciences in which we can uncover the causes of
the investigated facts are the social-historical ones, because we humans
are the producers of such facts), but the paradigm of the natural sciences
became so prevailing that a deep struggle was necessary when, in the
second half of the nineteenth century, the social-historical disciplines
wanted to vindicate their status of “sciences.” This story is well known
and need not be remembered here. What we want to note is that such a
vindication was possible thanks to a serious epistemological debate, that
is, a debate in which the concept of science was shown to be “analogical”
and not “univocal” since it admitted two distinct exemplifications, and in
such a way we can say that epistemology and the social started to become
more friendly: epistemology had opened to the social the possibility of
being a legitimate object of science, by creating in itself a new branch,
the “epistemology of the social sciences.” This new discipline has been a
mixed enterprise: in certain cases it was a kind of application of
“general” epistemologies to the peculiarities of the social sciences, or
even the marginal output of grand philosophical theories about man and
societies (as in the case of ideologically inspired epistemologies);
perhaps less frequently it has been the result of self-conscious reflections
by practicing social scientists. Under any of these forms the epistemology
or methodology of the social sciences has been a “philosopher-friendly”
area more often than not, due perhaps to the fact that sociology,
anthropology and political science are (to use an evolutionary metaphor)
among the disciplines which have a more recent “common ancestor” with
Taking the social seriously, however, as it was implicit in the very
fact of considering it as a legitimate object of scientific investigation,
was likely to produce as a natural consequence the adoption of an inverse
point of view, that of including science itself in the domain of the social
and to submit it to sociological inquiry. This inquiry was obviously
many-faceted, and could very naturally regard several aspects of “doing
science” as a social activity (which it actually is especially in
Epistemology and the Social 9

contemporary societies), but a delicate point presented itself when the

programme appeared of a “social analysis of scientific knowledge.” The
very formulation of this programme indicates that it entailed a right of
entrance of sociology into epistemology, and this fact produced, at least
initially, some hostility between the two. In fact, many authors who have
cultivated this sociological analysis have conceived their research as an
attempt to show that philosophical interpretations of science are radically
delusory, are abstract idealizations, and have often pushed their position
up to maintain that the content of “scientific knowledge” is itself little
more than a fictitious social fabric, not determined at all by “the state of
nature” and not even by rigorous criteria of empirical adequacy and
rational cogency, but much more by the force of social interests.
Therefore, the paradoxical result was that a discipline recently promoted
to the rank of science was undermining the respectability and reliability
of science itself as a cognitive enterprise, and this was really a novelty in
epistemology because traditionally the recognized particular sciences
(from mathematics to logic, linguistic, philology, and so on) had offered
to epistemology useful tools for developing its work of understanding
scientific knowledge.
We can certainly consider as unjustified exaggerations the extreme
positions mentioned above, but we must recognize that they produced the
awareness of the role played by values in the sciences, an awareness that
challenged the famous Weberian thesis that science must be value free
because only respecting this condition it can attain its ideal, that is,
objectivity. There was a moment in which several philosophers of
science, who wanted to be open-minded regarding the question of values,
admitted that empirical control and logical coherence are not the only
criteria that scientists use for choosing between two rival theories but
that (when such criteria are satisfied on both sides) they are guided in
their choice by “values” such as simplicity, elegance, fertility in
predictions, causal representation, links with other scientific branches
and so on. Sure, these criteria are different from the basic goal of
attaining truth, but remain nevertheless on the cognitive plane, they can
be called epistemic values and their intervention in the construction of
science seems easily admissible, especially because they are not meant to
replace the criteria of empirical adequacy and logical cogency, but
simply to be in keeping with them and possibly complement them when
they are not sufficient for discriminating between two rival theories.
Quite different is the question whether non-cognitive values such as
moral, social, political, economic, religious values enter the fabric of
science, and not just as a matter of fact (that is, in the form of an
10 E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, A.Gómez

intromission that is perhaps unavoidable but is regrettable) but as a

matter of principle, as something structural that has to do with the nature
of science itself.
The legitimacy of opening this debate is bound to a “distinction
without separation” of the aspect according to which science is a system
of knowledge and the aspect according to which it is a complex system of
human activities (quite independently of the not negligible fact that
contemporary science is so strictly interwoven with technology that we
now speak of “technoscience” as a unitary social fact of our time). Once
we pay attention to the second aspect, the unavoidable and fully
legitimate presence of values in “doing science” becomes obvious, and
the only (not simple) problem remains that of making this fact
compatible with the due satisfaction of the specific cognitive value of
science, and this shows how the consideration of values “in general” and
of their mutual relations is one of the central issues of present
epistemology of science.
The preceding considerations offer the framework within which are
inscribed the papers collected in this book, not in the sense that these
systematically discuss the points mentioned above, nor that they are
arranged in a logical order following the path of the preceding reasoning,
but in the sense that they highlight with different stress distinct aspects of
this thematic. Therefore, an initial set of papers take into consideration
the presence of “the social” in contemporary philosophy of science and
its consequences according to a rather general perspective, a second set
handles the effect of the presence of values in the construction of science,
while a third set exemplifies the social impact on a couple of particular
sciences, and finally a few papers treat questions pertaining to the
epistemology of the social sciences. It is easy to note a certain accent put
on economics in several of these papers that is not accidental. After all,
that modern science has produced a huge amount of discoveries and
practical achievements is a social factum of which we need both a
reasonable explanation (how have modern societies been able to build
such an impressive thing?) and instruments for rational evaluation and
criticism (how have we to govern such a creature?). In recent times a
growing number of authors have conjectured that, among the social
sciences, it is economics (not necessarily understood as neo-classical
economics) which provides the best tools for carrying out this project,
not because of being “more scientific” than its cousins (what may be
doubtful) but mainly because it allows to build clearer theoretical
models, more suitable to be rationally assessed and criticized. Obviously,
this criticism must begin by an analysis of the assumptions, either
Epistemology and the Social 11

methodological or normative, on which models are constructed, and this

is why a philosophical understanding of this theoretical activity is needed
in the first place.
Part one, devoted to general perspectives, opens with a paper by
Evandro Agazzi, “Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop,” that
considers first the long tradition in which epistemology was intended as
the effort of determining the structures and functions of the mind
conceived as given in themselves and independently of the “content” of
knowledge. Only late in the nineteenth century it became clear that the
contents of thought influence our “way of thinking,” especially when
they are unconsciously absorbed: our knowledge is always “framed”
within the already acquired knowledge. Sociology of knowledge
systematized this awareness and justified it, but it could do so because it
is a respected science (a social science) and this seems to produce a circle
(we need a recognized science to critically evaluate science itself). This
is not, however, a vicious circle, but rather an example of a feedback
loop, a process that starts under certain conditions and can be led to
modify these conditions as a consequence of the results of the process
itself (selfregulation). This happened in the case of science, whose initial
conception, inspired by the model of the physical sciences, led to the
epistemological legitimation of the social sciences and this result
produced a modification of the initial model. Examples of this kind are
common in different branches of human enquiry. The only limit is that
this circle do not result in contradictions, and this would happen if the
application of sociological approaches were to jeopardize the essential
characteristics of science, that is, objectivity and rigour, whereas the
scientific discourse must be at the same time socially situated and
intrinsically valid.
The paper by Hervé Barreau, “Historical and Transcendental Factors
in the Construction of the Sciences,” points out that, after the relatively
recent recognition of the historical nature of science, two aspects have
emerged as indispensable approaches for a satisfactory understanding of
science itself. One is the historical contextualization of single scientific
disciplines, methodologies and theories, the other is the examination of
the reasons for which, within each contextualization, the scientific
enterprise could correctly claim to satisfy the requirement of providing
solid knowledge. An epistemology of science must include and
harmonize both attitudes, the first of which we can call “hermeneutic”
(having to do with the “interpretation” of the social-historical context)
and the second “transcendental” (since it tries to bring to light those
12 E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, A.Gómez

elements that, though being present in a given context, were supposed to

have an intrinsic value not contingently linked with this context).
The paper by Juan Urrutia, “Puzzles and Problems,” is written by an
economist, but is not a piece of work in the epistemology of economics.
The aim of the author is to use the Solow model of economic growth not
with the purpose of studying the “economics of scientific knowledge” but
as a methodological tool for understanding the production of scientific
output or the belief-forming process. In so doing a discussion takes place
regarding the pros and cons of this Solow model in comparison with the
usual game theory approach. The paper is of a rather technical nature and
for this reason cannot be summarized here. Its general interest, however,
consists in the fact that it is an excellent example of how certain
approaches developed within a specific social science (in this case
economics) can profitably become tools for the development of
epistemology in general, in a manner not really different from the more
familiar use in epistemology of tools taken from mathematics, logic or
linguistic analysis.
The issue of the harmonization of cognitive and non-cognitive values
in scientific activity comes up again in a more general perspective in the
paper by Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla, “Normativity and Self-Interest in
Scientific Research,” whose declared aim is to propose a “contractarian
epistemology.” Two views regarding the notion of rationality in science
are considered, the one that concerns the rationality of scientific
knowledge (as deriving from the use of sound methodological norms),
and the one that concerns scientists as rational agents pursuing the
optimization of their own personal interests. The effort is made of
making these two approaches mutually compatible by showing that a
competition among rational “recognition-seekers” is only possible if they
agree in accepting some system of methodological norms (an analysis of
the main kinds and properties of these norms is proposed).
Part two, devoted to values in the structure of science, begins with a
paper of Wenceslao González, “Economic Values in the Configuration of
Science,” that considers the axiology of research focused on cognitive
values and the enlargement of the characterization of values offered by
Rescher’s approach, which makes explicit that economic values can
contribute to the configuration of science. It is suggested, however, that
the issue of economic values in this configuration requires a new general
framework for values in scientific activity, a framework that includes not
only the selection of aims or goals of scientific activities, but also their
processes and results. Within this broader approach it can be seen how
economic values have a role in the internal context of epistemology and
Epistemology and the Social 13

methodology of science, and a clearer role in science as a social activity

and in the uses and applications of science. Moreover the economic
dimension of rationality appears as the key element for interrelating
aims, processes and results or outcomes of scientific research.
The paper by Ramón Queraltó, “The Philosophical Impact of
Technoscience and the Relevance of Social Values for a Pragmatic
Philosophy of Science,” starts with a clarification of the concept of
technoscience as a complex net of activities in which scientific
knowledge is applied for the realization of technological products that, in
turn, make possible the advancement of scientific research. Therefore it
is evident that social values, that permeate technoscience, have also an
influence on science itself. The author proposes to conceive these values
pragmatically, that is, as guidelines for solving problems arising in the
technoscientific activity, be they of epistemological, ethical or political
nature. This implies a reconsideration of philosophy of science not only
as a broader philosophy of technoscience, but also as a specifically
pragmatic philosophy of science.
Three papers are included in part three concerning the social impact
on particular sciences.
In the paper by Alberto Cordero, “Epistemology and “the Social” in
Contemporary Natural Science,” the autonomy of epistemology in mature
science with regard to social factors is vindicated but at the same time
contextualized to the different situations involved. In particular the paper
presents two case studies (feminist Biology and Einstein’s development
of Special Relativity) regarding the social pressure to diversify the points
of view represented in scientific research, involving pluralist enrichment
of this research, by imposing an epistemological reform. Examination of
these cases shows why general pluralist arguments fail and also why
social intervention in epistemological matters is a misguided activity.
Jesús Mosterín’s paper, “Social Factors in the Development of
Genetics and the Lysenko Affair,” points out that the history of genetics
offers abundant material for the study of the influence of social factors in
the development of science. Several of these factors are listed and briefly
touched upon. Special attention is paid to the interference of political
power in the business of science, exemplified and analyzed in the tragic
case of the Lisenko affair which led to the death of the best geneticists of
Russia and the destruction of a whole and fruitful scientific community.
The paper by Valentin Bazhanov, “Social Milieu and Evolution of
Logic, Epistemology, and the History of Science: The Case of Marxism,”
starts with an interesting remark: it has now become commonly accepted
that social factors influence the development of the sciences and also of
14 E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, A.Gómez

philosophy, but it seems that certain disciplines, such as logic,

epistemology and the history of science, are not sensitive to such factors.
In their case an “internalist” view seems to largely prevail over the
“externalist” view that dominates in other fields. This phenomenon was
paradoxically more evident in the case of Marxist ideology, that was
strongly externalist regarding any kind of development (including
scientific and philosophical development), but made exception precisely
regarding logic, epistemology and history of science. After the fall of
communism the externalist perspective has become more and more
fashionable in Russia in the domains of epistemology and especially of
history of science.
The concluding part four handles the theme of the epistemology of the
social sciences and is opened by the paper by Juan Francisco Álvarez and
Javier Echeverría, “Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences,” underscores
the limitations of the common view regarding social interactions as
produced by human beings considered as rational optimizing decision
makers. Instead of this too abstract view of rationality, a more flexible
notion of “procedural rationality” is more suitable for understanding
social interaction, also because of significant links existing between this
form of rationality and axiological cognitivist rationality. Both of them
are at work in our social actions. The authors advocate a “bounded
axiological rationality” as an alternative to the customary model of
rationality. The advantage is that this new view of rationality allows for
several models, one of which is the traditional theory of maximizing
rational choice, but once values are introduced as a factor in the analysis
of actions, their objectives and their results, it is possible to establish
differences among these models according to their greater or lesser
degree of axiological rationality.
In the paper by Amparo Gómez, “Rational Choice Theory and the
Economics Laws: The Role of Shared Values,” the epistemological status
of the laws of economics is discussed. Such laws are considered
explanatory and predictive by some authors in certain specific cases (in
contexts where standard rationality operates successfully), while other
authors maintain that the descriptive theories of rational choice open up a
research path in which fundamental principles of the neoclassical
building could be questioned. Both views have produced a revision of the
Standard Rational Choice Theory, that has produced the so-called
“descriptive viewpoint,” in which due attention is paid to the concrete
and far from ideal situations in which choices are made, and that are
rather far from the presupposition of the “normative” rational choice
theory. This paper, adopting the descriptive point of view, tries to show
Epistemology and the Social 15

how certain factors coming from the social and cultural environment
operate within the rational choice.
In the paper by Brigitte Falkenburg, “The Invisible Hand: What Do
We Know?”, Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” is
investigated in detail. Smith’s analogue was the mechanics of the solar
system but precisely this analogue makes the analogy fail. Indeed the
correct analogue belongs to thermodynamics and statistics because in the
simplest macro-economic model the business cycle has the same formal
structure as the heat flow between two heat reservoirs, and a business
cycle of growing efficiency works like a refrigerator: it pumps money
from the poor to the rich. More complicated models do not give a more
friendly image. Due to technological push, an economic system behaves
like a thermodynamic system far from equilibrium, showing chaotic
behaviours and developing into unpredictable states.
In the paper by Peter Kemp, “The Cosmopolitan Vision,” the
opposition is taken into consideration that the sociologist Ulrich Beck has
recently maintained between the national and the cosmopolite point of
view. The awareness of this opposition is important for a correct
understanding of many issues in present international political
framework, but the question is posed whether this same opposition
should also affect the epistemology of the social sciences, in the sense of
asking whether our knowledge of social realities be possible at every
level without choosing a political point of view.
The contributions published in this volume correspond to revised
versions of papers presented at a meeting of the International Academy
of Philosophy of Science on the theme Epistemology and the Social that
took place in Tenerife on September 22-25, 2005. The meeting was
organized in collaboration with the Faculty of Philosophy of the
University of La Laguna at Tenerife and with the sponsorship of the
Institute of Philosophy of the Spanish Superior Board of Scientific
Researches, the Urrutia Elejalde Foundation, the Spanish Society of
Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. It was also supported by
the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, and the Regional
Government of the Canary Islands. To all these institutions and their
officers we present the most sincere expressions of thanks for the
realization of the meeting and the publication of this volume.
16 E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, A.Gómez

Evandro Agazzi
President of the International Academy of Philosophy of Science

Javier Echeverría
Full Professor of Philosophy of Science
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)

Amparo Gómez
Full Professor of Philosophy of Science
University of La Laguna
Evandro Agazzi



ABSTRACT. A sociological study of science is not very recent and has never
been seen as particularly problematic since science, and especially modern
science, constitutes an impressive and extremely ramified “social system” of
activities, institutions, relations and interferences with other social systems. Less
favourable, however, has been the consideration of a more recent trend in the
philosophy of science known as the “sociological” philosophy of science, whose
most debatable point consists in directly challenging the traditional epistemology
of science and, in particular, in stripping scientific knowledge of its most
appreciated characteristics of objectivity and rigour. A vicious circle seems to lie
at the root of this sociological epistemology because, on the one hand, criticism
of the traditional concept of scientific knowledge is developed by relying upon
sociology, but this, on the other hand is reasonable only if sociology is credited
with the status of a reliable instrument, that is, because it has been recognized as
a science through an epistemological debate. In this paper it is shown that not all
circles are vicious: in particular, feedback loops, positive and negative, are
normally considered in cybernetic models of various processes. Negative
feedback loops are fundamental in self-regulating processes and have already
occurred from time to time in readjusting the concept of science itself.
Therefore, a sociological epistemology of science can contribute to a more
careful analysis of the real meaning and purport of the cognitive aspect of
science, provided that it is not pushed to the self-defeating extreme of
challenging the legitimacy of considering objectivity and rigour as the
characteristic features of scientific knowledge.

1. The Path to Knowledge

According to what we could call the “classical” view, the fact of knowing
was considered to consist in an “opening” of reality to the mind as well
as an (intentional) “identification” of the mind with reality. In other

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 19-31. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
20 Evandro Agazzi

words, the fact that being must reveal itself as it is, was taken for
granted, and at the same time the fact that our thinking activity
necessarily thinks being. This attitude, that today we might be ready to
qualify as “naïve realism,” was actually rooted in a deeper consideration,
that is, in the absolutization of the concept of being, that was simply
conceived as the opposite of non-being. Therefore, if our thinking were
not thinking of being, it should be thinking of non-being, that is, thinking
of nothing, and in such a way no thinking at all. This was, in short, the
position of Parmenides, but he could obviously not overlook something
that seemed to play at the same time the role of an indispensable tool and
of a possible obstacle for knowledge, namely sense perception. Indeed
sense perception seems to put us in direct immediate contact with reality,
seems to be the situation in which the word “opens” itself to us in the
most spontaneous way, without demanding from us any effort, but
despite this, we are aware of certain situations in which we are easily
deceived by the so-called “sense illusions.” Yet this is not the most
important shortcoming of sense perception, the most significant one is
that it seems to make manifest something that cannot be real, that is,
multiplicity of beings and, especially, change. The sensory experience of
change seems to testify that there was a time when something existing did
not exist and also will not exist at some future time; in other words, this
experience seems to testify that being can become non-being, or that non-
being can produce being, all things that the simple nature of being
necessarily excludes. As is well known, this was the reason why
Parmenides and his school disqualified sense knowledge as fallacious
opinion (doxa) leaving the attaining of truth (aletheia) as a privilege of
the intellect (logos). Things changed a little with Plato, and much more
with Aristotle (as a consequence of having clarified that the concept of
being does not have a univocal meaning), but even within the doctrine of
the Stagirite (in which a proper role is attributed to sense perception),
genuine knowledge (episteme) was considered possible only thanks to the
work of intellect, and this because of two reasons. The one is that
genuine knowledge not only presupposes truth, but in addition requires a
justification of this truth through suitable arguments that are elaborated
by intellect. The other is that truth itself (according to its most
appropriate conception) is a property of judgments and these are again a
product of intellect. As a consequence of this historical development we
find the famous medieval definition of truth as adaequatio intellectus et
rei, that has become the core of the Western conception of truth (though
different criteria for truth have been proposed in the history of Western
Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop 21

Let us note that this indispensable involvement of the intellect or

understanding was not maintained because sense perceptions were taken
to be unreliable, that is, considered as a deformation of reality, possibly
due to the peculiarity of our sense organs. The famous statement of
medieval epistemology, quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis
recipitur simply meant that what “accidents” of a substance can be
grasped by us depends on our sense organs. Not because our organs
produce such accidents, but simply because every sense has its specific
potentialities: sight can perceive colours and forms, but not sounds;
hearing can perceive sounds but not colours or smells, etc. Already
Aristotle had said that every sense is never wrong in its specific domain,
but no sense pronounces judgments, and this is why no sense can tell the
truth or falsity, that imply the attribution of a particular feature to a
substance, and only understanding is capable of doing this. In particular
this is possible because the intellect was credited with the capability of
fieri quaedammodo omnia (of becoming in a way all things), that is, of
conforming itself to reality and realizing in such a way that adequatio in
which truth consists.

2. The Uniqueness of the Human Intellect

An additional reason for the indispensable role attributed to intellect

(understanding) in the classical tradition was the need of overcoming the
privateness of sense perceptions, that in modern terminology we would
call the overcoming of the subjectivity of knowledge. Indeed already the
sophists had stressed that humans are in disagreement about a lot of
judgements regarding how things are, and had drown the consequence
that truth does not exist and all opinions are equally legitimate. Against
this form of scepticism Socrates and Plato had stressed that, in order to
disagree about a certain judgment, people must share the same concepts,
so that their disagreement can depend upon differences in sense
perceptions, but cannot eliminate the sharing of a common universal
intellectual content. Therefore the acquisition of knowledge requires an
overcoming of sensory experience through the exercise of a deeper
scrutiny, in which all the forces of reason are applied (i.e. intellect and
contemplation) that brings man to universal and necessary truths. This
has become for centuries the standard way of understanding the nature of
proper knowledge.
Tacitly presupposed in this perspective was the conviction that reason
is universal and identical in all humans, independently of times and
22 Evandro Agazzi

places. From this could consistently derive the proposal of a “critique of

pure reason,” of which the Kantian example is only the most
paradigmatic expression, since practically the whole history of Western
epistemology can be seen as an effort of scrutinizing how our cognitive
“faculties” or capabilities, be they sensory or intellectual, “really are” in
their intrinsic constitution. This constitution was meant to be simply part
of the constitution of the human nature, so that treatises on epistemology
could be qualified as “essay concerning human understanding,”
“enquiries concerning human understanding,” as well as be included in
some “treatise of human nature.” Nevertheless, already the Baconian
doctrine of the idola, but also the Cartesian programme of the
methodological doubt, had called attention on the fact that also the mind,
also the intellect can address reality in a biased way, can induce us to
form distorted representations of reality not less than our sense organs.
This move was a consequence of a deep but tacit and unconscious
presupposition that had occurred in epistemology at the beginning of
modern philosophy and which we can call “epistemological dualism.”
According to this view what we directly know is not reality but our ideas
or representations, so that we must solve the problem of finding a way to
distinguish those representations that correspond to reality from those
that are fictitious. What Descartes in his Discourse on Method and
Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum have proposed to do was a careful
examination of those ideas or images that we usually take for granted, but
are actually prejudices that we find in our mind as a kind of inheritance
derived from what we have learned during our education, or depending
on our commerce with our fellow humans, or even on our constitution,
both as members of the human species or as particular individuals. This
necessity of a critical assessment previous to any application of the sound
method of inquiry (that is different for the two mentioned authors) is
perhaps more eloquently presented in Bacon’s doctrine of the idola
(images), that are dangerous because are ingrained notions that challenge
our ability to differ from established notions.
It is interesting that among these idola (i. tribus, i. specus, i. fori,
i. theatri), the idola fori and theatri were already of a social and cultural
kind, since they derive from received doctrines and from the network of
our social connexions. The subsequent epistemology, however, until Kant
and also after him, continued to investigate an allegedly pure reason or
understanding, in the effort of discovering its mechanisms and
functioning independently of the particular “contents” of those
operations, that is, believing that the “thinking thought” (the thinking
mind) is precondition of, and different from, the “thought thought” (what
Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop 23

the mind thinks). It has become clear in the sequel, on the contrary, that
the contents of thought, that is, what has been already accepted in our
thought, influences our way of thinking, especially when these contents
have been interiorized in an unconscious way. In short, human
knowledge never begins from zero, and successive elements of
knowledge are “framed” within the already acquired knowledge and tend
to consolidate it. We could express this by saying that thought is simply
the whole of our thoughts, that our mind is the whole of our knowledge.
This statement does not coincide with a return to the Cartesian and
Baconian caveats against the risks of becoming prisoners of preconceived
prejudices, since it appears that such prejudices are not something we
must get rid of, but something that is a precondition of our knowing the
This awareness has been stimulated also by the studies of psychology
already starting in the second half of the nineteenth century and
continuing with the most recent trends of cognitive psychology, but has
also been enriched by the developments of sociology and, in particular,
of sociology of knowledge.

3. From Sociology of Knowledge to the Sociological

Conception of Science

The thesis of the social dependence of science has become more and
more prevalent, at least quantitatively, as a result of the combination of
two cultural factors which, though of very different provenance, were
(accidentally, one might say) at play in the same time frame. The first of
these is represented by the so called “non-orthodox” tradition of Marxist
thought, which developed largely in western European countries in the
1960s (particularly, though not exclusively, in the Frankfurt School, and
in the writings of authors such as Goldmann and Althusser in France),
and was using its arguments – concerning the total dependence of
scientific knowledge and practice on the social relations of production in
the capitalist societies – as weapons in the polemic over the neutrality of
science in the 1970s. In the meanwhile the Anglo-American world began
to develop a sociological conception of science, which it has articulated
up to the present.
This conception was born with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions (1962). This work engendered a lively debate since
it opposed both the epistemological tradition of logical empiricism and
Popperian thought. Kuhn always maintained the professional image of
24 Evandro Agazzi

being more a historian of science than a philosopher of science, and

quickly moderated his work’s more radical theses. But his theses enjoyed
a great success precisely because they openly applied the sociology of
knowledge so widespread and influential in academic circles to the realm
of scientific knowledge, and theretofore none had dared make such an
application. Indeed the sociology of knowledge has roots as much in the
German tradition from Marx to Nietzsche and Scheler, as in the French
cultural anthropology of Durkheim and Mauss, but its most prominent
pioneer is Karl Mannheim whose most famous work appeared in English
in the 1950s (Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of
Knowledge, 1956). Originally published in 1929, this work asserts that
historical and social environment determines both the content and forms
of our knowledge. It is significant, however, that he admits an exception
to this epistemological rule: mathematics and the natural sciences are
exempt from what he calls “existential determination.” It was precisely
this limitation that was overcome by Kuhn’s book. On more technical
epistemological terrain, the debate between the Kuhnians and Popperians
dominated the scene in the 1970s, entering also into the climate created
by the study of the “later Wittgenstein” (whose Philosophical
Investigations appeared in 1953), fueling the controversy over the
incommensurability of scientific theories, and opening the way to the
development of the epistemologies of Lakatos and Feyerabend. The
consequences of holding for too great a dependence of science on the
social context begin to emerge in this debate over epistemologies: radical
relativism, antirealism, disappearance of the notion of truth and even of
scientific objectivity, the dissolution of the criteria able to justify the
preference not only of one scientific theory over another, but also of
scientific forms of knowledge over pseudo-sciences.
These theses, which may seem paradoxical in the openly iconoclastic
and provocative writings of a Feyerabend, have received systematic
treatment since the 1960s, and make up a solid block of “metascientific”
literature. The principal works during those years are David Bloor,
Knowledge and Social Imagery (1976); B. Barnes, Interests and the
Growth of Knowledge (1977); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar,
Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979);
K.D. Knorr-Cetina, The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the
Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science (1981); Science
Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by
K.D. Knorr and M. Mulkay (1983). The main periodicals in which these
authors publish are Social Studies of Science and Sociology of the
Sciences Yearbook. This position has some merits, but also several weak
Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop 25

points (that have been examined with particular insistence, for example,
by Mario Bunge). We are not interested here, however, in a critical
examination of this sociological conception of science, but want rather to
present a few more general methodological considerations regarding the
very fact of using sociology as a tool for elaborating an epistemological
doctrine, and in particular a doctrine regarding the epistemology of
These considerations can be briefly sketched as follows. Sociology of
knowledge is a science, intends to be a science and, in particular, one of
the specializations of the social sciences; moreover its results and claims
are considered reliable simply because they satisfy the conditions of
scientificity. And this is what actually happened: during several decades
between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth
century a wide epistemological debate took place in order to vindicate
the specific scientific status of the social sciences. This debate eventually
led to a very large recognition of the scientific status of sociology such
that this discipline, having been admitted among the contributors to our
genuine knowledge, can be legitimately used whenever people want to
avail themselves of some contents of human knowledge (for instance, in
investigating economic phenomena, legal institutions, artistic production,
history of ideas and so on). Should we stop this use of sociology when
we come to science? Should we become diffident before a sociology of
science? Of course not, because, after all, science is also in some respects
a “social product” and, despite some legitimate criticisms that have been
levelled against the sociological conception of science, none could deny
that it is a positive thing in itself to introduce historical and social
consciousness into the understanding of science, and that it is also useful
to submit the scientific enterprise to sociological study: the information
gained thereby is always interesting and illuminating. It is something
completely different, however, to claim to reduce scientific knowledge to
nothing but a social product. Herein lies the mistake of a good portion of
sociological epistemology, a mistake that derives precisely from having
promoted sociology to the role of a judge of what is science, beyond the
study of how science is concretely practiced in societies. This is
tantamount to having endowed sociology with an epistemological role
while it has received from epistemology its right to pronounce statements
with a cognitive value. In other words, are we confronted with a vicious
circle, consisting in the fact that we need a recognized science in order to
speak of a socially conditioned status of science in general? Would we
not put sociology in the place traditionally occupied by logic and
methodology of science, attributing to sociology the privilege of a super-
26 Evandro Agazzi

science or meta-science that is immune from those conditionings that it

brings to light for the other sciences?

4. Not Vicious Circle but Feedback Loop

The situation is not precisely this: it is rather like that of a feedback loop.
A process which starts under certain conditions can be led to modify
these conditions as a consequence of the results of the process itself
(selfregulation). In our case, a process of epistemological reflection
initiated under the “condition” of accepting a certain modern concept of
science (practically derived from an idealization of the “exact” natural
sciences, in spite of being considered “general”) continued with a
relaxation of certain too rigid requirements included in that idealization,
and permitted to include also the social sciences in the domain of
science. This step, in turn, made reasonable the acceptance of the results
of sociology even when they are applied to knowledge and to scientific
knowledge in particular, a fact that produced a reconsideration and
readjustment of the “general” concept of science such that social
conditionings of science should be taken into serious consideration.
This way of reasoning is not circular, but actually common to any
form of “reflecting thinking.” So, for example, one cannot start an
inquiry on the functioning of mind without crediting mind with the
capability of offering us a reliable tool for this inquiry. Even in the case
of Kant, he affirmed that his investigation on the a priori conditions of
any possible knowledge represented the most solid science, despite the
fact that the conclusions of his transcendental investigation were that
science is only possible when we apply intellectual categories to sensory
intuitions (and this does not occur in the transcendental investigation).
Similarly, it was by respecting certain fundamental methodological
requirements of classical physics that scientists have been led to results
obliging them to repudiate several principles of that physics. To be more
precise, circularity is a weakness, a methodological mistake, when it
consists in taking A as a justification of B, and then B itself as a
justification of A (very clearly when this justification has the form of a
logical deduction). But there are many cases in which this does not
happen, even when we use deductive tools: for instance, when we use a
hypothesis H to deductively predict an event E, we can say, on the one
hand, that this prediction was justified by H but, on the other hand, if E
does actually occur we say that E justifies H (while the not occurring of
E refutes H), and this is correct because the meaning of “justification” is
Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop 27

obviously different in the two cases (in the first direction it means a link
of logical consequence, in the second direction it means a link of
empirical confirmation). This shows that not every “circle” is a vicious
circle and, paradoxically, a non-vicious circle is that in which, by
developing the consequences of A, we end up with the negation of A
(which, in a way is a kind of “coming back” to A). The paradoxical
impression consists in the fact that we seem to consider a contradiction
an example of non-vicious circle, but things are actually a little different:
this circle is not vicious not only because it does not take A as
justification of non-A, and then non-A as a justification of A, but
especially because it is not a contradiction, but a process for discovering
a contradiction and, in such a way, for eliminating an error. This
procedure is present in the proofs by reductio ad absurdum quite
common in mathematics, and is implied in the dynamics of scientific
theories according to the standard view, when the developments of a
theory can lead to certain results that are logically incompatible with
some hypotheses of the same theory and can induce scientists to modify
or abandon it. Another significant example that has some similarity with
the reductio ad absurdum is what the ancient philosophers called
elenchos (and is often translated as “refutation” in modern terminology).
This type of argument is different from “demonstration,” strictly
understood as a deduction from given premises, since it serves to provide
a justification of the first premises or principles themselves, and
essentially consists in showing that the person who denies the principle
must actually use it in his act of negation. The most famous application
of this kind of argument is made by Aristotle in defending the principle
of non-contradiction: the denier must use this principle if he simply
wants to say something determined, and therefore he implicitly admits it
(see the fourth book of Metaphysics).

5. The Normative and Descriptive Aspects of Epistemology

Coming now to epistemology (understood as general theory of

knowledge), we must note that it has always included two aspects, that
we could call the descriptive and the normative ones. The normative is
preliminary, since it amounts first to some determination of the concept
of knowledge, that is, to making sufficiently precise what is knowledge,
and this secondly also determines what requirements something must
satisfy in order to deserve being qualified as knowledge. The descriptive
aspect consists in scrutinizing how knowledge comes about, through
28 Evandro Agazzi

which steps, under what conditions and according to what criteria it can
be believed to obtain, and this in particular regarding the different objects
that we would like to know. These two aspects are, of course, only
analytically distinct but are concretely interdependent. After a possible
analysis of some different meanings of the notions of knowledge and
knowing present in common language, one should focus on the
traditionally most relevant one (the one that is taken into consideration
by the “theory of knowledge”) which is often qualified as “propositional
knowledge,” that is, a knowledge expressed in declarative propositions.
This knowledge can be characterized in this way: “knowing is to have
present reality as it is” and “knowledge is the mental or linguistic
expression of this presence,” that is, “knowledge is the representation of
how things really are.” Whatever epistemology must not only presuppose
this concept of knowledge (otherwise it would be not theory of
knowledge, but theory of something else) but also presuppose that
knowledge as such is possible in general. Indeed, if we want to know how
our knowledge functions and obtains, we must concede that we can know
at least this. Therefore we find here the scheme of the elenchos: the
person who maintains that we can not know anything is defeating herself
since she presupposes at least that she knows this fact. By the way, this
was not the sense of the Socratic declaration that he knew that he did not
know, since this was only the admission of his ignorance about many
things, but not a general declaration of the impossibility of knowing
(indeed he has tried to show in what a possible sound knowledge can

6. Positive and Negative Feedback Loops

The history of epistemology can be seen as a continuous deepening and

enlargement of its descriptive aspect, in which functions, tools, criteria,
modalities for the acquisition of knowledge have been uncovered and
evaluated from the point of view of their soundness (the normative
aspect). This process can be presented as a repeated application of
feedback loops, in the sense that a certain stage of epistemology,
characterized so to speak by a given paradigm of knowledge, was led to
modify this paradigm (and in such a way to modify itself) by its own
intrinsic dynamics. The most notable moment in this evolution is
represented by the creation of modern natural science: facing the problem
of how we can know the “natural substances” (i.e., the physical bodies),
Galileo maintained that the acquisition of such a knowledge is a
Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop 29

desperate enterprise if we pretend to grasp their “intimate essence,” while

it is possible if we remain content with apprehending certain “affections”
or “accidents” of them (he then specified that such “real accidents” are
the mathematically expressible qualities of things). As a consequence of
this delimitation of the scope of possible knowledge (not of the concept
of knowledge itself), a display of methods, criteria and tools for the
acquisition of scientific knowledge were developed by Galileo, Newton
and their followers. During about two centuries this process had the
characteristics of a “positive” feedback loop (i.e., the obtained results
reinforced and enlarged the original framework), and this led to the
promotion of mechanistic mathematical physics to the privilege of being
not only the paradigm of science, but also a model of knowledge in
general (as is visible in Kant’s epistemology). But towards the end of the
nineteenth century the discovery of new physical phenomena (especially
in the field of thermodynamics and electrodynamics), to whose treatment
the same methodological and conceptual tools of mechanics were
applied, had the effect of a “negative” feedback loop, since they obliged
scientists to abandon not mechanics as such, but the prejudice that
mechanics exhausted the scope of the concept of natural science.
Moreover, since in the Western culture the idea had become widespread
that only scientific knowledge deserves being really qualified as
knowledge (positivism), scholars who were convinced that sound
knowledge was acquired in their disciplines began to vindicate for them
the right to be qualified as sciences. Here again we can see a negative
feedback loop: once we accept that science must be in general defined as
sound knowledge, and we also indicate in objectivity and rigor the
indispensable features of scientific knowledge, we are led to recognize
that the original identification of science with the model of the natural
sciences is too narrow, and a change of this exclusive model must take
place. This is the kernel of the dispute between the natural and the social
sciences that we have already mentioned, and that justifies the fact that
sociology, once it has been recognized as a science, carries its specific
contribution to the understanding of whatever reality that contains social
aspects or characteristics.
This fact correctly entails that a certain readjustment of the notion of
science occurs as a consequence of the sociological scrutiny, and in
particular an enlargement consisting in the awareness that science is a
multifaceted reality in which many factors are at work and affect its
concrete exercise. This means that limiting the consideration of science
to its cognitive aspect was too narrow a perspective, and that the
exploration of this pure aspect is insufficient for the understanding of the
30 Evandro Agazzi

real nature of science, that is, according to a certain sense, a system of

knowledge but also, according to another sense, a human activity. The
interesting fact is that this awareness has also brought people to
investigate how these pragmatic and social dimensions of science can
impinge on its cognitive aspect. This is again absolutely normal and
positive and, as we have already seen, has its antecedents in Descartes’
methodological doubt and in the Baconian doctrine of idola. In short, this
contribution should consist, as far as the cognitive dimension of science
is concerned, in bringing to light the social conditionings that accompany
the acquisition of scientific knowledge, and the only limit to this
procedure is that it does not result in a contradiction. In our case the
results of sociology of science can be considered as advancements in the
epistemology of science only if they do not lead to the rejection of the
fundamental characteristics of science, that is, objectivity and rigour. If
these requirements are lost, also sociology looses its rights to be
seriously taken into consideration and all its criticisms to the
“absoluteness” of science are emptied. The real contribution of sociology
of science is that of making people more attentive to the rather delicate
conditions that surround scientific research, and can often and easily
become obstacles against which scientists must fight if they want to
consistently remain scientists or, in less dramatic situations, are
limitations of which scientists and the social community must be aware
in the evaluation and use of scientific results. We could also express
these ideas by saying that we have and must have a concept of science in
order to speak about it and tell anything precise about it (including the
most radical criticism). This concept, that we have identified with the
idea of objective and rigorous knowledge, has a normative role but is an
abstract entity that can be exemplified more or less satisfactorily by
several concrete entities (i.e., by several human cognitive enterprises that
are qualified or pretend to be qualified as sciences). Sociology of science
is a good instrument for making us aware that such exemplifications are
rather often quite imperfect (and this has a great practical importance in
order to make people more prudent), but this never could mean that
science as objective knowledge is an empty concept or a forgery. This
would be similar to declaring that the geometrical concept of a sphere is
void because there is no concrete material body that perfectly exemplifies
a sphere; or to declaring that is void the concept of rigid body of
mechanics because there are no perfectly rigid bodies that we can
concretely see. On the contrary, such abstract concepts are intrinsically
legitimate and even practically useful in order us to know what
characteristics should be realized in order to obtain a spherical or a rigid
Epistemology and the Social: A Feedback Loop 31

body, and also to estimate within what limits we could be satisfied with
the imperfect realization of such properties according to our actual needs
in the different situations. In the case of science, the importance of
sociology of science consists mainly in making clear what conditions
have to be satisfied in order a scientific discourse to be at the same time
socially situated and intrinsically valid.

University of Genoa
Department of Philosophy
Via Balbi, 4
16126 Genova GE
Hervé Barreau



ABSTRACT. The hermeneutic context of scientific activity requires that

scientific discovery be attributed not only to historical factors but also to
transcendental factors (in the sense exemplified by Kant and Husserl, but without
their respective idealism). Together these factors can account for a scientific
discovery. This is manifest in the invention of Relativity by Einstein. Thomas
Kuhn considered the first factors and neglected the seconds. As a consequence
the “paradigms” are, for him, incommensurable. But this negligence is the effect
of a “positivism of mentalities” which replaced in Kuhn the positivism of facts.
This residual positivism is not alleviated by the relativist theses that the last
Kuhn borrowed from his colleague, the philosopher Quine. In the line of this
positivism and relativism, the successors of Kuhn and Quine are obliged to
under-estimate the value of scientific knowledge.

Twenty years ago in the AIPS conference on Mutual Relations between

the Philosophy and the History of the Sciences Evandro Agazzi (1987,
p. 15) mentioned the “historic dimensions of science” and he stated
unequivocally that “science had the same historicity status as other
manifestations of the human mind.”
This was a significant statement at the time, as it rejected not only the
positivist concept of science but also the analytical inspiration and the
logico-linguistic epistemologies, as inadequate, being generally unable to
distinguish between the “hermeneutic context of a science,” which is
relative to its place in history, and the more specific requirements of
logical compatibility and the confrontation between theory and
experience, which are an essential part of this hermeneutic context, if
they are not to be commonplace and without interest. Outside this context
these requirements are circular and raise false problems such as the
theory-ladeness of all scientific observation. Theory and experience are

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 33-47. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
34 Hervé Barreau

necessarily circular, but the circularity loses its closed context, rejecting
all discussion, when it is studied within the hermeneutic context of its
era, where the theoretical choices can be discussed and justified
The hermeneutic context requires epistemology, understood as the
philosophy of science, to fulfil two requirements; firstly it must look at
scientific discoveries within the context of their era, examining the
problems they encountered and tried to resolve; secondly it must see the
full epistemological impact of the problems themselves, as they were
seen by those who formulated them, particularly if the latter did not
confine themselves to a narrow sector of empirical reality to which
science is applicable, but aimed much wider, for example at an entire
discipline such as physics, chemistry, biology or history. Concentrating
on the first type of problem epistemology studies the historical factors
which weigh ceaselessly on the evolution of the sciences; addressing the
second, it examines the transcendental factors which for a long time
determined the frameworks within which the construction of the science
in question operated.
We intend to show that for some forty years epistemology has been
more concerned with the first factors that with the second, to such an
extent that there is crisis in the way in which we consider the value of
scientific knowledge today.

1. The Exaggerated Attention Paid to Historical Factors

Th.S. Kuhn has a special place among the science historians who
renewed the attention paid to the historical factors which renewed the
face of science in the twentieth century. In advancing the notion of
“paradigm,” which in some sort prescribes how science must be
conducted if it is to be effective in the new fields it discovers, Kuhn
certainly rid the history of science of the cumulative vision on which
positivism rested, according to which discoveries accumulate and new
discoveries do not appreciably change the sense and scope of those
preceding them.
Unfortunately Kuhn was not content to demonstrate the extent of the
scientific revolutions which mark the history of science from age to age
according to the great disciplines. He also wanted to show that these
revolutions are so profound that they completely transform the object of
scientific activity and leave only a kind of homonym between the old
concepts and the new, to such an extent that theories arising from the old
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 35

or the new paradigms are mutually incommensurable. For example, we

read the following lines in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by
which the author seeks to demonstrate a complete rupture between
Newtonian and relativist mechanics:
This need to change the meaning of familiar and established concepts was
the major factor in the revolutionary shock caused by Einstein’s theory.
Although more subtle than the change from geocentricism to
heliocentricism, from the theory of phlogistics to oxygen, or from
corpuscles to waves, the resulting conceptual transformation was
nevertheless fatal to the previously established paradigm. We can even go
so far as making the example the prototype of the revolutionary
reorientations in scientific life. By the very fact that it does not involve
the introduction of objects or of additional concepts, the passage from
Newtonian to Einstinian mechanics clearly demonstrates that the
scientific revolution is a movement of the conceptual network through
which men of science see the world. (Kuhn 1983, pp. 146-147)
Even if we confine ourselves to an overall examination of Newtonian and
relativist mechanics, it is not true that the second “does not involve the
introduction of additional objects or concepts.” Space-time, invented by
Poincaré and described by Minkowski has no corresponding factor in
Newtonian mechanics, and its introduction was the revolutionary concept
which changed the classic perspectives, as Einstein, who used it,
furthermore, to forge general relativity, did not fail to recognize. But
from the first step to the special theory of relativity, whilst the concept of
space-time was not essentially the base of the description (which explains
Poincaré’s refusal to see it as a true physical model) the “movement of
the conceptual network” to which Th.S. Kuhn rightly refers, was not the
sudden and shocking result of a new and unusual view of the world. What
Kuhn has failed to demonstrate is that the movement, like the Newtonian
mechanics which it changed, arises from the strict use of the principle of
relativity which dominates both mechanics. In fact, Newtonian
mechanics, in posing a universal and absolute time, did not have to
resolve the problem of simultaneity at a distance. This problem arises, on
the other hand, as soon as we see that the validity of the principle of
relativity in electromagnetism, confirmed by experiment, requires the
allocation of a specific timescale for every Galilean system. Under these
conditions the rule of simultaneity at a distance, which is the same both
for Poincaré and Einstein, acquired an operative sense which is valid for
all Galilean reference frames (to avoid any ambiguity we should use the
term ‘Lorentzian reference’), as the speed of light does not depend on the
movement of its source and that it is constant for all Galilean reference
36 Hervé Barreau

frames, in accordance with the principle of relativity (which only

Einstein intends here in the strict sense). It is a universal constant. For
Lorentz and Poincaré, the universal constant of the speed of light
involves twists in the principle of relativity, because the unit of time
dilates and the lengths shorten in any reference which is moving as
compared with the static ether; Einstein, however, demonstrated that we
need not postulate the chosen reference frame, which is the static ether,
but that the changes in spatial and temporal distances for reference
frames moving in relation to each other are symmetrical and solely
dependent on this relative movement. The contraction in lengths is
relative to the instantaneous view taken from a reference frame for which
the lengths are in movement (rectilinear and uniform). The dilation of the
time periods is relative to the setting of the clocks (immobile in relation
to one another) before which the events move in their own (shorter) time.
These relativist effects are due solely to the change in the reference
frame in relation to which the measurements are made. Nevertheless,
these effects are real, so much so that a return trip is longer for an
observer who has remained in the same place than for one who has taken
the journey (Langevin’s paradox). The rigorous application of the
relativity principle has forced us to abandon the Newtonian concept of
absolute space and time.
It should be noted that these relativist effects are implicitly present in
Lorentz’ transformation rule, where they form a group and can be
deduced, as Poincaré observed. However whilst Einstein drew all the
conclusions from this for theoretical physics, Poincaré remained attached
to Lorentz’ conceptions, which gave primary consideration to the static
ether. Einstein’s merit lay in renouncing the existence of an ether which
no-one could confirm and which he did not need in his theory of light
(the discovery of photons), to hold firmly to the principle of relativity. As
between Einstein and Poincaré, who was the most faithful to Newton?
We could argue the point indefinitely, and there were many such
arguments in 2005, when we celebrated the centenary of the major
contributions made in 1905 by these two pioneers of contemporary
mathematical physics. However, it suffices to place these contributions in
their hermeneutic context to realize that Einstein alone respected the
principle of relativity in the strictest sense (the identity of phenomena at
an inertial immobile reference frame and at a reference frame in uniform
and rectilinear movement in relation to the first), and that because of this
his theory lends itself to extensions, which Lorentz’ and Poincaré’s
theory does not. If we do not examine this hermeneutic context we no
longer know which to choose between these two initiators, as Poincaré’s
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 37

first contributions (for example, the definition of simultaneity at a

distance), precede the articles of 1905, and we owe the term ‘the
principle of relativity’ to Poincaré; we notice that the application of this
principle to electromagnetism was very difficult at the time, as it seemed
to call for the introduction of different timescales. At first sight the
theories of Einstein and Lorentz-Poincaré are therefore “incommen-
surable,” to use Kuhn’s term, as they are based on different requirements
and experimentation could not decide between them when they appeared.
However, clearly Einstein alone understood that Maxwell’s equations,
valid at every Galilean reference frame, required a recasting of the
principle of relativity, a recasting which entailed a change in the physical
concepts of space and time. If we suppose a Newton in 1905, well aware
of the problems facing physics at the time, there is no doubt that he
would have awarded the prize to Einstein.
Thomas Kuhn neglected to envisage the hermeneutic context in which
the Einstinian theory of relativity was born within the scope of his
theory, and he was therefore pleased to oppose relativist to Newtonian
mechanics, and use the opposition as an example of the
incommensurability of successive scientific theories. Einstein, on the
other hand, was pleased to demonstrate that Newtonian mechanics was a
very good approximation to relativist mechanics, which was reduced, in a
way, to the first for very low speeds in relation to the speed of light.
Einstein even insisted that Newton had been, in his time, so to say,
constrained to maintain the absolute nature of space and time in order to
guarantee the principle of inertia (the basis of the principle of relativity)
and the absolute nature of acceleration (as opposed to the relative nature
of uniform movement). On these points Newton and Einstein share the
same principles. It was after his discovery of special relativity that
Einstein was obliged to diverge from Newton. For Newton, universal
attraction was simultaneous; which contradicts the relativist principle of
the maximum speed of light: no interaction can be faster than light. We
know that Einstein had to resolve both the problem of general relativity
(postulated by the artificial nature of the inertial reference frames, once
physics no longer recognized absolute space and time) and the problem
of gravity. Given good luck and his genius, he needed only one theory to
resolve both. In this extension of the theory of relativity Einstein
obviously diverges from Newton. For special relativity it was necessary
rather to stress the common inspiration of Newton and Einstein.
38 Hervé Barreau

2. The New Positivism of the Post-Kuhnian History of the Sciences

When the historiography of the sciences neglects the hermeneutic task in

its double aspect, historic and theoretical, it must examine other aspects
of scientific research, which are those which, within a henceforth
recognized paradigm, arise from “normal science,” as Kuhn has said,
doubtless rightly. He has shown that normal science confines itself to
resolving “puzzles.” This is not a tedious task and it gives rise to many
important discoveries. Furthermore, we should not confuse the
reconstitution of all these discoveries, major or minor, which fill
volumes, with their acquisition, which goes through various stages in
which neither logic nor experimental method are paramount, though they
are always necessary in scientific work. Research is carried out with
passionate enthusiasm and nowadays it takes place in a laboratory,
supported by governments, public bodies and large industrial companies.
It is inevitable, therefore, that studies of the ethnography and sociology
of the sciences have appeared alongside the classic history of the
sciences which deals generally with the lives and personal motivations of
great scientists. When scientific activity becomes an important part of
social life; when science can provide technological innovations which
could renew production and economic exchanges, we may expect that the
field of scientific activity will attract the attention of those in power and
the curiosity of social science researchers.
This should not surprise us, but we must take care that the picture
given by these researchers into scientific activity is not reduced to a
description of the rivalries and battles which are an inevitable part of
research; this has always been the case and is still the case today when
the stakes integrate and outstrip the individual ambitions of scientists.
We must therefore recognize that as soon as we settle into a
discontinuistic vision of the history of the sciences, where the question of
the validity of one paradigm or another is no longer an issue, already
settled by the prevailing consensus, then competition in the pursuit of any
expected discovery will capture the interest of those who observe
research, leading them to neglect the aspects of critical evaluation,
themselves subject to the same reductive view of conflicts of interest,
when they ought to be mentioned. We are no longer interested in science
and the conditions of its progress; we are interested in scientists and their
inevitable weaknesses. The sociologist R.E. Merton tried to characterize
“the ethos of science” by the four fundamental values of universality,
community, disinterestedness and critique, which, of course, are far from
being always honored in practice. The new sociologists offer a “strong
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 39

programme” in which these values are systematically ignored. In their

place, we are invited to find out what scientists believe, without
questioning whether these beliefs are “true” or “false” and considering
only the causes which must be the same in the opposing cases (true/false)
and recognizing that the same causality can be sought in the sociology of
the sciences. This position is defended by Barry Barnes and David Bloor
in the USA. In France Bruno Latour is the representative of this
sociology, which is unduly silent about epistemology, as it seeks to
explain scientists’ beliefs whilst making no mention of inherent scientific
values. This attitude leads him to a paradoxical statement which breaks
definitively with the search for “objectivity”: “Given that the settlement
of a controversy is the cause of the representation of nature and not of its
consequence, we should never have recourse to the final issue – nature –
to explain why and how a controversy has been settled” (Latour 1995,
p. 241). This is the relativist programme, applied to scientific knowledge
as to any other product of the culture.
It would not be fair to hold Th.S. Kuhn responsible for these
positions, though they find their authority in his patronage. He himself
expressly disclaimed them, though recognizing that his work had served
to nourish them:
In the literature of the sociology of the sciences its value system has been
particularly argued by R.K. Merton and his disciples. Several times
recently this group has been criticized, sometimes stridently, by
sociologists who, relying on my work and sometimes representing
themselves unofficially as “Kuhnians” have insisted that these values
vary from one community to another and over time. These criticisms
draw our attention to the fact that, regardless of the values of a
community, one or another of these values is constantly violated by its
members. They deduce from this that it is absurd to conceive the analysis
of values as a valid means of throwing light on scientific behaviour.
(Kuhn 1990, p. 27)
We should recognize, therefore, that Kuhn, in the same passage, insists
on the fact that his own work shows “to what extent (he) believes that
this line of criticism (with regard to Merton’s sociology) is misdirected.”
Unfortunately this misdirection is the consequence, almost necessarily
drawn by sociologists, of the position according to which a “paradigm” is
associated at the time with a “scientific community.” On this point Kuhn
never varied. Certainly he recognized that the use he had made of the
word ‘paradigm’ in the first edition of The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions was excessively extended and it was better to speak of the
“disciplinary matrix” if it related to the intellectual and material
40 Hervé Barreau

equipment which every scientist must possess in his discipline, and of

“paradigm” in the strict and original sense in the case of examples
serving as models for dealing with problems in a discipline. This
distinction is necessary but is only reinforced the professional nature of
the Kuhnian notion of “paradigm.” It was as if Th.S. Kuhn, who liked to
retrace his intellectual itinerary, had wanted to remain faithful to the
good physics student he had been when he chose to become a physics
historian. We cannot accuse Kuhn of having forgotten that he had learned
physics from respectable masters but we may regret that they did not
include an artisan of the revolution in his discipline (as Einstein was to
Karl Popper). Such a master would have taught him that there are times,
when studying a problem, when one must adopt new frameworks for
thought. Kuhn was evidently conscious of this need because he owes the
notion of a “scientific revolution” to it. However, instead of a detailed
study of the nature of such a revolution he avoids the issue, confining
himself to comments, certainly intelligent but only introductory, instead
of undertaking an enquiry. For example we read in a note for an article
used as a postface for one of the American editions of The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions this judicious comment; we are astonished to find
it ends in an interrogation, when it should have banished the first factor
to demonstrate that the second should be adopted:
I suspect that, altogether generally, scientific revolutions can be
distinguished from normal scientific developments in that, unlike these
[normal scientific developments], they require a modification of
generalisations which have been regarded, up to then, as quasi-analytic.
Did Einstein discover that simultaneity was relative or did he destroy an
earlier tautological consequence of the term? (Kuhn 1990, p. 405)
If the rapid examination made earlier in this article allows us to form a
conclusion, it is that in fact Einstein did not invent the relativity of
simultaneity (Poincaré had preceded him) but he destroyed the idea of
absolute simultaneity inherent in the idea of an absolute time.
What cold have made Th.S. Kuhn so shy about a subject which he had
the merit of introducing successfully? It seems to us to be a positivist
impregnation of his thinking which he was unable to resist effectively.
Kuhn certainly repudiated the positivism of facts and his pertinent
reflections on the psychology of the Gestalt which show that the same
figure may appear as “carpe” or “rabbit,” are significant in this respect.
But he remained attached to a positivism of mentalities, as if the
pertinent criticisms he makes of neo-positivist representations of science
immunised completely against such a danger. In reality the positivism he
reproaches when it is a question of putting aside the “rational
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 41

reconstruction” of science prone by the neo-positivists, he adopts it when

it is a question of making his own the paradigms taught by the masters of
a discipline. It is this latter positivism which contributes to isolating the
scientific disciplines from each other and, for example, in Einstein’s
time, mechanics from electrodynamics. But with the advent of a free
spirit, which perceives the improbability of changing the general
reference frameworks when one moves from one discipline to another in
physics, then a new task becomes necessary, which is not described by
the neo-positivist philosophers, but carried out by a philosopher scientist,
such as Einstein was. At a certain level in the study of the foundations of
a discipline, we cannot do without philosophy, even if it is not the one
which has been taught to the unhappy scientist who finds himself called
upon to undertake such a task. If this “unhappy” scientist succeeds in his
task he becomes a hero!
Th.S. Kuhn’s attitude to philosophy seems to be the reserved attitude
of a scientist who observes that philosophical speculations about science
do not reflect the real work of scientists in practice and the continued
respect for a discipline which had always attracted him and which he saw
could help him to resolve the problem of the appearance of a new
paradigm. Was he not aware that, in his famous book, he offered the
structure of “normal science” arising from recognized paradigms, rather
than that of “scientific revolutions”? Nevertheless we see in Kuhn’s last
works certainly not a retraction but a desire to return to the notions of
revolution, of change of direction and of incommensurability which he
had dealt with as a historian and not as a thinker, seeking to understand
the reasons for these changes. It is interesting that in this respect he
turned to the opinions of Quine, who had become a close colleague In the
last paragraph of the preface to The Essential Tension we find these lines
which bear witness to his continuing dissatisfaction with the explanations
which were being proposed for the title of his master work:
In my book about revolutions I describe them as episodes during which
the meaning of some scientific terms changes, and I advance the idea that
as a result there is an incommensurability between viewpoints and a
partial rupture of communication between the partisans of various
theories. Since then I have become aware that the expression ‘changes of
direction’ covers a problem which is much more than a phenomenon
which can be isolated, and I am now persuaded, mostly by Quine’s work,
that the problems of incommensurability and of partial communication
must be dealt with in another way. The defenders of various theories (or
of different paradigms, in the broad sense of the term) speak different
languages – languages which express different adhesions in cognitive
terms, which correspond to different worlds. Their capacity to understand
each others’ viewpoints is therefore inevitably limited by the imper-
42 Hervé Barreau

fections of the processes of translation and the determination of

references. These are the questions which interest me most today and I
hope to be able to say something about them before long. (Kuhn 1990,
pp. 28-29)
No doubt Kuhn was right in pointing out that the differences between
theories and paradigms do not arise from the syntactical changes in
theoretical terms, but from the semantic viewpoints which assures their
existence in the “world” with which they deal. However, to ask Quine’s
thinking, which is interested precisely in anchoring words in a particular
context, to clarify the sudden changes in anchorage which overturn the
meaning of the usual words, is to ask a new positivism of mentalities to
explain why mentalities change, when apparently the world they live in
remains the same. The real world they try to present remains the same, so
they are always “commensurable,” but the descriptions they offer for it
differ for the reasons given by the initiators of the new paradigms. We
must ask them. To ask the author of three well-known theses (the sub-
determination of theories by observation, the inscrutability of the
reference and the indetermination of the translation) to account for
changes, when the theses explain the resistance to change, is to ask
Zenon to explain movement. The new sociologists of knowledge are not
wrong there. They see it – how else could they see it – only as an
invitation to reinforce what they have drawn from Kuhn’s own work, to
seek the reason for changes which have arisen in scientific
representations in non-scientific factors for the science in question.
Sociological relativism triumphs easily over any philosophy which
wishes to preserve science from the critical analyses of this relativism by
shutting itself into the cognitive practices duly authorized by the
dominant consensus.

3. Transcendental Activity in the Construction of the Sciences

So what is the philosophy of knowledge which can overcome the

sociological relativism which now undermines confidence in the
“objectivity” of science? We know that a return to naïf realism is out of
the question, precisely because the new objects of science have none of
the sensible evidence which is required for objects of the normal senses.
We should remember that in the eighteenth century Hume invented a
psychological relativism which resulted in a scepticism at least equal to
that of the new relativists and without being more moved, as in his view
beliefs could be explained by largely shared experiences. Kant answered
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 43

Hume in inventing transcendental idealism, which at least had the merit

of being able to take account of the Newtonian science of its time. We do
not need to hold onto Kant’s idealism, which is based on the ideality of
space and time, this “transcendental esthetic” which is certainly the least
convincing part of his Critique. However, we should take account of the
transcendental aspect of the description of valid knowledge; it does not
mean that we are escaping, thanks to him, into a transcendent world – on
the contrary, we define objects in the reality of the senses using concepts
which are a priori and constitutive in relation to objects of experience
(valid). Isn’t this what we have seen Einstein do in constituting a new
cinematic, valid for electrodynamics as for mechanics? He took the
concepts of space and time using graduated rulers and clocks; he
demonstrated that we can easily define a simultaneity in an inertial
reference frame, but within one reference frame only, as the speed of
light is the same at all reference frames (because of the principle of
relativity and the independence of the speed of light in relation to the
movement of its source); this being so, once again we find Lorentz’
transformation rules, previously discovered by other means (the need to
extend the principle of relativity to the laws of electromagnetism). The
demonstration has a certain subtlety but it is still simple and accessible to
any mind adequately trained in a scientific discipline. The scientific
discipline here consists in carefully specifying the objects given and the
principles to be used; furthermore, these objects and principles are the
result of long scientific practice. The innovation is based on tradition, but
a tradition reduced to its essentials and carefully transported into the
technology of the era to which we want to apply it. In fact the innovation
is the sort of “Copernican revolution” which Kant claimed for his
philosophy. In his case the comparison means that Kantian philosophy
reverses the traditional relationship between the subject and the object, as
Copernicus reversed the roles of the earth and the sun. Generally
speaking, the comparison means that innovation, however bold, takes
account, as did Copernicus, of the best scientific knowledge of its time,
even if this did not resolve all the difficulties. Kuhn was not wrong,
therefore, in invoking the Copernican revolution as an example of a new
paradigm, but he was much more interested in its results and its
consequences and not sufficiently interested in the deep motives which
meant that the Copernican theory was better from the outset than those
which preceded it, existing defects notwithstanding.
We might ask if it is really appropriate to call this method of
constructing scientific theories “transcendental.” We have seen that we
understand this notion according to Kant’s definition, which is
44 Hervé Barreau

appropriate to all theories, whether of knowledge or physical, but we

might ask why Kant himself turned to the notion of “transcendental” used
in scholastic philosophy. There is little doubt about the answer; the
Schoolmen applied the term “transcendental” to whatever fell outside the
Aristotelian division of categories, such as the ideas of truth, unity and
goodness, in which man generally places whatever, as object of thought,
is essentially related to the spirit. For Kant this is a transcendental
revolution in the sense that, for every scientific object, truth here is
entirely suspended in the mind which gives it its form. For Einstein, it is
a transcendental revolution in the sense that it transcends the categoric
divisions between mechanics and electromagnetism and that, like Kant,
he was concerned to find a rigorous method which applies its principles
strictly and is not content with half measures, as was Lorentz’ theory,
attached as it was to his belief in the ether. Certainly we may prefer
another term; but the connotations of another term might be no better
than those, clearly interesting, which govern the Kantian choice.
Regarding the “transcendental,” we might also evoke Husserl’s use of
the term, which refers to the Kantian usage. Here, more profoundly that
was the case with Kant, it means demonstrating the constitutive power of
the mind, which is manifest in all objects of intentionality. The idealist
connotation is even more evident here, but we can abstract it for two
reasons. The first: is “transcendental” for Husserl not only what operates
in the construction of science, but also for prescientific knowledge. With
regard to the latter Husserl mentioned the Lebenswelt or the world of life
which is the infrastructure of all knowledge. Thus the rejection of
idealism consists here in not referring to the “transcendental ego” the
nature of which we cannot know at this stage, but to the transcendental
power of life itself, which forces the living subject to take an interest in
the world and to define the objects within it. In addition, and this is the
second reason for an interest in the Husserlian reference, with it concerns
man, the living subject must be helped in this constitution of the world by
a suitable education, so much so that transcendental life is always for him
an intersubjective life. This intersubjective side is magnified in the
constitution of science which is a community or shared activity which
always governs the organisation of “scientific communities,” as Merton
saw so clearly, and allows “scientific revolutions” to take place within
them. This reference to Husserlian analyses leaves us in no danger of
losing what is valid in the work of Th.S. Kuhn, even, if we have broken
away from all forms of positivism.
From the non-idealist transcendentalism postulated here to take
account both of “normal science” and “scientific revolutions,” we can
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 45

bring together the pragmatism of Pierce and even the conventionalism of

Poincaré and Duhem. If we inclined to the references of Kant and
Husserl, it is because we were asking what philosophy could resist the
relativism which is supported, rather than contradicted, by the
contributions of Kuhn and Quine. Vis-à-vis Kant and Husserl,
philosophers have learned long ago to guard against the idealism which
contaminates their thought without rejecting their essential benefits.
Because of them, and sometimes in spite of them, we are well able to
reach a transcendentalism marked by history. With scientists more
involved in the science of their era, it is perhaps more difficult to
separate what we can retain of their doctrine of science and what we must
abandon to their scientific work, which with all reputable scientists is,
sometimes a happy outcome and sometimes much less so.

4. Conclusion

The recourse to history, and particularly to historicity, which designates

the situation at a given moment in historical time for any given cultural
training, and consequently, for science, has the great advantage that it
prevents epistemology from falling into the idealism associated,
doubtless for historical reasons, with transcendental method and analysis.
Idealism is the original sin of transcendentalism, but it can free itself
when it works within the historical tradition of science; it should not cast
doubt on scientific knowledge even if it reserves the right to reinterpret
it. We see that this is the task of hermeneutics in its double function,
transcendental and historic.
Compared with this hermeneutic concept of epistemology, we see that
the work of Th.S. Kuhn suffers from a positivist heritage which came to
light in the sociological conception of the “paradigm” and in his
contradictory way of dealing with “scientific revolutions.” In fact it is not
in resorting to a philosophy which shows all the reasoning by which
scientists, besieged in the fortress of their certainties, can defend the
paradigms to which they are attached, that we can explain the audacity
we need to disturb these certainties and establish new bases. The
invention of Einstinian relativity is an example which demonstrates both
that Einstein himself had to draw on semi-relativist sources and that
Kuhn is greatly embarrassed in his characterization of the originality of
Einstein in spite of the accuracy of his intuitions.
It must be recognized that such positions are retrospective in nature
and do not meet the objections, for example, of relativist sociologists,
46 Hervé Barreau

who challenge us to apply this hermeneutic concept, well supported by

the past, to the current discussions in physics on the unification of
interactions. Clearly we cannot conjure up the great figure of Einstein,
who never reached any significant conclusion on this score. It would be
honest to say that he failed to take quantum physics seriously at the time.
What, therefore, would be the best way to take it seriously – that is the
problem facing the epistemologists of physics, and it has not been dealt
with here. We can only suggest that, for the quanta as for relativity, we
should not neglect either the historical or the transcendental factors in the
construction of the sciences; it is by the delicate balance of these two
considerations that all the successes of the past have been obtained.
We should also consider other objections which the relativist
sociologists might make. They might concede that the hermeneutic
concept presented here can avail itself of good results in the
epistemology of physics, but could the same be said for chemistry,
biology, history and the social sciences? Our reply could be the
following: where there is a historical tradition, for example in chemistry
and history, then the hermeneutic concept can certainly be applied.
Where traditions are overturned by new discoveries which cannot be
assimilated easily into the former body of knowledge, for example in
biology and the social sciences, the hermeneutic task is much more
difficult. It is when the hermeneutic task is difficult that it is boldest, in
order to clarify epistemic situations which are frightening in their
complexity in these areas at present.

Archives Henri Poincaré-Laboratoire

de Philosophie et d’Histoire des Sciences (LPHS)
UMR 7117 du CNRS


Agazzi, E. (1987). Dimensions historiques de la Science et de sa philosophie. In : Les

relations mutuelles entre la Philosophie des sciences et l’Histoire des sciences,
pp. 3-25. Archives of the International Institute of Theoretical Sciences, no. 29.
Brussels: Office International de Librairie.
Bloor, D. (1991). Knowledge and Social Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Historical and Transcendental Factors in the Construction of the Sciences 47

Kuhn, Th.S. ([1977] 1990). La tension essentielle, tradition et changement dans les
sciences. Paris: Gallimard. Translation of The Essential Tension, Selected Studies in
Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kuhn, Th.S. (1983). La structure des révolutions scientifiques. French translation by
Laure Meyer (from the 1970 edition). Paris: Flammarion.
Latour, B. ([1987] 1995). La Science en action : Introduction à la sociologie des sciences.
Paris: Gallimard. Revised version of Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and
Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Juan Urrutia Elejalde


ABSTRACT. This paper tries to contribute to the elucidation of some

intellectual conundrums and policy questions regarding scientific knowledge
(SK). As for modelling, I have shown that the Solow model is independent of
human agency, has rich and precise policy implications and captures some
features of S(SK). As for policy I have obtained three results. First, the optimal
path of scientific production can be reached through an attainable public
intervention. Second, whether this public intervention ought to be implemented
depends in part on the relevant period of adjustment, a rather unconventional
notion. Third, the analysis of this relevant period of adjustment may help to
understand the development of science. Finally and in relation to epistemology I
have been able to suggest that visual representation can be very misleading and
that the proliferation I have uncovered forces a reconsideration of the
desideratum of science.

This is a paper written by an economist on the production of scientific

output and on the scientific belief-forming process. The fact that it is
written by an economist should not automatically make it a paper on the
Economics of Scientific Knowledge (E(SK)). However, if the latter is the
application of well-developed economic tools to the understanding of the
production of scientific output or the belief-forming process, the paper
could certainly be so classified. I will be using the well known 1956
Solow growth model to explore some well-defined issues such as the
applicability of this kind of model, which can be understood as almost
completely abstracting from individual rationality, or matters of scientific
policy, including its public/private nature, among others. There are,
however, two features of E(SK) that will not be used quite properly even
though they both seem, or ought, to be the staple diet of E(SK). Although
I will be making extensive use of the notion of equilibrium, I will be
ignoring rationality and expectations almost completely. I find no use for
individual rationality except in a cursory way. And as for expectations, a

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 49-70. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
50 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

feature that one would expect to loom high in E(SK), I just assume
perfect foresight all the time, a simple case of rational expectations and a
clever way of not letting in the very rich play of expectation-forming.
Without leaving the realm of E(SK) proper, I can ask myself some
meta-questions on the pros and cons of this Solow model vs. the usual
game theory approach based on the notion of Nash equilibrium 1 or the
issue relating to the humanity or non-humanity of scientific research
strategy. These latter types of issues are not quite the same as those
encompassing E(SK) and they could be classified under the S(E(SK))
For many years I have been interested in what I have called E(SK) or
S(E(SK)) and more specifically in the transformation of puzzles (or
enigmas) into problems and puzzles as a kind of conundrum that I find
both bothering and challenging. A problem only challenges me. The
challenge posed by a problem is indeed the challenge of solving that
problem. The challenge I feel when facing a puzzle is to convert it into a
well-defined problem. Although solving problems is a delicate and
decisive task, in this paper I will be considering it as automatic, taking
problems and solutions as equivalent.
My old interest in puzzles and problems was driven by policy matters
such as, for instance, how to organise scientific institutions to produce
science. More recently, I have come into contact with the Sociology of
Scientific Knowledge, S(SK), and with the death of the subject or the
bracketing out of both the subject and the world. These are rather esoteric
issues for an economist but, in any case, they shifted my attention from
the production of scientific output to the process of forming scientific
beliefs. In this process, input and output are not clear cut notions. One
way of understanding them is to think of pairs like Heidegger’s things
and objects, or Latour’s matters of fact and matters of concern. My
recent interest in these notions and in processes relating them in a
circular flow has a dual origin. In the first place, I want to explore how I
can apply economic reasoning to their understanding, and to what avail.
Here, for instance, I will try to capture the importance of visual
representation in science through the examination of a particular
economic example. But, secondly, I also want to use my economic tools

Using a macroeconomic model as a tool to understand issues related to the functioning of
science is a kind of “tour de force” although not a “boutade.” Not using game theory is
almost heretic but it has the novelty of not underwriting rationality of the human agent
even when talking about a scientist. However this departure from conventional modelling
allows us to cover under the same model both the modern and post-modern conceptions of
science as an “ongoing concern.” I return to this point in 3.2.
Puzzles and Problems 51

to clarify some of the categories, examples and rhetoric used in S(SK),

such as, for instance, the broadening of empiricism that Latour is recently
demanding. All these issues could be stamped as E(S(SK)) in the sense
that they pertain to S(SK) but are going to be approached from an
economic point of view. So the paper certainly centres on (SK) but
rambles from E(SK) to E(S(SK)) and S(E(SK)), taking S(SK) as an
interesting object of observation. The epistemology is somewhat veiled in
the background of this pot pourri but I will attempt to bring it to the
forefront in unconventional ways.

1. Introduction: The Issues

My aim in this introduction is to rearrange thinking on (SK) according to

three distinct axes, the first of which is Modelling. Under this heading I
want to refer to my second thoughts on E(SK) collected around the
S(E(SK)) meta-heading. I will argue in favour of the aggregate dynamic
modelling of the production of science and I will discuss the role played
by the human agency in research strategy. This is followed by Policy.
Here I will focus on the optimal equilibrium path of scientific production
and, more specifically, on the public implementation of this optimal path
and on the influence that the length of the period of adjustment might
have on the decision to implement it. These are topics belonging quite
clearly to the field of E(SK). Finally, under the meta-heading of
E(S(SK)), I will try to present my second thoughts on S(SK) pertaining to
Epistemology and related to the possible broadening of empiricism and to
the perils of visual representations in science.
Putting together all these different issues is not an easy task but I will
attempt to accomplish it according to the following programme. In the
next section, I will be presenting the 1956 Solow model. In section 3, I
turn my attention to the production of scientific output, something I
understand, contrary to most practitioners of E(SK), as a single minded
application of the Solow model. I will claim that this understanding is
quite appropriate and not so different from the underlying understanding
in S(SK). I will also show that it can be used to understand the role of
visual representation in science and I will argue in favour of the non-
humanity of research strategy in the field. This unusual way of looking at
the production of science is particularly appropriate to face a certain
aspect of the issue of the public or private nature of science, an issue the
treatment of which requires the analysis of the optimal path and of the
period of adjustment. In section 4, the model is translated into the
52 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

language of S(SK) in order to be able to understand and contribute to it.

Here, the proliferation of things and objects that can be shown to occur
through the scientific belief-forming process, is interpreted as an
epistemic issue and as an explanation of the broadening of empiricism at
which Latour (2004) aims, barely disguised as a possible mid-life crisis.
In the final comments of section 5, I will summarise my answers to the
issues raised in this introduction.

2. The Solow Model 2

I begin by introducing the Solow model in its own terms and with a
notation which I will not bother to modify when referring to its
interpretation and/or applications. I begin with the supply side. Let Q
stand for output, the same kind of stuff as capital (K). This stuff is
produced by this capital K together with labour L. I will take the
production function to be Cobb-Douglas with constant returns to scale
from the very beginning. That is:
Q K 3 L1-3 F ( K , L)
3 and (1 - 3 )
F ( K , L) F ( K , L)

are the corresponding participation ratios of capital and labour

respectively, given that FK wF wK and FL wF wL are the
corresponding marginal productivities.
This production function can be represented as in Figure 2a.

The reader may wonder why I devote several pages to reproduce with some mathematical
detail the Solow model when this model is well known and could have been recalled
graphically with greater ease. There are two reasons for proceeding the way I do. In the
first place I want to introduce in the model a public sector for reasons which will become
obvious in the sequel. Secondly, mathematics (even without explicit proof) are necessary
because I want to argue that visual representation in science can be deceitful and the
thrust of my argument is precisely that some mathematically established results are hidden
to the eye.
Puzzles and Problems 53

Fig. 2a

In this figure, a map of isoquants is depicted together with two rays

from the origin. Since I am assuming constant returns to scale, any ray
from the origin is the loci of points (one in each isoquant) with identical
marginal rates of substitution (MRS) between capital and labour. This
MRS is given by:
dK wF wL FL
dL wF wK FK

and it gives the social valuation of capital in terms of labour. Note than
along any isoquants the MRS diminishes southwest.
Constant returns to scale enable us to rewrite everything in per capita
q f (k ) k3; f ' ! 0, f ' '  0, where k K L
3 -1
FK f ' (k ) 3k

FL f (k ) - kf ' (k ) (1 - 3 ) k 3

f (k ) - kf ' (k ) (1 - 3 ) k 3
f ' (k ) 3 k 3 -1
54 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

and all these notions can be represented in figure 2.b, where the
production per capita and the MRS for a particular k, denoted by k0, are

f (k)


(W/r)0 0 k0 k

Fig. 2.b

I can now turn to the demand side of the model, specifying the
consumption function. Let consumption C be given by:
C Q - sQ (1 - s ) Q
where s can be a function of other variables and not necessarily a
constant. In per capita terms we can define c = C/L and write:
c (1 - s ) f (k ) (1 - s )k 3
in the case of the Cobb-Douglas.

This is a good place to explain why I have contended that the Solow model could be
thought as abstracting from individual rationality. It is not because the individual in the
model, be it the consumer-worker or the producer, is just an aggregate the rationality of
which is problematic. Even if this is indeed the case, the model presumes the
maximisation both of utility and of profit. But it does explain the evolution of the MRS
(i.e., the evolution of relative price (w/r)) which is necessary for the goods and labour
markets to be in short run equilibrium at any given time. Under these conditions I can, at
any rate, consider the model as representing a blind machine and concentrate my attention
on how this machine works in the long run under alternative interpretations. This is what I
will be doing in the next two sections.
Puzzles and Problems 55

I can now introduce a public sector (which is not in the original) as

the agent able to modify the savings rate. Let a be the % of capital owned
by the State and let t stand for the tax rate imposed on any income. Look
first at capital income. This income is given by YK (1 - a) FK K since
private capital owns only (1 – a)% of this capital income. And since it is
taxed, disposable capital income is given by
YKd (1 - t ) (1 - a ) FK K , 0  t  1, 0  a 1
Similarly, disposable labour income is given by
YLd (1-t ) >F ( K , L) - FK K @
where the expression between brackets corresponds to labour income, YL
On the other hand, the public sector has revenues corresponding to
taxation and income from property and expenses in the amounts required
to maintain their share of capital.
D R- E aFK K  t (YK  YL ) - a K
Given these notions, I can now turn to saving. Private and public saving
is given respectively by
S pr s (YKd  YLd )
S pu aK

We can now write that private saving as a proportion S of F (K, L) given

S s>(1 - t ) (1 - a ) FK K  (1 - t )>F ( K , L) - FK K @ @
s >(1 - t ) (1 - a ) 3  (1 - t ) (1 - 3 ) s (1 - t ) (1 - a3 )@
Since total saving is given by K , we can write
x x
K SF ( K , L )  a K
and substituting the previous expression here, we find that total saving is
given by
x SF ( K , L) s (1 - t )(1 - a3 )
K F ( K , L) S ( a, t ) F ( K , L )
(1 - a ) (1 - a )

It can be immediately verified that

S1 ! 0 and S 2  0
56 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

I can now finally come to dynamics and equilibrium. The dynamics

are immediate. Denote by ^ the rate of growth of any variable
š x x
(x x x , where x dx dt )
and assume for simplicity that L n . Then,
š S ( a, t ) F ( K , L )
k -n
k S (a, t ) f (k ) - nk S (a, t ) k 3 - nk
in the case of the Cobb Douglas. Quite intuitively, we say that a given k *
is an equilibrium if
k 0 for this k*. It is obvious that the k* of equilibrium is a function of
(a, t)
In figure 2.c, the saving function and the equilibrium k have been

Fig. 2.c

The following proposition is easy to prove and intuitively understood just

by looking at the above figure.
Puzzles and Problems 57

Theorem 1: For S 0 = (a 0 , t 0), a long run equilibrium, k 0 , such that

k S 0 k 03 - nk 0

(i) always exists, (ii) it is unique and (iii) globally stable.

Proof. Standard. See Burmeister and Dobell (1970)
All this has been well known for the last 50 years and I only need to
make a couple of remarks for later purposes. The first is related to the
notion of equilibrium. It is a long-run equilibrium and I have avoided
referring to the short-run equilibrium at which at any time the factor ratio
(w/r) equals the MRS so that both markets (goods and labour) are in
equilibrium. The second remark is that figure 2.c is, together with the
D/S scheme or the IS/LM diagram, one of the best known icons of
Economics. I will be turning to the general subject of scientific
iconography in a moment.4

3. Some Simple Analytics of the Production of Science

A simple application of the Solow model can help to say something

related to certain issues in E(SK), E(S(SK)) and S(E(SK)). Take L as the
number of scientists, K as the scientific resources they can use in their
work and F(K, L) as scientific products. Some of these products are
consumed immediately and others increase the resources available to the
scientists. A vaccine, for instance, might be consumed immediately. A
new molecule that has been isolated may not be consumed right away as
it may go back to the production of scientific output as a resource
available for scientists to produce others.
The first application of this interpretation of the model pertains to
what I have called E(S(SK)). S(SK) has closely studied iconography, or
the role played by visual representation in science. The production of
scientific output according to the Solow model offers an extremely good

Before I turn to applications, I want to make clear at this point why I cannot squarely
face two topics which are supposed to be central to S(SK). I cannot elucidate
constructivism in the model as I have presented it because, to do so, I would have had to
introduce expectation-forming and not to make do with perfect foresight: there are no self-
fulfilling prophecies with this latter notion of expectations. Neither can I properly speak
of relativism because according to Theorem 1 there is only one equilibrium. Had I
complicated the model making n dependent on k, I would have generated multiplicity and
then it would have been possible to understand that different communities (of scientists,
for instance) would reach completely different scientific levels of development.
58 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

opportunity to look at this matter in the field and with the aid of
Economics. Go back to figure 2.a in which a map of isoquants was
depicted together with two rays from the origin each of which
represented a particular k and united points of identical MRS. In figure
3.a, I offer two panels.

Fig. 3.a

On the left-hand side the Solow trajectory starting at k 0 has been

represented as originally in his paper, namely as convex towards the
other ray (which has been taken to correspond to k  brought about by the
golden rule of accumulation). Solow justifies this particular shape by the
fact that the convergence from any k towards k  is monotone, something
that is implicit in Theorem 1. However, it is not difficult to show that the
true trajectory is like the one shown on the right-hand panel, which is
also consistent with monotone convergence from any k towards k .
Theorem 2: The Solow trajectory is concave to the k  ray.
Proof. See Urrutia (1982).
This Theorem 2 elicits some comments related to the visual
representation of scientific results. Firstly, note that just by looking at
figure 3.a, we already know that, as I said in relation to figure 2.a, the
MRS between of resources and scientists increases along the trajectory as
k increases, a feature of the model which seems to fit the reality of a
world in which scientists are increasingly scarce and valuable. But this
feature is common to both the trajectories shown in the two panels of
figure 3.a, the false and the true. The perils of visual representation are
now obvious in at least two directions.
Puzzles and Problems 59

In the first direction, we observe a feature on the right hand side panel
which is not present on the left. Look at L, the number of scientists.
Along the false trajectory the difference between the number of existing
scientists and the number corresponding to the optimal k seems to
decline. But the opposite is true as shown on the right hand side panel.
The same applies to scientific resources. The number of scientists that
each year has to be introduced into the system in order to obtain a
“better” equilibrium in the production of science increases. So does the
amount of resources applied to science. The second direction in which
visual representation is dangerous in this particular case is velocity of
adjustment. In this respect, the Solow trajectory is deceitful because it
gives the wrong impression that adjustment is quick. However, the period
of adjustment, as we will see presently, is not a simple issue and can
certainly not be ascertained graphically. In this sense, the impression
given by the true trajectory is also deceitful. This example is sufficient
for us not to be as iconophilic as Latour, in his 1998 paper, claims we
should be.
Let us now turn to S(E(SK)). Here, I have three comments to make.
The first is related to Zamora’s critique of Latour/Woolgar (1979).
Zamora objects to their conception of the production of science as
credibility o resources o credibility
in an endless way which disregards any epistemic issue and looks similar
to a Marxist model of how an economy functions. According to Zamora,
the way to understand scientific production in an economically sensible
way is to embed it in a typical neoclassical model of the workings of the
economic system as in the following diagram:

money Factors Labour money
production Intermediate

Fig. 3.b.

This is a representation typical of E(SK). It is easily recognised as the

conventional “circular flow” and as such it can be broken down into at
60 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

least two sectors producing consumption and intermediate goods

respectively. Furthermore, this representation of the production of
science has epistemic content since science is understood as an
intermediate good that actually works. However the conventional
“circular flow” can be replicated by a simple Solow growth model which,
besides not clouding the picture with money and really being a miniature
“general equilibrium model,” is completely aggregated and therefore easy
to handle; it captures only the production of science as a final good and
in such a way that it cannot be said that science really works thus
depriving it of any epistemic content and making it epistemically
agnostic. This completely orthodox macroeconomic model is not that
different from the one used by Latour and Woolgar (1979) but two
comments are in order. First, in spite of this, it does not follow from the
model I am using that scientific results are “cooked” in order to obtain
more resources through a better reputation. The increase in resources
comes structurally, so to speak. The second comment is related to the
debate between Fuller and Latour (2003) on the role played by human
agents in the research strategy of E(SK). The word ‘structure’ above has
been chosen to underline that the analysis does not need to introduce
human beings. Economics is not a humanism. As I mentioned in the first
paragraph of this paper, the rationality of the aggregated consumer and of
the aggregated producer does not play a crucial role. It only serves the
purpose of defining the short run equilibrium which is supposed to
happen at each instant and requires a certain behaviour of the MRS.
Apart from this, the dynamics of the model is completely blind.
Therefore there is no room for Fuller’s moral enterprise. As a research
strategy, morality can only occur in a non-equilibrium, Austrian-like type
of economic system but even in this setting the epistemic value of
morality is hardly obvious.
I turn finally to E(SK) and to question of public policy, for which I
must introduce two additional topics.5
The first one is related to the optimal equilibrium path. What we want
to discover is the particular savings ratio that will generate a k of long
run equilibrium, k , at which per capita consumption is maximised. Per
capita consumption, c, is given by (1- S) f (k) = (1- S) k . In the long run
equilibrium defined by

This section is an example of modern thinking. In fact Economics in general uses
modern thinking and this is also the same when talking about (SK). This modern thinking
is easily characterised as making a clear distinction between “I” and “the world,” between
the “subject” and the “object” of enquiry, between “origin” and “destiny.”
Puzzles and Problems 61

k 0
we have that S f ( k ) = S k  = nk , i.e.,
Therefore, in the long-run equilibrium, we can write per capita
consumption as a function of S :

ª nk º 3
C (S ) «1 - k 3 » k k 3 - nk
¬ ¼
In order to maximise c, we have to implement a savings ratio, S, which
corresponds to a k such that

f ' (k ) 3k 3 -1 n

Given this condition of optimality, we find the optimal savings ratio

nk 3k 3 -1 k 3k 3
S 3,
k k3 k3
the so-called golden rule of accumulation. We denote it by S0 and note
that it corresponds to the capital participation ratio, . The corresponding
long-run equilibrium k is denoted by k and shown in figure 3.c.
The second topic I have to introduce is much less known and it is
related to the period of adjustment which tells us something about
dynamics between equilibria. As a simple mathematical implication of
the Solow model, one may quite naturally ask about the period of
adjustment. This concerns how long it would take to go from an initial
equilibrium k0 (related to an initial S 0 ) to a final equilibrium
capital/labour ratio corresponding to a higher, say, savings rate. To be
precise, let us assume that the economic system moves from its initial
position k0 to a final equilibrium position denoted by k due to a change
from S0 <  to S 0 =  implemented formally by a change in a or t (note
that both variables are independent or can be understood as such). Given
the nature of the differential equation
(k (k ))

it will take an infinite number of periods to obtain exactly k  . What we

then ask is how long it takes to attain a particular k D arbitrarily close to
k . Under the usual interpretation what we have in mind is the following.
62 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

When moving from S 0 to S 0 , S 0 > S 0 , consumption diminishes initially but

after a certain number of periods of time during which output has
increased, consumption regains its initial value and from then on it
becomes larger than it initially was. Whether the move from k 0 to k  is
worthwhile then depends (putting aside the future discount rate, taken as
given) on the time it takes to attain k D , where D is called the relevant
adjustment, the one enabling us to attain initial consumption. This
particular k is given by S0 f (k) = n or, in the case of the Cobb-Douglas
production function, by k as reproduced in figure 2.c.
Denote now by t D the relevant period of adjustment, that is this period
of time which is needed to recover the initial consumption. We can
establish the following result.
Theorem 3: Let S(a 0 , t0 ) = S 0 be the initial savings ratio. Let
S(a 0 , t0) = S 0 be the final savings ratio. Let t
k be the relevant
period of adjustment.
wt D wt D
1.a. !0 and 0 for k0  k
wa0 wt 0

wt D wt D
1.b 0 and !0 for d0 ! k
wa0 wt 0
Proof. See Urrutia (1984).
Let us consider the usual case of underdeveloped countries. In these
countries, k 0 is very small and below k. We can then say that the relevant
period of adjustment is larger for those underdeveloped countries which
have initially a greater size of the public sector and/or a lower tax rate.
Note that Theorem 3 is just a mathematical implication of the model and
therefore cannot be directly related to any conventional knowledge about
the influence of the public sector on development, but it could easily be
empirically tested. However, we will make use of it to discuss matters
related to the production of science and to the scientific belief-forming
process which will be raised by different interpretations of the Solow
Having introduced these two topics, I can now prove that the public
sector can implement the golden rule of accumulation. Let us use optimal
intervention to designate any pair (a0 , t 0 ) which, given S and  , produces
S = S 0 = . Given the definition of S, we obtain this locus as given by
Puzzles and Problems 63

S (1 - t 0 ) - 3
S (1 - t 0 )3 - 3

Given  and S , the optimal size of the public sector is a0 < 1, satisfying
the above condition for 0 < t 0 < 1, which can always be obtained
provided S d 3 , as seems to be the general case. Now, the public sector
deficit can be written as follows:
D t F (k , L)  (1 - t ) a FK K - S (1 - t )(1 - a3 ) F ( K , L)
1- a
and it is obvious that for t = 1, there is a superavit. By continuity it can
easily be shown that there is always a certain t that generates a superavit
together with the corresponding a. As an example,
aS (1 - a3 )
0t  1 generates a superavit of (1 - t ) aFk K .
aS (1 - a3 )  (1 - a )

I can conclude that an optimal scientific policy can be implemented

by the public sector. However, if we ask whether this optimal policy
should always be implemented the answer is not obvious. The first
difficulty involved is the question of whether the private sector could
possibly behave better than the public one. This question has no direct
answer in the present framework. What can be said in the particular
framework I am using is only whether it pays to change the size of the
public sector, changing a and/or t, in terms of the period of adjustment. If
we look at Theorem 3 and we interpret its content, we would claim
something like the following for backward countries in scientific terms:
these countries should diminish the size of the scientific public sector and
increase the tax rate t. Just the contrary should be done in advanced
countries in scientific terms.
64 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

4. Some Further Remarks Concerning E(S(SK)) on the Process of

Forming Scientific Beliefs 6

What I want to do now is to use the Solow model conveniently translated

as an instrument to really understand what is the picture of the process of
forming scientific beliefs as depicted by S(SK) and especially by Latour
(2004). This author tries to refuel what he calls critique through a
rhetoric pretension of a false mid-life crisis. In this paper he begins by
pretending that the deconstruction of scientific beliefs through the
detailed construction of the bargaining process through which these
scientific beliefs are constructed, might have gone too far when faced
with wars of all kinds, from scientific wars to the Iraq war, or with
failures like the Challenger or the Columbus. As expected, this crisis
leads to a recommendation to broaden the scope of empiricism to include
all these “states of affairs,” covering not only matters of fact but also
matters of concern or, using Heideggerian terminology, not only objects
but also things.
So, in this section I will try to simply translate the Solow model to
accommodate the increase in scope of empiricism and to understand
economically what S(SK) appears to portray as the process of forming
scientific beliefs. I will then present a possible way of uncovering the
real “mid-age crisis” which might underline the one used rhetorically.
This section is therefore an exercise in E(S(SK)).
But before I proceed to an ad hoc translation of the Solow model, let
me turn poetic and personal for a moment. In Sartre’s The Nausea,
Roquentin felt anguish and nausea when contemplating a simple root
completely detached from any natural project. This root is an object in
itself which cannot be used except to be bumped into, and the
significance or meaning of which we cannot reach from the void. The
only experience I have had close to such nausea turns out to be the

This section 4 is an example of how Economics, which, as I have said in the previous
note, is in general modern, can, however, become a way of thinking which can be labelled
post-modern. This post-modern thinking brackets away the “I” and “the world” and
concentrates on the mediations between the “subject” and the “object,” between “origin”
and “destiny.” It is when abstracting from modern notions that the exploration of (SK)
becomes less conventional and more exciting, even if one is subject to the usual critique
of post-modernism as an “imposture intellectuelle” (see Sokal and Bricmont 1997). What
is unconventional about this post-modern research strategy applied to (SK) is that one is
led to shift from a correspondence theory of truth to a coherence theory of truth as is the
case with the rhetoric approach. And what makes it exciting is that it can be shown that
there are circumstances under which rhetoric is a better strategy for uncovering truths in
the correspondence sense. See Urrutia (2003).
Puzzles and Problems 65

contemplation of the object that falls to the floor when I cut my toenails,
completely deformed by psoriasis. I feel this object is absurd, but only
until I discover that my psoriatically fattened toenails show how they,
like a dolomite rock, can be divided into finer layers of corneous matter.
Then what stood as a disgusting object turns into the intelligible
implementation of an uncoordinated body process full of meaning and a
clear source of understanding about my own being. Immersed in this
mesmerising thought, I discovered the distinction made by Heidegger
between objects and things. According to Latour (2004), Heidegger
understands that an object, a jar for instance, is something against which
we unconsciously bump. A thing, however, like a car for instance, is
closer to a coordinated decision of several judges closing a cause (chose,
cosa) or a cooperative solution to a problem posed to a political assembly
(thing). As I have just said, my psoriatic toenails are more things than
objects. But this personal and existential experience becomes an
interesting research enigma if, following Latour, we associate
Heidegger’s objects (like the Roquentin root) to matters of fact (or
simply facts: incontrovertible proven facts) and Heidegger’s things, like
cars (or my psoriatic toenails), to matters of concern (or ways of caring
about certain enigmas or puzzles). Whoever elaborates a theory is
someone who cares about ideas and helps to transform them into facts.
These facts, as time goes by, detach themselves from their origin and
become the unproblematic objects we come up against or which are used
as weapons in intellectual wars. To deconstruct this fact or this object
might mean to recover its “awe” and remember that it was once subject to
the caring effort of many people. In sum, science and thinking in general
is a return ticket to travel between objects and things, between facts and
theories, between matters of fact and matters of concern. Is this travel
everlasting? Can we think about it? Can we say something about it?
These are the questions I want to explore next.
This digression leads me to the ad hoc translation I want to make of
the Solow model. What I have said in my digression can be presented in a
better way. Let G stand for a function transforming objects into things.
Let M represent the transformation of things into matters of concern and
let E transform these matters of concern into matters of fact which are
nothing but objects. However, part of these objects can be transformed
through E-1 back into matters of concern or enigmas. Consider the
following artistic example. The function G transforms sounds into music:
g (sounds) defined on all possible sounds. This new music g can be, for
instance, dodecaphonism. Then M “transforms” this new music into a
new required instrument: m (music) defined on the range of all kinds of
66 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

music. And E finally transforms the new instrument m into a new form of
concerto: e (instruments) defined over the set of all instruments. Part of
this new form of concerto e might be transformed into a new required
instrument. Now, these three functions can be composed into a single
function F, going from sounds to concertos and another function S going
from concertos to instruments and new sounds. Then the translation of
this process of science which S(SK) wants to explore (bracketing out the
subject and the world) can be represented by the previously presented
Solow model. Let L stand for enigmas or puzzles which flow at a constant
rate n. Let K stand for the problems (which can be taken to be
transformed into solutions on a one by one basis) and let F(K, L) be the
problems produced by the enigma and the solutions already obtained. Let
S(a, t) stand for the ratio of these solutions which are not consumed at a
given time and feed back to the production of more problems and
therefore solutions. In this interpretation, t might represent the number of
problems or solutions that are necessarily not consumed if we want to
maintain a constant stock of problems usable for the functioning of the
(scientific) process. In a way, the saving function and (a, t) are the
mediators between the (bracketed away) subject and the world. I will
assume that there are many attainable (a, t) pairs, something that cannot
be proved in the context of this translation. And, given this assumption, I
will take S(a 0 , t 0 ) as the golden rule of accumulation of solved problems
that can be used to obtain knowledge, or more facts.
Let us look at this interpretation carefully. F(K, L) is the number of
things or problems (= solutions) that have emerged from L puzzles and K
problems which have been reintroduced into the scientific process. Of
F(K, L), a certain percentage amounting to C is “consumed.”
Consumption here is the number of things produced which become
objects. As such objects or facts they are scientific beliefs not useful for
further advancing the scientific process. They are like branches of the
evolution of the system which cannot be expected to grow new shoots. S,
on the other hand, is the number of things produced which continue to
have research potential and are refuelled into the process of forming
scientific beliefs. How the split between C and S occurs depends on a and
t. This latter tax detracts a portion of F(K, L) that goes immediately back
to the process, a kind of forced saving of matters of fact which are then
spared from becoming just absurd objects. The remaining (1 - t) F(K, L)
can be consumed or fed back into the process. We can understand a as the
% of things which are public in the Latour sense (see Latour and Weibel).
Those public things are brought to the attention of the public and help to
determine, in part, the amount of things or problems (= solutions) which,
Puzzles and Problems 67

as matters of concern, contribute to the production of new scientific

problems. The other part determining these new scientific problems may
not be public in this sense but still useful in work with new enigmas.
This interpretation is compatible with other distinctions, more
epistemic this time. C can be understood as the amount of truths in the
correspondence sense that are added in each period to the stock of truths
in this sense. On the other hand, if one wishes, S can be understood as the
amount of truths in the coherence sense produced in each period.
I am now in a position to use the Solow model as interpreted to
understand the broadening of empiricism intended by Latour (2004) as a
leading figure in S(SK) and then to ascertain the epistemic content of this
way of looking at the process of forming scientific beliefs. Remember
Theorem 2 and read it now according to this interpretation. Look back at
figure 3.a but where L stands now for puzzles and K for things or
problems (= solutions). Starting from a certain initial point the progress
of science moves along the a trajectory in which the ratio of problems to
puzzles increases all the time making these puzzles relatively more and
more scarce as we said about labour in the previous interpretation. But
this cannot necessarily be taken as good epistemic news. If we look at the
left hand side of figure 3.a we can see that the distance between K and L
along the scientific progress corresponding to the Solow trajectory and
their corresponding values in the optimal process are continually
decreasing. In other words, both Kt – K0 and L t – L0 are continually
decreasing. However, the opposite is the case along the true trajectory. If
we look at the other panel of the same figure, the one which happens to
be the case according to Theorem 2, we find that the number of puzzles
increases and that so does the number of problems and solutions. This
can be read as a proliferation of things and objects which seriously
broadens the cardinality of the set of different entities floating around in
the world and puts the epistemic issue on an unexpected footing. The
epistemic desideratum of science cannot be the asymptotic approach to
the disclosure of truth, in the correspondence sense, for every puzzle. The
epistemic desideratum of science is rather the unbound proliferation of
coherent solutions to new puzzles. Turning to literature or mythology,
what is happening is simultaneously that the mountain that Sisyphus has
to climb increases its height and that Sisyphus carries his rock closer and
closer to the summit percentage-wise. The mountain (empiricism)
increases and the truth attainable in the correspondence sense is greater
and greater but smaller and smaller as a % of the total truth attainable.
We have described this strange nature of science as proliferation, a
word that conveys certain disquieting overtones, certain disorder and
68 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

disgust. Therefore it seems natural to ask whether any society will ever
make the effort to jump from an initial “state of affairs” corresponding to
k 0 to the optimal state of affairs k  . The answer will depend once again
on the rate of discount of the future, or impatience, and on the relevant
period of adjustment. Go back to the content of Theorem 3 and apply this
interpretation. First take a society which is now (with S 0 ) at an
equilibrium k0 , which is greater than k, the k that gives the same number
of (non-productive) facts or truths if S0 were the case. Then making many
things or problems public reduces the relevant period of adjustment as it
would decrease the number of things which are found to be fuelled back
into the problem. Now take a society where k0 < k. In this case, the
reduction of the relevant period of adjustment occurs when the stock of
things made public is small and forced saving increases. This gives some
content to the Latour and Weibel (2005) idea of “making things public.”
According to this interpretation, no policy recommendation is
possible. However, we can try to apply the last result to the
understanding of Latour’s (2004) rhetoric crisis. At the beginning (k 0 < k)
it might be appropriate, in order to reduce the relevant period of
adjustment, to have a small stock of matters of concern. But as k
increases and if k > k, then increasing the stock of matters of concern
available to the process of forming scientific beliefs will be appropriate
in order to reduce the relevant period of adjustment. Latour claims that
critique has not been understood because it has been taken as an attempt
to reduce the number of accepted facts when the case was rather that
what critique was trying to do was to increase the number of matters of
concern in such a way as to increase the “state of affairs.” What I am
surmising is that according to my E(S(SK)), we might not take Latour’s
words at their face value. After all, Latour is human and accepting his all
too human explanations might not be the right research strategy. As a
matter of structure, my result can be more convincing in the sense that
what he asserts to be the case is just the result of the passage of time. Or,
alternatively, to see everything in problem form is only a good research
strategy in societies where k > k, that is in societies which we could
describe as scientifically progressive. Or, alternatively still, his
repentance might not be just rhetoric. He should have wanted to create
problems out of facts (i.e. to increase a) until the society had reached a
point beyond k. Along these lines, his faked crisis can be understood as
the opportunistic broadening of empiricism to matters of concern when it
really helps.
Puzzles and Problems 69

5. Summary and Concluding Remarks

Let us now summarise the answers I have given to the issues posed in the
introduction and then add some additional and brief comments.
As for Modelling, that is S(E(SK)), my main message is that a chance
should be given to Solow-like models when exploring E(SK). I have
shown that the Solow model proper is independent of human agency, has
rich and precise policy implications and captures some features of S(SK).
As for Policy I have been able to contribute to E(SK) the following
relatively new three results. First, the optimal path of scientific
production can be reached through an attainable public intervention.
Second, whether this public intervention ought to be implemented
depends in part on the relevant period of adjustment, a rather
unconventional notion. Third, the analysis of this relevant period of
adjustment and of its changes brought about by a or by t, may help to
understand the development of science. Finally and in relation to
Epistemology I have been able to produce two results on what I have
called E(S(SK)). Concerning visual representation I have shown that it
can be very misleading and in relation to epistemology proper I have
suggested that the proliferation I have uncovered (which certainly
broadens empiricism) forces a reconsideration of the desideratum of
The final comments that I feel obliged to add are of a different nature.
They recognise, as I did in note 4, that this “macroeconomic” way of
looking at science in an evolving social system has not been able to say
anything of interest concerning the constructivism and relativism of
science. Is it then completely devoid of epistemic value? Well, I have
already isolated some epistemic issues; but something else can be added.
On the one hand, I have shown that iconophilia does not add to the
epistemic value whatever its importance as “condensed mediations”
between “I” (the mind) and “the world.” On the other hand, it should be
clear that not all epistemic misconceptions carry errors. For instance, the
false Solow trajectory of adjustment would have never inoculated any
error in the calculations of the period of adjustment.
70 Juan Urrutia Elejalde

Chairman of the Editorial Board

Recoletos Grupo de Comunicación
Paseo de la Castellana, 66
28046 Madrid


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Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla



ABSTRACT. In this paper I want to present the guiding lines of a research

programme into the economics of scientific knowledge, a programme whose
ultimate goal is to develop what I would like to call a contractarian
epistemology. The structure of the paper is as follows: in the first section I will
comment on two conflicting approaches to the topic of rationality in science: the
view of the rationality of scientific knowledge as deriving from the employment
of sound methodological norms, and the view of scientists as rational agents
pursuing the optimisation of their own personal and professional interests. In
section 2 I will try to make both approaches mutually consistent by showing that
a competition among rational “recognition-seekers” is only possible if they agree
in accepting some system of methodological norms. Section 3 will be devoted to
analyse the main kinds and properties of these norms. Finally, in section 4 I will
discuss a question which is far from being easy and innocent: why are scientific
norms obeyed by researchers, once they have been established in a scientific

1. The Rationality of Science versus the Rationality of Scientists

According to a traditional view, a view not only common among

philosophers, but also among the general public, the objectivity and
validity of scientific knowledge would be the necessary outcome of
scientists’ following an appropriate set of methodological rules. What
makes these rules “appropriate” would be their efficiency in promoting
the cognitive and practical ends of scientific research, but philosophical
discussion begun when different authors proposed different conceptions
about these goals as well as different ways to assess the efficiency of
given rules. Over and over again it has been discussed whether the aim of
science is the attainment of truth simpliciter, or that of indubitable truth,

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 71-81. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
72 Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla

or that of probable truth, or that of empirical adequacy, and so forth. Less

frequently, and only much more recently, it has also been discussed
whether the justification of methodological norms should be given by a
priori reasoning or by means of empirical research. Usually,
epistemologists took for granted that, being methodology a kind of
propedeutic for the attainment of knowledge (particularly of empirical
knowledge), it would be circular to try to justify the efficiency of norms
on the basis of the kind of knowledge these norms are devoted to justify.
So, the only remaining possibility was to approach the study of scientific
method as a kind of a priori reflection. This “rationalist” conception
about scientific method is shared by authors having few more ideas in
common, such as Aristotle, Descartes, and Bacon (among classical
philosophers), or as Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper (among XXth
century methodologists). Popper, at least, defended the view that the
rules of science are conventional, in the sense that, being a matter of
decision, they can not be derived from logic alone; but I do not think he
approved the idea that the “right” methodological conventions could be
empirically discovered. The merit of having proposed this view
corresponds basically to the philosophical approach known as scientific
naturalism, and in particular to the work of Larry Laudan, who has
defended the idea in several of his books.
I think that the attitude of real scientists to “methodological norms” is
much closer to Laudan’s theory than to the traditional philosophical
conception. In fact, when scientists talk or write about “methodology,”
they usually refer to the practical procedures they follow when
performing an experiment, for example, and the efficiency of those
procedures (a process for analysing chemical substances, a way of
dissecting animals for observation, the use of certain ways of calibrating
measuring instruments, etcetera) is obviously the outcome of “dirty-
hands” empirical research, not of anything similar to philosophical
reflection (the case of mathematical methods is usually different, of
course, but they are also not an outcome of “philosophical” research).
Hence, if most scientific methods are empirically established, or, in other
words, if the appropriateness of these methods is always recognised
within a scientific community by means of scientific research, then the
idea that methodology should not be seen as a kind of a priori reflection
ceases to be surprising.
Nevertheless, this naturalist idea still corresponds to the more general
traditional view I mentioned at the beginning: the view according to
which the rationality of science is grounded on the soundness of
methodological norms. To this view many sociologists of science (and
Normativity and Self-Interest in Scientific Research 73

some philosophers as well) have opposed in recent times a striking vision

of the process of scientific research. These sociologists, the so called
“constructivists,” assert that scientists are usually not motivated by “a
disinterested pursuit of truth,” but, instead, by the pursuit of personal and
professional goals, especially the attainment of public recognition from
their peers. They also assert that the production of scientific knowledge
is usually not governed by methodological rules, but by the strategic
choices of competing individual scientists, who only “obey” a rule, or
employ it to defend a particular choice, when doing so is in their own
interest. Constructivism, hence, opposes, to the epistemic rationality of
scientific knowledge and scientific method, the instrumental rationality of
scientists considered as agents whose only goal is optimising their own
personal situation, either within the restricted game of science or within
society at large.
This view of scientists is by no means an arbitrary fiction of some
sociologists: it is certainly well supported by an impressive amount of
empirical case studies, and I will take it here as an undisputed
assumption. What I will ask in the first place is whether it is necessary to
conclude that both conceptions about the rationality of science are really
contradictory, or if they can be made mutually consistent.

2. Personal Interests and Methodological Norms

What I am going to defend in this section is that the view of scientists as

“recognition-seekers” is not only consistent with the existence of
methodological norms. My thesis is still stronger: I affirm that, given the
high degree of consensus we observe in many areas of natural science,
this assumption about the motivations of researchers entails that research
processes must be governed by some methodological norms. In order to
prove this thesis, we have to take seriously the idea that scientists are
rational agents, that is, we have to look at them through the lens of
economic theory, particularly through the lens of game theory. The
fundamental game theoretical concept is that of equilibrium: when what
an agent obtains depends not only on what decision (or “strategy”) is
taken by him, but also of what decisions are taken by the other
participants in the “game,” then the only combinations of decisions that
can take place are those in which the decision of every agent is the best
possible response to the strategies of the others. I.e., we will hardly
observe a social situation corresponding to a combination of decisions
which is not an equilibrium.
74 Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla

So, imagine the following situation: 1) you are a scientists and you
have to decide whether entering a “race” for the solution of an unsolved
scientific problem or not; 2) you are a “recognition-seeking,” that is, your
fundamental goal is having your own solution to the problem explicitly
accepted by your colleagues; and 3) the other participants in the “race”
have exactly the same kind of motivation as you. Besides this, imagine
you have red or heard something about contemporary philosophy of
science, and so you know that no scientific hypothesis can be
conclusively confirmed (I actually think that most researchers are aware
of this possibility without knowing anything about philosophical
epistemology). So, to the purported solutions presented by your
competitors, you could always respond that they are not still “supported
enough” by the facts; this entails that you will never be forced to accept a
solution advanced by a colleague. Your problem is that all your rivals
have also the same option regarding the solutions presented by everybody
else! Obviously, the conclusion is that the game of research is absolutely
pointless for you, because you know a priori that you will never have a
chance of “winning” the game, that there is nothing you can do in order
to force your competitors to recognise that your solution is the right one.
Expressed in game theoretical terms, the equilibrium (or at least one of
the possible equilibria) of the “persuasion game” is that each researcher
would adopt the strategy of never accepting publicly a solution proposed
by another researcher.
The history and sociology of science show us that this situation
happens very frequently: no agreement is reached in many research
processes. But my argument is that, if scientists are “recognition-
seekers,” and if they have always open the possibility of rejecting a
rival’s solution for not being “confirmed enough,” then we could never
observe a general agreement about a scientific fact, theory or law.
Actually we could never observe anything like scientific research,
because it would be a game that nobody would like to play. Hence, if
science does exist, and if agreements about facts, laws or theories do
exist, then it is necessary to conclude that the game of scientific research
is organised in such a way that scientists do not have permanently open
the possibility of rejecting the solutions presented by their rivals. There
must be some circumstances where the acceptance of a proposed solution
becomes compulsory. Or, stated differently, we can conclude that:
1) every game of scientific research must be subjected to some rules, and
2) researchers must know that their colleagues usually comply with these
norms. If these conditions are not met, recognition-seeking researchers
will simply have no interest at all in playing the “persuasion game.”
Normativity and Self-Interest in Scientific Research 75

So, we can see methodological norms as mutual constraints

collectively adopted by the competitors in a research process. These
constraints are simply the rules of the game, the rules that make the game
both exciting and profitable. Given certain rules, every researcher will
have to decide whether it is interesting for him to enter the game or not.
And analogously, given a set of people having entered the game, they
obviously can “negotiate” whether keeping the prevailing rules or
modifying them, a possibility that I will discuss with more detail in the
next section.

3. Negotiating the Rules of the Persuasion Game

Seeing methodological norms as rules defining how the research game is

to be played and how researchers can decide who of them is the winner,
allows to understand where and why the naturalist approach mentioned in
section 1 is, in general, more acceptable than its rationalist and
constructivist counterparts, though our own approach preserves also some
appealing aspects of these other views. Regarding the merits of
naturalism, the notion of scientific methods as conventional rules of a
game makes it evident, in the first place, that these norms need not be
universal: different research processes, or even similar processes played
by different scientists, may have different rules, since these will usually
depend on the interests of the competitors, and even on accidental
historical facts. Methodological rules may change, as well, even within
the same research process. In the second place, any particular rule or
procedure will only be adopted after a public process of negotiation,
during which the flaws and virtues of the rule must become as clear as
possible for everyone, and this will generally demand the development of
new research processes, usually empirical ones.
In connection with this, constructivism has still a point (and certainly
a strong one) because, in the process of attaching normative force to a
given procedure, what is relevant in principle is not that it is “empirically
supported” in the rationalist sense of ‘supporting’, but that the empirical
information each researcher has about the working of the new rule makes
it interesting for him to adopt it. But we can also save some of the
insights of the rationalist approach, for, although particular norms are
determined by the interests of scientists and grounded on empirical
information, the possible kinds of norms and the essential aspects of their
operation can be analysed in a more or less “transcendental” sense, i.e.,
we can study the “necessary conditions of possibility” of a game as the
76 Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla

one described in the past section, and it can be shown that, under some
reasonable assumptions, the adopted methodological norms will usually
be sensibly sound from the epistemic point of view. Let us consider these
“rationalist” aspects.
Firstly, what kinds of norms can be expected to arise in a negotiation
among “recognition-seeking” researchers. It seems that three types of
them are needed, at least:
(1) Inferential norms: these tell that, if a researcher has accepted
certain propositions, and if another proposition stands in certain
specified relation with the former ones, then that researcher will be
forced to accept also the later proposition. For example, norms of
this type will establish when is a hypothesis “well supported
enough” to make its acceptance compulsory. These rules are useful
for a “recognition-seeking” researcher because they indicate what
statements you have to persuade your colleagues about, before
attaining the public acceptance of your hypothesis.
(2) Observational norms: in order to prevent the strategic denial to
accept any statement that can “trigger” the undesired acceptance of
a rival’s theory through the rules of the first type, it is necessary
that the commitment about some kinds of propositions is
compulsory for reasons different from the previous acceptance of
other statements. Typically, observations and experiments (or
specific parts of them) are the natural locus of this type of norms,
though probably nor the only one.
(3) Distributional norms: these norms govern the allocation of the
power to control the resources needed for making research and
communicating their results. Obviously, this power is interesting
for scientists not only for the ability they confer to increase the
probability of getting their theories accepted, but also because
many other “private benefits” accrue to them together with that
power (I admit that these rules are less appropriately called
Secondly, it is perhaps more important to notice some properties that
any “reasonable” system of rules must have. These properties are
grounded on the very nature of the negotiation process through which the
rules are established:
(1) Norms are usually chosen “under the veil of ignorance” (to use a
Rawlsian expression). It is certainly possible that accepting a norm
may be interesting for you on a particular occasion because that
norm “supports” the theory you are proposing; but committing to a
Normativity and Self-Interest in Scientific Research 77

norm today forces you to be committed to it also in the future, and

perhaps the same rule makes it that the facts discovered tomorrow
support some of your rivals’ theories more than yours. In general,
it is very difficult for you to predict exactly what theories or
hypotheses will you be proposing in the future, and what will its
connection be with the accepted facts. So, as long as
methodological rules operate as real (and more or less durable)
commitments, it is not necessarily a wise strategy to “vote” for the
rules that happen to favour your “current” theory.
(2) As long as the decision of belonging to a scientific community or
exiting and constituting a different one is open for researchers, it
makes no sense to talk about “imposing” a rule. A norm is a norm
within a scientific discipline because it is interesting for all its
members to adopt it. So, a rule will only be established if it
promotes reasonably well the prospects for recognition of every
researcher. This does not entail that everyone will have exactly the
same probability of success, for scientists less talented and poorly
equipped will be content with a lesser probability than their more
fortunate colleagues.
(3) The two previous properties entail that scientific norms will tend
to be impartial, because they must offer a fair opportunity to rival
approaches and theories. If a particular approach is seen as
“promising” by the members of a scientific discipline, and some
existing norms tend to diminish the chances of success of those
following that approach, researchers will be interested in
negotiating a change in the norms and will begin to explore the
new ideas according to the new rules. On the other hand, it also is
true that norms may have some “inertia,” and this can slow down
the negotiation process.
In many cases, the real effects of a norm on the prospects of getting
public recognition will be so uncertain, that scientists will tend to be
indifferent between several alternative rules as long as only recognition
is considered. Think, for example, in a norm indicating that “ceteris
paribus, the theories with a higher predictive success have to be
preferred,” and contrast it with alternative norms, as “ceteris paribus, the
theories with a lower predictive success have to be preferred,” or “ceteris
paribus, the theories which have been formulated in Latin verses have to
be preferred.”
Imagine now that you could negotiate with your colleagues which of
these three rules to adopt. It is by no means clear which one of the three
maximises the probability of your winning a game of research; perhaps
78 Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla

you are much better at Latin than the rest, but in this case it is just this
differential ability what will make your competitors abstain from
accepting a norm so clearly benefiting you. In any case, it is difficult, if
not impossible, to ground your decision about which norm to accept on
an estimation of your probability of success. What other criteria will you
employ, then? It seems to be a benevolent assumption that, ceteris
paribus, researchers will prefer methodological norms which are
consistent with the maximisation of the epistemic value of the theories
which happen to win in the game of persuasion. After all, why would
they have chosen a scientific career as a means of getting public
recognition, instead of other kinds of activities, as pop music, sports, or
politics, if they did not worry at all about the attainment of
A last important point in connection with this is that, although the
contractarian approach to scientific norms leaves some space to the
influence of epistemic factors in the choice of the rules (and hence in the
justification of scientific knowledge), we can not interpret this result as a
return of the classical view of epistemologists as deciding a priori how
the pursuit of knowledge has to be. Because it is essential to recall that,
even if epistemic values enter into the negotiation of scientific norms,
this values are those of the researchers who are taking part in it, not
those of the philosopher or the “science student” who are observing the
process from outside. This is again something that our approach shares
with that of many scientific naturalists, though I want to point towards an
aspect more specific of the contractarian view: the assumption that an
explicit or implicit agreement between the members of a scientific
discipline is the only legitimate way of “aggregating” the epistemic
preferences of all these individual scientists. Nevertheless, it is true that
other agents outside the research field or even outside science may have
an interest in negotiating the norms according to which the game of
research is played, and the study of this interaction can also be an
interesting point of contact between the approach defended here and
other approaches in the field of social epistemology.

4. Do Researchers Obey the Norms? And Why?

The past two sections have been devoted to show why recognition-
seeking researchers are interested in establishing a set of methodological
norms and what are the fundamental types and properties of these norms.
But it is legitimate to ask still a further question, which is whether a
Normativity and Self-Interest in Scientific Research 79

scientist basically motivated by the attainment of public recognition will

have an interest in obeying the rules he has approved. We must take into
account that, both in the case of science and in other norm-regulated
activities, individuals benefit from the fact that other people comply with
the rules, but it can be very costly for oneself to behave accordingly. For
example, my paying taxes is not advantageous for me (rather on the
contrary!), but my life is much better because people pay taxes regularly,
at least if the collected money is wisely administered. This is obviously
the reason why such an impressive amount of resources are spent just in
making people comply with the norms. Curiously enough, we do not
observe that it exists something like an institutionalised “science police”
or “science tribunals”: scientific research seems to be “self-policing,” at
least in a higher degree that other kinds of practices.
It is true that a large amount of case studies in history and sociology
of science have been devoted to showing that scientists are far from
being mechanical and systematic in their application of methodological
norms, and that they tend to use the existing rules “strategically” or
“rhetorically.” But I do not think that this may serve to prove that
scientific research is not regulated by those norms. In the first place, the
vision of scientific method suggested in the preceding sections is not that
of a logico-mathematical algorithm: actual methodological rules are
usually ambiguous in their application to concrete cases, and they are
frequently contradictory in their practical suggestions. So, it is natural
that each scientist tries to interpret each norm in the way which is most
favourable for his own theory. In the second place, usually not all
methodological rules are violated simultaneously by a researcher; rather
on the contrary, he must employ some rules in order to justify why he has
broken others; otherwise, his colleagues will simply not take into account
what the former scientist is asserting. In the third place, and more
importantly, a “rhetorical” use of a norm only makes sense if one expects
that others are going to be persuaded by such a move: if everybody
employed “just rhetorically” the norms every time, no one would have a
reason to do it. Appealing successfully to rhetorical strategies shows that
your audience act according to some predictable patterns (at least within
certain limits), and these regular patterns of decision making are just the
real methodological norms I am referring to.
I want to suggest that the main reason why these patterns are chosen
and followed is because of the nature of the reward pursued by scientists,
i.e., recognition. Since what you want is that others express a public
approbation of your own work, you do not obtain anything directly from
your own decision about what facts or theories to accept; it only matters
80 Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla

to you what facts or theories are accepted by your colleagues. So, the
only question relevant for you is whether your colleagues obey the rules
or not: if they do it, you will be rewarded for doing “good research”
(“good” according to the accepted norms), and you will get nothing
otherwise; if they do not obey the rules, you will get nothing no matter
what you do, because they are not going to accept your own theory
however much effort you might put in defending it. So, the game of
persuasion has two possible equilibria in general: either no one obeys the
rules of the game (and this means that no research is done, save perhaps
by isolated people), or everybody does (though, in this case, further
problems arise when deciding which norms to institute). Under the
contractarian vision of scientific method I am defending here, the first of
these two equilibria would represent something like the “state of nature,”
or, to express it in popular Kuhnian terms, perhaps the state of scientific
disciplines in their “pre-paradigmatic period.” The emergence of a
“paradigm,” as well as its subsequent changes, can then be seen as the
outcomes of collective negotiations on a “methodological contract.”
Unfortunately, the argument of the preceding paragraph does not
entirely solve the problem stated in this section, for it only works
properly with inferential and observational norms, i.e., the rules
governing what propositions have to be accepted. Distributional norms,
instead, open the possibility of enjoying other types of benefits (income,
travels, power, relief from boring activities, and so on), and people who
have control over this kind of resources will surely be tempted to use
them to their own advantage. It seems that, “under the veil of ignorance,”
scientists will prefer that an institutional mechanism is established that
guarantees that a closer relation exists between the level of recognition
one has reached and the resources and advantages that one can enjoy.
Anyway, the design of such a self-enforcing, self-policing mechanism (if
actual institutions are not satisfactory) is a difficult problem which offers
a promising avenue of research for students of the economics of science.
If we desired something like a “moral” from this section, we could
affirm that the norms for accepting facts, theories and laws prevailing in
a scientific discipline are very probably “right,” in the sense that
everybody trying to enter into the discipline to make a “critical
examination” of the knowledge produced by its members would conclude
that those norms are acceptable, given all the available the information.
On the contrary, the actual norms of distribution of resources within
science will probably be more subject to criticism, in the sense that the
interests of many people outside science may be strongly affected by the
establishing (and enforcing) of some system of norms instead of another.
Normativity and Self-Interest in Scientific Research 81

5. Conclusion

I want finally to say that the contractarian approach to scientific norms,

whose fundamental lines I have tried to sketch in this short paper, is able
to offer a coherent explanation of many features of science that had
usually been remarked by conflicting philosophical and sociological
schools. The assumption that researchers are rational agents (in a sense
which is more usual in economic theory than in sociology) allows to
understand why the pursuit of private interests demands the constitution
of a methodological order, whereas ideas such as that of “choosing norms
under the veil of ignorance” allow to reserve still an important place for
epistemic values in the construction of scientific knowledge by selfish
people. I think that the contractarian approach can be particularly fruitful
because it suggests many ways of modelling the interactions between
researchers (as well as between them and other agents) using the
powerful instruments of game theory. The need of using the techniques
and skills of philosophers, economists, sociologists, historians, and
probably experimental psychologists, in order to develop an approach
which is both theoretically and empirically well grounded, may also
enhance the cooperation between several species of students of science.

Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia

Facultad de Filosofía
Ciudad Universitaria
E-28040 Madrid
Wenceslao J. González


ABSTRACT. The axiological question of the role of economic values in the

configuration of science is analyzed here following several steps: 1) the
acceptance of the presence of values in science (among them, economic values in
connection with scientific progress); 2) the clarification of the realms of values
in science, which gives room for an “economics of science”; 3) the analysis of
economic values in the internal perspective (cognitive and methodological),
which is called “economy of research”; 4) the examination of external economic
values of science as social activity and in the uses and applications of science;
and 5) the assessment of the possibility of an “economic axiology of science”
(i.e., the articulation of economic values as a system where economic dimension
of rationality should have an important task). The paper seeks an alternative
vision to those already available, insofar as it is looking for new aspects of
economic values, such as those involved in scientific results or outcomes, in
addition to those considered in scientific aims and processes.

What is the role of economic values in configuration of science? This

question requires, firstly, to accept the presence of values in science and,
among them, the possibility of economic values in connection with
scientific progress. Secondly, a clarification is needed of the realms of
values in science, which gives space for an “economics of science.”
Thirdly, if economic values can be assumed, then they can have a role in
the internal perspective, which is called “economy of research.” Fourthly,
as a complement of the internal values (cognitive and methodological),
there may be external values (as social activity and in the applications of
science). Finally, the possibility of an “economic axiology of science”
arises, i.e., the articulation of economic values as a system where
economic dimension of rationality should have an important task.
Concerning this range of topics, which conforms to the organization
of the present paper, it seems obvious that the acceptance of values in
science is the condition sine qua non for the existence of specific values

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 85-112. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
86 Wenceslao J. González

based on economic considerations (e.g., of cost-benefit analysis).

Axiology of research is the branch of philosophy of science that deals
with values in science. It received an impulse from Larry Laudan, who
focused the values in the realm of aims of science and stressed the
relevance of cognitive values, but he did not pay attention to economic
values. Nicholas Rescher has improved the framework of values in
science, because his approach includes several advancements in
comparison with the previous viewpoint: a) he recognizes that economic
values are important in scientific research; b) he offers a characterization
of economic values according to several spheres (cognitive,
methodological, social, and operative); and c) he tries to connect those
values of science with other human values, insofar as all of them have
their roots in human needs.
This paper considers the axiology of research focused on cognitive
values and the enlargement of the characterization of values offered by
Rescher’s approach, which makes explicit that economic values can
contribute to the configuration of science. In addition, these pages look
for a more articulated framework of economic values than the previous
ones. Thus, the structure follows the successive steps mentioned in the
initial paragraph in order to facilitate a more complete conception of the
role of economic values in the configuration of science. In other words,
the present attempt seeks several things: i) to recognize the presence of
economic values (mainly of cost-benefit analysis) in science; ii) to
emphasize their role in different levels of scientific activity, both internal
and external; and iii) to offer a new framework articulated in terms of
aims, processes, and results. This alternative vision goes beyond
Laudan’s emphasis on aims and Rescher’s enriched vision of economic
values in aims and processes, looking for new aspects of economic values
such as those involved in scientific results or outcomes.

1. Presence of Values in Science: The Axiology of Research

In recent decades there has been a philosophical shift from the idea of
science as wertfrei or value-free 1 to the acceptance of the scientific
undertakings as “value laden.” This feature is generally assumed
nowadays: any science (formal or empirical) carries out values. This trait

“An empirical science cannot tell anyone what he should do – but rather what he can do
– and under certain circumstances – what he wishes to do” (Weber [1904] 1951, p. 151;
1949, p. 54).
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 87

is connected to the emphasis on science as human activity, a

characteristic that usually impinges the present vision of science, 2 instead
of the previous tendency oriented towards science as a logical structure
or impersonal knowledge (either timeless or evolutive). In addition, this
conception of science as “value laden” could be understood in a non-
relativistic way, because it may be compatible with the idea of scientific
objectivity,3 which was considered as a central feature of the former
perspective of science as wertfrei.4
Besides the existence of values in science, it is commonly accepted
that there is a plurality of them. Moreover, they can be founded in the
different types of sciences (mainly, in the contexts of natural, social or
artificial science).5 This plurality of values has been categorized within
different kinds: “internal” and “external,” cognitive and social, epistemic
and practical, . . . Among this variety of values a relevant role is played
by the economic ones, which could be seen within different spheres
(epistemological, methodological, social, and operative or political).
Certainly economic values are not the only variety of values assumed in
contemporary science, but their position has been emphasized during this
contemporary shift.6

1.1. Axiology of Research and Economic Values

On the one hand, it seems clear to me that values are a component of
scientific activity, and that they accompany the other constitutive
elements of science: language, structure, knowledge, method, social
actions, and ethical considerations. Thus, axiology of research should be
considered in the philosophical analysis of science, in addition to other
analyses more traditional (semantical, logical, epistemological,
methodological, etc.). On the one hand, scientific activity is under the
influence of different kinds of values (cognitive, social, economic, etc.).
These values have a role for the selection of aims or goals of scientific
undertakings, which may be crucial (e.g., in the case of cognitive values).

Formal sciences, such as mathematics, can be seen from this viewpoint, cf. Gonzalez
This is the case not only among different versions of scientific realism but also in the
approach of pragmatic idealism, cf. Rescher (1997, pp. 172-196) and (1999a, pp. 73-96).
On objectivity in Weber’s wertfrei, cf. Agazzi (1999, especially pp. 181-183).
The latter is understood in the sense and reference present in Simon (1996). Economics
is also a science of the artificial, cf. Gonzalez (forthcoming).
De facto, there is an increasing interest in “Economics of science” in recent times, cf.
Wible (1998).
88 Wenceslao J. González

But the values can go beyond that point: they also have repercussion on
the processes as well as on results of scientific activities.
Axiology of research should deal with the different kinds of values
(cognitive, social, economic, etc.) that have influence on the scientific
activity. Thus, the whole set of values in science (“internal” and
“external,” cognitive and social, epistemic and practical, . . . ) are studied
by axiology of research. This is a domain of philosophy of science, and it
has been intensively developed in the last two decades. Moreover,
axiology of research is a philosophical domain that accompanies the main
areas of this field: semantics of science, logic of science, epistemology,
methodology of science, ontology of science, and ethics of science.
Among the relevant values for doing science are economic values.
They influence a variety of aspects – aims, processes, and results – of
scientific activity. Generally, economic values in science are in one way
or another related to a cost-benefit evaluation: effectiveness, efficiency,
profitability, utility, productivity, prosperity, etc. They are related to
science as a human activity, because scientific activity seeks aims or
goals which are singled out or picked out according to values (among
them, economic ones). But economic values also affect scientific means
and outcomes of scientific undertakings.
Since 1984, when the book Science and Values was published, the
new value-laden attitude was seen as a standard among philosophers of
science, and the old value-free tendency was no longer assumed among
specialists. However, the subtitle of the book was very clear: “The aims
of science and their role in scientific debate” (Laudan 1984), because the
focus was on aims rather than on processes or results. Thus, even though
the concern of Larry Laudan was with cognitive values as well as
methodological norms and rules, his particular interest was “the role of
cognitive values in the shaping of scientific rationality” (Laudan 1984,
p. xii). At the same time, he recognized that “the question of precisely
how one distinguishes cognitive values or aims from noncognitive ones is
quite complex” (Laudan 1984, p. xi). Moreover, his view places
“cognitive values” in the realm of “aims,” insofar as he states that “an
attribute will count as a cognitive value or aim if that attribute represents
a property of theories which deem to be constitutive of “good science””
(Laudan 1984, p. xii).
Laudan’s explicit interest has been in cognitive values. In his book
Science and Values he also recognized the existence of ethical values in
science,7 but it is difficult to find in his text statements directly related to

“Ethical values are always present in scientific decision making and, very occassionally,
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 89

economic values in the scientific activity.8 His attention was directed

towards how cognitive values have influence on the configuration of aims
which should be rationally searched by the scientist. Thus, his view
emphasizes the internal perspective of science, thinking of the decision-
making on the process of research. For him, “progress makes sense only
if it is progress toward the satisfaction of a goal or aim” (Laudan 1984,
p. 64). Further, according to his reticulated model of scientific
rationality, “axiology, methodology, and factual claims are inevitably
intertwined in relations of mutual dependency” (Laudan 1984, p. 63).
Cognitive values can be shifted and methods change, because he
considers that, on the scientific scene, nothing can be taken as a
permanent fixture.
Recently, Laudan has emphasized that he establishes a clear
difference between “epistemic values” (understood as those related to
truth and falsity) and cognitive values, e.g., “the role that issues of scope,
generality, coherence, consilience, and explanatory power play in the
evaluation of scientific theories” (Laudan 2004, p. 20). In addition to the
insistence on the need for cognitive values instead of epistemic values, he
acknowledges the importance of social values, insofar as any human
endeavour “is grounded in social processes of communication,
negotiation, and consensus formation” (Laudan 2004, p. 22).
Nicholas Rescher has offered a wider framework for the role of values
in science than the previous approach. On the one hand, he defends a
“holism of values in science,” where the scientific values could be a
matter of distinction (“internal” and “external,” cognitive and
social, . . . ) but this aspect does not authorize separations. On the other
hand, he pays more attention to the existence of economic values in
science than Laudan does. Moreover, this topic constitutes the leit motiv
of two of Rescher’s books: Cognitive Economy (1989) and Priceless
Knowledge? (1996). Furthermore, this issue also appears in his reflection
on rationality – in general, and scientific, in particular – from the point of
view of economic dimension. 9
Even though Rescher is in tune with Laudan on some epistemological
bases, such as a pragmatic vision of scientific knowledge, there are also
differences between their viewpoints: first, because of a diverse emphasis
on the question of limits that they put; and, second, due to the issue of

their influence is of great importance” (Laudan 1984, p. xii).

The comments are usually in the context of criticisms, cf. Laudan (1984, pp. 48 and 98).
Cf. Rescher, “The Economic Dimension of Philosophical Inquiry,” in Rescher (2001,
ch. 8, pp. 103-115). “Economic rationality is not the only sort of rationality there is, but it
is an important aspect of overall rationality” (Rescher 1997, p. 184).
90 Wenceslao J. González

the interconnection between cognitive goals of science and the rest of our
goals as human beings. These aspects are highlighted by Rescher (cf.
Gonzalez 1999a, pp. 21-22). For him, one of the key values of science as
a human cognitive project is “its selflimitation based in a need to
recognize that there are limits to the extent to which this project can be
realized.” 10
Assuming that science is limited, their values are also bounded. Some
of the limits are in the epistemological and ontological areas. This
recognition is based on the acknowledgement that the composition itself
of reality (natural or social) can be a limit for our cognitive control
through science. In addition, Rescher conceives scientific goals (mainly,
cognitive ones) as related to the rest of our goals (social, cultural,
economic, etc.). Thus, besides the teleological character of science, this
viewpoint insists on science as a human undertaking in a contextual
setting rather than in a purely cognitive project or an isolated doing. In
other words, science belongs to a human network.
Holism of values follows from the interconnection between scientific
goals and other human goals: they can be seen as a “system.” Moreover,
Rescher thinks that the distinction between internal and external values
of science is a “distinction” but not a separation (Gonzalez 1999a, p. 22).
i) The structure of human needs and goals is larger than mere human
cognition alone. The aim of controlling reality is only one valid human
aim among others. There are many other valid human needs and
desiderata. ii) Even though knowledge is not an all sufficient be-all and
end-all, it is itself a human need-a situational requisite of ourselves as the
sort of creatures that we are. iii) The internal values of science
(consistency, generality, comfortability, etc.) are what they are because
this is necessary to achieve effectively the applicative aims of science
(effective prediction and control), and these aims of science are what
they are because they inhere in the large situational requirements of us
humans as homo sapiens.
Hence, Rescher proposes a holism that binds the sphere of values
together, and he sees them as a matter of the effective servicing of human
needs. De facto, he offers a practical framework for the role of values in
science. Within it there is a clear space for economic values, which he
conceives have a role in science as human project and, consequently,
they are values that are related to human needs. Thus, the analysis here of
economic values and scientific progress will consider his approach more

Rescher, personal communication, 27 August 1998.
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 91

closely than the conception of Laudan, where the cognitive values are
shaping scientific rationality (Laudan 1994, p. xii).

1.2. Economic Values and Scientific Progress

Frequently, the analysis of economic values in science is related to
reflection on those aims that can bring about scientific progress, either in
itself – internal perspective – or in its social consequences (external
viewpoint). Moreover, the main reason why economic values have
received special attention is sometimes based on their connection with
“scientific progress.” This link involves the existence of a close relation
between axiology of research and methodology of science, because
values in science have a clear role in the selection of those aims that the
process – the method – can follow in order to increase scientific
There are some factors, commonly associated with scientific progress,
that are relevant for the relation between values and progress in science.
i) The concept of “scientific progress” has a teleological character,
because the sense and reference of “progress” is not a mere
“development”: it is an advancement oriented towards an aim or goal.
Thus, scientific progress cannot be restricted to the present situation of
science: it requires some prescriptions or indications that can be used by
the scientific communities to evaluate the aims or goals of scientific
research. ii) In science there is not a single aim or goal: we do not have a
concept that can be overarching for all the aspects of progress in science.
Scientific activity is multidirectional in its aims rather than one
directional. Nevertheless, there is still an area where scientific progress
has put more emphasis: the epistemic and methodological components of
the advancement of reliable knowledge. Thus, a theory of scientific
progress should give an explanation of the criteria of “cognitive
progress” (Gonzalez 1990 and 1997a). Cost-benefit analysis can help in
this regard (effectiveness, efficiency, etc.).
Following these aspects of scientific progress (advancement towards
aims and existence of a variety of goals), there are two elements for this
analysis. On the one hand, insofar as scientific progress can be oriented
towards different aims or goals, there is a plurality of values (cognitive,
social, economic, cultural, etc.) involved in the scientific process, where
the role of every kind of values, such as economic ones, should be
specified. On the other hand, in those authors that accept the existence of
“progress” in science, there is a particular relevance of the cognitive
factor within a multidirectional sphere of aims or goals of scientific
92 Wenceslao J. González

progress. Economic values can be considered in this regard, but they are
not commonly placed in a key role.
It seems noticeable to me that Laudan and Rescher, two philosophers
who focus particularly on scientific progress and the role of values in it,
coincide in emphasizing the diversity of aims or goals of science and, at
the same time, they insist on the preference for the cognitive factor above
of other scientific components (social, cultural, political, etc.). However,
there are also philosophic-methodological differences between these two
thinkers, because they differ on boundaries of the values in science, as
well as in the problem of how to articulate the whole set of scientific
values. In addition, the explicit connection between economic values and
scientific progress appears in the latter rather than in the former.
Rescher’s approach on scientific progress is frequently based on the
language of cost and benefit, because – for him – cost-effectiveness is a
salient aspect of rationality, where the benefits of knowledge can be
theoretical (or purely cognitive) or practical (or applied). On the one
hand, among the internal benefits of sciences is the increasing capacity
that a science has to provide explanation and prediction, which also
contribute explicitly to the human worldview as well as the solution of
many practical problems of everyday life. On the other hand, there are
growing external costs, mainly in the natural sciences and in the sciences
of the artificial, which are due to the enlarging complexity of the
phenomena studied as well as the greater difficulty in learning and
mastery.11 These internal and external aspects of economic values related
to scientific progress require a closer analysis, which is developed in the
following sections.

2. A New General Framework for Values in Science and

the Role of Economic Values

The issue of economic values in the configuration of science requires a

new general framework for values in scientific activity. This can be made
according to three different realms: aims, processes, and results. Thus, in
this approach that I am suggesting, there are at least two initial aspects
which are relevant for the contextualization of economic values. On the
one hand, the proposal contains a broader viewpoint on values in science

“The historical situation has been one of a constant progress of science as a cognitive
discipline notwithstanding its exponential growth as a productive enterprise (as measured
in terms of resources, money, manpower, publications, etc.)” (Rescher 1998, p. 85).
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 93

than the dominant perspective, where axiology of research is mainly

focused on aims of science; and, on the other hand, this new view
involves a distinction between “axiology of research” and “economics of
science.” They are dissimilar types of analysis: the former is mostly
philosophical in its standpoint, whereas the latter is commonly seen as a
scientific study of science. We need a philosophical study to clarify the
role of economic values in science and, at the same time, we should see if
there is a sense and reference of ‘economics of science’ that shares that

2.1. Three Different Realms of Values:

Aims, Processes, and Results
Basically, in my judgment, values in science can be present in three
different realms: aims, processes, and results. a) In the case of aims,
values are used to choose the goals of research, either in basic science or
in applied science. They could be either descriptive (values related to
explanation and prediction) or prescriptive (values related to solutions of
concrete problems). b) In the realm of processes, values play a key role
in order to select the adequate means to get scientific progress and to
choose the adequate undertakings to develop science as a human activity
within a social setting. c) In the domain of results, values are used to
assess the outcomes of science as intellectual achievement as well as a
product of the society.
These three different realms (aims, processes, and results) should be
considered in the analysis of economic values as well. This position
involves an axiology of research in three consecutive levels, which is
larger than previous axiological analyses. Commonly, axiology of
research is the philosophical study of science that deals with aims or
goals (e.g., in the case of Laudan), whereas the other two kinds of values
(those related with processes and results) are usually analyzed through
methodology of science and the diverse studies on science, technology
and society.
Meanwhile, Rescher suggests a different conception on values in
science: he proposes a broad axiology of research, according to his
conviction that sciences are related to values from diverse angles
(cognitive, methodological, etc.). These values are related to other human
values and rooted in human needs. In addition, he sees scientific progress
– a central issue of methodology of science – from the viewpoint of
“economics of research” (Gonzalez 1999a, pp. 11-44, especially
pp. 13-27). This conception can be used as a basis for the new framework
of values in science: on the one hand, he offers an overview of scientific
94 Wenceslao J. González

values taking into account different aspects of human endeavors; and, on

the other hand, he distinguishes diverse kinds of values (internal and
external) of science as a human practice.
Predominantly, for Rescher, there are four aspects in the relation
between science and values. First, science is a human project devoted to
the search of valuable aims, such as information and truth. Second,
science demands an economy of means from the methodological point of
view, which involves a set of economic values related to the pattern of
cost-benefit. (In other words, scientific progress is commonly modulated
by an “economics of research.”) Third, science has the characteristics of
a social activity of science, because it is based on a process of human
cooperation. Science includes attention to human ideals, even though it is
a competitive business, because the method and modus operandi of any
science asks for honesty, veracity, integrity, collaboration, etc. These
values are relevant for scientific communities as human groups. Fourth,
science has uses and applications that call for a set of values to evaluate
the consequences of every scientific activity (above all, in its
technological projection). This task of assessment requires an evaluative
rationality, which should be able to discern the appropriate and legitimate
ends of this human activity (Gonzalez 1999a, p. 16).
Consequently, in his broad axiology of research, Rescher (1999a)
accepts a variety of values around science. They can be distributed in
four large areas of values: cognitive, economic, social, and operative;
implicitly, his approach includes a fifth area: ethical values. If we see
these plurality of values from the duality internal-external, two of them –
cognitive values and economic values – are inserted into a framework
basically internal, insofar as it is a methodological economy; meanwhile
the other two – social values and operative values – are mostly in the
external dimension. And the ethical values have an endogenous side in
addition to an exogenous sphere.
Nonetheless, this differentiation between “internal” and “external”
cannot be rigid, because there is a permeability between both
perspectives: it is the case that social values can have influence on the
method of research chosen (e.g., in stem cell research) and some
operative values are accepted only after the legitimizing of a cognitive
value (e.g., in the research on transplantation of organs from animals,
including hearts, to humans). Furthermore, in this view, it can be
considered that all the values belong to a whole that allows distinction,
but not a genuine separation, insofar as they conform a “system.” Thus,
an effective interdependence of the values in science can be accepted.
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 95

However, the distinction between internal and external shows that the
economic values are of Rescher’s interest insofar as they are related with
science itself (i.e., the internal perspective), rather than science as
connected to the rest of the human experience (i.e., the domain of
external perspective): his analysis of economic values is made in
connection to methodology of science, a dominion that – using some
insights of Charles S. Peirce – he calls “economy of research.”12
Moreover, his book Scientific Progress – a central book of his
methodological contribution – is conceived as a philosophical essay on
the economics of research in natural science (Rescher 1978).
In other words, Rescher’s main purpose is to clarify values – in
general, and economic values, in particular – mostly in the context of
scientific processes, whereas Laudan clearly focuses the attention on the
area of aims (mainly, in cognitive values). But a general framework of
values should make explicit – in my judgment – the values of the realm
of outcomes or results, in addition to those values of aims and processes.
Moreover, there is a relevant place for the role of economic values within
this triple realm (aims, processes, and results).
1) Economic values can evaluate the outcomes or results of scientific
activities (as intellectual achievements and as products of society),
mainly in the case of applied science (pharmacology, economics, library
science, etc.), where the connection with economic markets (including
the stock market) is clearer than in the case of basic science. In effect,
this economic repercussion of the scientific outcomes is more relevant in
design sciences (i.e., sciences of the artificial), due to their relation to
technology. 2) Economic values of results or outcomes, which obviously
have been obtained after the aims and processes, can be used to compare
the validity of what has been achieved and what was expected. This
comparative factor may be a starting point for changes in science,
according to the self-corrective nature of science. Thus, the cost-benefit
analysis can appear in the evaluation of the three scientific realms as
human activity: aims, processes, and results or outcomes.
Additionally, besides the triple realm of values in science, I consider
that economic values can be seen in the internal perspective of science,
and then they affect scientific knowledge and method; and they can also
be considered from the external point of view, where two directions
appear: on the one hand, values which have influence on science as social
activity connected to other human activities of social character; and, on

Cf. Rescher (1989, p. ix) and (1996, p. 3). The idea comes from some reflections made
around 1896 and published in Peirce (1931, vol. 1, sect. 1.122).
96 Wenceslao J. González

the other hand, values which influence scientific activity insofar as

science is an undertaking under the plane of scientific policy and
connected to technological policy (i.e., science in the context of
“research and development”).
Undoubtedly, the internal facet and the external aspect of science
receive de facto a more intense influence of economic values where the
links with technology are more intense (especially when the scientific
results contribute to technological patents). Thus, when there is a clear
interconnection of scientific progress and technological innovation, the
presence of economic criteria is more noticeable. The conceptual
convergence of scientific progress and technological innovation is
reached through the notion of “planning” (and its articulation through
calculation and distribution in the short, middle or long run) (Gonzalez
1998b). And it seems clear that any planning involves economic values
besides other kinds of values (cognitive, social, etc.).

2.2. Economics of Science: Three Options

An analysis of the general framework of the values in science and the
study of economic values within it requires taking into account the
relationship between “axiology of research” and “economics of science.”
This involves distinguishing both approaches, in order to consider the
role of economic values in the configuration of science. In this regard,
after the new framework for values as diversified in three realms (aims,
processes, and results), it is clear that economics of science should also
be seen in these different levels. Previously, this requires making the
sense and reference of ‘economics of science’ explicit in order to have a
clear point of comparison with the philosophical studies on values. 13
Initially, ‘economics of science’ can be understood in two different
ways: i) as a specific knowledge within the scientific studies of science
(i.e., a discipline different from, and complementary to, history of
science, psychology of science or sociology of science); and ii) as a set
of values of economic kind that are involved in the scientific undertaking
as such or that they have influence from the environment (then it is
assumed that there are economic values inserted in the cognitive and
methodological spheres of scientific research or can affect them from
external instances to the process itself considered). When these
possibilities are accepted, then an additional view appears: iii) as
economic criteria present in the methodology of economics of science
itself. Thus, the economic values (cost-benefit, profitability, incentives,

The analysis follows here Gonzalez (2001, pp. 17-20).
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 97

etc.) can be applied to the undertaking of research of this concrete

scientific discipline.
Through the first sense and reference, the clearest possibility appears:
economics of science is a new discipline on scientific activity, located
within the orbit of science of science and focused on it using the
scientific parameters of economics. In this use, economics of science is
an explanatory and predictive study of scientific activity by means of
economic categories (cost, benefit, supply, demand, etc.). Its presence in
the whole set of disciplines on science is warranted insofar as it studies a
territory – scientific activity – that possesses characteristic features: its
subject matter is different from those objects of study considered in other
spheres (either historical, psychological or sociological). At the same
time, its contributions can be complementary of those reached from the
other scientific perspectives on science.
Less evident is the second sense and reference of ‘economics of
science’, when the approach is focused on the scientific values
themselves of economic character (profitability, optimization, efficiency,
etc.). Then, it is a metascientific study, insofar as it searches the set of
values of economic nature that are inserted in the practice of scientific
research or that conditioned it from the environment (values that, in turn,
have repercussion in the configuration of technology). 14
Understood in this way, economics of science is a branch of an
enlarged axiology of research (i.e., a discipline which deals with the
economic values of aims, processes, and results of science). Its objects of
analysis are economic values – internal and external –of scientific
activity, like – to some extent – ethics of science works on ethical values
(endogenous and exogenous) that have influence on the decision-making
of scientists. Within this context, economics of science accompanies
other reflections of philosophy and methodology of science: strictly
speaking, it would be “economic axiology of science.” This analysis can
be articulated to study goals, procedures, and outcomes of science, both
basic and applied.
Conceptually, the views on “economics of science” pointed out
already, belong to two different levels, even though they can become
clearly interconnected studies. The first level – economics of science as
scientific discipline – explains and predicts the phenomenon of scientific
activity, paying attention to testable factors (either by means of
observation or via experimentation). Meanwhile, the second level –
economics of science as axiology of science from an economic key –

On the relations between economic values and technology, cf. Gonzalez (1999b).
98 Wenceslao J. González

reflects on values that are inserted in these activities of scientists, or

configured them, without the search of possible laws or reliable
probabilistic estimates. In other words, the first direction is neatly
scientific, whereas the second way is metascientific (and, hence, it
belongs to a philosophic orbit) (Radnitzky 1987).
Besides these two levels (scientific study of science from an economic
key and search of values that are in the sphere of “economy of research”)
(Rescher 1976), there is a third possibility: interaction of the scientific
and philosophic-methodological levels within economics of science
itself. This context includes that, economics of science, like any other
scientific branch, possesses philosophical and methodological elements
that affect its standpoint, development, and outcomes. It is this line
where the objective that James R. Wible points out when he wrote The
Economics of Science is located. He explicitly indicates that his book is
looking for two things: “(1) creating a systematic economics of science
and (2) the methodological and philosophical issues which result from an
economics of science” (Wible 1998, p. xiv).
Wible’s last goal involves the third sense and reference of ‘economics
of science’, insofar as he assumes the legitimacy of a philosophic-
methodological reflection about the discipline that studies science from
an economic perspective. This possibility involves a second aspect to be
considered by the new framework for values in science (i.e., besides the
metascientific analysis of economic values in scientific activity), because
there are economic values in the methodology of economics of science.
Previously, it should be assumed that the second characterization of
“economics of science” is pertinent, insofar as it is a philosophical
approach that deals with economic values present in scientific processes
or can have influence on them. These are the kind of values (internal and
external) that Rescher has commonly in mind (“economy of research”).
After the reflections on the relations between axiology of research and
economics of science, some conclusions can be drawn: a) axiology of
research involves more values than economic ones (cognitive, social,
etc.); b) there is a convergence between both studies when it is the
second option (“economic axiology of science”), because the first
alternative is “science of science” (like in the cases of psychology of
science or sociology of science); c) axiology of research and economics
of science partially converge in the third possibility (i.e., philosophic-
methodological analysis of economics of science), where the focus is on
the discipline itself of “economics of science” and values are one
component among others of this subject.
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 99

3. Economic Values in the Internal Perspective:

“Economy of Research”

Now the analysis can consider central aspects of “economic axiology of

science,” the territory where axiology of research and economic of
science converge. This can be done taking into account Rescher’s
reflections on “economy of research,” which is focused on the processes
related to scientific progress and can be connected with aims and results.
His considerations have particular interest because his attention goes into
details of economic values, both internal and external, present in
scientific processes. Regarding the economic values involved in the
internal dimension of science, it is possible to investigate the economic
criteria of epistemology (“cognitive economics”).15 In addition, the
economic values that accompany methodology of science can also be
analyzed, mainly through the cost-benefit approach. Thereafter, in the
following section, the attention will shift to the external perspective on
economic values related to scientific progress.

3.1. Internal Values in the Cognitive Domain

From an epistemological point of view, Rescher insists on the economic
factors as modulating and conditioning our cognitive process in a
fundamental way. For him, human cognitive practices arise from
economic pressure in order to achieve effectiveness in the costs when we
are dealing with epistemic matters. Thus, instead of accepting relativism,
which involves conforming to dominant tendencies in a concrete place
and moment, he proposes a problem-solving search understood in
pragmatic terms: each epistemic initiative is dependent on the effective
cost of obtaining adequate responses to our questions (Rescher 1989,
pp. 150-151).
Definitely, Rescher sees scientific knowledge as an active process of
economic character. Thus, there are costs and benefits in the acquisition
and management of information, which involves that knowledge, is a
commodity among others: to get it has a price, which is not merely
monetary, because it also includes other resources, such as time and
effort (Rescher 1989, pp. 4-5). To know is, in this approach, a human
activity. It is a process that has a twofold benefit: theoretical (or purely
cognitive) and practical (or applied).

This conception can be seen in his books Cognitive Economy: The Economic Dimension
of the Theory of Knowledge and Priceless Knowledge?
100 Wenceslao J. González

On the one hand, this process gives the informative content of

knowledge, and it can be used for the important task of understanding:
and, on the other hand, the process guides the procedure to satisfy (non
cognitive) human necessities and wants, and it facilitates the achievement
of some goals guiding our endeavors to productive and rewarding lines
(i.e., a practical payoff). This search for potential benefits, both
theoretical and practical, increases scientific research – to enlarge and
validate knowledge – and leads to an approach to scientific progress of
pragmatic character.
With this analysis of human knowledge in terms of cost-benefit, and
the consideration of rationality as epistemic optimization – the optimal
use of resources – (Rescher 1996, p. 8), there is an emphasis on some
aspects that usually are not taken into account. a) The cognitive dynamics
is not costless, b) human rationality, in general, and scientific rationality,
in particular, are not restricted to the processes themselves, to the means
which look at ends already given. Then economic criteria are introduced
in an internal realm of science (knowledge and rationality) and, at the
same time, the practical dimension of both is highlighted.
Simultaneously, there is an acceptance of the social character of
science from an economic viewpoint, in terms of trust and cooperation,
which forces the scientists to work together as scientific community
under the pressure of the economic advantage involved in the search for
knowledge. Thus, in cognitive contexts, as well as in economic
environments, the relevant community uses incentives and sanctions to
establish a system where agents perform according to criteria of trust
(which includes reciprocity) (Rescher 1989, pp. 43-44).

3.2. Internal Values in the Methodological Context

Via the methodological orientation based on the pragmatic view of the
advancement of science, which is presented by Rescher in different
books, such as The Limits of Science (1999b), science appears as a
potentially unlimited from the cognitive point of view. However, at the
same time, the approach emphasizes that science is only a type of
knowledge among others. In his characterization of scientific progress, he
assumes that human rationality, in general, and scientific rationality, in
particular, are within an economic dimension: “rationality and economy
are inextricably interconnected. Rational inquiry is a matter of epistemic
optimization, of achieving the best overall balance of cognitive benefits
relative to cognitive costs” (Rescher 1989, p. 13).
But in his approach, where rational inquiry is economically minded,
Rescher does not restrict rationality to the mere instrumental conception,
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 101

as is usual in mainstream economics, as well as in one of its main critics:

Herbert Simon, who also sees rationality only in terms of means to ends:
“we see that reason is wholly instrumental. It cannot tell us where to go;
at best it can tell us how to get there. It is a gun for hire that can be
employed in the service of whatever goals we have, good or bad” (Simon
1983, pp. 7-8). 16
Instrumental rationality (i.e., from means to ends) is not enough to
characterize scientific rationality. In addition, it is insufficient to analyze
economic rationality itself. On the one hand, Rescher recognizes the
presence of an evaluative rationality focused on ends. On the other hand,
he criticizes the idea of economic rationality understood in terms of
maximization of utility: “true rationality calls for the pursuit of
appropriate ends based on valid human interests, rather than following
the siren call of unexamined wants or preferences” (Rescher 1988, p. 107).
As criteria for the research strategy of the methodology of science
based on cognitive economics, Rescher insists on simplicity, uniformity
and systematicity. For him, scientific inquiry is teleologically effective,
in the case of costs and benefits regarding a concrete goal, when certain
parameters are fulfilled, such as simplicity, uniformity, regularity,
normality, coherence, . . . (Rescher 1989, p. 96). These features can be
seen as features of scientific progress as well, insofar as they are signs of
methodological efficiency.
Nevertheless, Rescher points out that an economy of means is not an
economy of products: simple methods can bring out complex results.
Thus, a simple method, such as trial and error, can give us complex
responses to difficult questions, and vice versa: simple outcomes are
obtained sometimes through complicated ways (Rescher 1989, p. 102).
He calls the attention on the economic character of the rationality of the
evolutive process, because it supposes that the survival through
adaptation involves efficient ways of using limited resources (Rescher
1989, p. 103). Therefore, he has connected the cognitive domain and the
methodological process with economic values, mainly when the analysis
deals with scientific progress.

This instrumental character of human reason is also present in the field where Simon
has worked more on goals: political science. In this area, he describes and analyzes some
problems (conflicting goals, salient goals, focus of attention, group identifications, . . . )
and several goals (search of power, pursuit of private interest, . . . ), but he does not offer
an examination of the validity or not of those goals. Moreover, he seems to exclude any
chance for an evaluative rationality of ends: “rationality can only go to work after final
goals are specified; it does not determine them” (Simon 1995, p. 60).
102 Wenceslao J. González

4. Economic Values in the External Perspective:

The Dependence on Economy

Through the analysis of economic values in science, the presence of

economic factors in science as a social action (a human activity among
others) and as an operative instrument for different applications, which is
used for technology as well as for other practical utilities becomes clear.
Thus, besides the internal values, which are those related to scientific
knowledge – cognitive economics – and progress – methodological
economics, there are also external values of economic kind. Frequently,
these values can receive a quantitative measurement, and they may
appear in the decision-making of the policy on research and

4.1. External Values of Science as Social Activity

Nowadays there is a particular insistence on science as social activity.
Those approaches that see the entity itself of science as social activity
give habitually special relevance to economic values. Then, economic
values are those present in the social dimension of scientific activity:
1) insofar as it shows a psycho-sociological facet (trust, credibility,
feasibility, etc.); 2) as a phenomenon of a socio-cultural character
(satisfying needs, covering expectations, increasing social welfare, etc.);
3) as factor with a public projection (diminishing inequalities, decreasing
poverty, increasing freedom, etc.); and 4) insofar as has repercussion on
the environmental dimension that has social incidence (protection of
nature, to avoid side effects of applied scientific research, etc.).
Understood as social activity, science is the work of a scientific
community (in its different steps: search of goals, utilization of methods
and attainment of results) that is developed within the social sphere in
general. In this way, science shows a set of economic values of economic
character, because science – in itself – is articulated in organizations that
are related to the “market of ideas.” At the same time, as Wible has
pointed out, “scientific ideas are public goods and they are not divisible,
saleable, and mass reproductive like private goods” (Wible 1998, p. 188).
From this point of view, when science is developing these goods, it is
a human activity interrelated to other human activities. Thus, without
affecting its epistemological and methodological autonomy,18 there are

These reflections are based on Gonzalez (2001, pp. 30-33).
The insistence on the relevance of economic values of social character is wholly
compatible with dismissing a “finalization thesis,” that can lead to determine from an
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 103

economic values of social character that can have incidence in giving a

priority to some type of research above other types. Indeed, it could be
the case within economic science itself, when it is doing research on
legal or institutional frameworks, which can increase the economic
development or the diminishing of poverty. These values are not of a
single class (i.e., merely “economicists”) but rather of a variety of them
(i.e., pluralistic).
Contemporary science has not an individualistic nature insofar as it is
a collective undertaking that requires organizational structures and
processes of institutional kind. There can be found the economic factors
of the social sphere (psycho-social, socio-cultural, of political projection
or environmentalist of social incidence) that may give an impulse to the
development of science or, eventually, can stop it. The first phenomenon
appears when the social character of science is seen in economic terms
(of psycho-social nature) such as trust and cooperation, which leads the
community of researchers to work together under the pressure of the
economic advantage that the search of knowledge involves. In this
regard, it happens that in cognitive domains and in economic contexts the
community uses incentives and sanctions to establish a procedure where
people commonly act in a trusting and trustworthy way (Rescher 1989,
pp. 43-44). The second phenomenon emerges when the social
organization of science has an institutional failure (or there is a
malfunction due to a scientific policy) that may diminish the critical
attitude of some scientists, which can lead to forgetting the search of best
outcomes possible because of the lack of new economic incentives (e.g.,
in terms of remuneration) (Wible 1998, p. 189).
Presumably, if the emphasis moves from the “market of ideas” to
highlight the role of organizations (science articulated through networks),
then the theoretical framework generally used – to study properly the
economic exogenous factors that have influence on scientific activity –
should be redefined. The mainstream tendency in economics –
neoclassical approach – does not commonly contemplate elements of
historical and social character (that include the institutional sphere),
aspects that have influence on economic activities and, consequently, in
science as economic activity interconnected with other social activities.
There bounded rationality would have a relevant role. Usually, human
rationality (and, above all, economic rationality) of agents in the task of
decision-making is bounded. Moreover, commonly their rationality is

extrinsic base the scientific process itself. Cf. Niiniluoto (1984), pp. 226-243; and
Gonzalez (1990), pp. 100-104.
104 Wenceslao J. González

procedural rather than substantive (Simon 1976). In addition, it could be

that variables closely link to historical factors in economics. These
variables can take into account “(1) continuing changes in knowledge and
information (both knowledge about economics and other knowledge
about the world), (2) changes in human ability to estimate consequences
of actions, (3) changes in the institutional setting within which economic
behavior takes place, (4) changes in the focus of attention and related
changes in beliefs and expectations [. . .], (5) changes in human altruism
and (6) in group identification” (Simon 1998, p. 251). 19

4.2. External Values and Uses and Applications of Science:

The Repercussion on Technology
Parallel to the social dimension of economic values in science, there is
another type of external values: applications and uses of science.20 This
sphere connects, in principle, more easily with technology. In that
directions go many proposals of research plans, national and
international, that combine Research plus Development plus Innovation
(R&D&I), where economic values are highlighted insofar as the products
are artifacts and patents. Undoubtedly, there are economic values in
science policy, which are reflected in priorities on R&D and it is also
related to technology policy on innovation.
Regarding this issue, Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter have
considered the case of the United States. They have emphasized many
years ago the importance of public funding for scientific research:
“Government R&D support programs have, since World War II, provided
approximately half of the total funding for research and development.
More generally, a significant portion of economic activity is conducted
by public rather than private organization” (Nelson and Winter 1982,
p. 371). Moreover, these figure could be ever larger in the case of
countries of the European Union, where the public funding is crucial for
the research carried out at the universities and national centers (like in
France, Germany or Spain).
Following a pragmatic conception of “scientific progress,” where the
important point is the superiority of applications rather than the pure

On the role of economic rationality in connection to science and technology, cf.
Gonzalez (1998a), pp. 95-115, especially pp. 97-107.
“It is important to distinguish applied science from the applications of science. The
former is a part of knowledge production, the latter is concerned with the use of scientific
knowledge and methods for the solving of practical problems of action (e.g., in
engineering or business), where a scientist may play the role of a consult” (Niiniluoto
1993, p. 9).
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 105

sophistication of theories, there is an economic factor, there is a new

emphasis on an economic aspect in the relations with reality that
reinforces the interdependence between science and technology. This
practical confluence of scientific activity and technological doing is
linked to two central ideas of Rescher’s book Scientific Progress (1978):
1) science and technology are interdependent and they advance in an
interconnected manner, like two legs of a person while walking; and
2) the rate of progress is guided by economic factors, where the ratio is
that a linear progress – to maintain the same speed – requires an
exponential increase of costs.21
Putting it differently: the internal dimension of scientific progress –
economy of research: to seek an economy of means in scientific inquiry –
converges with the external component of financial costs, mainly through
the technological projection. The scientific progress – especially in
natural sciences – is built upon technological escalation, which makes
each new advance more expensive (e.g., Genome project). This involves
that new steps in science require a superior technology. In other words,
technology has a clear repercussion in the advancement of science (above
all, in natural sciences). This phenomenon is complementary of the
incidence of science (mainly as knowledge) on technology, a feature that
has been stressed traditionally.
Certainly, the nexus science-technology connects with some views on
“technoscience,”22 insofar as the relations between science and
technology are bi-directional, because “the technological [. . .] ramifica-
tions of science as a human project also have major implications for
science as a cognitive discipline” (Rescher 1996, p. 115). But Rescher’s
approach is clearly oriented towards natural sciences (especially,
physics).23 His references to formal sciences are really infrequent and
even less frequent his mentions to human and social sciences, which has
the tendency to call “hermeneutical sciences” (Rescher 1989, p. 146).

“The impressive scope of recent advances in science has tended to obscure the fact that
this progress has been achieved at an increasingly high cost in manpower, talent, and
resources devoted to scientific work. The sheer volume of progress has masked the
circumstance that the actual rate of return in terms of high-quality results per unit
investment has been decreasing over time” (Rescher 1978, p. 120).
Cf. González (2005), pp. 8-13. The relations between science, technology and society –
including the topic of “technoscience” – have been analyzed in a large amount of
publications, among them are those listed in Gonzalez (2005, pp. 37-49).
This feature also appears explicitly in the subtitles of two books: “A Philosophical
Essay on the Economics of Research in Natural Science,” in the case of Scientific
Progress, and “Natural Science in Economic Perspective,” in the volume Priceless
106 Wenceslao J. González

If in Gary Becker we can find a “methodological imperialism” of

economics within the context of social sciences,24 because economic
methods are proposed for the study of problems commonly located
outside of the boundaries of economics (and, therefore, economic criteria
domain – in his approach – methodologies of social sciences); in Rescher
we can see a different framework: scientific progress (which is, in
principle, a general methodological notion) is considered in the concrete
sphere of natural sciences, and these appear as causally interdependent
with technology. Again, his emphasis is on processes even though he also
pays attention to aims. Science appears as a social activity with economic
values and an operative undertaking with links to technology, which
reinforces the economic dimension of science.

5. The Articulation of “Economic Axiology of Science”

Internal and external values show a diversity of aspects in axiology of

scientific research. The analysis according to the type of contents
(cognitive, methodological, social, and operative) reveals additional
details. But there is still a twofold consideration in order to arrive at an
articulation of “economic axiology of science” (i.e., an axiological study
of scientific research based on economic values): i) the possibility that
those values can form a system, where the building of scientific values of
economic kind can be interwoven with other values; and ii) the economic
dimension of rationality as the key element to interrelate aims, processes,
and results or outcomes of scientific research. These factors – to be a
system and to be modulated through economic rationality – can
contribute to complete the role of economic values in the configuration of

5.1. Holism of Economic Values and Scientific Activity

Ultimately, what Rescher proposes is a holism of economic values
regarding science as a whole. His proposal includes four lines: i) a
cognitive economics – the achievement of scientific knowledge with the
minimum risk possible of error; ii) a methodological economy (a process
of research which can increase the cognitive enlargement with minimum
cost regarding the means); iii) an economy on the social undertaking of

Cf. Blaug (1980), p. 248. As it is well-known, the Nobel Prize winner in 1992, Gary S.
Becker, studies social realities, such as family or prisons from a purely economic angle,
cf. Becker (1976 and 1981).
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 107

science, which involves a procedure of rational selection of the cognitive

resources in order to keep, make explicit and transmit those which have
been tested as efficient (what affects social communication of science);
and iv) an economy as pattern for the uses and applications of science,
which is directly linked to the technological projection of science. 25
Implicitly, there is a transition from a particular setting – natural
sciences – to the general set of sciences. This is not incoherent within
Rescher’s philosophical schemes. On the one hand, he accepts the
legitimacy of induction as “cognitive systematization,”26 which involves
making inferences from a part to the overall; and, on the other hand, he
assumes that economic values are only a type of scientific values and
they conform a sector of the human values in general. Therefore, he
assumes a system of values in science that it is related to the whole
framework of human values.
To justify this holism of economic values, Rescher starts from the
following idea: human values – and, among them, economic ones – are
directly rooted in human needs; they are all interwoven like also human
needs are. Thus, scientific values – which are a kind of human values –
can be seen as different but interconnected. The manner to avoid an
“imperialism of economic values,” which would be the consequence of
emphasizing the four economies already pointed out (cognitive, of
means, of social undertaking, and of uses and applications), might be in
to ponder their importance. In other words, it can be an appraisal of the
relevance of each one of the realms of values mentioned in the general
framework (social, cultural, economic, ethical, . . . ).
Using this kind of consideration within the overall sphere of science,
it is possible to accept that economic values affect both the internal
perspective and the external domain of science. But this viewpoint does
not include a hegemony of economic values regarding the whole set of
scientific values. There are other important values, such as cognitive
values, which have a singular place within science, in general, and
scientific progress, in particular. These values are commonly highlighted
both to basic science and applied science. This emphasis on cognitive
values can be seen in Laudan, even though he considers them as different

The internal and external economic values of technology are analyzed in Gonzalez
(1999b, pp. 69-96, especially pp. 72-95).
“Inferences from sample to population, from part to whole (from the jaws to the entire
alligator), from style to authorship, from clue to culprit, from symptom to disease, and the
like, are all also modes of inductive reasoning. The characteristic and crucial thing about
inductive reasoning is its overreaching the evidence in hand to move to conclusions lying
beyond the informative reach of relatively insufficient data” (Rescher 1989, p. 83).
108 Wenceslao J. González

from “epistemic values,”27 and in Rescher, who has a broader vision

connected to human needs: “the fact that knowledge represents a
subordinate (albeit functionally appropriate) need for a creature such as
ourselves integrates the values at issue in science (internal and external
like) into one cohesive fabric.” 28
Again, cognitive values are not alone: they are related to social,
operative, values, etc. This aspect should be present in an articulation of
values in science. In this regard, between Laudan and Rescher there are
some key differences on the philosophical approach to science and
values. Laudan insists on cognitive values in science without
emphasizing the role of economic values, and he places values in the
sphere of goals and aims.29 Thus, he proposes an axiology of research
with a clear status that it is different from other spheres (such as
methodology of science or empirical studies of science), but inter-
connected with them. Rescher offers an image of values that we can call
“transversal,” because he explicitly accepts values in the case of aims, in
the realm of theory, in the methodological process of constructing
science and also in its applications.30
Therefore, on the basis of the relevance of economic values for
science as a human activity, these two epistemological pragmatists have
clear differences when dealing with the methodological characterization
of scientific progress in itself and its repercussions (social, technological,
etc.). In order to articulate a system of economic values in science,
Rescher’s approach on the holism of values show us a diversity of
aspects (internal and external). His views can be integrated within a more
exhaustive analysis based on the three realms of aims, processes, and

For Laudan, “epistemic values” (truth, falsity, . . . ) can be distinguishd from “cognitive
values” (cope, generality, coherence, consilience, explanatory, . . . ), cf. Laudan (2004,
p. 20).
Rescher, personal communication, 27 August 1998.
Cf. Laudan (1984), pp. xi-xii, n. 2. When he proposes a reticular model of scientific
rationality, he points out: “Doubtless a wide range of cognitive goals or values can satisfy
the demands laid down here” (Laudan 1984, p. 63).
Cf. Rescher (1999a), section 3.6, pp. 93-96. On the use of economic rationality as
intermediation between scientific rationality and technological rationality, cf. Gonzalez
(1998a), pp. 95-115.
Economic Values in the Configuration of Science 109

5.2. The Three Realms and the Economic Dimension of

Rationality in Science
So far, I have insisted on a central idea on the axiology of scientific
research: the need for a new framework for scientific values, insofar as
they can be seen – in my judgment – in three different realms (aims,
processes, and results or outcomes), which can be consecutive. Thus, the
analysis cannot be restricted to the first level or to include only the
second area as well. This involves to take into account more seriously
applied science (and, therefore, design sciences), where the relevance of
results is crucial due to its possible connection with technology.31 In this
regard, the kind of values (cognitive, social, economic, etc.) that can
have influence in each case (aims, processes, and results) varies, but they
affect the internal part as well as the external dimension of science.
According to this proposal of articulation, economic values can have a
role in the internal contexts of epistemology and methodology of science,
and they have a clearer role in science as a social activity and in the uses
and applications of science. The weight of the economic values in science
should be analyzed according to the relevance of the main components of
science (language, structure, knowledge, method, activity, . . .). Un-
doubtedly they have an influence, but still other values (cognitive,
methodological, etc.) are more decisive for scientific progress (even in
the case of applied sciences, such as design sciences) (Gonzalez
forthcoming, sections 1 and 2). Insofar as scientific progress is involved,
the role of rationality should be considered as well.
To be sure, there is a key point in the link between economic of
means and scientific rationality. Thus, it seems clear to me that “the
optimal use of resources is, after all, a crucial aspect of rationality. It is
against reason to expend more resources on the realization of a given end
than one needs to” (Rescher 2001, p. 108). This can lead to simplicity as
a methodological way to see efficiency, insofar as avoiding needless
complications helps to acquire efficiency. But the general picture should
be broader than that view on economic dimension of rationality in
Taking into account the different aspects of the analysis made here,
the economic dimension of rationality can be seen in the following
features: an economy of aims (not all of them are achievable), an
economy of means (i.e., the combination of parsimonious factors and the
use of simple and plausible means), and an economy of results (i.e., to

On the relations between applied science and technology, cf. Gonzalez (2005),
pp. 11-12 and 24-26.
110 Wenceslao J. González

avoid a plethora of them and to focus on those more profitable according

to relevant scientific standards). Thus, scientific outcomes do not need
exuberance, but rather to enlarge reliable knowledge (explanatory or
predictive) or to solve new concrete problems (mainly, problems which
are increasing more complex).

University of A Coruña
Faculty of Humanities
Dr. Vazquez Cabrera street, w/n


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Ramón Queraltó



ABSTRACT. This paper analyzes some issues derived from the social turn in
the philosophy of science. The point of departure is the transformation of science
into technoscience. If technoscience is conceived of as a system of human
actions, then it requires the consideration of both epistemological and
methodological parameters and the analysis of ethical, political, economic, and
social aspects. This involves the necessity of assessing these parameters as a
whole, by using a broad notion of value, namely, a pragmatic notion of value.
Accordingly, value will henceforth be a “pattern-guideline of solving problems.”
It leads to considering the philosophy of science as an axiology of technoscience.
The following issues are developed: i) science as a value-laden enterprise;
ii) value assessment as a task in the philosophy of science, which means
justifying some special methodologies of assessment; iii) the proposal of specific
criteria for establishing social policies of science and technology.

1. The Meaning of Technoscience

Recently, one of the most relevant issues to be considered in relation to

the understanding of scientific knowledge has been the conception of
science as technoscience. Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for this
is the current importance of technology in scientific endeavour, which
has greatly increased the traditional connection between science and
technology. This current interdependence between science and
technology is expressed precisely by the term technoscience. Nowadays
it is a fact that this connection makes it very difficult to establish precise
boundaries between both. Accordingly, many scholars have accepted the
term technoscience in order to describe this situation: “But if we look at
technology, we can at most admit a conceptual or an analytic distinction,

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 113-125. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
114 Ramón Queraltó

without any real separation from science, since they are concretely
intertwined and, so to speak, consubstantial [. . .]. This in particular
justifies the use of the term technoscience for designating this new
reality” (Agazzi 2001, p. 127).
In turn, the conception of technoscience necessarily involves the
consideration of social factors in order to correctly understand the
structure and the nature of contemporary sciences. A preliminary
conclusion to be drawn from this is that it is possible to assert that the
impact of technoscience may imply an enlargement of the traditional
boundaries of the philosophy of science.
Within the philosophy of science, the received view considered
essential the methodological, logical, and epistemological traits of
scientific knowledge, but other factors such as ethical, political or
economic concerns were not particularly focused upon. At present,
however, these social factors possess a specific relevance. Because of
this they have been added to those traditional parameters in order to
obtain a correct view of scientific activity.
In this respect, two main reasons have to be pointed out. On the one
hand, the massive impact of technoscientific outputs on human life and
on nature; on the other hand, the proper quality of technoscience itself.
We devote our analysis to this last issue.
The relevance of social factors derives especially from the specific
meaning of technoscience. As a primary trait, technoscience is conceived
of as a system of human actions based on the results of scientific
knowledge and directed toward the transformation of reality with the goal
of achieving benefits for humankind. This is a standard conception of
technoscience (Mitcham 1994; Echeverría 2003). So the aim of techno-
science is to transform reality in order to obtain practical profits.
Consequently, technoscience emphasizes the relevance of the pragmatic
aspect of scientific knowledge. From this initial description originate
both types of factors above mentioned: first, the necessity of scientific
knowledge as such, which involves especially methodological and
epistemological issues; and, at the same time, it also implies social
factors, given that technoscience is considered a system of human actions
that are envisaged as attaining a set of presumable profits to man.
Thus, technoscience is both a knowing enterprise (its scientific
aspect) and also a pragmatic enterprise including concrete engagements
directed to modify nature, reality, and man. This last element implies
necessarily that technoscience becomes a value-laden enterprise too, as
far as it is characterised as a system of human actions.
The Philosophical Impact of Technoscience or the Development of a . . . 115

At this point, it is necessary to remark upon the systemic quality of

technoscience. If we conceive of technoscience as a system of actions,
then it means that every element included in technoscientific activities
will play a specific and unavoidable role; therefore we must look at the
entire set in order to grasp the structure of technoscience correctly.
Consequently, we have cognitive factors (epistemological, etc.) and
social factors, and both shape a whole that requires an internal
coordination for the efficient functioning of technoscience as a system.
This is a very relevant impact of technoscience: the parallel analysis of
both epistemological and social-pragmatic factors from a systems point
of view.
In sum, technoscience means a system of human actions which
involves two levels, cognitive and social, closely connected. So
technoscience (Ts) is a value-laden enterprise because it is a system (S)
of human actions and it necessarily implies both cognitive and social
issues. By denoting cognitive values as ‘Vc’ and social values as ‘Vs’, we
have in formal terms: Ts: S(Vc, Vs).
According to this description, the philosophy of science conceived of
as a philosophy of technoscience must obviously include these traits
jointly. This implies a possible turn in the received view, because this
view referred especially to cognitive values, broadly speaking. So
technoscience could bring about a sort of change in the traditional
contents of the philosophy of science itself. Of course it is not the only
ground for that. It seems clear that the work of some contemporary
philosophers such as Popper (1983), Kuhn (1970), Laudan (1977),
Hacking (1983), and others, has induced this pragmatic turn in the
concept of the philosophy of science, because they emphasized, up to a
point, the relevance of ethical, political and social factors, as well as
cognitive factors, in scientific production.
Nevertheless, it is convenient to admit that, in practice, the
transformation of science into technoscience is progressive.
Consequently, not every scientific sector has reached the same level in
this process. There are branches of scientific knowledge in which it has
been accomplished to a great extent, for example in physics or in
cosmology. But in other scientific fields the situation can be different.
However, the technoscientific transformation is undoubtedly a very
prevalent phenomenon nowadays and so it must be taken into account. It
is not hard to assume that, in fact, scientific progress frequently depends
on technological means: “It seems clear that progress in science is a
direct function of increasing sophistication not merely in instrumentation,
but in the technological infrastructure which underlies and makes mature
116 Ramón Queraltó

science possible” (Pitt 1995, p. 1). So this technological infrastructure is

a very decisive factor for scientific discoveries. Therefore the philosophy
of science should be connected with the philosophy and history of
Of course the term technoscience is based as well on the fact that
technology is no longer “applied science” but rather it operates as a
condition of the possibility of scientific research. We have analyzed and
justified this assertion in other contribution (Queraltó 1993). Needless to
say, the aim of technological reason is mainly pragmatic, namely, the
manipulation and the transformation of the natural object for the practical
profit of man. According to our conceptual model of technological
rationality (Queraltó 2003, pp. 73-110; 2005, pp. 182-187), in techno-
science the search for scientific objectivity is no longer a purely
theoretical investigation directed to discovering scientific truth in a
traditional sense, but it is especially conditioned by the aims concerning
the sway of reality. It is not the case that the theoretical scope constitutes
the first rank and the pragmatic one is subordinated to it. Now the
pragmatic goal has acquired a rank at least as important as the theoretical
goal, insofar as technology is a condition of the possibility of scientific
research. On that account, the border line between science and
technology becomes imprecise, because it is not possible to establish
where each one begins or ends. Moreover, it would be a useless task to
attempt to describe the scientific production of today. For that reason
many authors assert that “contemporary science is technological (in the
sense of being dependent on the use of hardware artifacts) in a way that
classical science never was” (Hickman 1995, p. 212).
But there is another important issue to remark upon regarding the role
of technology. It deals with the fact that the use of technological means
transforms the research object in such a way that it becomes a
technological object and not just a scientific object as such. This means
that technology is not only an “instrument” for scientific research but it is
much more, namely, a necessary mediation for the development of
science (Queraltó 2001). The distinction between instrument and
mediation is extremely important here. An instrument is something that is
there, outside, and is used in a determined moment and when the action
finishes it is returned to its previous place. It seems clear that this is not
the role of technology with regard to science nowadays. Perhaps it was
some decades ago. On the contrary, a mediation is something that is
always there, whose presence is therefore continuous, and whose action
sinks its roots into the intrinsic structure of the relevant situations. By
this line of reasoning, it is not hard to understand that technology
The Philosophical Impact of Technoscience or the Development of a . . . 117

determines science as a real condition of the possibility of scientific

making. In this sense, the use of the term technoscience can be largely

2. Main Effects of Technoscience

The first philosophical problem to be analyzed in order to coherently

develop a philosophy of technoscience is that of the notion of value to be
used. Note that this notion of value – as applied to technoscientific
actions – must encompass both cognitive and social-pragmatic dimen-
sions. As is well known, from the received view in philosophy as a
whole, the notion of value is confined to social and ethical realms. Value
is here conceived of as something that should be applied because of its
intrinsic ontological quality, which justifies itself as being held up by a
more or less definitive transcendental level. In other words, values such
as justice, honesty, etc., are justified by their ontological essence.
This classical notion of value raises some difficulties for
encompassing the set of values involved in technoscience. It is sufficient
to think about the methodological values, inference rules, etc. that are
responsible for the formal framework of scientific theories. An
essentialist justification of them will be problematic. On that account, it
is germane to search for another notion of value, one compatible with the
full set of parameters involved in technoscience. That is, a pragmatic
notion of value applicable to both epistemological and social features of
technoscience. So what is required here is a broad notion of value
considered from a pragmatic view-point.
In a general sense, value is depicted now as a pattern or a guideline
for solving problems, that is to say, value obtains its axiological meaning
as long as it is an efficient means for overcoming and for solving some
concrete problems. Basically it is a formalist notion because, as a
pragmatic value, this “pattern” depends on the nature of the problem to
be solved, either epistemological or social. So in the philosophical
analysis of technoscience, we have for example cognitive values as
patterns for solving epistemological and methodological problems; and
we also have social values as patterns for solving ethical and political
problems. Observe that both patterns are pragmatic values because they
help to solve specific questions to be overcome through technoscientific
action. In this manner, value, pragmatically considered, is a guideline for
overcoming a problem of technoscientific activity, be it epistemological,
118 Ramón Queraltó

ethical or political. We have treated this notion in other writings

(Queraltó 2002; 2005).
Accordingly, a pragmatic philosophy of technoscience implies two
specific traits: i) the concept of science as a system of actions; and ii) the
concept of scientific making as a value-laden enterprise. In this line,
philosophy of science as philosophy of technoscience is also a pragmatic
axiology of science. But, in a general sense, it is necessary to understand
here the term axiology as an inquiry into patterns-guidelines for solving
problems related to technoscientific practice.
From this pragmatic perspective, value is not justified by essentialist
reasons, but rather it is defended because of its power for overcoming
problems. In my view this is the key turn derived from the philosophy of
technoscience, which can imply an important variation in contemporary
philosophical thought. Without a doubt, one of its causes is the crucial
impact of technology on science and the subsequent progressive
transformation of science into technoscience.
Of course, this pragmatic and value-laden conception of science does
not exclude traditional ethical values. On the contrary, it also integrates
them, because their pragmatic efficacy is obviously required for
technoscientific development, as far as they are internal factors in
technoscience. So technoscientific action must satisfy the requirements of
many classical ethical values in order to be pragmatic. By following this
line, a pragmatic philosophy of technoscience would be able to open a
possible way of overcoming the traditional schism between the realm of
scientific knowledge and the realm of values.
As a very relevant consequence, a second task is raised by this
pragmatic philosophy. It is that of value assessment in technoscientific
practice. If technoscience is a system of value-laden actions, the crucial
point will then be that of establishing a critical methodology for
assessing the values implied in every technoscientific action. The main
scope of this value assessment will be to justify some criteria for
deciding among different actions. In other words, the aim of value
assessment is to provide the grounds for justifying a reasonable choice,
that is, a rationally well founded choice among diverse technoscientific
actions. In this respect, we can now mention the following four rules.
(1) It is necessary to proceed to an inclusive assessment of values,
including as much epistemological values as social-ethical values. This
derives directly from the above mentioned systemic character of
technoscience. Values should be selected as a function of a concrete
problem, with the objective of centering the evaluative analysis. This rule
can be denominated a “bounding rule of values,” which helps to establish
The Philosophical Impact of Technoscience or the Development of a . . . 119

a reasonable intersubjectivity for the process of value assessment and

tries to avoid an endless discussion in the process of assessment.
(2) Pragmatic judgements have to distinguish clearly between
epistemological and social values. That is to say, epistemological criteria
cannot be confounded with ethical criteria. An epistemological value
must be measured by epistemological rules and ethical values will be
assessed by ethical criteria.
(3) It is pertinent to use the more-less criterion MLC (“more than,”
“less than”) in order to weigh the different systems of values involved in
the alternative technoscientific actions (Queraltó 2005, pp. 195f ). The
justification of this criterion is not difficult. In general, it can be asserted
that a certain value (or set thereof) in a specific scientific action appears
with more or less intensity than in another action, both being directed
toward the same objectives. That is to say, we can speak in terms of
“more than” or “less than” when referring to the values concerned. Given
that values cannot be evaluated mathematically, the way of assessing
them will be to establish a scale from “larger” to “lesser” between them,
by taking into account especially the set of purposes pursued by
technoscientific action. In other words, we can prefer a specific action A
instead of another action A because the first one will have an
environmental effect “lesser” than the second one. Note in this example
that the decision about technoscientific action is determined by a social
value (environmental value) and not by an epistemological value. This
easy case shows the impact of the social on scientific production from the
perspective of technoscience. Nevertheless, to correctly use this rule it is
indispensable to identify clearly which is the problem to solve by
technoscientific action, that is to say, which is the specific aim (a) of this
action, because the “more than” or “less than” criterion has to be
established about these aims. In this sense we could write in formal
terms: Sv(a) > S v (a) or Sv(a) < S v (a). And in general, Sv(ai) > S v (ai)
or Sv(ai) < S v (ai).
It is obvious that we cannot pretend with this “calculation” to reach an
exact mathematical solution, as in the case of determining physical
magnitudes such as the kinetic energy of a motion for example. But, one
could establish a certain measurement (inequations as above) that will
suggest the global viability of one technoscientific endeavour or another.
This is the ultimate purpose of the value assessment. Evidently, these
inequations would not have the mathematical exactitude required in other
dimensions of technoscientific action because their own purpose, namely,
the elucidation of the capacity to solve those technoscientific problems in
which values of diverse nature are implied, would impede this. Such a
120 Ramón Queraltó

pretension would be suspicious because it would go outside of the

framework of the problem itself. Furthermore, it would be neither
adequate nor necessary. What the value assessment tries to do is to find
reasonable guidelines for decision making. These guidelines have to
assess the final costs (of all kinds, not only in economic terms) of
technoscientific action in the case of using one or another system of
values, that is to say, Sv or S v .
In addition, the use of the MLC criterion should avoid the current
discussions about “optimization” or “maximization” of values in Sv. By
following MLC neither optimization nor maximization will be
convenient. The reasons for this are easy to point out. On the one hand,
optimization of values obviously refers to an optimum, that is to say, a
theoretical content previously determined without taking into account the
conditions of the pragmatic situation. So optimization would be an ideal
situation. But this is not an available end, from a pragmatic point of
view. In general, it is useless in value assessment. On the other hand,
maximization of values is not possible because, within an axiological
system, values are intrinsically connected and their pragmatic power for
solving problems depends on the relations among them. In fact, the
axiological power of values is bounded by these relations. It means that if
we pretend to maximizing a value, then we could cancel the axiological
power of another value necessary for the assessment (in accordance with
the first rule above mentioned), or at least to put it down to its critical
limit in Sv. Logically, it will be a mistake. In a certain sense,
maximization of values signifies, in practice, a “weak” optimization. The
internal relationship of values is a central characteristic of Sv and its
consequences must be respected. With regard to this issue, we can now
add that the scope of the MLC criterion will be that of obtaining the
greatest axiological increase of the influence of values in relation to their
systemic situation. Put another way, what the use of MLC seeks is to
increase the pragmatic power of values in accordance with the conditions
of the technoscientific action under consideration. In the current practice
of value assessment, notions such as optimization or maximization
should impose axiological requirements impossible to fulfil.
(4) The fourth rule is the so called prudence rule (PR). This rule tries
to solve the possible shortcomings of the more-less criterion. Frequently
it happens that the final result of value assessment cannot establish a
clear range – from larger to lesser – between two global systems of
values. Here the case is that both systems would solve the stipulated
problems, and so their pragmatic value would be similar; but at the same
time, they would indicate two very different ways of technoscientific
The Philosophical Impact of Technoscience or the Development of a . . . 121

action. What can we do now? It is fully necessary to point out some

rational means for overcoming such an impasse. This instrument would
be a prudence rule, which consists of checking other finished
technoscientific actions – former actions – and to take into account the
degree to which they fulfilled the same values under consideration or, at
least, some similar values. The advantage of this procedure is that the
degree of fulfilling of these values is well known in those former actions
and therefore a prudent comparison will be feasible. In other words, the
middle term of the comparison will be bound, and by taking into account
the previous results with respect to the values involved, it will be
possible to establish a rational approach applying again the scale “more
than/less than” analogically. This procedure fulfils the general conditions
of the value assessment.
Briefly speaking, PR is a method for comparing former
technoscientific actions with new technoscientific actions, when the first
step of value assessment does not obtain a clear result in regard to these
new actions; that is to say, when the internal assessment of them is not
enough. This procedure is compatible with the system-conception of
technoscience. In short, there is an internal use of the MLC criterion and
an external use of it. This last is then employed if the results of the
internal use do not indicate a rational direction of the technoscientific
action. The term ‘prudence’ can be justified here because to take into
consideration the results of prior assessments constitutes a case of
“practical experience” from a pragmatic point of view.

3. The Social and Political Enlargement of

the Philosophy of Science

Now it is convenient to point out that the horizon of a pragmatic

philosophy of science is highly enlarged in applying its key lines within
the social-political area in general. Up to here we have considered the
analysis of single technoscientific actions, that is to say, of isolated
actions. But it does not exhaust the rational possibilities of a philosophy
of technoscience, because a standard political situation is to establish a
broad set of general measures for the development of technoscience, and
it falls upon technoscientific practice especially. This is a consequence
derived from two factors: on the one hand, the interdisciplinarity of
scientific research nowadays; on the other, the increase of social aims
pursued by technoscience.
122 Ramón Queraltó

If technoscience is a value-laden enterprise (epistemological and

social values), then a philosophy of technoscience may be enlarged to
pay attention to science and technology policy. It deals with considering
the technoscientific system as a whole and suggesting general criteria for
its development. It is an important issue in this field (Frodeman and
Mitcham 2004). Of course, in this task it is necessary to take into account
social goals. Every modern state is looking for these policies. Later they
will be applied politically. As is well known, many states are working up
policies for science and technology based on technological criteria only,
and consequently the specific social aims of the technological devel-
opment are not envisaged to a reasonable extent. Undoubtedly, if a
pragmatic philosophy of science includes the task of value assessment,
then it has to include proposals on political guidelines for directing the
correct technoscientific development. In other words, this task tries to
apply the value assessment to the set of possible political actions for
technoscientific development. This set would be considered a global
system to be evaluated.
In this field one of the main scopes of a pragmatic philosophy of
technoscience will be to provide ethical criteria for technoscientific
policy. These criteria would operate as regulative ideas for science and
technology policies. The following example will clarify this issue.
Nowadays a recurrent idea of many governments is to increase and to
extend the use of the information technology highways, especially in
education policy, beginning from the lowest level. Often the standard
political criterion is the quantitative increase of technological means in
educative centres. It seems as if this quantitative action were justified in
itself. However, this sort of justification is not sufficient. What is also
required is an efficient social policy for science and technology, and not
only a quantitative justification. Of course, the material technological
increase is a first and necessary step. But very soon many questions arise:
What is this material increase for? Is the economic cost justified to any
extent? What kind of results have to be promoted by using technological
facilities during the educative process? How to assess these results? At
present, these questions still have not received sufficient responses from
public powers, and the debate is open. At this point, a pragmatic
philosophy of technoscience ought to propose some important
contributions derived from the investigation of the epistemological and
ethical values to be pursued by public education today. It is possible to
suggest and to justify a global set of values in accordance with the hopes
of people and with the possibilities of technoscience. Later it will be
The Philosophical Impact of Technoscience or the Development of a . . . 123

workable to adopt them in the development of science and technology

Finally, another important issue is that of technological risk. One of
the main consequences of the unavoidable use of modern technoscientific
means is their impact on the conditions of human life. As is well known,
often this impact has been very negative (air pollution, etc.). Scientific-
technological development must be compatible with human welfare, but
it means as well that it is necessary to assume some (or many) risks
involved in this development. The technological society is also a risk
society (Beck 1992). Logically, it will be indispensable to assess the risks
and to balance them with the social benefits to be obtained. In this line,
philosophical contributions are focused on critical methodologies of risk
assessment. Without a doubt, the risk assessment has to be considered a
relevant issue within the general framework of value assessment, to
which we have devoted the central part of this paper.
It seems obvious that these tasks are feasible for a pragmatic
philosophy of science, as long as it conceives of technoscience as a
value-laden activity. Thus, it is not hard to assert that the impact of the
social on the epistemology of sciences enlarges the range of the
philosophy of science in general. That is the actual turn implied by a
pragmatic philosophy of technoscience.

University of Sevilla
Research Unit on Science, Technology, and Society
Facultad de Filosofía
Camilo José Cela S/N, 41018 Sevilla


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Alberto Cordero



ABSTRACT. Philosophers of science disagree on the extent to which

epistemology transcends the social sphere in mature branches of science. In this
paper I suggest a way of vindicating a key aspect of the transcendence thesis
without questioning the social nature of science. Such vindication requires
epistemological autonomy to prevail along channels having to do with
(1) selection of research goals, (2) use of human subjects and public resources in
research, (3) social interventions aimed at helping science fulfill its epistemic
goals, and (4) social interventions aimed at helping people and the community
protect themselves from harmful scientific activity. This paper focuses on type
(3), specifically on social pressure to diversify the points of view represented in
scientific research. My exploration proceeds by contrasting two case studies
involving pluralist enrichment of scientific research. Both encompass
epistemological reform. In one (Feminist Biology) reform is pushed largely from
outside the scientific sphere; in the other (Einstein’s development of Special
Relativity) reform originates largely from within. Examination of these cases
shows why general pluralist arguments fail and also why social intervention in
epistemological matters is a misguided activity – or so I argue.

1. Science, Epistemology, and “the Social”

Modern science embodies a distinctly social way of pursuing knowledge,

and so epistemology and the social are tied together in modern science,
As the latter purports to speak rationally to the mind, it seeks public
knowledge. Following Ziman (1968) I am using ‘public knowledge’ to
mean information and reasoning backed up by persuasive argument and
evidence, open to detailed checking by others. Public scientific
rationality both constrains admission of proposals into the body of
“established science” and takes institutional precedence over individual

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 129-142. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
130 Alberto Cordero

preferences. One can appeal here to a rough distinction between

“publicly established science” and “science in the trenches,” the two
types carrying quite different credibility grades. Established science
comprises representations and procedures that have stood the test of time
and conceptual change, and are hence credibly relied upon. On the other
hand, science in the trenches can be hasty, and as wild as the individuals
who forge it. Much of this kind of science turns out to be either wrong or
irrelevant to future research. Individual scientists often turn quite
“mystical” about their novel ideas; this certainly helps them to keep
digging into the depths of nature. But more is needed for their ideas to
gain proper scientific acceptability; in particular, as one popular slogan
goes, “replication is the ultimate test of truth in science.”
So in at least one fundamental sense “the social” cannot be separated
from the “scientific.” It is a rather limited sense, however, because its
intended reach does not extend beyond the scientific community. But
wider couplings with the social sphere are also easily discernible1
particularly in regard to (1) selection of research goals, (2) use of human
subjects and public resources in research, (3) social interventions aimed
at helping science fulfill its epistemic goals, and (4) social interventions
aimed at helping people and the community protect themselves from
harmful scientific activity. Types (1) and (2) are of obvious ethical and
political interest, but arguably not of much epistemological interest
(McMullin 1983; Cordero 1992; 2001; 2004a). By contrast, types (3) and
(4) can be “epistemologically invasive,” particularly in the case of
pressures to either expand or constrain the scientific imagination. I have
commented on interventions of type (4) in recent papers (Cordero 2004b;
2005). Here I want to concentrate on type (3), namely social
interventions aimed at helping science to fulfill its epistemic goals. I will
focus in particular on pluralist programs designed to promote expansion
of the scientific imagination in ongoing research programs.

2. A Popular Pluralist Argument

One influential general argument for opening scientific deliberation to

the greatest possible diversity of points of view builds on the feeling that
the natural world is much richer than any particular perspective can do
justice to, that the “scientific way” of seeing through the complications

See, for example, McMullin (1983), Brown (1989), and Cordero (1992, 2004a, 2004b,
and 2005).
Epistemology and “the Social” in Contemporary Natural Science 131

of concrete situations inevitably misses relevant material. The argument

runs essentially as follows: 2
(P1) In science rational selection of theories is always a comparative
affair involving a finite number of options.
(P2) In all selection events the options on the table reflect the
intellectual and social limitations of the participating scientists.
(P3) Even in the best intentioned deliberations, the scientists involved
will in all probability leave out options that would have turned out
to be scientifically better than those then on their table.
(C) Epistemically, it pays to incorporate into a scientific investigation
the greatest possible diversity of intellectual perspectives, however
eccentric many may initially appear to be.
Notice that stated this way, the recommended pluralism’s primary
goal is to advance the received epistemic aims of science. Appealing
expressions of this way of thinking are apparent in much of the current
interest in interdisciplinary research.
Equally apparent, however, are some provocative interpretations of
the argument. The loudest come from some social reductionists and also
from some academics who present themselves as “postmodernist.” Both
groups are critical of what they regard as the “tyranny” of scientific
empiricism, which they depict as narrow and dogmatic. Scientists seem
sure of their ideas, but – they stress – no one can ever be completely sure
of anything, and so superstition becomes a matter of reasonable doubt.
Indeed, from many of these critics’ perspective there is actually no truth
to be had. Fascinated with subjective belief, they conflate the sincerity of
a believer in something with the plausibility of his beliefs. From
fundamentalist pulpits, deconstructed academia and opportunistic cultural
institutions these objectors keep themselves busy encouraging people to
respect “alternative ways of life,” however crazy they may initially seem
to the scientifically minded. Their rebellious reaction to science has been
repeatedly debunked, notably by Sokal and Bricmont (1998), but it
remains influential.
More relevantly for present purposes, all this popular emphasis on the
intellectual limitations of scientists and science has given rise to much
interest in the issue of social representation and participation in the
conduction of scientific research. The resulting debates include talk of

My presentation here follows Okruhlik (1994).
132 Alberto Cordero

epistemological and social-therapeutic agendas. My focus in this paper is

primarily on the epistemological ideas involved.
Attractive as the notion of the larger society helping science through
pluralist policies may be, it is one peculiarly fraught with peril.
Attributing prospective epistemic gifts to any particular intellectual
perspective, culture or human group is not easy. Also it is the kind of
project that attracts corrupting influences from many quarters.
So, how credible is general pluralism as a way of helping science? In
debates about matters as complex as the advance of science the devil is
usually in the details. I thus propose to explore the idea of pluralist
revisionism with the help of two emblematic case studies, both involving
epistemological revision. In the first, alteration is pushed mostly from
outside the inner scientific sphere, in the second from within.
The first case concerns a popular genre of social interventions,
centered on the notion that groups presently underrepresented at the top
in many scientific areas (particularly women and certain ethnic
minorities) “might” have points of view helpful to the current epistemic
aims in those areas, and that therefore more members from the said
groups should be included in research teams, as a matter of “good
epistemology.” A more specific form of this view identifies particular
groups as actually having some distinct cognitive gifts for certain
scientific fields. I think the most articulate defenses for interventionism
of type (3) are of this more specific form. Justifications variously resort
to ideology, naturalist narrative, or both.
The pluralist contention at hand is said to be convincingly supported
by case studies. The most developed project is probably found in the
program known as “feminist science.” A case much referred to in this
direction concerns the scientific work of biologist Barbara McClintock,
who was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work on segments of
chromosomes that move from one site in the genome to another
(transposons), to which I now turn.

3. On Women and Holistic Biology

The feminist thesis of interest goes basically as follows: (Thesis F)

Women tend to look at nature more “holistically” than men, as women
are more spontaneously interested than men in aspects like development,
individuality, diversity, and functional organization in complex systems.
Men, by contrast, tend to concentrate more spontaneously on mechanical
compositional structures.
Epistemology and “the Social” in Contemporary Natural Science 133

A social policy of affirmative action in favor of incorporating more

women researchers in certain scientific areas follows from this. The most
articulate defenses of thesis F employ case studies to document the
presence of masculine partiality and distortion in investigations
conducted in paradigmatic scientific fields.
One such study, believed by many to have splendidly corroborated
thesis F, is a biography now turned into a classic, written by the historian
Evelyn Keller. It is a work that draws extensively from McClintock’s
own recollections of her early struggles as a biologist against the close-
mindedness and unfairness of her colleagues in the 1950s, the hostile
puzzlement with which they reacted to her work on transposons for
which some years later she would receive a Nobel Prize. McClintock
regarded herself as a survivor of much systematic discrimination.
Keller takes McClintock’s victimization stories at face value, and
gives them a sexist twist in the form of an explanation of why the
discovery of chromosomal transposition would have been more easily
accomplished by someone like McClintock. Unlike her male colleagues,
McClintock was able to take from nature the kind of understanding and
fulfillment that others acquire from personal intimacy, according to
Keller. McClintock, Keller thinks, gained a deeper discernment of
genetics through an emotional connection with her subject, thus
explaining why the work on transposons was in the end brought to
fruition by a woman rather than a man, and also why McClintock’s work
took so long in being appreciated.
But, is such an explanation credible? The information used by Keller
appears to be both tendentious and inaccurate. For example, how true is it
that McClintock’s scientific worth was not recognized when it was
presented? A recent study by Nathaniel Comfort carefully traces
McClintock’s investigations and their impact during the period in
question. His findings strongly suggest that her discovery of transposition
was primarily fueled not by any holistic stance but by an ambition to
explain development through “controlling elements” (a term she initially
used for transposons). Comfort also shows in detail how well established
as a researcher McClintock already was in the 1930s, thanks to her work
on the genetics of maize, which led in 1944 to her election to the
National Academy of Sciences and in 1945 to the presidency of the
Genetics Society of America. In addition Comfort documents that
McClintock’s original presentation on transposons was received with
much interest by other researchers. All of which discredits the story that
McClintock’s work on transposons had been systematically dismissed by
her colleagues. The latter did not agree with all of her proposals all of the
134 Alberto Cordero

time (some investigations by McClintock linking development and

evolution were considered controversial from the start, and have
remained so), but this is completely normal behavior in science.
McClintock, it seems, helped create a myth about her work,
particularly the notion that back in 1951 her work on transposons had
been flatly rejected or ignored by close-minded colleagues whose
response to her ideas was limited to hostile puzzlement. There is no
adequate substantiation for that notion. Keller’s biography, it appears,
gets many of the pertinent facts wrong. But, if so, it cannot be said to
advance thesis F. 3 More generally, no reasonable case seems to exist for
linking McClinock’s best scientific work with any distinctly feminine
cognitive gifts.
That said, however, something needs to be added here. In principle,
some naturalist-scientific version of thesis F might one day become
respectable. The notions involved are difficult to establish, particularly
such claims as that there is a more holistic understanding of the world to
be had for which women are better disposed than men, and that the
understanding in question is not just of “feminine” interest but also of
standard scientific value – because it can make our knowledge of the
world more precise and reliable in the best pre-feminist sense. Both
claims seem as yet unwarranted. Nevertheless, the notion that some form
of thinking both distinctly “feminine” and beneficial to biological science
actually exists could begin to get off the ground by, for example,
someone documenting clear correlations in the right direction.4 Were that
to happen, and were thesis F continuing to make progress, then certain
parts of epistemology would cease to be gender neutral. Vindicating the
various steps necessary for this would not be easy, but that is a different
story. Meanwhile, however, until proper evidence comes our way,
encouraging action to implement thesis F would amount to arbitrary
policy. None of which, again, denies the dreadful and totally
condemnable persistence – even in advanced societies – of many real
forms of discrimination against women and other human groups.
What, then, of the general argument for pluralism with which I began
this section? That argument, I will suggest shortly, lacks the force needed
to license its intended conclusion. Furthermore, it calls attention away
from what I think is truly valuable about bringing multiple perspectives
to bear on certain investigations. However, I will bracket these issues for

In point of fairness, a major – and more credible – worry in Keller (1983) concerns the
illusiveness of pretending that science has absolutely no cultural background.
Cases in point are allegedly available in speculative fields, particularly in certain areas
of psychology and the social sciences (Gilligan 1982).
Epistemology and “the Social” in Contemporary Natural Science 135

the moment and look first into the related matter of interdisciplinary
Although I have addressed only a specific case study regarding
socially driven calls for epistemological reforms of type (3), the approach
I have followed seems to have similar implications for other
interventions originating from the broader social sphere (on behalf of
such presently disregarded ways of “looking at things” as ethnic
cosmologies, minority science, epistemological anarchism, and so on).
There is no denying that bringing multiple points of view into
research projects can be epistemologically beneficial sometimes. Clear
favorable instances suggest some significant epistemological traits at
work, or so I will argue. Here my choice of success story is the
development of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (SR). The studies
and research for this theory, conducted mostly during Einstein’s years as
doctoral student at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, brought
together insights and ways of thinking from a variegated array of
disciplinary perspectives. The scientific success of this case, I will
suggest, attests not to the benefits of any general “pluralism,” but to
Einstein’s having been able to critically discern relevant epistemic local
connections between the perspectives he brought to bear on his studies.

4. Einstein’s Many Perspectives

The notion of a stationary electromagnetic wave seems more than a little

odd from the point of view of Maxwell’s theory. Suppose a person was
running at the speed of light while holding a mirror in front of his face.
Would this person see himself reflected in the mirror? Could the light
from his face ever reach the mirror? Einstein’s reflections on this puzzle
have become legendary.
At end of the 19th century those in the know had reason to worry. The
edifice built on the pillars of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism
was in trouble. One problematic topic was how to deal with charged
bodies in relative motion. Close to this, only more widely noticed, was
the matter of the ether, a burdensome posit since the early days of the
wave theory of light. Subsequent developments had turned the ether into
something increasingly baffling. Was it really part of the physical world?
By 1900 all attempts to measure the Earth’s speed relative to the ether
had failed. Even worse, the speed of light seemed to have the same value
with respect to every reference frame. Dropping the ether from the
narrative was tempting, but such a move would leave the formulas of
136 Alberto Cordero

electromagnetism without visually imaginable counterparts – a thought

which remained anathema to most physicists until well into the century.
And, anyway, how could a wave not have a medium?
Einstein’s now famous response to the above difficulties was the
Special Theory of Relativity (SR), in which he both generalizes the old
principle of Galilean relativity (according to which mechanical laws are
the same for all inertial systems) to include all physical laws and presents
the invariant character of the speed of light as a law of nature. SR crowns
a decade of thinking about electric bodies in motion from the point of
view of fundamental physics. It also epitomizes Einstein’s “miraculous
year” of 1905, in the course of which he produced a major paper on the
diffusion of large molecules (a piece that was immediately very well
received by the cheese industry), completed his doctoral dissertation at
the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, published “the” definitive scientific
argument for the existence of atoms and molecules, articulated a new
conception of space and time that fixed the problems of
electromagnetism, and advanced a quantized conception of matter and
energy – all this while working full-time for the Swiss Patent Office at
Routinely regarded as the purest of scientific developments, SR
established Einstein’s reputation as a seer, a pure and abstract man. But,
where did the young Einstein get his very original ideas from? In “How I
Created the Theory of Relativity” Einstein states that the key to the
problem occurred to him in a flash of inspiration (Einstein 1982). One
day he suddenly realized that time could not be defined in absolute terms:
an inseparable relation existed between time and the speed of light.
Importantly for present purposes, however, there was a social and
technological environment to this breakthrough. Focused on that
environment Peter Galison has recently contributed a perceptive reading
of the development of SR, in which he looks at Einstein as someone who
was multiply involved in a very rich moment in history:
Instead of a wholly abstracted “Einstein philosopher-scientist” [. . .] we
can recognize him also as “Einstein patent officer-scientist,” refracting
the underlying metaphysics of his relativity theory through some of the
most symbolized mechanisms of modernity. (Galison 2003, p. 255)
Galison’s specific emphasis on the emblematic character of devices for
synchronizing distant clocks is appropriate. Einstein’s scientific work
prior to 1902 did not include any investigation on the nature of time.
However, he was surrounded by a growing fascination with the electronic
synchronization of clocks (between 1901 and 1904 the number of patents
in that direction grew from 8 to 14 per year).
Epistemology and “the Social” in Contemporary Natural Science 137

No less relevant to Einstein’s education was the sobering attitude

toward discovery prevailing at the Patent Office, where submitted
proposals were expected to be supported by clear results. This was a
stance rooted not exclusively in techno-utilitarian imperatives but also in
down-to-earth awareness of the value of successful prediction for correct
charting of scientific domains. Adding to this, but coming from the wider
civic sphere, were political and diplomatic debates about how to establish
national and international time zones. Unifying places within any large
territory required giving up local times in favor of a common measure,
constrained – if only coarsely – by the range of meridians involved. SR
generalizes this issue of coordination to the case where there are no
objective meridians. Reasonably, but also illuminatingly, Einstein’s
synchronization rule corresponds precisely to the one the Paris Bureau of
Longitudes and Measures used for the synchronization of clocks.
So, in the development of SR, pulling different perspectives into the
research does seem to have helped scientific advance. However, let us
guard against hasty generalizations. The many perspectives Einstein
incorporated into SR were each mediated by considerations specifically
germane to the questions of physics he was addressing. This brings us
back to the general pluralist argument.
According to premise (P3), in any given scientific deliberation the
finite number of options considered will in all probability leave out better
options (i.e., approaches that would have turned out to be better than
those then at hand). Even if this were granted, however, the strong
pluralist conclusion would still not follow, unless it were further assumed
that the better options in question might come with comparable
probability from just any of the perspectives currently left out. But, in the
case of the more advanced scientific disciplines, this is a completely
unreasonable expectation. As the critique of Kuhnian history amply
revealed in the 1960s and 1970s, in the more advanced branches of
science “revolutionary” theory selection is far from a wildly
revolutionary affair. In our own time, disciplines generally recognized as
successful all display thick arrays of accumulation through theory change
in terms of both theory-structure and intermediate ontology – even
change involving radical reinterpretation at deep levels of theorizing. In
this sense, mature branches of science display cumulative learning about
their subject matter, and this renders overwhelmingly implausible that
current theory may lose to just any newcomer. So, while no particular
research piece can be expected to actually bring to the fore “the best
possible theory” for any empirical domain (assuming such a thing makes
138 Alberto Cordero

sense), this is not enough to let the general argument for pluralism get
We are thus left with a question: Why something like the pluralist
strategy worked so well in Einstein’s and other major scientific cases?
Arguably, in Einstein’s work one prominent reason has to do with
something already hinted at: the perspectives that converged were
brought in because of explicitly recognized relevance to Einstein’s
scientific goals at the time. The multiple concerns and disciplines he
pulled together were fairly autonomous from each other, yet their
respective domains overlapped in ways that invited specific questions on
and/or answers to the issues he was addressing. Consider the following
sample of connections readily discernible regarding the technological and
cultural influences at play in the episode. Let us begin with the
“pragmatic” approach at Einstein’s school, the Zurich Polytechnic, where
the teaching of theoretical science emphasized application to situations of
practical interest through detailed modelling. This was not pragmatism of
an instrumentalist or anti-realist sort the way these terms are understood
in philosophy. Its focus was on distinguishing within specific theoretical
narratives what did and did not have clear experimental consequences,
and directing trust accordingly. This emphasis is apparent in much of the
of work done at the Polytechnic in theoretical physics and chemistry
during Einstein’s time there, including his thesis research on molecular
diffusion, in which predictive power is explicitly valued as an
epistemically desirable feature. But, of course, attributing predictive
power to a narrative does not make it true. In principle a successful
account can be false. How to interpret this possibility has been a matter
of philosophical debate since the early days of modern science. It is still
with us.
At the Polytechnic, faculty tended to sneer at the mere logical
possibility that massively successful theories might turn out to be
completely wrong. For example, the ultimate, “true” nature of heat may
forever escape us, but nevertheless at the Polytechnic the kinetic theory
of matter was recognized as leading very convincingly to a mechanical
conception in which heat is but mechanical motion. Importantly, this
“Polytechnic mentality” was not without precedent in modern natural
philosophy. It had clear precursors in earlier science, most famously
Newton’s work. Forceful intimations are apparent in, for example, his
fourth rule of reasoning:
In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by
general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true,
notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such
Epistemology and “the Social” in Contemporary Natural Science 139

time as other phenomena occur by which they may either be made more
accurate, or liable to exceptions. (Newton 1934, p. 400; my emphasis)
The above rule gestures toward what would become a non-trivial defense
of ampliative inference against global (philosophical) skeptical readings
of theoretical accounts. Nevertheless, as questions first about Newton’s
Absolute Space and later on about the ether had revealed, the ampliative
force licensed by Newton could be overgenerous.
Newton’s Rule needed a purgative supplement. One move, available
to Einstein at the time of his exertions, was Hertz’s reaction to theoretical
sub-plots found to be dubiously connected with specific predictions –
conspicuously the ether story. Such plots Hertz regarded as optional
interpretation. Hertz, who had experimentally demonstrated the existence
of electromagnetic waves and expressed strong doubts about the physical
significance of the received distinction between electricity and
magnetism, thought Maxwell’s theory should be completely freed of
assumptions about the ether. The young Einstein developed a great
admiration for the way Hertz had centered Maxwell’s theory in a few
basic equations. A similarly sobering, yet still non-skeptical approach to
physical theories was further encouraged in Einstein by the Patent Office
at Bern, where everybody was “officially” aware of the excessive fertility
of the imagination.
And so, I suggest, Einstein’s revamped “scientific way” of under-
standing the scope and limits of credible theoretical representation was
eminently contemporary yet also continuous with earlier responses to
skepticism within fundamental physics. It was a way centered on an
appreciation of the epistemic value of predictive power in the search for
the underlying constituents of nature.
At least equally important was Einstein’s interest in epistemology and
philosophy in general. The young Einstein studied the modern period
well, from Descartes to Kant, and his epistemic interest in physics was
ostensibly helped throughout the first decade of the century by his
detailed exposure to the major current philosophical debates about
science. Einstein’s insight into the ease with which people end up
believing too much was especially helped by the works of J.S. Mill, Karl
Pearson, Richard Avenarius, and Ernest Mach, thinkers whose
philosophical reflections impinged directly on the received notions of
absolute time and the ether.
Einstein’s attitude towards the ether in electromagnetism proceeded
largely in step with his intellectual immersion in the variegated
perspectives just mentioned, from his initial unease about the ether
concept to his realization that, once the intuitive notion of the ether had
140 Alberto Cordero

been demoted, that posit had become an onerous fiction, a medium whose
movement was kept in the narrative even though it seemed impossible to
empirically ascribe any measurable effect to it. His thought on how to
conceive of time and space in physics developed in a similar way.
Lorentz and Poincaré would remain forever committed to distinguishing
between “real” and “apparent” times, even after it became clear that the
distinction could not be grounded it in any empirically discernible matter
of fact. Unlike Poincaré, Einstein started by defining the position of a
point with respect to a system of rigid rods, supplemented by his new
definition of simultaneity.
Einstein’s emphasis on the epistemic value of predictive power,
already strong in 1905, grew stronger still in the following decade. With
SR reasonably well articulated as a theory, we find Einstein repeatedly
insisting that the only theoretical narratives of interest are those that lead
to results accessible in principle to experience. The important task for the
1910s, he urged, was to make the most accurate experiments possible in
order to test the foundations of the theory. Further speculation and
conjecture alone would not take anyone far, he remarked time and again.

5. Concluding Remarks

I think the above considerations seriously undermine the claims of naive

pluralism in science. The strong argument for pluralism effectively
assumes that theoretical narratives either get right everything or nothing
at all. Disciplines with widely acknowledged records in terms of
predictive success are not like that at all. As a matter of fact, such
disciplines ostensibly accumulate narrative structure and intermediate
ontology at various theoretical levels, including some fairly deep ones.
Contemporary realists take this as central to the their claim that, at least
in some scientific areas (although by no means all), there is knowledge to
be had after all – i.e, theoretical information that can be reasonably
argued to be as well-established as our best ordinary knowledge of the
world around.
My argument’s main point is that in the more mature scientific
disciplines pluralism is best propelled from within. In Einstein’s case, the
asset that clearly mattered was his very comprehensive and disciplined
education. Although Einstein’s work both sprang from a plurality of
disciplinary perspectives and reached into the epistemology of his day,
his revisionary contributions originated primarily from his having been
able to discern relevant epistemic local connections between the
Epistemology and “the Social” in Contemporary Natural Science 141

perspectives he brought to bear on his scientific research. In turn, those

perspectives propelled both Einstein’s carefully learned appreciation of
the epistemic import of predictive power and his strong advocacy of a
tougher, more restrictive epistemology (less “explanationist” friendly, in
later terminology) than the one then prevailing in much of fundamental
physics. Einstein’s work thus benefited greatly from the multiplicity of
perspectives it came to encompass. But, to repeat, the latter were not just
any perspectives: each had synchronically discernible epistemic
relevance to the issue of charged bodies in motion.
It would be “nice” to close with some plea for relaxing current
epistemological barriers against more “tolerant” forms pluralism in
science. But I think that would require us to indulge in fantasy. The more
advanced branches of science no longer can be easily “helped” from
without – not epistemologically at any rate. The most important reason
for this is, I suggest, an old one. Scientific learning turns out to involve
gradual discovery, specification, and organization of epistemic and
causal relevance relations within empirical domains of interest, leading to
a correspondingly gradual unveiling of underlying entities and processes
in nature, and also specification of areas requiring further investigation.
From this point of view, the epistemic enterprise of science is really
about discovering what is and is not relevant to the domains in question.
Not all areas of human interest lend themselves with equal ease to this
type of learning. Which ones do and which ones do not is a matter of
empirical discovery.
I thus end with a slightly paradoxical conclusion: While the advanced
branches of science are now more strongly coupled with “the social” than
ever before, their epistemological maturation has made them remarkably
autonomous from the latter at increasingly many levels.

City University of New York

CUNY Graduate Center & Queens College
United States


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Jesús Mosterín



ABSTRACT. The history of genetics offers abundant material for the study of
the influence of social factors in the development of science. Several of these
factors are listed and briefly touched upon. Especial attention is paid to the
interference of political power in the business of science, exemplified and
analyzed in the tragic case of the Lysenko affair, which lead to the death of the
best geneticists of Russia and the destruction of a whole and fruitful scientific

1. Genetics

The epistemic development of genetics in the last hundred years has been
frequently hampered or boosted by the interference of social factors and
polemics. Therefore, the history of genetics offers a wealth of case-
studies and a touchstone on which to test hypothesis about the relations
between epistemology and society. Let’s recall some of the milestones of
this history and some of the issues involved.
One of the main social factors affecting the dynamics of scientific
development is the role of diffusion and communication in science.
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) discovered his famous laws of genetics and
the “hereditary factors” (now called the genes) in the course of a heroic
series of experiments with peas. His seminal paper, “Versuche über
Pflanzen-Hybriden” (1865), included the results of the experiments and
the formulation of his laws. It was published in an obscure Czech journal,
Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines von Brünn. For 35 years,
no one read his paper, not even Charles Darwin, who had received a
reprint of the paper that remained unopened in his library. So, Mendel’s
work which had no influence at all in the development of genetics until it
was rediscovered in 1900, long after his death.

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 143-155. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
144 Jesús Mosterín

The compatibility of theories is a logical question, but the social

perception of that compatibility is of course a social question. Once
Mendel’s laws were rediscovered in 1900, an initial relation of hostility
between Darwinism and Mendelian genetics was soon established, to be
later replaced (in the 1930s) by the tight integration of both approaches
in the “new synthesis,” brought about by the Russian expatriate
Theodosius Dobzhansky and Julian Huxley.
During the fist decades of the development of genetics, the genes
were just abstractions, symbols, theoretical entities. No one knew what
they were, where they were, what they were composed of, how they
replicated or how they passed from one generation to the next. Genetics
itself was mainly a formal theory or even a mathematical theory, as was
the case with population genetics. In 1908 the Hardy-Weinberg principle
was first formulated, the equation at the basis of population genetics, in
which it plays a role similar to the second law of Newton in mechanics.
The brilliant statisticians Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, and John
Haldane were the main contributors to population genetics, which made it
possible to understand the genetic bases of the theory of evolution, and
so completed the work of uniting and reconciling Mendel’s genetics with
Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the 1920s and 1930s, great work was
done on the mathematical theory of population genetics, but nothing was
known about their material reality. The next task would be to go from
mathematics to molecules, from population genetics to molecular
genetics, and to bring the genes back from the sky of mathematics down
to the earth of chemistry.
Where are the genes? At the beginning of the 20th century, shortly
after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, Theodor Boveri and Walter
Sutton put forward the chromosomic theory of inheritance, which
postulated that the chromosomes (already known) are the carriers of the
hereditary factors. In the 1910s, Thomas H. Morgan (1866-1945) and his
students performed a huge amount of experiments with fruit flies
(Drosophila), through which they showed beyond dispute that genes are
indeed in the chromosomes and they discovered the linkage between
genes located at the same chromosome. One interesting social question is
why Thomas Morgan and the whole Drosophila group conducted their
research and developed the chromosome theory of inheritance in
America, not in Europe.
What is the carrier of the genes? Biochemists already knew the
existence of “nuclein” (the nuclear material discovered by Friedrich
Miescher in 1869, which today is known as DNA), but no one suspected
its informational function. It was only in 1944 that Oswald Avery, Colin
Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and the Lysenko Affair 145

MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty identified DNA as the hereditary

molecule and discovered that genes were made of DNA, not of proteins,
as then widely assumed. Their sensational discovery was announced with
a certain modesty in the middle of the Second World War, and no one
paid much attention to it. The scientific community took only notice of
the discovery in 1952, when Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase proved it
again with a different method. This eight year delay is again an
interesting study-case for the role of diffusion and communication in

2. Mutations

The laws of Mendel, the germinal line of Weismann and the whole
formal and mathematical character of classical genetics emphasized the
permanent, immutable aspect of hereditary transmission. As already
pointed at, this led some people to think that there was an incompatibility
between genetics and the Darwinian theory of evolution, which rather
stresses change in the characteristics of organisms. Only through change
can variability be produced, so that there are different alternatives for
natural selection to choose from. The solution to the conundrum was
found in the discovery of mutations. Genes are generally transmitted in
an immutable manner as perfect copies, but sometimes there are
exceptions, accidental changes, errors of copy or mutations.
Hugo de Vries (1848-1935), who had rediscovered Mendel’s laws,
based on his own botanical observations, completed Mendel’s theory
with the introduction of mutations. De Vries inferred their existence, but
had no idea of how they were implemented in the material world. It
would be up to Hermann Muller to prove that mutations are real by
producing them in the laboratory. So in the middle of the 20th century it
was already known that genes reside in the chromosomes, that they are
made of DNA and that sometimes they change by mutation.
Hermann J. Muller (1890-1967) studied genetics with Thomas
H. Morgan and taught at the University of Texas and at Columbia
University. In 1926 he presented the first genetic theory of the origin of
life: The first living organism had been a randomly formed gene with the
properties of being autocatalytic (replication), heterocatalytic (metabo-
lism), mutable (subject to evolution) and autotrophic. From 1925 on, he
taught genetics and evolution, and did research mainly on mutations.
Between 1918 and 1926, he formulated the chief principles of
spontaneous gene mutation as now recognized: most mutations are
146 Jesús Mosterín

detrimental and recessive, and are point effects of ultramicroscopic

physicochemical accidents arising in the course of random molecular
motions (thermal agitation). At the same time he put forward the
conception of the gene as constituting the basis of life, as well as of
evolution, by virtue of its possessing the property of reproducing its own
changes. In late 1926 he obtained critical evidence of the abundant
production of gene mutations and chromosome changes by X-ray
radiation, published in 1927. It was for this discovery, for his artificial
induction of mutations by means of X-rays, that he was later awarded the
1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Like many socialists, Hermann Muller favored eugenics. Like so
many others (from Diego Rivera to Isadora Duncan) at the time, Muller
felt attracted by the ideal of a new world being built at the Soviet Union.
At the request of N.I. Vavilov, the main Russian geneticist, Muller spent
three and a half years at the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of
Sciences of the U.S.S.R., first in Leningrad, later in Moscow
(1934-1937), with a considerable staff of co-workers. With the rise of the
Lysenko affair, he was deeply disappointed and had to leave the Soviet
Union in 1937, moving first to the University of Edinburgh and then to
Indiana University.

3. The Lysenko Affair

The standard methodology of science presupposes a free exchange of

arguments and an open communication of data, subject only to the
control exercised by peer review and by the repetition of experiments and
observations by colleagues. Nevertheless, the powers from outside the
realm of science have sometimes interfered in the scientific process,
bringing it to a halt, at least for a while, and even inducing tragic
personal consequences. In the Renaissance it was the Church that used to
interfere in science in the name of religious orthodoxy, as shown in the
well known cases of Miguel Servet, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei.
In the 20th century the interference has often come from the world of
politics, political ideology and political power. It suffices to point at the
interferences of the Nazi regime in German science, which provoked the
flight of the best German scientists to the USA and the abrupt end of the
golden epoch of German science. Here we want to concentrate our
attention in an extreme case of political interference, with especially
tragic consequences for a whole scientific community, the so-called
Lysenko affair in the years 1935-1964, which brought disgrace, prison
Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and the Lysenko Affair 147

and death to the best geneticists of the Soviet Union and caused the
complete collapse of the science of biology in that country, in marked
contrast with the continuous flourishing of physics and mathematics
under the communist regime. The Lysenko affair is the best known and
most dramatic case of extreme interference of politics in science. As the
geneticist Michael Lerner pointed out,
the story of Soviet genetics in the period 1937-1964 is, perhaps, the most
bizarre chapter in the history of modern science. In a society devoted to
the betterment of the lot of peasants and workers, an illiterate and
fanatical charlatan was allowed absolute dictatorship and control over
both research in biology and practical agriculture. This event not only
stifled the development of science, but also had a far-reaching and
destructive influence on the national economy of the Soviet Union. To the
outside world, it was completely incomprehensible that a country capable
of developing a nuclear potential rivalling that of the United States, and
of establishing itself in the forefront of space exploration, could have
entrusted its fundamental resources to exploitation by an obvious quack.
(Medvedev 1969, p. V)
The 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent 1918-1920 civil
war completely disrupted agriculture. By 1921, food shortages were
acute. The forced collectivization of agriculture by Stalin in the early
1930s dealt food production in Russia a further and severe blow.
Collectivization attempts had been very violent, involving the deportation
and eventual deaths in camps of hundreds of thousands of peasants, and
were followed by a famine which killed millions. Many peasants opposed
the collective farms and some even went to the length of destroying their
grain in order to keep it away from the Soviet government. This dismal
state of Soviet agriculture was the consequence of the agricultural
policies of Stalin, but they were taboo and could not be openly criticized.
Only technical points could be discussed, but few agricultural technicians
were willing to work towards the success of the troubled collective
The factors stimulating germination and early flowering in a wide
variety of crop species had attracted considerable research interest in
Russia and Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The main technical problem for Soviet agriculture was to increase yield,
both by learning how to manipulate environmental conditions and by
developing genetic strains that could flower early and thus produce two
crops in a season. One of the key debates in this connection was between
proponents of day length (photoperiodism) and exposure to cold
temperature (vernalization) as the major factors stimulating early
148 Jesús Mosterín

germination and flowering. It was in this context that Trofim Lysenko

(1898-1976) raised to prominence. He came from a peasant background
and was largely self-educated. Nevertheless Lysenko graduated from the
Kiev Agricultural Institute in 1925, a fact hailed as a triumph of Soviet
education policies.
Lysenko’s early papers on plant physiology, particularly
vernalization, were mediocre. He eventually linked vernalization and
selection to create genetically stable lines of early flowering varieties. In
1928, Lysenko allegedly “invented” the new agricultural technique of
vernalization (using humidity and low temperatures to make wheat grow
in spring), which in reality was neither new nor useful. Lysenko
promised to triple or quadruple agricultural yields. The Soviet press
presented him as a proletarian genius who had developed a revolutionary
technique. Soviet propaganda had a tendency to focus upon idealized
stories of peasants and workers who, through their own initiative and
intelligence, came up with solutions to practical problems. Lysenko used
the attention received to denounce mainstream biologists and to promote
his own ideas of how agriculture works. He was, in turn, supported by the
Soviet propaganda machine, which overstated his successes and omitted
mention of his failures.
Lysenko’s political success was in part due to his striking differences
from most biologists at the time, being both from a peasant family as
well as an enthusiastic communist and advocate of the Soviet Union. He
was also extremely fast in responding to problems, although with fake
solutions. The Party-controlled newspapers inevitably applauded
Lysenko’s “practical” efforts and questioned the motives of his critics.
What most caught the Soviet government’s eye about Lysenko was his
success at motivating peasants. Lysenko energized the enthusiasm of the
peasants, making them feel participants in and protagonists of the great
Soviet revolutionary experiment. Academic geneticists could not hope to
provide such simple and immediately tangible results with their work,
and so were seen as being politically less useful than the charlatanism of
It was when Lysenko sought to convert one strain into another and
one species in another by “education” – that is, by repeated exposure to
low temperatures so that the plant’s acquired adaptation to cold became
inherited – that his theories collided with established biological opinion.
Unable to counter the justified criticisms of the geneticists, Lysenko
declared war on them. In this endeavor, he was helped by Prezent, a
lawyer and pedagogue totally ignorant of genetics but prone to attack,
Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and the Lysenko Affair 149

defame and denounce all competent biologists as enemies of the Party

and of the people.
Before 1935 Russian biologists, as well as those in the rest of the
world, held to Mendelian genetics, the chromosome theory of heredity
and the theory of mutation, all of them supported by an overwhelming
amount of empirical evidence. In that year Lysenko and Prezent
announced a new concept of heredity in opposition to the widely
accepted chromosome theory which they denounced as reactionary,
idealistic, metaphysical, and barren. Lysenko and Prezent pretended that
heredity is a general property of living matter and does not need a genetic
system localized in the chromosomes and transmitted from generation to
generation. They rejected the existence of genes and every piece of
knowledge gathered by previous geneticists up to then.
Lysenko’s actual “science” was nonexistent. He was a proponent of
the ideas of Ivan Michurin, and practiced a form of Lamarckism,
insisting on the change in species among plants through hybridization
and grafting, as well as a variety of other non-genetic techniques.
Ivan Michurin (1855-1935) was a collector of plants who tried to
hybridize them to create new sorts of fruit plants. He had already
attracted the attention of Lenin. He assumed the possibility of changing
the genotype under external influence, but his theory of influence of the
environment on the heredity was just a variant of Lamarckism. Neo-
Lamarckism retained a strong following in France and Germany, but the
ardently nationalistic Lysenko needed a national champion, which he
found in Michurin. Lysenko and his disciples declared themselves
“michurinists” and promoted Michurin as a national figurehead in the
theory of evolution, in opposition to genetics, pejoratively called
Weismanism-Morganism-Mendelism by Soviet propaganda. They also
rejected the chromosomic theory of inheritance, developed by August
Weismann and Thomas Morgan.
The new science of genetics was emerging out of studies of the fruit
flies (Drosophila melanogaster), which allowed for easy studying of
Mendelian ratios and heritability. Lysenko criticized these theoretical
biologists as “fly-lovers and people haters” for spending their time bent
over trays of fruit flies while famine raged on around them. In contrast to
those researchers,
Lysenko portrayed himself as a practitioner, a man of the people who
sought to use the experience of the masses to improve both his theories
and his practical breeding programs. In December 1929, Joseph Stalin
gave a famous speech elevating “practice” above “theory,” and putting
the judgment of the political bosses above that of the scientists and
150 Jesús Mosterín

technical specialists. Lysenko himself spent much time decrying

academic scientists and geneticists, claiming that their isolated laboratory
work was not helping the Soviet people.
In 1935, at the Second All-Union Congress of collective Farmers,
Lysenko delivered a speech in the presence of Stalin and all the members
of the government. Lysenko described the vernalization debate in
demagogic terms of class struggle and class enemies. The speech pleased
Stalin who, at its end, exclaimed: “Bravo, comrade Lysenko, bravo!”
After 1935 the balance of power abruptly swung towards Lysenko and
his followers. Lysenko was admitted into Soviet hierarchy and put in
charge of agricultural affairs. He became President of the Academy of
Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union and was made responsible for
ending the propagation of “harmful” ideas among Soviet scientists.
Lysenko fulfilled this task by inducing the expulsion, imprisonment, and
death of hundreds of scientists and the demise of genetics (a previously
flourishing field) throughout the Soviet Union. He bears particular
responsibility for the death of the greatest Soviet biologist, Nikolai
Vavilov, at the hands of the NKVD. The Soviet Government ordered all
flies in the genetics laboratories to be incinerated and all genetics books
to be burned. The science of genetics was forbidden. The whole of
Russian biological science was destroyed and has since been unable to
The fact that many supporters of classical genetics, like Hermann
Muller, invited to Russia by Vavilov in those years, had also supported
eugenics did not place Mendelian theory in a particularly favorable light
in the eyes of the communists: it was held up as an example of
reductionist, atomistic, bourgeois science.
Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was the most prominent Russian
biologist, a botanist and geneticist best known for having identified the
centers of origin of cultivated plants. He was born into a merchant family
in Moscow, in contrast to Lysenko’s humble and “politically correct”
peasant origins. He travelled to Europe and made research on plant
biology in collaboration with Professor William Bateson, who founded
genetics as an academic discipline, again in contrast to Lysenko, who
lacked any formal training in genetics and had never been abroad.
Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions all over
the world in the development of his theory about centers of origin of
cultivated plants and created the largest collection of plant seeds in the
world. In 1930-40 he was the head of the genetics laboratory in Moscow,
later reorganized into the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of
Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and the Lysenko Affair 151

Once Lysenko was made head of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural

Sciences, he was the administrative superior of Vavilov and the overseer
of his Institute of Plant Breeding. He tried to make Vavilov’s life
impossible, surrounding him with ignorant and disrupting deputies loyal
only to Lysenko, and submitting him to continuous and slanderous
accusations. The growing world prestige of Vavilov as a scientist only
ignited more and more Lysenko’s rage and envy. Vavilov was elected
president of the International Congress of Genetics which met in
Edinburgh in 1939, but he was denied permission to go to Scotland. In
August 1940, Vavilov was arrested by the secret police (NKVD) on a
botanical expedition in Ukraine. His closest collaborators and disciples
were also arrested and later died in prison, among them Karpechenko, a
geneticist of world fame, Levitsky and Govorov. Vavilov was formally
accused of ludicrous charges: spying for England, rightist conspiracy,
sabotage in agriculture. He was condemned to death, but not immediately
executed. He was sent to the Saratov prison, where he was incarcerated
under horrific conditions. He was placed in a dump, windowless
underground death cell and was undernourished and denied any outdoor
exercise. In 1942 Vavilov was elected a foreign member of the Royal
Society of London. He died in 1943 of malnutrition and dystrophy (faulty
nutrition of muscles, leading to paralysis).
After the end of World War Two, Soviet Genetics had been utterly
destroyed. Its leading exponents were either dead or imprisoned in
terrible conditions for no other crime than defending the standards of
science. The research institutes had been either closed or transformed
into sterile caricatures of what they had previously been, in the hay days
of Vavilov. Lysenko’s address in 1948 as president of the Academy of
Agricultural Sciences reflects the situation:
We, the Michurinists, must squarely admit that we have hitherto proved
unable to make the most of the splendid possibilities created in our
country by the Party and the Government for the complete exposure of
the Morganist metaphysics, which is in its entirety an importation from
foreign reactionary biology hostile to us. It is now up to the Academy, to
which a large number of Michurinists have just been elected, to tackle
this major task. [. . .] The Morganist views are utterly alien to the world
outlook of Soviet people. [. . .] But the condition in the Academy has now
sharply changed thanks to the interest taken in it by the Party, the
Government, and Comrade Stalin personally. (Lysenko 1948, section 6)
In the years immediately after the war, various groups in the scientific
community severely criticized Lysenko’s work. It was only the
heightened tensions of the Cold War and Stalin’s personal intervention
152 Jesús Mosterín

that turned the tide. Lysenko’s theories and policies were finally given
official sanction at a 1948 meeting of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural
Science. By this time many of his opponents had been silenced through
arrests or imprisonment. Even the foreign communist parties, like the
French communist Party, were mobilized in a vicious attack on the
“bourgeois” science of genetics and in defense of Lysenko’s hoax.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Lysenko retained his position, enjoying a
relative degree of trust from Nikita Khrushchev. However, mainstream
scientists were now given the ability to criticize Lysenko for the first
time since the late 1920s. In 1962 three of the most prominent Soviet
physicists, Yakov Zel’dovich, Vitaly Ginzburg, and Pyotr Kapitsa, set
out the case against Lysenko, his false science and his policy of political
extermination of scientific opponents. In 1964, physicist Andrei
Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the
Academy of Sciences:
He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of
genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views,
for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation,
firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists. (Sakharov 1990,
p. 324)
The Soviet press was soon filled with anti-Lysenkoite articles and
appeals for the restoration of scientific methods to all fields of biology
and agricultural science. Lysenko was removed from his post as director
of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences. After the
dismissal of Khrushchev in 1964, the president of the Academy of
Sciences declared that Lysenko’s immunity to criticism had officially
ended, and an expert commission was sent to Lysenko’s experimental
farm. A few months later, the devastating critique of the commission was
made public. That was the end of the Lysenko affair.

4. From the Double Helix to the Human Genome Project

How do you explain the replication of the genes? In 1953, James Watson
and Francis Crick discovered the mechanism and described the double-
helix structure of DNA. How do genes get expressed, how do you get
from genes in the chromosomes to proteins in the rest of the body? In
1961, François Jacob, Jacques Monod and Sidney Brenner introduced the
notion of messenger RNA for explaining the regulation of gene
expression. How do you explain the translation of the DNA or RNA
message into actual proteins? You need a code, the genetic code. In 1966,
Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and the Lysenko Affair 153

Marshall Nirenberg and Gobind Khorana cracked the genetic code. With
that, the revolution of molecular genetics, started in 1953, was basically
Resistance to the acceptance of new ideas by the scientific community
was previously exemplified in the cases of Mendel and of the
identification of DNA as the genetic material by Avery, MacLeod, and
McCarty. Even the much celebrated idea of the double helix, put forward
in 1953 by Crick and Watson, had to wait several years for its general
acceptance. After a few years the recognition came and a whole stream of
Nobel Prizes were awarded to the discovers: in 1959 to Severo Ochoa
and Arthur Kornberg for producing nucleic acids by artificial means, in
1962 to Watson and Crick, in 1965 to Jacob and Monod. By 2003, the
double-helix structure of DNA, discovered by Crick and Watson, had
become an icon of science and its 50th anniversary was celebrated in the
whole world with unprecedented fanfare.
A social factor that often hampers the progress of science is the
negative reaction of the uninformed public towards new possibilities and
the exaggerated social perception of risks involved in research. The 1974
moratorium on recombinant DNA experiments was a response to this
social fear. The fear was later seen to be unfounded and the recombinant
experiments were resumed. The more recent polemics about genetic
engineering and transgenic crops are other cases in point.
In 1985, a technological breakthrough took place: the polymerase
chain reaction (PCR) was discovered (or invented) by Kary Mullis. The
next year the first automatic instrument for sequencing DNA was
presented. This made possible to conceive the ambitious plan of
sequencing the whole human genome. In this case, as in many others, a
technological advance in instrumentation opened the door to important
research in new fields.
Living beings are the only things in the Universe that carry inside
themselves a description of what they are, as often emphasized by Sidney
Brenner. That description is written in the genetic code of DNA and
constitutes the genome. Each species has its own genome. And we are
understandably interested in our human genome. In 1990, the Human
Genome Project was launched, under the leadership of John Watson.
The role of competition in science was highlighted by the ferocious
competition between the Public Consortium and Craig Venter (and the
company Celera) in the sequencing of the human genome. Thanks to this
competition, the whole project was completed in a shorter time and at a
lower cost than originally foreseen, a rather rare event in the economics
of science.
154 Jesús Mosterín

In 1999, for the first time the sequence of a human chromosome

(chromosome 21) was completed. In 2000, the final sequencing of the
human genome sequence was prematurely announced in order to damp
the competition between Celera and the Consortium. In 2001, a draft
version of human genome sequence was published in Nature by the
International Consortium and in Science by Celera. The finished version
of the human genome sequence was published in Nature on 21 October
2004. This was the first highly accurate and fairly complete sequence. It
covers 99% of the euchromatic sequence (containing the genes) of DNA.
The error rate is one error for every 100,000 bases. The number of gaps
reduced from around 150,000 in 1990 to just 341 in 2004. Since then,
detailed analysis of the DNA sequence of each of the particular
chromosomes have been completed and published.
Among the results obtained, it was most surprising that the number of
our genes is less than 25.000, much less than previously expected. This
result was smattering for the residual anthropocentrism, as it implied that
no more genes are needed to make humans than to make mice, for
example. Besides, this result ruined the previous idea of molecular
biology that a single gene codes for a single protein. As a matter of fact,
there are many more human proteins than human genes. One and the
same gene has to be able to code for different proteins by means of
alternative splicings, induced by the presence of specific small RNA
molecules that act as triggers of that particular splicing.
Another social question involved was the discussion on open access
and secrecy in science. The infighting about the patentability of genes in
the human genome project led to Craig Venter leaving the International
Consortium and to the resignation of John Watson as its director,
although for opposite reasons. Several public institutions and private
corporations came to the idea of patenting the genes themselves. Already
in 2000, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had to intervene in support of free
access to the information about the human genome. The whole affair
ended with the final triumph of full and free accessibility. The whole
human genome (and the genome of other sequenced species, like the
mouse, the chimpanzee or the dog), together with all the annotations, are
freely accessible online in Internet. Everyone can access the information
from anywhere and free of charge. The final conclusion was that only
technological or medical applications are patentable, but not pure
scientific knowledge, like the sequence of our own genes.
Social Factors in the Development of Genetics and the Lysenko Affair 155

Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)

Instituto de Filosofía
c/ Pinar, 25
28006 Madrid, Spain


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Fisher, R. (1948). What Sort of Man Is Lysenko? Listener 40, 874-875.
Gee, H. (2004). Jacob’s Ladder: A History of the Genome. New York: W.W. Norton.
Graham, L. (1993). Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Graham, L. (1998). What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the
Russian Experience? Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Joravsky, D. (1970). The Lysenko Affair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lecourt, D. (1977). Proletarian Science? The Case of Lysenko. Atlantic Highlands, NJ:
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Lysenko, T.D. (1948). Soviet Biology: Report to the Lenin Academy of Agricultural
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Sakharov A.D. (1990). Memoirs. London: Hutchinson.
Soyfer, V. (1994). Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science. New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press.
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Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in 2001.
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and the Human Genome. New York: Bantan Press.
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Love. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Valentín A. Bazhanov



ABSTRACT. The impact of social factors upon the philosophical investigations

in a broad sense is quite evident. Nevertheless their impact upon epistemology as
a branch of philosophy, logic, and history of science as fields of research with
noticeable philosophical content is not evident enough. We are keen to claim that
this impact exists within some limits, although it is not so overtly evident.
Moreover in the case of Marxism it is of a paradoxical nature. Marxism always
puts the accent on the role of social and economic factors in the development,
development of science included. To a large extent due to Marxism, externalism
emerged; the key idea of externalism may be expressed through the statement
that social and economic reasons are the main sources of development of
science. B.M. Hessen declared and did his best in 1931 to justify this statement
through the example of the emergence of classical mechanics. Meanwhile the
social milieu of Marxist countries placed a taboo on the externalist approach
towards epistemology, the interpretation of logic, and history of science. All
these fields of knowledge were evolved in the Marxist era in the USSR and
Eastern Europe – despite the spirit of Marxism – within strict internalist
boarders. We offer the explanation of this contradiction .

1. Introduction

Marxism in the XXth century was an influential ideology and mode of

thought. Many prominent Eastern and Western thinkers experienced its
influence and charms. Later they often turned their faces and minds
against it, and severely criticized its principles and implications.
Nevertheless, Marxism proceeded to display its attractiveness. How can
we impeach the degree of its influence if in the USSR, and after World
War II in Central and Eastern Europe, Marxism was adopted as the State

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 157-169. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
158 Valentín A. Bazhanov

ideology until the late 1980s and in virtue of its having been implanted
by the force of totalitarian power?
According to the old tradition, Marxism was thought to consist of
three parts: philosophy, political economy, and so-called scientific
communism (the sort of political science based upon the number of
Marxist dogmas).
The interpretation of Marxism and its components during its hundred
and fifty years of history and various geographic sites was different.
Sometimes the adepts of Marxism debated over the problem (and even
smashed each other heads) of what to consider as authentic Marxism.
Authentic comprehension of Marxism was declared by dozens of its
followers: for example by George V. Plekhanov and Vladimir I. Lenin in
Russia, G. Lukacs, A. Gramsci, A. Camus, M. Foucalt, J.P. Sartre,
H. Marcuse, M. Merleau-Ponty, et al., in Central and West Europe.
In the early 1920s in Soviet literature the dominant position was that
any ideology is a “transformed” ideology, a false self-consciousness and
its highest form, philosophy, in its rational content was already totally
dissolved in science. Moreover, some Marxists claimed that the term
‘philosophy of Marxism’ is non-logical and even “harmful,” and we need
only pure science itself (Minin 1922b, pp. 194-195), that science was
opposed to philosophy as well as to religion (Minin 1922a, p. 122). This
standpoint was quite popular until the late 1920s because “Marxism
revealed the laws of social development and cast philosophy out from the
sphere of social knowledge. At the present moment philosophy has
finally lost its value” (Nastol’nyi entsyclopedicheskii slovar 1929,
p. 607).
Some well-known Soviet Marxists (V.N. Sarab’yanov, I.I. Skvortsov-
Stepanov, A.K. Timiryazev, L.I. Akselrod, A. Varjas) assumed that
philosophy is nothing but a mere summary of conclusions drawn from
science. The laws of the transformation and conservation of energy were
considered to be universal and all conceivable material processes could
be reduced to these laws. Dialectical understanding of nature coincides
with the mechanical understanding, and all processes converge to
“energy transformations which are in the scope of physics and chemistry”
(Stepanov 1924, p. 85).
Some Marxists treated the notions of “dialectical” and “historical”
materialism as identical (as did, e.g., Friedrich Engels), while the other
the concept of “historical” materialism was used to denote Marxist
sociology (by Nikolai I. Bukharin, for example).
Despite the lack of unity and the various readings of Marxism, its
followers were confident that Marxist methodology opens radically novel
Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic, Epistemology, and the History of . . . 159

and previously wondrous horizons in construction of new just and

economically much more effective than capitalist society. New society
might and ought to create new science while the old-style science will
inevitably decline and decay. Such prescriptions shortened the distance
between science and society, promoted the birth of so-called ideologized
science, and set a seal on the research in philosophy and history of
science. Formal logic experienced from the early socialist State a special
attitude because it was considered to be a citadel of metaphysical (i.e.
non-dialectical) thinking and, hence, automatically seized the status of an
educational and/or scientific specialty.
To what extent did these prescriptions have an impact upon the
character of the theory of knowledge, analysis of science and its history?

2. Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy

By the early-mid 1930s Marxists arrived at the conclusion that within

Marxism (which is “made from an undivided piece of steel”) there exists
a Marxist-Leninist philosophy as a comparatively independent part. The
lack of unity among Marxists on a number of key problems (like the
relationship of philosophy toward science, ontology, and epistemology,
formal and so-called dialectical logic, etc.) did not hamper a uniform
comprehension of the cornerstone principles of this philosophy.
The core principle of Marxist philosophy from its beginning was
considered to be the principle of practice (praxis). This means that
practical activity (i.e., material, sense-object, teleonomic activity) has a
deeper and more profound nature than existence of certain objects-stuffs.
The principles of materialism, dialectics, historicity, etc., all of these
principles, were borrowed through the materialistic conceptualization of
Hegel’s philosophy. Moreover terms and ideas, introduced by K. Marx
primarily for analysis of society and its structure – social being and
social consciousness, socio-economic formation, base and superstructure
– inherited the spirit of Hegelian philosophy where the genus has evident
priority toward the isolated element.
The history of social thought yields two rival approaches. The first
approach is based on the primacy of the “whole (totality)” over the “sum
of its parts.” The second approach, on the contrary, emphasizes the
“parts”: the success of the development of the “whole” is predicated on
the development of the “sum of its parts.” The first approach may be
termed social realism; the second, social nominalism.
160 Valentín A. Bazhanov

Social realism was represented by Hegel and Karl Marx. It judged that
the development of a society and its parts (man, social groups, etc.) was
determined by the whole – the Absolute Idea (Hegel) or class struggle
(Marx). The practical result of the dialectal evolution of class-in-itself (or
class-as-such) to class-for-itself was disdain for human life and dignity,
in violence toward the person. The tragedy of the individual was seen to
be justified by the bright future of the whole of mankind. Social
utopianism may be seen to have been fed by the conceptual undertakings
of social realism.
Social nominalism, represented, for example, by liberalism and its
forerunners (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David
Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls) judges that every
person has rights. The freedom of the individual takes priority over the
state. The state itself emerges as a result of a social contract (e.g.,
Rousseau’s Du contract sociale): it provides for citizens’ existence more
comfortably and safely than would otherwise be possible.
Applicability of the principle of practice to society presupposes the
standpoint of social realism. It meant the absolute priority of economic
factors upon the spiritual components of society; moreover, it meant the
later determination of these components by economic processes, the
direct dependence of superstructure on the base (a sort of “economism”).
After K. Marx died in the early 1890s his closest friend, F. Engels, did
his best to soften this position. He noted that the base only ultimately
economically determines intellectual ingredients, and that superstructure
and social consciousness develop autonomously. Nevertheless, the
conviction that dominated among the Soviet neophytes of Marxist
doctrine was the style of primitive economism. Certainly it led to the
manner in which the angle of examination of science and its history was

3. Ideologized Science Phenomenon

By ideologized science we understand the process of the transformation

of science typical of every totalitarian regime which has the goal of
establishing of a novel science, adjusted to the ruling ideology, and the
attempts to reformulate existing scientific achievements in order to make
them congenial to this ideology. The dominant ideology suppresses the
objective content of science and the unprejudiced quest for truth
succumbs to the selection of some statements arising from that ruling
Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic, Epistemology, and the History of . . . 161

ideology, and first of all those which provide it with a continuous

Recognition of the social nature of science presupposes that society
and its functioning has some impact upon academic activity, the style of
scientific reasoning, the form of scientific results representation, or the
goals of the scientific quest. Nevertheless, this recognition does not
contradict the claim that science develops to large extent autonomously,
placing its wellsprings “inside” the body of science. The totalitarian
regime prevents independent changes within science of the totalitarian
values that play a central role in State existence (in Marxism-Leninism:
class; in Islamic fundamentalism: religion; in Nazism: race), and
suppresses natural academic stances. Disbelief in the old values by
adherents of a new ideology, pushing society toward revolutionary
renewal, was shared in Russia not only by Marxists but also, for example,
by anarchists like Mikhail A. Bakunin or Peter A. Kropotkin, who sought
to devise a new official “State” science to replace the bourgeois science,
stripped the old science of its objective content. Their hostility to the
political pluralism generated the program of creating a novel, namely
proletarian, science, capable of a modernization of economics under the
new business principles. New revolutionary society was enchanted with
the new ideology, often doing its best to rebuild science according to new
basic principles. Such attempts seldom happened to be successful. We
can mention only the psychological theory of Lev S. Vygotsky and
Alexander R. Luria, and the concept of relevant logic of I. Orlov (see
Bazhanov 2003) based upon certain Marxist aspirations which happened
to be weighty contributions to science. Usually ideological pressure leads
instead to the radical politicization of the scientific community removing
those scholars who try to oppose the appetence of neophytes and continue
a so-called “repressive” science. At the surface remain those scholars
who conduct research as the direct embodiment of the new ideology and
promise immediate practical results or breakthrough in science (e.g., the
Lysenko phenomenonon; see Joravsky 1970, Medvedev 1969).
Establishing by force the supreme authority of one person (“leader”)
in all spheres of politics and science, faith in the collective reason of the
“Party,” the dogmatization of Marxist ideology, which was held to be the
only “scientific worldview,” and the strengthening of political purges in
the USSR, all led to the phenomenon of ideologized science, which
disrupted and created havoc in almost all fields of knowledge:
mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, not to speak of the humanities.
Academic style of reasoning and argumentation gave up its place to the
political accusations, often with direct political implications, arrests, and
162 Valentín A. Bazhanov

even purges. Nazi Germany pursued and eliminated Jews; after the World
War II anti-Semitism was transmitted to the USSR, and only the death of
Joseph Stalin saved Soviet Jews from the large-scale purges.
A notable by-product of the phenomenon of ideologized science
phenomenon was the goal of identifying blight-ridden authorities in all
fields of research and, hence, the struggle with cosmopolitism (see
Daniels 1985, pp. 303-306). Proponents of Soviet Marxism adopted the
principle of “ideological correspondence”: when the bourgeoisie in the
early stages of capitalist development played a progressive role it
produced progressive science (e.g., the classical mechanics of Newton,
the associationist psychology of Hume); but once capitalism begun to
disintegrate, the bourgeoisie were to be treated as a reactionary class, and
the science of this latter period becomes corroded by reactionary ideas
and conceptions. Thus, theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, or of
Freudian psychoanalysis, are reflections of imperialist crisis and in
reality pseudosciences.

4. Logic

Since the autumn of 1917 and the October coup d’état, and to the late
1940s, the philosophical traditions in the USSR were destroyed. The
monolithic State ideology did not admit any standpoints which differed
from the official one. Elementary logic was taught in Russia’s schools
before 1917, but the first steps toward the reconstruction of Secondary
(school) education debarred logic from the school and University
curricula. For the Marxist ideology was based upon dialectical, mainly
Hegelian, ideas, so that formal logic was treated as a metaphysical
heritage, alien to the revolutionary proletariat. A campaign against
formal logic was launched in the leading Communist Party ideological
journal. The laws of formal logic were considered to be contradictory to
dialectics, and the study of formal logic was ossified and stagnant,
showing through materialistic dialectics the invalidity of the position of
formal logic. The Law of Contradiction ignores the fact that all sorts of
evolution presupposes contradiction; the Law of Excluded Middle is just
inane. (For the dialectician, A = A is just a momentary static fragment of
the law of dialectical logic A A, the latter indicating a dialectical
development in which one state passes into another, just as formal logic
is considered to be nothing more than a static fragment of the dynamic
and progressive dialectical logic.) The accusation of ignoring Marxist
dialectics become the most pervasive in the ideological discussions in
Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic, Epistemology, and the History of . . . 163

1930s (see Cavaliere 1990; Mathias 1991). The Soviet government

insisted on purely practical goals of higher education; thus even at
Moscow State University all departments of humanities were abolished.
Logic was not taught for many decades. “The logic of terror did not leave
any place for logic,” as Alexander S. Karpenko described the situation in
pre-War World II USSR (Karpenko 2004, p. 63). Logical investigations
were conceivable only as purely mathematical; logic might survive under
the mantle of mathematics in the milieu of orthodox Marxist-Leninist

5. Epistemology

In the USSR the term ‘gnoseology’ (‘theory of knowledge’) was used as

a synonym for epistemology. For decades its status as an independent
branch of philosophy was rejected. Usually Marxists claimed that
materialistic dialectics is simultaneously the theory of knowledge and
logic. Materialistic dialectics covers nature, society and thought. Thus
there is no need of a special theory of knowledge (nor logic, either). As
Lenin put it: “We need not three words: logic, dialectics, and theory of
knowledge are all about the same.”
Only in the 1960s did some Moscovite philosophers (like
P.V. Kopnin) begin to treat theory of knowledge as distinct and self-
worthy branch of philosophical discourse, though their Leningrad
colleagues firmly insisted, even into the late 1970s, that only ontology
has its rights to independent status as philosophical specialty.
Soviet style theory of knowledge was based upon orthodox Marxist
principles and envisaged itself (after Lenin’s works) as a theory of

6. History of Science

Formal logic was for a long period of time, from about 1920 until late the
1940s, almost banned in the USSR. Gnoseology at last became
independent within Marxist philosophy and took the shape as a theory of
reflection (Lenin 1908). As really paradoxical may be described the
situation around the history of science in the USSR and former Soviet
bloc countries.
Social realism, typical for Marxist philosophy, presupposed a very
definite conception of scientific development. After K. Marx who, as we
164 Valentín A. Bazhanov

well know, strictly adhering to the spirit of social realism, declared that
“man is the summation of all social relationships,” and that the economic
base determines intellectual superstructure, social existence, i.e., social
consciousness. Science in fact was dissolved in social and economic
realities. The sources of the growth of science were placed beyond
science itself; they were placed in economics or (at lesser degree) in
culture. Not accidentally, F. Engels even in regard to such theoretical
fields as philosophy, judged that philosophers are pushed foreword not
only by the force of pure thinking, as they imagined, but mainly by the
powerful evolution of economy and natural sciences.
Faith in the determinacy of science as a whole, and especially
discoveries by economic conditions, was precisely the salient thesis of
Soviet historians of science in the 1920s. Precisely this conviction was
embodied in the concrete conception of history of science in the USSR,
called externalism. According to externalism, science has grown due to
socio-economic reasons, the demands from the society (often Western
tradition of externalism points to a certain conception of consciousness;
in our work this notion has nothing to do with consciousness).
The concrete date of the new conception of science is firmly fixed in
the annals of history.
On June 30-July 4 of 1931 the Second International Congress of the
History of Science took place in London. The Soviet delegation included
rather well-known scholars and public figures. It was headed by the high-
ranking communist official Nikolai I. Bukharin, who by a single vote was
just elected to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (from the list
approved by the Central Committee of Communist Party). N. Bukharin
was appointed as Director of the Institute of History of Science and
Technique. At various stages of his life he held the most prestige
positions in Communist Party and State hierarchy. The delegation also
included actual members of the Academy of Sciences, biologist Nikolai
I. Vavilov, physicists Alexander F. Ioffe and Vladimir F. Mitkevich,
Professor Boris M. Hessen (physicist and philosopher), Boris
M. Zavadovsky (physiologist), Ernest Kol’man (mathematician and
philosopher), Mikhail M. Rubinstein (economist).
B.M. Hessen presented at the Congress the paper “The Social and
Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia” in which he put forward the idea
that the birth of classical mechanics was entirely determined by the
evolution of capitalist, by the demands of new social class, the
bourgeoisie, who needed much more productive results of labor than that
which had been available in the feudal era. B. Hessen began his paper
with a quotation from A.N. Whitehead, who had noticed that I. Newton
Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic, Epistemology, and the History of . . . 165

was born in the same year that G. Galileo had died, and wondered what
path mankind might have taken had not these two great thinkers been
God’s gifts to the human race (Whitehead 1969, p. 46). Hessen pursued
the idea that concrete persons (Galileo, Newton, et al.) are not so
important, since social and economic conditions pushed mankind toward
new inventions or discoveries. “Newton,” Hessen claimed, “was the
typical representative of the rising bourgeoisie, and in his philosophy he
embodies the characteristic features of his class [. . .]”(Hessen 1933,
p. 38). Until Hessen’s paper Newton was treated as a genius, and his
creativity as indebted to his outstanding talent, which was given him by
Hessen persistently stressed that the bourgeoisie needed science for
the development of industry, and this science should “investigate
material bodies and forms of forces we can find in Nature”; “being for a
particular time the most progressive class, the bourgeoisie demanded the
most progressive science” (Hessen 1933, pp. 23-24). Moreover Hessen
indicated “the complete coincidence of the physical content of this era,
arising from the economic requirements with the content of Principia”
(Hessen 1933, p. 31). The development of industrial capitalism put in
front of technology the problem of designing effective machines. The
steam engine was created, and in its turn thermodynamics flourished. All
these events had a powerful impact upon the productive forces and,
hence, upon science.
Hessen’s ideas attracted the attention of the Congress participants. As
a matter of fact the novel direction of research, even novel paradigm in
the field of history and philosophy of science was proposed. The paper
was published in English (and Russian) and reprinted several times.
Analogous thoughts, typical for Marxists (practice is base for the theory)
were announced by N. Bukharin in his paper “Theory and Practice from
the Standpoint of Dialectical Materialism.” N. Bukharin’s attitude toward
science was really shivery. He was confident that due to Soviet scientists
the USSR would become “the greatest hotbed of world science,” that “in
the USSR science plays a noble role: it promotes the liberation of
mankind from the shame of our epoch” (he meant capitalism – V.B.), and
that “science is transformed into the friend and close ally of working
class” (Bukharin 1928, pp. 6, 15, 16).
Hessen’s ideas formed the basis of externalism which displayed a
brilliant performance in the West. Let us just to mention the works of
J.D. Bernal, J.G. Crowther, R. Merton, J. Needham, E. Zilsel, et al.
An irony of history resulted from the fact that, in the USSR, where
Marxism played the role of the State ideology and naturally presupposed
166 Valentín A. Bazhanov

externalism, and the forerunner of externalism lived, externalism

happened to be impossible. All studies in the history of science in the
USSR until the early- mid-1980’s – the moment when communist
ideology began intensively to decay, were carried out in a purely
internalist manner. History of science in the USSR was the history of
science, so to speak, in the social vacuum. If socio-economic conditions
were mentioned, then only as factors rooted in the capitalist order and as
a disincentive to its progress. We can judge that the history and
philosophy of science in the hotbed of communism and elsewhere in the
East evolved strictly within the framework of positivism, a rabid enemy
of communist ideology.
What is the reason for such an anomalous state of affairs? Why have
neither communist historians of science, nor the communist State closely
followed the purity of ideology of its citizens and done its best to plant
Marxist dogmas everywhere it might? Why has this State not noticed that
history of science does not obey and share another mode of thought and
standards of reasoning?

7. History of Science under Ideological Pressure

Marxism naturally presupposed externalism but Marxism put impassable

obstacle to the development of this trend in the history and philosophy of
science in communist bloc States. The main reason is socio-political
milieu within these State and accompanying ideologized science
B. Hessen was born in 1893 and was the classmate of Igor E. Tamm,
who later became a talented Soviet physicist. In 1913-14 Hessen studied
in the physico-mathematical department of Edinburgh University, then in
the same department of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) University.
He joined communist party in 1919. In 1928 he graduated from so-called
Institute of Red Professors and in 1930 was appointed the director of
Physics research institute at Moscow State University. He was the first
Dean of the Physics department at MSU. In 1934 Hessen was appointed
the Deputy Director of the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences
of the USSR. In August, 1936 he was arrested and in December shot as
an “enemy of the people.”
B. Hessen made some attempts to protect the theory of relativity and
quantum mechanics from the assaults of the “mechanists.” Taking
Newton as his example, he tried to show that any person may share
incompatible features (being a genius in physics, Newton nevertheless
Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic, Epistemology, and the History of . . . 167

shared backward religious views). We should separate the achievements

of some scientists in physics from their non-scientific views. The latter
view do not depreciate the value of their scientific achievements.
Nevertheless, B. Hessen himself shared outdated views. Thus, for
example, he published in first edition of the Soviet encyclopedia the
article “Ether,” in which he insisted upon the existence of the world’s
ether. Leading young Soviet physicists (Landau, Gamow, Bronstein, etc.)
telegram in which they mocked his article in form and content, in which
they asked for articles on phlogiston and thermorode (Sonin 1994,
pp. 38-39).
In October of 1930 B. Hessen was castigated at the All-Soviet
conference over the state of affairs in Soviet philosophy. He was
denounced as a “metaphysician” (i.e., enemy of dialectics) and an
“idealist.” These accusations were, from the point of view of ruling
Marxist ideology, the most serious.
There is some evidence that B. Hessen did his best to compose his
paper for the London congress in the spirit of crude, vulgar, orthodox
Marxism, and he was keen to present his paper as response to his critics
and as a proof of his fealty to communist ideology and Marxist loyalty.
Moreover, perhaps, E. Kol’man’s role as a participant of the Londons
congress was to ignore B. Hessen in order to prove (or disprove) his
ideological purity.
N. Bukharin was denounced for his “anti-Marxist” views in the late
1920s; but despite his frequent trips to the West he did not became its
defender. He was arrested in March 1938, tried for conspiracy in an
“anti-Soviet Trotsky bloc” and after his conviction was immediately shot
(Daniels 1985, pp. 266-272). The General Assembly of the Academy of
Sciences of the USSR in May of the next year ousted him, despite his
being dead for almost half an year, from the Presidium of the Academy
and stripped him of the academician merit.
After Bukharin’s arrest, the chief prosecutor of the USSR mentioned
the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences and Technology where
Bukharin occupied the position of Director as the “hotbed of anti-Soviet
conspiracy.” Incidently, the position of Director may be assessed as a
grim political exile. Institute was extinct. Only two of the eight members
of the Soviet delegation to the London congress, led by Bukharin,
remained alive after Stalin’s purges.
The Institute for the History of Natural Sciences and Technology was
restored after World War II. The struggle with cosmopolitism required
both domestic scientific heroes and branded enemies. Nevertheless, the
enduring memory of the recent political repressions and the dominance of
168 Valentín A. Bazhanov

the ideologized science with a necessary native hero in every branch of

science forced the composition of historical studies as internalist in their
essence, as history of ideas without and beyond any socio-economic and
political factors.
Soviet historians of science for decades concentrated on narrow
histories often filled with numerous technical details. Certainly, in many
of these works some sentry dispatches to practice as real background of
every theory may be found. Nevertheless, mentioned dispatches were
trite and inane though they helped authors to feel safe for they went
through all necessary ideological requirements. Actual socio-economic
and political factors were untouched and unrevealed.
Moreover many Soviet scholars, especially from the universities,
purposely abstained from writing papers and were extremely careful in
their classes to avoid any potential reason for being accused of some
ideological “sin.”
After World War II an ideological campaign in physics similar to the
one in biology (genetics) was planned. As we know, Soviet genetics was
virtually destroyed by “people’s academician” T. Lysenko. The form of
this campaign demanded public debates and public accusations of
persons who took the path of “revisionism” in science (namely in
physics). This campaign might have take place even despite the atomic
(nuclear) project which was vital for the USSR. The only obstacle to the
start of this campaign was expressed by L. Beria, closest of Stalin’s
comrade-in-arms, which was the fear that physicists would babble out
secrets of the nuclear project. It may be the only positive side of spy
hypermania typical for the USSR.
Ten years passed between Stalin’s death and the moment when the
phenomenon of ideological science in the USSR and the former Soviet
bloc decayed, and thirty years passed before the first work done in the
externalist style emerged. Meanwhile these studies were not written in a
Marxist mindset. The socio-political milieu changed; and the interests of
philosophers and historians of science changed as well.


The author is grateful to Dr. Irving Anellis for his valuable comments on
first draft of this paper and suggestions. This work was partially
supported by RFH grant (N 07-03-00054a).
Social Milieu and Evolution of Logic, Epistemology, and the History of . . . 169

Ulyanovsk State University

Department of Philosophy
P.O. Box 1602
432063 Ulyanovsk, Russia


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E. Orlov’s Ideas in Logic, Philosophy, and Science. Science in Context 16, No. 4,
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1946-1965. Firenze: La nuova Italia.
Daniels, R.V., ed. (1985). The Moscow Trials. A Documentary History of Communism.
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Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia). Reports of Soviet Participants at II
International Congress of History and Technics in London, June-July 1931. Moscow-
Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe tekhniko-teoreticheskoe izdatel’stvo.
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Subject of Logic in the Light of the Main Trends in Its Development). Logical
Investigations (Moscow) 11, 149-171.
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Revealed and Corrected by Ya. Sten). Bolshevik 14, 83-89.


Juan Fco. Álvarez
Javier Echeverría


ABSTRACT. Empirical research on Rational Choice Theory has brought up two

focus of the economics laws problem. On one hand, we find the authors who
state that the neoclassical economics laws are explanatory and predictive on
specific cases: in transparent contexts in which the standard rationality operates
successfully. On the other hand, we find the authors who state that the
descriptive theories of the rational choice opens up a research path in which
fundamental principles of the neoclassical building could be questioned. Both
view points have generated an important standard Rational Choice Theory
revision what has produced the so called descriptive view point. It implies
understanding that most of the choices take place under risky or uncertainty
conditions and, that, these choices are far more complex than the normative
Rational Choice Theory supposes. This article’s main goal is to expand the
descriptive point of view in rational choice, theorizing how some factors, coming
from the social and cultural environment, operate within the rational choice. Into
space of this research essay we find the debatable question of whether these sort
of proposals expands the explanation of the deviation of the rational choice
normative theory, and that, of the disturbing causes of the microeconomics laws,
or they call into question fundamental principles of these laws and therefore they
are opening the possibility to focus some economics issues in a new different

1. Introduction

There are very important links between procedural rationality (Simon’s

view) and axiological cognitivist rationality (Boudon’s approach). Many
procedures could be understood as frugal and simple mechanisms to put
our values – values that are giving us reasons to act – into action. We are
instrumentally rational agents, but we also exhibit axiological rationality.
These are two different notions of rationality but we act with both of

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 173-189. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
174 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

them in a single communicative situation. The real agents cannot be

blurred; they must always remain at least as a parameter of the
interaction. From the point of view of bounded rationality, there are
several models of practical rationality, one of which is synthesized in the
theory of maximizing rational choice. However, by introducing values as
a factor in the analysis of actions, their objectives, and their results, it is
possible to establish differences among these models according to their
greater or lesser degree of axiological rationality.
A large array of approaches to different kinds of social interaction
have been built on a very special model of human being, i. e., the rational
optimizing decision maker. This is a very special agent that has at least
three unbounded capabilities: it has, at any time, all possible information
and computational abilities, it has no limitations and it is able to achieve
an optimal degree of communication with the constraints on and means
for its feasible set of actions. We try to enlarge some ideas that we
published before (Álvarez 2005; 2001; Echeverría 2002; 2001) and to
expand those to a broader scope. Although there are some scholars who
use an approach that goes beyond the standard vision of rationality, they
are usually closely related to some kind of substantive rationality rather
than to procedural rationality (using concepts coined by Herbert Simon):
The former is concerned only with finding what action maximizes utility
in the given situation, hence is concerned with analyzing the situation but
not the decision maker [. . .]. Procedural rationality is concerned with
how the decision maker generates alternatives of action and compares
them. It necessarily rests on a theory of human cognition. (Simon 1997b,
p. 18)
For several reasons, these reductionist tendencies are unable to deal
even with the epistemic issues adequately. We will try to show one of the
reasons: a better understanding of social interaction could be obtained
from other notions of rationality, from a less abstract notion than the
usual idea of optimizing means and ends that appears in these models.
We need to move closer to bounded rationality, a “procedural
rationality.” In Simon’s terms:
People do have reasons for what they do, but these reasons depend very
much on how people frame or represent the situation in which they find
themselves, and upon the information they have or obtain. Their
rationality is a procedural rationality; there is no claim that they grasp the
environment accurately or comprehensively. To predict their behaviour in
specific instances, we must know what they are attending to, and what
information they have. (Simon 1997b, pp. 8-9)
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 175

Some sociologists have remarked that an axiological and cognitivist

rationality is necessary “to avoid the Charybdis of the irrational models
and the Scylla of the narrow versions of rationality the Rational Choice
Model endorses” (Boudon 2001, p. 120). This notion of rationality leads
to the delineation of a rather different set of agents” models than the set
that arises from instrumental or consequentialist rationality. In our
opinion, there are very important links between procedural rationality
(Simon’s view) and axiological cognitivist rationality (Boudon’s
approach). Many procedures could be understood as frugal and simple
mechanisms to put our values – values that are giving us reasons to act –
into action. We are instrumentally rational agents, but we also exhibit
axiological rationality. These are two different notions of rationality but
we act with both of them in a single communicative situation.
We prefer to talk about the fabric of rationality, with expressive or
axiological rationality as the warp and instrumental rationality as the
weft. The space of values frames the context and points to a pragmatic
notion of rationality (a synthetic notion) that arises as a minimal
condition within which interactions may be possible. Some of the
problems that arise when we try to understand polemics or controversies
(M. Dascal) may be solved by attending both to participants’ spaces of
values and to the overlapping zone of these spaces. The approach based
on the notion of controversy, as M. Dascal presents it, could be improved
if some of these notions of procedural and bounded rationality were used
to describe practical and historical cases in the study of science. A first
step, an empirical one, could be to delineate the boundaries of the space
of values that participants try to occupy. Their goal is not, or not only, to
optimize some singular variables (such as truth, rhetoric force or
consistency), but to satisfy a set of values that they regard as important;
their own authorship or agency could even be one of these values.
Perhaps, with these tools, we can analyse the continuum between
refutation and reputation (Dascal 2001) and some other non-traditional
epistemological questions. The main idea is that some features of the
context could generate rules. Usually we are prone to ascribe these rules
to the participants’ cognitive capabilities, but these rules are the output of
the relationships themselves. We do not need to suppose Olympic
participants in the interactions, with absolute and common knowledge
(each one knows what the others know); all we need is some flesh and
blood human beings in contextual interactions.
These real agents cannot be blurred; they must always remain at least
as a parameter of the interaction. In the standard view of rationality, the
Olympic agents could be eliminated, because each agent is similar to
176 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

every other one; as they are all epistemic gods, none of them are
necessary. They upgrade to some kind of Popperian third world where
they can achieve objective knowledge. However, we always need a
concrete agent: objectivity is not a view from nowhere, it is a view from
somewhere – Amartya Sen (1993). We cannot eliminate the particular
agent; we always need it at least as a parametric reference. Other
approaches try to put a grammar, an inner language, several absolute
capabilities or innate abilities into human beings, and that is why we
cannot understand the bargaining process itself. We are rational but less
than gods.
As we have mentioned, theories about social interaction usually
assume a very debatable notion of rationality. This notion comes from
economic studies, but nowadays many discussions show that it is a very
weak notion. An important part of social studies accepts this standard
notion as a datum. However, a simple review of the benefits and
drawbacks of economic theory could show the way out of this enclosure.
It is necessary to open our minds in order to build a pragmatic orientation
that will not be reduced to some kind of sophisticated semantics. Perhaps
it would be a good idea to look at the conceptions of rationality from
other sides.
There are some similarities between these problems and those that
have appeared in economic welfare theory with the economic notion of
utility. Trying to reduce any economic variable to a single utility
generates some very important difficulties for understanding economic
processes. Once we have superseded the code view of language, we
would reject notions such as truthfulness or relevance as the main
purpose of language.
The communicative process is usually shown as a mechanism with a
single and one-dimensional output (related to some kind of utility or
cooperative disposition such as some kind of happiness in economic
studies). Even the relevance principle (or the two relevance principles) is
heir to these one-dimensional economic notions.
In order to rebuild the dialogic interaction process, we must not only
make its communicative component explicit but also include spaces
where interlocutors can express their individuality: spaces that could be
considered to be other dimensions with their own values that the
participants try to satisfy to various degrees. So it is very important to
include dimensions related to power, emotions, and affections; to sum it
up, an n-dimensional set of values. This set becomes a group of criteria
that we try to satisfy in our social interactions, and if we draw this kind
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 177

of set, we must implement an empirical program that is sensitive to these

differences right from the beginning.
Our models are always idealizations, and we can have no other kind
of models, but this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. The mistake
appears when we opt for reductionism. Trying to reduce all the variables
to a single one, with a single unit of measure, is the main difficulty for
understanding the complexity of interaction. There are several parameters
that we must maintain ab initio.
When economists have proposed other ideas opposed to both single
utility and optimization, they have mainly unfolded two different views.
As Selten says: “One way to model limited search without giving up the
ideal of optimization is known as optimization with decision cost taken in
account, also referred to as optimization under constraints” (Gigerenzer
and Selten 2001, p. 5). The other option has been the idea that “models of
bounded rationality use fast and frugal stopping rules for search that do
not involve optimization.” The first models become even less
psychologically plausible because “the knowledge and the computations
involved can be so massive that one is forced to assume that ordinary
people have the computational capabilities and statistical software of
econometricians” (Ibid.). Some movements in the linguistic analysis of
dialogic interaction show a similar drift (for instance, Optimality Theory
and Relevance Theory). Herbert Simon’s idea of bounded rationality
offers another, more radical, option. Simon used the metaphor of a pair of
scissors, where one of the blades is the “cognitive limitations” of human
beings and the other one is the “structure of the environment,” cognitive
rationality and ecological rationality, as Gigerenzer calls them. The most
important thing is that “minds with limited time, knowledge, and other
resources can be nevertheless successful by exploiting structures in their
environments” (Gigerenzer and Selten 2001, p. 7).
Increasing the complexity of a task does not necessarily imply a
corresponding complexity of individuals. Sometimes a better
comprehension of the environment could help carry out the task. A
system of relationships could sometimes allow some fast and frugal
mechanism to produce better results than those that an optimal rationality
with a high computational complexity is assumed to produce.
To work with a complex system such as the communicative process
does not necessarily convey more formal complexity, but it represents a
complete departure from the one-dimensional criteria of rationality.
Having more information is not always an advantage for participants in a
communicative action game.
178 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

In our opinion, the participants in interactions now and then use some
kind of ignorance-based decision mechanism. As Peter M. Todd says:
“When choosing between two objects (according to some criterion), if
one is recognized and the other is not, then select the former” (Todd
2001, p 56). This kind of mechanism is embodied in the recognition
heuristic (Gigerenzer). The point is that usually our basic intuitions tell
us that having more information is an advantage for the decision maker
(Rubinstein 1998, p. 52), but this is only so if our belief system has some
special structure. In fact, as Goldstein and Gigerenzer (1999) have
investigated, adding more knowledge to the recognition heuristic in use –
by increasing the proportion of recognized objects in an environment-
can even decrease decision accuracy. This mechanism is named the less-
is-more effect by Todd. To be precise: “Knowing more is not usually
thought to decrease decision-making performance, but when using simple
heuristic that rely on little knowledge, this is exactly [. . .] what can be
found experimentally” (Todd 2001, p. 57). “Simple strategies that use
few cues can work well in real decision environments, and fast and frugal
heuristic that exploit this feature can satisfy the true bounds – temporal,
rather than cognitive – of our ecological rationality” (Todd 2001, p. 68).

2. Towards a Bounded Axiological Rationality

We here propose bounded axiological rationality (BAR) as an alternative

to the habitual model of rationality. Combining certain ideas of H. Simon
and R. Boudon with Amartya Sen’s proposal concerning informational
filters, we claim that values, in addition to guiding or orienting actions,
intervene as filters that restrict the perception of the environment and the
choice among possible courses of action. As we have stated in previous
publications, we understand values to be functions that a subject applies
to an object in a specific circumstance, with a valuation, that is, an
evaluative expression, resulting from this application.1 We call the
subject (individual, institutional, corporative . . . ) who applies a set of
axiological functions the valuator (or evaluator); we call the object,
person, result or system upon which this axiological function acts the
valuate (or evaluate). The axiological functions can be simple (a value)

Valuative expressions may or may not be declarations – value judgments. An expression
of approbation or rejection can express a valuation. In the social sciences, many
valuations are expressed with evaluation matrices, that is, using numerical tables in which
various evaluational criteria are weighed and added. This kind of axiological expression is
the most interesting for BAR.
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 179

or compound (several valuation criteria). Compoundedness, satisfiability

(as used by Simon) and graduality are three basic properties of values. In
general, something that is valued satisfies a criterion of valuation to a
certain degree, in the judgment of the evaluating subject.
Taking these conceptual premises as our starting point, our proposal
for a bounded axiological rationality is based on the following three
(1) Values are informative filters for human beings2 because they
orient their perception towards those objects that can be valuated
positively or negatively, paying no attention to those objects that do not
fall within the domain of the axiological functions that a subject S is
applying. Human beings never operate with complete information when
making decisions and acting, not only for the reasons Simon gives, which
are quite true, but also because of an additional reason of an axiological
nature: the subject selects what he desires and rejects in the environment,
the subject valuates the information. The axiological functions of a
subject S filter the world, selecting what is desirable (what is valuated),
doing without what is irrelevant and avoiding what is harmful or
prejudicial. One example will be sufficient: previous knowledge guides
the perceptive actions of a scientist (observations), discriminating
between what is scientifically interesting and what is not. An observation
becomes scientific data after an epistemic valuation (precision,
coherence, fit, relevance . . . ) and a technological valuation that depends
on the trustworthiness of the observational instruments used, on the
interferences that may occur, on the margins of error in measurements,
etc. There are no observations or scientific data without previous
valuations. These evaluations are carried out according to the prevailing
criteria of valuation in a scientific community at a given moment.
(2) Secondly, when it is time to act and make decisions, human beings
do not process or analyze all possible options and courses of action. In
the first place, because their capacities for analysis and computation are
limited, as Simon pointed out; in second place, because they act and
make decisions in a limited time margin; and thirdly, because they limit
themselves to considering the possible courses of actions that they value
positively or negatively in each set of circumstances. The cognitive states
of subject S strongly influence this second filtering process, which
concerns not only the inputs received, but the subject’s attitudes,

And, in general, for all living beings that have valuative capabilities. We defend a
naturalized axiology, which works not only for human beings, but also to analyze
valuation processes occurring in the animal world. In this contribution, we will focus
solely on the area of the social sciences.
180 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

intentions, and goals. The values operate not only as informative filters,
but also as deliberative and proactive filters.3 Note that these two
valuations are previous to the selection of the means that will be used to
try to achieve the proposed goals.
Let us give an example. A scientist first designs a research project, in
which he includes the human resources, instruments, and financial means
required to carry it out. All these components of the projects will be
valuated by anonymous peers or committees. However, the scientist has
previously selected the objectives to be achieved and has demonstrated
that they would be epistemically or technologically valuable. The choice
of the possible courses of action occurs before the choice of means.
(3)Thirdly, given a positive value V for a subject S in circumstances c,
we can always assume that an upper boundary MS,c of the degree of
satisfaction possible for this value will exist. These boundaries are
generated by the subject herself and by external constraints of different
sorts. They are not magnitudes that can be precisely determined, but
rather upper boundaries of possible satisfaction of the values, which vary
according to the circumstances and the cognitive or emotional state of
subject S.4
We have already set forth the first two objections to the inherited
conception of rational choice (incomplete information, limited
calculational capability) elsewhere (Alvarez 1992, pp. 73-93; 1999,
pp. 345-357). In this contribution, we will place greater emphasis on the
third objection, which characterizes bounded axiological rationality
(BAR) and develops Simon’s ideas, synthesizing them with those of
Boudon and other authors.5 We will give some examples to illustrate this.
(i) The economic growth of a country is a positive value, but if it
turns out to be excessive, as a result of complex systemic interactions,
the risk of inflation appears. Experts in political economy tend to set
boundaries for growth, although they give acceptable margins of
variation according to the national and international situations. Many

This is particularly important in institutional evaluations in which several subjects
holding different evaluational criteria participate. In these cases, the evaluations of others
intervene as constrictions and limitations on the subject’s evaluations. This is the most
frequent case in social science. Álvarez (1995, pp. 137-148).
Obviously, a subject with diminished or altered cognitive or valuative abilities, whether
due to dullness, distraction, a state of euphoria, or any other reason, does not evaluate
opportunities or risks the same way as he would in a state of watchfulness, maximum
attention, and cognitive normalcy.
Evandro Agazzi has always insisted that human actions are guided by values. See
E. Agazzi (1996). As we have already said, Amartya Kumar Sen’s work (above all in the
methodological aspects) is a fundamental reference.
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 181

economic indicators, for example, the macroeconomic objectives to be

achieved, are nothing more than the upper and lower boundaries of
satisfaction of certain values and disvalues (growth, stability,
competitiveness, distribution of wealth, unemployment, etc.). “The fact
that everyone adopts a certain value does not deprive it of this character
(as a value)” (Amartya Sen 1970, p.79, Spanish edition).
(ii) A long life is good, but certain conditions can turn it into an evil,
the end of which is desirable: “at least she is no longer suffering and
she’s at peace,” as people say. The criteria and mechanisms for
estimating quality of life have been one of the main subjects of A. Sen’s
reflections about values. In particular, see Sen and Hawthorn (1987).
(iii) A person who is guided by models of bounded rationality places
limits on his enjoyment of pleasures, although these limits may be
flexible. Similarly, he endures discomfort and unpleasantness, although
only to certain limits, after which they become unbearable.
(iv) Watching over small children is a positive value, but overpro-
tection can be harmful to them because it reduces their degree of
autonomy, responsibility, and capacity for action. The same can be said,
in the opposite direction, about excessive tolerance. The problem of
bounded practical rationality consists of finding a balance between
opposing values and degrees of satisfaction. After a certain point, a
positive value becomes negative. The conception of BAR affirms the
existence of these upper and lower boundaries for different values.
(v) Maximizing safety in a city tends to generate limitations of
individual rights, such as, for example, the assumption of innocence or
the right to legal aid and to a fair trial for presumed delinquents. To
paraphrase Goya, we could say that “the dream of maximizing rationality
generates monsters.”
(vi) The exploitation of non-renewable natural resources has limits
because otherwise greater evils are generated. The value “sustainability”
and making it operative constitute one possible good example of bounded
axiological rationality.
(vii) Telling the truth is a virtue, but no sensible person always says
what she thinks, to avoid offending other people. Even veracity has its
limits, as some constitutions acknowledge: the right to remain silent or to
not testify against oneself. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing
but the truth in situations in which powerful legal constraints exist is not
a behavior that is compatible with bounded axiological rationality.
We could give many more examples. One good series of examples is
the different processes of non-violent action, which even characterize the
difference between a hunger strike and allowing oneself to starve to
182 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

death. Anyone who suggests that, in a situation of political negotiation,

all negotiations must be done under bright lights and with verbatim
records is, by trying to maximize “transparency,” hindering the
negotiation. At any rate, the previous examples suffice to illustrate our
third hypothesis. We state that an action or decision is a BAR one when it
fits these upper boundaries (and, when pertinent, the lower boundaries)
of value satisfaction. If this does not occur and the subject insists on
maximizing a specific value (economic growth, longevity, pleasure,
protection, safety, resource exploitation, frankness, transparency, etc.),
her behavior is not very rational from the BAR perspective.6 As there are
several kinds of values, the BAR proposal distinguishes among different
kinds of rationalities, even though a formal model that is common to all
of them may exist. Purely epistemic rationality (for example, scientific
rationality) is not the same as technological, economic, political,
ecological, or moral rationality. Because the values that guide these
different kinds of actions are different, there are also significant
differences when it comes to elucidating their rationality from the BAR
perspective. As can be observed, our proposal not only advocates
axiological plurality. Insofar as we opt for the BAR model in rationality
theory, it is necessary to distinguish among a plurality of reasons and
interests. The composition of this plurality of reasons, values, and
interests is a key problem in social science, and it is usually resolved
through processes of consensus and deliberative procedures. When there
is a plurality of axiological agents that act and make decisions, the
degrees of satisfaction of the respective values are mutually limited. The
existence of values shared by several agents, as well as opposite values,
brings up a central problem: the determination of lower and upper
boundaries to the satisfaction of these values for the different agents
involved. To end this contribution, we will briefly consider this problem,
which we believe is central in the area of the social sciences.

Stating that behaviors that systematically tend to maximize a single value or the utility
function, independent of the circumstances and the consequences derived from these
behaviors, are irrational is excessive, although sometimes we may harbor serious doubts
as to whether or not they are intelligent behaviors. The BAR proposal distinguishes
degrees of rationality according to the plurality of values and the limitation functions
taken in to account. This will become clearer when we distinguish among different models
of rationality, some of which are more rational than others from the BAR point of view.
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 183

3. Four Models of Axiological Rationality

Based on the hypothesis that actions are guided by a plurality of values

of different kinds, we will use the term functional FS(O, C, T ) for the
system of values that a subject S applies to the objects O in
circumstances C and in the period of time T. FS forms a structure that
prioritizes some values as opposed to others, although these respective
specific weights may change according to the different phases of a course
of action.7 Broadly speaking, we will distinguish among four basic
structures and, therefore, four models of axiological rationality. There
are, of course, intermediate and mixed models. One agent (individual or
collective) can follow one model in certain circumstances and another in
a different situation.
Model M1: Some agents prioritize a specific type of value (military,
religious, economic, etc.) and, within this type, they prioritize a specific
main good. This is the case with animals that fight for survival, with the
businessperson who only pays attention to profits, with the military
person who tries to win regardless of the cost, with the scientist who
thinks only about the search for truth, or with the believer who only
worries about eternal salvation. Radical ecologists, ardent technophiles,
rigid moralists, pure aesthetes, or people who seek pleasure above all
else, ignoring costs, risks, and consequences, are other examples. We will
call model M1 pyramidal axiological monism because it affirms a
supreme value as the source of all good or all evil. This value takes
precedence over all others, which are subordinated to the search for the
main good, and, when it applies, for the Supreme Good. Its axiological
functional FS tends to be a pyramid with an apex, from which the
maximum good stems. Inversely, this model can be applied to the area of
disvalues, postulating the existence of Evil or of some kind of Supreme
Evil, the fight against which is more important than anything else. The
existence of this value or disvalue, good or bad, gives an ultimate
meaning to all actions. The defenders of the thesis of the uselessness of
social action (a rhetorical thesis belonging to conservative thought,
sometimes presented as radical, as A. Hirschman has pointed out so well)
are a good example of social theory that follows this kind of pyramidal

Going back to the example of scientific actions, at a given moment the purely epistemic
aspects may have greater weight (in the laboratory, for example), while at others technical
values (instrument design and construction, use of apparatuses), economic values
(obtaining funding), or social values (presenting results, dissemination and circulation of
knowledge) may have more weight. The same thing happens in many other human actions.
184 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

Model M2: This is a weaker variation of the previous model and is

characterized by maintaining the priority of one kind of value, selecting
various values within this class and subordinating all the rest to these
values. The functional FS has no apex because there is no supreme value,
but it is hierarchical. One type of value occupies the upper level and all
the rest are less relevant. This is the case of the military person who no
longer seeks victory at any price, but takes other military values
(minimizing losses, respecting the adversary’s dignity and honor,
maintaining discipline among the troops even when victorious, causing a
minimum of damage to the civil population, etc.) into account. Another
example would be the businessperson who attempts to be successful in
business and obtain a profit, but who values the factor work and
negotiates labor pacts with the workers, even though this involves
additional costs, reinvests part of the profits to modernize the production
systems, provides customer services, accepts losses with the objective of
increasing the market quota, etc. There are multiple examples, as this is a
very common model, typical of people who are entirely dedicated to their
professions. Generally speaking, model M2 agents are characterized by
acting to maximize the utility function, which includes several values
(and disvalues) of the same type. This model does not attempt to
maximize one of the values or disvalues, but rather a utility function
made up of several values. The kind of rationality that arises from the M2
model is monistic, because it prioritizes above all a type of value.
However, in the pattern of valuation, a plurality of values is accepted.
We will call it the maximizing monistic model. Rational maximizing
decision theory corresponds to this model of rationality. The type of
model of the capitalist that Marx presents in The Capital, particularly in
the third volume when he analyzes the law of the tendency towards
falling profit rates, is a good example of M2.
Model M3: This type of agent takes into account not only one type of
value, but several types. Its functional FS is mixed but hierarchical. The
upper axiological level is made up of different kinds of values, but other
values are secondary. To use Max Weber’s terms, there are end-values
and middle-values. We can distinguish a set of fundamental values to
which several kinds of values, which receive hardly any attention, are
subordinated; these subordinate values, in any case, orient neither
decisions nor actions. For example, a businessperson may act according
to model M2 but, in addition, be rooted in a concrete society even though
the production costs are higher, or he may have political influence, or
develop an I + D department that may generate innovations, or promote
the development of the arts and culture, taking on the additional role of
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 185

Maecenas, or develop environment-friendly production systems. A

politician may accept the control and mediation of other powers
(legislative, judicial, public opinion, military, media groups, lobbies,
etc.). A religious leader may accept scientific advances and try to
harmonize revelation with scientific theories. The M3 model involves a
partial mixture of different kinds of values, even though the functional
FS used to valuate good and evil has a hierarchical structure. Frequently,
agents of the M3 model are composed of several subjects, each of which
has the mission of promoting and defending one type of value. For
example, a democratic state has a government, a parliament and a
judiciary. In addition, it pays a lot of attention to public opinion, which
tends to articulate itself by means of the media or different citizens’
associations. What has priority is a functional FS that includes political,
legal, economic, and social values (or, in other variations, military,
religious, or other values). This model is more complex, with several
principal agents, not just one. Of course, tensions and conflicts arise
among these agents, as each of them safeguards certain kinds of good and
combats the corresponding kinds of evil. As a result, the different values
find high boundaries of satisfaction, due to the systemic interrelationship
among these agents. M3 is the first model that fits bounded axiological
rationality. This is a model of relative (or partial) axiological reality.
The Schumpeterian type of businessperson is clearly a case of M3; even
the positive bias towards risk and the impulse to innovate could be
by-products of putting this kind of model into practice.
Model M4: If an agent has equivalent preferences for the different
types of values that can be distinguished, she will try to satisfy a
considerable plurality and diversity of values to a sufficient degree. This
means a pattern of action that is practically impossible to find in
individual practice, being a model of high axiological plurality that takes
into account the different types of good and evil possible and their
respective minimum boundaries of satisfaction. When making decisions
and acting, this kind of agency takes into account different basic,
epistemic, technical, economic, military, political, legal, social,
ecological, aesthetic, religious, and moral values, even though it
attributes greater or lesser importance to some values (and disvalues) as
compared to others. This kind of agent can only be human, because
several of the types of values are specifically human ones. In principle,
these agents never subordinate one type of value to another, although
they may give priority to some values over others according to the
concrete circumstances. Their axiological rationality is complex, because
their functional FS is complex. In general, this kind of agent is not
186 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

individual, but collective. The M4 model requires plural agents with the
capacity to integrate different individual agents, each of which takes on
and promotes the different types of values that we have described.
These four models can be represented by the different formal
structures of the value systems that they apply. One would be totally
monistic, another partially monistic, the third partially pluralistic, and the
fourth totally pluralistic. (However, there is never a closed totality of
values, if only because new values may possibly emerge. This aspect is
fundamental when we make decisions today for future generations,
whose values are clearly uncertain at present.) Between one structure and
another, there are several intermediate models, with greater or lesser
subordinations and hierarchies. Strict monists believe in the existence of
a supreme (prioritary, preponderant) good or evil and even personalize it
(God, Fatherland, King, Company, Party, Nature . . . ). This is the object
of their identification, love, devotion, reverence, esteem, etc., or,
reciprocally, of their rejection, hatred, repudiation, or disdain. Pluralists,
on the other hand, try to modulate and combine the different kinds of
good and evil. By modulate we mean that they weigh them adequately
and in a balanced fashion, according to each situation and moment. They
may subordinate some kinds of good to others depending on the context
of action, but never a priori.
The four models represent as many forms of rationality and generate
very different patterns of action. From an axiological perspective, the
first model is the least rational and the fourth the most rational.
Obviously, we have given a very schematic description of the models, to
the end of making it clear that different degrees of rationality exist.

4. In Conclusion

From the point of view of bounded rationality, there are several models
of practical rationality, one of which is synthesized in the theory of
maximizing rational choice. However, by introducing values as a factor
in the analysis of actions, their objectives, and their results, it is possible
to establish differences among these models according to their greater or
lesser degree of axiological rationality. In particular, the models that
assume the existence of maximum and minimum boundaries of
satisfaction of positive (and negative) values entail a greater complexity
and development of axiological rationality. One particularly interesting
case is the case in which a minimum upper boundary and a maximum
lower boundary are adopted, as happens with warrant models in stock
Bounded Rationality in Social Sciences 187

investment. A model of this type has been used to negotiate the

“weather” on the crude oil market, a subject which is, unfortunately, in
the news these days due to the terrible disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
We have pointed out that a subject does not tend to behave according
to a single model, but rather follows the patterns of two or three
depending on the circumstances. In fact, the most complex models, M3
and M4, in particular the latter, require plural subjects. The way we see
it, this last model is the most fertile heuristically for representing
practical rationality the way it does in fact occur empirically among
human beings. We do not deny the interest of model M2 as a possible
regulative ideal, applicable in some cases. However, the processes of
choice among several alternatives tend to be more complex than model
M2. Both model M3 and model M4 involve alternative theories of
practical rationality. It is worthwhile to explore them, based on the ideas
of Simon, Boudon, and other critics of the inherited conception of
rationality. Multiagent systems such as the ones in model M4 (and, in
part, M3) involve a processual and deliberative rationality. Some of the
simulation processes of “intelligent” multi-agent systems can serve as
patterns for the complexity of these mechanisms, a complexity that does
not require individuals to have a greater computational capability but
rather a better understanding of their systemic relations.
Our proposal does not attempt to predict the choices and actions that
different human subjects will, in fact, carry out. Its purpose is only to
explain these behaviors based on a plurality of values that the subjects
are trying to satisfy to a greater or lesser degree; although it is a formalist
or formalizing conception of rationality, applicable to very diverse value
contents and systems, it is neither algorithmic nor predictive. Prudently
weighing the different values without attempting to maximize them or
infer a necessary rule of action implies affirming subjects’ freedom when
it comes to valuating and acting, even though this freedom may be

Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)

Dpto. Lógica y Filosofía de la Ciencia
Senda del Rey, 7
28034 Madrid
188 Juan Fco. Álvarez and Javier Echeverría

Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)

Instituto de Filosofía
Pinar, 25
28006 Madrid


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Amparo Gómez Rodríguez



ABSTRACT. The descriptive viewpoint in rational choice has generated an

important Standard Rational Choice Theory revision. This viewpoint has meant
the introduction of relevant psychological considerations that Rational Choice
Theory tied to the neoclassical economics is unable to heed In this paper I
suggest a way to expand the descriptive viewpoint by theorizing how some
factors, coming from the social and cultural environment, operate within rational
choice. That troublesome issue concerning the overall validity of economic laws
is also a question here; specifically, if these descriptive proposals expand the
explanation of the disturbing causes of economic laws, or if they actually call
into question their fundamental principles, encouraging consideration of some
economic issues in a quite new, different manner.

1. Introduction

Long-recognized as problematic in the philosophy of economics is the

“inexactitude of economic laws,” to use Daniel Hausman’s expression,
or, in other terms, the problem of ceteris paribus laws. In order to have
laws of finer precision and accuracy enabling greater explanatory and
predictive competence, ceteris paribus clauses should be specified. This
implies the development of empirical research around what John Stuart
Mill called disturbing causes.
When dealing with economic laws, inquiry focuses on Rational
Choice Theory since its axioms constitute the fundamental principles of
the laws of neoclassical economic theories. Empirical research follows
two main paths: a) to demonstrate the violation of the axioms of

This work has been facilitated by the Research Project HUM2006-10521. Translated
from Spanish by Marie MacMahon.

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 191-205. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
192 Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

normative rational choice theory in specific contexts, offering reasons for

such breach and b) to develop descriptive theories of rational choice
located outside the boundaries of Utility Theory and Expected Utility
Theory in neoclassical economics.
The empirical research on Rational Choice Theory has brought into
focus a troublesome issue, namely, the question of the overall soundness
of economic laws. There is, of course, variation on the issue. On one
hand, some authors consider neoclassical economic laws sufficiently
explanatory and predictive in specific cases, that is, in transparent
contexts where standard rationality operates successfully and consider
descriptive theories of rational choice adequate in non-transparent
contexts in which choices are made under conditions of risk. Economic
laws, then, are not questionable in their application context. On the other
hand, some authors believe the descriptive theories of rational choice
lead to a questioning of the fundamental principles of neoclassical
economic laws. Neoclassical economic laws, unlike physic laws, fail to
provide empirical hypotheses explaining the deviation of normative laws.
The empirical hypotheses about rational choice bring to the fore
alternatives that could deeply affect neoclassical economic laws, (Herbert
Simon’s proposal, for example, can be interpreted in this way).
These two viewpoints have generated important revision in standard
rational choice theory, since the fifties, with the work of Herbert Simon
and, thereafter, with contributions from Kahneman and Tversky (1979,
1984, 2000, 2002), Slovic (1982), Gigerenzer (1983), Arthur (1991),
Plous (1993), as well as others. The works of these authors have
produced the so-called descriptive viewpoint, which calls for recognizing
that most choices take place under conditions of risk and uncertainty, and
that these choices are far more complex than normative rational choice
theory presupposes. Following Simon standard rationality is replaced
with procedural and bounded rationality, and Simon’s satisfying principle
displaces the maximization of utility and expected utility theories.2
The descriptive viewpoint has meant the introduction of relevant
psychological considerations that Rational Choice Theory tied to the
neoclassical economics is unable to heed (Simon, Tversky, Kahneman,
Gingerenzer, etc.). Furthermore, several authors have noted the major
role social and cultural factors play in rational choice (Chong 2000;
Denzeu and North 2000; Halpern 1998; Smelser and Swedberg 1994;
Langlois 2000; Henrich et al 2001; among others).

Procedural rationality takes into account the individual’s frame of mind, his
conceptualization of his predicament, and his aptitude for evaluating the information and
options available to him. Simon (1976, pp.129-148).
Rational Choice Theory and Economic Laws 193

This essay’s main goal is to point out the existence of a important

convergence between both lines of research, namely, complementary
links between the psychological and the contextual. I shall offer evidence
of this claim through an examination of the Prospect Theory of
Kahneman and Tversky and the proposal J.K. Halpern makes about the
importance of contextual factors. Halpern’s proposal permits me to offer
some considerations concerning the degree of complementarity that both
psychological and socio-cultural points of view allow, given the
convergence of psychological and contextual aspects in the empiric
choices individuals make. This paper’s ultimate goal is to expand the
descriptive viewpoint by theorizing how some factors coming from the
social and cultural environment operate within rational choice. Of course,
that troublesome issue concerning the overall validity of economic laws
is also a question here; specifically, if these descriptive proposals expand
the explanation of the disturbing causes of economic laws, or if they
actually call into question their fundamental principles, encouraging
consideration of some economic issues in a quite new, different manner.

2. The Prospect Theory

Since the middle of the last century, various authors (Allais 1953;
Ellsberg 1961; Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Machina 1982; Slovic,
Fischhoff, and Linchensten 1982; among others) have shown that empiric
choices breach the axioms of Utility Theory and Expected Utility Theory.
The axioms around which deviation has emerged are the following:
cancellation, dominance, invariance and transitivity. Starting in the early
seventies, Tversky and Kahneman examined the invariance and
dominance axioms. Several of their empirical experiments demonstrate
the vulnerability of these axioms when choices are made under
conditions of risk. This means the principle of maximization of expected
utility is breached, and involves, thus, a refutation of Expected Utility
Theory. In the light of the experiments, Kahemann and Tversky propose
a purely descriptive theory, their Prospect Theory. This Theory explains
the results of their experiments and permits a new Rational Choice
Theory under conditions of risk. The notions of framing effects and
heuristics are crucial in their theory.3

For the proposal of these authors to see: Kahnemann and Tversky (1979, 1984, 2000,
2002) and Tversky and Kahneman (1973, 1974, 1981, 1988, 1990).
194 Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

The Prospect Theory basically shows that choices under conditions of

risk are far more complex than Expected Utility Theory assumes.
According to Kahneman and Tversky, choices imply a first-phase of
analysis of the problem and a second-phase of evaluation and choice.
Individuals analyze the choice problem in the first-phase. This analysis
depends as much on the way the presentation of the problem is carried
out as on individuals’ perspectives in which expectations, habits, and
other contextual factors exercise an important influence. In this first
stage individuals organize and reformulate the options thus simplifying
subsequent evaluation and choice. They perform different tasks that
transform the associated results and probabilities. This leaves the
individuals with several options from which to choose.
In the second-phase, individuals evaluate the options derived from the
preliminary analysis and choose the one they consider greater in value.
This process involves the following: a) subjective values are defined in
terms of gains and losses rather than on ultimate states of wealth or
welfare, (the effective carriers of values are changes of wealth or
welfare); b) the gains and losses are established in reference to some
neutral point in relation to which they appear as positive or negative
deviations (according to Kahneman and Tversky the status quo is
probably the most common reference point); c) the differences among
values are subjective, that is, they are established by the individuals; and
d) the probabilities are replaced by decision weights.
The function value is seen as a function of the individual’s position,
his status quo or reference point, and of the magnitude of the change
(positive or negative) from that point of reference. The theory predicts
preferences will be affected by the changes in the reference point. The
value function for losses is different from the value function for gains;
this is a meaningful property that expresses a characteristic of individuals
choosing under risky conditions: they are averse to loss.4 Loss aversion
expresses the fact that the response to loss is more extreme than the
response to gain: the displeasure of loosing, for instance, an amount of
money exceeds the pleasure of earning the same amount.
The Prospect Theory affirms essentially that under risk choices: a) the
way of presenting information, that is, just how the choice problem is
formulated, is a key factor; b) that there are biases involved when
individuals process information, that is, psychological tendencies such as
aversion to risk, and the particular perspectives of individuals; c) that the

The value function is: a) defined on gains and losses, b) concave in domain of gains and
convex in the domain of losses, and c) much steeper for losses that for gains (loss
aversion). Kahneman and Tversky (2000, p. 3).
Rational Choice Theory and Economic Laws 195

individuals do not perceive nor process the statistical information

satisfying the probability theory requirements but use heuristic rules to
make judgments instead of probabilistic algorithms.
Therefore risk choices depend on framing affects and on the fact that
the mind does not function according to a mental algorithm but with
heuristic rules. Tversky and Kahneman point out that the experimental
results are discouraging for those who to look at people as a statistical
object. The advantage of heuristic rules is that they allow individuals to
reduce the time and effort required to make reasonably good judgments
and decisions. As Simon indicated, people usually satisfy rather than

3. The Prospect Theory and the Social Aspects of

Rational Choice

The Prospect Theory of Kahneman and Tversky has had a great impact
on psychological studies of rational choice; it has also influenced the
work of authors interested in the social aspects of rational choice, for
instance, Kuklinski and Quirk (2000), Bazerman, Gibbons, Thompson,
and Valley (1998) and, especially so, in the previously mentioned
proposal of Halpern (1998).
Halpern (1998) presents important insights concerning the
dependence of rational choice on the social and cultural context. First of
all, Halpern actually tries to sever Rational Choice Theory from an
exclusive grounding in neoclassical economics in an effort to dig up
Rational Choice Theory from the prevailing economic roots of choosing.
And she offers, instead, a proposal that allows rational choice to be fully
inclusive, applicable, that is, in all choosing, economic or otherwise. She
recognizes, together with Simon, Kahneman, Tversky, and other authors,
that our choices are limited by cognitive biases, and admits the notion of
bounded rationality. But she does not consider these the only biases that
must be faced. For Halpern social and cultural biases must be weighed in
as well. These latter biases would explain many of the deviation cases in
empirical choices. In other words, rational choices have an important
social and cultural dimension that needs to be considered by Rational
Choice Theory.
Halpern’s viewpoint relies on two facts: a) we all share ways of
evaluating options (that may not be objectively optimal) and b) we use
196 Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

social heuristics in our reasoning processes.5 Moreover, people have the

capacity to reason rationally about their personal evaluations and choices,
even when these do not fit with some rational objective criteria.
Halpern agrees with Kahneman and Tversky that individuals are the
ones who analyze and evaluate the alternatives that they face. As
Kahneman and Tversky have shown, in the search for solutions,
individuals analyze choice problems using heuristics, reformulate and
evaluate the options from which they subsequently choose. This process
is personalized, idiosyncratic, and rational, but it also has an important
social and cultural dimension.
The social and cultural dimension emerges when Halpern opens the
notions of evaluation and heuristics towards the social and cultural
environment that individuals share. People evaluate alternatives in a
highly individualistic manner, giving a personalized value to each one of
the options before them. But this takes place within a shared social and
cultural context that influences the evaluation of alternatives as much as
the personalized value people give to the options from which they
subsequently choose. Each one personalizes his/her options and
evaluations, but society pressures individuals to personalize them in a
specific and shared manner. This occurs because people who belong to
the same cultural and social group have a shared understanding of the
alternatives involved in the different choosing situations. As Halpern
(1998, p. 224) affirms: “people do personalize alternatives” but that “they
do so in similar ways,” reflecting the influence of their social and
cultural context.
Shared understanding is a pre-requirement for living in society,
necessary for the action and interaction of social groups, including
economic relations. 6 If, as Simon, Kahneman, Tversky, and others have
shown, the choices people formulate can reflect bias, a lack of shared
understanding would thwart interaction among people: our subjective
slants and the absence of any shared understanding make comprehension
among us impossible. But, given that people are, generally speaking,
involved in successful transactions, we can infer that they must have a

Kuklinski and Quirk (2000, pp. 153-182) use the Kahneman and Tversky’s notion of
heuristics in the field of political elections. Other authors, such as Bazerman, Gibbons,
Thompson, and Valley (1998, pp. 78-98) have developed proposals in the field of the
social heuristics that offer an account of the social aspects implied in the personalization
of alternatives by members of society. Halpern (1998) and Coleman (1990, 1994)
underline the notion of shared understanding. People give sense to their behavior in light
of their common understanding and shared knowledge of culture.
As Ross and Anderson (1982, p. 131) have pointed out, the individuals have a shareed
understanding of social actions.
Rational Choice Theory and Economic Laws 197

similar understanding of the alternatives, in spite of the presence of

cognitive bias. When making evaluations or reasoning, the errors we
commit are common ones since we are cognitively similar and we have
incorporated common ways of evaluating the world. We can even say
that people have similar ways of misunderstanding the world due to a
limited capacity in processing probabilistic information, to the cognitive
illusions, or the shared social context and common cultural background.
If everyone evaluated the world objectively, we would not need tools
to understand how others have evaluated their alternatives. Obviously,
we know that is not the way things work, and to deal with the actions of
people, we human beings assume everybody uses the same heuristics
rules. These heuristics derive from our own psychological and reasoning
patterns but there are also heuristics learned within social contexts. Some
of our biases are concerned with such social heuristics, as they “are the
result of social and cultural influences” (Halpern 1998, p. 227). The
heuristics learned socially are crucial in any attempt to understand
deviation from the normative theories of the rational choice and to
explain empirical choices.

4. Shared Values

In our judgment the key notion in Halpern’s proposal is shared

evaluation. But, this notion warrants more commentary given the
necessity to explain just why a shared evaluation is produced. It is not
enough to refer to the existence of shared understanding as a pre-
requirement of living in society. It is necessary to explain just what is
being shared within the shared evaluation. A productive way to address
this has to do with the role of the norms in rational choice. This leads us
to the works of the neoinstitutionalists and, would include the works of
authors of social rationality. Neoinstitutionalist literature basically points
to the role of norms as constrictions on choice. However, some
neoinstitutionalist authors have gone further since their works explore
other forms in which the norms bear upon the rational choice.7

Chong (2000, p. 48) affirms “every society prescribes certain goals and certain approved
cultural issues to attain them.” According to Coleman (1990, p. 242) the rationality also
has to do with the functioning of norms and states “some theoreticians of rational choice
armed with maximisation of the function of the utility as a principle of action consider the
concept of the norm totally unnecessary,” but this ignoring an important process in the
functioning of social systems included the one linked to economics.
198 Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

One key factor serving to explain shared evaluation is the claim that
norms sustain the common values individuals share. The shared values
become a part of the perception, interpretation judgment and evaluation
of the actors and therefore of their choices.8 Shared values, together with
the social heuristics, are implicated in choice deviations from normative
rational choice theory.
However, it is not enough to affirm that shared values do exist. It is
also necessary to explain how common values become shared values. In
order to address this question, we pay special attention to the notion of
mental model. The cognitive sciences state that individuals construct
models of the environment in which they live, choose and act, and of the
problems they face. These mental models are internal representations that
individuals create in order to analyse and evaluate the situations and
problems they face, as occurs in the problem choice case. In fact, the
mental models are internal representations created by individuals and
“the institutions are external (to the mind) mechanisms individuals create
to structure and order the environment” (Denzau and North 2000, p. 24).
The mental models that construct different individuals of the same
culture and society (with common institutions, organizations and
therefore, norms and rules) are convergent and, in relevant aspects, are
shared models. Denzau and North (Ibid.) coincide on this idea, when they
affirm: “Individuals with common cultural backgrounds and experiences
will share reasonably convergent models, ideologies, and institutions
[. . .].” But at the same time institutions and ideologies “are the shared
framework of mental models that groups of individuals possess that
provide both an interpretation the environment and a prescription as how
that environment should be structured” (Ibid.). Thus we can state, that
social and cultural factors, like ideologies and institutions, make possible
shared mental models.
Mental models “provide a prescription as how environment should be
structured” because norms and values form part of our internal
representations. And if a shared mental model is available, the concepts
and values embodied in the structure of mental models that several
people have are more similar and therefore shared. There is a very close
relationship among society, culture, institutions, norms and shared
values. Common society, culture and institutions imply shared values
(amongst other things) which are part of mental representations or
models that individuals have.

According to Agazzi (1996) actions are guided by values.
Rational Choice Theory and Economic Laws 199

The shared mental models are possible thanks to the social and
cultural experience, interaction and learning of individuals. Society and
culture presuppose a common background that is transmitted through
learning, experience, and the same interaction and communication that
social life implies. Part of this background includes norms and
consequently, values. Individuals construct their mental models
incorporating materials already social and culturally existent. For that
reason such models can converge and be shared.
Learning from others makes an significant number of similarities
feasible among members of each society and culture.9 In fact, a common
cultural heritage reduces divergence in the mental models that people
have in a given society, because it supposes the transference of common
values, ideas, concepts, etc. from one generation to the other. Not
everyone needs to start at level zero.10 Cultural heritage, social interaction
and communication, more shared learning and experience, explain the
existence of shared values (and beliefs, conceptions, etc. ) that make up
part of the mental models of individuals with the same cultural and social
It is quite important to point out that the common values that are
transmitted in such a way will become shared values as they are accepted
by the individuals. The acceptance is based on the uniformity of
cognitive beliefs (for those who accept them) about the adequacy,
correctness, convenience, and opportuneness of values that are culturally
and socially transmitted. The values shared by individuals are expressed
in the analysis, the evaluations, the preferences and furthermore, in the
rational choices that take place.
Therefore, individuals do not choose in a vacuum, that emptiness
presumed in the market notion of neoclassical economics transferred to
Rational Choice Theory. Instead, individuals make their choices in a
social and cultural environment. One of the forms in which this occurs is

As Jones (2001, p. 114) explains, the Solomon’s experiment and much addional research
show human susceptibility to social influence and learn from others. The rational choice
always imply a interactive and social context. According to Zey (1998, p. 82) motivations
are learned in the course of social action.
Henrich et al. (2001, p. 244) affirm: “Cultural trasmission mechanisms are cognitive
information processor that allow individuals to acquire information in some fashion from
others individuals, often via observation, imitation and interaction.”
In the existence of shared values we find another relevant factor: the linkage of the
individual to social groups such as amongst others: the familiar or the professional ones.
Groups, play an important role in the convergence of values, beliefs, opinions, and
preferences. According to Chong (2004, p. 67) “Group members develop common
evaluations, identifications, and norms [. . .].”
200 Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

through shared social and cultural values, in the sense we have just
described. This fact has important consequences over the rational
choices, including the economic and scientific choices. As Zey (1998,
pp. 69-70) points out, markets are made up of relationships, networks of
organizations linked together through economic transactions, family
relationships, friendships, and social and management circles.
Consequently, standard Rational Choice Theory cannot explain
adequately the operation of markets nor can it deal satisfactorily with a
large portion of economic rational choices.
Even scientists do not choose in a social vacuum as presumed by
economic rationality. Within the scientific field the neoinstitutionalistic
vision highlights the social aspects implicated in scientific practice and
consequently in the choices of the scientists. The neoinstitutionalists
consider not just the scientists (their actions and choices) as basic units in
their analysis of science, but also include the institutions, the
communities, the norms, the rules, and the values. Scientists choose
under stronger social links than the individualistic and traditional models
of rationality allow. They choose rationally in an institutionalized,
organized, regulated, and normative environment, besides interactively
and strategically.
Their rational choices are understood in terms of bounded and
strategic rationality, in which the values that come from social norms and
cognitive rules play an important role. Individual scientists have
interests, beliefs, preferences, and values, all of which is mediated by the
institutional and normative matrix of science. All values, including
cognitive values, are social. According to Shi (2002) cognitive values
(such as simplicity, precision, etc.) are a type of social value linked to
institutional norms and rules of science.
The norms and rules are essential elements of the scientific
institutions. They not only determine the scientists’ frame of
opportunities in their strategical interactions, but they also provide a
substratum of values and prescriptions shared by scientists belonging to a
scientific community. Shared values explain the presence of common
interpretations and evaluations of the choice problems that scientists
face. The shared values make it possible for individual scientists to
evaluate problems in a similar manner, to have common objectives, and
linked strategies in order to achieve those objectives. This implies
coordination and cooperation, and one of the functions of norms is,
precisely, to make both feasible.
Finally, values are not the non-rational bedrock of explanation.
Values are part of the reasons from which choice is made. Individuals are
Rational Choice Theory and Economic Laws 201

able to give reasons about values and can deliberate rationally about

5. The Rational Choice

Following Kahnemann and Tversky’s proposal, we can affirm that shared

values operate in two key moments of the rational choice process: in the
analysis of the choice problem and in the evaluation of the alternatives.
As previously indicated, the analysis of the choice problem
constitutes a fundamental stage in rational choice. In this stage
individuals interpret, organize, and reformulate the options that they then
evaluate and from which they choose. Kahnenmann and Tversky
underline just what is entailed here, namely, that the analysis of the
choice problem depends not only on the way information is presented but
also on the individuals’ perspectives. Such perspectives involve habits,
expectations and, also, shared values of individuals with convergent
mental models about the choice problem. Sharing and convergence
explain how it is that different individuals bring forth similar analyses of
the choice problem.
Shared values and analogous mental models are also present in the
second stage of rational choice, namely, in the evaluation of alternatives
from which individuals choose. Shared evaluation is possible to the
degree that individuals share values (besides others such as beliefs and
expectations) about the options before them and from which they choose
the option they consider most adequate. Thus, shared values play a
crucial role in the analysis of the choice problem, in the evaluation of
alternatives, and in the choice.
While the analysis and the evaluation are individualized and
personalized processes, they do not take place in a social void. The
individuals are members of institutions, groups, societies, and cultures in
which they share, among other things, values that play a role in the
analysis and evaluation of the choice problem and in their rational
choices. Just the same, they confront the analysis, evaluation, and choice
Finally, individuals choose the option they consider most adequate.
However, we understand this not as a function of the value that
individuals give to wealth and welfare changes in respect to the status
quo, as Kahnemann and Tversky maintain, but in a broader sense, as a
function of the several values used by the individuals in the evaluation of
the alternatives among which they choose. These values can include
202 Amparo Gómez Rodríguez

changes in the status quo, reciprocity, welfare of others, compensations,

or other values. It depends on the choice problem and the values of
individuals within their social and cultural contexts.
The descriptive view makes it clear that individuals do not choose
rationally according to a single value as the maximization of utility that
normative rational choice theory claims. We can even find different types
of values in the field of economics, in contrast to what the neoclassical
theories have maintained and, furthermore, all are shared values. As
Denzau and North (2000, p. 40) remark: “a market economy is based on
the existence of a set of shared values such that trust can exist.”
Values as different as adhering to the latest fashion trends or refusing
to accept child labor can influence choices in the market. For instance,
what fashion dictates is a social-cultural value that the consumers make
their own, even when it goes against their pecuniary interest. Camerer
(2004) has demonstrated that values such as those of justice can explain
diverse behavior and choice in the market economy. Thaler (1991) and
Camerer (2004) believe Rational Choice Theory must be changed in
order to include the fact that people take acting correctly and being
treated justly very much into account.
At the same time, we must keep in mind that individuals when making
their choices tend to follow a satisfying strategy (as Kahneman and
Tvesky concede to Simon). In the satisfying strategy values can operate
as criteria that determine when an individual considers an alternative
satisfactory and stops looking for any other.

6. Concluding Remarks

What I am highlighting here is the importance of shared values when

facing the social dimension of rational choice. However, this does not
mean, in any way, that the shared values are socially monolithic or
everlasting values as the sociological Theory of the Status affirms.
Neither values nor choices are a simplistic function of the social and
cultural environment. Shared values may be dominant ones in a society,
culture or any type of group. But just the opposite may also occur: values
held by those who refuse reigning ones and uphold, instead, others. As
previously indicated, shared values are those that individuals accept and
make their own. The values involved in rational choices are the ones that
sustain the individuals who choose. The point is that these are not
exclusive values of an isolated and pre-social individual (a real Robinson
Crusoe, or, according to Hobbes, men who just come out of earth by
Rational Choice Theory and Economic Laws 203

spontaneous generation and suddenly, like mushrooms, reach their

maturity). Instead, values imply others and diverse forms of life in
common within society.
To conclude, the contribution here has been an effort not only to
expand the explanation of deviations of normative rational choice theory
but to contribute to the questioning of normative rational choice theory
on which economic laws are based and to reinforce the call for an effort
to give major empirical content to the rational choice. And this is carried
out by acknowledging how some factors, coming from the social and
cultural environment, operate on the rational choices of cognitively
limited individuals who follow heuristic rules and who are subjected to
framing effects in their choices. In other words, how psychological and
social factors come together in rational choice. Hence, we believe that
the proposal put forth here provides a fundamental research guideline for
the descriptive program of rational choice. Further in-depth study
promises potentially crucial insights given the horizon of the descriptive
program in which some economics issues are seen in a quite new and
different manner.

University of La Laguna
Faculty of Philosophy
Campus de Guajara, s/n
38206 La Laguna


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Brigitte Falkenburg


ABSTRACT. Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” and its analogue
in classical physics are investigated in detail. Smith’s analogue was the
mechanics of the solar system. What makes the analogy fail are not the
idealisations in the caricature-like model of the rational economic man. The
main problem rather is that the metaphor does not employ the correct analogue,
which belongs to thermodynamics and statistics. In the simplest macro-economic
model, the business cycle has the same formal structure as the heat flow between
two heat reservoirs and a business cycle of growing efficiency works like a
refrigerator: it pumps money from the poor to the rich. More complicated models
do not give a friendlier image. Due to technological push, an economic system
behaves like a thermodynamic system far from the equilibrium, showing chaotic
behaviour and developing into unpredictable states .

Up to the present day, defenders of absolutely deregulated markets

employ Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand.” Here, the
metaphor and its analogue in classical physics are investigated in detail.
The original analogue of Smith’s was the dynamical link between the
bodies of celestial mechanics and their order in the solar system.
However, what makes the analogy fail are not the idealisations in the
caricature-like model of the rational economic man. Today it is known
that the metaphor just does not employ the correct analogue, which
belongs to thermodynamics and statistics rather than to the mechanics of
a many-body system of a small number of bodies. In the simplest macro-
economic model which spells out the analogy, the economic cycle has the
same formal structure as the heat flow between two heat reservoirs. In
this model, a business cycle of optimal efficiency works like a
refrigerator: it pumps money from the poor to the rich. More complicated
models do not give a friendlier image. In particular, due to technological

Translated from German by Vanessa Cirkel.

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 207-224. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
208 Brigitte Falkenburg

push an economic system behaves like a thermodynamic system far from

the equilibrium, showing chaotic behaviour and developing into
unpredictable states.

1. Rationality from an Invisible Hand?

Following Adam Smith’s often evoked metaphor of the invisible hand

markets evolve as if God was guiding them to the better, i.e., to a
desirable equilibrium of supply and demand, if only all producers and
consumers were eager to serve their own purposes. The metaphor of the
invisible hand is up to these days linked to the idea that selfish economic
action, which is solely orientated on personal advantages, finally will, as
if following a law of nature, add to the well-being of all individuals of a
society. This idea is actually based upon a deep-rooting analogy between
classical economics and classical physics. Already Adam Smith had this
analogy in mind, but like many defenders of the free market today, he did
neither have insight into its formal import nor into the conditions under
which it does hold.
In Smith’s work there is no systematic discussion of the analogy. The
metaphor of the invisible hand just shows up in a few scattered passages
and stands in a number of quite different contexts. Those passages that
are often referred to even today are to be found in the moral philosophy
as well as in the economic theory. There, Smith gives incisive examples
of how individual economic action of human beings leads to a form of
welfare which affects all society, without the individual actors intending
to do so. So, according to Smith, the rich enhance the produce of the soil
to such a degree, that finally the poor profit from the enhancement as
The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly by that number of
inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from
the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more
than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity,
though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which
they propose form the labours of all thousands whom they employ, be the
gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the
poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible
hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, had
the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and
thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the
society, and afford means to the multiplications of the species. (Smith
1761, pp. 184-185)
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 209

The context of this passage from the Theory of Moral Sentiments is

not the relation between morality and economy, but a chapter on the
human love of beauty and system. The chapter deals with the usefulness
of the strive for beauty, of the need of harmony and of organising
principles for the general well-being. Close to some illustrative material
from the field of architecture and the aforementioned example of
economy Smith points out, that aestheticism and orderliness advance,
among other things, the foundation of social institutions:
The same principle, the same love of system, the same regard to the
beauty of order, of art and contrivance, frequently serves to recommend
those institutions which tend to promote the public welfare. (Smith 1761,
p. 185)
Behind the metaphor of the invisible hand there seems to be the
following basic idea: The selfish struggle for luxuries is not so much due
to the account of vicious inclinations like avarice as rather on behalf of
the human strive for beauty. This is the reason why egoistic economic
actions should finally have a positive effect on all society. The human
aestheticism ensures that selfishness serves social welfare. To put it
differently: between self-centred economic ambition and social welfare
there is some kind of pre-established harmony; because the selfish
striving of the individual is subject to the same principles of harmony and
order as society in general.
Something like a doctrine of virtue, asking people to restrict their
selfish needs according to a moral principle of frugality, becomes
unnecessary from this point of view. The needs of human beings are
rather structured in such a way that their economic actions serve an aim
not intentionally pursued, the increase of public welfare. But the self-
interest of men is not unlimited. Because, for Adam Smith public welfare
also contains the legal order, which functions as a framework condition
for the fulfilment of people’s needs. Quite contrary to what is often
purported, his metaphor of the invisible hand does not imply the
development of totally deregulated markets towards an equilibrium but
rather market development under legal conditions.2 The pre-established
harmony of individual needs and public welfare does therefore not only
include the development of the market towards an equilibrium, but also

Mestmäcker (1978, p. 160) shows this under the nice title “Die sichtbare Hand des
Rechts” (“The Visible Hand of Law”); Mestmäcker (1978, p. 164): “Die Vereinbarkeit des
egoistischen Handelns mit dem öffentlichen Interesse wird nicht dadurch gesichert, daß
der einzelne vorgibt, im öffentlichen Interesse zu handeln, sondern dadurch, daß er sein
Eigeninteresse in den Grenzen des Rechts verfolgt.”
210 Brigitte Falkenburg

the system of laws which constrains the dynamics of the market.

Concerning the topic of investment in the domestic economy, Smith put
this teleological thought in The Wealth of Nations the following way:
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to
employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct
that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every
individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society
as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the
publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. [. . .] and he is
in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end
which was no part of his intention. [. . .] By pursuing his own interest he
frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he
really want to promote it. (Smith 1776, p. 456) 3
Is the invisible hand, which is supposed to be at work here, supposed
to be the hand of God? Or is Smith just using a metaphor, indicating that
from his point of view there are law-like relations between the motives of
the individual’s actions and their collective effect? Both readings are
arguable. Due to the theological overtone that accompanies the modern
concept of law in physics, one might even understand them as belonging
together. Galileo, Kepler, and Newton wanted to decipher the
mathematical laws which are written in the book of nature. To them, this
book was the work of God and the laws of nature the mathematical
expression of the divine order. Smith on the other hand was interested in
the law-like connections of natural things as much as he was interested in
the socio-economic organising principles and the laws of human society.
In the essay about the history of astronomy he shows the historical
development which led to the formulation to the laws of celestial
mechanics by Kepler and Newton.
And there he makes use of the metaphor of the invisible hand once
more. This time it appears in the following context. Smith emphasises the
deep contrast between modern astronomy and physics on the one hand
and ancient natural philosophy on the other. He stresses this contrast
especially regarding the understanding of the laws of nature. Ancient
natural philosophy invoked the moods of quite a number of different gods
to explain irregular natural phenomena and wonders. However, it did not
employ the invisible hand of Jupiter, but rather the essence of the things
themselves in order to explain the law-like occurrence of natural

Here, Smith attributes to the protagonists particular selfish motives which in the age of
globalisation do no longer work like this. Today, the flight of capital in the form of
foreign accounts and shares is possible due to missing international laws.
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 211

phenomena, for example the well-known facts about fire, water, and
Fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and lighter
substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the
invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those
matters. (Smith 1795, p. 49)
From a modern point of view all natural phenomena are in contrast
dynamically related by immaterial links respectively forces, what Smith
calls an invisible chain. Modern physics (that Newton had still called
natural philosophy) is concerned with recognising the principles of order
and coherence in nature, which link all individual, seemingly chaotic
natural things:
Philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature. Nature,
after the largest experience that common observation can acquire, seems
to abound with events which appear solitary and incoherent with all that
go before them [ . . . ] Philosophy, by representing the invisible chain
which binds together all these disjointed objects, endeavours to introduce
order into this chaos of jarring and discordant appearances [. . .]. (Smith
1795, pp. 45-46)
Smith is full of admiration for Newton’s system of general gravitation
which makes this invisible chain between the natural phenomena visible
with so far unknown perfection (Smith 1795, pp. 104-105). The
expression invisible chain is something like a secularised (or rather
naturalised) version of the metaphor of the invisible hand. The emphasis
is now only on the physical effect, but no more on divine action. Yet the
religious background is still present, when Smith marks off modern
understanding of nature from ancient natural philosophy. There, in the
polytheistic framework the action of one unique invisible hand is not
assumed in order to explain regular, consistent natural phenomena.
Against that background the metaphor of the invisible chain (which
links all natural phenomena) does not express anything fundamentally
different from the metaphor of the invisible hand (which presides over
economy). Both metaphors are typical of the rationalist thinking of the
17th and 18th century. Rationalism established close connections
between the laws of nature and the actions of God within the world.
Smith regards the organising principles of socio-economic systems and
the laws of physics as analogous. And this means that he sees powers and
laws at work in nature as well as in human society. From his point of
view, in both cases these organising powers are responsible for the
organisation of the individuals’ behaviour to a stable system, or rather:
212 Brigitte Falkenburg

they make that the individual behaviour of the system’s elements

generate a well-controlled system as a whole. Like the celestial bodies
form Newton’s general system of gravitation and thus create the solar
system, so do the single actors in a socio-economic system by creating
collective order through individual strive for beauty and harmony.
Because the individuals are provided with aestheticism and orderliness
and act under the constraints of a system of laws, they increase the public
welfare with their selfish actions.
Here, Smith anticipates a formal analogy between the behaviour of
physical and socio-economic systems, which nowadays can be spelled
out in mathematical terms; even though not in the way he may have
expected! From his point of view, the physical universe and the human
society are comparable the following way: Like the single celestial
bodies due to their masses form the overall system of gravitation, so the
human needs fit in a system of economic action. Thereby the order of the
planetary motions in the solar system equals a well-regulated socio-
economic system which develops in favour of the social welfare. In order
to make this analogy plausible, Smith attributes men in his Theory of
Moral Sentiments with a need for beauty, harmony and order. In contrast
thereto the image of man in the neo-classical economics does no longer
include any moral properties or principles. However, the conditions
under which the analogy between physical and economic systems holds
are neither made explicit in the work of Adam Smith nor in neo-classical
economics. With them, the validity of the metaphor of an invisible hand
which brings order into the system remains unquestioned.

2. Physics and Economics: The Correct Analogue

Neo-classical economic theory links the levels of the individual actors

and economic system with the help of two central concepts. The
instrumental or purpose-oriented rationality of economic action is
expressed by an abstract model of men – the model of the rational
economic man, who is conceived as egoistically maximising his own
benefit. The expedience of the whole is in the micro-economics covered
by the concept of Pareto efficiency. An economic unit works Pareto
efficient if no individual in this unit can enhance his or her position
without worsening somebody else’s position. It is striking that both
concepts understand rationality with respect of human purposes merely in
the sense of profit maximisation. In the model of the rational economic
man the concept of a person is reduced to the abstraction of the
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 213

purposeful actor, whose actions only aim at maximising his benefit.4 For
the sake of generality this is abstracted from all other motives, including
the aestheticism and orderliness according to Smith. Of course this is an
ideal-typical model in Max Weber’s sense, resting upon idealisation. It
still has to be examined how far it can be applied to human behaviour. In
the ideal case, if the conditions of being adequate and applicable are
fulfilled, the model of the rational economic man will correspond to the
actual economic action of men, at least statistically or in the average.
Only under such general, ideal conditions the behaviour of the
rational economic man becomes thus calculable. What is calculated, i.e.,
given the form of a mathematical model, is his producer and consumer
behaviour: the number of products he may produce and sell or is willing
to buy; the money that he may invest; the prices he fixes his goods at or
he is ready to accept; and finally, the monetary benefits or economic
profits he thus is trying to maximise. With this method one may model
markets with the help of operational research. The solving of
mathematical extremum problems is particularly of interest. The producer
and consumer behaviour is defined under the assumption that everyone
may maximise his or her benefits; as a solution results in an equilibrium
state. In this model supply and demand regulate each other like according
to a law of nature. The consumers’ demand determines the supply on the
part of the producers and vice versa: an equilibrium of the market is
reached. Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand is up to the day willingly
used for pointing out the law-like development of a market towards an
equilibrium state. Nevertheless, it is all too often forgotten that Smith
himself thought only of market mechanisms set under legal conditions.
Actually, here applies a socio-economic law that has an exact formal
analogue in physics. So one is absolutely entitled to speak of market
mechanisms, as far as the model of the rational economic man is justified
by social reality. In this ideal case markets behave exactly like many-
particle states which obey classical statistical mechanics or the kinetic
theory of gases. A free market can be compared to a many-particle state,
with unbound particles; or: to an ideal gas with freely moving molecules.
The individual decisions of producers and consumer corresponds to the
inertial motions of the molecules.
A good that is produced and consumed on the market, has a (relative)
value for producers; for consumers it has an average utility; and this
matches the price they are ready to pay. In contrast to modern economics
Adam Smith still had a theory of the “absolute” value or labour value that

The model traces back to Bentham and Mill; cf. Hottinger (1999).
214 Brigitte Falkenburg

makes the “natural” price of a good (Smith 1776, p. 48). Smith’s

“natural” price, to which in modern economics corresponds the average
utility or relative value of a good, is analogous to the average kinetic
energy of the gas molecules or to the temperature of the gas. The market
price then fluctuates around the relative value which is averaged over all
consumers and producers or the “natural” price. This is comparable to the
fluctuation of the molecules’ energy around the mean value. Each of both
variables, the average market price or the average energy of the
molecules, then formally acts as a parameter of an optimisation problem.
In economics the utility function is maximised, in kinetic gas theory it is
the probability of the molecule velocity (respectively the entropy). If
there is an equilibrium between supply and demand, the economic utility
function becomes optimal. Analogously, in the thermal equilibrium the
molecules of an ideal gas are distributed according to the Maxwell-
Thus markets tend to the same kind of equilibrium of supply and
demand like an ideal gas tends to the thermal equilibrium of the
molecules. Both dynamics follow the same formal law. This dynamics
actually fits the understanding of the metaphor of the invisible hand
outlined above: If all producers and consumers indeed are only
particularly concerned about their own profits, all markets develop for
the better, namely to an equilibrium state where the benefits for all
consumers and producers are maximised. The equilibrium state is Pareto
efficient, i.e. no one can achieve a better position without manoeuvring
someone else into a worse position. To what extent this equilibrium state
realises social justice, however, is a different question.
From this kind of economic modelling thus results a concept of
economics which is exactly modelled after the ideas of classical physics.
The analogies between economic and physical modelling have indeed far-
reaching consequences. Beginning with the abstract description of an
ideal individual whose actual individual properties, however, are

The optimisation problem consists in maximising the Lagrange function of a system
under a side condition whose components are independent of each other except for the
side condition. In the kinetic gas theory the temperature functions as a Lagrange
parameter, in the theory of the market the (natural) price. In the case of the ideal gas, the
side condition is that the total energy of all molecules is conserved. The analogous
conserved quantity at the market may be considered to be the altogether available money
supply, as far as one abstracts from flight of capital, stock exchange stock, inflation etc.
So the analogy has to be taken with caution. It is spelled out in Mimkes (1999) in many
details; to what extent it holds, however, is not discussed there. For several competing
markets, the economic correlate of the temperature is the mean income of a society, i.e.,
the standard of living. See also Mimkes (2000).
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 215

neglected by the model itself: here it is the mass point of classical

mechanics; there it is the rational economic man. In both cases the
behaviour of the ideal individual is basically seen as calculable and
statistical laws predict what kind of collective state will most likely
occur, due to the actions of the individuals.
Physics: The single mass point moves along a trajectory according to
the law of force, thus corresponding to the principle of least action. In an
ideal gas the trajectories describe the inertial motions of the molecules.
The molecules interact through collisions. In a collision they exchange
kinetic energy. If the motions of the particles initially are non-correlated,
in course of time they assimilate to the statistical average and the whole
system develops towards thermodynamic equilibrium. This corresponds
to the state of maximum entropy.
Economics: Rational economic man acts according to the principle of
profit maximisation. Producers and consumers produce and consume
independently. Only during the process of purchase they get into contact.
There, money is exchanged and the market tends to an equilibrium of
supply and demand. Interactions just take place via the market
mechanism, where supply and demand mutually balance. As a result a
Pareto efficient equilibrium state is reached, with optimum utility for all
market participants.
Additionally, the analytic-synthetic view upon natural processes can
also be found in the modelling of economics. This view is characteristic
for modern physics. It assumes, e.g., the decomposability of forces in
single components. It is assumed that such components can be measured
separately and that summed up they explain the motion of a mechanical
body. Similarly, the dynamic properties of a composite many-body
system as a whole are assumed to sum up from the dynamic properties of
its parts. In case of economics, the whole is the market. It is modelled as
a composite system, its structure, here: its equilibrium state, being
explained by the sum of the economic decisions made by all the
individuals. Moreover, economics make use of ideal-typical explanations
for certain economic situations; after analysing the structure of a concrete
economic system they have to be combined in order to finally apply them
to the whole system (Eucken 1950, p. 162).
Up to this point, the analogy between statistical physics and neo-
classical economics seems exactly to be teaching what economic
liberalism has been claiming for a long time, referring to the metaphor of
the invisible hand: Compared to all economic systems, the untamed free-
market economy works best. On the long run non-regulated markets
enhance the welfare of all participants.
216 Brigitte Falkenburg

Unfortunately this is not the whole truth. The question of whether and
how the market mechanism works in each particular case has to be solved
out considering the particular market conditions prevailing at that
moment. Here the conditions of adequacy concerning economic theory
formation come into play. Which idealised assumptions have been made
and to what extent are they justified in the specific case? Or: under which
non-negligible boundary conditions do supply and demand balance?
According to Adam Smith, the legal order under which the market
mechanism works has to be taken into account. Absolutely deregulated
markets with uncontrolled growth strictly speaking do not exist according
to the author of the metaphor of the invisible hand.6 Besides: what kind
of equilibrium state is expected to be reached by such uncontrolled

3. Society Atomised

Neo-classical economics is based on an atomistic model of society.

Everyone acts selfishly and thinks only of maximising his or her profits.
The basic idea about the rational economic man is: He does not consider
others when acting; no social bonds are taken into account. All
peculiarities in the behaviour of single individuals are as well neglected
as altruistic acting in favour of others which establishes relations
between the individuals. As one does with molecules in the kinetic gas
theory, one abstracts from the actual properties of the individuals as well
as from their dynamic interactions or binding forces. The correct analogy
between economics and statistical physics holds for an atomic society
without any social bonds. In this society the market mechanisms function
as an analogue to the laws which hold for an ideal gas in thermodynamics
and statistical physics.
To what extent is this ideal socio-economic model justified? How is it
related to socio-economic reality? On first sight it appears as if it was
way afar from social reality; therefore it was already criticised in the
philosophy of science for being a caricature due to its invalid
abstractions; Morgan (1997). Concerning the validity of the model,
however, one has to divide the individual from the collective level.
Certainly, the rational economic man is in many respects just a blurred
image of the single actor in an economic system. But when taking into
account the statistical aspects of modelling it becomes evident that the

Cf. my above remarks and Mestmäcker (1978, p. 164).
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 217

neo-classical model describes the socio-economic reality of free market

economy under capitalistic conditions just all too realistic. The atomic
society is, from an economic point of view, the reality we do live in. Its
market mechanisms function merciless, whether we do approve them or
not. That is why for a good reason moderate economic liberals stand in
for a social market economy, in which the market develops in the
framework of a social and legal order. From a formal point of view, in a
social market economy the laws of the market function under the
boundary conditions put by of a system of laws.
At the level of individuals the economic modelling is clearly
inadequate. For example, it neglects all irrational ways of behaviour of
the actors. Though there are impressive examples of purpose-oriented
rational actions in every day life in the sense of the economic image of
man,7 strictly spoken no one in reality acts like the rational economic
man. The simple model deviates in many aspects from economic reality.
The actual economic behaviour of producers and consumers might be
very complicated depending on the very case. Human beings quite often
act irrationally in such a way that they violate the economists’ axioms.
They are not consistent in their preferences, i.e., their tendencies to
prefer certain goods at a given price do not necessarily form a coherent
whole. Men often act even inevitably irrationally. They have to make
their decisions while their knowledge is limited and they are fully aware
of that fact. 8 An excellent example for this is the investment behaviour
when being faced with the stock price which can rather never be based on
sufficient knowledge of the market. Moreover the basic concept of
rationality is one-sided. Human beings do not only tend to selfish but
also to altruistic behaviour and they have good reasons to do so. All this
is based on emotions like empathy and our moral ideas. Those who
follow altruistic principles in their actions do not maximise their own,
but somebody else’s benefit.
From a statistical point of view, such deviations of the real producer
and consumer behaviour from the rational utility maximisation of
economic modelling do not play a decisive role. The individual ways of
behaviour are neglected, in the legitimate expectation that they have no
or just a small effect at the collective level. It is assumed that the
individual peculiarities of the actors only have a negligible effect on the
economic conditions under which the equilibrium of the market is

This conception can be seen in Friedman (1996).
In economics one tried to take this into account by theories of bounded rationality; cf.
Simon (1992).
218 Brigitte Falkenburg

reached. Modelling is based on the idea that individual deviations from

the intentional rational behaviour mutually annihilate in the statistic
average. But this assumption does clearly not hold for two rather
common cases:
(1) if individuals follow trends, i.e., if their individual deviations
from the rational consumer behaviour all tend into the same direction;
(2) if reflexivity is involved, i.e., if the development of a market is
influenced by the theoretical prognoses of this very development, like it
happens especially in the case of financial markets (Soros 1998).
In both cases the simple model drawn here obviously fails. Trends
shift the equilibrium state, reflexivity causes fluctuations. Adequate
modelling becomes more complicated in these cases. That it is still not
impossible though, is shown by the new physics of socio-economic
systems, having some impressive successful explanations in store, e.g.,
concerning the variations of the stock price. However, there are no useful
quantitative predictions.9
This becomes fatally clear at the statistical level: the correct physical
analogue to the market mechanism is not, like Adam Smith assumed, the
mechanics of a manageable and stable system of a few celestial bodies,
but rather described in terms of classical thermodynamics and statistics.
Today we know that according to the mechanics of a many particle state
even the stable orbits of the celestial bodies of the solar system rather are
the exception from the rule. The behaviour of complex systems is
generally chaotic. Just under very special boundary conditions they
develop stable states. The correct analogue to the functioning of the
market mechanism is the dynamics of a thermodynamic system beyond
the equilibrium. Whether the market mechanism leads to socio-economic
conditions which, on the long run, add to the well-being of all
participants, is, according to the analogy between physics and economics,
not at all self-evident. The dynamic development of the market towards a
stable, Pareto-efficient equilibrium cannot be guaranteed at all, as soon
as a number of markets are considered that compete under different
socio-economic conditions. The same holds for the development of the
markets in the case of a gain in productivity, due to technological push.
And it is rather not the case that those idealisations are responsible
which go into the model of the rational economic man. More treacherous
are the transitions from the so far modelled micro-economics to the

In principle, known deviations from the behaviour of the rational economic man, just
like the legal frame of the markets, can be taken into account by maximising the utility
function under side conditions.
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 219

macro-economics. They have to take into account several additional

factors, especially concerning trade, unemployment and inflation. In the
best case a system of markets develops in analogy to a reversible
thermodynamic process close to the thermodynamic equilibrium. But if
technological innovations come into play, the correct physical analogue
to the circular flow of the economy is the behaviour of a complex system
far-off from equilibrium. According to all we know from non-equilibrium
thermodynamics, it is mere luck whether such a system behaves totally
chaotic or whether it tends towards a stable state; and if so to which one.
Already when leaving technological innovations aside, the analogy
between physics and economics leads to quite embarrassing insights. The
analogy between an ideal gas and a society of the selfish, who maximise
their own profits, makes it possible to bridge the gap between the models
of micro- and macro-economics. Due to the laws of combinatorics it
follows that social justice in the atomised society is as improbable as a
uniform distribution of the kinetic energy of the molecules. Even if the
households’ incomes scatter around a mean value (Poisson distribution),
the most probable distribution of wealth will form a capitalist model,
with few owning much and many owning few (Boltzmann distribution).10
Additionally the business cycle may be considered regarding the
interaction of two markets which belong to social systems with a
different standard of living. The thermodynamic analogue of this case is
the heat exchange between two heat reservoirs of different temperature.
The business cycle is in this case the exact formal analogue of the Carnot
cycle of thermodynamics. This simple model teaches us that the
efficiency of the business cycle increases right then when the profit is
gained in a one-sided way, i.e., if more profit is gained on the rich
market.11 This leads naturally to an ever increasing inequality instead of

Mimkes (2000, section 4), Mimkes (1999, pp. 43). Both distributions do well agree with
the German data (from the years before the reunification) which shows Mimkes. In the
statistical model, a uniform distribution only results from the capital when nobody has
Mimkes (1999, pp. 78); Mimkes (2000, section 4). The quasi-thermodynamic model
forecasts four possible mode of actions of the market mechanism: A. Colonialism: The
profit is distributed in the richer society whose standard of living grows at the expense of
the poorer society; the efficiency of the economic cycle increases. B. Booming economy:
If the economy profit flows back to the poorer society, the living standards tend towards
being equal; the efficiency of the economic cycle decreases. C. Fair deal: The trading
partners share the profit, doing justice to each other; the economic cycle proceeds with
constant efficiency and the standard of living grows in both societies. D. Two class world:
The colonialist market mechanism works in the domestic market; an originally
homogeneous society splits up into the poor and the rich.
220 Brigitte Falkenburg

an oscillation around a socio-economic equilibrium. This happens

especially in the trade of two markets evaluating human labour
differently; like in the case of production by international companies in a
low wages country, when the products are sold on the expensive market
of another country, without the profits flowing back to the low wages
market. Here the economic cyclic functions as a heat pump, pumping the
heat from a colder into a warmer reservoir, i.e., like a refrigerator: it
produces capital by pumping the profits from a poorer into a wealthier
area. This means, however, that it works like a refrigerator.
The production in countries with low wages, like it is typical for the
current process of globalisation, does not follow the simple model of the
free market at all. It is far from establishing a desirable socio-economic
equilibrium like established from God’s invisible hand. In
contradistinction to what Smith had supposed, the poor do not profit
sufficiently from the striving for luxuries of the rich. The markets of the
globalised world do not make up a system of needs which are in pre-
established harmony.
Instead the simplest socio-economic model predicts, if spelled out
correctly in analogy to thermodynamics: A business cycle with a growing
efficiency, thus gaining ever higher profits, always makes the poor even
poorer and the rich even richer, exactly like the opponents of
globalisation argue. Smith may have objected in favour of his metaphor
that these conditions of globalisation depend on the lack of legal
framework conditions. There is no international system of laws which
might prevent the consequences predicted in the simple refrigerator
model. In the atomic society, however, due to the missing social bonds
those who make the profits do not care about all this. But if the business
cycle is regulated by political and legal constraints, its efficiency will be
constrained as well; exactly like the advocates of an unrestricted market
economy argue. Evidently, there is not much cause in the thermodynamic
analogy to trust in the blessings of the market mechanisms.
If technological innovations are added, the resulting image is not
much friendlier. Technological push enhances the productivity. This
makes labour cheaper and destroys jobs on the respective sector of
production without creating new ones to the same degree. Neo-classical
economics reacted thereto with the theory of Kondratieff cycles,
predicting long-term variations of the economic situation due to
technological innovation, lasting for decades. 12 The economic theory

Schumpeter (1939). For recent considerations of the economic theory of technological
push cf., e.g., Hall (1994).
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 221

predicts long-term variations around the economic equilibrium states; and

that these variations appear again and again, combined with periodic
growth (here an analogy to the biological concept of dynamic equilibrium
seems likely). Also the relapse into recession that might appear now and
again can be taken into account in the quasi-thermodynamic model;
Mimkes (1999, p. 80). The thermodynamic analogue then teaches us that
rationalisation through innovation increases the efficiency of the business
cycle, while political measures to increase the employment rate decrease
it in turn. The theory of the Kondratieff cycles matches the empirical fact
that thus society re-organises itself totally every few decades. But how
may that be any help for the unemployed of today, already being to old or
ill educated for nowadays’ innovations, if in about 30 to 40 a great
number of fundamentally new jobs will develop, while then their children
will be unemployed?

4. What Do We Know?

One may reproach the refrigerator model of the global, deregulated

business cycle for simplifying in an undue way. That is in fact the case.
Two objections can be immediately made. Both are linked to the
idealisations of the model. On the one hand the interactions between
more than two markets soon become unmanageable. Generally they make
sure that that the profits that have been gained flow back into markets, at
least partially, at whose costs they have been made. If the low wages
employees do not profit sufficiently from that, this is often caused by
lacking social equality inland the very country; and this is a political
problem. On the other hand the analogy to thermodynamics close to
equilibrium (like thermodynamics itself) holds only for closed systems.
But most certainly global economy is no closed system. On the
international financial market assets emerge from nothing and elapse into
nothing. Additionally there are territorial, social, and political side
conditions, making globalisation and mechanisation have very different
effects in different regions. And we do know much more about the
dynamics of complex physical systems than we know about the economic
cycle in the globalised world – thus making the analogy very misleading.
But does this not hold especially true for the analogy that is behind
the metaphor of the invisible hand? And is it not admissible to replace
one concise image of the internal dynamics of economic development,
based on a misunderstood physical analogue, by another concise image
that at least brings this analogy to bear correctly.
222 Brigitte Falkenburg

However: The analogy between physics and economics does not argue
for a doctrine of bare economic liberalism – rather on the contrary. The
analogy holds for the ideal model of an atomised society without any
social bonds or legal restrictions. In this model individuals act absolutely
free, in the sense of freedom being not much more than mere
arbitrariness. Their individual decisions are determined through arbitrary
needs and are not justified by social norm nor ruled by legal order. The
fulfilment of their needs is only limited by economic necessities. Their
individual behaviour is uncorrelated. Individual decisions are subject to
statistical laws and show only coincidental deviations from the mean
But at the same time one has to be aware of the following fact.
Unfortunately, human needs are not of that kind that socio-economic
equilibrium is reached automatically, if all individuals pursue their own
benefits. Rather our consumer behaviour takes on a life of its own due to
the plasticity of human nature. In atomised society our needs tend
towards unlimited growth. Those who are on top of the income- and
property-scale may follow these tendencies undisturbed; those who are at
the bottom of the scale have to restrict themselves. Yet, not only the
simple thermodynamic analogy, but also the experience of the last
decades, teaches us that in a globalised world the gap between the rich
and the poor diverges increasingly in many places.13
Economists dislike being confronted with such embarrassing truths.
Though macro-economics is also based on cyclic models which are
modelled according to examples from physics. However, the original idea
of an economic cycle is not based on the aforementioned analogies to
19th and 20th century physics.14 It still derives from the ideas of
Renaissance to understand nature as an organic whole.15 The cyclic
models of modern macro-economics therefore link an early modern,
organic idea with the mechanical analogies from classical physics. The

For an opposite opinion cf. Norberg (2003). The book primarily cites India and Asia.
Norberg’s main thesis is that the globalisation is not due to poverty and mismanagement
but to the hindrance to the global free market economy by over-regulation and
bureaucratisation. His remarkable plea for liberalism demonstrates the limitations of the
thermodynamic analogy discussed here.
The first economic work which takes the analogy to thermodynamics into account is
Georgescu-Roegen (1971); it treats the embedding of the circular flow of the economy
into the ecosystem. Daly (1996) discusses this revolutionary work and its to this day far
too low reception in standard economics. Mirowski (1988; 1989) presents a related
philosophical account.
Cf. the discussion of baroque mercantilism, as represented in the work of Johann
Joachim Becher, in Falkenburg (2004).
The Invisible Hand: What Do We Know? 223

basic idea is in both cases similar to Adam Smith’s metaphor of the

invisible hand: the state of equilibrium in economy is natural; any
deviations tend to go back to equilibrium. Above it has been pointed out
that already Adam Smith did not believe that this was all happening
outside some legal framework; and moreover, that this idea is not
justified for the ideal of nature in general. Like the modern theory of self-
organisation teaches us, is the tending of a complex system towards
equilibrium rather the exception from the rule. This holds especially true
for the equilibrium between economy and nature, if the effects of the
former on the later cannot be neglected any longer. The idea of an
organic circular flow between man and nature, or: the economy and the
environment, is only taken up again in modern ecology and in ecological
economics. Here, the requirement of looking at economics in a different
way is discussed, namely to consider the economic system no longer to
be isolated but to be a partial system of the ecosystem.
At this point of my considerations, not only the confidence in the
market mechanisms which allegedly tend to an equilibrium state on
deregulated markets led by an invisible hand should be shaken. In
addition it finally should have become clear what stands behind this
confidence. It is the early modern age idea of a natural circular flow
which will always make the results of our collective economic and
technical behaviour turn out in the positive.16 For centuries, the faith in
the beneficial effects of technological progress has come hand in hand
with the confidence that the economic development always serves the
public welfare. Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand is grounded
in this faith. However, in view of the relations between technology and
economy today such a blind faith means to hide one’s head in the sand.

University of Dortmund
Institut für Philosophie (FB 14)
Emil-Figge-Straße 50
44227 Dortmund, Germany

Becher (1689) carried this idea from natural philosophy into economics, even though he
already emphasised the ambiguities of technology between progress and failure in Becher
(1686). Cf. Falkenburg (2004).
224 Brigitte Falkenburg


Becher, J.J. (1686). Närrische Weißheit Und Weise Narrheit. Frankfurt: Zubrodt.
Becher, J.J. (1688). Politischer Discurs. Frankfurt: Zunner.
Daly, H.E. (1996). Beyond Growth. The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston,
MA: Beacon Press.
Eucken, W. (1950). Die Grundlagen der Nationalökonomie. Berlin: Springer.
Falkenburg, B. (2004). Wem dient die Technik? In: J.J. Becher-Stiftung Speyer (ed.),
Johann Joachim Becher Preis 2002: Die Technik – Dienerin der gesellschaftlichen
Entwicklung?, pp. 5-172. Baden-Baden: Nomos.
Friedman, D. (1996). Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life. New York:
HarperBusiness U.S.
Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1971). The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
Hall, P. (1994). Innovation, Economics, and Evolution. Theoretical Perspectives on
Changing Technology in Economic Systems. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Hottinger, O. (1999). Die Grundlagen der ökonomischen Nutzentheorie und deshomo
oeconomicus: die Beiträge von J. Bentham und J.St. Mill. In: M. Faber (ed.),
Horizonte ökonomischen Denkens. DIALEKTIK 1999/3, pp. 63-82. Hamburg: Meiner.
Mestmäcker, E.-J. (1978). Die sichtbare Hand des Rechts. Baden-Baden: Nomos.
Mimkes, J. (1999). Script zu Politik und Thermodynamik. http://fb6www.un-
Mimkes, J. (2000). Society as a Many Particle System. Journal of Thermal Analysis and
Calorimetry 60 (3), 1055-1069.
Mirowski, P. (1988). Against Mechanism. Totawa: Rowman and Littlefield.
Mirowski, P. (1989). More Heat Than Light. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morgan, M. (1997). The Character of “Rational Economic Man.” In: B. Falkenburg and
S. Hauser (eds.), Modelldenken in den Wissenschaften. DIALEKTIK 1997/1,
pp. 77-94. Hamburg: Meiner.
Norberg, J. (2003). Das kapitalistische Manifest. Warum allein die globalisierte
Marktwirtschaft den Wohlstand der Menschheit sichert. Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn.
Schumpeter, J.A. (1939). Business Cycles. A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical
Analysis of the Capitalist Process, 2 vols. New York and London: Porcupine Press.
Simon, H.A. (1992). Economics, Bounded Rationality, and the Cognitive Revolution.
Aldershot: Elgar.
Smith, A. ([1761] 1976). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Glasgow Edition of the
Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Smith, A. ([1776] 1980). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. II.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Smith, A. ([1795] 1980). Essays on Philosophical Subjects. The Glasgow Edition of the
Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. III. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Soros, G. (1998). The Crisis of Global Capitalism. Open Society Endangered. New York:
Public Affairs.
Peter Kemp


ABSTRACT. Sociology was born as an attempt to delimit an object of

investigation offered by society as a social reality. The ambition was that of
“treating the social facts as things” (Durkheim) or of understanding and
explaining the social relations by respecting an “axiological neutrality” (Max
Weber). Today, however, we are in the presence of a new kind of sociologists,
and they are by no means the less popular ones, who are not trying to avoid
assessments in their analysis of the present social world. I have in mind
especially two sociologists, Ulrich Beck (Munich) and David Held (London). I
will discuss in particular the view of sociology presented in a recent book of
Ulrich Beck (Macht und Gegenmacht im globalen Zeitalter, 2002, translated into
French under the title Pouvoir et contre-pouvoir à l’ère de la mondialisation,
2003), and I will show some analogies between Beck and Held. Finally, I will try
to identify the points that make the present sociological epistemology different
from that of the great founders of this science.

1. The Question

Today two sociologists, Ulrich Beck (Munich) and David Held (London),
are becoming fervent advocates of a cosmopolitanism opposed to
nationalism, liberalism, Marxism, etc. They support their conviction by
analyzing the social life conditions in the 21st century. We are led to ask
the question: have they dismissed the scientific ideal of “axiological
neutrality” (Max Weber), or the ambition of “treating social facts as
things” (Emile Durkheim)? Moreover, if this is true, can we still be sure
that their works are scientific? Through these questions, I try to single
out the issue of sociological epistemology as it presents itself nowadays:
what is a sociological knowledge in our days? Can we achieve and
communicate a social and political knowledge today in spite of taking up

In: E. Agazzi, J. Echeverría, and A. Gómez (eds.), Epistemology and the Social (Pozna Studies in
the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 96), pp. 225-231. Amsterdam/New York,
NY: Rodopi, 2008.
226 Peter Kemp

a definite position in the ethical, legal and especially political


2. Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) insisted on the fact that sociology has its
own object of research, that is, the collective consciousness that, even
though it does not exist without the individual consciousnesses,
constitutes a sui generis reality with specific characteristics that cannot
be reduced to psychological features. The behaviour of a group cannot be
explained by assembling the individual acts of the single persons, but it
follows its own rules. Society, Durkheim says in the book Moral
Education (1902-1903), “is a psychic being that has its own way of
thinking, of feeling nd of acting, different from that which is proper of
the individuals that compose it” (Durkheim 1963, p. 56). This is the
reality he tries to treat like things, in the search of testable information
that assure it scientific objectivity.
Nevertheless Durkheim also pays attention to a specialization and a
division of the social tasks that entail a growing individualism that is a
threat for the collective consciousness, and consequently people forget
the main condition of their social life. Therefore, the individual believes
that he can act alone or almost alone, and sets himself against the society
of which he is a member, by declaring that he is unique. According to
Durkheim, from this phenomenon derive society’s anomies, immorality,
and the psychic illnesses that can lead people to suicide, a topic to which
he has devoted a whole book.
The task of a sociologist, according to Durkheim’s ideal, is not only
to make a diagnosis of the social body, but also to prescribe the cure, that
is nothing but its moral education. It is necessary to remind the young
generation the importance of discipline, that is, the adaptation to the
collective consciousness upon which are founded the citizen’s duties.
What has survived him, is not the preacher and moralist Durkheim,
but his idea that a society consists of sociological facts that can be
subjected to a rigorously scientific and objective analysis. They are as
objective as the natural facts of the natural sciences.
The Cosmopolitan Vision 227

3. Max Weber

In Max Weber’s work (1864-1920), we do not find the same

contradiction as in Durkheim. On the contrary, the author of The
Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and of his magnum
opus, Economy and Society (Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 1922), the
founding work of twentieth century’s sociology, insists on the clear-cut
distinction between the social reality composed by relations among
values, on the one hand, and the sociological analysis without any value-
judgement of this relations, on the other hand. According to Weber, the
sociologist can be strictly objective in his analysis and comprehension of
the subjective values that determine the relations among people, be it at
the time of Christian Protestantism or in the post-Christian secularized
era, relations that produce many conflicts within modern society. Indeed
Weber is convinced that the sociologist has at his disposal the necessary
verification rules for establishing facts that do not depend on his
subjective opinions. Therefore, axiological neutrality (Wertfreiheit)
would be possible.
This does not prevent Weber from speaking of “science as a
vocation,” because he does not deny that science has a theoretical value,
but this is a value having a status different from the status of the practical
values that the sociologist analyses and describes. In this way, he
maintains that the idea of axiological neutrality, that is, of a knowledge
without value-judgements, concerns “the practical evaluation of social
facts, under ethical or cultural-historical or other points of view that are
practically desirable or not desirable” (Weber 1988, p. 499).
Nevertheless, in a lecture of 1909, Weber has stressed that his strict
distinction between “what it is (das Seiende)” and “what it ought to be
(das Seinsollen)” does not mean that he plays down the questions of the
ought to be. Quite the contrary, and the reason is that he does not
tolerate, as he says, that “problems of world significance and of the
highest level that can commit man’s heart be transformed in questions of
techno-economic productivity and reduced to an object of discussion
among professional disciplines” (quotation in Brun 1972, p. 36).
However, if the currently most read sociologists do not respect the
axiological neutrality in the sense of Weber anymore, how can we
understand this new sociology? This question leads us to Ulrich Beck.
228 Peter Kemp

4. Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck published in 2002 the work Macht und Gegenmacht im

globalen Zeitalter (the title of the French translations to which refer the
page numbers of our quotations sounds Pouvoir et contre-pouvoir à l’ère
de la mondialisation, 2003). This book is at the same time an analysis
regarding the end of the era of the political life of the Nation-States, of
their international relations, and a speech for the engagement in
transnational politics at the cosmopolitan era. Beck calls the last chapter
of his book “A brief funeral oration at the cradle of the cosmopolitan
era,” where the deceased who is being buried is the Nation-States system,
while the baby in the cradle is cosmopolitism.
The author dos not maintain that Nation-States do not exist anymore,
or that they do not play a role on the political world scene, but he points
out that their borders are more and more deleted because of new facts or
challenges, which exceed them and with respect to which the national
vision can not give any indication about actions to undertake because
they entail a reconsideration of the foundations of that living together of
which everyone can have direct experience.
According to Beck, these facts are especially “the climatic change, the
destruction of the environment, the risks connected with food, the
planetary financial risks, the migrations of populations, and the
anticipated consequences of nanotechnological and genetic innovations,
be they applied to nature or to humans” (Beck 2003, p. 12).
Beck also point out that the terrorist attacks of the 11th September
2001 have shown that “power is not synonymous with security” and he
explains that “in a radically divided world it twill be possible to live in
security only when everyone will be able and ready to see the world of
wild modernity through the eyes of the other, of the alien, when cultural
evolution will push everyone to put in practice this openness every day”
(Beck 2003, p. 12).
Beck estimates that, after the 11th September, it is not a dream, but
really a question of survival to insist on the necessity of “a spirit of
recognition of the other’s difference, capable to apprehend the ethnic,
national and religious traditions and to take advantage of their mutual
exchanges” (Beck 2003, p. 13). Therefore, he presents his book “as the
answer to the question of knowing how to react, on the intellectual,
moral, and political plane, to the spreading of the Right populism.” This
answer consists of an analysis of the world’s power space, which has
exceeded the categories of the “national” and “inter-national” (what is
The Cosmopolitan Vision 229

done among nations) pointing toward “perspectives for a cosmopolitan

renewal of politics and State” (ibid.).
It follows that the cosmopolitan approach associates the respect for
the dignity of people, whose culture is alien, with the survival worries of
everyone. And Beck goes up to making a real profession of faith when he
says “cosmopolitism is the next great idea that will succeed those too
much abused by History of nationalism, communism, socialism,
newliberalism, and it might happen that this idea make possible what is
improbable, that is, that it enables humankind to survive the 21st century
without sinking again into barbarity” (Beck 2003, p. 19).
Beck distinguishes two stages of Modernity, the First Modernity and
the Second Modernity (Beck 2003, pp. 20, 207-208). According to the
first, one is convinced that a scientific or technical solution will be found
for every question on which depends the future life of society, so that
“the more science and technology were put at work, the less would
discussions arise since the only best solutions would be at hand as a
realizable goal” (Beck 2003, p. 207).
In the second Modernity, however, the game has changed radically,
since “whatever we could do, we had to expect unforeseeable
consequences” (ibid.). We know, for example, that in food production
something like the epidemic of the mad cow can occur. As to
atmospheric pollution, people are afraid that the polar ices could one day
melt, so that the sea levels would grow catastrophically for low
territories, such as the Basque country, Denmark, Yucatan in Mexico,
etc. We do not know either if, or rather when, our city or our family will
be affected by transnational terrorism. Finally, economy is more
unpredictable than ever and is out of control of governments and
parliaments, because it is to a large extent in the hands of big companies
and speculators. This means that political tasks have acquired today
global dimensions and threats and risks spread beyond all borders.
As a consequence, we are called to understand ourselves as citizens of
the world and to recognize a “community of destiny” (ibid., p. 219), but
we also take part in conflicts between countries that have to do
everything in order to avoid the worst.
It is obvious that Beck’s work does not respect the axiological
neutrality that Weber wanted. Nevertheless, he holds that the aim of his
work “is principally of an empirical and analytical kind” (ibid, p. 220).
He calls it a cosmopolitan realism and opposes any idealism and
romanticism. He is a scientist because he thinks he can show through
facts that “life will sanction those who remain prisoners of the national
vision” (ibid. p. 221). But he does not deny that he is proposing a
230 Peter Kemp

normative political theory with the view of preventing not only political
science, but also political action from becoming blind.
However, at variance with the national vision that is unable to see that
the Nation-State idea and its imaginary notion of sovereignty do not
match anymore the political and social reality, the cosmopolitan vision is
realist and hopes to guide action in a sceptical and self-critical spirit.
Nowadays, the cosmopolite is neither optimist nor pessimist, but he
nurtures the ambition to be an incentive for understanding the present
world and make possible a politics in the service of humankind. So he
wants to show in what measure the State has become as relative as the
cosmopolitan State considered as dependent on the transnational political
structures and by recognizing that “world politics has become world
internal politics” (Beck 2003, p. 453).

5. Final Comments

In the book Democracy and the Global Order, published by David Held
in 1995 a remarkable analysis is made of the transformation of the State
from the role of a sovereign actor to that of an actor among many others
such as the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), the cultural and
scientific associations, and the international courts. This book also shows
that the definition of the State by its power over a territory does not hold
in an absolute way any more, since a State cannot exist today without
establishing relationships with other States, and also with other agencies,
with what happens in other territories, and with whatever has impact on
politics without reference to any territory. Furthermore, throughout his
work he advocates a democracy which goes beyond the borders of all the
Held is one of the authors that have inspired Ulrich Beck and, as in
Beck’s case; his ambition is to lead a political movement in keeping with
a cosmopolitan view.
Considering this sociologic work, the question for me is to know
whether the non-neutrality, not only theoretical but also practical, is
precisely what allows these scholars to understand things, more and
better than a sociologist, who insists in doing an analysis without
assessment and without a political aim. Is it not the partisan episteme that
wants to be at the same time empirical (looking for all the social facts
that constitute the current society life) and normative (by imagining the
best politics)? Is it not this vision that really understands the object of its
The Cosmopolitan Vision 231

In other words, can we understand what is at stake in the present

world without being cosmopolitan in our body and soul? If this is not
possible, we must conclude that Weber’s axiological neutrality was an
illusion in which it was possible to believe in sociology only in the quite
stable world of Nation-States.

Danis University of Education

Professor of Philosophy and President of FISP
Department of Philosophy of Education
Tuborgvej 164 - DK 2400 Copenhagen NV


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