Project (2017-)

Science and Theories of Knowledge until the Mid-twentieth Century

Projects within this research umbrella include attempts to understand the relation between theories of knowledge and knowledge production from a wider historical perspective, as well as zooming-in on specific case studies. To the former belongs a book project offering a comprehensive history of scientific thought (where “science” is to be understood as Wissenschaft, that is, as knowledge organized systematically, socially, and cognitively) from its Bronze Age beginnings until 1900, and in the geographical space between the Indus and the Atlantic (Jens Høyrup). A general presentation of the historical context and of the institutional framework for the culture of organized knowledge in each period is followed by extracts from original texts in English translation. The book will thus provide representative but not exhaustive coverage of the range of disciplines that constitute the scientific culture of the epoch.

Another longue durée study focuses on the notion of contingency in the history of science, including its epistemological and ontological ramifications from the Middle Ages onwards (Pietro Omodeo). In their efforts to specify mechanistic and mathematical laws governing nature, late medieval and early modern scientists addressed the apparent lack of absolute regularity among natural phenomena. Following Aristotle, scholastic philosophers understood nature in general, and the sublunary world in particular, as the domain of the “necessity secundum quid” and of “for the most part” rather than that of absolute necessity. According to this view, matter determined a lack of perfection in the natural realm. Though aiming to emancipate themselves from scholasticism, Renaissance inquirers still maintained a conception of nature in which contingency played a major role. They considered a certain degree of imperfection in natural phenomena necessary. Underlying the outlook of an entire epoch, such a principle of “insufficient reason” also affected their understanding of the investigation of nature. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the rise of mechanism, experimental practice, new instruments of observation, and measurement, as well as the growing application of mathematical heuristics to the study of nature challenged the traditional ways of understanding the predictability and unpredictability of natural phenomena. Contingency increasingly—but not exclusively—took on an epistemological rather than an ontological cast. The unpredictability or apparent irregularity of natural phenomena prompted critical reflection on the limit of the human ability to find comprehensive causal explanations—or, in other words, to reach a full understanding of the necessary causal concatenation determining each and every natural phenomenon. An edited volume titled Contingency and Natural Order in Early Modern Science will be published in 2018 in the Springer series Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science (Pietro D. Omodeo, Rodolofo Garau).

A deeper understanding of the interrelations between the history of science and theories of knowledge in the eighteenth century could be attained by an analysis of the work of the German philosopher Salomon Maimon (1753–1800). Maimon’s work circles around the notion of “fictions.” Fictions are concepts, propositions, or theories for which real reference or truth claims are explicitly denied. In this general sense, the word “fiction” captures what is today known as anti-realism. Maimon’s many examples of “fictions” reach from the continuity of geometrical lines, “imaginary numbers,” and “differentials” in mathematics, over “force” and “compound motion” and Descartes’ theory of vortices in physics, to “monads,” “God,” and “immortality” in metaphysics, or “things-in-themselves” as well as general principles in philosophy. The project elucidates the concept of “fiction” in general and then discusses Maimon’s different kinds of fictions in particular, beginning with those in which the understanding is predominant (geometry) and ending with uncontrolled fabrications of fancy like the Schwärmerei of the Kabbalah. One main finding of the project is the importance of the moral value Maimon generally ascribes to an increase in the control of the understanding (rational and autonomous) over sensibility (which is opaque to reason, passive, and a source of carnal temptations).  Considered from this perspective of the interplay between sensibility and understanding in the production of concepts, Maimon’s examples of fictions can be ordered in a progressive scale that reaches from a scientific hypothesis to irrational knowledge, from a proposition that is not yet (but eventually should) claim to be true, to arbitrary myth. The seemingly heterogeneous aggregate of different “fictions” thus becomes an ordered series governed by a clear principle (Gideon Freudenthal).