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Chapter One

The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Phenomenology, and the Problem of the External World

© Jeff Kochan, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129.01

1. Introduction

A leading contributor to the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), Harry Collins, invites us to consider the following parable.

A scientist, a philosopher, a sociologist of scientific knowledge and a science warrior are aloft in a balloon. The balloon begins to deflate. The scientist says: ‘A micro-meteorite might have punctured the envelope — do we have any sticky tape?’ The philosopher says: ‘My inductive propensities convince me that if the balloon deflates we will fall to earth — I must work out the rational basis for this belief.’ The sociologist says: ‘I wonder how they’ll reach a consensus about the cause of our deaths.’ The science warrior says: ‘Told you so — there is an external reality!’1

No prize for guessing the odd person out here. The science warrior’s non sequitur seems itself to be strangely disconnected from reality. For who among the other passengers challenged the existence of an external world? The answer is: no one. If, however, we instead ask who the science warrior believes to have challenged the existence of an external world, then we get a different answer. In this case, the culprit is the sociologist of scientific knowledge. And yet, the real peculiarity of the so-called ‘science wars,’ which erupted in the 1990s, is not so much that science warriors accused sociologists of denying the existence of an external world. We know, after all, that the first casualty in war is truth. The real peculiarity is just how many otherwise reasonable scholars imbibed this falsehood and hence felt compelled to also pick up the cudgel.

It has been common for philosophers, in particular, to think of SSK practitioners as radical sceptics who dismiss the very idea that nature has a role to play in the formation of scientific knowledge. The heat of the science wars only heightened their passion, and some of them became full-fledged warriors themselves. Philip Kitcher, for example, charged sociologists of science with a ‘global skepticism,’ because they ‘inscribe on their hearts’ the dogma that ‘no system of belief is constrained by reason or reality.’ Christopher Norris alleged that members of the ‘Edinburgh school’ in SSK ‘routinely deny […] the existence of a real-world (mind- and belief-independent) physical domain.’ John Norton claimed that SSK endorses a ‘complete scepticism’ which rejects any role for evidence in scientific research.2

Strikingly, the natural scientists among the science warriors were more circumspect in their criticism. Indeed, the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm to serve repeatedly on the front line, only characterised SSK as ‘ambiguous in its intent.’ On the one hand, SSK practitioners appear to endorse a ‘general’ or ‘radical’ scepticism. On the other hand, they claim to be pursuing a genuinely scientific research programme.3 Sokal and Bricmont argue that these two positions cannot be held together, because a general scepticism about the existence of an external world is unscientific: ‘if one wants to contribute to science, be it natural or social, one must abandon radical doubts concerning the viability of logic or the possibility of knowing the world through observation and/or experiment.’4 If SSK practitioners claim only that sociological principles must play a role in any causal explanation of scientific beliefs, regardless of whether we evaluate those beliefs as true or false, rational or irrational, then Sokal and Bricmont write that they would have ‘no particular objection.’5 However, if they furthermore insist that only social causes may enter into such an explanation, then Sokal and Bricmont say they would strenuously disagree.

Fortunately, SSK practitioners have never made anything more than the first claim, so the apparent ambiguity in their intent dissolves, and Sokal and Bricmont may thus rest content that SSK defends a theory of science to which they would, by their own admission, have no particular objection. Indeed, Barry Barnes, a co-founder of SSK’s Edinburgh School, has more recently written that SSK, ‘[c]ontrary to what at one point was widely claimed by commentators and critics indifferent to what we had set down in print, […] nowhere denies the existence of an external world.’6

Sokal and Bricmont draw a helpful distinction between ‘specific scepticism’ and ‘radical scepticism.’7 One may have, they say, legitimate doubts about a specific theory, but one should not use general sceptical arguments to support those specific doubts. For example, one may legitimately doubt a theory of evidence which explains evidential force by reference to a mind- and belief-independent world, but one should not try to support such doubt with a global scepticism about the very existence of that world. This distinction is helpful because it exposes the source of difference in the respective reactions to SSK of the scientists, Sokal and Bricmont, on the one hand, and the philosophers, on the other. SSK casts doubt not on the idea of evidence, as such, but instead on specific philosophical theories of evidence which insist that evidential force must be explained in exclusively non-naturalistic and/or non-social terms. Since Sokal and Bricmont, as natural scientists, have no vested interest in these particular philosophical theories, they can treat naturalistic and sociological explanations of evidence as unobjectionable. The philosopher warriors, in contrast, were largely trained and continue to work in a tradition deeply invested in individualistic and/or transcendental theories of evidence, and so their reaction to SSK has understandably been less relaxed. Furthermore, these philosophers have apparently had a hard time recognising the difference between their own specific theories of evidence and a general belief in the existence of an external world. Hence, they have tended to mistake a specific scepticism targeted at the former for a global scepticism also encompassing the latter.

Returning to Collins’s parable, we see that philosophers are often in the business of working out the rational basis for the acceptance of belief. Sociologists, in contrast, seek to explain consensus concerning the acceptability of belief. These two approaches are closely related, and their proximity explains the friction between them. Both philosophers and sociologists investigate the reasons for accepting a belief.8 For the sociologist, this entails describing the social negotiations through which reasons come to be agreed on. For the philosopher, in contrast, the focus is on the rational rules determining such agreement. Where the sociologist speaks of social negotiations, the philosopher speaks of rational rules. It is precisely on the question of how social negotiation and rational rules relate to one another that the two sides part company, for the sociologist insists that the validity of rules is a matter of social negotiation, while the philosopher typically insists that it is not. In other words, the sociologist endorses, and the philosopher rejects, the view that rationality is a necessarily social phenomenon.

In the natural sciences, the reasons grounding a belief include the evidence educed in its favour. Empirical data, produced and selected using rational methods, may count as evidence in support of that belief. The job of the philosopher is to work out the rational basis for a scientific belief by demonstrating the rationality of the methods by which the evidence for it was educed. Only if those methods are deemed rational can one feel confident that the data successfully represents the world as it really is. Hence, from the philosopher’s perspective, according to which the rational and the social must be strictly separated, the sociologist’s attempt to model rational method in sociological terms is viewed as an attack on the ability of science to produce authoritative representations of the natural world. If scientific methods are stripped of their authority, then scientific beliefs will lose their purchase on the world. The result will be a global scepticism about the existence of an external world — that is, a world existing external to, or independently of, the system of beliefs and methods partly constitutive of the scientific enterprise. But SSK practitioners are not global sceptics. They do not reject science’s authority to successfully represent an external world. They instead reinterpret that authority in sociological and naturalistic terms. For those philosophers whose confidence in science is heavily invested in a non-sociological and/or non-naturalistic conception of its methods and results, this reinterpretation is both objectionable and antiscientific. Hence, they mistake SSK practitioners’ rejection of their specific philosophical conception of scientific authority for a more sweeping, global rejection of the authority of science, as such. Taking scientific method to be an instrument of theory, David Bloor, another co-founder of SSK’s Edinburgh School, writes that ‘[i]t is not theories but theorists who generate the evidential force of experimental results.’9 Bloor does not reject evidence; he rather advises its sociological reinterpretation.

It is not clear that philosophers’ worries about the allegedly antiscientific and objectionable nature of SSK also reflect the worries of scientists. Returning to our physicist warriors, Sokal and Bricmont, we find that they do not share the philosophers’ need to rationally ground the belief in an external world. Indeed, Sokal and Bricmont even declare global scepticism ‘irrefutable,’ which implies that the philosophers are, from a scientific point of view, wasting their time in attempting such a refutation.10 These physicists have no particular interest in justifying the authority of science by working out its rational basis, much less in ensuring that that rational basis is strictly protected from sociological study. They simply take it for granted that science rationally represents the world, and they get on with their research. Hence, there is, from their point of view, nothing particularly antiscientific, nor, as we saw above, otherwise objectionable, about SSK’s move to introduce sociological categories into naturalistic explanations of scientific rationality.

As we will see in this chapter, SSK practitioners find themselves stuck somewhere between scientists and philosophers on these issues. As social scientists, they too are inclined to simply ignore the threat of global scepticism, taking for granted that their methods rationally represent the world, and so just getting on with their research. On the other hand, as social epistemologists, they also show signs of wanting to construct a global account of scientific knowledge which reveals its ineliminably social elements. The tension between these two goals has sometimes created confusion and conflict in SSK’s ranks over the question of its relationship to scepticism.

I will not seek in this chapter to further defend SSK against the science warriors’ erroneous accusations of global scepticism. I will instead take up the more interesting challenge of strengthening SSK’s genuine but underdeveloped anti-sceptical orientation. First, I will outline the confusions and conflicts among SSK practitioners regarding scepticism; I will then identify the root cause of those confusions and conflicts; finally, I will suggest a resolution to these difficulties by drawing from the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger.

Although SSK practitioners have often represented their research as being committed to some form of scepticism, there is no consensus among them on what precisely underpins this commitment. Indeed, in some cases there is outright disagreement. This is most evident in their divergent attitudes towards the challenge presented by external-world scepticism. One camp defends an explicitly realist position regarding the existence of an external world, while the other camp shows no interest at all in defending such realism. I will argue that this disagreement is largely superficial. My argument turns on the idea, taken from Heidegger, that external-world scepticism is an epistemological problem which leaves unexamined a number of important metaphysical presuppositions. The most important of these presuppositions is that our experience of things is best interpreted in terms of a fundamental ontological distinction between a ‘subject’ and an ‘object.’ On this interpretation, the subject experiences itself as a discrete, cognising agent seeking access to the world experienced as an external object. The question of how such access may be achieved is often referred to as the ‘problem of knowledge,’ a core concern of orthodox epistemology. Crucially, the legitimacy of this problem presupposes the validity of the subject-object distinction. As we will see, a commitment to this distinction, and hence to the intelligibility of the question of access, is the engine driving external-world scepticism. In treating external-world scepticism as a legitimate threat, to which a response must be made, SSK practitioners of all stripes demonstrate their shared ontological commitment to the subject-object distinction. As a consequence, they are at perpetual risk of attack by the external-world sceptic. Their internal dispute over how to properly respond to the sceptic is a symptom of their residual adherence to an orthodox model of subjectivity, a model which asserts the fundamental separation of subject and object, mind and world.

After thus diagnosing the shared conceptual ailment of SSK practitioners, I will turn to the work of Martin Heidegger for a suitable treatment. In response to external-world scepticism, Heidegger launched a phenomenological inquiry into the basic ways in which a cognising subject experiences its relation to the world. He conceptualised this experience in existential terms as an experience of ‘being-in-the-world.’ On Heidegger’s account, the most basic form of being-in-the-world is an experience of immersed involvement in a world of work.11 The epistemological problem of how the subject gains access to an external world is neutralised once one recognises that subject and world were never separated in the first place. The chapter will conclude with the suggestion that, by adopting Heidegger’s existential phenomenology, SSK practitioners can overcome the conflicts and confusions which have, until now, rendered their position vulnerable to sceptical attack.

2. Scepticism and SSK

Central figures in SSK have clearly emphasised the importance of scepticism for their work. Reflecting on the issue in his 1974 book, Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory, Barry Barnes writes that ‘the epistemological message of the work […] is sceptical.’ Harry Collins has likewise applied ‘philosophical scepticism’ explicitly in his own research, and Steven Shapin has declared pointedly that ‘SSK is […] a form of scepticism.’12 Yet, although Barnes, Collins, and Shapin have made striking use of sceptical techniques in their work, they have not offered any substantial reflections on scepticism as a method of sociological analysis. David Bloor has proven more forthcoming. His pioneering work in the methodology of SSK explicitly discusses and extensively builds on sceptical techniques. Given these credentials, it is noteworthy that Bloor offers a somewhat more guarded assessment of SSK’s relation to scepticism than do Barnes, Collins, and Shapin. Rather than identifying SSK as a form of scepticism, Bloor draws a clear line between the two while at the same time stressing their productive interaction.

Scepticism will always find the sociology of knowledge useful and vice versa. But there are profound differences between the two attitudes. Sceptics will try to use the explanation of a belief to establish its falsehood. […] The conclusion will be a self-defeating nihilism or inconsistent special pleading. It is only an epistemological complacency, which allows us to feel that we can explain without destroying, that can provide a secure basis for the sociology of knowledge.13

Bloor rejects an identification of SSK with scepticism because SSK seeks to explain scientific knowledge whereas scepticism is, in his view, corrosive of all such explanatory attempts. According to Bloor, if SSK were itself a form of scepticism, then it would end up undermining its own explanatory project.

There appears, then, to be a significant disagreement between Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, on the one hand, and Bloor, on the other, over SSK’s relation to scepticism. However, this apparent disagreement may be resolved by introducing a distinction between ‘radical scepticism,’ on the one hand, and ‘mitigated scepticism,’ on the other.14 Radical scepticism is as Bloor describes it: a persistent acid of relentless doubt which dissolves any and all claims to knowledge. It endeavours to push us into a state of complete disbelief, leaving us without any signposts by which to take our bearings in the world. Mitigated scepticism, on the other hand, attempts to absorb the full impact of sceptical doubt without having to thereby relinquish all claims to knowledge. It relies on a distinction between knowledge in an absolutist and a relativist sense. Mitigated sceptics agree with radical sceptics that knowledge in the first sense is impossible, but they also argue that knowledge in the second sense is both possible and defensible. Hence, mitigated scepticism is not corrosive of belief in general; rather, it isolates and rejects the specific belief that knowledge, as such, must necessarily rest on an absolute foundation, that is, a foundation which transcends any and every contingent social and historical circumstance.

Thus, when Bloor proposes that we exercise ‘epistemological complacency’ in the face of the sceptic’s challenge, he is specifically concerned with radical scepticism. What Bloor proposes is not so much a direct defence against the sceptic as it is a strategy whereby the sceptic is simply ignored. He appears to hold that certain of our beliefs must be taken for granted, regardless of whether or not we can ground those beliefs in a way which satisfies the sceptic. Here Bloor seems to agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who observed that, when it comes to following the rules which guide thinking, just because a rule may lack a rational ground, this does not necessarily mean that we have no right to follow it.15 In such cases, writes Wittgenstein, we follow the rule blindly. The philosopher Paul Boghossian describes this as a ‘blind entitlement’ to follow a rule or to assert a belief.16 For example, as we shall see in the next section, Bloor claims that we are blindly entitled to assert a belief in the existence of the external world, and so scepticism regarding this belief should be met with a deliberate complacency.

When Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, on the other hand, urge that SSK be understood as a form of scepticism, they are specifically concerned with mitigated scepticism. According to them, SSK is sceptical because it rejects an understanding of knowledge in terms of absolute truth. This does not mean that knowledge becomes impossible, but only that it can never be rendered certain in an absolutist sense. For Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, SSK can be sceptical and yet still affirm the possibility of knowledge by accepting a more modest, or mitigated, conception of truth and validity.

The apparent disagreement between Barnes, Collins, and Shapin, on the one hand, and Bloor, on the other, thus turns out to be largely superficial. In their respective assessments of the relationship between SSK and scepticism, each side has a different brand of scepticism in mind. In fact, both sides endorse a mitigated scepticism which stands opposed to an attitude characteristic of those whom Bloor calls ‘believers.’ Believers, he writes, ‘conflate the common currency of talk about the true and the good with specific theories of the real and ultimate nature of the True and the Good.’17 In other words, believers reach beyond the realm of everyday experience in order to make absolutist claims about the nature of knowledge and reality. For this reason, they might also be described as fundamentalists, or dogmatists.18 The benefit of scepticism for SSK has been its role in revealing the dogmatism at the heart of epistemic absolutism. SSK accepts the general sceptical claim that absolute knowledge is impossible, but rejects the radical sceptic’s more thoroughgoing conclusion that knowledge, as such, is impossible. As Bloor remarks in the passage cited earlier, the radical sceptic’s conclusion amounts to a self-defeating nihilism or an inconsistent special pleading. Indeed, it would seem that the radical sceptic helps herself to the very absolutism she is bent on destroying. It turns out, then, that to reject epistemic absolutism is also to reject a fundamental premise motivating the radical sceptic’s own position. This is precisely what SSK does. The result is a mitigated sceptical position which endorses a non-absolutist theory of knowledge.

3. SSK and External-World Realism

SSK’s rejection of radical scepticism is perhaps most evident in SSK practitioners’ affirmation of the existence of an external world. In fact, they appear almost unified in asserting that a belief in the existence of an external world is a necessary condition for social life.19 Shapin writes that such a presumption is ‘common sense,’ and ‘a precondition for communication.’ Barnes, Bloor, and John Henry claim that ‘people everywhere’ make reference to an external world, and that their mastery of ‘the realist mode of speaking’ serves them with ‘marvellous efficiency.’ They recommend that such realism be accepted as the standard for the sociology of knowledge. Bloor, for his part, asserts that ‘we are all instinctive realists,’ and that socialisation would be impossible in the absence of an external world. Barnes claims that ‘we are obliged to presuppose an external world in order to act and interact.’20 It seems clear, then, that SSK is strongly committed to the minimal realist doctrine that an external world exists independently of our interpretations and practices. This is made all the more evident in SSK practitioners’ consistent efforts to defend themselves against charges of idealism. Indeed, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry even reserve the final lines of their book-length introduction to SSK for a repudiation of the claim that theirs is ‘an idealist sociological account which denies the existence of an external world,’ and they spend considerable time elsewhere in the book divorcing themselves from the ‘methodological idealism’ of the allegedly renegade SSK practitioner, Harry Collins. In addition, Bloor has offered his own lengthy defence of SSK against the charge of idealism.21

The locus classicus for SSK’s position on realism is Barnes’s 1992 paper, ‘Realism, Relativism and Finitism.’ Here, Barnes too is motivated by the need to secure SSK’s realist credentials against charges of idealism. He begins by arguing that sociological relativists have been typically, but unjustifiably, lumped together with idealists because orthodox realists commonly exaggerate the minimum criteria which one must meet in order to be counted a legitimate realist. Not only do orthodox realists require that an external world exist independently of our interpretations and practices, they also claim that we can know specific features of that world independently of those interpretations and practices.22 Barnes argues that this ambitious claim, quite apart from its plausibility, is simply unnecessary if all one wishes to do is affirm the existence, as such, of the external world. And this is all Barnes’s relativistic realist wishes to do. The result is a minimal form of realism which recognises the independent existence of the external world while also declining to attribute any independent, or inherent, properties to that world.23 Although it is less ambitious than the more robust position of many scientific realists, Barnes’s modest, or, as he calls it, ‘residual,’ realism appears nonetheless sufficient to deflect the charge of idealism.

Problems arise, however, when Barnes attempts to justify this position. Under the heading ‘Justifications for a Residual Realism,’ he writes that ‘[t]here is nothing empty in the assertion that an external independent reality exists, underlying appearances. It is an assertion which does real work in a variety of contexts both in science and in philosophy.’24 Note Barnes’s endorsement, in this passage, of the ancient distinction between appearance and reality, a distinction which has played a central role in historical debates between idealists and realists. The idealist typically claims that appearances are the only things we can know exist, while the realist claims that we can also know that an external world exists and that it underlies appearances. Yet, note too that Barnes does not actually argue for the existence of the external world, but only for the utility of the assertion that such a world exists: asserting the existence of an external world has proven an effective strategy in diverse scientific and philosophical contexts. This agrees with Barnes, Bloor, and Henry’s statement, cited above, that people everywhere use the realist mode of speaking with marvellous efficiency. Barnes makes this point forcefully with respect to explanations for changes in knowledge, arguing that ‘primitive causal inputs from an external reality may operate on us so that we change our knowledge.’ The external world is the source of primitive, ‘unverbalized’ causes for ‘dissatisfaction’ with existing knowledge, and hence provides ‘incentives’ for changing that knowledge. Barnes favourably contrasts this position with idealism, which he argues cannot plausibly explain changes in knowledge. Specifically, he claims that idealists, because they eschew the concept of the external world, are unable to rationalise a ‘sense of failure.’25 The point seems to be that idealists have no way of explaining how one becomes dissatisfied with the state of one’s knowledge and hence no way of explaining how one becomes motivated to change that knowledge. Leaving aside the question of whether or not Barnes has offered a fair description of the idealist’s position, it should be clear that this is not an argument for the existence of the external world, but only for the efficaciousness of realist talk about the external world as compared with idealist strategies allegedly forbidding such talk. Hence, it is commensurate with Barnes’s position that the distinctions between realism and idealism, and between reality and appearance, are distinctions made within the realm of discourse, and that, as such, they can tell us nothing about the discourse-independent existence of the external world. Barnes thus fails to provide a justification for external-world realism which accords with the realist’s own minimal ontological commitments. In fact, he even concludes his discussion with an admission of this failure, thus leaving the issue unresolved.26 As a result, Barnes leaves the door open for a sceptical construal of his position as a form of linguistic idealism.

Yet perhaps this need not trouble the SSK practitioner. Although Barnes has not successfully answered the sceptic’s challenge to external-world realism, it may be that the failure lies not so much with his attempted justification as with the fact that he had even attempted to provide one. A more effective response to the sceptic may be found in Bloor’s epistemological complacency. As cited above, Bloor holds that ‘we are all instinctive realists,’ Barnes that ‘we are obliged to presuppose an external world in order to act and interact,’ and Shapin that external-world realism is ‘a precondition for communication.’ If it were true that external-world realism is a matter of instinct or obligation, a necessary condition for social existence, then one might well wonder if radical scepticism about the external world is really worth the candle. Barnes, Bloor, and Henry make clear that their external-world realism is of a ‘naive’ sort, that it is, above all, a ‘common-sense’ kind of realism.27 If this were indeed the case, then deliberate complacency with respect to the sceptic’s challenge would surely be the most reasonable strategy. This is, however, far from the case.

External-world realism is neither as naive, nor as commonsensical, as it may at first seem. Not only does it take for granted the ancient distinction between appearance and reality, it also presupposes a particular model of the subject. Consider the sentence with which the philosopher Thomas Nagel begins his discussion of external-world scepticism: ‘If you think about it, the inside of your mind is the only thing you can be sure of.’28 As Nagel goes on to show, from this starting point the problem of justifying the existence of an external world naturally flows. For if the only thing that self-evidently exists is the inside of one’s own mind, then it must follow, not only that there is likely to be an outside with respect to one’s mind, but that the existence of this outside is not itself self-evident but in need of proof. The question of whether or not such a proof can be given forms the nucleus of external-world scepticism. These distinctions between mind and world, between an inside and an outside to one’s own consciousness, between appearance and reality, between subject and object, together form a bundle of closely related and mutually supportive conceptual demarcations which are deeply rooted in the modern intellectual tradition. We thus seem to have at hand an explanation for the strange and apparently widespread tendency, at least among academically trained scholars, to conceive of the physical world as a specifically external world. This tendency seems to be motivated, in significant part, by the prior, tacit interpretation of our own subjectivity as constituting an internal world, a world of the mind. The notion of an external world, a world out there, and the notion of an inside to our mind, a world in here, are thus as inextricably bound together as, say, the inside and outside of a glass bulb. On this model, the mind — as the seat of our experience — is like the interior of a sealed bulb, an autonomous substance existing in isolation from the bulb’s exterior. The external-world sceptic accepts and exploits the glass-bulb model, challenging the credibility of modern epistemologies which claim that the interior of the bulb can access the exterior, that the mind, whether individual or collective, can penetrate the barrier separating it from the external world so as to achieve knowledge of that world. If this diagnostic model is correct, then it would seem that the struggle to meet the challenge of the external-world sceptic was lost even before it began. For if all one can be certain of is the ‘inside’ of one’s own mind, and if the world is construed as being both external to and independent of that mind, then one will never succeed in proving beyond doubt that such a world exists. Indeed, Barnes has also endorsed what he calls ‘external realism,’ the position that our knowledge is of ‘something out there,’ but he also admits that this position ‘cannot be justified.’29

Yet, following Bloor’s strategy of epistemological complacency, if the intellectual conventions represented by the glass-bulb model were found to be wholly commonsensical, if not entirely naive, then the external-world realist may still claim a blind entitlement to these conventions even in the absence of rational justification. In other words, if we felt obliged to accept the glass-bulb model, if we felt ourselves under a powerful compulsion to adopt this model as a precondition for communication, if such acceptance were a matter of primitive instinct rather than of conscious deliberation, then we may well be justified in responding to the sceptic’s challenge with nothing more than a complacent wave of the hand.

However, the glass-bulb model represents just one, albeit powerful, thread in the modern intellectual tradition. Well-established and increasingly influential alternatives to this model exist in the comparatively recent movements of American pragmatism and European phenomenology. What is more, these alternatives have already begun to earn a respected place within the broader field of science studies. As a consequence, science studies scholars can no longer take external-world realism for granted as a self-evidently valid position, nor can they reasonably respond to the sceptical challenge to this position with complacency. As a consequence, SSK is neither rationally justified in nor blindly entitled to maintain its commitment to external-world realism.

4. Phenomenology and the ‘Natural Attitude’

In the remainder of this chapter, and, indeed, in all subsequent chapters, I will explore the benefits of combining SSK with the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger. My aim in this chapter is to demonstrate that Heidegger’s early analysis of subjectivity can provide SSK with an effective response to the challenge posed by the external-world sceptic.

SSK is certainly no stranger to the methods of phenomenology. Indeed, several SSK practitioners have made significant use of the phenomenological concept of ‘natural attitude,’ that is, the idea that our conscious beliefs always presuppose a more fundamental, tacitly held attitude which must already be in place before we can even begin to make sense of our experiences, much less communicate those experiences to others. So, for example, within the context of scientific practice, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry describe the claim that an experiment proved a theory because the theory is true as ‘a very natural attitude to adopt. […] Indeed, it is the natural attitude.’30 Yet, as they point out, the reasoning behind such an attitude is clearly invalid. The truth of the theory is explained by the success of the experiment, and the success of the experiment is explained by the truth of the theory. This kind of reasoning is most common with very well-established scientific theories, for example, electron theory. Barnes, Bloor, and Henry emphasise that it is wholly natural to explain the success of Robert Millikan’s famous oil-drop experiment, which first measured the electron charge in the early 1910s, by reference to the truth of electron theory. Yet, Millikan’s experiment is also accepted as an important confirmation of that theory. It turns out, then, that the natural attitude with respect to electron theory is not logically valid. However, this observation is not meant to discredit our belief in the truth of electron theory. On the contrary, it is consistent with this attitude that we are, under ordinary circumstances, blindly entitled to such a belief even if we cannot logically justify it. In other words, under such circumstances we have a right to be epistemically complacent about the truth of electron theory.

However, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry argue that the sociologist of knowledge is not working under ordinary circumstances, and hence she should not take the natural attitude for granted. As opposed to the physicist, who immerses herself in the practice of science, the sociologist’s goal is to stand back from such practice in order to analyse how and why it works. Rather than adopting a natural complacency with respect to the truth of well-established theories, the SSK practitioner will instead thematise this complacency in an attempt to illuminate the important role it plays in the smooth operation of physical science. In the terminology of the phenomenologist, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry are recommending that the sociologist ‘bracket’ the scientist’s natural attitude, that is, deliberately disengage from it, in order to more effectively analyse its structure. They suggest that it be turned from a resource into a topic for analysis.

SSK practitioners have also employed the phenomenological notion of natural attitude in the context of knowledge about the external world. Shapin, for example, declares that external-world realism is a direct consequence of the natural attitude.31 However, rather than bracketing this attitude in order to illuminate its structure and the role it plays in social life, he simply takes it for granted, treating it as if it were a universal and inescapable fact of human experience. As a result, Shapin leaves unaddressed the sceptical threat to SSK’s affirmation of external-world realism, as well as the ontological distinction between subject and object which gives rise to that threat. Collins likewise characterises the natural attitude as an attitude ‘taken to the external world in the normal way of things.’ However, he rejects this attitude, using instead a ‘philosophical scepticism’ designed to initiate the methodological ‘derailment of the mind from the tracks of common sense.’32 In other words, unlike Shapin, Collins adopts a form of external-world scepticism. Yet, as a consequence, he nevertheless joins Shapin in tacitly reaffirming the bundle of distinctions which are represented and reinforced by the glass-bulb model. This has led to some confusion on the part of both Collins and his critics. Most importantly, Collins fails to distinguish sufficiently between external-world realism and realism as such. Thus, in recommending the suspension of belief in the external world, he in fact ends up going much further, arguing that ‘all description-type language should be treated at the outset as though it did not describe anything real.’ What Collins means, of course, is that language should not be taken to describe anything outside the social world. Indeed, he also writes that ‘[i]t is in the social world that the social scientist […] should find reality persuasively located.’33 He calls this the natural attitude of the social scientist, and contrasts it with the natural attitude of the physical scientist, wherein the existence of a reality external to the social world is affirmed. Collins thus applies the term ‘reality’ in two quite distinct ways without always signalling this difference to his readers. In the context of the social sciences, the term refers to the interior of the intersubjective, social world. In the context of the natural sciences, the term refers beyond the social world to an external natural world. These applications of the term are consistent with idealism and realism respectively, and in both cases the glass-bulb model of subjectivity is taken for granted.

We are now in a position to shed further light on the long-standing dispute between Collins, on the one hand, and Barnes, Bloor, and Henry, on the other. As mentioned in the previous section, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry take Collins to task for eschewing external-world realism and espousing a form of idealism instead. Yet, as we have now seen, both sides are equally wedded to the glass-bulb model. This model is taken for granted by both, and it silently informs their respective arguments. It thus figures as a central background assumption, a key element in the natural attitude governing their respective positions. By failing to recognise that they hold this attitude in common, each side has misunderstood the nature and depth of its disagreement with the other. This is evident in the fact that Barnes’s justification for external-world realism is largely consistent with the natural attitude Collins endorses on behalf of the social scientist. Collins argues that, for the social scientist, the term ‘reality’ takes its meaning from the social world. Similarly, Barnes justifies the social scientist’s use of realist talk on the basis of the manifest utility of such talk in various scientific and philosophical contexts. There is, it seems, no substantial difference between these two positions. On the other hand, there does appear to be an important disagreement between the two sides with respect to the question of how seriously one should take external-world scepticism. Collins does take it seriously, and is thus willing to give up the idea of a world existing independently of our interpretations and practices. Barnes, Bloor, and Henry, in contrast, choose not to treat external-world scepticism as a serious threat, and Bloor advises that it be met with complacency. I have suggested that complacency does not provide an effective response to the external-world sceptic. Indeed, as Collins’s own work shows, a clearly articulated commitment to external-world realism appears incidental to the production of successful SSK research. Nevertheless, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry strongly insist on rejecting the sociological idealism implied by Collins’s method. In their desire to distance themselves from the taint of idealism, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry reaffirm external-world realism even in the absence of appropriate justification, relying instead on an ultimately unconvincing strategy of epistemological complacency.

Both sides of this dispute see no alternative between external-world realism, on the one hand, and sociological idealism, on the other. The narrowness of their vision is conditioned by their tacit adherence to a contingent bundle of conceptual distinctions represented by the glass-bulb model. This model is itself a central element in the natural attitude characteristic of these SSK practitioners, and, as such, the cause of some of their more persistent conceptual difficulties. I suggest that these difficulties may be solved by bracketing the glass-bulb model, by declining to take it for granted, and thus disengaging from it in order to better understand its role in modern theoretical practice. With this goal in mind, I now turn to the early phenomenological work of Martin Heidegger.

5. The Phenomenology of Subjectivity in Heidegger’s Being and Time

So far, this chapter has largely focussed on a specific problem of knowledge, namely, the problem of how one can know that the external world exists. The concern has thus been an epistemological one. Yet, as we have also seen, in asking this epistemological question, certain ontological assumptions are also implicated. In particular, in asking ‘How is knowledge of an external world possible?’ the existence of a knower is being tacitly asserted. Furthermore, as long as the focus of enquiry lies solely on the epistemological question, ontological questions about the nature or ‘being’ of this knower — about the fundamental subjectivity of the subject — remain unasked. Under such circumstances, the enquiry both relies on and persistently reaffirms a prior, tacit understanding of the ontological structure of the subject. I have introduced the glass-bulb model in order to make this structure more explicit.

In his 1927 book, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger holds the orthodox model of the subject up to scrutiny, and seeks to explain it in terms of a more fundamental phenomenological model. The chief obstacle for such an alternative model is the self-evident character of the received view. Heidegger argues that, as long as the orthodox model is taken for granted, the fundamental ‘phenomenal content’ [phänomenale Bestand] of the subject — our basic experience of our own subjectivity — remains hidden. In this section, we will review some key aspects of Heidegger’s account of this phenomenal content, and in the next section we will consider the ways in which he brings these to bear on the challenge posed by external-world scepticism.34

Heidegger attempts to loosen up intuitions about the self-evidence of the orthodox model of the subject by tracing its early-modern instantiation back to early sources in ancient philosophy and late Renaissance Christian theology.35 In the former case, ancient Greek philosophers, most notably Aristotle, defined the subject as zōon logon echon, later interpreted to mean ‘animal rationale,’ that is, a living thing capable of reason. The first difficulty Heidegger notes is that the subject is here construed as a thing, a substance of some kind. The second is that this substance-subject is then endowed with a power of reason the nature of which is left no less obscure than the ontological structure of the compound entity taken as a whole. In the case of Renaissance theology, the ancient Greek definition becomes entangled with the Old Testament doctrine that human beings were created in the image of God, and the later Christian doctrine that human beings possess exceptional powers enabling them to transcend the physical realm. Here, Heidegger quotes two sixteenth-century claims: Johannes Calvin’s claim that, in virtue of such faculties as reason, the human may ‘ascend beyond [earthly life], even unto God and eternal felicity,’ and Huldrych Zwingli’s assertion that the human being is ‘born somewhat closer to God, is something more after his stamp.’36 Heidegger argues that these historical influences provide the departure point for early-modern interpretations of subjectivity. Although the modern notion of transcendence seems to have now lost its theological connotations, the assumption that humans may somehow reach beyond their finite incarnation as earthly things remains an enduring, if often implicit, theme up to the present day.

Heidegger thus locates in the prevailing attitude towards knowledge a self-evident description of the subject as a created thing, or creature. This creature possesses a superior power of reason which distinguishes it from other created things and allows it to transcend the finite conditions of its material existence. Heidegger argues that the dominant focus has been on the structure of this creature’s essential relation to reason, as well as with the transcendent nature of this relation, while the creature’s existential status as a thing has been taken for granted.37 His phenomenological move is to bracket this existential status and so submit the phenomenal content of the subject to systematic investigation.

Underpinning Heidegger’s analysis is a distinction between existence and essence. He argues that the essence of the subject lies in its existence, that existence takes priority over essence.38 He furthermore reserves the term ‘existence’ specifically for subjects, and introduces the term ‘presence-at-hand’ (Vorhandenheit) to designate the existence of everything else. This latter distinction is grounded, in significant part, in two naturally occurring grammatical distinctions: first, subjects are referred to as ‘who,’ while everything else is referred to as ‘what’; second, only in addressing these subjects does one use a personal pronoun (‘I am,’ ‘you are,’ ‘we are,’ etc.).39 The subject is thus a person, while all other entities are things. Heidegger uses the commonplace German term ‘Dasein’ as a general label for the person-subject. He emphasises that Dasein is not a thing, substance, or object; it is an accumulation of end-directed, or intentional, actions: ‘The person is no Thinglike and substantial Being. […] Essentially the person exists only in the performance of intentional acts, and is therefore essentially not an object.’40 In undertaking a phenomenological analysis of the existential structure of the subject, Heidegger aims to unsettle the historically entrenched tendency to conceptualise it by analogy to things, with the unevenness of the analogy being smoothed over by the introduction of an incorporeal faculty of reason.

Heidegger begins his analysis of the subject by exposing one of its fundamental existential structures, namely, ‘being-in-the-world.’ This term refers to a unitary phenomenon which can be analysed in terms of three constitutive elements, the most important of which are, for the present discussion, ‘being-in’ and ‘world.’41 ‘Being-in’ describes a fundamental relation between subject and world. Heidegger urges that this relationship should not be misunderstood as a case of one thing’s being in another, like, for example, water in a glass. To do so would be to conceive of both subject and world in corporeal terms, as things which are present-at-hand. Yet, such a misunderstanding is natural, writes Heidegger, especially in such cases where the being-in relation is conceived in terms of the subject’s knowledge of the world. Here, the subject is construed as an autonomous, isolated substance, the world as an external object, and knowledge thus as a relation between two things, a subject-thing and an object-thing. As a consequence, the fundamental relation between subject and world is obscured, because subject and world are not things. It must be emphasised, however, that Heidegger does not dismiss the orthodox subject-object distinction as a false account of the subject’s relation to the world; rather, he points out that this account, whatever its merits, is a derivative picture resulting from an insufficiently critical analysis of subjectivity. It is, in other words, a ‘founded mode’ of being-in, that is, a mode of being-in which subsists only through its dependence on a more fundamental level of being-in-the-world. By obscuring the phenomenal basis of the subject’s relation to the world, the substance ontology underpinning the orthodox subject-object schema recapitulates the very model of knowledge which Heidegger aims to bracket and then submit to rigorous phenomenological analysis.42

Heidegger writes that being-in-the-world may be experienced in a variety of different ways, for example, as ‘having to do with something, producing something, attending to something and looking after it, making use of something, giving something up and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining…’ All of these are experiences of being-in, and they all have, as their basis, ‘concern,’ a term Heidegger uses to denote the subject’s active involvement with entities in the world, whether those entities are persons or things. In contrast to such involvement, Heidegger also considers ways in which the subject’s being-in can manifest a deficiency of concern: ‘[l]eaving undone, neglecting, renouncing, taking a rest.’43 He argues that such deficient modes of concern are constitutive of the kind of knowledge which emerges, step-wise, through the passive observation of things. First, the subject ‘holds back’ from its active involvement with entities, and, as a result, is able to encounter them solely in the way that they look. Only through a deficiency of involvement can the subject just look at something, and nothing more. Second, pure looking then becomes ‘thematising’; an entity is addressed and considered, thereby becoming an object of perception. Third, perceiving is a form of interpretation, and hence becomes a ‘making determinate.’ Fourth, what has been perceived and made determinate may now be expressed in propositional terms, that is, it may become the fixed subject matter for a knowledge claim.44 Heidegger stresses that this step-wise process is a continuous one in which the subject’s experience of being-in-the-world goes through successive modifications, from a basic concernful involvement with entities to a derivative ‘at arm’s length’ observation and interpretation of entities as the determinate subject matter of propositional statements. Hence, the process should not be misunderstood as one whereby a subject produces internal representations which are then somehow brought into agreement with externally present entities. Such a misunderstanding ignores the phenomenal content exposed in the existential analytic of the subject, and reasserts the orthodox subject-object distinction as ontologically foundational. Indeed, even in those cases where the subject does no more than represent or think about entities, that is, even when it fails to physically engage with them, it is still in the world with those entities, it still has being-in as its basic structure. As Heidegger remarks, ‘the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the “cabinet” of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it.’45 There is no ‘returning’ because there was never a ‘going out’ in the first place.

The modifications leading from immersed involvement to propositionally structured thinking are expressed phenomenologically in what Heidegger calls a ‘change-over’ in the subject’s understanding of the world. Because the change-over from involvement to propositional thinking is specifically a change in the subject’s mode of understanding, it follows that this change presupposes the prior existence of understanding in general. Moreover, Heidegger argues that the new mode of understanding ushered in by such a change-over has the potential to develop itself autonomously, and thereby to take over as the dominant attitude governing the subject’s existence.46 Thus, for example, as immersed involvement gives way to propositional thinking, the understanding implicit in such thinking, of the world as an external object and the subject as a discrete set of internally organised representations, may come to dominate the subject’s way of understanding both itself and its relation to the world. As a consequence, the subject may mistake this new mode of understanding for a foundational one, thereby accepting that all investigations into the structure of subjectivity will finally be intelligible only against the backdrop of the prevailing subject-object distinction. In this case, the subject’s basic state of being-in-the-world, its involved immersion in that world, falls into obscurity behind the suddenly pressing problem of what epistemic properties a substance-subject must possess in order to gain access to, and hence knowledge of, a world from which it would be otherwise separated. The irony, of course, is that this critical problem takes for granted a model of the subject which itself derives from a more fundamental mode of subjectivity. Propositional knowledge of the world cannot figure into a causal explanation of our immersed involvement in the world, because propositional knowledge depends for its very possibility on the fact of such involvement.47

6. Heidegger’s Response to External-World Scepticism

So far, I have argued that the dispute between external-world realists and sociological idealists unfolds against the backdrop of their shared acceptance of a bundle of distinctions represented by the glass-bulb model. These conceptual distinctions lie at the root of an apparently intractable philosophical problem, namely, the problem of ‘epistemic access.’ This problem is variously couched in terms of how the mind achieves access to the world, how an epistemic agent breaks through appearances and grasps onto reality, and, perhaps most familiarly, how a subject gains epistemic access to an object. All of these variants take for granted a disjuncture between an inside and an outside, and thus address the question of how this disjuncture might be overcome and knowledge thereby achieved. The external-world sceptic may therefore be interpreted as challenging the claim that a subject can gain access to a world from which it is separated and which exists independently of that subject. As we saw in the last section, Heidegger provides grounds for arguing that the glass-bulb model, implicitly deployed by external-world realists, idealists, and sceptics alike, takes for granted a specific model of the subject, a model which fails to capture the phenomenal content of the subject’s basic experience of its own subjectivity. In other words, the model incorporates an unanalysed presupposition that propositional thinking is a basic existential state of the subject (Dasein). Heidegger responds by arguing that such thinking is a founded mode of the subject’s being-in-the-world, that it is the result of a post hoc change-over from the subject’s phenomenologically more original existential state of immersed involvement.

When Heidegger turns specifically to the challenge posed by external-world scepticism, he applies this same analysis. His argument is brief: ‘[t]he question of whether there is a world at all and whether its Being can be proved, makes no sense if it is raised by Dasein as Being-in-the-world; and who else would raise it?’48 Heidegger observes that the question of epistemic access, of whether or not one can know that the external world exists, can only make sense if one has already accepted the conceptual distinctions at play in what I call the glass-bulb model. His aim here is not to challenge the truth or falsity of assertions made about the existence of the external world; it is, rather, to point out that such judgements can only be made about assertions which have already been recognised as intelligible. Heidegger argues that the realm of intelligibility in which the concept of the external world makes sense is a derivative one resulting from a change-over in the way the subject understands itself and its world. That this mode of understanding may appear self-evident, that it may have become the prevailing attitude governing our modern self-understanding, is a consequence of our having mistaken the glass-bulb model for a fundamental representation of our basic existential state. Heidegger does not so much refute the external-world sceptic as point out the derivative, superficial nature of her purportedly fundamental challenge.

Just as he had earlier argued that propositional thinking is a founded mode of the subject’s being-in, Heidegger now argues that such thinking is also ‘a founded mode of access to the Real,’ and, furthermore, that it is only through this derivative mode of understanding that an analysis of reality becomes possible. The idea seems to be that only once our understanding has changed over to a propositionally structured thinking does it become possible for us to interpret the world as ‘Reality,’ which for Heidegger also means ‘substantiality.’ Two steps are involved in this process. First, with the change-over in its mode of understanding, the subject begins to encounter the real in a new way, that is, in terms of ‘beholding’ (das anschauende Erkennen, ‘visual cognition’).49 Second, as this beholding, this pure looking which holds back from involvement, comes to dominate the subject’s way of relating to entities in the world, it begins to take over as the subject’s prevailing mode of understanding that world. It is under these circumstances, argues Heidegger, that we begin to interpret the world, as a whole, in terms of substantiality, as reality. We see here the emergence, once again, of those derivative phenomena represented in the glass-bulb model. The subject’s holding back from immersed involvement in the world, so as to then step back and visually examine its surroundings, leads to a perceived separation between subject and world. Mistaking this separation for a fundamental structure in its basic relation to the world, the subject then faces the vexing question of how it may overcome this separation, of how we may, in general, achieve access to a world which we now understand to lie beyond our reach. Heidegger therefore takes the problem of reality, precisely because it is the problem of whether or not an external world exists, to rise out of our failure to recognise being-in-the-world as a central aspect of our fundamental existential state. He writes:

The ‘problem of Reality’ in the sense of the question whether an external world is present-at-hand and whether such a world can be proved, turns out to be an impossible one, not because its consequences lead to inextricable impasses, but because the very entity which serves as its theme, is one which, as it were, repudiates any such formulation of the question.50

The subject’s failure to understand its fundamental relation to the world as one of being-in means that it also fails to understand the basic structure of the world itself. As it is led astray by the conceptual distinctions represented by the glass-bulb model, the subject begins to see the world as a thing standing outside of itself, and this world-thing subsequently gets buried in an epistemological problematic which first puts the world’s existence into question and then demands that its existence be proved. Heidegger reckons that this epistemological problematic, the ‘problem of Reality,’ lies at the heart of the protracted dispute between realists and idealists, and he criticises both sides for having mistaken their derivative understanding of world for an ontologically foundational one. Both sides fall short, Heidegger claims, because neither has brought sufficiently to light the basic phenomenal content of the subject. Both have, in other words, given too much attention to epistemology and not enough to phenomenological ontology.

Heidegger provides clear grounds for distinguishing his own position from both realism and idealism, as he understands them.51 With respect to realism, he fully agrees with the realist’s claim that there is a world in which things exist, in the sense of being present-at-hand. However, he argues that realism goes too far when it interprets the world itself as a present-at-hand thing, that is, in terms of a reality existing independently of the subject. On the basis of this misinterpretation, Heidegger furthermore argues, the realist makes the additional problematic claim that a proof of the existence of the world is both necessary and possible. Heidegger does not follow the realist down this road because for him the world is not a present-at-hand thing separate from the subject. As regards idealism, Heidegger is in full agreement with the idealist’s claim that reality cannot be understood on the model of the present-at-hand thing, noting that, with this insight, idealism has an advantage in principle over realism. Where idealism goes astray, Heidegger claims, is when it makes the psychologistic supposition that reality must reside ‘in the consciousness’ of a subject. Heidegger observes that, so long as this claim leaves unexamined the phenomenal content of consciousness itself, it will fail to advance a properly articulated concept of reality.

Placed against the backdrop of the orthodox subject-object distinction, Heidegger’s analysis of the errors of realism and idealism would seem to be as follows. The realist errs in construing the world as an object distinct from a subject, and then also in employing the term ‘reality’ to denote the ‘objecthood’ of a subjectless world. In contrast, the idealist errs in ignoring the phenomenal content of the subject, satisfying herself with the largely privative claim that the subject is not an object. She then assimilates reality to this ill-defined subjectivity, and, in the worst case, declares it a manifestation of the interior structures of a worldless subject. According to Heidegger, then, realism and idealism both come up short because neither has recognised being-in-the-world as one of the subject’s fundamental ontological structures.

In this chapter, one of my chief aims has been to elucidate Heidegger’s response to the external-world sceptic. However, it also seems appropriate, in the present context, to very briefly highlight another crucial aspect of Heidegger’s proposed alternative to the bundle of concepts employed by the external-world realist and idealist alike, and so also exploited by the sceptic. A more extended discussion will follow in Chapter Two. The crucial aspect in question is Heidegger’s distinction between reality and the real. Recall Heidegger’s claim that propositional thinking is a founded mode of access to the real, and that it is only through this derivative mode of understanding that the reality of the real may be grasped as an object of analysis. This suggests that the real may be encountered in a more fundamental way, one which does not entail an accompanying concept of reality. Heidegger’s idea seems to be that, when the real is interpreted in terms of reality, it is encountered as an object, with reality signifying its objecthood. The reality of the real is thus the objecthood of the object. Yet, as we have seen, for Heidegger entities are encountered as objects only following a change-over in the subject’s being-in-the-world from immersed involvement to the detached thematisation and determination characteristic of propositional thinking. Heidegger argues that the being of entities, what they are, depends on the way in which they are understood by the subject, but that the existence of those entities, the brute fact that they are, is not dependent on the subject’s understanding. He furthermore asserts the more specific proposition that, while reality depends on the subject’s understanding of being, the real does not.52 In this way, Heidegger prepares the conceptual ground on which to assert that the real exists independently of the subject’s understanding. Indeed, for Heidegger, the term ‘the real’ appears to signify independently existing entities. In Chapter Two, I will suggest that this feature of Heidegger’s analysis provides the basis for a minimal form of realism which both escapes Heidegger’s critique of external-world realism, as explicated above, and proves amenable to SSK’s own minimal realist commitments. In the meantime, let us consider how Heidegger’s response to the external-world sceptic might bear on the responses made to the sceptic by the SSK practitioners surveyed earlier in this chapter.

7. A Heideggerian Critique of SSK’s Response to External-World Scepticism

The principal response of SSK to the external-world sceptic is to eschew the requirement that a belief in the existence of the external world must be absolutely justified. SSK practitioners accept the sceptical argument that absolute knowledge is impossible, but reject the more radical conclusion that knowledge, as such, is impossible. Instead, they endorse a mitigated form of scepticism which allows room for a non-absolutist, or relativistic, conception of knowledge.

It should be clear that, from the standpoint of Heidegger’s own response to the external-world sceptic, the distinction SSK practitioners draw between absolute and relative knowledge is somewhat beside the point. Both absolutist and relativist approaches remain firmly rooted in an epistemological problematic which takes for granted the intelligibility of the sceptical challenge; they differ only in the strategies they deploy when addressing that challenge. Heidegger argues that the intelligibility of external-world scepticism entails the prior acceptance of a set of conceptual distinctions which I have represented with the glass-bulb model. As argued earlier, SSK practitioners take this model for granted even while they reject an absolutist notion of knowledge. As a consequence, they accept as foundational what is, in fact, a derivative conceptualisation of the subject’s relation to the world, one which does not sufficiently recognise that one of the subject’s basic existential states is being-in-the-world. Only following a change-over in understanding, in which the subject retreats from its original immersed involvement in the world, does it begin to view its access to the things around it as an epistemological problem, that is, a problem of whether or not, as well as how, one may come to know such things in their reality.

The dispute between Barnes, Bloor, and Henry, who assert the existence of the external world, and Collins, who rejects the existence of such a world, can be re-examined in this light. Because they each either affirm or deny the possibility of knowledge of the external world, both sides reveal their shared acceptance of the intelligibility of such a possibility, and thus their tacit reliance on the glass-bulb model. The ensuing debate, though it has produced insights of genuine epistemological interest, remains ontologically adrift insofar as both sides have failed to expose and clarify the basic phenomenological experience of the subject as such. Collins’s idealism may have an advantage over the realism of Barnes, Bloor, and Henry, since it acknowledges that there is no sense in speaking of the world as a thing existing independently of the subject’s understanding. However, because Collins leaves the ontological structure of this understanding unexamined, he is unable to articulate a sufficiently clear account of the relation between subject and world. As a consequence, he has chosen instead to develop a method in which the world, as well as the things in it, are simply left out of the picture. In contrast, Barnes, Bloor, and Henry preserve the important insight that things exist independently of the subject’s way of understanding them, but they then abrogate this insight by interpreting the world itself as an object, a present-at-hand thing, which exists independently of the subject. They must then face the intractable problem of how to justify the claim that the subject can, in fact, know that this world, as well as the things within it, actually exists.

I have already argued that the justifications they have offered are insufficient. They assert that a belief in the existence of the external world is a presupposition which must necessarily precede any action taken within that world. Yet such arguments only serve to underwrite a realist mode of discourse rather than to establish the existence of the external world. Moreover, as Heidegger points out, when one asserts the need for such a presupposition, one tacitly affirms the derivative notion of the subject as worldless. After all, if one had already recognised being-in-the-world as belonging the subject’s basic existential state, then one would not feel obliged to presuppose the existence of the external world.53 The same goes for Bloor’s strategy of epistemological complacency. This strategy takes for granted the epistemological problematic and responds to it by recommending complacency. Such a strategy makes sense only if one has already agreed with the external-world sceptic that subject and world are separated, and that the subject can only achieve knowledge of, or gain epistemic access to, this world by overcoming that separation. Bloor expresses his belief that such knowledge is possible, but responds with complacency to the sceptic’s demand for a justification of that belief. Heidegger argues that such a strategy, because it fails to render transparent the subject’s basic ontological structure, treats the subject as a wordless thing which must first assure itself, somehow, of a world. As such, the strategy is itself an expression of a founded mode of understanding, a mode in which the glass-bulb model is taken for granted, and hence one in which a derivative mode of understanding is mistaken for one in which the fundamental ontological relation between subject and world is originally revealed.54

8. Conclusion

This chapter has been concerned with the threat posed to SSK by external-world scepticism. Although SSK practitioners have made effective use of sceptical techniques in their analyses of scientific knowledge, their methods are best seen, not as sceptical, but as advocating a mitigated response to the radical sceptical claim that knowledge of the external world is impossible. With the exception of Collins, SSK practitioners have attempted to advance a minimal realist position which asserts the existence of an external world without also feeling obliged to meet the sceptic’s demand that such an assertion be absolutely justified. I have argued that they have not been successful. The key obstacle preventing SSK practitioners from developing a defensible realist position is their preoccupation with epistemological, at the expense of ontological, issues. Indeed, despite the long dispute between the realist and idealist wings of SSK, both sides have failed to adequately address the way in which their taken-for-granted ontological commitments inform the content of their epistemological arguments. I have used Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of the subjectivity of the subject to expose the nature of those commitments.

A phenomenological analysis of the subject’s basic state of being-in-the-world reveals that external-world scepticism makes no sense as a fundamental challenge to the subject-world relation. External-world scepticism depends for its dialectical force on a derivative understanding of that relation, a conceptualisation of it in terms of a distinction between subject and object. The weakness at the heart of SSK’s responses to the external-world sceptic is its tacit adherence to the metaphysical image of the subject which underpins the orthodox subject-object schema.55 It is only within the epistemological problematic generated by this schema that external-world scepticism becomes intelligible and so comes to threaten the realist ambitions of SSK. If SSK practitioners wish to avoid the debilitating challenge posed to their work by the external-world sceptic, then I recommend that they divest themselves of their residual commitment to orthodox ontology and adopt the position advanced by Heidegger. Yet, this recommendation comes with a worry. If SSK were to adopt a Heideggerian ontology, which is openly critical of both realism and idealism, would it not lose the grounds for its realism? In this chapter, I have already suggested that Heidegger, despite his abnegation of realism, nevertheless provides the basis for a minimal realist doctrine which both escapes his own criticism and is compatible with the main tenets of SSK’s realist commitments. It lies with Chapter Two to make good this claim.


1 Harry M. Collins (1999), ‘The Science Police,’ Social Studies of Science 29(2), 287–94 (p. 287).

2 Philip Kitcher (1998), ‘A Plea for Science Studies,’ in A House Built on Sand: Exposing the Myths about Science, ed. by Noretta Koertge (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 32–56 (pp. 46, 44); Christopher Norris (1997), Against Relativism: Philosophy of Science, Deconstruction and Critical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 314; John D. Norton (2000), ‘How We Know about Electrons,’ in After Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend, ed. by Robert Nola and Howard Sankey (Dordecht: Kluwer), pp. 67–97 (p. 72).

3 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998), Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (New York: Picador), pp. 92, 89.

4 Sokal and Bricmont (1998), Fashionable Nonsense, p. 189.

5 Sokal and Bricmont (1998), Fashionable Nonsense, p. 90.

6 Barry Barnes (2011), ‘Relativism as a Completion of the Scientific Project,’ in The Problem of Relativism in the Sociology of (Scientific) Knowledge, ed. by Richard Schantz and Markus Seidel (Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag), pp. 23–39 (p. 26 n. 3).

7 Sokal and Bricmont (1998), Fashionable Nonsense, p. 189.

8 This point has not always been appreciated. Jim Brown, for example, alleges that SSK practitioners refuse to admit reasons into their causal accounts of knowledge, writing that, for prominent SSK practitioner David Bloor, ‘reasons simply aren’t causes’ (James Robert Brown (2001), Who Rules in Science? An Opinionated Guide to the Science Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 151). However, Brown also admits that ‘Bloor does not say this in so many words, but it is clearly implicit in all that he does’ (p. 150). In fact, Bloor has explicitly affirmed the importance of reasons, and called for their sociological analysis (David Bloor (1984), ‘The Sociology of Reasons: Or Why “Epistemic Factors” Are Really “Social Factors,”’ in Scientific Rationality: The Sociological Turn, ed. by James Robert Brown (Dordecht: Reidel), pp. 295–324.). Barry Barnes has also written that ‘there is no necessary incompatibility between reasons and causes as explanations’ (Barry Barnes (1974), Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p. 70). The real bone of contention between Brown and SSK is not whether reasons can be causes but whether reasons can be analysed in naturalistic and sociological terms.

9 David Bloor (2003), ‘Skepticism and the Social Construction of Science and Technology: The Case of the Boundary Layer,’ in The Skeptics: Contemporary Essays, ed. by Steven Luper (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 249–65 (p. 262). Together with David Edge, Bloor has also argued that something can count as evidence only within an agreed on theoretical framework. An account of the social processes through which such agreement is reached is thus a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for any adequate theory of evidence (David Bloor and David Edge (2000), ‘Knowing Reality through Society,’ Social Studies of Science 30(1), 158–60 (p. 159)).

10 Sokal and Bricmont (1998), Fashionable Nonsense, p. 189.

11 The word ‘involvement’ is a standard, if imperfect, translation for Heidegger’s word Bewandtnis. In fact, one may argue that no single English word adequately translates Bewandtnis. Nevertheless, for present purposes, ‘involvement’ sufficiently captures the relevant meaning. Note, however, that Bewandtnis also carries a connotation of ‘directedness,’ which will prove central in later discussions. In Chapter Four, for example, I will translate Bewandtnis as ‘assignedness.’ In Chapter Five, I will introduce a highly specific, philosophically charged translation of Bewandtnis as ‘end-directedness.’

12 Barnes (1974), Scientific Knowledge, p. 154; Harry M. Collins (1992), Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 3; Shapin (1995), ‘Here and Everywhere: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,’ Annual Review of Sociology 21, 289–321 (p. 314). Benoît Godin and Yves Gingras reveal the striking parallels between Collins’s position and the scepticism of Montaigne and Sextus Empiricus, a comparison which Collins describes as ‘delicious’ (Benoît Godin and Yves Gingras (2002), ‘The Experimenter’s Regress: From Skepticism to Argumentation,’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33(1), 133–48; Harry M. Collins (2002), ‘The Experimenter’s Regress as Philosophical Sociology,’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33(1), 153–60 (p. 153)).

13 David Bloor (1991 [1976]), Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 82.

14 I have taken the term ‘mitigated scepticism’ from Richard H. Popkin (1979), The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkley: University of California Press).

15 Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958), Philosophical Investigations, 3rd edn, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), §219.

16 Paul A. Boghossian (2006), Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 99. Bloor has deflected Boghossian’s attempt to use blind entitlement against the sociology of knowledge (David Bloor (2007), ‘Epistemic Grace: Antirelativism as Theology in Disguise,’ Common Knowledge 13(2–3), 250–80 (pp. 259–61)).

17 David Bloor (1998), ‘A Civil Scepticism,’ Social Studies of Science 28(4), 655–65 (p. 657).

18 Cf. Barry Barnes and David Bloor (1982), ‘Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge,’ in Rationality and Relativism, ed. by Martin Hollis and Steve Lukes (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 21–47 (p. 46).

19 As we shall see, Harry Collins is an exception warranting the qualified phrase ‘almost unified.’

20 Steven Shapin (1994), A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 29, 30; Barry Barnes, David Bloor and John Henry (1996), Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis (London: Athlone), pp. 88, 205 n. 3; David Bloor (1996), ‘Idealism and the Sociology of Knowledge,’ Social Studies of Science 26(4), 839–56 (p. 845); Barry Barnes (1992a), ‘Relativism, Realism and Finitism,’ in Cognitive Realism and Social Science, ed. by Diederick Raven, Lietke van Vucht and Jan de Wolf (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction), pp. 131–47 (p. 139).

21 Barnes, Bloor and Henry (1996), Scientific Knowledge, pp. 202, 13–15, 75–76; Bloor (1996), ‘Idealism and the Sociology of Knowledge,’ passim.

22 Stathis Psillos argues that this second claim is ‘a basic philosophical presupposition of scientific realism’ (Stathis Psillos (1999), Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks the Truth (London: Routledge), p. xix). Ian Hacking disparages this claim with the deliberately unpleasant name ‘inherent-structurism’ (Ian Hacking (1999), The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 83).

23 For this reason, Shapin would seem wrong to ascribe a ‘robust realism’ to SSK in general (Steven Shapin (1995), ‘Here and Everywhere: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,’ Annual Review of Sociology 21, 289–321 (p. 315)). He furthermore appears to endorse the second, stronger, claim of the orthodox realist when he writes that ‘the external world […] has a determinate structure’ (Steven Shapin (1994), A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 4).

24 Barnes (1992a), ‘Relativism, Realism, and Finitism,’ p. 137.

25 Barnes (1992a), ‘Relativism, Realism, and Finitism,’ pp. 137–38.

26 Barnes (1992a), ‘Relativism, Realism, and Finitism, p. 139. Note that, some years earlier, Barnes had written: ‘I am not a realist, but an instrumentalist and a relativist’ (Barry Barnes (1981), ‘On the “Hows” and “Whys” of Cultural Change (Response to Woolgar),’ Social Studies of Science 11(4), 481–98 (p. 493)). Yet, even back then, he enthusiastically endorsed ‘a realist mode of speech’ as ‘a marvellous instrument’ (Barnes (1981), ‘On the “Hows” and “Whys,”’ p. 493). In these earlier passages, Barnes seems to want to distance himself from the robust realism characteristic of scientific realists. Only later did he develop a more nuanced perspective, introducing the relativistic, or ‘residual,’ form of realism which is my primary interest here, and which I will discuss more thoroughly in Chapter Two. More on the topic of SSK and realism can be found in Jeff Kochan (2008), ‘Realism, Reliabilism, and the “Strong Programme” in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,’ International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 22(1), 21–38.

27 Barnes, Bloor and Henry (1996), Scientific Knowledge, pp. 88, 205 n. 3.

28 Thomas Nagel (1987), What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 8.

29 Barry Barnes (2004), ‘On Social Constructivist Accounts of the Natural Sciences,’ in Knowledge and the World: Challenges beyond the Science Wars, ed. by Martin Carrier, Johannes Roggenhofer, Günter Küppers and Philippe Blanchard (Berlin: Springer), pp. 105–36 (pp. 111, 119; emphasis added).

30 Barnes, Bloor and Henry (1996), Scientific Knowledge, p. 30.

31 Shapin (1994), A Social History of Truth, pp. 28–31.

32 Harry M. Collins (1982), ‘Special Relativism — The Natural Attitude,’ Social Studies of Science 12(1), 139–43 (p. 140); Collins (1992), Changing Order, p. 1.

33 Collins (1992), Changing Order, p. 174; Collins (1982), ‘Special Relativism,’ p. 141.

34 Martin Heidegger (1962a [1927]), Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 72 [46]. (Following scholarly convention, page numbers in square brackets refer to the original 1927 German edition of Being and Time.) The German word Bestand is a nominalisation of the verb bestehen, which can mean ‘to exist,’ ‘to persist,’ or ‘to consist in.’ It lacks the connotation of ‘being contained within something’ characteristic of the English word ‘content.’ In Heidegger’s view, the subject is not a receptacle containing cognitive content; it is a self-aware, cognitively structured form of existence.

35 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 74–75 [48–49].

36 Quoted in Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 74–75 [49]. The sources are Johannes Calvin’s Institutio I, XV, Section 8, first printed in 1536, and Huldrych Zwingli’s Von der Klarheit des Wortes Gottes (Deutsche Schriften I, 56), first printed in 1522. Heidegger’s biblical reference is to Genesis 1:26. The English translations appear in the corresponding endnotes, Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 490, notes vii and ix.

37 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 75 [49].

38 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 67 [42], 68 [43]. With this, Heidegger inverts the relation between existence and essence introduced by medieval Christian metaphysicians on the basis of the Biblical doctrine of creation. For them, God adds existence to those things whose essence God has determined in advance.

39 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 67 [42], 71 [45], 68 [42].

40 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 73 [47–48]. Note also Heidegger’s qualified remark that a person becomes present-at-hand only following her death (Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 281 [238]).

41 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 78–79 [53]. The third element is Dasein’s ‘average everydayness.’

42 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 87 [60], 86 [59].

43 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 83 [56–57].

44 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 88–89 [61–62]. I read step two in conjunction with Heidegger’s later statement that ‘Thematizing Objectifies’ (Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 414 [363]).

45 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 89 [62].

46 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 200 [158], 161 [123], 90 [62].

47 Note that the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison deliberately adopt the derivative model of subjectivity in their 2010 book, Objectivity: ‘Because the word “subjectivity” is currently used to refer to conscious experience and its forms across cultures and epochs (“Renaissance subjectivity,” “modern subjectivity”), we should make clear that we use the term historically: it refers to a specific kind of self that can first be widely conceptualized and, perhaps, realized within the framework of the Kantian and post-Kantian opposition between the objective and the subjective’ (Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2010), Objectivity (New York: Zone Books), p. 199). Given this qualification, there would seem to be no prima facie conflict between their analysis and the one offered by Heidegger. Hence, I now withdraw my previous criticism of their analysis (see Jeff Kochan (2015b), ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject,’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49, 103–07 (p. 105 n. 3)).

48 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 246–47 [202].

49 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 245–46 [201–02].

50 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 250 [206].

51 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, pp. 250–52 [206–08].

52 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 255 [212].

53 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 249 [205–06].

54 Heidegger (1962a), Being and Time, p. 250 [206].

55 In Chapter Three, I will give detailed attention to the way Bloor attempts to transform, without wholly rejecting, the Kantian version of the orthodox subject-object distinction.