Empiricism and the norms of scientific knowledge
some reflections on Otto Neurath and Pierre Bourdieu
In this paper I would like to discuss some normative aspects of Otto Neurath's concept of scientific knowledge. I will take some reflections of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist known for his harsh criticism of "philosophers" as a point of reference. I have decided to employ his "non-philosophical" perspective because of its convergence with the very tradition to which the Institute Vienna Circle has aligned itself. That tradition derived the form and power of its beginnings from the unbiased attitude, the impartiality of its intellectual and scientific standpoint. This impartial attitude was all but naive I wish to claim; it was the result of a conscious effort to liberate the philosophical vision from the sediments of a history of perception and thought that had reached its end in the 19th century.1 Of course, that that history had come to its end was felt by many scientists, philosophers and artists at the beginning of this century. What distinguished the Vienna Circle was that its members reacted with new insights into the nature of knowledge, indeed with the attempt to develop the impartiality of the scientific point of view. What had been in the foreground up to that time receded into the background for those versed in modern formal logic and empirical science. The disciplinary boundaries, most notably those between the natural sciences and the humanities (Natur- und Geisteswissenschaften) became blurred. What we know became so complex and rich that traditional forms of classification were revealed as inadequate. For Neurath "Unified Science" was the name for future forms of classification and "encyclopedia" the name for the "orchestration" of the individual sciences. What remained of "philosophy" focussed on the logical analysis of language and — long neglected — the historical and practical aspects of science. Taking these general developments as my background here I want to defend the thesis that working on the "impartiality" of the scientist's point of view can be seen as a contribution to and work on the normative dimensions of knowledge. In the case of the Vienna Circle and Otto Neurath such a contribution has nothing to do with developing a scientific conception of ethics or rationality.2 Rather it represents an attempt to analyze the scientific approach to reality and to reinforce the social effects of this approach by making it more precise. Viewed in this context Neurath's project of a "scientific world conception" coincides with some perspectives whose topicality cannot be overestimated, Pierre Bourdieu's epistemological reflections on sociology among them.
Nemeth, E. (1994)., Empiricism and the norms of scientific knowledge: some reflections on Otto Neurath and Pierre Bourdieu, in H. Pauer Studer (ed.), Norms, values, and society, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 23-32.
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