The Presupposition of Intelligibility

Friday 05 April 2024

Nick Nielsen
8 min readApr 8, 2024

It is a fundamental presupposition of science that the world is intelligible. Like any sweeping statement, this claim needs to be propped by a number of qualifications and conditions even to be meaningful, since it can mean many different things to many men. It is, obviously, a philosophical claim and not a scientific claim. The presuppositions of science are not themselves scientific, but philosophical; they make science possible, but are not science. Science, then, rests on philosophical presuppositions. That alone makes science a philosophical exercise at one remove. But I would go even farther than that. I think that science is philosophy, that is to say, that what we know today as science is a particular kind of philosophy, a branch of philosophy, methodological naturalism. The reason the scientific revolution and then the industrial revolution occurred in Western civilization and not elsewhere is not to be put to a high-level equilibrium trap or some similar historical explanation, but to a difference in philosophy.

The intimations of science that we have in classic antiquity and in other civilizations never passed over the threshold to initial paradigmatic maturity, and remained either pre-paradigmatic or proto-paradigmatic. Even in the most brilliant moments of other civilizations, the inventiveness and effort that were lavished art, culture, war, and court ceremony never came to the particular combination of rational method and empirical observation that marked the inflection point for science in Western civilization. There were many proto-paradigmatic efforts, but they were either missing some essential element of a scientific research program, or there was no follow-through on what might have been a research program had the nascent research program become the basis of a scientific community.

Ancient science intimated what was to come, but remained stagnated in a proto-paradigmatic condition.

The claim that science presupposes the intelligibility of the world involves two particularly polysemous terms of art — science and intelligibility. We could widen the scope of the claim and assert that a fundamental presupposition of rational thought is the intelligibility of the world, with the additional claim that science belongs to the class of activities that can be called rational thought. “Intelligibility” offers even greater opportunities for widening or narrowing the scope of the claim. What is it for anything to be intelligible? Is it enough that on object of knowledge can be thematized as the object of scientific research, whether a particular thematization is done well or poorly? If this is the case, the presupposition of intelligibility is coextensive with any scientific undertaking, and doesn’t really add anything to the claim that we have attempted to study some phenomena scientifically. If, on the other hand, being intelligible involves some kind intrinsic rationality, that is a much stronger claim, and trying to define what makes some natural phenomenon intrinsically rational is not something I will attempt.

This problem extends over the divide I have discussed in the last couple of newsletters between science and history (or, more generally, between the natural sciences and the social sciences), and points to some problems about the scientific status of history (or the scientific status of the social sciences). Does history presuppose that the objects of historical knowledge are intelligible, or that they are more or less intelligible than the objects of the natural sciences? Giambattista Vico formulated the verum-factum principle (an abbreviation of “Verum esse ipsum factum”), according to which we can know what we make. History is made by human beings, therefore it is knowable; nature is not made by human beings, therefore its knowability (or, if you prefer, its intelligibility) is open to question. Something near the antithesis of this principle seemed to follow from science as it developed after Vico’s time: nature, not made by human beings, seemed the most amenable to understanding and explanation, while the objects of the social sciences, like society and history, seemed the least amenable to understanding and explanation.

Giambattista Vico formulated what he called the verum-factum principle, according to which we understand that which we have made.

We could argue that we don’t actually make society and history because these are emergents not dependent upon any human decision. Once human action exceeded some undefined threshold of complexity, societies and histories emerged from it. These emergents are the result of human action, but they aren’t actually made by us. However, we could also argue that the correct interpretation of the verum-factum principle is that all knowledge is made by human beings (something I have argued several times in these newsletters), and, as a human artifact, we can understand the knowledge we have constructed, whether it is knowledge of nature or of history. Knowledge, then, possesses intrinsic rationality as formulated by a rational being, but the object of knowledge is another matter.

One could simply abandon the criterion of intelligibility entirely, but I called this criterion a presupposition, and one doesn’t abandon a presupposition, one renounces it, usually with a flourish, and then attempts to resume one’s epistemic efforts without the presupposition, which usually means continually fighting one’s intuitions, which then become a burden. Hilbert was among those who made the presupposition explicit when he said, “We must know. We will know.” (“Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.”) This is now carved into his tombstone. Hilbert’s program for the finite axiomatization of mathematics was to eliminate all inconsistencies in mathematics and provide a foundation for mathematical knowledge in which all problems could be solved. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems proved this ambition to be impossible. Do the limitative theorems also demonstrate the limitations of intelligibility? Are theorems that cannot be proved true or false (like the continuum hypothesis, given the most common axiomatizations of set theory) unintelligible? I would say that undecidable theorems are interesting precisely because they are intelligible; they are intelligible, but their truth value is not known. Thus truth value and intelligibility can be distinguished. This seems to be the case in history as well. It is not known for sure who started that fire that burned the Reichstag, but the question of who started the fire is certainly intelligible.

Hegel, the bête noire of philosophy of history.

Hegel, whom I have called the bête noire of philosophy of history — the philosopher of history whom everyone today loves to hate — insisted upon the rationality of history. But what does this mean? What is the scope of rationality for Hegel? What makes history rational? If history is intelligible does that mean it is rational? Or does the rationality of history imply something more than the knowability of history? And what does it mean for history to be knowable, or intelligible? While I have called intelligibility a presupposition of rational thought, must this intelligibility be exhaustive? Cannot we recognize an intelligibility admits of both degrees and of exceptions?

We seem to tacitly acknowledge this in the natural sciences. A fruitless effort to understand can simply be abandoned, and science can move on to more tractable problems. However, one can also always return to seemingly intractable problems. Once a structure of adjacent knowledge is built up, a previously apparently intractable problem can sometimes be solved, or it may simply disappear, which is what I take to be the lesson of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s interpretation of Grothendieck’s rising sea metaphor.

Grothendieck’s rising sea metaphor is the idea that if we build knowledge around an unknown island, the island may eventually become inundated and the apparent mystery of this unknown disappears into adjacent knowledge.

Nietzsche opens his Daybreak with an observation on the rationality of history:

Supplemental rationality. — All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable. Does not almost every precise history of an origination impress our feelings as paradoxical and wantonly offensive? Does the good historian not, at bottom, constantly contradict?

And Nietzsche made a similar point in Beyond Good and Evil:

“How could anything originate out of its opposite? for example, truth out of error? or the will to truth out of the will to deception? or selfless deeds out of selfishness? or the pure and sunlike gaze of the sage out of lust? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, indeed worse; the things of the highest value must have another, peculiar origin — they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, paltry world, from this turmoil of delusion and lust. Rather from the lap of Being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the thing-in-itself — there must be their basis, and nowhere else.”

This latter paragraph is in quotes to set it off against Nietzsche’s own views, which follow and comment on this.

Nietzsche saw the world and its history as becoming more saturated with rationality the longer it endured.

Implicit in both of these quotes are the idea that the world is ultimately irrational in its origins, but it becomes more rational the longer it endures in existence. Recorded history does seem to become more rational over time, and once the scientific revolution begins shaping wider society, social institutions become more rational. The bureaucratic rationalization of a state’s institutions (as it converges on maturity) favors the replacement of traditions with conventions; traditions date from a deep past and often seem irrational; conventions can be set up as rationally as the bureaucrat can imagine. And the traditional folk concepts present throughout a conceptual framework over time prove themselves to be inadequate to the maintenance of a rationalized society, so they are replaced by quantitative concepts.

The first generation to experience this replacement (which is usually gradual, but cf. newsletters 267 and 268 on the replacement thesis) may find the bureaucrat’s conventions and the quantitative concepts of science to be artificial, but if a society lives with them along enough, the population becomes acclimated to them; perhaps they eventually even feel natural. And in this way we arrive at the creeping saturation with reason that Nietzsche described. Also in this way, society and history become more intelligible over time, but at the cost of finding the past less intelligible than ever. Thus the good historian — perhaps a compatriot of Nietzsche’s good European — must always contradict our later, rationalized intuition with the historical record of past irrationality. The lesson is by definition difficult to grasp.

Everyone alive today shares the lived experience of the replacement of analog technologies with digital technologies, which also often involved the replacement of qualitative concepts with quantitative concepts.