Work in Progress: Idiographic and Nomothetic Science
Friday 24 December 2021
Having spent much of the last ten years thinking about history and civilization as sciences, rather than as humanistic disciplines, I have been forced to clarify my own ideas of what constitutes a science, so that the attempt to formulate a science of history or a science of civilization at the same time involves a philosophy of science, as well as a generous helping of the history of science, which is a necessary introduction to thinking seriously about science.
It doesn’t stop there. I also spend a lot of time thinking about the future of history, of civilization, and of science, and this means, for me, also a philosophy of history. I add the qualification “for me,” since it would be natural to assimilate the future of history, civilization, and science to futurism, but futurism as it is commonly pursued is not something with which most would want to associate themselves. More than ten years ago I wrote a blog post about the disreputable character of futurism — A Hundred Years of Futurism, though this post also touches on Futurism as an aesthetic movement, which is more interesting than futurism as an interest in predicting the future (I also wrote Futurism without Predictions, to deal more explicitly with futurist predictions) — and a reader responded that futurism was irresponsible but fun. Mostly, I concur.
I have come to have a lot to say on futurism, but I try to avoid the label insofar as this is practicable, because those who proudly do wear the label are not writing anything that I admire or wish to emulate. So I would prefer to place my thoughts on the future in the context of philosophy of history, or even in the context of big history, which is a rare school of historiography that has welcomed discussion of the future alongside the past. This is something that I can respect.
The distinction made by Windelband between the idiographic and the nomothetic, and perpetuated by Rickert and many others since, has given heart to those who argue that history has, or ought to have, a distinctive method that is not the same as the natural sciences. But where do we draw the line between the natural sciences and the social sciences, and should we draw a line between the social sciences and the humanistic disciplines, or are they all Geisteswissenshaften, as the Germans call them? And where does mathematics fit in all this? Does it get its own taxonomic classification (along with logic, and perhaps also computer science) as the formal sciences?
Despite all the effort that has been put into philosophy of science over the past century, we still do not have a taxonomy of the sciences that unambiguously answers these questions for us. The sciences are still, for us, terra incognita, that we have only begun to explore.
I just realized in the past week that the particularist conception of science that is Windelband’s idiographic is a paradigm that plausibly could be extended to other sciences. One can take the nomothetic as the structure of all science, or the idiographic as the structure of all science. An idiographic conception of science often, to my mind at least, consists of concealed Pyrrhonic skepticism and the setting up of a universalist strawman as a criterion of knowledge that can never be achieved. However, in place of universal knowledge, the various disciplines could institute particularist programs that disdain any claim to law or principle, and which take a certain delight in irreducible complexity and diversity. We can see this already in anthropology, and we can see this coming in the other social sciences.
One could argue that precisely this is the conception of knowledge that prevents the formulation of a rigorous theory of history or civilization, and that dread over such an outcome is what made the crisis in the foundation of mathematics a hundred years ago into a crisis — the idea that mathematics might not have a single and universal foundation was to some mathematicians as much as to say that mathematics was lost. On the other side of the divide, the attempt to formulate history and the social sciences (for example, the “new archaeology”) as rigorous sciences after the logical model of mathematics has inspired dread in many historians and social scientists.
Oliver Sacks in his many popular books sought out and described many unusual and indeed counterintuitive forms of consciousness, and this has started to shift neuroscience in the direction that anthropology has already pioneered, in which there is an almost perverse insistence upon the absence of any norm. There are only unique cases, and every case is a unique case. I suspect that with the anthropologists there is a concealed agenda that human beings are infinitely malleable and there is no human nature — not even any boundaries upon which there is should be wide agreement.
Insofar as we assimilate history to this same idiographic paradigm (and, arguably, history was one of the pretexts for postulating a taxon of idiographic sciences), we can see that some historians are heretics in this regard. I just wrote a short post to mark the birthday of Henri Pirenne, and in it I included this quote from Pirenne: “All historical construction — which amounts to saying all historical narrative — rests upon a postulate: that of the eternal identity of human nature. One cannot comprehend men’s actions at all unless one assumes in the beginning that their physical and moral beings have been at all periods what they are today.” So Pirenne, at least, thought that a universal was a necessary postulate of history.
But suppose that we can make the idiographic paradigm work and, ironically (I guess) universalize it: the whole of science, not just history and anthropology, might be formulated as an idiographic undertaking. And, contrariwise, we might also construct the whole of science as a nomothetic enterprise, even assimilating history and anthropology to the nomothetic paradigm. In this way, we can glimpse two distinct scientific ideals, an idiographic ideal and a nomothetic ideal, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but distinct, and each ideal capable of being pursued in isolation from the other. If we pushed these ideals to their polarized limits, it would be interesting to see what the result would look like. This even suggests to me the possibility of distinct scientific civilizations, one of which takes idiographic science as its ideal, and the other which takes nomothetic science as its ideal.
Or instead of being parallel but distinct tracks, we could easily imagine the pendulum of science swinging between the idiographic conception and the nomothetic conception, between Enlightenment universalism and an obligatory particularism, so that the long run of history reveals a dialectic in which science first learns the lessons of universalism and then the lessons of particularism, only to finally transcend the dialectic by fully incorporating both the universal and particular and move beyond them. This suggests that for science to grow (I discussed the growth of science recently in newsletter 158) not only does it require new technological instruments and new experimental and observational techniques, but also it must pass through a process of historical development in order to fully mature.
As different ideals of knowledge appear at the proper imperative of science, the historical development of science is realigned in order to better approximate the ideal, and this means working through the conflicts implicit in any conception of knowledge. Indeed, this could be one of the fundamental internal conflicts that could drive a scientific civilization forward when the conflict appears in a constructive context, or which drags a scientific civilization down when the conflict appears in a destructive context. In my Space Development Futures I developed this idea of internal conflicts of civilization, though this is difficult to do counter-factually. So I have been thinking about the possibility of scientific civilization for years now, but it is only this week that I thought of universalism vs. particularism as a source of tension within scientific civilization.
Science could grow in both depth and extent through an historical development that alternated between idiographic and nomothetic paradigms, but this alone is not enough. I noted above the role of new technologies and techniques; science must also develop novel concepts. Often where science falls short it is because we have no concept that we can employ that gives us the proper degree of scientific abstraction allowing for the construction of scientific knowledge.
Peter Godfrey-Smith appealed to Grothendieck’s “rising sea” metaphor: “The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration… the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it… yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.” As Godfrey-Smith put it, we build knowledge around the unknown until the unknown is eventually circumscribed by the known — and perhaps disappears into the known. Sometimes it helps to name the unknown we are seeking to circumscribe, and this is as must as postulating a cipher of a concept. This is what is happening now with dark matter. No one knows what dark matter is, but physicists and cosmologists are building knowledge around the idea of dark matter, and eventually dark matter will yield its secrets to us — perhaps by imperceptibly ceasing to be a secret, and we don’t even notice the point of transition between mystery and knowledge. This may be an effective way to think about scientific mysteries; I will have to remember this and work on it further.