Home > Philosophy, Postmodernism, Science, Skepticism > Postmodernism And Science – Pt: 1.

Postmodernism And Science – Pt: 1.

For the moment, let us take a second out of our discussion on Feminism, or rather, Bell Hooks’ view of such, and take a very brief look at Postmodernism (here after “PoMo”), particularly in relation to science. Recently I read The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, 2004 (I recommend the Cambridge Companion series on just about any topic they have, they’re a great resource for interpreting complex authors and movements – for a look at what they have to offer, see here) and although many of the chapters were interesting, and indeed deserve a more, shall we say, ‘interested’ review and critique than that which will be presented here, I will only be looking at, and discussing Ursula K. Heise’s chapter, entitled ‘Science, technology, and postmodernism’ today.

Heise states that scientific knowledge and technological rationality have been “seriously challenged” by PoMo modes of thought that have been developed in philosophy, history, sociology and cultural study and are fundamentally critical of certain social institutions and traditions of thought, based on a skepticism toward “Enlightenment assumptions about subjectivity, knowledge, and progress.” (p. 136) Heise says the critique of PoMo attempted to show that science and technology’s  “narratives of progress and mastery of nature” are not “unequivocally positive forces”. (p. 136)

The postmodern moment, then, is characterized by two distinct tendencies with regard to science and technology. On the one hand, scientific insights and technological applications are advancing at a more rapid pace than ever, and some of their more spectacular developments have changed the material environment and a vast range of values, beliefs, and expectations, along with the meaning of the words “science”, and “technology” for average citizens. On the other hand, science and technology are met with ambivalence, skepticism, or resistance not only because of soe undesirable “side effects” their rapid evolution has generated, but in terms of some of their most basic assumptions about nature, progress, human observation, appropriate methodologies for creating knowledge, and the role this knowledge should play in public policies. (Heise, pp. 137-8, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

Although the notion of PoMo technologies is one of two undercurrents in Heise’s thesis and is an interesting one, deserving of its own blog, it is her second thesis , the substantiation of scientific knowledge, or “crisis of legitimation” that I wish to look at today. Heise states that skepticism toward the tide of progress, from a historical perspective led to a parallel questioning of the justification of many modern institutions: “in particular, it led to historians and philosophers to postulate a crisis in legitimation of science as one of the pillars of western thought and society.” (p. 148) Specifically Heise refers to such PoMo authors as Jean-Francois Lyotard who argued that the pursuit of scientific knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to lose its force in the early twentieth century due to a lack of support for the “narratives” that had served to legitimate it. Two factors are noted;  namely the Hegelian idea “that the human spirit itself progresses over the course of history, and that the expansion of knowledge is one of the most visible forms of this knowledge.” and the other is the “Enlightenment belief that the acquisition of knowledge contributes to the liberation and emancipation of individuals and communities.” (p 148)  Lyotard argued contra to these ideals, viz. Wittgenstein that science has disintegrated into highly specialized research projects that contain very little communication with each other, that contemporary science is no longer a unified truth-seeking pursuit of knowledge but rather a disconnected series of “language games”

… in which facts no longer count, but only ‘performativity”, instrumental functioning. As critics of Lyotard have pointed out, this account falls far short of a convincing portrayal of contemporary science. Perhaps for this reason, his argument did not provoke any great resonance among scientists at the time of its publication, but it became enormously popular among scholars in the humanities and social sciences who saw its argument about the demise of large-scale metanarratives of legitimation as a defining feature of postmodernism across a whole range of sociocultural phenomena, (Heise, p. 148, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

Heise goes on to discuss the growing “controversy” among philosophers, sociologists and natural scientists over the basic nature and function of scientific knowledge, but one really has to wonder how much controversy there is amongst those versed in the methods, protocols and theory of the scientific method. This also presents what is most interesting to me regarding PoMo, questions of legitimization are important (although the metaphysical nature of such an approach would more than likely be scorned by those same PoMo theorists, perhaps an internal contradiction in their reasoning?), only when we are exposed to possible weaknesses in theories can we plug them. But as we see with Lyotard above, the critique does not always seem fair, or even particularly educated in the “narrative” of science.

Heise states that critics of science have argued that the scientific method and knowledge have no special cognitive status, and like many other epistemological tools cannot be separated from its sociocultural context, which limits its claims to objectivity and universality. But the critics go further than this though, and state that all knowledge is socially constructed. Moreover, that scientific research is not “value-neutral, as its advocates maintain, but that fundamental beliefs and even ideological assumptions are hardwired into the definition, goals and procedures of scientific inquiry” (p. 150) Heise goes on to say that this assumption has worked to serve dominant social groups at the expense of knowledge to the “common people”, although Heise does not state exactly what the critics of science mean by this assertion, or even that this assertion can be demonstrated with any degree of certainty or reliability.

As Heise accurately states, and as you may be able to tell from the above paragraph, the advocates of science responded with the charge of relativism, and have defended

… the specificity of scientific knowledge, and the stringent procedures as well as logical and empirical controls that are applied to establish the validity of a particular knowledge claim. These procedures, they argue, account for both the changing character of scientific knowledge and its gradual progress in the understanding of nature. (Heise, p. 151, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

The critique continued basing its method largely around Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, they viewed it “as a point of departure”, they considered science as an activity rooted in “particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts” , which derives its authority from social consensus not from any privileged grasp of reality or verification/falsification of hypotheses through empirical findings or replication of results by independent researchers. To get around the obvious charge of relativism (that always seems to follow PoMo) of their so-called “social constructivism” the critics stated that

… it is possible to admit that science is socially conditioned in multiple ways without giving up the claim that science’s particular set of social constructions provides a type of access to the natural world that is more accurate or successful from a cognitive or explanatory perspective, than other constructions. (Heise, p. 151, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

Moreover Heise states that scientists would agree with this statement, that some “dimensions” of scientific inquiry are dependent on “social and historical circumstance”, for example in general areas and specific topics which are deemed worthy of research, or in grant giving, and how well the results are disseminated to the public all depend, Heise states, on “a particular societies structure of interest.” (p. 151) This of course seems to ignore the fact that there is no European science, or American science, or for that matter, Muslim, or Christian science, there is only verifiable, reproducible science. What is discovered and verified by the Chinese, can be peer-reviewed (and indeed, should) by anyone else. The results of scientific inquiry go to everyone – Heise’s view of science seems narrow, and self-serving.

As this post is getting long, and there is still some involved subject matter to cover, we may like to leave it here for now, and wrap up our discussion on Heise in part two.


Heise, U. K. (2004). ‘Science, technology, and postmodernism’, in  S Connor (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 136, 137-8, 148, 150, 151.

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