A Nice Derangement of Epistemes

October 8, 2014
John H. Zammito

When I was reading the treatment of science in One-Dimensional Man, there were two things consistently on my mind. First and foremost was the fact that I really, really miss my late stepfather. I inherited the book from him, it was full of his margin notes (his handwriting, like mine, probably qualifies as strong cryptography), and it had obviously been read many times. I would have loved to discuss it with him. Second, what Marcuse was describing when he launched his attack on science and technological rationality was, to me, almost completely unrecognizable as anything of the sort, bearing not even a resemblance to anything actual scientists or technologists were doing. It reminded me of later postmodernist antiscience of the type hilariously satirized by Alan Sokal, which made me think of another book inherited from my stepfather: John Zammito's A Nice Derangement of Epistemes.

The book (of which nearly a third is devoted to end notes) is primarily written as a historical account of postpositivist science studies, starting with the 1950s works of Willard Quine through Thomas Kuhn's incommensurability theory to the full radical constructivism of Bruno Latour, Sandra Harding in the 2000s — and the hilarity of the so-called Science Wars, when actual scientists finally started fighting back.

As is implied by the title, this is not an impartial account, nor does it try to be one. Zammito's primary purpose is to show that philosophy of language does not make a very good platform for studying the practice of science, and that the radical constructivism espoused by postmodernist philosophers is not only literally incoherent, but also that it does not even follow from their own philosophical progenitors. In fact, this leads to a derangement of epistemes, a sad state of affairs in which empirical inquiry becomes impossible. This applies to science studies rather than to science itself, because - as Zammito rightly points out - scientists themselves have generally brushed most of this off as bizarre hyperbolic excesses from humanities (case in point: It took 20 years of postmodernist science criticism before scientists even responded).

There's a narrative structure that works quite well: As the post-positivist science studies movement (eg. Quine and Kuhn) mutates into radical postmodernist relativism (eg. Latour), and the involved philosophers grow progressively more pretentious and bizarre, Zammito's treatment grows progressively more damning and, well, funny. It's quite obvious that Latour (and his allies) are cast as the villain in this story, and Zammito minces no words about this. Alan Sokal's aforementioned hoax provides a fitting climax to the story.

It's a good book about a fascinating subject, and its primary problem is not the author's fault: Much space is (rightly) devoted to quotes by the involved philosophers, and most of them write with the trademark barely coherent impenetrability of postmodernism. Parts were thus very heavy, difficult and boring reading.

I still recommend it, though, if you're interested in science studies studies (that is… appropriately meta). At some point, I should probably get Alan Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense.

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