The term “epistemology” replaces that of philosophy of science at the start of the 20th century. It is a neologism constructed by James Frederick Ferrier, in his work Institutes of metaphysics (1854). The word is composed on the Greek root επιστήμη / episteme, meaning “science in the sense of knowing and knowledge” and on the suffix λόγος meaning “speech”. Ferrier opposes it to the antagonistic concept of “agnoiology”, or theory of ignorance. The analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell then uses it, in his An essay on the foundations of geometry in 1901, under the definition of rigorous analysis of scientific discourse, to examine the modes of reasoning that implement and describe the formal structure of their theories. In other words, “epistemologists” focus on the process of knowledge, on scientific models and theories, which they present as autonomous in relation to philosophy.
Jean Piaget proposed to define epistemology “as a first approximation as the study of the constitution of valid knowledge”, a name which, according to Jean-Louis Le Moigne, makes it possible to ask the three main questions of the discipline:
- What is knowledge and what is its mode of investigation (this is the “gnoseological” question)?
- How is knowledge constituted or generated (this is the methodological question)?
- How to assess its value or its validity (question of its scientificity)?
Philosophy of science
Before these investigations, science was conceived as a corpus of knowledge and methods, object of study of the Philosophy of science, which studied scientific discourse relative to ontological or philosophical postulates, that is to say non-autonomous in itself. Epistemology will allow the recognition of science and sciences as autonomous disciplines in relation to philosophy. Analyzes of science (the term “metascience” is sometimes used) first focused on science as a body of knowledge, and has long been philosophy. This is the case of Aristotle, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Gaston Bachelard, the Vienne circle, then Popper, Quine, Lakatos, among the most important. Epistemology, on the contrary, is based on the analysis of each particular discipline pertaining to so-called “regional” epistemologies. Aurel David explains that “Science has managed to close at home. It tackles its new difficulties by its own means and does not help in any way the highest and most recent productions of metascientific thought”.
For the Nobel Prize winner in physics Steven Weinberg, author of the Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (1997), the philosophy of science is useless because it has never helped scientific knowledge to advance.
Science at the service of humanity: progress
The term progress comes from the Latin “progressus” which means the action of advancing. According to this etymology, progress designates a passage to a higher degree, that is to say to a better state, participating in the economic effort. Civilization is thus based, in its development, on a series of progress including scientific progress. Science would be above all a means of making the happiness of humanity, by being the engine of material and moral progress. This identification of science with progress is very old and goes back to the philosophical foundations of science. This thesis is distinct from that of so-called pure science (in itself), and poses the problem of the autonomy of science, in particular in its relation to political power. Ethical issues also limit this definition of science as progress. Some scientific discoveries have military applications or even may be lethal despite their beneficial initial use.
According to proponents of science as a means of improving society, of which Ernest Renan or Auguste Comte are among the most representative, progress offers:
- an explanation of how the world works: it is therefore seen as a real and unlimited explanatory power;
- increasingly useful technological applications that transform the environment to make life easier.
The thesis of pure science posits, for its part, that science is above all the property of humans, which makes man an animal different from others. In a letter of July 2, 1830 addressed to Legendre, the mathematician Charles Gustave Jacob Jacobi wrote thus, about the physicist Joseph Fourier: “Mr. Fourier had the opinion that the main goal of mathematics was the public utility and the explanation of natural phenomena; but a philosopher like him should have known that the sole aim of science is the honor of the human spirit, and that under this title a question of numbers is worth as much as a question of the world system. ” Other currents of thought such as scientism consider progress from a more utilitarian angle.
Finally, more radical currents pose that science and technology will make it possible to go beyond the ontological and biological condition of man. Transhumanism or extremism are, for example, currents of thought stating that the goal of humanity is to overcome the biological (like genetic diseases, thanks to genetic engineering) and social (by rationalism) injustices, and that science is the only way within his reach. In contrast, technophobic currents reject the idea of a saving science, and on the contrary point to the social and ecological inequalities, among others, that science generates.
Epistemology poses a set of philosophical questions to Science and to “science in the making”. As science progresses in a fundamentally discontinuous fashion, the reversals of representations of scientists, also called “scientific paradigms” according to the expression of Thomas Samuel Kuhn, are also at the heart of epistemological questions. Among these central questions of epistemology we distinguish:
- the nature of the production of scientific knowledge (for example, are the types of reasoning founded?);
- the nature of the knowledge in itself (is objectivity always possible, etc.). This epistemological problem concerns more directly the question of how to identify or distinguish scientific theories from metaphysical theories;
- the organization of scientific knowledge (notions of theories, models, hypotheses, laws);
- the evolution of scientific knowledge (what mechanism drives science and scientific disciplines).
A number of philosophers or epistemologists have thus questioned the nature of science and, first of all, the thesis of its uniqueness. The epistemologist Paul Feyerabend, in Against Method, is one of the first, in the seventies, to revolt against the received ideas with regard to science and to put into perspective the too simple idea of ”scientific method”. He exposes an anarchist theory of knowledge pleading for the diversity of reasons and opinions, and indeed explains that ” science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit”. The philosopher Louis Althusser, who produced a course on this question from a Marxist perspective, maintains that “every scientist is affected by an ideology or a scientific philosophy which we propose to call by the conventional name: the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists“. Dominique Pestre endeavors to show the uselessness of a distinction between “rationalists” and “relativists”, in Introduction to Science Studies.
Large epistemological models
The history of science and philosophy has produced many theories as to the nature and scope of the scientific phenomenon. There is thus a set of great epistemological models which claim to explain the specificity of science. The 20th century marked a radical turning point. Very schematically, to the first purely philosophical and often normative reflections were added more sociological and psychological reflections, then sociological and anthropological approaches in the 1980s, then finally fundamentally heterogeneous approaches from the 1990s with Science studies. The discourse will also be questioned by psychology with the current of constructivism. Finally, epistemology is interested in “science in action” (expression of Bruno Latour), that is to say in its daily implementation and not only in the nature of the theoretical questions it produces.