poincaré on sts

Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
Well, it’s not really Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)—eminent mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and philosopher of science—talking about science and technology studies (STS) proper. Rather he talks about the fundamentals of epistemology, the position of the natural sciences, and their relation to reality. And here we are at the core of STS. Wherever you read about STS it is stated that STS are founded on the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science stemming from the former. The great achievement, absolutely indispensable for STS, was to relativize scientific knowledge and to look at it from a social constructivist vantage point. To put scientific knowledge on a par with other kinds of knowledge, and thereby stripping it of the nimbus of being something special, of being apart, of being absolute.
    Enter Bruno Latour, heavily influenced by, and fond of social constructivism. But at one point he feels that the relativizing trajectory of constructivism has gone too far. Especially when it comes to the things of the natural sciences. He feels the need for STS to backpedal a bit from the constructivist extremes. And here I wholeheartedly agree.
    But at least one question remains for me: Who exactly was, or still is it, who without any reservation whatsoever believes in that all-encompassing absoluteness of scientific knowledge? The natural scientists? The wider public, impressed by the overwhelmimg success of science and technology? Well, for sure not the great grandmasters of science.
    Below is an excerpt from the introduction to Poincaré’s ‘Science and hypothesis’ (1905 [1902]), a book written for the wider public. In this snippet from the opening pages we already find all the foundations of STS, up to Latour’s recalibration.
    Here is the great Henri Poincaré’s healthy, justified epistemological relativism bolstered by sound arguments and expressed in clear-cut, direct, and understandable language:

To the superficial observer scientific truth is unassailable, the logic of science is infallible ; and if scientific men sometimes make mistakes, it is because they have not understood the rules of the game. Mathematical truths are derived from a few self-evident propositions, by a chain of flawless reasonings ; they are imposed not only on us, but on Nature itself. By them the Creator is fettered, as it were, and His choice is limited to a relatively small number of solutions. A few experiments, therefore, will be sufficient to enable us to determine what choice He has made. From each experiment a number of consequences will follow by a series of mathematical deductions, and in this way each of them will reveal to us a corner of the universe. This, to the minds of most people, and to students who are getting their first ideas of physics, is the origin of certainty in science. This is what they take to be the role of experiment and mathematics. And thus, too, it was understood a hundred years ago by many men of science who dreamed of constructing the world with the aid of the smallest possible amount of material borrowed from experiment.
    But upon more mature reflection the position held by hypothesis was seen ; it was recognised that it is as necessary to the experimenter as it is to the mathematician. And then the doubt arose if all these constructions are built on solid foundations. The conclusion was drawn that a breath would bring them to the ground. This sceptical attitude does not escape the charge of superficiality. To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions ; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.
    Instead of a summary condemnation we should examine with the utmost care the role of hypothesis ; we shall then recognise not only that it is necessary, but that in most cases it is legitimate. We shall also see that there are several kinds of hypotheses; that some are verifiable, and when once confirmed by experiment become truths of great fertility; that others may be useful to us in fixing our ideas; and finally, that others are hypotheses only in appearance, and reduce to definitions or to conventions in disguise. The latter are to be met with especially in mathematics ,
and in the sciences to which it is applied. From them, indeed, the sciences derive their rigour ; such conventions are the result of the unrestricted activity of the mind, which in this domain recognises no obstacle. For here the mind may affirms because it lays down its own laws ; but let us clearly understand that while these laws are imposed on our science, which otherwise could not exist, they are not imposed on Nature. Are they then arbitrary? No; for if they were, they would not be fertile. Experience leaves us our freedom of choice, but it guides us by helping us to discern the most convenient path to follow. Our laws are therefore like those of an absolute monarch, who is wise and consults his council of state. Some people have been struck by this characteristic of free convention which may be recognised in certain fundamental principles of the sciences. Some have set no limits to their generalisations, and at the same time they have forgotten that there is a difference between liberty and the purely arbitrary. So that they are compelled to end in what is called nominalism; they have asked if the savant is not the dupe of his own definitions, and if the world he thinks he has discovered is not simply the creation of his own caprice.(1) Under these conditions science would retain its certainty, but would not attain its object, and would become powerless. Now, we daily see what science is doing for us. This could not be unless it taught us something about reality; the aim of science is not things themselves, as the dogmatists in their simplicity imagine, but the relations between things; outside those relations there is no reality knowable. (Poincaré 1905 [1902]: xxi-xxiv)

(1) Cf. M. le Roy: “Science et Philosophie,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 1901.

And as a bonus, here is a one-sentence definition:

The method of the physical sciences is based upon the induction which leads us to expect the recurrence of a phenomenon when the circumstances which give rise to it are repeated. (Poincaré 1905 [1902]: xxvi)

POINCARÉ, JULES HENRI. 1905 [1902]. Science and hypothesis. London, Newcastle-on-Tyne, New York: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd. Originally published as La science et l’hypothèse. Paris: Ernest Flammarion.
Share