The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge

Ron Choong
27 min readMar 19, 2018

The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge:

A review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn; Galileo, Courtier by Mario Biagioli; and The Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering


This review examines the shaping of knowledge through three works of scientific history. It seeks to show the open-ended situation of science studies to rethink what makes science, knowledge. We shall explore the implications of Kuhn’s paradigmatic view, Biagioli’s cultural study of Galileo and Pickering’s mangle-theory of scientific practice, to understand the constitution of a scientific fact.

The scientific fact is almost universally accepted as the best expression of human knowledge. But what is knowledge if not justified, true belief? At least, this was thought to be a watertight case until in 1963, Edmund Gettier demonstrated that it is possible to achieve justified belief which is coincidentally or mistakenly true.[1] Knowledge cannot now be defined as merely justified true belief. The contingencies involved in incidental true beliefs undermine the belief that truth is a universal notion. This remains a problematic conceptual uncertainty in epistemology. However, this philosophical conundrum has not bothered most scientists at all, and knowledge continues to be associated with the scientific fact. The shaping of scientific knowledge not only includes the fact but also the shapers such a history, culture and material agency.

Kuhn underscores the importance of knowing the nature of reality in our effort to truly understand the paradigms that shape our knowledge even though he is sometimes read as being anti-objectivist. Biagioli shows how in the early stages of modern science, knowledge and its acceptance required more than sheer brilliance but making the right nonscientific decisions. Pickering shows that indeterminable determinism is a factor in scientific practice such that knowledge is a function of the trajectory that practice has traced out in the past[2] , it is nothing more than what emerges from the mangle of practice.

Thomas Kuhn

“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”

Conceived some fifteen years before its publication[3] and written in an engaging, almost conversational style, this work has spawned more controversy than the author expected and there are at least three Kuhnian Types (I, II and III) under debate in philosophy of science alone. It often reads like a personal revelation, in which a physicist discovers the history of science, undermining his basic conceptions about the nature of science. Drawing from several sources, including Wittgenstein’s use of the word ‘paradigm’[4] , Kuhn acknowledged that the book is itself primarily a work of synthesis[5] . Yet it is more than that. It is a chronologically sweeping work, noted to be the last of the didactic macrohistory of science[6] . In it, he challenges the unwarranted presumptions common in the practice of the natural sciences. The privileging of science over other fields of inquiry is due to its claim to objectivity (which endowed it with the high priesthood of rational, reasoned and reliable knowledge) and the confluence with the political climate during the cold war (which propped a vision of classified science burdened with little public accountability), a change from the pre-1950s peer collaboration/open discussion in science as a public enterprise. Whether this view of science is a transhistorical concept remains an issue of debate.

Kuhn’s insights into how science is actually done paved the way for subsequent studies of science practice. He maintained that the choice of scientific theories as well as the nature of the scientific pursuit must be explained by sociohistorical terms of reference, leading him to reject the Popperian idea of growth of knowledge toward truth (verisimilitudish), rejecting also the distinction between problems relating to the origins of knowledge (context of discovery) and those relating to ultimate evaluation and justification of knowledge (context of justification). The key to his thesis is the role of paradigm shifts in the life-cycle of science.

What he calls normal science is research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements that some scientific community acknowledged, for a time, as supplying the foundation for further practice, in which we find paradigms of practice. Kuhn claims that he used the term paradigm in two ways, first, sociologically, as the total body of convictions, values and techniques common to members of a particular community; and second, philosophically, to denote a particular element within that totality, the concrete problem-solving model which creates a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science[7] . Rather than an object for replication, a paradigm is “like an accepted judicial decision ready for further articulation and specification under new or more stringent conditions”[8] . In describing paradigms, Kuhn referred to Wittgenstein’s argument about family resemblances in place of a set of characteristics shared by members of a class (say, of ‘leaf’). Although set in a different context, Kuhn analogizes such a concept in the normal-scientific tradition[9] . Paradigms are learned ways of seeing and doing, as in many elements of scientific education, in laboratory practices for example. Here, he borrows from the notion of ‘tacit knowledge’, a phrase used by Polanyi to describe the unspoken skills acquired in the training of a scientist[10] . For Kuhn, in times of controversies, what is normally tacit knowledge, surfaces. Thus, embedded ways of scientific practice, unspoken for decades, may emerge to the surprise of the participants when prompted to engage in articulating the premises upon which their postures are based. Often, incompatible modes of community life become the choices adopted as the next paradigm.

According to Kuhn, the development of scientific thought takes on a typical pattern in which a preparadigmatic phase precedes a period of normalization. Normal science, with its paradigms, dominates the scientific worldview, with stability and agreement. Normal science is not designed to uncover novelties or anomalies of fact. New discovery[11] must first undergo a state of crisis when normal science faces anomalies, a crisis[12] in which no obvious solution emerges. This period of revolutionary science replaces normal science when no single paradigm enjoys universal appeal. No search for a new paradigm emerges without the acknowledgment of a situation of crisis, which leads to a radical shift or revolution in paradigms, with new scientific theories[13] . Only the development of an alternative and incommensurable paradigm can herald a new period of normal science, ending the revolution.

Normality in science then is a relative term, not so much a subjective relativity but a localized one. If so, revolutionary science, its opposite, must also be a localized relative. The same event undergoes different stages within the life-cycle of a scientific revolution that a different question about science is asked. No longer whether the current understanding of science is correct but rather, whether its correctness is timely. The irony of the Kuhnian approach is that while he rejects a progression to truth in scientific knowledge, his revolutions themselves appear to be progressive, always moving in the direction of normalization before being superseded by a crises-induced new paradigm. When does the paradigm shift occur? Such conversions which trigger revolutions occur through a gestalt switch, a shift in worldview, as the Ptolemaic stationery earth to a Copernican moving earth with a period of incommensurability seeks to explain why such shifts were not made sooner.

The notion of incommensurability between different paradigms is crucial to Kuhn’s theory. Thus any two theories separated by a scientific revolution are incommensurable since/if they cannot be completely translated into a neutral language[14] . It dismisses any claim to objective evaluation between competing paradigms. What is curious about this is how scientific communities come to the conclusion that the right paradigm was ‘chosen/accepted’ when in many cases, the verdict is a long time coming. The case of Einstein shows that his predictions had to be sufficiently verified by Rutherford years later before gaining acceptance, yet we continue to use Newtonian mathematics in everyday calculations due to the negligible margins of error involved. This pragmatic and reductionist use of everyday physical and mathematical measure seems to suggest that Kuhn’s revolutions need not result in the deposition of a prior paradigm even when a new one is eventually proclaimed and crowned. Kuhn was aware of this very problem and spent an entire chapter staking the claim for the necessity of scientific revolutions[15] . But Kuhn’s rejection of an objective evaluation does not make Kuhn an irrationalist. Rather, his idea of rationality is well expressed by Gutting, that the objectivity and rationality of scientific judgments goes beyond following rules but depends on the social origins and context of the judgments. All beliefs, scientific or otherwise, are open to sociological analysis, not because they are irrational, but because even the rationality of a belief depends on social factors[16] .

By choosing to describe normal science as puzzle-solving rather than problem-solving[17] , Kuhn expresses an optimistic expectation of resolution, i.e., solutions exist. Are there scientific questions that possess no solutions? We can never know as there is no statute of limitations for scientific discovery, but a shift in paradigm makes moot any issue of unsolved puzzles since it ceases to be one by dint of losing its status as a member of a set. Can we therefore say that there will always be solutions because if not, we can revise the problem? Kuhn noted that every problem normal science sees as a puzzle can also be seen as “a counterinstance, a source of crisis”[18] . It appears therefore that the recognition of a state of crisis, crucial to the triggering of a revolution and search for a new paradigm, is dependent upon the scientific community’s margin of tolerance of a counterinstance. This remarkable statement further suggests that there is no qualitative difference between a puzzle to be solved and a counterinstance, which should mean, a direct challenge to the status quo. Does major funding lessen or broaden the margin of tolerance? At what stage will a puzzle be seen to be insoluble and therefore, a counterinstance, since the terms are mutually exclusive.

Kuhn thought that like Darwinism[19], scientific evolution of ideas is ateleological[20] . Its so-called advance is not progressive, even if its success is enumerated by that scientific achievement called the solved problem. Kuhn closes his work with the cryptic note that we remain ignorant of the constitution of the world, one in which its living community is enabled the power to create scientific facts, “What must the world be like in order that man may know it?”[21] .

Kuhn reminds us that we are agents of history as well as of our will. Creatures of our embeddedness, we can see only within our paradigm and cannot hope to transcend our knowledge beyond this. Thus, as provisional as we allow our science to be, we are soon bound to stultify our scientific beliefs and soon enter a period of normalization from which we no longer see its provisionality.

Scientific knowledge, according to Thomas Kuhn, is not necessarily towards truth[22] . It is ateleological, purposeless in its efforts and seeks to solve puzzles[23] rather than acquire truth. Science does not seek a “true account of nature” by which it aims to reach closer to an ultimate goal. Truth is not achievable in science and was never the primary aim.

What then is Kuhn’s contribution to contemporary history of science? The current, dominant constructivist interpretation of Kuhn’s analysis may be distilled in three points. Science is a system of traditional authority; its application of models to new situations is determined more by pragmatic judgment than by logical deduction; and local cultural values tied to forms of social life govern scientific practice[24] . Beyond this, Kuhn himself cannot be seen as a social constructivist, as he was, above all else, an historian. In his postscript, Kuhn maintains the tantalizing note that “scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all. To understand it we shall need to know the special characteristics of the groups that create and use it”[25] .

Mario Biagioli

Galileo, Courtier“

Mario Biagioli’s very readable account of Galileo the courtier-scientist aims to show that the great scientist’s discoveries may be interpreted with more insight to his political acumen than thus far given. Rather than the standard treatment of his insatiable quest for truth and knowledge, Biagioli unearthed documentary evidence attesting to the swings of patronage dynamics. It was not merely a passive Galileo swayed by the cultural norms of his time, but a nimble man about town who knew how to fashion himself into the needs of the day in whichever court showed the greatest promise for an aspiring philosopher-scientist.

Biagioli’s cultural anthropological account posits the thesis that Galileo was not yet a full Copernican before his 1610 discoveries and that his other major accomplishment was in effecting a major cultural shift, creating a post as mathematician and natural philosopher at court, thus elevating the then relatively lowly status of mathematicians. We see how his courtly behavior and scientific work fed off each other. One is reminded of Michaelangelo and Pope Julius II, from which the status of artist was enhanced. In the same manner, Galileo’s position as client of Cosimo II certified the legitimacy of his discoveries to the intellectual crowd. Mathematics became a serious contender at court. The gift-giving exchanges between client and absolute ruler invariable creates a vacuum that can only be filled with the patronage of positions at court. Biagioli is a careful writer, full of qualifying remarks and curtails his own propositions. His detailed accounts of documents and analyses lends to a good read. His often-bold interpretations enliven what might otherwise be passed by as dull Renaissance rituals of little import. By making anthropological constructions of how artifacts and scientific conclusions as well as observations are used as gifts, bribes, items of barter, weapons of sabotage and expressions of status symbols with emblematic skills[26] , we are ushered into a world where discoveries are made, to be offered once its worth is established. With no international convention ruling its worth, discoveries had to be lent credence by established international personages, whose earthly and divine powers move the international markets for precious commodities. Creativity and a nose for the right audience meant the success or failure of a client. For some, it means the difference between life and death. One might even say that Galileo experienced firsthand, the shifting (Kuhnian) paradigms of his age, each one determining the terms of debate for his courtly disputes with other leading lights. Yet, such dances with history comes at a cost and Biagioli acknowledges the conflicts self-fashion imposes on Galileo’s specific desires[27] .

Biagioli argues that the institution of patronage was one without walls, as emerging rituals developed in tandem with the rise and fall of the personal fortunes of absolute princes, including that of the papacy. That it was not a localized phenomenon added to the complexity both in its practice and now in the historical reconstruction. Identifying the quid pro quo of the client-patron relationship with its several permutations, each carefully choreographed with the exchange of prestige in the form of gifts, material remuneration, new knowledge and assured livings, Biaglioli saw in Galileo, a practitioner of science exercising the art of identity formation and self-fashioning, responding to changes in the political climates of their times. What seemed like clumsy attempts to solidify and buttress newfound social real estate reflects the pandemonia which occasions such cultural progress. For example, Cosimo’s ennoblement of Galileo legitimized the gifts of the stars as a preordained celestial encounter rather than a tainted gift from a paid client[28] .

That one’s identifiable social standing can be the litmus test of competing claims as dispensers of new knowledge predated and perhaps anticipated the history of the Royal Society (founded 1660), which was tainted with accounts of manuscripts rejected or accepted for publication depending on the identity the author. Biagioli further argues that as a ‘bricoleur’[29] , Galileo was an opportunistic rearranger who positioned himself within the complex structures of existing social scenarios to maximize his benefits. He neither invented his courtly world nor was a passive member at the mercy of shifting conditions. Rather, his brilliance culminated in his successful attempt to establish himself a new standing as court mathematician, one who produced new knowledge. When such knowledge was fused with the powerful name of the Medicis, it forged a powerful symbiotic relationship in which both parties were epistemologically joined at the hip. While the contexts of courtly life in seventeenth century Europe conditioned or even shaped the lives of individual scientists, they were not deterministic. Galileo is a clear example of an actor whose personal desire for success forged a creative reshaping of the conditioning shapers in his life and emerged triumphant at court, and in so doing, introduced himself as a new breed of ‘philosophical astronomer’.

As a historian, is there sufficient warrant for Biagioli to claim that Galileo had a personal sense of what sort of a Copernican he was before 1610? Biagioli’s thesis turns on his skepticism that Galileo was fully committed to the Copernican hypothesis in the late 1590s, and in any case, that Galileo’s ‘belief’ then did not amount to a ‘commitment’. Rather, Galileo’s passionate defense of his findings did not arise from his Copernican convictions but from other courtly patronage pressures, which drove him to further embrace Copernicanism[30]. Biagioli offers evidence for both positions[31] but privileges one over the other. That is his prerogative. But if he succeeds in convincing the reader, it surely cannot be on the merits of the supporting evidence he posits. In each case of his supporting evidence, Biagioli offers letters to Galileo suggesting an absence of Galileo’s positive commitment to Copernicanism. There was no correspondence from Galileo suggesting this at all. The burden of proof remains with Biagioli to show beyond the balance of propensities that what was unspoken of can be determined with some measure of clarity.

Ultimately, Biagioli wants his readers to note the extent to which patronage plays a part in the ‘Copernicanism of Galileo’. This is a fair point. However, patronage may have also played a part in his reticence in expressing his full commitment to the hypothesis before 1610. That this counterfactual is a live option limits Biagioli’s claim, and he seems to sense it. Although I suspect that Biagioli is correct, it remains for me a less than iron-clad argument.

Biagioli’s interpretative framework adds a new dimension to historical studies of scientists at work, opening the veil to the social implications of courtly life which fueled advances in the sciences. It certainly enriches our understanding of the development of scientific discovery with its attendant social appendages.

According to Biagioli, Galileo was expected to engage in rhetorical duels of honor called disputes at the Florentine Court. They provided entertainment to the patrons who carefully distanced themselves from taking sides lest they be disgraced with a loss of status were they to back the wrong horse. Thus Galileo participated in debates on buoyancy[32] with philosophers from the University of Pisa and on comets with the Jesuit mathematician Orazio Grassi. Such disputes were apparently inconclusive and unproductive.

It was from such disputations that Galileo came to a stronger commitment to Copernicanism, thinks Biagioli, since the physical truth of the Copernican cosmology provided a way to legitimate a mathematician’s status vis-a-vis the natural philosophers. While Biagioli does not claim to set a causal link between Galileo’s opportunism at court and his ostensible interest in Copernicanism, his latter-Copernicanism theory finds an attractive home is such a “process of mutual reinforcement”[33] . Thus Galileo’s Copernicanism and courtly aspirations went in tandem, symbiotically. The former provided Galileo a political berth at court as a de facto philosopher, a de jure title which the court enabled him to acquire. Biagioli then relates this to the question of whether it is nature of society is more important in triggering scientific change. Does his mutual reinforcement theory stand?

Major gaps in the available documentary evidence leads Biagioli to posit an alternative interpretation of Galileo’s trial of 1633 against the background of patronage and court culture by describing it as a “fall of the favorite”[34] . This thesis is important to Biagioli’s central patronage dynamics explanation of Galileo’s rapid rise at court, even if not necessary to explain his fall. Biagioli does not propose a strict analogy between the fall of a courtier and Galileo’s trial, but rather uses the former “as a heuristic device to uncover patronage-laden aspects of the trial that have been left unnoticed by received interpretation”[35] . It is difficult to gauge the success of his qualifier as he spends the next twenty pages or so analyzing the conjectural ‘fall of the favorite’, a term he adopted from Pelligrini’s analytical treatment[36] to make his case, interspersed with allusions to Galileo’s particular fall from grace. An unqualified claim about the analogy might have been more convincing since his reticence does not seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the central thesis. In any event, since Galileo was not a local courtier, the analogy was limited from the beginning. Galileo’s sentence of house arrest was hardly drastic considering his defiance of a patron and the most important prince of Europe. Following Biagioli’s description of a fall of the favorite as ‘quick and inexorable’[37] , one might have expected a more drastic sentence. We are led to expect this because of Biagioli’s use of empirical examples of such ‘falls’ dating back to Roman times, with Tiberius’ (ab)use of Sejanus. Is this ultimately fatal for his theory? No really, but it speaks to the construction of a historical fact as it does to that of a scientific fact. Construction occurs each time we pass on knowledge. In any event, how did Galileo’s “fall from favor” become likened to a Pelligrinian “fall of the favorite”? It was not established that Galileo was in fact a favorite of Urban VIII. Was this move necessary to support Biagioli’s overall thesis?

Commenting on the move from the demonstrative sciences of the patronage to experimental science of the academies, Biagioli traced the makers of scientific knowledge from the likes of Galileo, the scientist himself, who had to give credit to the patrons over him, to the academicians of the Accademia del Cimento, indispensable workers who were the human agents of the ‘true’ authors of knowledge[38] , to the modern university where laboratory experimentation takes on a life of its own[39] . In the end, the emergence of the individual knowledge-maker demanded the complete disappearance of the patron altogether[40] . Much of the appeal of this book lies in Biagioli’s masterly balance between the minutiae of pertinent issues he wishes to educate the readers with while locating them within the larger framework. This book is sure to inspire more renderings of similar genre.

Andrew Pickering

“The Mangle of Practice”

Andrew Pickering’s novel book which although takes the epistemological debate a step further in an attempt to rehabilitate actor-network theory following its attack by SSK, finds itself in no man’s land. Learning from the excesses of the French school, Pickering immediately addresses the SSK critique of actor-network theory and hopes to glean from both positions as he mangles out a fresh way at looking for patterns of scientific practice. It is less a new theory than it is an argument for resuscitation of what he saw to be the classic SSK, before nonhuman agency was thrown out, the result of too close an attachment to representationalism.

If the world were thought of not as facts and observations but rather as agency, forces upon material beings[41] , we shall come closer to understanding Pickering’s focus on all that we observe as being merely responses to material agency. As for scientific practice, it extends rather than reproduces scientific culture[42] . Thus, if the construction of tools, machines and the like is seen as an extension, such material agency takes on a different meaning as integral parts of the scientific culture. This elevates the role and status of things in the economy of actants. However, carefully distancing himself from the full implications of the actor-network’s semiotic symmetry, which equivalence and interchangeability between human and nonhuman actors/actants (scallops and fishermen), Pickering notes the necessity of distinguishing human from nonhuman agencies in the practice of science. Humans cannot be substituted by machines and vice-versa. For this purpose, a performative idiom works better than a semiotic idiom, expressing the semiotic symmetry’s notions of parallels as well as constitutive intertwining between the two agencies[43] , even if it cannot express full symmetry[44] . By preserving important features of the actor-network, Pickering hopes to offer an improved model with his mangle.

Thus, for Pickering, since scientific culture is performatively enveloped by human practices, the notion of practice is an extension of the scientific culture, one which involves a process of tuning on human as well as nonhuman agency[45] .

Pickering’s principle concern is with introducing the notion of real time change, that is, emergence, in the culture of scientific practice. What is scientific knowledge and how is it created? By what means and relying on what agency are such entities constructed. He challenges what he deems to be the self-limitations imposed by contemporary SSK in which material agency is unnecessarily excluded[46]. In seeking to replace the representational idiom of science with a performative idiom (in which nonhuman agency is acknowledged), he ventures an argument which posits real-time referent as a demonstration that human agents possess no priority over nonhuman agents in determining the final outcome of machine products. By using the metaphor of tuning[47] , Pickering seeks to incorporate agency without importing intentionality to nonhuman agents in the creation of scientific knowledge.

He borrows the Actor-network model of Latour and Callon to mount an attack on mere representationalism with a performance orientation of practice, while at the same time, answers the critique against the symmetry notion of the actor-network model. Pickering thinks that Latour’s use of semioticism to escape Collins’ critique veers too closely back to representation[48] , so he argues instead for a replacement of the atemporal notion of science with the notion of a temporally emergent, real-time understanding of scientific practice[49] . For Pickering, emergence is best denoted by “a sense of brute chance, happening in time”[50]. The element of surprise is always preserved. There is no causal or predictable net to fall on. Temporality takes this away.

In addressing the inability of material agency to incorporate intentionality, he appeals to our understanding of time[51] and the extended temporal sweep enjoyed by humans, in which we are able to mentally construct goals of future events, with no present existence. This power to perform such a feat is clearly not open to material (non-human) agents but shows the way goals of scientific practice are imaginatively transformed versions of its present by a process of modeling[52] .

Pickering offers four case studies to illustrate his point, Donald Glaser’s development of the bubble chamber[53] , Giacomo Morpurgo’s attempts to detect isolated quarks[54] , William Hamilton’s development of quaternions[55] and the installation of numerically controlled machine tools at the General Electric Aero Engine Group plant[56] . The final example seeks to show that the notion of a mangle can work outside the realm of science. In each case of practice, resistance is encountered when expected results do not surface. Practitioners then changes in response, making accommodations, and finally effect the results by removing, avoiding or getting around the resistances. It is this dialectic of resistance and accommodation that Pickering calls the mangle. Mangled clothes enter and emerged, still mangled, but in unforeseeable ways. Each time, a different pattern of deformity appears. Such alterations along the cultural front of scientific practice is what Pickering wants to emphasize. It is not neat and tidy. It is untamable, but it works. “The dance of agency takes the form of a dialectic where resistance denotes failure to achieve an intended capture of agency in practice and accommodation an active human strategy of response to resistance”[57] .

Knowledge is thus a function of the specific historical trajectory that practice has traced out in the past and is objective, relative as well as historical, all attained by the contingencies inherent in the realtime dimension of the mangle of practice[58] .

Practice in science studies is a noncorrespondence realism coupled with an insistence that scientific knowledge is objective, relative and historical[59] . Since correspondence of scientific knowledge is not verifiable, a pragmatic approach is called for. The performative idiom escapes the impasse characteristic of representationalism, between realists and antirealists, by avoiding the question of correspondence entirely. It asks, instead, about how the connections between knowledge and the world are made, along with the constitution of such connections, in practice. The answer is the pragmatic realism of the mangle. It is agnostic about correspondence yet is non-skeptical since it answers the question about the relation between knowledge and the world with no reference to correspondence issues. Thus, reality of a future is determined by, but undeterminable at its past real-time. The mangle is best characterized by its relativism to culture, i.e., in some sense, it is bounded within the mangle of cultural boundaries[60] . Yet, it is the very mangled nature of culture that permits a degree of freedom, or open-endedness that saves it from a fatalistic grid. The very emergent character of the mangle of practice is at once a liberator and jailer of scientific knowledge. The act of tuning means we continue to be surprised by our discoveries. Thus, although experimental inquiry takes the form of a dialectic of resistance and accommodation, there is no way to predict how resistance is accommodated. Everything is ex post facto. Its very definition of emergence robs the mangle any possibility of either explaining or predicting, the Carnapian notions of what a scientific theory should do.

The mangling of the social and scientific offers a scale -invariant analysis[61] which tidies up the micro-macro differentiation. The mangle thus solves the problem of Kuhnian incommensurability (two systems cannot be compared across time), because it leads us to expect them as we fine tune, since all relations are emergent.

For me, the vagueness of the mangle is mitigated only by the even vaguer metaphor, that of tuning. Since tuning or adjustment works for both human and nonhuman agencies, I fail to see the distinction between the constructivism of machines and the apparent neutrality of human perception. Isn’t our perception also constructed, or trained to see certain things which are not readily obvious? One can think of Biagioli’s account of how Galileo trained his patrons to see the Medici stars, or Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge[62] in piano playing and a blind man’s use of a walking stick. While this is not a fatal objection to Pickering’s tuning analyses, it is perhaps a criticism of his liberal use of analogies, a somewhat key one to his theory. If man and machines tune into emergent outcomes, but they are not interchangeable and ultimately, the human agent is the controlling partner, what is the purpose of elevating nonhuman, material agency to such heights of glory? I suspect the answer lies at the end of the book, where a universal and all-encompassing approach to knowledge is vital for an all-encompassing claim. And to this we shall turn.

In his second postscript, Pickering offers the mighty claim that a mangle-TOE might be in the offing[63] . While the mangle supports the argument that the products of both human and material agencies are emergent, thereby diminishing the difference, any claim to TOE thus far makes the claim that the material universe is everything that is. This is neither a cogent philosophical nor scientific statement. It is an assertion that should make this assumption clear at the outset, that for Pickering, a TOE really means a naturalistic TOE, limited to the effects of the material kind. While Pickering thinks that to include nonhuman agencies makes the theory holistic, he might be reminded that other nonhuman, nonmaterial actors such as Shiva, Lord of the Dance as well as God of Destruction, which he so cutely invokes, will not be forgotten.

Is the mangle of practice the newer SSK, one which challenges the S, S as well as K of the old SSK? I think it can aspire to be an emergent, posthumanist SSK, but I also think it really wants to be more than that. It wants to grow up to finally slay the nonemergent accounts offered by the existing sciences, which for him, constitutes the main obstacles to his mangle-TOE.


How is scientific knowledge shaped? The dominant constructivist view suggests that science and scientific knowledge is shaped by social relations at its very core[64] . We have seen in just three books how complex the origins of knowledge creation are. We have been treated with a range of approaches, all of which we readily describe as ways of knowing knowledge. In each case, the author wishes to identify some element of nonscientific origin which nonetheless shapes our idea of the scientific fact. The task of identifying, let alone understanding what constitutes knowledge is only beginning. But if Kuhn is right, we have at least come to the realization that we are in some state of crisis. We encounter counterinstances in the history of science that does not transcend time, until Pickering offers his mangled realism, not as an answer but as a new approach to rethink the notion of material agency and the emergent nature of knowing. Biagioli’s example of Galileo provides an example of how non-linear progress in science and can be and how dependent it can be on such non-scientiifc issues, as cultural adaptation to changing political climates.

Who were the makers of knowledge? For Pickering, material agents cannot be ignored in the mangle which shapes knowledge. In fact, knowledge appears to be the product, or by-product of the vicissitudes of the mangle, an almost fatalistic concept of scientific practice. How is this different from Kuhn’s ‘emergence’ of paradigms, for which scientists takes an active part, but only in declaring a crisis in order to solve the puzzles created? Or from Biagioli’s account of the historical events beyond Galileo’s control? In each case, we note the frailty of the human agent to escape the paradigm shift, mangle or sweep of cultural history. While we seem to be in charge of the reality of knowledge-creation, we are more passive than we think. Our sense of intellectual freedom is an illusion.

If anything, these readings imply the error of a Kantian dichotomy. Science is a product as well as an ingredient of more than just knowledge. Its contribution to understanding plays a vital role in decisions we make on a daily basis. Our current dependence upon its hegemony must be coupled by a holistic understanding of its nature. Science studies offers a way of approaching science as a concerned non-direct participant, yet the way even science studies as now conducted, seems to deliberately avoid all non-sensible resources. In its desire to escape memories of the dogmatic excesses of the medieval church, all religious connotations are blanketed with the same brush, with precious little reasons given. The best that emerges from such a luminary as Stephen J. Gould is, N.O.M.A. (non-overlapping magisteria), which simply means, let’s mind our own business. It is this sort of myopia which once plague the medieval church as it enjoyed its time as high priest of knowledge.

At the end of this analysis, we come to a crisis of authority. Aristotle’s snub-nose problem once again suggests that our attempts to identify a single source of human referent to ultimate reality from which to draw reliable knowledge, is doomed to failure, because we do not know our own origins. All human investigations to this end has not advanced our speculations. Thus, if we do not know whence we be, we cannot know whence reality be. What does this say about the nature and purpose of science and any account of its history? At best, it demonstrates the tentative nature of human knowledge and the desire for us to know, even if we can never truly do so. It appears that the reason why science continues to flourish is basically because it has no viable competitor for what it seeks to do, to explain what we know and to predict what we do not … yet. It thrives in the hope of greater and progressive achievement in the light of uncertainty, for to desire to know is but to be human, or as Aristotle put it more elegantly…

“All men by nature desire to know”

Aristotle, Metaphysics.

Selected Bibliography

1. Biagioli, Mario. Galileo, Courtier. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1985.

2. Cedarbaum, Daniel Goldman. “Paradigms” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Vol. 14. №3. 173–213. 1983.

3. Gettier, Edmund. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” in Epistemology: An Anthology. edited by Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 2000.

4. Gary Gutting. Paradigms and Revolutions: Applications and Appraisals of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press. 1980.

5. Golinski, Jan. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998.

6. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd edition Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1962].

7. Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1999.

8. Musgrave, Alan. “Kuhn’s Second Thoughts” in Gary Gutting. Paradigms and Revolutions: Applications and Appraisals of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press. 1980.

9. Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1995.

10. Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1962 [1958].

11. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Third Edition. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1958 [1951].

[1] Edmund Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge” in Epistemology: An Anthology, edited by Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000).

[2] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 33

[3] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1962]), vii

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1958 [1951]) para. 50–51

[5] Daniel Goldman Cedarbaum, “Paradigms” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol. 14, №3, 173–213, 1983. 177

[6] Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 14.

[7] Kuhn, 175

[8] ibid., 23

[9] ibid., 44–5

[10] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1962 [1958]) 60

[11] Kuhn, 52. Discovery starts with an awareness of an anomaly, followed by an exploration of it and finally adjustment of the theory to account for an expectation of the said anomaly (which no longer goes by that name).

[12] As we shall see later, the state of crisis is one of recognition by the community, dependent on its tolerance for unsolved and seemingly insoluble puzzles, becoming problems, and perhaps finally recognized as counterinstances.

[13] Kuhn, 66

[14] ibid., 102

[15] ibid., 98–9

[16] Gary Gutting, Paradigms and Revolutions: Applications and Appraisals of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1980), 11

[17] Alan Musgrave, “Kuhn’s Second Thoughts” in Gary Gutting, Paradigms and Revolutions: Applications and Appraisals of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1980), 47. Here, Musgrave argues that Kuhn is better served with problem rather than puzzle because while the student of science is assured of a solution, the scientist is not, and a presumption of solution finds no warrant.

[18] Kuhn, 79

[19] For Kuhn, Darwinism makes no promise of some future goal, so that evolution should not be seen as progressive or even developmental.

[20] ibid., 172

[21] ibid., 173

[22] ibid., 170

[23] While solutions to puzzles are to be expected, problems may not possess any solution at all. Thus, Larry Laudan’s use of problem-solving rather than puzzle-solving.

[24] Golinski, 22

[25] Kuhn, 210

[26] Mario Biagioli, Galileo, Courtier, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 122–3

[27] ibid., 5

[28] ibid., 130

[29] ibid., 157

[30] ibid., 91

[31] ibid., 92

[32] ibid., 183 ff

[33] ibid., 226

[34] ibid., 313

[35] ibid., 333

[36] ibid., 325

[37] ibid., 328

[38] ibid., 361

[39] What are the effects of the move from patronage science to the experimental science of the laboratory? Briefly, the establishment of the experimental mode of scientific inquiry and the emergence of the laboratory introduced several new contractual obligations which rendered previous expectations moot. (i) The laboratory commandeered scientific investigation and replaced the individual scientist as the ultimate and final arbiter of knowledge. It would have been Galileo’s Lab; (ii) The notion of fungibility is now stretched as the lag-time created by laboratory analysis became tolerable. Thus a blood test today takes some time as the samples travel in batches to distant locations for testing; (iii) There arose a conversion from faith in the direct diagnosis of individual scientists to the indirect programmatic and probabilistic analyses of unseen faces of technicians; (iv) The laboratory necessarily restrains and constrains the range of investigation since it must meet the criteria permitted by “laboratory conditions” and follow the guidelines imposed by the financial budgets; (v) The laboratory conditions the future of scientific knowledge as a constructive art rather than a discovery of latent reality; (v) It also shapes the rationality of scientific investigation. Scientisms have to be reevaluated.

[40] Biagioli, 362

[41] ibid., 6

[42] ibid., 14

[43] ibid., 17. A situation he calls interactive stabilization. This occurs between human and nonhuman agencies while intentionality pertains only to human agents.

[44] ibid., 15

[45] ibid., 16

[46] Pickering 9

[47] ibid., 14

[48] ibid., 13

[49] ibid., 14

[50] ibid., 24

[51] ibid., 18

[52] ibid., 19

[53] ibid., 37–67

[54] ibid., 68–112

[55] ibid., 113–156

[56] ibid., 157–176

[57] ibid., 22

[58] ibid., 33

[59] ibid., 180

[60] ibid., 204

[61] ibid., 234, 240

[62] Polanyi, 60

[63] ibid., 246

[64] Golinski, 18



Ron Choong

I am an interdisciplinary investigator and explorer of science and religion