The term “epistemology” replaced that of philosophy of science at the beginning 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 on the suffix λόγος meaning “the speech”. Ferrier contrasts it with the antagonistic concept of “agnoiology”, or theory of ignorance. The analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell then uses it, in his Essay on the foundations of geometry in 1901, under the definition of rigorous analysis of scientific discourses, 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 from philosophy.
Jean Piaget proposed to define epistemology “in first approximation as the study of the constitution of valid knowledge”, a denomination 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 validity (question of its scientificity)?
Philosophy of science
Before these investigations, science was conceived as a body of knowledge and methods, object of study of the philosophy of science, which studied scientific discourse in relation to ontological or philosophical postulates, that is to say non-autonomous in itself. Epistemology will allow the recognition of science and the 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 a matter of philosophy. This is the case of Aristotle, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Gaston Bachelard, the circle of Vienna, then Popper, Quine, Lakatos finally, among the most important. Epistemology, on the contrary, is based on the analysis of each particular discipline falling under so-called “regional” epistemologies. Aurel David explains that “Science has managed to close itself at home. It approaches its new difficulties by its own means and draws no help from the highest and most recent productions of metascientific thought”.
For the Nobel Prize in Physics Steven Weinberg, author of The Dream of an Ultimate Theory (1997), the philosophy of science is useless because it has never helped scientific knowledge to advance.
Science in 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 above all be a means of bringing happiness to 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 relationship to political power. Ethical issues also limit this definition of science as progress. Some scientific discoveries have military applications or even can be lethal despite a primary beneficial 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 real and unlimited explanatory power;
- increasingly useful technological applications to transform the environment in order to make life easier.
The thesis of pure science poses, for its part, that science is first and foremost unique to humans, which makes humans a different animal from others. In a letter of July 2, 1830 addressed to Legendre, the mathematician Charles Gustave Jacob Jacobi writes thus, about the physicist Joseph Fourier: “M. Fourier had the opinion that the main goal of mathematics was public utility and explanation natural phenomena; but a philosopher like him should have known that the sole aim of science is the honor of the human mind, and that under this title a question of numbers is as good as a question of the system of the world.” Other currents of thought such as scientism consider progress from a more utilitarian angle.
Finally, more radical currents posit that science and technology will make it possible to go beyond the ontological and biological condition of man. Transhumanism or extropism are, for example, currents of thought stipulating that the goal of humanity is to overcome biological (such as genetic diseases, thanks to genetic engineering) and social (through rationalism) injustices, and that science is the only way available. On the other hand, technophobic currents refuse the idea of a saving science, and on the contrary point out the social and ecological inequalities, among others, that science generates.
Questions of epistemology
Epistemology poses a set of philosophical questions to science and to “science in the making”. Science progressing in a fundamentally discontinuous way, the reversals of scholars’ representations, also called “scientific paradigms” according to Thomas Samuel Kuhn’s expression, are also at the heart of epistemological questions. Among these central questions of epistemology are:
- the nature of the production of scientific knowledge (e.g. are the types of reasoning sound?);
- the nature of knowledge in itself (is objectivity always possible, etc.). This problem of epistemology relates more directly to the question of how to identify or demarcate 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).
Many philosophers or epistemologists have thus questioned the nature of science and in the first place the thesis of its uniqueness. The epistemologist Paul Feyerabend, in Against Method, was one of the first, in the 1970s, to revolt against received ideas about science and to relativize the too simple idea of ”scientific method”. He expounds an anarchist theory of knowledge arguing for diversity of reason and opinion, and indeed explains that “science is much closer to myth than any scientific philosophy is willing to admit.”
Major 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 major epistemological models that 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 that it produces.