Monday, August 29, 2011

On the meaning of interpretation for science


A discussion is going on in the philosophy of science on the question whether understanding phenomena is relevant for science and, if so, how it takes place. This is to such an extent remarkable that the main stream of science has always propagated the view that it is the aim of science to explain phenomena and that there is no room for understanding because it is considered subjective and in science there should be no place for subjectivity. Since Carl G. Hempel developed his famous deductive-nomological model of explanation the main stream view maintained that for explaining in science only the relation between the phenomena, other phenomena and an explaining theory was relevant. This theory was supposed to be valid at any place and at any time. In this view there was no room for an investigating subject that did the research and for whom the relation investigated had to be true, not to speak of a wider research community and a wider public. This idea of science was supposed to be valid for all kinds of investigation that bore the label “scientific” in some way, from sociology and psychology to physics and biology. Of course, opposition to this view did exist, but from the side of the main stream it was often disparagingly called “metaphysical”.
But times are changing and so here, too. Influenced by proposals by the Dutch philosopher Henk de Regt and others more and more it is accepted that the investigator (and with him or her the whole scientific community) is important in the explanation process. More exactly, they say that science is not only about the relation “x explains y” (whereby x is a theory, while y is what is to be explained”, but it is about the relation “x explains y for (the knowing subject) z” (Karl-Otto Apel, Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendental pragmatischer Sicht, 1979; p. 267; there is also an English translation of this book). In this view there is not only room for understanding, but it is an essential part of it. What I find annoying in the present discussion about the place of the knowing subject and the interpretative part in the scientific process is that there is hardly any reference to the “old” opponents against the two-dimensional view of the scientific process, so to Apel in the first place.
What does the “new” interpretative part of science involve? How must we imagine it? In a blog like this I can give only a few hints. In my dissertation about understanding human actions, I have defended the view that interpretation is placing a phenomenon in a kind of mental scheme of the type as developed by Schank and Abelson, which I have mentioned already several times in my blogs. Maybe this can be related to the idea of the significance of model construction for understanding in the way as it has been proposed by de Regt. In my dissertation I have also developed the view that in order to understand human actions we have to answer three questions, namely the questions 1) what an action is; 2) what an action is for; and 3) why an action is performed. The first question asks for a description of an action, the second one for its intention and purpose and the third one for the reasons behind the action: what made the agent to perform this act. By extension (and of course adapted to the object of investigation) these questions apply for understanding in the social sciences in general. Do these questions also apply for science in general? If we forget for a moment that they are about understanding actions in a narrow sense and not for the scientific process in general, maybe they apply not exactly as they stand here. However, I think that they are a good starting point for thinking about what understanding involves when we say that an investigator not only explains a phenomenon but also that the resulting explanation is understood.

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