- A Reply to David Bloor:“Toward a Sociology of Epistemic Things”
First of all, I would like to thank David Bloor for his very thoughtful reflections on the notion of "epistemic things." He has surely pointed toward certain difficulties and even impasses that I have tried to do my best to circumvent in my book, but for which I was certainly not able to provide an ultimate solution.
Let me then respond with a few remarks 1) on what it means to be an epistemic object; 2) on the problem of reference; 3) on the social constitution of the objects of science; and 4) on technoscience and the problem of demarcation.
David contends that Toward a History of Epistemic Things faces, in his words, "a general problem about the nature of scientific discourse, namely the problem of reference." Reference, according to him, "is, or involves, aboutness." His main critique addresses what he, in contrast, calls my "non-referentiality thesis."
Before I tackle this point, I think I should say a few words on the notion of "epistemic object." The general thrust of my whole argument is about the power of material objects—in contrast to ideas or concepts—as driving forces in the process of knowledge acquisition. Consequently, I am somewhat surprised to find my work categorized, in David's critique, under the label of "linguistic idealism." My goal was to provide an object-centered, materially founded account of knowledge production. According to my position, scientific or epistemic objects are clearly material things. They function as scientific or epistemic objects by virtue of their opacity, their surplus, their material transcendence, if you like, which is what arouses interest in them and keeps them alive as targets of research. The fact that referentiality is not what characterizes their essence does not, by any means, as I see it, catapult them into the realm of the ideal. They [End Page 406] are epistemic by virtue of their preliminarity, of what we do not yet know about them, not by virtue of what we already know about them. They are epistemic because it has not yet been determined whether they will become obsolete as targets of research, or whether they will become transformed into stable, technical objects that may define the boundary conditions of further epistemic objects. This latter category of objects is, in contrast to the former, transparent, confined, and not transcendent. And as a rule, we can point at them. David certainly points to the crux of my argument when he states that "to investigate the category of epistemic things, and their history, is to investigate the process of research itself" rather than some kind of logical structure of scientific thought or some system of scientific belief.
Let me now address my second point more closely, the problem of reference. First of all, I think there is a misunderstanding if David holds me claiming that talk about epistemic objects does not have a reference at all. After all, there are material objects at stake, with all their resistance and resilience. But my claim is, to be more precise, that in the process of research, the peculiarity of the relation between our notions or concepts and the things we presume they stand for is derived from the fact that these things are in a state or condition such that we simply cannot yet point at them. If we could point at them, they would already have lost their urgent and essential epistemic value to us. Epistemically interesting relations between concepts and objects do not take the form of ostension; such objects cannot (yet) be pointed at. If this is called non-referentiality, it can only mean that epistemic reference is suppositional. There is reference, but its precise meaning remains elusive. Once more: Epistemically interesting relations do not simply take the form of ostension or of naming. There are two possible resolutions to this essential tension. The first is that the epistemic object is transformed into a technical object, that is, into a state in which the relation between concept and object is no longer problematic. This means that within the confines of the accepted standards, the object...