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  • Science Wars and Beyond
  • Harold Fromm
Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human, by Barbara Herrnstein Smith; viii & 198 pp. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, $21.95 paper.
Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, by Paul Boghossian; 139 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, $24.95.

Barbara H. Smith, a professor of comparative and English literature at both Duke and Brown, has read widely in philosophy and the sciences. "Scandalous knowledge" is her phrase to describe not the "science wars" (to use the title of the notorious Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text) but the epistemology wars. The chief antagonists in these wars consist, on the one side, of traditional proponents of "classical" philosophy's normative, analytic, justifying, and stable methodologies and proponents, on the other, of such twentieth-century constructivist epistemologies as those of Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, David Bloor, and Bruno Latour. "The scandal," Smith explains, is classical philosophy's "apparent inability to show how, when and why we can be sure that we know something or, indeed, that we know anything" (p. 1). In her well-executed Introduction, perhaps the best chapter in the book (for its panoramic picture of today's "Theory of Knowledge" conflicts), Smith prepares us for her espousal of constructivist methodologies but first distinguishes between "epistemological constructivism"—a philosophical methodology with an antagonism toward universal rationalities, philosophical "realism," in-itselfness, or [End Page 580] the Correspondence Theory of Truth—and the cultural critique often called "social constructionism," a distinction she acknowledges to be sometimes difficult and hazy. Social constructionism, a highly political activity, is critical of traditional notions of the normative and is engaged with the workings of cultural critics, ethicists, feminists, gender theorists, critics of institutional power, and the "goes without saying" of mainstream assumptions in the treatment of race, sexuality, the "natural" and the innate. In a word, the global conflict she describes is between "reason" (a contested term) and politics (not very contested, except for who and what are political), between the putative eternal verities of thought and the contingencies of daily life. Whereas a "constructivist" sociologist of science would stress the social, collective, intersubjective, institutional aspects of scientific knowledge, questioning "the standard understandings and treatments of such terms as fact, discovery, evidence, proof, objectivity and, of course, knowledge and science themselves" (p. 7), the "social constructionist" would be more likely to focus on class, politics, economics, and culture seen as a congeries of power structures.

Smith is particularly distressed by the claims of traditional philosophy when she asks, "May it not be the case that the strict distinctions and divisions of labor that underwrite philosophy's self-honoring role in the study of science and knowledge beg all the relevant questions and, where maintained, insure philosophy's self-confinement?" (p. 10). She sees knowledge as assembled from multiple sources: philosophy, science, social sciences, human animality and subjectivity but she is not suggesting an abandonment of the notion of "truth," just a curbing of the notion of absolute knowledge, or knowledge of things-in-themselves (though even traditionalists believe being known can't be an aspect of a thing-in-itself.) In the process of constructing truths, "reason is not 'abandoned' for 'irrationalism'; scientific knowledge is not 'equated with' myth or ideology; and so forth . . . but are reconceived as variable gradients rather than fixed, distinct and polar opposites" (p. 11). She prefers to speak of the "superiority" of certain claims rather than their fixed universality via "rationalist-realist-positivist epistemology." As her overall theme, Smith wants to defend constructivist epistemology as the appropriate one for the twenty-first century and, to a slightly lesser extent, the goals of social construction, while deriding as unfounded the attacks against their purported relativism, nihilism, fatuous egalitarianism, and political correctness. Her performance is undeniably impressive but her success is mixed.

The stronger first half of the book mounts a plausible defense of [End Page 581] constructivist epistemology. Starting off with a quick survey of "Pre-Post-Modern" relativists from Heraclitus to Wittgenstein, Smith moves on to twentieth-century modernist questioners of objectivist-universalist epistemes, from Heidegger and Einstein to Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Lenin, and in the arts Woolf, Stravinsky...


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