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Configurations 12.3 (2004) 435-476

Complementarity and Deconstruction:
Plotnitsky's Analysis and Beyond
Makoto Katsumori
Akita University

The philosophical thought of the modern physicist Niels Bohr (1885–1962), which revolves around the concept of complementarity, has long been a major subject of historical and philosophical inquiry. Many prior studies of Bohr's complementarity, however, seem to be limited by the fact that they largely proceed within the conceptual frames of the "mainstream" philosophy of science. This being the case, his radical questioning of traditional scientific and philosophical notions—such as the unambiguity of concepts and words—has not been adequately addressed, insofar as these notions are uncritically presupposed by the commentators themselves. In other words, Bohr's thought has often been interpreted under certain tacit premises of scientific rationality that are precisely of the kind targeted by his epistemological critique.

In recent years, however, there have emerged new approaches to Bohr's idea of complementarity that place it in different, less conventional, philosophical contexts. Among the most notable of these is Arkady Plotnitsky's endeavor to connect Bohr's complementarity with Jacques Derrida's project of deconstruction. In the present article, based on my recent doctoral dissertation,1 I take up this contribution by Plotnitsky as a suitable point of reference from which to [End Page 435] explore anew Bohr's thought with its radical philosophical implications. After outlining Bohr's complementarity argument and Plotnitsky's reading thereof (in the first and second sections, respectively), I will examine a series of problems that seem to face, or to be left unsolved by, Plotnitsky's account (in the third section). This critical appraisal will finally lead me to sketch a new interpretive approach of my own (in the fourth section), which both extends and delimits the intersections between complementarity and deconstruction. As regards the historical development of Bohr's complementarity, I will largely restrict myself to the period between 1927 and 1950, in which the most crucial of his innovative ideas seem to have been presented.

I. Bohr's Idea of Complementarity

In his 1927 lecture delivered in Como, Italy, entitled "The Quantum Postulate and the Recent Development of Atomic Theory," Niels Bohr introduced the concept and framework of complementarity as a pivotal idea in his interpretation of quantum theory. From then on, he continually developed the idea of complementarity with regard not only to quantum theory but to other fields of knowledge as well. In what follows, I will first outline his complementarity argument in its "early" period, stretching from 1927 to the mid-thirties,—or, more precisely, until just before his 1935 debate with EPR.2

Bohr starts by noting that "our usual description of physical phenomena is based entirely on the idea that the phenomena concerned may be observed without disturbing them appreciably."3 This notion of physical phenomena as undisturbed by observation underlies all of classical physics and is still maintained in the theory of relativity. However, Bohr continues, a new situation has arisen with the development of quantum theory, specifically with "the so-called quantum postulate, which attributes to any atomic process an essential discontinuity, or rather individuality, completely foreign to the classical theories"; this "individuality" implies that "any observation of atomic phenomena will involve an interaction with the [End Page 436] agency of observation not to be neglected" (PWNB, 1: 53–54.). In more specific terms, any observation aimed at space-time coordination brings about an exchange of momentum and energy with the measuring rods and clocks. It is crucial here that this interaction between the object and the instrument of observation is not simply unavoidable, but "uncontrollable," which represents a "feature of irrationality" brought into the description of nature (PWNB, 1: 68, 91). For insofar as the measuring instruments are to fulfill their purpose, the interaction itself cannot be taken into account, and thus the magnitude of the disturbance always remains unknown.

It follows, in Bohr's view, that "an independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can neither be ascribed to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation...


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