Auteur: Alexandre Leupin

Alexandre Leupin est professeur distingué au département d'études françaises à Louisiana State University.

Is the Scientific Revolution Universal?

Is the Scientific Revolution Universal?

Since its creation by Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), the notion of paradigm shift has been radically trivialized and applied to all kinds of themes, whereas its original purview was restricted to the field of epistemology and the history of science (“paradigm shift” is an approximate equivalent of what we call the scientific revolution). Obviously, it is NOT a paradigm shift if you switch from smoking cigarettes to electronic ones, or if a male Olympic decathlon champion becomes a woman through the mutilations enabled by modern surgery. By definition, paradigm shifts are of interest to large numbers of people, cultures and communities. This is especially the case with the scientific revolution: science’s dominance extends nowadays to everybody everywhere. If we want to make sense of our world, we have to reflect on science and its consequences. As an aside, nothing in my studies in humanities lead me to ask myself this type of questions: humanities today are mostly taught like they were two thousand years ago, as if the scientific revolution never had happened. I became interested in the history and the impact of science on our cultural environment because of Lacan; I found in his work a reflection on science that is very often completely absent from the humanities or philosophy (Derrida was a good example).

The question I want to ask: is the paradigm shift of modern (or Galilean, it is the same) universal or not?

If we take a cursory look at epistemology, most historians of science would answer in the affirmative. For example, for Alexandre Koyré, no notion belonging the era of Greco-roman science has an equivalent in the modern era, after Galileo’s creation of modern science. This paradigm shift is thus universal; it has an effect on all fields of knowledge. Everything is radically new; even if old notions come back in the present, their meaning has shifted due to their new context. In passing, this approach destroys the notion of “Western civilization”, since we modern can’t claim anymore to be the heirs to a Greek or Roman legacy. The linear continuum between the Ancient Greeks and us voids the notion of “Western tradition”, since the paradigm shift of modern science makes it a consoling fantasy. For Koyré, between the spherical and limited Ancient cosmos and the modern, infinite universe, they are no synonyms, only homonyms; the same words designate totally different notions: for example, Aristotle’s motion (an object moves because it responds to a push) and Galileo’s (an object moves according to the law of inertia) are incompatible. Or, Kepler’s elliptical orb, defined by an algorithm, has nothing to do with Ptolemy’s perfect, material sphere. Koyré’s epistemology is grounded on the idea that, in human history, there are major paradigm shifts that affect all fields of knowledge and minor cuts that depend on them. If the scientific paradigm shift is universal, then we don’t need to concern ourselves with humanity or humanities: the human subject has been abolished by science – as Lacan affirms.

A distinctive feature of modern science is it relentless erasure of the past, included its own; this is congruent with the abolition of the subject that is a consequence of the expansion of modern science. For example, alchemy has no relevance for chemistry, the cosmology of Antiquity has nothing to do with modern physics, Einsteinian physics erase Newton, Greek culture cannot teach us anything, what we want as human beings, our affects, our experiences, are irrelevant to a scientific worldview – in that sense, a history of science is a paradoxical project. In addition, we live now, thanks to the Internet, in an immediate culture, where most of what happens is instantly transmitted: new technologies mimic the abolition of the past that is a feature of science. In such a context, which can be defined as an immediate surface without historical depth, it is necessary to provide a rejoinder to the obliteration of history and reflect on our pasts to make sense, not only of what happened, but also of what futures expect us.

Obviously, Freud believed in science as a major break, and, as far theoretical psychoanalysis is concerned (see the matheme, see the use of algebra and topology), Lacan did too. Hence theoretical psychoanalysis is a minor paradigm shift, because it depends on a major one (the scientific revolution). Also, Lacan shows us that we should not hesitate to draw on the scientific method, even if science will ultimately provoke either the human subject’s reduction or elimination. In the same vein, I do not advocate here the repudiation of science, only a concerted limitation to its absolutism.

Neither Freud nor Lacan thought that drives could be completely described in scientific terms, which means that not everything is affected by modern science. Or, in other words, something in the unconscious resists modern science and cannot be accounted for by it. This irreducible kernel of our being has to do with our past or the past of our cultures and societies (repression, in analytical terms). This means that no paradigm shift is wholly universal, especially the most “universal” of all, the scientific revolution.

Two phenomena, in my opinion, have been the major contributors to the rampant discontents of modern civilization. The first is the birth and expansion of modern (Galilean) science, which, as Lacan said, excludes the subject from its purview: “Scientific discourse grants no space to man.” Or, elsewhere: “Science is an ideology of the subject’s abolition” (Radiophonie, 67) In other words, it is useless to ask modern science for answers to our existential and ethical questions: the ideal of science excludes in its essence this type of questioning. And, more and more, we are subjected to the frenetic expansion of scientific imperatives, which, in Western societies, have replaced ethical and religious laws, thus building a kind of an absolute superego that does not suffer contradiction of any kind. As a test, ask your doctor to allow you the pleasures of overeating, overdrinking, smoking, narcotics or sex “addiction”. So, science is at the same time the major contributor to our material wellbeing as well as the primary agent of our ever-expanding frustrations.

We have then to seek for a different epistemology that doesn’t universalize any paradigm shit and doesn’t construct a hierarchy with major shifts and minor ones. We can find this diverging theory in Michel Foucault’s work. For him, they are no major paradigm shifts: a break always affects a specific field of knowledge without spilling over to others. Hence, The History of Madness deals only with the changes that affect the way we deal with mental illnesses, Discipline and Punish treats only the history of crime and retribution, The History of sexuality tackles only the evolution of gender theory between Greco- roman antiquity and the Christian West, etc. All these are discrete fields that don’t allow crossovers and contaminations, because there is no overarching paradigm that would authorize their bundling or a comparison between them. In other words, no shift, no abolition is ever universal; Foucaldian epistemology formally contradicts the universality of the scientific revolution. It therefore forces us to reconsider the past, whereas science got rid of it. This is essential in order to preserve and grow a spark of humanity: we need the past, we need several pasts to open our futures.

To conceive paradigm shifts as universal – to believe in any universality -indicates some laziness and lack of freedom of thought in our thought process. This is particularly perilous in the case of the scientific paradigm shift, which is nowadays quickly becoming the ultimate and universal superego, a superego to which there is no contradiction or reply possible, except through the next theory that will render the old one obsolete. To posit that shifts are absolutely determining and cannot be overcome is a belief, not a reality; if we admit these mental boundaries, we can neither go back to the past nor envision unlimited futures : in fact, the future becomes entirely determined, a burden that we cannot get rid of. In the last analysis, caving to the universalism of paradigm shifts is akin to killing imagination and the Imaginary, these spaces that support life (Eros, libido); it is to cave in to Thanatos, which has cloaked itself with the irrefutable mantel of modern science. When we convince ourselves that nothing new can be created outside a major epistemological break and that everything new harkens back to one shift or another, the past appears to us in the frozen linearity of causes and consequences.

However, this is but a retrospective illusion: we forget that the Becoming, at the very moment of fundamental shifts, leaves possibilities infinitely opened. Breaks in art and breaks in science don’t walk lockstep; continuities and discontinuities in diverse fields are asynchronous and heterogeneous: Michel Foucault is right.

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