History flows through some problems

Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2010. viii + 299 pp., £18.50 pb., 978 0 8166 5687 8.

Michael Halewood

To state that ‘reality is a construction’ might elicit two opposed responses. Certain philosophers and social theorists would welcome the claim, in so far as it appears to confirm the primacy of human thought and inquiry and entails a mature recognition of the inevitable mediation of language, concepts or discourse in any discussion of reality. Certain members of the scientific community might shrug and ignore such a claim as further evidence of the irrationality and irrelevance of contemporary philosophy and social theory; or, if they are still engaged in the Science Wars, they might respond more vehemently. It is the development of avenues of thought that move beyond such entrenched positions and avoid this bifurcation of responses that concerns Stengers in this work.

This is not to say that Stengers maintains, in any simplistic kind of way, that ‘reality is a construction’. Rather, she investigates the way in which arguments about reality have ended up being fought on these specific grounds, within a specific set of limitations. Stengers aims to trace and re-energize the problems, conceptual blockages and opportunities which were played out in the development of modern physics, leading to its peculiar but effective self-claimed status as the only true authority on reality. A major part of this peculiarity lies in the insistence of modern physics that whatever reality is, its location and status lie beyond the things or phenomena of the world (rocks, tables, clocks, peas, amoeba) as they appear to humans. True reality is expressed in the realm of the sub-atomic, the immediately invisible access to which is granted to physics alone, which consequently has sole proprietorial rights to report upon this realm to those of us outside of its sacred walls.

Cosmopolitics, originally published in French in seven discrete volumes, of which the first three are collected here, neither accepts nor dismisses the claims of either philosophy or science; Stengers in fact has a commitment to both. In the early part of her career, she worked with the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, and this close conceptual relation bears witness to her ongoing endeavour to ‘take science seriously’, and not to use philosophical techniques to undermine or negatively critique scientific propositions whilst neglecting to partake of the immanent problems that the scientist addresses. When adopted, such a procedure absolves the philosopher of any responsibility for the consequences and implications of their abstract ruminations – something which Stengers strives to avoid. However, she is clear that her work is not simply an interpretation of the work of science (and of Prigogine in particular) or an attempt to make it accessible or acceptable for a philosophical or social scientific audience. Nor is it simply a history of ideas or concepts. As she writes:

It is not with Prigogine but because of Prigogine that I came to the conviction that it was important to celebrate experimental success, the successful differentiation between ‘fact’ and artifact to which experimental proof obligates us, not to authorize a vision of the world, but rather to create beings whose autonomy is specified by the requirements that the obligations of proof have brought to bear upon them, requirements they were able to satisfy.

Here we have some of Stengers’s key concepts: experimentation, artefact, requirements and obligations.

Experimentation does not simply refer to scientific experiments, though such experiments can display the necessary elements if they also accept that what is produced by experiments are not ‘facts’ but artefacts. Throughout this text, Stengers adopts the term ‘factishes’ (with a nod to Latour) to describe the particular and peculiar types of being which are constructedby successful experimentation. Such factishes are autonomous beings, created in and through experimentation but are not, therefore, mere fictions. They have an effectivity and reality to the extent that they exhibit and respond to the requirements and obligations specified by the experiment. Stengers does not limit such experimentation to the operations of science; philosophy too, for example, can be experimental, so long as it stipulates its requirements and obligations. In this way, Stengers aims to move beyond the sterile terrain of the so-called Science Wars towards genuine productive inquiry. It is the twin notions of ‘requirements’ and ‘obligations’ that differentiate between ‘scientific’ or ‘successful’ practices and those which fall outside of these.

Much of the rest of this volume could be seen as an extension of the concepts delineated above, though each of the remaining two ‘books’ is much more than simple illustration. Book Two is titled ‘The Invention of Mechanics: Power and Reason’ and in it Stengers turns her attention to the question of the laws of physics and their supposed elaboration of the concept and reality of a ‘state’. This notion of ‘state’ is one, Stengers argues, that haunts modern physics and modern thought. It involves the presupposition that the most objective account of reality involves a description of the conditions and status of all the items involved at a given instant. For example, with regard to the question of the distinction between the mind and the brain, a pressing philosophical, scientific and social scientific problem with implications for the very existence of consciousness, the terms in which the scientific and materialist position are formulated rely upon an assumption of the validity of the concept of ‘state’ without being able to explain either what constitutes it, or what it is meant to explain. ‘In fact, nothing is more indeterminate than the identity of a “state of the central nervous system”, and the behaviour of such a state, which is to say, the “laws” it is supposed to obey and in terms of which thought would be explained.’ This is not, however, to celebrate or support those who insist that the mind, thought or consciousness are different in kind from the brain and cannot be reduced to or explained by the physical state of the central nervous system. Stengers insists that the inability of both sides of the argument to make clear what would count as evidence for their arguments, what constitutes the requirements and obligations of their respective positions, entails that we have not moved beyond Leibniz’s statement that ‘“mechanical reasons”, based on Descartes’s figures and movements, would never explain perception’. Stengers does not then try to solve the mind–brain problem or to deconstruct once and for all the concept of state. Rather, she aims to delineate the original problem to which the creation of the concept of state was designed to respond. That is to say, she isolates the specificity of its development and its application in the field of mechanics. In doing so, she argues that ‘proper’ scientific concepts respond to the singularity of a problem and are not catch-all generalities.

Following from Galileo’s work on the rate of falling bodies, there arose the problem of accounting for the velocity of such bodies at a given instant, given that they are accelerating. How can acceleration be captured at a fixed instant? Any falling body, at any instant, has a specific velocity, but at that instant the velocity cannot be assessed in terms of any distance as it is precisely the ‘timeless’ character of velocity at an instant which is of interest. Furthermore, as Galileo’s bodies are accelerating, this velocity is not fixed but changes from instant to instant.The answer to this problem is produced when the ‘instantaneous velocity of a falling body is defined as the “effect” of its past … And it is also the “cause” of its future’. This leads to a specific conception of cause and effect as ‘reciprocally self-determining’; indeed there is a ‘dynamic equivalence between cause and effect’. The success of Galileo in ‘the making of the first true experimental “factish”’ is to provide the measurement, the meaning of the measurement and an explanation of the instantaneous state(s) of falling bodies. This is the birth of the concept of different ‘states’ which in and of themselves can explain the state which precedes it or follows it. Stengers admires this construction but insists that its success is one which only relates to mechanics, to the measurement of falling bodies. The subsequent expansion of this notion to questions such as the state of the central nervous system or the state of the economy is to misunderstand the original function and extension of the concept of state and to misuse its power. This results not in elucidation but in mystification of the status and authority of science. ‘I don’t believe’, writes Stengers, ‘that there has been any concept to this day that has been so misused, that has involved such disastrous blends of intuitive pseudo-evidence and an operation of disqualification, as the concept of “state”.’ The insistence, by contrast, that such states have a level of objectivity and ability to explain pervades debates not just in science but those regarding the distinction between the mind and the brain, and the constitution of society. So, it is common but erroneous to hold that ‘if we could fully describe an instantaneous situation (the neuronal brain, or even a society), we could deduce its behaviour over time.’ The seed of such a position is to be found, according to Stengers, in what she calls the ‘Lagranian Event’. This refers to the success of the eighteenth-century mathematician Lagrange in producing a theorem whereby the description of forces is dislocated from any particular occurrence of such forces. Unlike Galileo, whose descriptions always involved the specificity of the relation of bodies to (accelerating) force and whose notion of equilibrium or an instantaneous state was tied to the experimental requirements and obligations which he outlined, Lagrange generalizes account so that ‘the effect of forces can be defined independently of whether the bodies on which they act are in a state of rest of in motion.’ But such a generalization is achieved by a ‘mathematical sleight of hand’, which entails that Lagrange’s theory is premissed on a ‘fiction’. For, where Galileo only ever produced an account of equilibrium that was exhibited by and through the relation of accelerating force and falling bodies, Lagrange abstracts from this situation to attempt to describe the possible relation of any force on any body. As Stengers puts it:

What this means – and it is here that the power of the Lagrangian fiction comes into its own – is that the description of the instantaneous state can be construed as if it referred to a state of static equilibrium like that of the Galilean weight–counterweight situation. ‘As is’ is the keyword of the Langrangian event.

The power of the ‘=’ sign is essential to this construction. For it appears to provide a validity and authority, explicating an equality in reality, where in fact this equality relies upon a fictionalized notion of the equilibrium of an instantaneous state which is no longer defined in relation to any specific situation or event. Some might see this as a great advance: the moment where mathematical equations became, apparently, able to describe and explain all, without assuming or being tied to anything in particular. But, for Stengers, such a procedure is unwarranted in so far as it ignores the fact that the apparent power of such equations relies upon a fictionalized concept of equilibrium.

One further damaging consequence of this is that the notion of cause appears to drop out of the equation. ‘When the economist “represents a system” using “Lagrangian” equations, he obviously avoids having to determine “causes.” He simply introduces equilibria and can, justifiably, claim that equilibrium is a neutral concept … But he also exploits the definitional power of equivalence.’ Cause is not eliminated but is no longer mentioned, it simply becomes a functional but invisible aspect of the objectivity of a dynamic system and the states in which such a system consist and purport to explain. To sum up, Stengers argues, contemporary arguments and debates which still insist upon invoking some notion of a state or state-function to make or support their arguments do so without acknowledging the primary fiction upon which such arguments, and view of the world, rely. Our present quiescence in the face of equations as explanations of reality repeat the unwarranted extension of the limited but valid pronouncements of eighteenth-century ‘rational mechanics’ to the post-Lagrangian position where the ‘=’ sign assumes its overarching power: ‘the condition of possibility for “reducing” mechanical problems to a problem of mathematical analysis’. This is a problem that we still inhabit.

There is much more to Cosmopolitics than just an elaboration of the concept of ‘state’. I have focused on this argument as it indicates the depth and detail of scholarship and analysis that Stengers develops throughout her text. It also points to her specific and productive approach to science and philosophy, which eschews simple critique and insists upon a full engagement with the technical aspect and animus of the problems under consideration. The later stages of this volume consider how notions of dynamics developed into descriptions of the movements of all bodies in the universe, especially planetary and stellar motions; the rise in importance of thermodynamics; the apparently contradictory concepts of the conservation of energy and the dissipation of energy (entropy); reversibility and irreversibility (the arrow of time); the shift to the definition of motion in terms of atoms instead of planets; the ‘invention of theoretical physics’ and the faith of the physicist in a unified conception of the world, a world which we cannot see but the physicist can report upon. Stengers addresses all these with a remarkable degree of knowledge, insight and detail. She is not afraid of asking the reader to follow her into the depths of some mathematical problems.Yet she manages to do this in a way that leads the attentive reader through these difficult fields, and we soon emerge with a rewarding and fresh perspective on contemporary problems of the constitution and construction of reality. No specialist knowledge is required to manage to successfully steer a path through this book (though it might be worth looking up certain key terms, such as the second law of thermodynamics), but a level of conceptual attention is needed to get the most out of it. Having said this, Stengers’s arguments are unfortunately not always well served by this translation. Her style and mode of argument, in the French version of the text, whilst not overly simple are always clear and incisive. This is not always replicated in the English translation, and there are some clumsy constructions which produce ambiguities not there in the original. This means that the reader has occasionally to put in more effort than they otherwise might have. Yet, such effort will be amply rewarded, for Cosmopolitics I is not just an important intervention in the history and philosophyof science; it announces a new and original approach to the problems and procedures of philosophy.