Marine biologist Daniel Pauly’s TED talk gives us one example of how scientific practices are normative: establish, relate to, or can be derived from accepted standards. We’ve already talked about this using Bourdieu’s model of accumulating scientific cultural capital, but Rouse approaches the same issue from a philosophical perspective. Rouse’s main question is how does the richly meaningful, normative field of human activity ever successfully connect to “nature”? Rouse starts from the point that scientific statements seem to be very rigid in its meaning and very clear and unyielding in terms of its statements of fact. So if science seems to be so sure of its results and models of explaining causality, how do new scientific truths, especially those that go against established models (e.g., paradigm shifts, using Kuhn’s terminology) ever gain traction? Rouse wants us to see scientific practices as normative.
As a philosopher, Rouse first points out problems within philosophy that make it difficult to examine science. These problems center around the dualist conceptions of nature (mind/body, culture/nature, etc.). Rouse further suggests that insights gathered from ‘cultural studies’ can help philosophers overcome this problem.
This article can be seen as a response to the rejection of cultural studies’ approach to science studies (and more background why we read so much about the ‘social constructionism’ approach in Shapin and Schaffer). One of the highlights from this rejection of cultural studies is the 1996 acceptance of a fake cultural studies paper by physicist Alan Sokal.
Rouse was salvaging the positive contributions of cultural studies and STS by grounding cultural studies within philosophical critique. While cultural studies – grounded in power and social criticism – seems very far from the ‘materialist’ concerns of the natural sciences, Rouse argues that there is a way to get away from the excesses of subjectivity that lead to the ‘anything goes’ problem. To do so, philosophers must avoid two dominant approaches in philosophy. The first is the antirealist strategy: representations or practices of inquiry do not respond to things as they really are apart from us but only to their manifestations in experience or social practices. The second approach to avoid is the naturalist strategy, where representational content is reduced to its causal/functional role already within the natural world. Before going into his approach of science as normative, Rouse first starts with a list of explanations that further confound the problem of using cultural studies in the philosophical study of science:
- The issue is not theory vs. practice; scientific theory should be understood, however, as theoretical practices.
- Science does not take place in a vacuum, but responds and conforms to the practical configurations of the world – (what we in anthropology call social structures).
- Science takes place within a particular sociohistorical and political context, as we read about in Bourdieu.
Rouse then wants us to see scientific practices as normative – “tacit propositional attitudes.” Science can then be described as a network of practices that takes place within a range of actions, some of which are normative: “Shared meanings or beliefs are not the preexisting facts that would explain the possibility of communication, but the norms presumptively invoked in the course of interpreting someone or something as communicative” (1999:447). But temporality does matter, in that scientific understanding is always in a state of change, which Rouse describes as ‘semantic drift.’ This is what Pauly above describes as a shifting baseline.
Rouse, like marine biologist Pauly, wants us to see scientific models as simulacra rather than representations. This is what he means by wondering how representing things differently can have a causal influence on things. Actions materially transform the world in ways that normatively reconfigure what can be at stake in subsequent actions.
Within the disunity and theoretical chaos of scientific knowledge, what Rouse recommends avoiding is ‘epistemic sovereignty,’ that there is a position outside or above scientific practices. Understanding scientific practices normatively avoids this problem. Actions and explicit reinterpretations of them do not merely construe the past but also project a future. Again, this is the takeaway from Pauly, in that our scientific understanding of fish populations shape the way we practice marine conservation.
This same thinking plays out in terms of our understanding of race, BTW.