The Sociology of Reasons: Or Why “Epistemic Factors” are Really “Social Factors”

  • David Bloor
Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 25)


The critics of the sociology of knowledge have produced a variety of interesting responses and counter arguments. Their objections are launched from very different standpoints, and the profile of their concessions is different in each case. On the one hand there is the sympathetic treatment of Gutting, who accepts the ‘symmetry’ requirement for sociological explanation, but denies its relativist implications. On the other hand, there is the more sweeping dismissal of Jarvie, who wants to sever the mere beliefs of scientists from what he calls ‘science as such’. Perhaps the line of critical commentary that contains most promise is that of Nicholas. His observation, that there is a considerable overlap between the ‘interest model’ of belief and recent work in decision and confirmation theory, is a valuable one. The programme of relating different inductive strategies to socially structured utilities is certainly one in which sociologists, historians and philosophers could cooperate.1 Gaston’s down-to-earth emphasis on the learning process indicates a similar point of contact between the disciplines. The most intriguing and colourful of the criticisms, however, comes from Butts.


Social Factor Intellectual History Methodological Principle Spirit World Interest Model 
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  1. 1.
    The cross-disciplinary bridge is, in fact, already under construction. A major step in this direction has been taken by Mary Hesse with her ‘network model’. This is essentially an account of the pattern of conventions that are found in systems of classification and concept application. Hesse then goes on to describe her network model in terms of probabilistic confirmation theory. See M. Hesse, The Structure of Scientific Inference, Macmillan, London, 1974. A point of particular interest in this account concerns the ‘coherence conditions’ of the network. These are not parts of the network but conditions external to it which result in certain parts of the verbal pattern of culture being held stable. In confirmation theory these can be modelled in terms of the a priori probabilities accorded to parts of the network; sociologically they can oftep be identified as social interests. For an examination of the network model from this point of view, see: D. Bloor, ‘Durkheim and Mauss Revisited: Classification and the Sociology of Knowledge’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol. 13, No. 4, 267–297, 1982.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See ‘Durkheim and Mauss Revisited’, p. 290 for the reference to: E. McMullin, Newton on Matter and Activity, London, University of Notre Dame Press, 1978. The present exchange may be seen as a continuation of the difference of opinion that emerged in the above article. There I noted that McMullin sought to explain the Newtonian preference for the passivity of matter by appeal to metaphysical influence and theological tradition — as if these things, in turn, were self-explanatory or self-perpetuating. I argued that he could, and should, have made reference to available historical work which explains these metaphysical and theological preferences in terms of their social use and the social interests that underlay that use.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    McMullin suggests on p. 153 that I do not acknowledge or allow for the relative insulation of contemporary science from the wider social milieu. His evidence is that I use Mary Douglas’ idea that a scientist’s perception of what is right and necessary in social relations generates his sense of what we will find necessary in nature. In fact, Douglas’ principle in no way leads to a denial of processes such as professionalisation — because these are themselves ways of structuring social relations. The process of professionalisation, and self-conscious ‘insulation’, led to some extremely interesting and characteristic accounts of nature. The literature on scientific naturalism is important here, e.g. F.M. Turner, ‘The Victorian conflict between science and religion: a professional dimension’, Isis, lxix (1978), 356–76. I discuss the topic in: D. Bloor, Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge, London, Macmillan, 1983, Ch. 7, section 5, ‘The Problem of Insulation’.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    ‘[T]he word God is a relative Term, and has Reference to Servants, and Deity is the Dominion of God, not (such as a Soul has) over a Body of its own, which is the notions of those who make God the Soul of the World; but (such as a Governor has) over Servants’. Isaac Newton, General Scholium to the Mathematical Principles. This is William Whiston’s translation given in F.E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1974, D. 16).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Later, when the High Church Hutchinsonians criticised the Newtonians, they did so on the grounds that the corpuscular philosophers collapsed God and Nature together. They saw the Newtonians as the Newtonians saw the sectaries, as making God the Soul of the World. C. Wilde, ‘Hutchinsonianism, natural philosophy and religious controversy in eighteenth-century Britain’, History of Science, xviii, 1980, 1–24.Google Scholar
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    D. Bloor, ‘Wittgenstein and Mannheim on the Sociology of Mathematics’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol. 4, 1973, 173–191; reprinted in: H.M. Collins (ed.), Sociology of Scientific Knowledge: a source book, Bath, Bath University Press, 1982, 39–57.Google Scholar
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    S. Kripke, ‘Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Languages’, in I. Block (ed.), Perspectives on the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Oxford, Blackwell, 1981, 238–312.Google Scholar
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    See the examples in: D. Bloor, Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge, London, Macmillan, 1983, Chapters 5 and 6.Google Scholar
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    S. Shapin, ‘Phrenological Knowledge and the Social Structure of Early Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh’, Annals of Science, 32, 1975, 219–243; S. Shapin, ‘Homo Phrenologicus: Anthropological Perspectives on an Historical Problem’, in B. Barnes and S. Shapin (eds.), Natural Order: Historical Studies in Scientific Culture, London, Sage, 1979, 41–71.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Natural Order, p. 63. On the notion of social use, see S. Shapin, ‘Social uses of science’, in G.S. Rousseau and R. Porter (eds.), The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science, Cambridge, C. U. P., 93–139.Google Scholar
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    On p. 42 of Natural Order Shapin had said: “The mere assertion that scientific knowledge ‘has to do’ with the social order or that it is ‘not autonomous’ is no longer interesting. We must now specify how, precisely, to treat scientific culture as a social product. We need to ascertain the exact nature of the links between accounts of natural reality and the social order”. In other words, he had made exactly the point that McMullin was to make about the need to move from correlation to causation. I cannot imagine that McMullin would have developed his argument in the way he did if he had pondered on the significance of these passages.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    To emphasize this point it is worth stressing that the most detailed account that we have of the technical content of the debate is to be found in a paper of Shapin’s that McMullin does not cite: S. Shapin, ‘The Politics of Observation: Cerebral Anatomy and Social Interests in the Edinburgh Phrenology Disputes’, in R. Wallis (ed.), On the Margins of Science: the Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge, (Sociological Review Monographs), Keele University, 1979, 139–178; reprinted in: H.M. Collins (ed.), Sociology of Scientific Knowledge: a source book, Bath, Bath University Press, 1982, 103–150. In this paper the conflict of social interests is traced in the esôteric details of the subsequent disputes about the size of the frontal sinuses, the structure of the corpus dentatum in the cerebellum, and the existence and precise location of the fibrous matter between the cerebellum and the brain stem. The refusal of either party in the debate to give in when confronted by the evidence adduced by its opponents widened the debate beyond simple matters of fact into esoteric questions about preferred anatomical technique and, ultimately, into proper methods of assessing evidence and testimony. The whole interest of the analysis is that it can and does illiuminate these things. That is why the paper is properly called the politics OF observation, and not: politics OR observation.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    G.N. Cantor, ‘The Edinburgh Phrenology Debate: 1803–1828’, Annals of Science, 32, 1975, 195–218; G.N. Cantor, ‘A Critique of Shapin’s Sociological Interpretation of the Edinburgh Phrenology Debate’, Annals of Science, 32, 1975, 245–256.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    E. g., “The most remarkable aspect of the Edinburgh phrenology debate was the high degree of incommensurability between the protagonists. They adhered to different theories and accepted very different classes of ‘facts’. There was further incommensurability owing to major differences in philosophical, metaphysical and methodological principles, and also, in specific cases, in theological outlook. So many and so deeply held forms of incommensurability ensured that there was minimal interactions between the two parties”. p. 217; cf. also p. 253.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Shapin’s own appeal to Wittgenstein in connection with the idea of ‘social use’ is to be found in his ‘Social uses of science’ paper, p. 133. See footnote 10 above.Google Scholar
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    For example, Boyle changed the atomism of the Pagan thinkers of antiquity by removing from their atoms the power to move and organise themselves. Similarly, the ether theorists of late Victorian Cambridge changed the ether from a mechanical and material thing which might explain, say, electrical phenomena, into an electrical thing that might explain matter. In both cases there were technical and social goals that could be jointly furthered by these shifts. See for example: J. Jacob, ‘Boyle’s atomism and the Restoration assault on pagan naturalism’, Social Studies of Science, Vol. viii, 1978, 211–233; and B. Wynne, ‘Physics and Psychics: Science, Symbolic Action, and Social Control in Late Victorian England’, in B. Barnes and S. Shapin (eds.), Natural Order, London, Sage, 1979, 167–186.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    For Wynne, see footnote 16 above. J. Dean, ‘Controversy over Classification: a case study from the history of botany’, Natural Order, 211–230. Nor, in general, does the charge fit the large number of studies concerned with what has been called ‘professional vested interests’. It is by studies of this kind that I would expect to find some sociological light shed on the esoteric debates within contemporary science, and hence on the example that McMullin cites of S matrix theory. For references to this theory see: A Pickering, ‘Exemplars and Analogies: a comment on Crane’s study of Kuhnian paradigms in high energy physics’, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 10, 1980, 497–502, esp. p. 499; A. Pickering, ‘Elementary Particles: Discovered or Constructed?’, in W.P. Trower and G. Bellini (eds.), Physics in Collision: High Energy ee/ep/pp Interactions, Vol. 1, London, Plenum Press, 1982, 439–447, p. 445; and more generally, A. Pickering, ‘The Role of Interests in High Energy Physics: the choice between Charm and Colour’, in K. Knorr, R. Krohn and R. Whitley (eds.), The Social Process of Scientific Investigation, Sociology of the Sciences, Vol. IV, 1980, 107–138.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    S. Shapin, ‘History of Science and its Sociological Reconstructions’, History of Science, Vol. xx, 1982, 157–211. Given the standard assumption that the sociology of knowledge must be (roughly speaking) entirely “externalist” in orientation, I would once again emphasize the importance of the section dealing with professional vested interests. This represents a form of “internalist” sociology.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    M. Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973, pp. 104–110; (e. g., “we tend to find trance-like states feared as dangerous where the social dimension is strongly controlled” p. 104).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    C.D. Broad, ‘Immanuel Kant and Psychical Research’, in Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, 116–155.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. J. W. Swan, New York, Collier Books, 1961. (First French edn. 1912.)Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    As representative of this trend, see: R.B. Haldane and J.S. Haldane, ‘The Relation of Philosophy to Science’, in A. Seth and R.B. Haldane (eds.), Essays in Philosophical Criticism, London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1883, 41–66, esp. pp. 51–2 and p. 62. This example, incidentally, shows that not even the entire critical thrust is lost.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Bloor
    • 1
  1. 1.Science Studies UnitUniversity of EdinburghUK

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