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Title: The constructivist conception of language and its functions in science
Author: Zahar, Alexander
ISNI:       0000 0001 3576 4818
Awarding Body: University of London
Current Institution: University College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 1996
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The main task of this thesis is to contrast two philosophical conceptions of 'language-and-its-functions' in science. The first, which I call the dualist conception, has dominated history and philosophy of science. There are two constituents of dualism: the disjunction of 'language' and 'world' (the latter term encompassing the supposed non-linguistic subject matter of science); and the assumption that the philosophically primary function of language in science is to be 'about' the world (thus language may be 'about' - or fail to be about - mind-dependent phenomena or mind-independent facts, depending on how a dualist conceives the world). In Part 1 I examine a wide spectrum of formulations of the dualist conception and show that it has influenced philosophers of science of almost every persuasion. I argue that language/world dualism has been presupposed without justification, and (besides being implausible) has remained ill-developed as a philosophical thesis. At the end of Part 1, I look at a body of medical publications from the early nineteenth century that are evidence of a crisis in the use of the 'formal' language of medicine - here language appears to be plainly differentiated from the subject matter of science by scientists themselves. I use the case study to argue that crises of language in pre-consensual science are commonplace, but provide no support for the dualist conception. The refutation of dualism is attempted in Part 2 where the constructivist conception of language is presented. I begin with an examination of recent scholarship in the history of science, laboratory studies, and the sociology of knowledge. In particular, I defend Gooding's 'theory' of the making of meaning in experiment, and argue that philosophy of science requires a much richer conception of language than that found in dualism. The conception I propose makes out language to be not a reference or symbolic device, but a resource of metaphysics, skills, and activities by way of which scientists communally make sense of their experimental experience. Functions of language considered basic by dualists (such as description and reference) are shown to be made functions, convention-bound, and historically contingent. Because language is an integral aspect of scientific knowledge from its most exploratory to its most accomplished levels, and because through uses of language human agency constitutes what natural knowledge and facts are, there can be no good argument for drawing a metaphysical distinction between language and that which it is 'about' in science, or for dissociating knowledge from that which it is knowledge 'of. Consequently dualism is rejected. Three secondary tasks of this thesis should be mentioned. First, I engage the realism/ anti-realism debate to show that both sides rely heavily on the dualist conception. Constructivism about language amounts to neither realism nor anti-realism as traditionally understood. Second, I emphasise the philosophical value of a recent body of primarily historical research on 'literary' aspects of science. Scepticism about the relevance of history to philosophy of science needs to be contained even today. Third, I discuss new areas of research in the philosophy of science. Constructivism, being a philosophical conception of language much richer than dualism, brings into focus philosophical issues that have yet to be examined in the philosophy of science.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Philosophy