Theories as cameras, theories as engines

At some point all of science was together in something called “natural philosophy”. Francis Bacon was the first to attempt to partition the sciences. Nowadays disciplines are partitioned more or less neatly. (Cognitive Sciences being new is pretty haphazard.) And there is one big demarcation I wish to touch upon: between soft and hard sciences, or social and natural sciences.

I have frequently observed the confusing fact that whether one is more connected to the social or the natural sciences is quite predictive of one’s epistemological beliefs: It seems that people that participate or research in hard science fields (physics, chemistry, biology) seem to be drawn into objectivity whilst those in soft science fields (economics, sociology) more drawn to non-objectivity.

In what follows I attempt to describe the epistemology of the fields and to do a first pass at along what axis the underlying epistemological assumptions differ.


Descriptive epistemology of the 2 scientific cultures

In designerly ways of knowing (1), Nigel Cross talks about 3 scientific cultures (sciences, humanities, design) and characterises them across the axes of phenomenon of study, appropriate methods, and values. I’m going to reproduce his characterizations, skipping design:

“The phenomenon of study in each culture is

  • in the sciences: the natural world
  • in the humanities: human experience

The appropriate methods in each culture are

  • in the sciences: controlled experiment, classification, analysis
  • in the humanities: analogy, metaphor, evaluation

The values of each culture are

  • in the sciences: objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for ‘truth’
  • in the humanities: subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for ‘justice’

Now, researchers are trained and develop methodologies which entail epistemologies and ontologies.  I think I finally understood what this difference about.

The basic metaphor of knowledge is vision. When you see you don’t change the object. This metaphor obtains for physics and chemistry and biology for the most part, and thus you can model this domains as being observer independent, as systems that are separate from the one that is modeling them.

In the soft sciences (that is, sciences that study human-made systems, or systems made up by humans) the correct metaphor is touch: to understand you must manipulate the object. You cannot be independent of the systems that you are observing – there is theoretical performativity. Meaning, the observer and what the observer is doing (theorising) affect the phenomenon.

Your observations (and their being published and spread out) change the system you set out to observe. Your theories in this domain are not a camera, but an engine.

This suggestion is not wholly original. Cybernetics was the study of systems, and second-order cybernetics the study of systems including the ones constructing systems and studying systems. In what follows I tease out the generativity of this particular viewpoint to understand the curious fact pointed at in the introduction.



Naive objectivism. The received worldview, the natural stance (my map is the territory.).


Observer sits outside of the system he is observing. God’s eye view


What is being described is independent and not affected by the description or the descriptor.


Representationalism/Realism: One level up, my map is not the territory and the territory informs my map but there is no bidirectional causality.


“The KNOWING IS SEEING conceptual metaphor allows us to understand the abstract domain of knowledge by means of the concrete domain of sight. This is a metaphor with a clear experiential basis2 grounded in the fact that in early childhood human beings normally receive cognitive input by seeing. Nevertheless, whereas in the first years of one’s life perception and cognition are conceived as together (or conflated in terms of JOHNSON 1997), due to the fact that there is a deep basic correlation between the intellectual input and vision, afterwards these two domains separate from each other («deconflation» in JOHNSON’s words 1997). This is the reason why we are able to use the metaphor KNOWING IS SEEING meaning just «awareness» and not being linked to vision at all, which may be seen in everyday language expressions like the following ones:

(a) I see what you’re getting at.

(b) His claims aren’t clear.

(c) The passage is opaque.” (2)


A great intro.



Objectivity is impossible. Everything that is said is said from someone to someone, from a specific viewpoint, culture, assumptions and so on that cannot be transcended.


Participant observation, ethnography. If you want to study the object you must interact.


Claim can be made and triangulated from authors in various different positions.


I write about this particular relationship at some length in modelling map aggregation.


The mapping alters the territory.


“what we conventionally think of a ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are co-arising. Because the mind is embodied and arises out of “an active handling and coping with the world”, then “whatever you call an object … is entirely dependent on this constant sensory motor handling”. As a result an object is not independently ‘out there’, but “arises because of your activity, so, in fact, you and the object are co-emerging, co-arising” (Varela, 1999: 71-72).”


Core metaphor is “knowing is touching”. To know the object you must interact with it, and your interactions change it.


Habermas: “By linking meaning with the acceptability of speech acts, Habermas moves the analysis beyond a narrow focus on the truth-conditional semantics of representation to the social intelligibility of interaction. The complexity of social interaction then allows him to find three basic validity claims potentially at stake in any speech act used for cooperative purposes (i.e., in strong communicative action). His argument relies on three “world relations” that are potentially involved in strongly communicative acts in which a speaker intends to say something to someone about something (TCA1: 275ff). For example, a constative (fact-stating) speech act (a) expresses an inner world (an intention to communicate a belief); (b) establishes a communicative relation with a hearer (and thus relates to a social world, specifically one in which both persons share a piece of information, and know they do); and (c) attempts to represent the external world. This triadic structure suggests that many speech acts, including non-constatives, involve a set of tacit validity claims: the claim that the speech act is sincere (non-deceptive), is socially appropriate or right, and is factually true (or more broadly: representationally adequate). Conversely, speech acts can be criticized for failing on one or more of these scores. Thus fully successful speech acts, insofar as they involve these three world relations, must satisfy the demands connected with these three basic validity claims (sincerity, rightness, and truth) in order to be acceptable.”

  1. – “Cross, Nigel. “Designerly Ways of Knowing.” Design Studies 3.4 (1982): 221-27.”
  2. – Ruiz, J. H. (2005). The authority is vision and the knowledge is a bounded region metaphors in fairy tales. Interlingüística, (16), 569-578.


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