Heidegger and a Suspicion of Modernity’s (Scientific) Epistemology


What does Science do? According to many, it is the absolute highest form of epistemology (that is how we know what we know about what we know). Yet it is my understanding that scientific epistemology is a limited form of knowing, like any other. And when it begins to be proclaimed beyond that, then it is overstepping its task and boundaries.

First, how is knowledge generated in Science? It all begins with the scientific method. First a hypothesis is developed. Now keep in mind that this hypothesis doesn’t develop itself. An individual, or group of such, must feel so curious about some sensation or observable phenomenon that they begin to inquire an understanding of it, and design proper experimentation to gain this understanding. This is where science herself reveals the relativity of her results, as each experiment is designed and conducted to only measure certain phenomenon. In other words, when variables and measurements are altered, so are the results. This is pretty obvious stuff, right?

This is why the concept of intelligent design, for instance, is bad science. All science can do is measure particular phenomenon to gain an increased knowledge of it; and an intelligent designer is not something science can observe. Notice that I am not saying intelligent design is a bad concept; just that it is not a discourse that science can properly have. The discourse of intelligent design is best had in philosophy or theology, not in a laboratory.

But science is limited in a more severe way than most care to admit. As Heidegger would say, there are three legs to science’s systematic knowledge. First, there is a knower, then there is what is known, and, last, there is the relationship between the knower and that that is known. Is this knower someone with absolutely no context, tools, investments, or aspirations concerning the object of his knowledge? If not, then do these factors affect what is to be known about the object?[1]

This isn’t written with disgust toward science, as I think sciences are highly important. But this is an intentional critique of science in order to Segway into the even deeper suspicion that I have—that Heidegger had—for modernity. Why should we be the most concerned about epistemological discourses? In other words, why should we continually be preoccupied with the knowledge of objects (as if isolated) and not the objects themselves or the context of the objects themselves, not least how these objects are related to and experienced? Why are we not concerned about why phenomenon becomes classified into a list of ‘entities’, categorized into a systematic epistemological framework? This is why Heidegger famously stated that epistemology is limited as it “continually sharpens the knife but never gets round to cutting’.[2] According to Heidegger, epistemology doesn’t properly capture phenomenon in its context.

To illustrate what that last paragraph means with a quick example, Michael Inwood says, “The token that the lover offers to his beloved is a flower, not a plant, not an object of botanical enquiry.”[3] To reduce the token of love in this example to a mere plant is to ignore the context of its existential being. It is so much more than a plant to the lovers it is exchanged between. Not only that, but doesn’t it mean something much more depending on the context of its exchange? Say, for instance, if it is exchanged between two lovers on their first date verses during a fight? Doesn’t its being also depend on the role of each subject in the exchange? For instance, if it is exchanged between two newly weds verses some stalkerish guy sending it to his crush? Or if it is offered at a funeral verses a wedding?

To think that the being of objects isn’t altered by context is an assumption that the sciences don’t account with their epistemological systematics. Another example by Inwood is a hammer. A hammer’s being cannot be reduced to its dimensions, weight, color, etc. for one is ignoring the carpenter that utilizes the hammer (pg. 19). To further expand on this example, does not the being of a hammer depend largely on who has hold of it and why? For instance, if its wielder is a carpenter building a house for a vulnerable family verses a murderer, raising it up to strike his victim on the head? In other words, the nature of the hammer is altered by its context.

In conclusion, I am deeply incredulous about epistemology’s primacy, as well as why that it is so exalted as main concern for modernity and the sciences. It seems the world of objects and their relationship with one another is more central to human existence than mere trivia derived from such objects. It is far more primary to distinguish what something is in the context that it is than the discourse that epistemology leans into. Such is the role of the philosopher, says Heidegger.

[1] Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 13.

[2] From Basic Problems of Phenomenology

[3] Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 19.

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2 responses to “Heidegger and a Suspicion of Modernity’s (Scientific) Epistemology

  1. Interesting piece. I have learned to be careful whenever clergy folk talk “science”. (Full disclosure: I have a daughter who is a physicist.) Truth be told, I am just as careful when scientists talk theology. In any event, you don’t mention the work, but one that was a landmark text in the world of science, philosophy, and scientific knowledge is Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book titled “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. I commend it to you. (Kuhn is credited with minting the phrase “paradigm shift”.) And, for whatever it is worth, I have found it interesting to compare what non-scientists say and think about “science” over against the things people who are actually scientists think and say.
    Your opening lines: “What does science do? According to many …” – and so I immediately became suspicious of your piece. The “according to many” phrase thrust your piece into a more suspicious category for me. And your incredulity is, I think, misplaced. It’s really not a matter of either / or, is it? We need knowledge of objects as they are, independent of relationships; AND we need knowledge of those objects in specific contexts. An example that we are living in our family just now is chemotherapy. As my father receives a new drug we are told what the drug is designed to do. This “design” has certain objective qualities to it, regardless of who is taking the drug. AND, then there is the issue of what the specific drug will do in any specific patient. There is no one without the other.
    Thanks for posting.

    • Right. I’m as insecure and suspicious of this piece as you are. Thanks for pushing back. I would agree that there truths. I just think truth must be evaluated in context. For instance, which medicine you take depends on one’s condition. And this isn’t so much to critique science as it is to bring philosophy out of a strictly modern context–from seeking to know about objects over the essence and contexts that these objects inhabit. Thanks again!


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