Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

1.6. The Unifying Method of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences: The Method of Transdisciplinarity
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Josephine Papst (Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Culture and Science. The Methodological Approach

Fritz G. Wallner (Department of Philosophy, University of Vienna, Austria)


Constructive Realism is a philosophy of science that offers new possibilities of defining relativism and culture. That's why my paper is subtitled with The Methodological Approach. The main idea is that if we check science in a full meaning, we will change the common use of relativism pertaining to the relation between culture and science. I will make four chapters: (1) diversity and unity; (2) diversity as a metascientific necessity; (3) cultural and methodological relativism; and (4) practical consequences.


Diversity and Unity

To formulate my first thesis: The concept of unity is a methodological artefact of European culture. If you focus on other cultures, you won't find this unifying tendency, e.g. Chinese culture. For Chinese people it is somehow strange that Europeans try to explain the visible and the invisible, future and past, etc. by application of different methods and a set of different sciences. We must be aware that speaking about unity is based on European culture and thus presupposes European backgrounds. In everyday life people (and some scientists, too) think that cultural sciences (e.g.. Sinology for China) have to show diversity and unity of cultures. But if we are aware of the foundation of sciences in a special culture it will be obvious that also cultural sciences are deeply rooted in a culture - and that is the European culture. Therefore cultural scientists investigate other cultures by methodologies that are in their core European. That cultural scientists first focus on unity resulting from this presupposition. That is the reason why it is impossible for cultural sciences to show that there are common human roots in all cultures. Thus I claim: We don't actually need to postulate common human roots in all cultures, we don't need to postulate anthropological constants. If there is someone who is shocked because this sounds to racism, I confess right here that my thesis is non-racist. (I will show proof in the fourth chapter.)

According to the first thesis it is an ideological outcome to speak about common roots. Everyone who claims laws of nature valid in all possible worlds or in a universal meaning should be conscious of the circle that every explication presupposes rules and the presupposition of rules produces again rules, again laws which are valid everywhere. Thus the presuppositions account for a specific outcome. Our understanding of unity has finished before we even had started because of our being embedded in a culture with unifying tendencies. Thus if a cultural scientist finds a specific moment in another culture that can be connected with the European culture, then he found nothing than an artefact of the European presupposition - you will find again what you have first invested in the foundation of a theory. Therefore finding some connectable moments in different cultures is no argument for human unity. Hillary Putman has searched all his lifetime for the minimum of common in all cultures because he was convinced that without this minimum there is no mutual understanding of different cultures. But this is - according to my next thesis - a mistaken idea of understanding.

Therefore the result of the first chapter is: Throw away common convictions concerning diversity and unity of cultures. Methodological research leads to results that depends on prerequisites invested in methodologies, theories, and science. The issue of diversity and unity of cultures is thus a vicious circle.


Diversity as a Metascientific Necessity

To formulate the second thesis: Science requires diversity of cultures, science requires a manifold of scientific contexts. It is the issue of understanding scientific results that requires different views. This opens an hermeneutic view that is beside pragmatism an important component of Constructive Realism.

Usually it is assumed that there is only one science - the European science. But according to my view there are other ones, too - Chinese science, or Aborigines science, or African sciences, and so on. The investigations I have made all around the world convicted me that there are actually many sciences. But I also claim that Chinese science, especially the Traditional Chinese Medicine, and European sciences are the most elaborated sciences in the meantime. My investigations of the manifold of sciences opened the insight that different sciences are based on different ontologies, different methodologies, different goals of knowing, and so on.

European (or more general: Western) science has a typical and interesting contradiction to its own cultural goals. Western science presupposes at least in common scientific work that in the long run total finality is achieved. At the end (of scientific endeavours) all matters lie opened (that means understood) before our mind. The claim of infinity of scientific research contradicts the ideology of science that presupposes a possible end. A further characteristic of Western science is the >claim of universality<, the claim that results of science - granted its scientificy - must be valid under all conditions. Scientific results must not be just locally valid.

However, the claim of knowledge raised by Western science contradicts the ideal of a closed system. >Knowledge< is not to equate with >knowing< - that is one of the core ideas of Constructive Realism. Knowledge implies the ability to reflect scientific results. Knowing without reflection is not knowledge. (Even Aristotle defines knowledge very similarly to the Constructive Realistic approach.) If a natural scientist reveals and thus knows some rules which are fulfilled by nature, then he didn't achieve knowledge. Being able to produce repeatable procedures which are typical for a specific reduced aspect of nature does not mean that knowledge is achieved. To achieve knowledge it is necessary to interpret scientific results. Scientific knowledge is more than a set of procedures, knowledge emerges the reflection of these procedures.

However, this is an old insight of scientists. For instance, the philosopher and physicist Friedrich von Weizsäcker states on the one hand an enormous success of quantum theory and quantum mechanics, and complains on the other hand the lacking understanding of what is meant by these results. This corresponds to my experience gathered in courses for physicists: Well trained physicists present their ideas and the results of their work, but they are not able to unfold the meaning of this if they don't use the formal language of physics. Thus they don't formulate knowledge, but knowing-that. That's why I claim: Knowledge always requires that we leave mentally the system in which our reasoning is embedded, that we cross the border. Staying mentally in a closed system gives just the feeling of knowledge, but doesn't lead to knowledge. Good arguments always cross borders.

The presupposition of a closed system leads to a misconception of understanding, and it leads to misconception of nature. Cultural relativism offers an alternative, but this view is also mistaken. Cultural relativists conceive culture like Plato's cave. Culture is conceived as a prison: Sitting in Plato's cave it is possible to look only in one direction and it is not possible to turn head. Applied to science this means that culture leads to specific results based on our cultural view, and thus knowledge is relative. But this is a typical conceptual mistake. It uses a concept of culture which is connected with the European idea that we must divide matters from appearance. (It is totally strange for Chinese philosophy to make this difference.) Taking culture as a closed system denies necessarily knowledge. We can continue these considerations and state that this European conception of the mind opens the possibility to conceive scientific reasoning similar to computer working, adding that the computer is more perfect than the scientist. Mistakes and blunders are human in consequence - if scientists had computer brains, there would not occur mistakes.

Knowledge that is knowing-why in contrary to knowing-that requires reflection and thus contradicts closed systems. In closed systems the idea of a total overview exists, a view from outside the system onto the system. This idea is also a typical outcome of European culture; it is the marriage between Platonism and Christianity. (This is again for Chinese Culture totally strange.) However, in closed systems reflections gets an automatic character and loses its original function. In my view reflection does not mean to repeat mentally the way the scientist followed in his research. If reflection is equated with repetition, then it will be defined as automaticity. But reflection must not be understood as automatic procedure, reflection must not be defined instrumentally like scientific rules before reflection. An adequate definition of reflection that answers the question of understanding is a core theme of Constructive Realism that is a philosophy of science that connects classical constructivist ideas with Charles S. Perice's pragmatic ideas and Alfred Schütz' sociology of life world.

I emphasise that scientific knowledge as knowing-why, not as knowing-that is not achieved only by postulation. As a philosopher of science, or more exactly spoken, as Constructive Realist I developed a method that allows to reflect scientific results, a method that shows the way from knowing-that to knowing-why. For this method I invented the name >strangification<. The idea of strangification is trivial: it requires nothing than a methodologically structured change of context and is alike re-framing in psychotherapy. A scientist who is embedded in his scientific practice and in his scientific language can't achieve knowledge, but if he is forced methodologically to leave his field and to explain his ideas in another, non-physical context than he will gain insights of his knowing-that, insights that are forms of knowing-why and thus knowledge. The change of contexts opens the way to knowledge, and its is the task of philosopher of science in general and of Constructive Realists in special to offer these methodologically structured changes of context.

Now it becomes obvious that my liberal relativism is not an arbitrary world view, no ideology, but the condition sine qua non of understanding science. The change of cultures is thus a way of understanding science, it is the best way of doing so. If we shift Western scientific propositions to e.g. Chinese culture, then the implicit prerequisites becomes obvious in as far as our dialogue partners won't understand us. We have to explain not only the theory itself (like a professor to his students), but also implicit ontological prerequisites. Usually we are not conscious of these prerequisites. But if we explain a theory to a person with total different cultural background, then it will become necessary to make the prerequisites to a subject of explanation. In this case we don't only explain the theory to another person, but this explanations opens new ways of understanding to us.

Thus, science doesn't take us into a prison. Scientific results understood in the right way possibly free us. Hegel writes that freedom is inside necessity, and whatever he meant exactly I interpret his words in the sense that science which is connected with hermeneutic procedures of strangification - the method of Constructive Realism - shows the human way of freedom.


Cultural and Methodological Relativism

Both cultural and methodological relativism are obviously outcomes of European culture. According to my view nobody is able to leave his culture. I spent a lot of time in Chine and I know a lot about Chinese culture because I studied it; but it is closed to me to make immediate experience like Chinese people. All what I learned about Chinese culture I learned in relation to my own culture. But as philosopher and Constructive Realist I am specially interested in this learning of another culture from the perspective of my own, because this means that I strangify Chinese culture. In this way it was possible for me to reveal backgrounds of my own culture that I wasn't conscious of before.

According to cultural relativism culture marks the border of understanding. One consequence of this assumption is the fight against cultural mistakes of European science. More exactly spoken, cultural relativists suggest that European science is to be cured of cultural mistakes. I think it impossible, and I emphasise that this is the wrong way because cultural relativism shows proof of its misunderstanding science. In this aspect I agree with Otto Neurath, a proponent of the Viennese Circle. There are some ideas of the Viennese Circle I agree to, but until the 1960ies these ideas weren't fully elaborated. Neurath reveals that ideas concerning >pure< science and >pure< philosophy are mistaken. It is a philosophical misconception to claim that it is possible to free the reasoning from cultural convictions and believes. It is a philosophical misconception to assume that true, pure science emerges if all cultural implications are overcome. Within in the border of culture truth won't emerge.

I refuse this view. In my words: No truth if you don't relate scientific results to your own culture. To relate scientific theories to the founding culture is condition to obtain truth. Sure, my view is a type of relativism, but not a kind of relativism that takes away the concept of truth.

In difference to cultural relativism, methodological relativism offers insight into the structure of science. Methodological relativists fight the assumption that science describes the world, that scientific theories refer to a world with stable structure, that the word's structure must be revealed by description of events, and applying improved methods and theories it becomes more and more possible to gain the total insight in the structure describing the world exactly. Methodical relativists are opponents of the famous Critical Rationalism due to Sir Karl Popper. Thus it is the merit of methodological relativism to show the failure of the assumption that the world is characterised by a pre-scientific meaningful structure, that science is related to events emerging this structure, and that by revealing these relations understanding of the world is achieved.

And so methodological relativism assumes that scientists should apply different methodologies because since there is not the aim of describing the world correctly, different methodologies offers different and equally good ways of coping with the world. But here rises the necessity of interpretation of the scientific results. If you claim that science is not a description of the world and that scientific theories don't yield a picture of a part of the world, then it will be interesting to know the advantages and disadvantages of a theory, to know its meaning for everyday life, and so on. The importance of a theory is no longer granted by the reference to a true world description. In my view it is necessary to compare scientific results by methods of strangification. I developed Constructive Realism as a science of philosophy that emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation of scientists, not to gain better scientific results but to gain knowledge. In this interdisciplinary strangification prerequisites of a discipline becomes obvious, but not cultural prerequisites because of the same cultural background of the scientists working together in a strangifying way. Thus interdisciplinary strangification is to be completed by intercultural strangification.

I would like to add: The addition of intercultural strangification became necessary because of the insights that science is embedded in a cultural matrix. To make this matrix conscious I developed the idea of intercultural strangification. But the idea of the conditions of science either disciplinary or cultural is the same and can be traced back to my time as specialist of Wittgenstein's philosophy.


Practical Consequences

Let me tell an anecdote: Some years ago I made a presentation in South Africa, and I was unfolding my view that the concept of unity is an European concept that we should overcome, especially in cultural sciences. In the discussion following my presentation a young man told me that he doesn't agree because of racism that emerges if we give up the thought of unity. I believe that many people feel this fear with my philosophical remarks, but I reassure that my philosophy fights any idea of racism. In contrast I claim: If the idea of unity is upheld, then racism will emerge, because a European idea is transferred to other cultures. Upholding the idea of unity in science or politics means trying to create a global culture that is in its core European. In this way that pretends not to be racist other cultures are destroyed, and people living in faraway countries are urged to think like we Europeans do! Cultural particularities of cultures opposing European values and views will be destroyed under the banner of unity. Sure, this is a humanist idea (one more of the European ideas), but according to my view this is hidden racism.

Some years ago I became acquainted with Indian physicists who studied in the USA. They were not Americans, and they were no longer Indians. They were in a dangerous situation, and this is according to my view the background for civil wars of the future: An unclear cultural context of people who are not longer embedded in their own culture and who are not fully part of another culture. These people lost their roots, and therefore they apply simple explanations for life problems - one source of fundamentalism.

Outcomes of practical consequences of this view are that we can resign the idea of unity. We must look for intercultural relations. If we look for relations to other cultures, then we will improve our own self-understanding and thus our ability of communicate with people of other cultures. Communication is here a type of self-revelation. Communication is not just a mutual exchange of information. Although this concept of communication is applied in many sciences (from communication sciences to psychology) it unfolds not the full meaning of human communication. According to my view communication is a type of behaviour which improves the use of human relations, which improves and enriches human relations. The aim of the concept of human communication reduced to mutual exchange of information is to understand another person. But imagine that this person lives in an Asian culture that differs very from the European culture. To understand the information correctly implies the use of a common language, that means we urge the other person to formulate her thoughts in English (we all use this >language of the world<). Then you took this person into our cultural context. But my definition of communication granted, world culture by relations upholds the manifold of cultures, and this is very important. To destroy cultural structures, cultural lifestyles is throwing away the richness of mankind. Equating cultures to European culture means abandoning possibilities to structure and to understand the world in another, not European way.

We should not focus on the common features of cultures. We should focus on differences. It is more interesting and more human to focus on differences between cultures. If we always search for common features, then we will reduce the manifold of features of other cultures to a little set of common characteristics that only appears to be similar. We never should reduce the manifold of human behaviour. Therefore we should not formulate normative rules, we should be open to change our rules. So I am hostile against philosophical founded ethics that is a mistaken idea. Many ethical books use a pseudo-methodology aiming at results which are based on private or ideological convictions. If you are Christian, you get a Christian ethics by philosophical arguments. This is cheating yourself.

World culture is based on knowledge - on >true< knowledge that is not on >objective< knowledge. Objective knowledge is just one aspect of knowledge. The meaning of true knowledge is that knowledge opens a manifold of possible interpretations of our world, of our society, of our life, and so on. Knowledge which is not open for further interpretations is not true knowledge, is a type of instrumentalism. Many people consider instrumentalism as knowledge: If we know how the world machine works, then we will achieve knowledge. Here a reduced concept of knowledge in the meaning of instrumental knowledge is applied. World culture is normally based on the insight that other and different cultures are the condition for producing knowledge in a full meaning. If you are conscious that the other one is needed for your own understanding of yourself, then you will respect the other person. This is the meaning of intercultural respect! Intercultural respect does not emerges a tolerate resign that accepts the way of life of other cultures because any point of decision is denied. To accept that e.g. Chinese people life different because their culture is different is liberal nonsense. I suspect that this tolerant acceptance hides the conviction that the European culture is the best one, and because of this feeling of living in the best of all cultures it is possible to accept other cultures. It is sign of might to be tolerate, not a sign of insight! Thus, this upholding of differences is not taking the other culture serious.

If we turn to Constructive Realistic view many mistaken concepts and ideas in Western philosophy will be either abandoned or improved.

© Fritz G. Wallner (Department of Philosophy, University of Vienna, Austria)


Wallner, Fritz G.; Culture and Science. A New Constructivistic Approach to Philosophy of Science. Lectures on Constructive Realism (1996-1999), Wien, Braumüller, 2002.

Wallner, Fritz G.; Die Verwandlung der Wissenschaften. Vorlesungen zur Jahrtausendwende, Hamburg, Kovac, 2002.

Wallner, Fritz G.; How to Deal with Science if You Care for other Cultures, Wien, Braumüller, 1997.

Wallner, Fritz G.; Acht Vorlesungen über den Konstruktiven Realismus, 2. Aufl., Wien, WUV, 1991.

1.6. The Unifying Method of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences: The Method of Transdisciplinarity

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