Applied philosophy

January 27, 1995

Stella Hughes talks to Isabelle Stengers, the Belgian scientist who dared to doubt. In the often acrimonious dispute over the social role of science, few enter the fray having chosen laughter as their principal weapon. Few, perhaps, could run the risk of doing so without the grounding in both science and philosophy which is the hallmark of Isabelle Stengers.

During her third year of chemistry in the late 1960s at the Universite Libre in Brussels, Stengers first experienced doubt, not so much about science per se, but about the way it is taught and practised.

"I realised that if another Johannes Kepler came along in my field and proposed to break the circle, not only would I not know which circle could be broken, but I was being trained to have the greatest difficulty in even seeing that there could be a problem," she explained.

Choosing philosophy may, in retrospect, appear as a decision to become a professional doubter. At the time, it was a way of remaining in contact with science, while feeling "disqualified" by her doubts from being a scientist.

Later, Stengers came across Thomas Kuhn's account of science operating within "paradigms", to her an all-too-familiar scenario. At the time, the trigger for her switch had been Arthur Koestler's novel The Sleepwalkers.

"Koestler woke me up and so I believed that I could therefore no longer be a creative scientist. This is something I now fight against," she explained. "It is a pseudo-psychological conviction which is in fact political and is used to keep order in the sciences: people say "if you ask questions like that, you will never be able to do science".

Stengers went on to finish her masters degree in chemistry and at the same time began studying philosophy. The jump was a risk, part of a pattern already begun with the choice of chemistry, a subject for which there was no role model in her family, which, although an academic one, focused on the arts rather than the sciences. "When I chose to switch, I did not know what it was that I was moving towards," she recalled.

After the radical impact of Koestler came a productive collaboration with Nobel chemist Ilya Prigogine, highly-respected head of the Brussels research department which Stengers made her base for several years.

"In Prigogine's department, the researchers' interest in what they were doing was primordial, their goal was to kindle a spark of interest in Prigogine's eyes. I've come across more caricatural masculine environments, with a far stronger hierarchy," she recalls.

The scientists were at first determined not to take the young woman philosopher observing their world seriously. Stengers's approach was to "learn, observe and have fun with them without trying to convert them to a belief in the legitimacy of what I was doing".

This approach of "non-legitimation" is, she believes, more accessible to women than to men. "A male philosopher, I think, wouldn't have been able to work alongside them without trying to convert them." Stengers's approach may be less confrontational, but in its own way it is even more ambitious: it is to get people to convert themselves.

Gradually, she began helping the scientists write the introductions and conclusions to their papers, giving them the benefit of her "different relationship with words". She and Prigogine co-authored a major work, La Nouvelle Alliance in 1979. He rejected the clockwork image of life, seeing the world instead in terms of constant interaction between the molecular level, whose disorder is a state of balance, and the level of higher organisms, whose order is a form of imbalance. This perspective, placing humanity back inside the living world, rejecting scientism's vision of science as omniscient knowledge, possessed by rational, objective Man alone in the universe, was the basis of their argument for a new convergence between science, history and the human sciences.

That publication was the first of a series of co-authorships, in which Stengers teamed up with an expert in a particular field to challenge what she believes are erroneous or stereotyped ideas.

With Leon Chertok, she inveighed against psychoanalysis's rejection, in the name of scientific rationalism, of hypnosis. With Olivier Ralet, she denounced France's repressive drug policies and advocated Holland's liberal approach.

Academic interest in an issue does not exclude active involvement in a cause. Stengers stood as a candidate in local elections for the Belgian environmental movement Vega. Back at the desk, she analyses the politics of scientific controversy over environmental issues such as global warming, in her latest book, L'Invention des Sciences Modernes.

Published in 1993, it is the first major work she has written alone. It attempts to "invent" a new identity for modern science which would salvage its truly creative nature from the tangle of power structures and vested interests which have grown up in and around science.

As the first woman to win the Academie Francaise's philosophy prize in 1993, Stengers is now invited to speak at prestigious venues "on any subject", she laughs, "but I would rather address just 30 people in a hall on an issue that matters to them".

That is not hard to believe. Rolling her own cigarettes, long hair loose and in a loose pullover -- the antithesis of power dressing -- Stengers remains hard to pin down. She admits she owes a lot to feminist writing but cannot easily be labelled a feminist.

She aims to "disconcert" those who might try to take her for a role model. She uses laughter as the great deflator of false pretensions; risk-taking and rejection of models as the basis of her intellectual nomadism.

Academic polemic and grassroots politics are not her only forms of active engagement. She has set up and edits a book collection which gives a platform to new ideas on science issues -- Les Empecheurs de Penser en Rond (which translates literally as Preventers of Stuck Thinking).

But she finds the most satisfying form of action is when her writing itself sets off a response. The book on drug policy had a noticeable effect on the debate in France. "For me, this is the ideal situation -- when people tell me that my writing has helped change their response to a problem. Nothing makes me happier," she explained.

"My role is not so much to provide proof as to put a situation into words -- this allows people to take those words and turn them into means to take action. The words become tools when they meet the person who discovers they are just what they need."

This is central to her whole approach, which hinges on empowerment through words as the antidote to the polarisation, the hierarchy of expertise, the exclusion and power-wielding which mar the social role played by science in today's world.

In L'Invention des Sciences Modernes, Stengers admits that humour alone cannot do away with the bureaucracies, the experts and the procedures which draw their authority from science. But she believes that it can help uncouple truth and power by exposing dogmatism and sacred cows, whereas the hostility of ultra-feminist or technophobic attacks on science reinforces science's own account of its special nature.

Such attacks on science are counterproductive because they stabilise its status through polarisation. Sociological relativism is also negative because it denies any special status at all to scientific production without thinking through the consequences of that denial.

"Truths which are themselves seeking power should not be trusted," she commented. "Truths which begin 'science is just . . .' are an obstacle to new developments. My concern is not to say that there are vested interests, but to see how those interests could become different."

She believes it is not enough to tell a truth; a useful truth should bring constructive results. Telling scientists that scientific knowledge has no special status annihilates any chance of dialogue on science and society with those scientists who are open to dialogue, while opening the door to all kinds of manipulation.

Among the distinctions which Stengers attempts to deflate, is the primordial one between the "hard" sciences and the rest. The pre-eminence of purified, experimental laboratory science, she argues, creates a quite unjustified hierarchy and has various negative consequences.

By disqualifying "non-scientific" approaches, it can have a crushing effect on human society; by devaluing field sciences it siphons resources away from important and useful areas of research; by over-valuing its own methodology, it encourages "pseudo-sciences" whose claims on behalf of content centre entirely on imitating hard science's methodology.

Constructive criticism and shared laughter are kept for the science with a valuable core. Stengers is savage with "pseudoscience" -- animal behaviourists and their rats in cages which imitate the hard science laboratory, are one target.

One way of re-instating the rights of non-scientific perspectives along with and not after and at a lowlier level than scientific expertise, lies in the re-telling of the history of science, claims Stengers.

Instead of the heroic account which tells us Galileo discovered the laws of motion, she argues for a literal account of Galileo's invention of a model involving a ball and smooth slopes, "which has nothing to say about the movement of a falling leaf or galloping horse".

This account, argues Stengers, leaves the special nature of the scientific event intact, but avoids confusing that event with the inflated celebration of consequent "progress". "We cannot escape the fact that we are the heirs of such events, but we are free to define the event and not let that heritage define our identity for us," she noted.

Underlying much of Stengers's work is an attempt to reclaim fundamental freedoms from abuse of power and expertise. The freedom to define one's heritage is a central one, so is the freedom to attach importance to the non-scientific.

This stand attracts Stengers to issues which most scientists damn as irrational. In working with a multi-disciplinary group on unidentified flying objects, in writing on hypnosis, she exposes the ultimately irrational nature of any dogmatic attachment to "rationality".

"I am in fact hyper-rational; it is because I am rational that I have learned to laugh at the claims made in the name of rationalism", she said. It is an approach which leads directly to political issues -- issues of science and democracy.

Stengers argues that the strength of creative science, the science which innovates, takes risks and comes up with new inventions, lies in its collective nature. The construction of science is special, she says, because it involves collective human activity based on shared intellectual interest, which is there whatever the vested interests also operating.

But this does not confer any particular value on the norms and results which it produces. Applied science, she says, is not just a matter of applying science -- the means and the ends should remain a collective concern and be open to collective definitions, instead of which, the public remains excluded.

"This may be a Utopia, but at least it is a Utopia which puts rationality on the side of the public." she insists. Again, when the public becomes interested in environmental issues, the rational response, she says, should be to welcome their involvement.

Instead, public concern is usually treated with disdain, just as scientific polemic over global warming, blurred borderlines between scientific "neutrality" and advocacy, questions which are complex, multi-disciplinary and obey no single paradigm are perceived more as threats than as positive developments.

"Science can legitimately intervene in society as the vector of something new. But when science takes the place of public opinion and replaces it, it becomes dangerous," she commented.

At the end of L'Invention des Sciences Modernes, she calls for the replacement of the "fictive" concept of "the general interest", so often used to steamroll obstacles. Instead, there should be acceptance of "multiple individual interests", which instantly invalidate the scientist's careful separation of what does and does not matter.

Stengers's unplanned, nomadic path makes it hard to know where she will travel next. "Academics have huge freedom to take risks if they want to and a philosopher -- in the French tradition at least -- has to comply with so few set models, that freedom is all the greater. I want to live up to that," she said.

Behind the laughter and the freedom from constraints is an underlying anxiety, a belief that humanity has only a few decades left to sort out its crises. She lives alone and is childless. "It enables me to be more detached. If I had children, I would go mad with worry for the future," she once said.

One subject that intrigues her is religious faith. As an atheist, she would have to encounter someone with faith with whom to explore spirituality. "Just what is this secular ideal which pronounces that God is dead with the pride of the nouveau riche? First, though, I need to create my own, pertinent words to be able to discuss it".

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