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Argumentation, Epistemology and the Sociology of Language

Departmentof Social Studies Queen's University Belfast BT7 INN NorthernIreland

ABSTRACT: Both the sociology of knowledge and the philosophy of science are centrally concerned with the succession of scientific beliefs. In case studies of scientific debates, however, the emphasis tends to be placed on the outcome of disputes. This paper proposes that attention should instead be focused on the process of debate: that is, on scientific argumentation. It is shown how such a focus circumvents many traditional epistemological problems concerning the truth-status of scientific knowledge. By reference to the consensus conception of truth, it is claimed that scientific arguments can be studied naturalistically whilst still honouring the orientation towards truth exhibited by scientists. Finally, the paper offers a brief rsume of recent studies indicating how this naturalistic study of scientific argumentation can be developed through the sociology of language. KEY WORDS: Scientific debate, rationality, truth, argumentation.


In the last decade, debates over the rationality of science and scientific change have emerged as one of the principal points of focus for the study of epistemology. In the course of these debates the idea that science grows according to an internal logic has been heavily criticised and numerous attempts have been made to show the impact of political, social and economic influences upon the path taken by science. In the course of this challenge to conventional historiography analysts have looked for graphic evidence of the connection between social changes and cognitive alterations. Law, for example, in a study of sedimentology called for an investigation of homologies between social arrangements and conceptual orders (1980). Such procedures are, however, generally speaking tob large-scale to be able to account for the minutiae of scientific argumentation and debate. Other analysts have sought to show that social forces are influential not just in 'sponsoring', so to speak, patterns of ideas but are also active at every stage in the evolution of scientific thought. If there are competing interpretations of scientific evidence, it is suggested, the supporters of either side will re-interpret the claims of their opponents in accordance with their own objectives. The term which has been most Argumentation 2 (1988) 351-367.
1988 by KluwerAcademic Publishers.



widely used for this process is 'negotiation'. Bloor in his study Knowledge and Social Imagery early on gave a basis for the study of negotiation in science (1976, 117):
The claim [of an earlier chapter in his book] was that the compelling character of our reasoning is a form of social compulsion. This is too simple as it stands because social conventions, norms, or institutions do not, and cannot, always compel by the direct internalisation of a sense of right and wrong. Just as men haggle over questions of duty and legality so they haggle over question of logical compulsion ... When these factors have been taken into account a richer picture will emerge of the creative or generative powers of thought.

One way in which such negotiation or haggling can be understood is in relation to the logical point that all theories can be adjusted in an ad hoc way to accommodate new findings. For every new finding some adjustment can be made to the original theory so as to rationalise it under the new circumstances. An interest in negotiation can alternatively be interpreted as implying an empirical focus on the ways in which particular arguments are put forward, formulated and contested. Such an approach explores the ways in which arguments - written or spoken, formal or informal - function. It will be the purpose of this paper to explore this second sense of argumentation in relation to science. A valuable way of thinking about scientific knowledge in this context can be attributed to Perelman (1963) and Toulmin (1958). Perelman's claim is that the sociologist of knowledge must be concerned with 'the discursive techniques which make it possible to evoke or further people's assent to the theses presented for their acceptance' (1963, 155). He suggests a distinction between argumentation and demonstration (the latter being incontrovertible, but formal arguments) which, he claims, promises to re-vitalise the study of rhetoric. He maintains that only argument can settle the majority of substantive disputes. Accordingly, the sociologist of knowledge should be concerned with the conditioning of argumentative success; that is, when pursuing empirical investigations he/she should focus on the process of coming to agreement rather than on the knowledge finally arrived at. Perelman, whose concern is ultimately with the philosophy of law, fairly predictably regards the process of law as the best model for the sociology of knowledge. As such, one can see that there is room in his suggested approach for an investigation of those contingent factors which affect the process of coming to belief. The attraction of this emphasis is that the sociology of knowledge is not restricted to dealing with completed knowledge systems but can attend to features of scientific debate. This fits precisely the objectives outlined above. None the less, his claims have specific shortcomings and these can be brought out by comparing his work with that of Toulmin. In his study of informal processes of argument Toulmin claims that, at one level, all arguments



possess the same structure; a conclusion is derived from specified data according to a warrant. There is no distinction between demonstration and argumentation at this level; demonstrations are arguments where the warrant is uncontested. Arguments involve the putting of a case for a conclusion (in the legal sense); and the appropriate image for all arguments is the jurisprudential one, not the geometrical one of the syllogism. There are, of course, differences between specific kinds of argument in terms of practical certainty and of the form of the data and so on. Such variable features Toulmin describes as tied to the 'field' in which the argument is situated. Other features are, however, 'field invariant', such as the notion of propriety of argument and that of truth. He suggests that these invariant features have a general force which is not reducible to their particular versions. Thus a true logical conclusion has to do with noncontradictoriness whereas a true verdict has to do with a proper interpretation of legal canons. One sense of truth cannot be reduced to the other. His suggestion here mirrors his claim (1970, 67-85) that, in ethical theory, 'good' is irreducible to its particular meanings (a powerful suck of a 'good' vacuum cleaner, the tension of a 'good' thriller, the utilitarian benefit of a 'good' public act). Goodness is the force of a claim that such and such a thing is to be highly valued in terms of the criteria employed to assess its quality. Similarly decisions about truth in any particular case are tied to the institutions of argument assessment in those cases. Truth results from just process. In an empirical investigation features of the process for arriving at decisions about truthfulness or adequacy, as both Perelman and Toulmin suggest, come to the fore.


If we look to case studies of scientific debates (such as that by Burchfield which concerns the Victorian controversy about the age of the earth (Burchfield 1975)) we find that participants offer a great variety of claims and counter-claims. An over-riding concern with the outcome of the debate which characterises so many philosophical analyses of science would tend to direct attention away from the multiplicity of these scientific claims and the innovative nature of argument (Rudwick 1985, chapter 16). The negotiated outcome arises from the argument but may not pre-exist it. None the less, there is one difficulty with attending to the process alone. It appears to minimise the importance of the truthfulness of, for example, the radio-dating of the earth's age because it emphasises the significance of proper conduct, rather than the epistemological status of the cognitive outcome. Customarily, the truth of a theory has been viewed as explaining why it emerges from a controversy triumphant. To focus only on due process might lead one to favour a false conclusion, properly arrived at, to



a true one; this would resemble the case of a well-run trial which frees a guilty person for technical, legal reasons. Later on, I wish to argue that in the case of analysing science due process must be considered before truth, but prior to that I shall illustrate some of the problems associated with the familiar practice of granting precedence to questions of truthfulness. Because it aims to bring all forms of knowledge-claim to the same, explicable level the sociology of knowledge has long had to face up to the difficulties associated with the notion of truth. The only option for a rigorous sociology of knowledge seems to be some form of cognitive relativism, and sociologists studying science have become uneasy about using the notion of truth. A number of ways of circumventing its use have been devised. I shall consider three of these as a prelude to re-considering the question of truth and due process later in this section. The first method of circumventing questions of truth concentrates upon areas of knowledge where criteria of truthfulness would be expected to apply, but where, as a matter of particular fact, they do not. For an example one can take Wright's recent study of the development of scientific medicine (1979). He is able to argue that, whatever the truth of scientific medicine, its truth could not account for the knowledge's initial success. The sampling techniques and measures which would be required accurately to see the knowledge as superior were not available, and there was no way of demonstrating the pragmatic superiority of medicine in particular localities. Indeed with the faith in old practices, the quackery of new medicine and the social alienness of scientific medicine, one would anticipate in the light of modern knowledge about psychosomatic effects that scientific medicine may have been less beneficial. One can, accordingly, only ascribe the rapid rise of scientific medicine to a belief in its efficacy unrelated to its demonstrable truth and applicability. However, only demonstrable truth may be called upon where truth is invoked to explain past actors' acceptance of certain beliefs. The subscription of society's elite to fashionable medicine seems to have been as important as its scientific validity in establishing modern medicine. A second strategy requires the analyst to study only those instances where the outcome has yet to be decided, and where the true opinion cannot be invoked to explain the occurrences. Thirdly, one can take this view a little further and subscribe to a determinedly sociological version of what it is for something to be true. McHugh (1974, 329; see also Collins 1975) has claimed that:
We must accept that there are no adequate grounds for establishing criteria of truth except the grounds that are employed to grant or concede it - truth is conceivable only as a socially organized upshot of contingent courses of linguistic, conceptual, and social courses of behavior.

According to this opinion, knowledge is regarded as the outcome of the



social acts comprising its production. The acceptance of knowledge as true is always a defacto occurrence and can only be studied as such. Whilst each of these options presents a way of proceeding, none is able to confound the commonsensical commitments of scientists or to shake the beliefs of realists. Thus, the first demonstrates, perhaps, that science is not uniquely able to get at the truth because scientific claims are not scrutinised for truth on every occasion. But this by no means demonstrates that medicine proceeded by the subversion of a truer alternative; and one might anyway suggest that its methodic and cognitive premisses were the same as those of other, manifestly true sciences. The second approach stops short at questions of truth and cannot shake the belief that truth will out in the end. Finally, the third approach merits more detailed consideration. This radical stance involves the adoption of a thoroughly anthropological approach to scientific business, treating fact- and accountproduction as practical accomplishments. Supporters of this view argue that scientific facts are best seen as the result of all the social operations constituting them. For example, the postulation of an element which spontaneously undergoes radioactive decay upon creation could very intelligibly be viewed as a construct of the social situation in which it is presented as coming into existence. The restriction of its existence to very specific social contexts means that the element and certain social operations co-exist. The radical sociologist's rendering of this insight is to see the element, and the fact of its existence, as artifacts of the situation. The fact (at least sociologically speaking) is identical with the social operations constituting it. In a recent study of endocrinology, Latour and Woolgar (1979, 105-150) have elaborated this position with respect to a single substance TRF, which was available only in minute quantities. Claims to discovery of similar substances are often made which on further prosecution of the standard techniques are pronounced as artifacts of the machinery, electrical supply, or other extraneous factor. Their point is that it is not the existence of TRF which explains its passing of the tests, but the social fact of its having passed the test (and being no longer debated) that confers existence on it. Thus they conclude (1979, 182):
Once the controversy has settled, reality is taken to be the cause of this settlement; but while controversy is still raging, reality is the consequence of debate, following each twist and turn in the controversy as if it were the shadow of scientific endeavour. It could be objected that there are other grounds for accepting the reality of a fact apart from the cessation of controversy. For example, it could be argued that the efficacy of a scientific statement outside the laboratory is a sufficient basis for accepting its correspondence with reality.... This objection can be answered in the same way as the objection about the equivalence of a statement with the thing out there: observation of laboratory activity shows that the "outside" character of a fact is itself the consequence of the laboratory work. In no instance did we observe the independent verification of a statement produced in the laboratory. Instead, we observed the



extension of some laboratory practices to other arenas of social reality, such as hospitals and industry. (Original emphases).

This is clearly a persuasive formulation of an extremely radical stance but it is not without difficulties. The claim made here is very similar to the one made by operationalist philosophers of science: operationalism maintains that the meaning of a scientific term is just the operations that constitute its domain of meaning. The sociological claim is that the phenomenon arises from a set of social operations and is nothing other than those operations. This latter stance is thus a form of social operationalism. As with philosophical operationalism, a strong case for this stance can be made with phenomena which are extremely machine dependent. Thus, mesons and TRF are available as facts, only in carefully arranged situations, involving esoteric equipment and techniques. However, this straightforward operationalism breaks down when a phenomenon or putative substance, identified in one operation, is found to be interchangeable with, or identical to, a phenomenon isolated in a different manner. When TRF is synthesised in one process, and isolated from brain extracts in another, the coincidence of 'TRF-ness' stands in need of explanation. No doubt one could entertain an operational reduction of these two techniques to show them to be the same kind of social construction. But then this argument enters a reductive spiral and the only conclusion is that science is just one kind of social construction. A second weakness is that if all application of scientific knowledge were to be an extension of particular practices then one would not need chemical engineering and the other sciences of application. The straightforward utility of science in the world has recently been attacked as a distorting simplification of the business of making science pay off practically (Mulkay 1979; Potter 1982). Social operationalists cannot just overlook this type of claim. Anyway, how is one to understand the implicit claim that the outside application of scientific knowledge is always (or even generally) an extension of laboratory practices? If it is an empirical claim, then the author's social operation could be opposed by counter instance from engineering science. If it is a definitional claim, that knowledge outside is only ever an extension of specific practice, then the range of practices which are to be regarded as the same looks bewildering diverse. Considering the three sociological strategies for circumventing the issue of truthfulness, it becomes apparent that none of them can conclusively oust a realist view of truth. By highlighting the singularity of the occasions upon which the first two approaches may be employed, one might even consider that they act to re-affirm the importance of question of truth. The third approach could be said to establish that science is ineffably social, and that 'the truth' is constructed by scientists as they go about their work.



However, either this is a levelling process which is aimed to show that, in some sense, scientific action is like other action or it is a dogmatic redescription of scientific practice which leaves the truth orientation of the scientific Lebenswelt untouched. Curiously, sociologists who seek to avoid questions of truth hold one belief similar to a conviction associated with the realist theory of truth. Both regard truth, if it is to be anything, as a property of isolable chunks of knowledge rather than as coupled to due process. This similarity is best revealed in the writings of one of the few sociologists to make a general statement about the role of truth in the explanation of belief. Bloor (1973; 1976; 1982) has maintained that truth cannot be a cause of belief and since, according to him, sociology must seek to explain belief causally, questions of truth are out of place. He notes that, were truth a cause of belief, then there would be neither ignorance nor error (1973, 178). Despite its tongue-in-cheek appearance this argument can be taken seriously. Clearly if truth were the necessary and sufficient cause of belief, then the period before the acceptance of a belief which was later held to be true would appear mysterious. Truth alone can be no causal explanation; but this does not rule out the possibility that there may be operations, of finite length and complexity, which are the conditions for attaining true belief. One might then say that adherence to correct procedure is the cause of true belief. For example, in a rule-governed game with clues where one sought to identify a hidden card by a process of elimination, one might be able to arrive at the correct answer rapidly by adopting a systematic ploy. Here, the procedure plus the truth (correctness) of one's ultimate guess is the condition for true belief. Assuming that the systematic ploy was known to one's opponent, one could then say to him/her that the truth of the answer was responsible for your believing it. In a sense this is precisely the claim made for the scientific method. Given an infallible, automatic scientific method, one could say that one believes helium to be less dense that oxygen (under the same temperature and pressure) because it is. Truth, mediated by a method, is the cause of belief. However, in the case of science, as opposed to a game, the solution is not afforded by the rules themselves. The reference to what 'really is' the case about helium and oxygen is not corroborated independently of the means of its discovery. The physical world is inscrutable, unlike the hidden answer to a guessing game or the malefactor in a detective story. This might seem to favour Bloor's case: since truth is dependent on the method, one cannot claim that truth is an independent cause of belief. But this would only favour Bloor if he had an alternative access to the physical world, for he must be able to demonstrate that scientists could take a real untruth for true; but one presumes he does not. Thus, despite his assertions to the contrary, Bloor has not proven that truth isn't a cause of



belief - he has merely shown that, in any particular case, it cannot be known to be a cause. In fact, given the link between method and truth, one can conclude that scientific truth is nothing but that which is properly discovered by science. Truth as a cause of belief must remain, at best, the sustaining fiction of science. However, this is not to say that one can scorn science, that its truths are mere 'contingent upshots', for they could be nothing else. Indeed, even to suggest that as an 'upshot' it is not the real truth, is to fall back into realism. Truth is located firmly in the process, not in the answers to science. Its answers are inscrutable; only in its method is there anything, as Quine (1969, 5) says, to scrute.

Consequently one is squarely back in Perelman's court room. One cannot insist on handling questions of truth before those of process, because there is no independent arbitration on matters of truth. However, before proceeding, it will be instructive to see how philosophers have entered and striven to organise this perplexing situation. Philosophical writers too have been struck with the inscrutability of the physical world. Many have, nonetheless, sought to adhere to a correspondence theory of truth. Such a theory has an intuitive appeal, but like the apparent analogy between science and a guessing game, is limited by its need to escape language. All but language-fabricated truths, such as games, involve an implicit reliance on language to make the correspondence, and thus remain firmly rooted on this side of the real world. More precisely, there are two forms of the correspondence theory with specific weaknesses. The first form relies upon what Pitcher (1964, 10) has dubbed 'correspondence as congruity'. According to this theory, a claim like 'the dog is in the corner' would be true if something corresponding to the dog were somewhere corresponding to the corner. But this notion of truth runs into difficulty with claims like 'all dogs have four legs', and 'the dog is not in the corner'. It is, to say the least, extremely problematic to imagine what corresponds to 'all dogs' and impossible to decide what corresponds to 'no dog': a cat, an empty space, a dog elsewhere? The second view Pitcher (1964, 10-14) terms 'correspondence as correlation', and involves a purely formal correspondence between language and the real world. This fails to do justice to re-interpretations of the same data, such as debates about the nature of the atom. Clearly, every description must correspond in some way, so that the issue becomes one about the correct kind of correspondence. Such a question is perforce beyond the terms of this theory of truth. A long-standing philosophical alternative to the correspondence theory, which stresses the procedural nature of truth, is the consensus theory. This



urges, in Peirce's famous phrase (1966, 133), that: 'The opinion which is fated to be agreed upon by all who investigate is what we mean by truth.' This clearly stays securely within language and conforms nicely to Toulmin's idea that 'truth' is a field invariant notion. It might even assist in clarifying the relationship between truth and argumentation. However, it does not help to determine what is true in particular instances. In fact, one could plausibly claim that its directive would be to suspend judgement on truth until the conditions for attaining a final consensus were reached (Ayer 1974, 17-40). This is a debilitating philosophy of no consolation to the practising scientist. A recent re-working of Peirce's theory of truth by Habermas has cast the emphasis on argumentation and consensus in a specifically linguistic framework to produce a more flexible truth conception. For Habermas (1973, 212), 'Wahrheit ist ein Geltungsanspruch, den wir mit Aussagen verbinden, indem wir sie behaupten'. Thus, he suggests that when one asserts something, one's speech act includes a validity claim. However, this claim can only be tested through argument. In principle therefore, because validity claims are always open to challenge, true utterances are to be recognised when all relevant parties have been able to offer their contribution and consensus has been reached. Accordingly, no ultimate consensus can practicably be realised. None the less, each utterance inevitably contains a truth claim, and is thus normatively oriented towards achieving consensus. Indeed, the concern with truth is guaranteed by the structure of communication itself, so that it is not as remote as in Peirce's theory. Habermas claims that communicative competence, the imputed ability of every speaker to use language in communication, depends on the truth orientation of utterances. Communicative competence therefore provides the groundwork for a consensus and, since consensus is the condition of truth, truth is anticipated in the ability to converse. The notion of communicative competence links empirical statements about pragmatic linguistic capacities to the normative orientation Habermas detects in all discourse. His conception of truth is not specific to science or to particular disciplines. It is intended to be the background to every utterance, even if there is no explicit truth claim for it relates to the constituents of speech acts. On the face of it, Habermas offers a version of truth against which behaviour can be assessed; can it in fact be applied? Since Habermas' truth theory is incorporated in his theory of communicative competence, or latterly universal pragmatics, it is clear that truth is to be only one of the claims made in utterances (Hesse 1979). He maintains that in all there are four validity claims associated with every speech act: those of truth, sincerity, understandability, and appropriateness. In what Habermas terms an 'Ideal Speech Situation', each of these claims would be open to query and to defence. Sincerity and understandability are repaired in the flow of discourse, whilst an extension of the



bounds of discourse may be necessary to the redemption of the other claims, for it may be necessary to go beyond the question in hand to more general issues. A 'true' consensus would result from an Ideal Speech Situation, where the discourse was terminated only by agreement and participants were equally endowed with the ability and opportunity to participate. Since truth is a facet of the final agreement, the consensus is not, as for Peirce, the condition of truth but its attainment (but see McCarthy 1973, 148-150). Even if Habermas is correct in thinking that it escapes the flaws of the common consensus theory, his remains a peculiar theory in many ways. It is normative and formal so that there is no guarantee that the criterion of consensus could ever be unequivocally employed by empirical analysts. Moreover, the notion of symmetrical chances relies on empirical pragmatic considerations about ability to participate and so on, and these would never be unquestionable. As McCarthy (1973, 146-48) stresses, it elides symmetry of formal and actual power. It is also unclear where the theory derives its authority: it is neither self-evidently true nor able to prove itself since it depends on identifying the real features of a universal pragmatics. These presumably are not yet consensually recognised. Finally, one wonders how much can be questioned in an Ideal Speech Situation anyway? Much of the force of the recent philosophy of science suggests that ultimate questions cannot practicably be asked. Habermas' theory does, however, represent the most elaborate notion of truth prepared to date which focuses on process. Yet even it offers little more than an ideal for truth and no sure way of interrogating empirical instances of agreement. The very diversity of scientific beliefs and the tenacity with which they are held suggests that science is far from approaching a true consensus. Habermas' theory successfully emphasises that the idea of truthfulness is primarily a normative conception and that truth cannot be separated from questions of procedure. This suggests that truth is ineliminable from the concerns of scientists. But since truth is no longer seen as a property of particular beliefs this view lessens the difficulties confronting the sociology of knowledge. It indicates that sociological attention should be directed to the process of scientific disputation.


One common difficulty experienced in attempting to arrive at a judicial consensus, of which one is put in mind on returning to the legalistic model, arises from the problem of getting people to tell the whole truth. Yet in most discussions of the theory of knowledge the truth is taken as a



straightforward notion. Very simple items are considered concerning red balls, ink bottles and cats on mats. One wonders if the whole truth about a scientific theory is the same as the whole truth about a moggy, and one is puzzled by what the whole truth could consist in. It is to Habermas' credit that in his theory of truth (1973, 232-33) he makes it clear that his exemplar of knowledge is theoretical science:
Paradigmata der Erkenntnis ... sind nicht die Wahrnehmungen oder singuliren Aussagen, ... sondern generelle, negative und modale Aussagen; diese bringen das Spezifische von Erkenntnis zum Ausdruck: nnimlich die begriffliche Organisation des Erfahrungsmaterials.

He is justified in claiming that theories are commonly taken to be the bearers of truth, but at one level his view is still too narrow, since he repeats a common tendency to take knowledge of a theory to be a singular entity. The common theory of knowledge thus makes two simplifications by considering knowledge of bottles of ink as examples: firstly, using affirmative statements about simple objects, and secondly, by regarding the knowledge as exhausted by the one statement. Against such a view one can ask with Wittgenstein (1976, 58 e-59 e):
But what does this knowledge consist in? Let me ask: When do you know that [piece of knowledge]? Always? day and night? ... Suppose it were asked: "When do you know how to play chess? All the time? or just while you are making a move? And the whole of chess during each move? - How queer that knowing how to play chess should take such a short time, and a game so much longer!

What then is the whole truth about a scientific theory, or put more simply, what is it, for the empirical investigator, that someone knows a theory? This is not a question for psychology, nor is it to doubt that people do know theories. Rather, it is to suggest that many ways of regarding scientific knowledge operate on a restrictive, perhaps distorting, view of what knowing is. What 'knowing Newton's second law of motion' amounts to, has been investigated by the philosopher Hanson (1969, 99-118). He suggests that there are many meanings of the law (commonly expressed F = m(d 2 s/dt2 )), related to the ways the law is used, and that what it is to know the law varies with the meaning. It can legitimately be regarded as an empirical result; a description of Newton's historical discovery; a way of defining force; a statement of notation; a technique for measuring force or acceleration; a principle to be observed in instrument construction and a great many other things. As an example he cites Atwood's machine, which consists of two weights connected by a light thread running over a low-friction pulley. This instrument is used variously to prove Newton's law; to afford experimental demonstrations of it; and to measure gravitational acceleration on the basis of the law.



Furthermore, these alternatives have no necessary order of historical succession, for they can be employed by the same scientist perhaps as a statement of terms and as a guide to instrument construction. More strikingly, in 1798, Cavendish sought to confirm the law experimentally over short distances whilst accepting it as a law of nature for other phenomena. In the face of this meaning instability, Hanson suggests (1969, 103), 'Philosophers may think these physicists are confused; but the confusion is a difficult one to resist'. Clearly, the meaning variance is no practical problem. The philosopher is only inclined to detect a problem and to suppose the scientist confused if he/she believes that scientific knowledge deep down is really laws or really definitions. Hanson suggests that scientific knowledge is actually multiplex. But there is a further point for the analyst, the use is part of the meaning and the meaning informs the use. Philosophers may regard this variation as a problem. Scientists have no such difficulty; they need no semantic experts to put their meanings into order. Indeed, Hanson claims (1969, 118) that the appropriate invocation of the different meanings is constitutive of being a good scientist, and at the forefront of knowledge the options on interpretation may account for the divergent opinions of different scientists. For the sociology of science the point to be taken here is that what it is to know a theory, or what that theory means, is dependent on the use or context of that theory; and that use and context are closely connected. This may seem an obvious claim but, at a methodological level, it is not at all straightforward. It means that as the sociologist tries to describe what a scientist is doing, he/she is faced with a variety of potentially correct technical descriptions. This variation has led Gilbert and Mulkay to use the imagery of scientists talking with many voices (1984). Recent development in interpretative sociology, especially parts of ethnomethodology have been concerned with a similar series of problems. Ethnomethodology, of course, arose largely as a methodological critique of conventional American sociology, and concentrated on two problems akin to those cited above. The first problem was that sociologists rely on everyday knowledge in order to elicit the data which subsequently get reified. The second difficulty lay in the need to divorce descriptions of actions from those actions themselves. Ethnomethodologists claim that, since all social action is understood in context, the interpretation of what
someone is saying - in an interview for example - is no more context

free than other, non-sociological understanding (Cicourel 1964). Therefore, sociology is predicated upon untrained everyday interpretations of contexted meanings. Furthermore, the practical, artless repair of this hopeless contextuality is itself a phenomenon. As Garfinkel (1967, 1) explains:



[ethnomethodology's] central recommendation is that the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with members' procedures for making those settings "account-able".

Strong claims have been made against ethnomethodology as a general perspective, (Attewell (1974), Giddens (1976, 38-42) and Goldthorpe (1973)) particularly attacking its assertion that making accountable is doing. Surely murdering a person is more than presenting their death at one's hands as accountable (at least for the deceased). However, for science with its inscrutable object of study, it may be that the making accountable can justly be viewed as a great deal of the doing. Perhaps the ethno-methodological approach to the study of meanings can be more than a critique of method here, and direct one more positively. Ethnomethodology emphasises that actors proceed by making life accountable, despite the contexted nature of all situations. This context dependence is dubbed 'indexicality' by Garfinkel. Some ethnomethodologists have suggested that the significance of indexicality for analyses of everyday life can be revealed by contrasting everyday talk with scientific language, where, they imply, indexicality is avoided (for example, Wilson 1974, 71-74). But is this really so when scientific speech acts are considered? This question has been examined in a recent article in which Barnes and Law (1976) have sought to extend the concept of indexicality to include natural scientific statements. They demonstrate convincingly that scientific language is subject to meaning variance in a number of ways, and should not be seen as essentially different to the 'indexical' everyday world. For instance, the claim that 'this is copper sulphate' can only contextually be resolved into what constitutes CuSO4 since what, on one occasion, is said to be a crystal of copper sulphate may appropriately be described as a mixture in a different situation. Similarly, the weights of substances or the rate of gravitational acceleration are given values on contextual bases. Surely one can say that the utterance 'this is copper sulphate' depends for its meaning or truth value on its occasion of utterance. Further, the meaning of certain terms like 'mass' depends on which theory-system one is working with, and this is practically decided on particular occasions of scientific use. Finally, the development of proofs of geometrical or other axioms (as studied by Lakatos, 1976) can be seen just as the repair of indexicality. With the inclusion of mathematics (Barnes and Law 1976, 229-30), one could even argue that analytic statements might have an indexical character. Giddens (1976, 42-44) remarks that of course the statement '2 + 2 = 4' is indexical in the sense that the rules of arithmetic might change, but he maintains that that this possibility of meaning change is so general that the property involved cannot usefully be called indexicality.



Certainly, neither Garfinkel nor Barnes and Law attempt to define the concept of indexicality rigorously. Yet Giddens' objection omits the consideration that rule-changing is an everyday concern and accomplishment of mathematicians working at the forefront of mathematical science. His claim fails to distinguish the security of sedimented rule systems from the openness at the forefront of knowledge. One might as well say that the injunction 'no smoking' is non-indexical just because it appears unproblematic. The ethnomethodologist's claim is that apparently non-indexical statements are simply ones where a context for interpretation is easily imagined. Ethnomethodology asserts that no statement is non-indexical, and that sociologists who claim to interpret statements with no reference to contextual features, are actually employing a covert contextual 'gloss'. On this view, therefore, the source of the answer to what it is to know a theory can only be located in what is done with that theory. This is not to advocate an ethnomethodology of science, because ethnomethodologists study only the indexicality of action. They are not concerned with how argumentation proceeds in science. Their interest is in documenting how scientists handle indexicality (Garfinkel, Lynch and Livingston 1981). Consequently scientific action has no special characteristics for them. On the other hand, I am not in agreement with Gidden's claim that studies of indexicality should await resolution in terms of the true meaning of sentences. This suggestion bypasses the valid methodological issues raised by the question of indexicality and transfers them to the level of philosophers' problems. It misses the fact that scientists' 'artful' recognition of, say, the true meaning of 'this is copper sulphate' is a complex phenomenon. The way forward in studying argumentation must be related to pragmatics in a broad sense, but a pragmatics more intricate than Habermas' allegedly universal system yet encompasses. One must start with natural data, looking at the construction of scientific arguments and counter-arguments. That is, one should turn to a sociology of scientific language.


This paper has reviewed a variety of the connections which can be detected between argumentation and epistemology in science. Although scientific knowledge is commonly held up as having exemplary status its object cannot be known directly and in this sense is fated to remain inscrutable. Accordingly, attempts to base science's validity on the ideal of correspondence will inevitably be ironically undermined as knowledge develops. None the less, in studying science it is important to focus on an orientation towards truth as an aspect of scientist's social action. This



paper has shown that an emphasis on processes of argumentation fits well with the intuitive demands which scientists appear to place on the notion of truth. It has further been suggested that a focus on argumentation successfully accompanies a consensus conception of truth. It must however be realised that the idea that truth can be understood as a form of validity claim made in assertions does not allow one to specify rules or procedures narrowly governing the conclusions which will emerge from debates and argumentation. Rather one is invited to focus on the practical importance of rhetoric and persuasion. Furthermore, even when knowledge is seen as resulting from processes of argument and persuasion, a major restriction on the customary conception of knowledge tends to persist: analysts have failed to recognise that what it is to know something, or what it is that a theory amounts to (for example, various statements of the 'meaning' of Newton's law), are only available in formulations. Arguments only exist in the form of their particular expressions. Rather than treating these formulations as insipid relations of the real steps in the process of argumentation they merit examination in their own right. The natural development of the emphasis on consensus and argumentation is not towards normative theories but towards the study of naturally-occurring argumentation. There is only space in this conclusion briefly to mention studies which fit this requirement: Myers (1985) has examined successive stages in the composition of scientific papers showing how the status of the knowledge is negotiated in the course of refereeing and evidenced in the adaptations of the article for publication; Yearley (1981) has examined the manner in which scientists deconstruct the published argument of their scientific opponents through textual devices of sequencing and arrangement; and Mulkay (1985) has shown the ways in which scientists negotiate the value of each other's arguments in the informal context of exchanges of letters. Other formulations of arguments which must ultimately be considered include scientists' diagrams, illustrations and graphical plots but it is not yet fully clear how the principles of socio-linguistic analysis should be applied to such materials (but see Gilbert and Mulkay 1984, 141-71). What is clear, however, is that argumentation provides a focus for empirical study of issues such as persuasion and truth-orientation which have either been denied empirical scrutiny or been sheltered behind normative, epistemological barriers.
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