Postmodernism and our understanding of science

In Deon Rossouw (ed.), Life in a postmodern culture. Human Sciences Research Council Press (1995)
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Despite the flood of philosophical texts on postmodernism, relatively few attempts have been made to gauge the importance of postmodern ideas for the philosophy of science. However, Lyotard's enormously influential text The postmodern condition (1979) focussed on science and knowledge. He put the term metanarrative (grand narrative) into circulation. Lyotard defines the term modern to refer to the way in which science tries to legitimate its own status by means of philosophical discourse which appeal to some kind of grand narrative (Lyotard 1984:xxiii). Science needs to legitimate itself as being true knowledge by making use of another kind of knowledge, which Lyotard calls narrative knowledge (Lyotard 1984:29,30). Without this legitimation science would presuppose its own validity and proceed on prejudice (Lyotard 1984:29). He examines two such grand narratives that previously legitimated science in the modern world, but now have lost their credibility. One is science as the liberator of humanity and the other science as a good influence on the character of its participants. He describes his now famous definition of the concept postmodern, namely an incredulity toward metanarratives, as being extremely simplified (Lyotard 1984:xxiv). Lyotard (1984:18-27) also strongly focuses attention on the important role of narratives in human life in that narratives provide a certain kind of knowledge that cannot be had in any other way. He regards narrative and scientific knowledge as two distinct species of discourse (Lyotard 1984:26-27), which both fulfill legitimate functions and no one's existence is more or less necessary than the other's. Lyotard himself sees the function of legitimation as the primary role for narrative knowledge, and discusses it mostly in that context (1984:27-37). In this article I want to look at philosophers who give different appraisals of the merits of postmodern ideas - with Lyotardian ones featuring prominently - for philosophy of science and our understanding of science. I will examine the attempts by Nancey Murphy (1990), Pauline-Marie Rosenau (1992), Zuzana Parusnikova (1992) and Joseph Rouse (1990, 1991a, 1991b) to develop (or reject) a postmodern philosophy of science. In a final section I will determine the worth of their views for our understanding of science and philosophy of science.
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