Science is a fact

From the pre-idea to the fact

Ludwik Fleck's theory of science receives the attention it deserves

By Benno Kirsch

Discussed books / references

Evolution, says Ulrich Kutschera in a book that is fascinating in a certain way, is “a real historical process […] that has taken place, continues and can be analyzed using scientific methods. The historical becoming of the organisms is thus a proven fact“(Fact evolution, 2008). And Alain de Libera in his book “Penser au Moyen Âge” (1991) draws the conclusion that Kutschera keeps to himself at the quoted passage: “The factthat the 'Arabs' played a crucial role in the creation of Europe's cultural identity, there is no need to argue and even less to deny - it just happened that way.“

Kutschera and de Libera are two scientists from very different disciplines - biology one, history the other - who obviously agree on the idea that “facts” are given, unchangeable artifacts. Anyone who is able to identify and name these facts has made the step from a scientist's search for truth to truth itself. He has cleared up ambiguities, eliminated contradictions, made misunderstandings impossible and eliminated the need for discursive searches. He spoke the last word, in the last instance, ex cathedra - and whoever expresses doubts now, the implicit conclusion, is either malicious or stupid.

Against this ahistorical, unreflected concept of fact, which, however, is possibly the predominant one, there was already opposition in the 1930s, before Joseph Kuhn and the postmodern “cultural turn”. One of the early modern constructivist theorists of science is Ludwik Fleck, whose most important work "Origin and Development of a Scientific Fact" appeared in 1935. In it he develops terms such as “thinking collective” - a community of people who communicate in the same categories, for example a research group - and “thinking style”, i.e. the way in which a thinking collective communicates. It is crucial that Fleck assumes that “facts” are created by thought collectives, that facts do not, in the figurative sense, float around in the air and only have to be captured and captured. Rather, they are social constructs, regardless of the fact that there are findings that can be viewed as "true".

In the first part of the book, the editors bring together various epistemological texts by Fleck from 1927 to 1962. Using the example of the discovery of the Bordet-Wassermann reaction for diagnosing syphilis, Fleck demonstrated that scientific facts arise from a work context, and indeed as By-product or as a result of a wrong path. He denies that there are individual, heroic researchers who, thanks to their genius, advance science. Aquarius was also not a hero, not a genius, but the head of a working group who was not necessarily clear about his goal during the research process. The rather chaotic cognitive process was only later rationalized and blurring and aberrations smoothed out, so that the "Bordet-Aquarius legend" could arise.

According to Fleck, the scientific knowledge process actually works like this: A group of scientists - a “thinking collective” - brings each other into a certain “thinking mood, whereby a specific thought structure arises from mutual understanding, but also from accidental misunderstandings Authorship does not belong to any person, but only to that collective as a whole. "

In a certain sense, the medical professional Fleck thinks sociologically, attaching the importance it deserves to the interaction between people and the resulting community. To what extent he overemphasizes the importance of the collective remains to be seen. In any case, says Fleck, one must recognize “that the motor of a development is not the rational plan of a single individual, but rather the mood of a community of thought”, from which the “pre-ideas” ultimately developed there are transformed into scientific thoughts, findings and theories .

The reception of Fleck's theory of science ended with the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which initially brought him under Soviet occupation. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Fleck also got caught up in the SS murder machinery. The second part of the volume brings together texts by Fleck and others relating to his time as a prisoner in the Lviv ghetto and in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. As a researching doctor with a focus on serology, Fleck was able to continue his work even under the most adverse circumstances. The conditions in the ghetto were appalling for him as well, as can be seen from an aside: “Another difficulty resulted from the constant 'actions' of the Germans on the apartments, the passers-by on the street and the hospital. As a result of these actions, patients who were abducted and liquidated disappeared. The employees sometimes didn't come to work for a few days, sometimes they disappeared forever. "

In Auschwitz, Fleck had to see how the SS carried out human experiments on the sick and accepted their death if they did not intend it anyway. Here he fell ill with typhus himself, which he probably survived because of an earlier vaccination. In Buchenwald, he and his colleagues developed a vaccine against typhus, which he delivered to the Germans, building on the studies he had already carried out in the Lviv ghetto. However, he succeeded in doing a coup with great danger: the vaccine had been made unusable as a precaution, only the control samples were effective.

After the war he continued to work - and remained entirely a doctor and scientist: In an essay he dealt with the question of the circumstances under which experiments on humans should be permitted. He argued that the boundaries between diagnosing and healing are fluid and that one should therefore work out clear criteria in order to "help solve this extremely essential problem of today's development of medical science."

As can be seen from the correspondence with Benno Schwabe Verlag - printed in the fourth part - the time after the war was not very productive for Fleck from an epistemological point of view. In 1949, Fleck believed he was seeing "a growing interest in the problems dealt with in the book [" Origin and Development of a Scientific Fact "]. However, sales developed slowly in the following years, so that the publisher decided to blame the remaining copies, which had survived a bomb hit on the Leipzig publishing house and had not found any buyers, in 1966. Fleck, who had died in 1961, did not get this news - perhaps the event is indicative of the importance that Fleck was given at this time, before his rediscovery. Somehow he was out of sight.

It is thanks to the Fleck renaissance that can currently be observed that the present volume was able to see the light of day. A reviewer of his main work had already written in 1939: “There is no doubt that in Fleck's work we have a very deep and apt analysis of the cognitive process carried out with great talent. Although the author is a doctor and bacteriologist by profession and constantly uses the terms that come from his own field of work, his conclusions can be applied mutatis mutandis to any scientific knowledge. ”The volume contains all the texts contained in“ Experience and fact ” and adds new ones to them. This gives you a solid excerpt from his work and from the debates that have been held about the work and the author. However, the volume is only suitable to a limited extent for the discovery of the thinking collectives in which Fleck moved and which produced his theory. Certainly it contains documents of various scientific controversies, and the reports on the work in the concentration camps are also instructive. That is not enough for a deeper insight into Fleck's thinking collectives, but it would be overwhelming to expect this from the band.

It is of course to be assumed that the Fleck renaissance bypasses those who most urgently need it, namely scientists like Kutschera and de Libera, who, as one can easily see, with their talk of "facts" are primarily concerned with deviating interpretations and to prevent unwanted discussions. The topics may not be more different - Kutschera is about defending against interpretive schemes that question his decidedly atheistic belief in evolution, while de Libera is about Europe's Christian roots, which are systematically belittled by interested parties - but the mechanism is always the same . Like Fleck's main work, this volume is therefore recommended for reading to all who suspected that a heroic image of the scientist does not correspond to reality and that unconventional approaches should also be heard.