Empirical & Experimental

“Society clings with bewildered obedience to scientific expertise, and the ideal of conscious planning and precisely functioning administration dominates every sphere of life even down to the level of the molding of public opinion.” Gadamer as quoted in the introduction of Philosophical Hermeneutics (p. xli), University of California Press, 1976.

The empirical and the experimental have become equated in public opinion to the extent that what cannot be objectively measured simply does not count. There is almost visceral animosity against non-experimental sciences to the extent that philosophy has become to some a synonym of lazy armchair thinking. Philosophy has internalized this animosity as is abundantly clear from the self-guilt with which it enters the public domain, as it were bowing to the experimental emperor whilst subserviently moving backward towards its goal. Philosophical writing already looks more and more like scientific writing, and there is every chance that it will also be force fed the experimental method.

But why do we have two words? Is that a matter of historical accident? A bit like having the word water and the concept H20, with the latter being the exact term that happened to be only discovered after we got used to colloquially using the former? Should we pack up our philosophical bags and use our thinking power only to clarify the presuppositions going into our experimental set-ups? Or, as Gadamer would have it, is it a mere historical accident that the experimental has laid claim on the empirical and that it just happens to be empirically so that the grip of the experimental is extremely hard to break?

If, as the introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics has it, “Hermeneutics has its origin in breaches of intersubjectivity.” then, in order to move on, we need an understanding of why people tend to get so upset at even hinting that the empirical and the experimental are not co-extensive. The operative word, as the above quote suggests, will be control.

When somebody hits you in the face, one can safely assume you would agree to stating it is an empirical fact that you have been hit in the face. The bruise will attest to it. But then doubt creeps in. Can you take it to the courts? Would the bruise not be compatible with a host of other run-ins? Would it not in fact be entirely reconcilable with you running into someone’s fist at the exact speed at which fists tend to land in faces? You might say that I am taking the piss but Descartes for one took such scenario’s at face value. He wanted to have certainty and that certainty could ultimately only be approximated via experiment. We cannot well leave it to chance – or worse: the haphazard ways in which people define and report their experience – whether somebody would be wrongly convicted of bruising the other. Doubt outweighs trust and the only way we – not being God – can eliminate it is by controlled experiment. All the rest is hearsay.

And this is why we want to eliminate uncertainty: we do not trust each other. We need to be kept in check. Experiment keeps us in check. Nobody can beat the odds of a statistical regression. That installs the worm. Once installed, leaving room for an empirical outside of the experimental basically is basically calling on us to have faith. And faith is precisely what we had abandoned in the first place. Accepting the non-experimental empirical will propel us back to the dark ages where anybody can claim anything and authority always won. There will be no objectivity, no control, no order, no planning or predicting, only an appeal to a fuzzy notion like intersubjectivity that can be manipulated at will. Shit will in this case happen, again and again. And so we get stuck with an intersubjective notion of objectivity that is defined by the experimental method instead of by what we all can see – like, for instance, that the powers that be mold public opinion to be distrustful of others, and that they try to eliminate diversity in order to normalize us into productiveness.

That is the hermeneutics of the empirical and the experimental. We want to get rid of the haunting uncertainty. This is why we traded the authority of the priest for the authority of the scientific expert, because we think methodology can but people cannot be trusted. There is method to this madness, it is the method of eliminating uncertainty. And it can’t, because science is as much man’s business as anything else is. But we can’t break loose of it unless we start trusting each other instead of trusting that there is a cosmic bridge that, behind the human scenes, ensures that truth can be controlled. And so human beings are becoming more and more the units of experimental economy approximating the ideal of unbiased rational egoism.

To restore the empirical is to restore trust in our fellow human beings. That will be hard. It is breaching the consensus and coming back to an understanding that leaves room for critical opinion. The exclusive claim of the experimental method to the empirical is very much like over-eating: without food you die, but with an addiction to eating you become obese and ultimately utterly motionless.

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