Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization

7 August 2015


Science in its early stages of development always makes use of folk concepts, and there is always some science in the early stages of its development.

Science in its early stages of development always makes use of folk concepts, and there is always some science in the early stages of its development.

Having provided an exposition of folk concepts in my Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress, I can move on to my motivation for thinking about folk concepts, which was to investigate the role of folk concepts in contemporary civilization, i.e., folk concepts in industrial-technological civilization, or scientific civilization, which latter seems paradoxical. How can folk concepts coexist with scientific civilization? If a civilization were truly scientific, would it not have overcome the use of folk concepts?

Scientific civilization in only about five hundred years old, and it may be divided into two portions, the period 1500-1800 (which I call Modernism without Industrialism, which is to say, the period between the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution) and the period after the industrial revolution (which marks the beginning of industrial-technological civilization, in which science is crucial to the STEM cycle, which drives this civilization).

I have considered the nature of scientific civilization in David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization and The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment (and I am, additionally, working on several posts intended as further explorations of the idea of scientific civilization). To date I have only scratched the surface, and haven’t provided a sustained exposition of the idea of scientific civilization. This is a rich vein of inquiry for the study of civilization, and it will not be exhausted any time soon.

Paradoxical though it sounds, scientific civilization has its own folk concepts. This is because scientific civilization produces not only more refined and sophisticated sciences, but also entirely new sciences, and new sciences involve the introduction of new terms and concepts. Unprecedented developments — of which civilization itself is perhaps the most unprecedented development in human history — demand that we formulate a theoretical framework to intellectually assimilate them. Sometimes the technical and engineering capacities of industrial-technological civilization produce new entities, or new classes of entities (this is a source of planetary constraints on civilization, in the form of what I call the ontic constraint), and no established theoretical framework exists to assimilate these discoveries. Truly novel phenomena demand the formulation of a truly novel theoretical framework.

Eliminativism (as in, e.g., eliminative materialism) often takes the form of rejecting “folk” concepts as unscientific and insisting upon the replacement of folk concepts with scientific concepts. However, such a replacement of folk by scientific concepts can only work if there is a science of the phenomena to be explained. Where we possess no science, or only an inchoate science — I have many times observed that there is no science of civilization, and no science of consciousness — the elimination of folk concepts leaves us with little or nothing. Thus in the period of time during which a science is developing, and folk concepts and scientific concepts overlap, a scientific theory that incorporates folk concepts is less imperfect (because more adequate) than an inchoate scientific theory that attempts to entirely eliminate folk concepts ad initio.

Folk concepts can contribute to the adequacy of a conceptual framework because they typically draw upon what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge, i.e., what we know, but which we cannot account for knowing, or say how we know what we know. Recognizing faces in a crowd is a paradigm case of tacit knowledge. Human beings are very good at recognizing individual faces, but very poor at describing faces or explaining how they recognize a face. Tacit knowledge might also be characterized as knowledge below the level of formalization, or even knowledge below the level of conscious awareness.

While the rejection, elimination, and replacement of folk concepts is often justified, this rejection is often too sweeping in its elimination when it becomes a pretext to eliminate not only the admittedly imperfect and informal folk concept, but also the tacit knowledge upon which the folk concept is based. From a scientific standpoint, it is easy to dismiss tacit knowledge, as it resists precisely the formalization that science would like to impose upon all bodies of knowledge. There is often an attitude in the sciences that that which cannot be made fully explicit can be safely ignored, and there are good grounds for this, as the subtlety of tacit knowledge cannot be subjected to experimentation, repeatability, or public verification. Nevertheless, this is one of the sources of intuition that ultimately lies at the base of all the sciences. New sciences especially are reliant on tacit knowledge.

There is often an imperfect fit between our native intuitions and the ideas of a new science; new sciences often involve concepts that are counter-intuitive, and we must make the effort to formulate new intuitions, and arrive at new ways of thinking about familiar phenomenon. In some cases, our intuitions are utterly silent on questions posed by a new science or a new mode of inquiry, so that we must develop our intuitive competency as we proceed, which is a process that can take generations. In the meantime, folk concepts about new developments, about new phenomena, and even about new sciences grow up like weeds.

Even in the midst of unprecedented developments, life goes on, and since the ordinary business of life goes on, we discuss unprecedented developments in the ordinary language of ordinary life. Ordinary language may be defined in terms of its reliance upon folk concepts. However, ordinary language changes, albeit slowly. With the passage of sufficient time, ordinary language changes significantly. The ordinary language spoken in the context of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization probably differed markedly from the ordinary language spoken in the context of industrial-technological civilization. Each kind of civilization has its distinctive kind of ordinary language. (If you like, you may consider this a weak formulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though that is not how I would characterize it; I mention the hypothesis here only because I am certain that some readers will assimilate the argument made here to it.)

In Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need I argued that the distinctive character of scientific mystery (in contradistinction to the eschatological mysteries that seem to satisfy the longings of existential need) is that scientific mysteries are never final. Scientific knowledge in a scientific civilization is in a state of continual growth. Scientific mysteries are eventually solved, but they are at the same time replaced by ever new scientific mysteries, so that there always are and always will be scientific mysteries, but scientific mystery is not some impossible, ineffable truth about the universe that can never admit of rational knowledge. Scientific mysteries admit of definitive answers, and the phenomenon of scientific mystery mystery remains with us only because new scientific mysteries always appear beyond the mysteries that have been resolved.

This sense of there always being a further scientific mystery is well illustrated by a famous quote attributed to Isaac Newton:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, 1855, Volume II., Ch. 27.

The same structure of scientific knowledge that means that there are always new scientific mysteries also means that there will always be science on the frontier of knowledge, and science on the frontier of knowledge will always, at least in its inchoate beginnings, have recourse to folk concepts, however far in advance of contemporary knowledge these folk concepts may be.

. . . . .

The Square Kilometer Array: SETI is still a very young science, and moreover a science that occurs at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. As such, it continues to make use of folk concepts of civilization and astrobiology.

The Square Kilometer Array: SETI is still a very young science, and moreover a science that occurs at the intersection of the natural sciences and the social sciences. As such, it continues to make use of folk concepts of civilization and astrobiology.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization”

  1. xcalibur said

    Elsewhere I said that psychology and sociology are protosciences – scientific endeavours in an immature state. Would you say that Freud’s theories are folk concepts?

    There’s also what I call “scienceism” the belief that if a scientist says it, it is true. This leads to wrong ideas being perpetuated – for example, lactic acid does not actually cause muscle soreness. Even without inaccuracies, there is a difference between science and popular knowledge of science, which means that folk ideas aren’t going to disappear.

    Also, it seems that even agrarian-ecclesiastic folk concepts can still be viable in industrial-technological society. The Judeo-Christian tradition still affects intellectual life and morality, even if it’s subconscious. For another example, I believe the same is also true of China – in spite of Communism’s excesses, Confucianism and folk concepts still retain their hold on the Eastern mind.

    • geopolicraticus said

      There is a sense in which any science that has not reached a mature formulation could be called a proto-science, though I would agree with you in more readily identifying psychology and sociology as proto-sciences. I am especially thinking of what Wittgenstein said of psychology in the final section of his Philosophical Investigations about conceptual confusions in psychology.

      I haven’t run across the term “scienceism” but I sometimes use “scientism” to express the ideology that has been built up around science but which is distinct from science itself. This consists of the majority views of the scientific community that is not however established by research. Some views that aren’t necessarily majority views also qualify. I have noticed that Sam Harris’ brand of determinism is quite popular, though a survey would be necessary to determine if it is a majority view. Also, a great many scientists refer to the modularity theory of mind, though this is one theory of mind among many, and there is no reason to privilege this particular theory.

      Freud is full of folk concepts. Freudian psychiatry is a science in a very early stage of development — a proto-science. Sometimes proto-sciences don’t survive. In their development, they turn into something else. Sociobiology, for example, turned into evolutionary psychology. Freudian psychiatry turned into contemporary psychiatry, which is rather different.

      Folk concepts remain viable over the longue durée, certainly. The real question is their relative value, and this is different in different fields of research. In some cases folk concepts hold back science, while in other cases folk concepts serve to remind us of the tacit knowledge not yet given a scientific formulation.

      Best wishes,


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