The Contingency of Categories

“There is no intrinsic justification to consider as ‘true’ representation of the world what we take to be ‘normal’ experience (i.e., the experience of the average adult European of the twentieth century), and to consider all other sorts of experience that are equally vivid, as merely abnormal, fantastic, or, at best, a primitive precursor to our ‘scientific’ world picture.”

– Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, 1969

Ludwig von Bertalanffy was an Austrian biologist whose work helped lay the foundations of general system theory. In this passage he is asserting the absence of intrinsic justifications for the validity of scientific knowledge. In so doing, he asserts a cultural relativism that one might not expect to find in a positivistic work from the late 1960s.

The argument here involves a refutation of Kantian universalism as applied to the categories of thought. The notion of categories of thought as used here dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who proposed ten essential properties or categories which, he thought, apply to all phenomena, including substance, quantity, location in space, and location in time, among others. The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted that all human beings use the same concepts to think about these categories, meaning that all human beings understand time, space, etc. in the same way.

If we were to accept this claim, then we could develop an intrinsic justification for the truth of science. That is, we could say that we can know that science presents a true account of the world because it bases its claims on these universal categories of human thought.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim had already argued, in his 1912 book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, that these categories were not universal but were social facts – or, as we might say today, social constructions.  Half a century later, Von Bertalanffy makes a similar argument, apparently without having read Durkheim and instead drawing on Benjamin Lee Whorf and on his own earlier work on general systems theory.

Von Bertalanffy’s argument goes like this:

  1. all cognition involves a reduction in sensory data whereby we select important details, relate them to each other, and discard the rest;
  2. we use conceptual categories to do this;
  3. the categories of our thought are determined not only by biology but also by culture;
  4. culture is a complex dynamic open system;
  5. out of this complexity, culture finds multiple ways to define the basic categories of our thought,
    1. and we know this empirically because we can observe that in different cultures people actually do have different conceptions of time, space, number, and so on;
  6. therefore cultural variation produces multiple ways of reducing the complexity of sensory perception into the experience of a world made up of definite objects and relations.

Therefore, there can be no intrinsic argument for the “truth” of scientific knowledge.

(Von Bertalanffy does go on to argue that there are extrinsic justifications for the truth of science, namely that it gets results which work in practice. I disagree with that part of his argument, but that’s a separate issue.)

This argument has very extensive consequences, along two general lines.

First, the fact that a certain way of thinking about something appears self-evident to us, or that we cannot imagine thinking any other way, is no evidence of the truth of that way of thinking.

Since conceptual categories are what we use to think with, nobody can think beyond the limitations of their conceptual categories. If an idea appears self-evident or, alternatively, unthinkable, this alone is evidence only of the boundaries of our (culturally determined) conceptual categories.

This still holds true when the perception of self-evidence is shared by any arbitrarily large number of people. So the fact that a certain way of thinking is common sense among all of the members of a cultural group does not prove that that way of thinking corresponds to some mind-independent reality.

(In principle it would even be possible for all human beings to share some culturally contingent conceptual categories in common.)

Belief otherwise has been crucial to the ability of dominant social groups to impose their ways of thinking throughout the social networks which they dominate, in the various ways that have been examined by Marxists, feminists, queer theorists, postcolonial theorists, and others.

Second, there is no scientific justification for any one group who shares a certain worldview A to treat other worldviews B, C, D, etc. as pathological, deviant, or primitive, simply because they do not conform to worldview A.  By extension, there is no scientific justification for hierarchically ranking worldviews as more or less true on intrinsic grounds.

(Again, von Bertalanffy allows for extrinsic grounds for such a ranking and, again, I disagree, but that’s a separate argument.)

In other words, the fact that a certain worldview differs from ours does not serve as evidence that that worldview is false.

What I find interesting about this is that von Bertalanffy has produced an argument against ethnocentrism without specifically intending to do so.

It’s an incomplete argument and his text makes other ethnocentric assumptions, but this part of the theory does away with an entire category of arguments for ethnocentrism and has far-reaching intellectual consequences.

Von Bertalanffy’s purpose was to develop a general theory of systems that would be useful for scientific explanation, not to address the relationships between cultural groups. And yet this aspect of his theory has salutary implications for the largest and most complex system we have to deal with: the modern world-system into which virtually all human activity is now integrated.


The featured image for this post comes from the cover of We Were Not The Savages, by Daniel N. Paul, Third Edition, Fernwood Press, 2006.

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