Being at the Crossroads: On the Mission of the Social Philosopher of Science | Review of Kasavin’s A Social Philosophy of Science, Lada V. Shipovalova and Yulia V. Shaposhnikova

The work of a philosopher of science, just as any other cognitive and social activity, can and should be accompanied by reflexivity. This accompaniment provides an opportunity to think oneself in the place of the Other, to step constructively beyond disciplinary boundaries, to find an opportunity for a dialogue of different traditions, to participate in changing the world, and to shape the critical thinking of citizens through educational systems and other forms of public activity. In the context of the demand for reflexivity, which is especially urgent in contemporary Russia, the importance of Ilya Kasavin’s book A Social Philosophy of Science (2023) cannot be overestimated. … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Shipovalova, Lada V. and Yulia V. Shaposhnikova. 2023. “Being at the Crossroads: On the Mission of the Social Philosopher of Science | Review of Kasavin’s A Social Philosophy of Science.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (3): 36–40.

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A Social Philosophy of Science
Ilya Kasavin
Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft Mbh & Co, 2023
318 pp.

On Reflexive Binding

Kasavin concludes his book with the metaphor of a person moving towards a specific goal and not noticing the surrounding world, the context, and conditions of his movement. A comprehensive view of the path to a goal specific to the scientist or epistemologist is what Social Philosophy of Science is supposed to provide. It seems important that the monograph not only formulates the problem, but also demonstrates how to address this comprehensiveness. One might call this a method of ‘reflexive binding’. It allows one not only to observe the surroundings, progressing along the road, but also to integrate what one sees in refinement of the route or even in its transformation. Let us see how this reflexive binding works.

First, reflexive binding concerns the beginning of the path and answers the question ‘from where?’ starts the social philosophy of science. Touching upon a specific topic—be it realism in the philosophy of science, scientific progress, social technology, etc.— Kasavin reveals the limitation of the one-sided approach to its elaboration, exposes the naivety of interpretation, offers to see the variability of interpretations that motivates going beyond certainty. Sometimes the focus is on the views of a particular philosopher or epistemologist—David Hume’s empiricism as the source of recent trends of naturalism and realism in the study of science, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning that orients current studies of science to the social context, William Whewell’s work and his contribution to the emergence of the ‘program of the historically oriented philosophy of science’ (Kasavin 2023, 115).

In this case, Kasavin primarily emphasizes the obvious paradoxicality of ideas (Hume), the uncertainty of key theses (Wittgenstein), and expanding the boundaries of narrow professional competencies (Whewell). Thus, each step of the path, accompanied by reflection as a testing of the topic boundaries, ceases to be a mere means on the way to the goal of revealing the meaning of the social philosophy of science. It becomes an Event, the initiation of ‘looking around’, the increasing complexity of advancement, and the revocation of the linear history of the philosophy of science. Therefore, the starting point for the social philosopher of science is to discover the negative consequences of maintaining rigid boundaries and to demonstrate that to achieve comprehensiveness of a concept always means to transcend it.

Second, this reflexive binding has agents, among which, speaking in the manner of B. Latour, there are humans and non-humans that allow us to answer the questions ‘who’ thinks and ‘about what’ in the social philosophy of science? The agent of binding can be a ‘migrating’ scientist, providing scientific novelty at the crossroads of traditions. It is the social philosopher of science himself, who in all cases plays the role of mediator.

Through their work with concepts, they complement the sociologist’s function of ‘interactional expertise’ (Collins, Evans 2002). They create an intersection between the ‘internal’ philosophical and the ‘external’ sociological view of science, without sacrificing the autonomy of scientific knowledge. Analogously to William Whewell, they perform mediation, offering scientists and epistemologists concepts that accurately capture scientific subjects and ways of working with them. As non-human agents or ‘boundary objects’ (Star, Griesemer 1989) one finds prescientific phenomena ‘(a mine, mill, smithy, construction site), para-scientific—(a pharmacy, typography, ship desk), and scientific (a club, invisible college, academy, laboratory)’ (Kasavin 2023, 142-145). Their unifying power provides a condition for gathering in mutual action of different experts and pulling together of different contexts for a coherent explanation.

Constructing the Karakum Canal

The monograph considers the construction of the Karakum Canal as an exemplary boundary object. The image of this global sociopolitical and scientific-technological project can be conceived as the central stage of Kasavin’s conceptual journey (Chapter 13). In the description of the project and its value, the author combines:

1) Epistemic and sociopolitical agency of science;

2) Historical realities from the epoch of Peter the Great to the USSR and contemporary Turkmenistan, whose level of economic development depends, not least, by the canal operation;

3) Various positions of actors interested in construction—engineers with their design solutions, administrators with their deadline requirements, people participating in the construction and awaiting water in almost dead desert;

4) Voices of novelists (Andrei Platonov and Yury Valentinovich Trifonov) and contemporary researchers of the history of the canal construction. Land, water, and soil, also ‘not voiceless’, are seen as behaving unexpectedly in the eyes of the builders: ‘the water, which floods the banks and breaks through the dams’ and as a result ‘high seepage and evaporation, soil salinization and bogging’ (Kasavin 2023, 241).

This is by no means a complete list of agents and contexts, whose overlapping actions make the Karakum Canal a boundary object. This global project as an object of social philosophy of science we can consider as the counterpart of the creation and operation of the Zimbabwean pump (de Laet and Mol 2000): with the same unifying power, complex biography, and a collective subject of creation and use, but of a different scale.

The Boundaries of the Boundary Objects

Interestingly, the very notion of the ‘boundary object’ in the text turns out to be boundary, since it is explicated through the concepts of ‘trading zones’ (Galison), referring to the economic exchange of goods, and ‘gift exchange’ (Mauss). This binding enables  Kasavin to introduce the concept of ‘gift zones’ (Kasavin 2023, 179) and to treat scientific professional and public science communication not only as an economic, but also as a gift exchange. This is how the third element of reflexive binding is formed, answering the question ‘how?’ in the work of the social philosopher of science—the crossing of boundaries, as well as the finding of preconditions which make the crossing possible. Thus, the exchange of gifts is revealed by the author as a precondition of economic exchange: in the first case, a subject of action is established in their own responsibility, in the second, a subject is hiding behind the alienated exchangeable commodity—knowledge.

Working with this precondition reveals the genesis of scientific knowledge in its objectivity. Further, the author interprets scientific interaction as the genesis of the differentiation of disciplines, which also conditions the possibility of the subsequent crossing of their boundaries. On the contrary, the loss of attention to common origins, the insistence on rigid boundaries, serves to support ‘science wars’. Moreover, social philosophy of science itself rests on the intersection with social philosophy, history, and other humanitarian and social sciences, as the reference to genesis reveals the shared context of their origins. Thus, the precondition for crossing boundaries and establishing connections is a return to the formation of borders, to migrations and communication as the ontological and at the same time historical basis of science and its progress. Kasavin makes an important point: it is impossible to go beyond the boundaries of philosophy, since philosophy itself is a practice of mediation and the boundary discourse. However, the retention of this specificity of philosophy is not guaranteed and requires concern.

What are the ways in which we, the readers, could preserve this specificity of philosophy? Let us describe two of them.

As a first way, we can suggest easing the author’s aversion to what is called the ‘ontological turn’ (Holbraad, Pedersen 2017). Although we share with the author the apprehension of the ‘new naivety’ behind the offerings of new ontologies ‘after the Copernican turn’, this naivety has merit, if the new ontologies provide alternative answers to the ‘question of being as a whole’ and the limits of each answer. Noteworthy, the new ontology is no longer an ontological turn, just as transcendentalism is not the Kantian ‘Copernican turn’ itself, but what comes ‘after it’. Continuing the turn means exploring boundaries and renewing possibility for the object field of which the scholar speaks to be different. However, is this turning not what reflection and the corresponding ability of imagination implies? Kasavin questions whether realism should be ‘limited to the particular version of scientific materialism or naturalism presented by Boghossian (among others)? Is realism incommensurable with social constructivism or feminist epistemology?’ (Kasavin 2023, 21). It seems that the author’s negative answer to these questions about realism can also be applied to the ontological turn, which can occur and be commensurate with the use of scientific methods and the epistemologist’s reflection.

In thinking through the second way, we should emphasize that, consistent with the principles of a strong program of the sociology of scientific knowledge (Bloor 1976) Kasavin’s writing proves to be evidently reflexive. The appeal to the philosophy of science in Russia, the emphasis on the importance of the ideas of Russian and Soviet philosophers for contemporary studies of science, do not separate the author from the global thought, but, on the contrary, help to build meaningful connections with it. Besides, Kasavin repeatedly stresses the problematic sociopolitical context in which science has been developing in Russia for the last decade, mainly, the deprivation of the autonomy of the Russian Academy of Sciences by the state. We would also mention difficulties in the development of social and humanitarian research due to the increasing emphasis on its conformity with ideological requirements.

This situation is radically different from the ‘normalized science’ to which Kuhn’s description applies. Indeed, one should not simply describe or strictly criticize science in Russia today, but valiantly defend it. This is why the following comment is not a reproach, but rather a possible perspective for the social philosophy of science. After all, if the fulfillment of its goal is a reproducible process in relation to the changing science, then the advancement towards the goal may also open alternative sights. Then, it may also become relevant to examine the boundaries of that social philosophizing, an example of which Kasavin’s monograph presents.

Science as Political Agent

In disclosing science as a political agent, the author stresses that the agenthood of science manifests in asserting its autonomy in the face of political power. However, this assertion becomes redundant when ‘a mutually beneficial balance of science, the state, and business’ has been achieved (Kasavin 2023, 281). The work of the social philosopher of science also facilitates this balance by seeking to justify the autonomy of scientific activity, the necessity and legitimacy of public trust in the scientist, the desire to undermine which has been partly responsible for the state’s attack on the independence of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Science cannot be a vehicle for political ambitions and ideological guidelines. On the contrary, it defines itself as a public good. However, if we apply the method of reflexive binding to such an image of science, the boundaries of science should appear as fluid, the scientist’s professional position should not oppose to the expert scientific activity and even to the public activity of the scientist, especially when it comes to the sciences, whose results affect the solving of socially significant problems. It is reasonable to agree that ‘special knowledge is produced due to the systematic activity of the scientist and not due to the fragmentary interest of the layman, in a laboratory and not in a square, in science and not on Facebook’ (264).

However, one must not forget Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, his activism for nuclear disarmament, directly related to the results of his scientific work in the laboratory, and the use of these results for the public good. Furthermore, in building a balance of power in political interaction, an active role should be given to the public, to laymen whose knowledge, along with that of scientists, can serve to create expert councils as the basis for decision-making (Wynne 1989), whose interests, manifested in social movements, can determine the imagination and content of a scientist’s creativity (Giddens 1987). The laymen may then become allies of scientists in their struggle for autonomy. The opportunity of referring to such a crossing of boundaries is present in  Kasavin’s work, as he writes about the ‘recursive’ model of social technology (Kasavin 2023, 216). Although, we can interpret recursion as a reproducible enhancement of the participation of social and epistemic agents in the production of scientific knowledge as a public good.

It is hoped that the ideas presented in the monograph and the attempted development of these ideas will serve to expand the reflection of the social philosophy of science.

Author Information:

Lada V. Shipovalova,, Saint Petersburg University; Yulia V. Shaposhnikova,, Saint Petersburg University.


Bloor, David. 1976. Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Collins, Harry and Robert Evans. 2002. “The Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience.” Social Studies of Science 32 (2): 235–296.

de Laet, Marianne and Annemarie Mol. 2000. “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology.” Social Studies of Science 30 (2): 225-263.

Giddens, Anthony. 1987. “Nine Theses on the Future of Sociology.” In Social Theory and Modern Sociology edited by Anthony Giddens, 122–15. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Holbraad, Martin and Morten A. Pedersen. 2017. The Ontological Turn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Kasavin, Ilya. 2023. A Social Philosophy of Science. An Introduction. Baden-Baden: NOMOS Verlag,.

Star, Susan L. and James R. Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’, and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907‒1939.” Social Studies of Science 19 (3): 387–420.

Wynne, Brian. 1989. “Sheepfarming after Chernobyl: A Case Study in Communicating Scientific Information.” Environment 31 (2): 10–39.

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