Incompatible (incommensurable) universes

Today’s season finale of the sci-fi thriller Fringe , produced by JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtman and Roberto Orzi, got me thinking about incommensurable universes and the road to destruction when a common ground does not want to be found (although  – and what I am about to say is a big spoiler, so, if you intend on watching Fringe’s Season 4 stop reading here)  in Fringe, a common ground was found indeed: A bridge was built and friendships were forged, only to be nearly  wiped out by a more powerful force with aspirations to become a God and create another universe from scratch, a sort of tabula rasa for humanity).

My love for Fringe aside, the notion of”incommensurability” was developed by science philosophers Thomas S Kuhn and P K Feyerabend and I’ll use it here in the context of intercultural communication and the creation of a dialogue across boundaries , universes, realities (you pick).

In Kuhn’s earlier work, The structure of scientific revolutions (1962) he explained that incommensurability implies methodological, semantic and observational differences between paradigms. And, according to him, there are no objective standards by means of which to settle disputes between conflicting paradigms because “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trade in different worlds” (Kuhn, 1962:150).

A change of paradigm would then imply a change of the ontological composition of the world of the observer (yes, another Fringe reference here) . With the transformation of the paradigm of the observer, what becomes altered is not the world, but the observer’s way of seeing the world. This is because paradigm’s are constitutive of the ways one sees the world. Changes from one world to another world, perhaps even to incommensurable worlds, are changes in the way in which objects manifest themselves to the observer. Changes of paradigm are associated with the emergence of new characterisations entirely unsuspected before.

Kuhn explains that changes of paradigms involve changes in the meaning of the central terms of the previous paradigm and are accompanied by changes in the references of those terms. So, if one believes that the truth of a sentence depends on the reference of its component expressions, the the truth of a sentence becomes relative to a paradigm. As a result of the relativity of truth, Kuhn argues, some terms common to various paradigms have different and even incompatible meanings in them. He calls this problem “semantic incommensurability” and consists in the untranslatability between the languages employed. In different languages, the same sentence may have different interpretations, i.e. different truth conditions and different truth values. Hilary Putnam also referred to the relativity of truth by saying that the terms used in one culture cannot be equated in meaning or reference with terms and expression possessed by other cultures (in Rorty, 1993).

I want to point to the danger implicit in characterising different languages as embodying incompatible systems of rules  because I believe that the stages of perception I mentioned above are not inevitably incompatible. I think that objects or notions manifest themselves as numerous forms which retain a single nexus, a single core. So, when we observe a tree in the garden our attention can focus on different aspects of the tree in each act of perception, i.e. the size, the shape of the leaves, the location. One of the tree’ s numerous characterisations is brought to our attention at different times.

So, in order to be able to rationalise the extensive manifestations of a single nexus, a single universal core that is share to all humans and acts like the metaphorical bridge between parallel universes in Fringe, we need to be able to find shared concepts and find a more sense within every particular culture. Wierzbicka shares this view:

To study cultures in their culture-specific features we need a universal perspective and we need a culture-independent analytical framework. We can find such a framework in universal human concepts, that is, in concepts which are inherent in any human language. If we proceed this way, we can study any human cultures without the danger of distorting it by applying to it a framework alien to it, and we can aim at both describing it “truthfully”and at understanding it. 

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. Structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rorty, R. 1993. Human rights, rationality and sentimentality. In Shute, S. & Hurley, S. (eds). On human rights: the Oxford Amnesty lectures, ps. 26-53, Londong Basic Books.


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