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What is a categorical closure?

Gustavo Bueno interviewed by José Manuel Vaquero,
Oviedo, April the 29th, 1978.

Translated by Alejandro Ruíz Falqués
© 2013 FGB · Oviedo

José Manuel Vaquero conducted this interview on the occasion of a series of conferences offered by Gustavo Bueno at the Fundación Juan March on the so-called «human sciences». It was the presentation of a collection of works published as Estatuto Gnoseológico de las Ciencias Humanas, which the Fundación Gustavo Bueno made available in digital format in 2011. El País published the interview in a very incomplete way which left out most references to Bueno's theory of science and focused on more ephemeral questions, such as the changes perceived in the Communist Party at the time. We offer it here in its entirety, following the 2011 version published in El Catoblepas. It serves as a good introduction to Sciences as Categorical Closures.

1. What is a categorical closure?

By «categorical closure» I designate the process through which the different sciences achieve their status as such, that is to say, how they get constituted. The establishment of a category occurs through each science demarcating its own circle and thus enclosing a field which is different not only from other non-scientific formations (literary, artistic, theological…), but also from other sciences. By virtue of its categorical closure, geometry distinguishes itself from theology or from music as much as it does from thermodynamics.

The theory of categorical closure implies that sciences are not mere knowledge or the reflection of a previously structured reality ready to be known or registered (as descriptionism or empiricism would have it). It also implies that sciences are not just formal constructions (of theories or models) meant to be tested experimentally to demonstrate that they are able to, at least, «save the phenomena» and therefore are not falsified (as formalism or Popperian theoreticism argue). Likewise, the theory of categorical closure denies that sciences have a determined object (biology, life; physics, matter…) or that they have none (as if they were applied to a mass or amorphous continuum, tailored by formal models). Sciences have fields or domains, i.e., multiplicities of terms classified into different groups. According to this, biology is not «about» life, but about macromolecules, cells, organs; and geometry is not «the science of space», but the science of figures, double reasons, sine and cosine…; finally, history does not deal with the past, but with documents and relics. The unity of a science does not originate in its pre-established object, but in the process through which the terms of a material field, composed through precise operations, group together in closed chains, thus establishing material relations that can achieve the status of a synthetic identity (truths, see below). These chains are «closed» in the mathematical sense that the terms resulting from an operational composition within the field can be in turn re-composed with other terms or «factors» of the same field, in a circular way.

Scientific truth would be located, according to the closure theory (and this is one of its most characteristic points), in the sphere of identity. This does not amount to reducing the sciences to the moment of identical connection between parts of their respective fields: their net is much vaster and the life of a science internally includes even errors. But the knots through which this net holds fast are the scientific truths, understood not as a correspondence (or isomorphism) between abstract models and the material world, but as a relation of synthetic identity between the very material terms, operationally constructed through different courses or paths. For instance, the truth, if there is any, within Bohr’s atomic theory, is not to be found in the adequacy of a planetary model «reflecting» the reality of the atom, neither in the ability of the model (or theory) to «save the phenomena» (from a pragmatic standpoint) but in the identity between the materials themselves (resulting, each one of them, from very different and complex courses: spectroscopic analyses, study of the black-body radiation, etc): for instance in the identity between terms such as (m² 2π² Z² e4 / ch²) and R (the Rydberg constant).

The categorical closure thus emerges as a criterion of scientific status which allows us to discriminate those constructions which, not being closed, do not contain in themselves the guarantee of their own truth. The theory of categorical closure is therefore a critical instrument to distinguish, within the whole set of cultural formations, scientific constructions from those which are only pseudo-scientific, even though they might intend to be sciences.

2. Is the constitution of sciences by means of categorical closures intimately related to a new conception of philosophy or a new approach to philosophy?

The philosophical conception at the base of the theory of categorical closure is a materialist philosophy, insofar as it implies a conception of scientific truth that relies on the very material connections between the terms of the scientific domains or categories. It is an anti-sceptical conception, which propounds, as a medicine against the hyper-criticism leading to scepticism, scientific truths as evidences or certainties. It does so while stressing that these truths are not given (from above or from below), but achieved as a result of slow operational and historical processes.

At the same time, the theory of categorical closure, by virtue of its own nature, wants to establish the limitations of scientific truths themselves, insofar as they are secluded within their own categorical circles. The philosophy which stands at the basis of the theory of categorical closure is not «scientism» (it does consider sciences as the only source of reason). The materialist philosophy which stands at the basis of the theory of categorical closure finds in effectively developed sciences the main argument to nourish our confidence in human’s rational ability. But this ability is dialectic, multiple, and its diverse realisations and constructions are not always commensurable between themselves. There are many different sciences (and not even every single science is something unitary) and the relations between them do not constitute a new domain whereupon a «science of sciences» could be established. Each different science belongs to, and constitutes, an ontological category. Moreover, their practical significance is different as well and the many connections that exist between different sciences are of a dialectic and often conflicting nature.

Therefore, I understand that there is a need for philosophical reasoning, even when considering the sciences: the theory of categorical closure itself is not presented as a «science of sciences» but as a philosophical doctrine, largely built in opposition to alternative ones. Scientific reason, as it is developed through the diverse sciences, adopts the form of categorical closures, but this does not imply that whatever remains outside these categorical closures, outside the sciences, should be considered irrational. When we say that philosophy is not a science we do not mean that it is irrational, arbitrary or mystic. Rather, in the name of rigour, we say it as a criticism to those who do not distinguish between philosophy and science, and thereby ignore the structure of sciences and the dialectic relations between them.

But when a society abandons the discipline of philosophical rationalism, even if it keeps cultivating categorical sciences, its place can only be filled by mythic or confusing thought, often produced by scientists talking outside of their own secluded category. Or not be filled at all. In any event, it does not make mush sense to oppose as a dilemma an allegedly «scientific approach» to things to a philosophical approach. This is because the expression «scientific approach» is mendacious, it suggests a unity that does not exist: the sciences are multiple and heterogenic in method and content, and a reputed scientist in one domain might be a pure ideologue when discussing other domains or reality as a whole (including hereby the meaning and place of his own science within the broader world).

3. Can we still consider philosophy as «the mother of all sciences»? What validity does this expression have today? Where do sciences arise from?

The theory of categorical closure denies the conception of philosophy as the mother of all sciences. This metaphysical conception completely distorts the historical reality. It is linked with the classical image of the [Cartesian] «tree of knowledge». The theory of categorical closure presupposes that categorical sciences do not stem from philosophy, but from (categorical) technologies, at the same time that they cause the development of new technologies («the scientific and technical Revolution»). Geometry stems from the agricultural measurement techniques or from brickwork; the chemical sciences stem from metallurgic technologies or from guilds of dyers/dry cleaners; linguistics stems from practices of scribes and translators.

Thus, it would be closer to reality to say that sciences are the «mothers» of philosophy – but neither would it be absolutely exact. Philosophy stems from other sources, mainly from the great Neolithic myths, which respond, in turn, to the cultural and social needs which arose in a particular stage of human development. What happened was / The fact is that the constitution of sciences – and the development of reason implied in such a constitution – deeply determined philosophy, and spurred it on a particular direction. Thus, it might be said that the philosophy of our (Hellenic) tradition, unlike philosophies from other traditions (Indian, Chinese), is to a large extent shaped by geometry, as long as it is a «Geometry of Ideas» (of Ideas that cross over categories and that find their way through them, often being the result of incommensurabilities within and between closed fields). The fact that the «earliest philosophers» (Thales, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Plato…) were also great geometricians does not mean that geometry stems from philosophy, but rather the other way around. Actually, strictly speaking, I would say that none of them stems from the other. Philosophy and the sciences have different sources, but these are sources bound to merge (sometimes with turbulence) and in merging they are mutually modified.

4. Has your approach to human sciences something to do with the Neokantian division between sciences and arts/letters?

Human science is the name recently given to what was formerly called «humanities» or «arts». Arts were not considered a science, but something else. As a consequence of the industrial and scientific revolution, sciences (natural and formal) experimented a tremendous growth by which they became basic activities for our modes of production (in Greece, geometry was rather, so to speak, superstructural). This process established a chasm between the scientific culture and the literary («humanistic») culture, the two cultures that C. P. Snow discusses in his famous lecture. Snow was shocked, and not without reason, at the «monopolistic» tendency to consider as cultured men (or «intellectuals») only novelists, poets, journalists – a definition «which does not include Rutherford, neither Eddington, nor Dirac, nor Adrian». «Human sciences» (Snow himself somehow acknowledges it in his «second approach») in a way constitute a bridge between both margins of the abyss – between the two cultures.

But, despite this optimism, the human sciences cannot just spontaneously accumulate next to the natural sciences, as if they were two homogeneous parts of a homogeneous whole. The expression «human sciences» is used in an extortionate and mimetic way: we now refer as scientific to a literary research which has little to do with sciences in the classic sense. And, what is worse, we speak of sciences («psychoanalytic sciences», «political sciences») when talking about theories which are often either pure mythology or pure empiricism or, at best, just accumulated wisdom. And I say this while acknowledging that wisdom is as important as science itself. The theory of categorical closure is to a great extent intended to clarify many points regarding the «status» of the so-called «human sciences».

5. Are there still sophists out there?

Yes, of course; sometimes unfortunately and sometimes fortunately. Because there are sophists like Dionisiodorus and there are sophists like Protagoras. The worst of our Spanish sophists, even those who belong in the lineage of Dionisiodorus, reach only to the level of translators of Dionisiodorus.

6. How do you evaluate the transformation of the PCE (Partido Comunista de España, Spanish Communist Party) from Marxist-Leninist to Marxist revolutionary?

It is too early to deliver an opinion; this won’t be possible until one can evaluate the effective course that PCE takes after its IX Congress. To my mind, no one knows exactly where do the new modifications lead to not even those who have propitiated them, nor those who have complied with them, because the reality of the PCE exceeds the consciousness that some of its militants or dissidents have about it. Given that and given the complexity of the process, I reserve my own opinion until I see how the meaning of these modifications is configured in the forthcoming month.

What I do dare to say is that the theoretical and philosophical level of the new formulations is underdeveloped in respect to what reality demands: some particular popes of the Marxist theory, generally Madrilenian, are directly responsible for this situation of underdevelopment, which might become really a really serious hindrance to the PCE’s political future and, with it, for the whole country. The PCE is by nature and history inseparable from this theoretical necessity, which other political parties might not need so vitally – and since they do not need it, neither they have it nor do they miss it.

7. Why do you think that, being yourself the utmost defender of academic philosophy, your philosophy arouses more and more interest in the worldly sphere, where your influence is higher?

Because the «Academia» is not a castle in the air which stands above or below the world: rather, it is a part of our world, an organ within our culture and, therefore, its own activity cannot but have an effect in its environment, as well as reciprocally.

8. Why have you been so stubborn in remaining a «provincial» philosopher when it is well known that you have received offers to move to Madrid?

Among other reasons, because the concept of «provinces» is a bureaucratic concept configured from Madrid. That is, from a city (Madrid) that, seeing what surrounds it as «provinces» happens to place itself in the most superficial layer of the political and cultural consciousness of our days. One of the ways of gaining depth might be to get rid of this superficial «figure of consciousness» and to penetrate a «province», especially if this province is Asturias. Madrid is a very complex place and of course you can find everything there; but the semi-cultivated snobbery generated by the control of the national media is characteristic of Madrid, and only on in exceptional cases can someone who lives there and devotes himself to «intellectual efforts» be free from it.

9. What is, in your opinion, the reason for the success of the so-called «new philosophers»?

Essentially, that they have tackled important and interesting problems at the proper moment. I disagree with their positions – but also with the positions of those who try to explain their success as a «manoeuvre from the right», from the CIA, or similar things. If the mechanisms of capitalism and right-wing politics have intervened formally it is precisely because they have foreseen that the environment was ready for it. The new philosophers have aroused again the questions of traditional philosophy. They have violently attacked Plato, but by doing so they have in turn proved that Plato needs to be attacked, i.e., that he is still present as an inexcusable reference if we are to understand what is going on in our world.

Gustavo Bueno Martínez
Oviedo, 29 April 1978


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