This question was considered off topic in "History of science and mathematics". According to a comment by Alexandre Eremenko it belonged to philosophy.stackexchange.com. I don't understand the reason for closing the question, but I nevertheless try my luck here:

The 1965 famous colloquium with Paul Feyerabend, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn had the title “Critique and growth of knowledge”. The title is bold as it assumes there is such a thing as knowledge which, presumably, does not itself need discussion.

I nevertheless take the opportunity to discuss that issue from a special point of view. I look at two extreme interpretations: individual and collective knowledge. I realize one may take some more relaxed view in the middle of the two extremes.

An example not only of individual growth of scientific knowledge, but a statement that such a growth must be individual is given in no uncertain terms by Nobel Laureate Percy Brigdman: “This checking and judging and accepting that together constitute understanding are done by me, and can be done for me by no one else. They are as private as my toothache and without them science is dead” (from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Operationalism).

Regarding general knowledge, I note that the colloquium’s fist contribution by Thomas Kuhn contains an example of an individual chemist, who mixes salt for scientific reasons, but I take it to represent a scenario whereby we might all learn a lesson. He also gives a description of more general knowledge, and he mentions Karl Popper who often criticizes the general discipline of astrology.

It is my personal impression that the colloquium is intended to shed light on primarily on our common or general knowledge of science (while obviously recognizing that important contributions are often made by individuals). Alternatively, the authors may not have seen a big difference between my two interpretations.

I can see that individual knowledge claims are easier to describe objectively, and that collective knowledge would rely on a, perhaps more subjective, view that a certain scientific advancement was incorporated into collective knowledge.

Sometime after Newton’s Principia I believe that there was a similarity between single scientists and the scientific community in their view of the Solar system, owing to the success of the theory. This similarity might also be said to exist before the paradigm of heliocentricity and, at least before Galileo, in that individuals were supposed to follow the Church and therefore the Vatican’s view. Obviously the views of science are very different in the two examples.

In the spirit of general knowledge I would also take this a step further and accept that scientific problems needing a solution may exist at a certain point in time, i.e. that the prerequisites existed (e.g. in terms of experimental data) for the problem's formulation even if the problem itself was given little attention. In an essay I contrast the view on Einstein by the Nobel Committee to the general view of mainly continental physicists, and I claim that the confused view of the Nobel committee up to 1930 and further, was in contrast with the scientific community’s knowledge, i.e. general knowledge.

I mentioned in a post that I “accept retrospective formulations of problem/paradoxes/catastrophes as long as they could have been formulated by the then-existing data (from before 1900)”, which was considered off-topic. Be that as it may (I am not too familiar with the forum - History of science and mathematics that is) I wonder if this forum appreciate the duality of views and how you might react to my the concept of collective or general knowledge, with the uncertainties that inevitably follows such a view?

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    Social, for sure. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 8:49
  • This is not a forum, it is a Q&A site, and it takes answerable questions, not discussion topics on users' personal views and reactions to them. Could you extract some narrow question out of this and reframe it as asking about existing literature on the subject?
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 8:58
  • In my original post I was interested in the Swedish Nobel physics subcommittee's sin of omissin in not taking part, or understanding, the debate following the Michelso Morley experiment. In this post, perhaps, I may just be guilty as charged. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 15:21
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    @MikaelJensen there is no "personal scientific knowledge".
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 16:03
  • @MikaelJensen I'm not sure what the question exactly is?
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 20:07

4 Answers 4


So there is subjectivity, there is (allegedly) objectivity. There's a third option - intersubjectivity, an ancient idea, also popular in modern philosophy including as a special focus for Husserl.

The intersubjective space is, the space of ideas that involve me imagining I was you, and you imagining you are me, 'swapping' our subjectivities. We can easily see that things like social conventions belong here, and morality (Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)), and some intersubjective ideas like money facilitate complex behaviours, that seem to be 'out there'.

I would go further: Objectivity is just reified intersubjectivity. Detailed here: What is an objective property? That is, we confirm what seems to be out there, not usually by looking ourselves, but by sharing the experiences someone else had of looking. And when we look ourselves, we seek to abstract what another would see, separating out emotional responses and what they would not.

Consider the idea that time doesn't go in just one direction, but memory must. That is, the idea we could go back in time, but not take any memories with us. This is a serious proposal, if we think of the block-universe picture of time as a dimension. I mention it not to assert it's definitely the case, but only to point at how a universal of human subjectivity, could obscure the actual way the world is behaving.

I'd say the work of scientists falls into two modes: experimentalism, and theorising. We try with experiments to explicitly check how intersubjective a measurement or observation is. Replicating the experiment in another lab (see the Replication Crisis), double-blind controlled trials, hypothesis testing, these can all be understood explicitly as checking, you and me will see the same when we do the same.

Theory is different. Popper drew attention to how hypothesis generation cannot be algorithmic, it doesn't just 'fall out' of the results. Famous ideas like the discovery of the benzene ring came from a dream - and that's fine, hypothesis making is a creative process. But then we try to poke holes, until only the best theory stands.

I like the picture of salience landscapes. The point that we don't just capture knowledge with experimental results, we also arrange them in ways that constitute knowledge, including by relating them to ourselves and our tasks. Maybe an example is Mendeleev's Table, arranging chemical properties in 'octaves' helped point towards electron shells, and helped us do chemistry. More on this here: Why do certain ways of categorizing make sense more than others? Is this the intuition behind natural kinds? and Do we create knowledge?

The real test is how to understand what mathematics is. In the world? In our heads? I would point to the intersubjective experience of continuous symmetries, the way some properties stay the same when a thing undergoes a transformation, like rotation or translation. This kind of symmetry is arguably the most powerful idea in physics, where Noether's Theorem revealed conservation laws and symmetries are two ways to talk about the same thing. I argue the intuitiveness and power of number-lines, arises from the experiences we have of translational symmetries, of arranging similar objects in lines, and imagining swapping out items intersubjectively. Details here: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics in most sciences

More on meaning in this picture: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? and making sense of what knowledge is: How is knowledge possible?

On your point about duality of views, I'd distinguish the measurements or results, and how they are assembled. The former add to our world, the latter shape our world. The intersubjective space changes, the reality we occupy and engage with, is changed by these. I love the point that balancing humours and elements was the model when aquaducts were the height of technology, the universe was understood as clockwork when it was clocks, and ruled by entropy among steam engines, and now in the computer age we think information transfer is key. We live in world's constituted by our tasks, by how we live in it.

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings." -Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations

Our theories are language games, our experiments are refinements of intersubjectivity that makes the communication for such games possible.

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    +1 I'd push back and offer that objectivity is institutionalized and reified intersubjectivity. Thus, the dominant worldview of objectivity can be claimed to be a political convention.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 20:15
  • @JD: 1st bit; It depends on context though. In science, sure. In perception, no. 2nd; I disagree, because in my perspective the measurements are not 'mere convention', even say when using arbitrary measuring scales. But there is a power claim to saying there can only be one way to arrange the data, that's the Kuhnian paradigm-shifting part of who gets to decide how we relate to the data. Systems that don't prioritise & seperate establishing the data, whether in science or history, risk become systems of propaganda untethered from the world - not community-subjective realities, but projections.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 21:26
  • Fair enough to point out the psychological dimension in establishing the subjectivity of intersubjectivity, however, when dealing with neural divergent perceptions, say differences in visual perceptions of tetrachromats, can't one substitute mere normal function for convention? That is, while convention is a normative choice of agents, normal function is a normative aspect of biological development? Isn't then, neurological variation just a downwards extension of political convention? Maybe not. It's not clear to me what my concern is. Thoughts?
    – J D
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 9:25
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    No I would continue to make this distinction, between evidence & interpretation. We can use a device to check the photons at the red end a tetrachromat sees are there. We cannot use a device to check if blue is a different colour to green, or they are shades of one colour.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 12:28
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    @ScottRowe: cymatics helps us visualise orbitals a little I think youtu.be/9al397N6Tzs
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 11:40

As Conifold told you, this is a Q&A site, so I'll answer the question as if you were asking for a literature reference related with your thoughts.

First, you seem to suppose that something called "knowledge" obviously "exists". Ok, first, let me say I agree. But, for a moment, I'll step back and say something about it. And maybe this will be the reason why they told you your question should be in philosophy forum.

I don't know much about your background, but the questions about the existence and if we know the existence of an external world (and how can we be sure we know) go back to Descartes, for example. As I said before, I'll restrict my answer (after contextualizing it) to literature reference. So, maybe you could start with Discourse on the Method by Descartes.

Of course, the claim that no such thing as knowledge exists would need a very good defense. That is not the point. My point is that supposing we get something as (scientific) knowledge from the world (at a theoretical context) is intrinsicly connected with a good ground about what (scientific) knowledge is. So when you "presumably" jump that step, you're jumping the tricky part. Why is it obvious we obtain knowledge? And how we can be so sure about it?

After this introduction, I would like to indicate the books:

  1. Theory and Reality by Godfrey-Smith (as an introduction to general Philosophy of Science debates);
  2. The Nature of Scientific Knowledge by McCain (more specific about knowledge on the scientific context);
  3. Models and Theories by Frigg (as a recent reference for many trend topics on foundations of scientific theories, which can be good for comparing with the epistemological discussions about science).

I hope this helps you a little with your inquiries.

  • jucazyn. Welcome to PSE. I don't understand your sentence, 'My point is that supposing we get something as (scientific) knowledge from the world (at a theoretical context) is intrinsicly connected with a good ground about what (scientific) knowledge is.' The sentence isn't grammatical and I can't follow it. I'm not criticising what you are saying; I just don't know what it is. Can you help me out, please ? I have revised some grammar and spelling elsewhere in your answer, just to aid presentation. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 15:58

Half this question is philosophical, and half belongs on meta, but I'll just respond here to avoid being a procedural pedant.

Is scientific knowledge personal or general?

Yes and no depending on which 'or' you are using. Obviously, it's both. There is no justification of true belief (and other criteria) if there aren't individuals, because all knowledge, when understood as reified representation, requires agency, and yet, given experiential and constitutional diversity of thinkers, disagreement presents itself as a challenge; the compromise is simply to accept compromise understand that there are paradigms and canons which are conventional artifacts of knowledge and subject themselves to change.

I wonder if this forum appreciate the duality of views and how you might react to my the concept of collective or general knowledge, with the uncertainties that inevitably follows such a view?

This forum absolutely appreciates plurality in the instance that reasonable thinkers tend to accept some degree of relativism, and most participants here are reasonable. There are certain members of this forum who are, of course, adamant that their views constitute the one-true-interpretation of philosophy, but a pluralist then must accept and accommodate such behavior, even encourage it if honoring freedom of speech.

  • Thanks for "knowledge... requires agency." Like Max Tegmark's statement, "Intelligence is the ability to accomplish goals." Knowledge is for something, to do something. There are lots of things we can do, but since the vast majority will be damaging, maybe we could agree that there are better and worse choices? At every point, some choice is probably best. Maybe we could all agree on that? Then the plurality idea disappears. Do the best thing right now. The only way that isn't strictly true is when there are "doesn't make a difference" aspects to a decision. Ignore those things.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 10:43

I suspect your question would disappear if you were to think in less-ambiguous terms. Knowledge is a broad and nebulous term, and can refer to personal and collective knowledge, so the literal answer to your question is that scientific knowledge cab be both personal and general.

If you unpack that, you can separately consider mental knowledge and knowledge that is recorded in other ways- in books, for instance. That assumes, of course, that you define knowledge to include what is written down etc.

There is then:

  1. Personal mental knowledge- which means what is in any individual's head

  2. Collective mental knowledge- which is the set of all the personal mental knowledge of every individual

  3. Collective recorded knowledge- which is the set of all the knowledge that is recorded outside of brains.

Clearly there is overlap between each of the 3 categories above.

Clearly there will be inconsistencies in and among the categories.

Returning to your question, the scientific knowledge of an individual will overlap with 2) and 3), and will largely be a subset of them. However, it is possible for some of an individual's scientific knowledge to be personal to them.

The relationship between personal and collective knowledge varies by individual and over time. It is unlikely that any scientific knowledge is genuinely 'general', if by that you mean shared by everyone. What we usually mean by 'general' in that context is 'common to most people who study a particular branch of science'. Newton's laws, for example, are generally known by people who have studied physics. Whether they all understand them in the same way is a different matter.

In summary, you should not expect a black and white answer to a question which is posed in vague terms.

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