Science and the Social Contract in Renouvier

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Schmaus, Warren
conference paper description
Charles Renouvier (1815-1903) regarded normative questions in epistemology and philosophy of science as analogous to those in moral and political philosophy and proposed similar ways of dealing with both. He argued that it was not possible to achieve certainty or even complete consensus in either morality or science. In the social and ethical realm, people should deal with these problems through their voluntary agreement to a social contract that consists of what he called “positive conventions and laws.” This social contract has no normative force unless it is entered into voluntarily. Once it is agreed upon, it provides the basis for civil liberties. It should always remain open to criticism and revision. Denying Kant’s distinction between theoretical and practical reason, Renouvier held that knowledge also depends upon freedom of the will and individual liberty. Just as rules that one is forced to obey have no moral authority, propositions one is forced to accept have no epistemic authority. Renouvier also drew an analogy between the ways in which the social contract and science develop over time through the critical examination of accepted views, thus suggesting that scientific theories were conventional in the same way as the social contract. Science then appears to depend on two sorts of social contract for Renouvier: one that governs society at large and guarantees freedom of inquiry and another that is shared among the scientific community and consists in theories and methods that are conventionally held and subject to critical evaluation and modification.