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Method of "Rational Reconstruction"

Por Episteme - 28 de Noviembre, 2007, 21:43, Categoría: Filosofía de la ciencia

Thoughts on a Possible Rational Reconstruction of the Method of "Rational Reconstruction"

Gregg Alan Davia
University of Stuttgar and University of Mainz, Germany

ABSTRACT: Rational reconstructions standardly operate so as to transform a given problematic philosophical scientific account-particularly of a terminological, methodological or theoretical entity-into a similar, but more precise, consistent interpretation. This method occupies a central position in the practice of analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, we encounter-even if only in a very few specific publications-a vague image of it. This is due on the one hand to the problem of the intentions of application, i.e., of the normativity of rational reconstruction (descriptive/prescriptive-ambivalence). It is also due on the other hand to the problem of the significance of the method in the field of history of philosophy (systematic/historical-dichotomy). The varied usage within analytic philosophy, as well as the increasingly inflationary and interfering usage outside, contribute to make rational reconstruction somehow appear a Proteus in contemporary philosophical methodology. This paper attempts to administer first aid and to close a bit of the theoretical gap and thus to reach a more exact image for the interests of analytic philosophy. Self-application of the method appears to be the right remedy. A graduating rational reconstruction of a standard concept of rational reconstruction will be suggested, differentiating the concept of rational reconstruction according to normativity, and explicating the method of rational reconstruction into two such variants.


The method of rational reconstruction occupies a central position in the practice of Analytical Philosophy. Andreas Kamlah once has dealt with it in an article under the indicative title "Wie arbeitet die analytische Wissenschaftstheorie?" or, in English, "How does Analytical Philosophy of Sciene operate?" (see Kamlah [1980]). Nevertheless, we encounter-even in the specific publications-only a vague image of it. Surprisingly, there are comparatively few specific publications. Historically they concentrate in the phase of Logical Empiricism. On the other hand we record a quite extensive literature on the latest variant of rational reconstruction, the "structuralist reconstruction." Besides Kamlah's article, Poser [1971] is to be mentioned. Further, for Analytical Philosophy directly relevant material includes mainly brief remarks in preliminaries and digressions, particularly in works of Wolfgang Stegmüller, who established the method in German postwar philosophy. I want to point out his well-known article on Kant (Stegmller [1967]), which I followed when choosing a title for this paper, as well as his introduction to the fourth volume of his great series on philosophy of science and Analytical Philosophy with its section "Neue Betrachtungen ber die Ziele und Aufgaben der Wissenschaftstheorie" (Stegmller [1973], pp. 1-64). Jrgen Mittelstra has commented for German Constructivism in some other articles (Mittelstra [1985a], Mittelstra [1985b]). Consequently, a general, problemizing and coherent "Theory of Rational Reconstruction" that really would deserve the name (as well as by the way any kind of "Textbook of Rational Reconstruction") has, as it seems, remained a desideratum. The varied usage within Analytical Philosophy as well as the increasingly inflationary and interfering usage outside contribute in addition, to make rational reconstruction appear a Proteus or a black box in philosophical methodology.

This paper tries-besides creating some appreciation of the difficulties-to administer first aid and-by analysis of one of the two main problems of the method-to close a little bit of the theoretical deficit gap and thus to reach a more exact image for the interests of Analytical Philosophy. As main problems (1) the issue of the intentions of application, i.e., of the normativeness of rational reconstructions (the descriptive/prescriptive-ambivalence, especially in Stegmller [1973] and Kamlah [1980]), and (2) the issue of the areas of application, i.e., of the significance of the method in the field of history of philosophy (the systematic/historical-dichotomy, especially in Poser [1971]), have come under discussion. In a broader sense, the second issue also includes the reconstructive discussions within history of science and the discussions about the reconstruction of non-apophantic entities; it then perhaps could be called the "systematic/ hermeneutic-controversy." According to its title this outline is to be understood as a self-application of the method at issue; therefore we will proceed in the following manner: First of all, a semantic preconception of the method of rational reconstruction has to be produced. We shall recur to a standard concept. On this basis then, the problem of normativeness of rational reconstructions will be taken up again and treated. A graduating rational reconstruction of the standard concept will be suggested. Finally, some residual and succeeding problems are to be pointed out.

Semantic Preliminaries, Or: A Standard Concept Of "Rational Reconstruction"

A rational reconstruction presupposes-this can already be said by intuition-acquaintance with a preceding object. Analogously, a rational reconstruction of rational reconstruction will presuppose a preceding concept of rational reconstruction itself. Such a semantic preconception can be produced in three manners:

First, a historical stocktaking of usage can be carried out. One then achieves a history of the reconstructive concepts. They have by no means been used with clear distinction and therefore will require a systematic analysis and coordination as a concept family. This is hardly to be managed adequately within this paper; we will have to content ourselves with the mere enumeration of the most important elements.

The starting point of the concept history regarding Analytical Philosophy is constituted by Rudolf Carnap's "rationale Nachkonstruktionen" within Logical Empiricism. According to Carnap "rationale Nachkonstruktionen" show knowledge, which he considers to be even in science mostly of intuitive nature, in its "formal structure" and thus transform it into the "rational form of logical inferences." With the thereby realized "separation between the pure given and the intellectual processing" intuition is given a rational justification. (Cf. Carnap [1928], pp. 138 f.-Translations by myself.) A subclass of this is "explication" as rational reconstruction of concepts, for which Carnap gives similarity, exactness, fruitfulness and simplicity as criteria of adequacy. (Cf. Carnap [1951], pp. 1 ff.) As described by Kamlah, Hans Reichenbach contrasts a "rationale Rekonstruktion," with a "logische Analyse." According to Reichenbach, the first is exclusively orientated towards someone else's scientific thoughts, whereas the latter is explicitly based on one's own judgement. (Cf. Kamlah [1980], pp. 26 ff.) In the more recent philosophy of science the concepts of "logical reconstruction" (with the main emphasis on using formal logic) and "structuralist reconstruction" (as rational reconstruction based on the structuralist conception of theories by Sneed and Stegmller (see e.g., Diederich [1981])) have dominated the scene. Particularly, the method has played an extremely important part in the discussion of Thomas S. Kuhn's history of science, actually within Imre Lakatos' alternative conception of "scientific research programmes" on the one hand, in Stegmüller's structuralist reconstruction of Kuhn's theory on the other hand. (See e.g., Lakatos [1978] and Stegmller [1985] respectively.) A part of this terminology is also used outside, within other philosophical schools. Particularly, Constructivism understands by "rational reconstruction" the confirming realization of action, speech and science as something people have in common. Such rational reconstructions are based on elementary experiences of human life and carried out in logical steps within a constructive "Orthosprache," which ultimately recurs to common action. (Cf. Lorenzen/Schwemmer [1973], pp. 9 ff.) Furthermore, so-called "Critical Theory" ("Frankfurt School") has tried to seize hold of the concept of reconstruction, but obviously without connecting a discernible comprehensive conception to it. (Cf. e.g., Habermas [1984], pp. 363-370 ("Bemerkungen zum Verfahren rationaler Nachkonstruktion") and pp. 371-385 passim ("Rekonstruktive vs. empiristische Sprachwissenschaft").) This is the transition to a so to speak "modish" usage. "Reconstructions" can nowadays be found in nearly every philosophical work, frequently with some changing attributes, but hardly ever with a sufficient explanation of what really happens. We are confronted with creations like "historical reconstruction," "critical reconstruction" or "social construction by reconstruction." Second, a pragmatically orientated analysis can take place, i.e., an enquiry into the practice of alleged applications. Besides the obvious philosophical examples we have applications in various other disciplines, e.g., in literary studies or in economic theory. However, this way can't be taken within this paper either.

What remains, is, third, the recourse to a standard concept of rational reconstruction, i.e., to a concept that has repeatedly played an important part in the discussions. Such a standard concept can be obtained from Stegmller's article on Kant (cf. Stegmller [1967], pp. 1 ff.) and also from Poser's short entry in Speck's encyclopaedia of philosophy of science (cf. Poser [1980]). According to this, a rational reconstruction presents a given problematic complex (the object of reconstruction-with special regard to the area of philosophy of science one may think, like Kamlah, of terminological, methodological or theoretical entities) in a similar, but more precise and more consistent formulation (the product of reconstruction).

This standard concept, as the semantic premise of reconstruction, constitutes the basis of the following reflections. But it should have become clear, that some other possible semantic premises and-if only because of that-possible rational reconstructions of the method of rational reconstruction remain conceivable.

On The Problem of Normativeness, Or: A Graduating Rational Reconstruction of the Standard Concept of Rational Reconstruction

For a long time there has been a quarrel within Analytical philosophy of science as well as e.g., between it and Constructivism, whether or to what extent philosophy of science is a prescriptive activity. Naturally, this quarrel has mainly taken the course of a methodological controversy.

An in a number of places quite surprising historical analysis referring to the familiy of reconstructive concepts has been presented by Kamlah with regard to the early Carnap and to Reichenbach. According to Kamlah the equation "analytic = descriptive" proves absurd in the light of history, as Carnap's early "rationale Nachkonstruktion" as well as Reichenbach's "logische Analyse" served the examination or justification of scientific operations. (Cf. Kamlah [1980], p. 25 and pp. 28 ff.) Of course such a historical argumentation cannot imply any commitment at all, since it forms a clear case of genetic fallacy, for which by the way Reichenbach himself (with his distinction between "context of discovery" and "context of justification") could be consulted as a main authority. Some systematic statements in Stegmller and in Poser regarding the method of rational reconstruction turn out ambivalent. According to Stegmller and Poser rational reconstructions are neither purely descriptive nor purely prescriptive. (Cf. Stegmller [1973], p. 8, resp. Poser [1980], p. 555.) Stegmller provides an itemization of types of strongly prescriptive operations, e.g., the demonstration of circular definitions (cf. Stegmller [1973], pp. 11 ff.), and Poser points out some fundamental prescriptive implications of rational reconstructions, like the evaluation of terminology or the choice of logic (cf. Poser [1980], p. 556). But regrettably, both authors fail to give a really satisfying explication and explanation of the actual ambivalence.

A solution to this problem by relating it to the objects of reconstruction has been submitted by Kamlah. According to this a "logical reconstruction"-Kamlah obviously uses this concept in his abstract as a synonym for Reichenbach's concepts of "rationale Rekonstruktion" and of "logische Analyse" (cf. Kamlah [1980], p. 1 and p. 32).

(1) of concepts is mainly descriptive (since concepts, as e.g., "light" or "sound," can't be true or false, an explicans for such an intuitively given concept requires an empirical survey of usage (cf. Kamlah [1980], pp. 32 ff.));

(2) of methods is mainly prescriptive (one has to ascertain the usage of a method, as e.g., the "argument by analogy," too, but then one has to estimate its suitability, which creates a prescriptive component that is not included in the reconstruction of concepts (cf. Kamlah [1980], pp. 32 ff.));

(3) of theories is-depending on intention-descriptive or prescriptive (the assumption of truth resp. reliability is the prerequisite of a purely descriptive reconstruction, in any other case the intention of the observer will make the reconstruction of a theory turn out prescriptive (cf. Kamlah [1980], pp. 36 ff.)).

For reasons of space I have to dispense with putting forward my special objections against Kamlah's argumentation, and confine myself to my general doubts about its adequacy. Kamlah's solution, I fear, is oversimplified, since it disregards the fundamental operativeness of the criteria of adequacy-as included in the here presupposed standard concept. Kamlah himself doesn't base his solution on an explicit semantic preconception, as the semantic function of his historical digression remains unclear. Stegmller [1973] and Poser [1980] by the way also lack an operational-criteriological analysis of this complex. Thus Kamlah comes to treat descriptivity and prescriptivity somehow as if they formed an inclusive disjunction, which rather represents an escamotage than an explication of the ambivalence of the concept of rational reconstruction. A clarification within a preceeding concept of reconstruction with its operative options is indispensable, for otherwise any talking about a uniform method, i.e., one that doesn't depend on the special applications, would seem unreasonable. A qualification with respect to the objects may be a depending second step.

Regarding the standard concept, the descriptive/prescriptive-ambivalence occurs as polarity or inconsistency between the criteria of adequacy, i.e., between the descriptive requirement of similarity on the one hand and the prescriptive elements of precision and consistency on the other hand. In order to clarify this polarity I would like to suggest a graduating rational reconstruction of rational reconstruction that elementarily unfolds the concept and method of rational reconstruction with two with regard to their normativeness graduated explicantia resp. that differentiates correspondingly between two such variants of the method.

Consider the qualitatively, i.e., with reference to the supposed intention of the object of reconstruction, determined change of the informational content of the object of reconstruction to be the yardstick on normativeness. One may then distinguish basically between rational reconstructions of the first and of the second degree. A "rational reconstruction of the first degree" is dominated by the descriptive impetus, i.e., by the requirement of similarity, which here has to be strictly interpreted as a criterion of material non-creativity. Rational reconstruction as a rational "again"-construction ("re-" as "again") is interested in making an object "more equal to itself," e.g., by extracting essential elements and reformulating and restructuring them. Its task is revealing formal or representational problems and managing them by realizing immanent possibilities to improve precision and consistency of the object of reconstruction. The problem of normativeness reduces to operational problems as the above-mentioned fundamental prescriptive implications of rational reconstructions outlined by Poser. For convincing illustrations one may consult the rational reconstructions by Ulrich Druwe in the area of political philosophy (see Druwe [1988] and [1995]).

A "rational reconstruction of the second degree" is dominated by the prescriptive impetus, i.e., the pursuit of precision and consistency, which here have to be interpreted as even material criteria of creativity. Rational reconstruction as rational "new"-construction ("re-" as "new-") is interested in a material correction resp. improvement by external formal criteria. The descriptive component reduces in the extreme case to the mere factuality of initial material, exactly the object of reconstruction, which is subjected to the instruments of precision and consistency improvement. (The concession of such a minimum similarity certainly requires a very liberal concept of similarity.) No or a decisively diminished "feedback" (This cybernetic notion of rational reconstruction has been introduced by Stegmller (cf. e.g., Stegmller [1973], p. 14).) between object and product of reconstruction is carried out. For an illustration one may consult Stegmller's structuralist reconstruction of Kuhn's history of science, which really contains some clear (and, in my opinion, innovative) reinterpretations of essential concepts and therefore abandons Kuhn's original intention (cf. the corresponding critique in Baumgardt-Thom [1978], pp. 110 ff.).

A conceivable further differentiation into 2+n degrees should be orientated to the extent of (increasing) prescriptivity. It could also be complementarily developed with reference to descriptivity. But prescriptivity of course is the philosophically decisive aspect, which becomes evident if one thinks of the theoretical maximum of similarity as mere paraphrase (which certainly lies beyond the method of rational reconstruction).

Some Residual and Succeeding Problems

The graduating rational reconstruction provides, in my opinion, a similar, but more precise and more consistent version of the chosen standard concept of rational reconstruction. It is similar to the standard concept, because it is developed with reference to its criteria of adequacy. And it is more precise and more consistent than the standard concept, because it explicates its normative variability. Furthermore, it applies to all systematic objects of application and may integrate Stegmller's itemization of prescriptive operations as well as Poser's fundamental prescriptive implications. Thus it constitutes a possible rational reconstruction of the method of rational reconstruction. However, the received product of reconstruction doesn't remain unproblematic. Residual and succeeding problems occur; I would like to specify the most important:

First, the problem of normativeness can be iterated, which implies the question of self-application, i.e., of the degree of the graduating rational reconstruction of rational reconstruction.

Second, with regard to application, the problem of measurability of formal or material processing of objects of reconstruction deserves consideration. The concepts of "intention" and of "informational content" imply known as well as new vagueness. An exactly differentiated graduation will require similarity, precision and consistency to be describable not only as comparative, but as quantitative or even metric concepts. For an illustration of this problem one may think of the theoretical possibility of a degree of rational reconstruction that contains descriptive and prescriptive components ana partes aequales. Third, a closer enquiry into the relations between the graduating rational reconstruction of rational reconstruction and Reichenbach's distinction ("rationale Rekonstruktion" vs. "logische Analyse") seems to suggest itself.

Finally, and in connection with all the other points, a careful examination of the fruitfulness of the presented graduating rational reconstruction for operating the systematic/historical-dichotomy remains desirable.

Final Observation

A part of the answer to the question of the perspectives of Analytical Philosophy, is devoted to and will necessarily be constituted by methodological reflection. It is a matter not of dogmatism, but of a sound, in principle dynamic and by the way didactically communicable canon. Such a canon must distinguish itself in the best Analytical tradition by lucidity, i.e., by precision and consistency. This brief discourse has been intended to stimulate a corresponding discussion.


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Carnap, Rudolf [1928]: Der logische Aufbau der Welt, Berlin-Schlachtensee 1928

________. [1951]: Logical Foundations of Probability, 2nd ed. London 1951 Diederich, Werner [1981]: Strukturalistische Rekonstruktionen. Untersuchungen zur Bedeutung, Weiterentwicklung und interdisziplinren Anwendung des strukturalistischen Konzepts wissenschaftlicher Theorien, Braunschweig 1981

Druwe, Ulrich [1988]: Vertragstheorie als Staatslegitimation. In: Archiv fr Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie 74 (1988), pp. 394-399

________ [1995]: Politische Theorie, 2nd ed. Neuried 1995

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________ [1985b]: ber den Begriff der Rekonstruktion. In: Ratio 27 (1985), pp.71-82

Poser, Hans [1971]: Philosophiegeschichte und rationale Rekonstruktion. Wert und Grenze einer Methode. In: Studia Leibnitiana 3 (1971), pp. 67-76

________ [1980]: "Rekonstruktion, rationale." In: Speck, Josef (ed.): Handbuch wissenschaftstheoretischer Begriffe. Band. 3, Gttingen 1980, pp. 555-556

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________ [1973]: Probleme und Resultate der Wissenschaftstheorie und Analytischen Philosophie. Band IV. Personelle und Statistische Wahrscheinlichkeit. Studienausgabe Teil A, Berlin 1973

________ [1985]: Probleme und Resultate der Wissenschaftstheorie und Analytischen Philosophie. Band II. Theorie und Erfahrung. Studienausgabe Teil E, 2nd ed., Berlin 1985.

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