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Scientia Media, Incommensurability and Interdisciplinary Space

Brent Dean Robbins
Duquesne University

We need another alternative to the piety of thought and cybernetics, a third thing, a scientia media, a cognition which is neither held captive by the cave of mathematical science nor released into the upper world of thought. We need philosophical reflection, a reason which, while it does not match the simplicity of thought, still does not degenerate into technological calculation. We need ethics, philosophical anthropology, philosophical psychology, and all the other regional ontologies, and we need them now in the age of the Gestell, even as we also need thought. --John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought In this passage, Caputo (1986) suggests the possibility of a scientia media, a middle knowledge, a thinking science which is neither purely meditative nor purely calculative, but a "third thing." We must explore what Caputo might mean by such a scientia media. I submit, however, that when we discover the kernel of Caputo’s thought we may discover an opening onto an interdisciplinary space which can serve as a remedy to the ‘unworld’ of the Enlightenment project. The interdisciplinary space of a scientia media promises the possibility of building a dwelling for thought within a human context as an alternative to the ‘unworld’ characterized by circularity for the sake of consumption which lacks a human context. With this reading of Caputo, it becomes possible to re-imagine Kuhn’s notion of "incommensurability." Kuhn’s notion of "incommensur-ability" reveals a limit to the Enlightenment project of science and rationality, which, per a reading of Heidegger, can be viewed as the historical sending of the Gestell or Enframing. With this notion of "incommensurability," Kuhn calls into question the "myth of progress" of Enlightenment science. The breaking down of the disciplines in the age of the Gestell is part and parcel of the un-world of a discourse levelled down to calculative rationality and which covers over its rhetorical foundations. With such an un-world, the critical moment which could open a space for interdisciplinarity becomes sealed off by the discourse of each discipline. By its very nature, the calculative rationality of Western discourse in the sciences leads toward disintegration. The rhetorical moment – as critical, ethical and concerned with communal values – is disallowed in the reified discourse of positivist science.

Heidegger’s later thought promises, as a response to the Enframing of technology, the "letting be" and "releasement toward things" of meditative thought as a listening to the Saying of Being which is the sending of history. Meditative thought, in this sense, holds out the hope of a historical retrieval, a discovery of a moment of freedom at the heart of historical necessity. Heidegger’s call to meditative thought offers an alternative to the calculative rationality of the Enlightenment project. Yet, Heidegger’s anti-humanistic turn offers thought as a mere waiting for the "saving power" to show itself. Caputo, however, suggests the possibility of a scientia media, something between meditative thought and calculative rationality.

Drawing upon Merleau-Ponty’s notion of "flesh," it can be demonstrated that interdisciplinary space – as a scientia media – can be located in the lived, historically contingent and radically social space of the "world horizon," the "referential context of significance" of human dwelling. This is a space founded not upon Cartesian certainty, but upon the rich, multi-determinate and ambiguous life-world prior to the reified categories of scientific description; it is a "lateral depth" (Romanyshyn, 1990) which points toward the same latency as psychoanalysis, and, along with the rhetorical tradition, gives a primacy to metaphor and imagination--calling forth the recognition of the reversibility of language and perception (Robbins, 2000). Such an interdisciplinary space provides a forum within which to de-literalize metaphors by which the disciplines have become imprisoned and within which cross-disciplinary dialogue becomes, once again, possible. At the same time, it locates interdisciplinary space in that same latency which is the depth of "flesh," neither this, nor that, but that chiasm from which erupts both immanence and transcendence, the visible and invisible, "I" and world. In this space of the neither/nor and the both/and erupts that third term, "flesh," a fitting subject for this third thing which is scientia media. The space of "flesh" is the space of interdisciplinarity--the space of the intertwining of the disciplines; that space from which the disciplines have their determinate being upon the basis of a fundamental ambiguity.

Thomas Kuhn’s (1962/1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions calls into question the taken-for-granted notion that science develops by accumulation of facts. For Kuhn, what he calls "paradigms" are "incommensurable" scientific world views. The implication is that science appears to progress over time only in retrospect, from the perspective of the current regime of the reigning paradigm. From the perspective of the current regime, past research takes on the appearance of inefficient, though progressively correct, approximations of the reigning world view. We might also say that the reigning paradigm is a paradigm of power, a university discourse which legitimates the master discourse of a given historical epoch, though Kuhn does not go so far (see Fink 1995a, 1995b). Nevertheless, Kuhn’s description of normal versus revolutionary science utilizes a language which speaks to the political nature of scientific paradigms as ideologies which compete for a privileged position in a scientific community. As I’ve articulated elsewhere (Robbins, 1998), Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science can be clarified by Heidegger’s (1927) existential analytic in Being and Time.

As Rouse (1982) points out, the "paradigm" of a "normal science" is the "common practice" of a group of researchers, consisting of "community standards and practices," which "maximize the intelligibility of what is done" (p. 275). No one--that is, nobody and everybody (das Man) – specifically legislates this common practice. It is the way the scientist is in order to make sense of the world. Further, this implicit understanding, which arises from the ground of the research in a "paradigm," is embedded in the equipment of the researchers, which constitutes the "referential context of significance" of the scientific project. That is, this equipment is "already understood as being usable for some purpose" (Rouse, 1982, p. 272). The physical (instrumentation), methodological, and intellectual (laws and related theories, disciplinary matrix, shared exemplars) "equipment" of the researchers gain "significance" as they are encountered within the context of a "referential totality" – the "in-order-for-the-sake-of" which implicitly guides the researcher in her circumspective understanding which always already projects the possibilities of what is and what is not counted as a "puzzle" to be solved (Rouse, 1982, p. 272). The explicit "rules" of a particular paradigm, therefore, are part of the "equipment" of the paradigm. However, the paradigm itself cannot be reduced to a set of explicit rules. As the meaning and ground of the explicit rules of a science, a paradigm’s rules remain pre-thematic. (p. 6)

The pre-thematic, implicit or tacit "rules" of a paradigm become explicit only during periods of crisis or "revolutionary science." A competing paradigm points out one or more "anomalies" in the reigning paradigm, and, through attempts to resolve these kinks in the totality of the reigning paradigm, aims to claim itself as the better world view. During these periods of crisis, the reigning paradigm is no longer able to take itself for granted – the meaning and ground of the paradigm becomes "uncanny," thus disrupting the "at-home-ness" of the "average everyday" operations of "normal science." During times of crisis, we might say that science becomes a hysterical discourse (see Fink 1995a, 1995b), yet only for a short time before the crisis is resolved, resulting either in the erection of a new paradigm or the preservation of the reigning paradigm. Nevertheless, science returns, in the end, to the obsessional discourse of normal science. At the same time, normal science falls back into concealing its vulnerability to disruption.

Boyd (1983), a scientific realist, criticizes Kuhn’s notion of "incommensurability" by arguing that Kuhn’s constructivist conception of science fails to explain the instrumental reliability of scientific methodology which produces "an increasingly accurate theoretical picture of the world." (p. 207) Boyd justifies his claim that science progresses toward an increasingly accurate representation of the world by arguing that the progress of science can be assessed by its instrumental success – that is, by technology. What Boyd and other realists fail to acknowledge, however, is that "science and technology reside within the same underlying framework or "paradigm," and this, not a correspondence to an independent reality, accounts for the instrumental reliability of science." (Robbins, 1998, p. 10)

What is this common worldview which unites science and technology? For Heidegger, the common ground of science and technology is the Gestell or "Enframing." The Gestell is inherently technological, but, by technological, Heidegger does not mean mere technological things. Rather, the Gestell is the essence of technology which precedes the production of technological things. It is the latent meaning and ground of our modern epoch, characterized by the calculative thinking of means-end rationality. Technology, in this sense, is what makes technological things possible. It is the "mode of revealing" in which truth happens in our particular historical epoch (Heidegger, 1993b, p. 319) In particular, the Gestell of our technological age is an enframing which presents beings as "standing-reserve." Things become quantifiable resources, and, doubling back, we also take ourselves as human resources.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno (1998) speak to the nature of the Gestell as an "inversion of mastery." The project of Enlightenment science has been an explicit project to dominate and control nature, yet "self-domination becomes the inevitable outcome of the human effort to control Nature." (Sampson, 1983, p. 63) The scientific gaze reduces Nature to an object over against a subject with the promise that, by predicting and controlling nature, we will become masters and possessors of the universe. Yet, before long, the scientific gaze turns upon human beings, and, ironically, the subject, too, becomes object. As Sampson (1983) writes:

Horkheimer and Adorno see the subject seeking to govern the object (nature) and in this very process being swallowed up and destroyed. The identity between subject and object eventually destroys the subject itself. The dialectic presents the process whereby what begins affirmatively as conquest, administration, and technical control of nature ends up creating just its opposite – namely, self-understandings from the viewpoint of technical control. The result is a technocratic consciousness or instrumentalized rationality in which the core of domination is both contained and concealed. (p. 64) Instrumental rationality in the age of the Gestell has the peculiar characteristic of covering over its own tracks by disallowing kinds of discourses which deviate from the hegemonic discourse of instrumentality: "the very forms of instrumental reason thwart the use of knowledge for anything other than further technical control and enslavement" (p. 64). Average everyday science goes about its business of puzzle solving, propagating the illusion that the means of science – and technology, too – has no need for discussion of ends or goals. As Horkheimer (1974) has said, instrumental rationality is generally content "with the adequacy of procedures for purposes more or less taken for granted." (p. 3) But not only are the purposes of such procedures taken for granted, any explicit discourse of ends in science is considered trivial and nonscientific. Questions of value, instead, become reduced to questions of technique. "Practical questions, or questions about societal goals," writes Schroyer (1973), "are reduced in public discussion to technical questions: problems which can only be solved according to the objective standards of science and technology." (p. 218)

The age of instrumental rationality is characterized by a discourse which denies its own rhetorical ground. The pretense of a-political, value-free, and a-historical science is the lie which prohibits the kind of critical discourse which questions the very frame in which science and technology operate. While the ideal of Enlightenment science aims toward liberation, it covertly serves the purposes of enslavement and domination. Sampson (1983) writes:

The political domination of one group by another is. . . encouraged but carefully disguised by reformulating all matters in terms of technical or instrumental rationality. Social problems are defined as matters of technical control and management rather than as issues demanding a critical examination of the existing pattern of goals and interests. Those who benefit from the prevailing arrangements of society accomplish a political domination through the unquestioned acceptance of these arrangements and the understanding that rationality is restricted to instrumental themes. (p. 65) If we return to Kuhn’s description of normal and revolutionary periods of science, we find an interesting pattern. During periods of revolutionary science, science reluctantly becomes critical of its goals and purposes--the very methods of science as means to an end become problematic.

As Rouse (1982) writes:

Whether our equipment proves inadequate to the task, or the right equipment is not at our disposal, or something gets in our way, we become momentarily aware in a new way of the context of significance within which we work. The things we work with, which before we took for granted and were only aware of circumspectively, now stand out as objects of reflection. (p. 276) Inevitably, however, revolutionary science falls back into the average everydayness of normal science. This space in between paradigms is a space of liminality, a space of ambiguity, and, I would argue, the space for a scientia media. These moments of revolution in modern science are moments of freedom at the heart of historical necessity, when, just for a moment, values are at issue. The problem, however, is that instrumental reason is incapable of perpetuating this kind of discourse – it only knows how to fall back into normal science. And not only does it fall, it forgets. Kuhn’s notion of "incommensurability" shows us that the instrumental rationality of modern science is a rationality which forgets, which covers over its origins, as well as its goals and purposes, with the rhetoric of progress – the "myth of progress." Normal science’s self-interpretation is inadequate to the task, for it "conceals (its) vulnerability to disruption from us" (Rouse, 1982, p. 284) As Kuhn (1962) observes: . . . it is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science. Once a field has made its transition, critical discourse recurs only at moments of crisis when the basis of the field are again in jeopardy. Only when they must choose between competing theories do scientists behave like philosophers. (p. 6-7) If science is to become something like a permanently revolutionary science, if it is to become a part of the interdisciplinary matrix of a scientia media, it must become a hysterical discourse, a discourse which self-effacingly acknowledges the moment of its own impossibility. Science would need to become a science which recognizes that it stands upon the ground of the fundamental ambiguity upon which its categories are made possible and yet never entirely able to grasp in total.

A scientia media is necessarily an interdisciplinary project. The space of scientia media is the space of the life-world from which all the disciplines draw their fundamental insights. The disciplines are the way we, as historical people, make sense of the givens of existence. The interdisciplinary space of scientia media is the "fold" from which each discipline erupts from the "flesh" of the world, the clearing of human dwelling.

In drawing out his notion of scientia media, Caputo (1986) is concerned with Heidegger’s emphasis upon meditative thinking. By meditative thinking, Heidegger (1996) means that we engage in a "releasement toward things" and remain "open to the mystery." "Releasement toward things" is stance toward the Gestell which is both a "yes" and a "no." (Heidegger, 1996, p. 54) While there is no outside to the Gestell, we can ponder the "possible rise of the saving power" of technology as given by the "it gives" of Being as a destiny. To "watch over" technology is to step back from "calculative thinking" and dwell poetically with things. Such dwelling already implies an "openness to the mystery," a move toward the wonderment that there is something rather than nothing, but, even more fundamentally, it is a recognition that we are given things as "resources," and, as given things as such, we are not "lords of the earth," but "shepherds of Being." Caputo, however, is concerned that such a waiting is not enough. While we may wait for the grant of a "new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without being imperiled by it," we nevertheless must take a stand – right here, today – in a world where things are genuinely at stake.

We can appreciate Heidegger’s attempt to disclose a more human "dwelling." As Caputo writes, Heidegger’s thought is "a protest against the dehumanization of the earth, against rendering it inhumane and unlivable" (p. 243) As opposed to the effort to bend nature to the will of the human being, exemplified in Sir Francis Bacon’s philosophy, Heidegger’s post-metaphysical thoughts aim "to befriend nature. . . to dwell with it, to let it be, and to find in it a hidden address of Being." (p. 243) Yet Caputo is concerned that Heidegger’s thought leaves us in a position of little hope. To make a turn toward pure thought, for Caputo, is to release ourselves to the groundless play of Being. In facing the danger of technology, which conceals the Truth of Being, we are confronted with a distortion of the meaning of nature, of dwelling in the world, thought, even ourselves. Yet all Heidegger can offer us is a waiting for the saving element within it. (p. 248) Caputo instead proposes this scientia media, this place between the piety of thought and instrumental rationality. Yet, Caputo offers nothing more than a promise of something to come, and, in this sense, offers little more than Heidegger. How can we imagine the possibility of this interdisciplinary, liminal space that is scientia media?

I propose that a method of scientia media is nothing new. It is not so much an emerging methodology, as the title of this panel suggests, but rather a method which has not yet had its day in the sun. I submit that phenomenology is a scientia media, and the work of French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is, arguably, the best phenomenology has to offer us. Merleau-Ponty’s work can be summarized as a kind of negative dialectic between the two horns of modernist discourse, namely, empiricism and rationalism. Rationalism and empiricism share with each other the Gestell, and, with it, fall prey to the prejudice of "a universe perfectly explicit in itself." (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 41) Instrumental rationality reigns, since perception, in each case (at least in part), is conceived as "an external, causal, physical relation between an epistemological subject (whose existential status is totally undefined in empiricism) and ‘empirical’ reality." (Madison, 1992, p. 87) In fact, these epistemologies are a perfect example of the "inversion of mastery," for, in each case, human beings are taken to be things, and the things we are taken to be are the "objects" we’ve posited as empirical data. Yet, as Merleau-Ponty persuasively argues, such a relation between thinking things and external things, which are causally and externally related, is a logical absurdity. Phenomenology, instead, returns to the things themselves, but the things themselves are not the things of modernist epistemology. "To return to the things themselves," writes Merleau-Ponty (1962), is rather:

to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the country-side in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is." (p. ix) Merleau-Ponty is the master of a discourse of the in between, the liminal, the ambiguous. He is the high priest of scientia media. Merleau-Ponty gives us a method that is neither cybernetics nor pure thought, but something in-between, something which is not both, nor neither, but allows us to reflect upon that liminal space which makes both instrumental rationality and meditative thinking a possibility. The subject who perceives, for Merleau-Ponty, is neither pure subject nor pure material body, nor is the subject a pure self-presence. "I can never say ‘I’ absolutely," says Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 208), for "I" am presence which is always mediated, "i.e., is indirect and incomplete and thus is never (as Derrida might say) a ‘full presence.’" (Madison, 1992, p. 88) Merleau-Ponty’s body-subject is a subject which is an anomaly for modernist epistemology. It is an anomaly which breaks open a place for something like a permanently revolutionary science. Neither a thing nor a consciousness, Merleau-Ponty’s body-subject is fundamentally "ambiguous." World and body-subject exist as a relation: "The world," writes Merleau-Ponty (1962), "is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing but a project of the world, and the subject is inseparable from the world, but a world which it projects itself." (p. 430)

To articulate this ambiguity of "flesh" which is both and neither body-subject and world, Merleau-Ponty invokes a new way of speaking, a new language which is no longer calculative, but poetic – it is figurative, metaphorical. As Madison (1992) points out, Merleau-Ponty’s metaphorical discourse is in itself a revolutionary act:

. . . metaphorical description, in regard to the usual, literal, philosophically acceptable modes of predication, [is] a very peculiar way of saying something about something. To describe something metaphorically is to describe that thing in terms, precisely, of what it is not (e.g., man is a wold, my loved one, a rose). . . Unlike literal discourse, metaphorical discourse achieves its proper effect if, so to speak, the utterance cancels itself out, self-destructs, undercuts its own semantic positivity. (p. 90) That Merleau-Ponty speaks figuratively is consistent with his deconstruction of perception. Where the perception of modernist epistemology is always a purely causal relation, which sustains the hegemony of instrumental rationality, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of perception is of a perception that is always already a relation "not of causality but of significance." (Madison, 1992, p. 91) As such, perception is always already a perception of value, of ends and goals; it is always already an interpretation. "It is a relation of significance or meaning, since, just as in the case of linguistic terms, each term of the relation is what it is, is defined in terms of its own proper ‘essence,’ only by reason of the relation itself." (p. 91) The determinate being of I and world are given significance against their relation to the "horizon of all horizons," which is the ambiguous although potentially determinate "world horizon."

By the time Merleau-Ponty (1968) wrote The Visible and the Invisible, one of his final works – and certainty, even though unfinished, the apex of his thought – he gives up altogether the language of modernist epistemology. Instead, he speaks of "flesh." "Flesh" is the term which Merleau-Ponty gives to this "being" which is a non-being, to this in between, which all along, we have been imagining as a space for interdisciplinary scientia media. To understand what Merleau-Ponty means by "flesh," we must think of it as a "kind of originary absence" (Madison, 1992, p. 97) "Flesh" is a non-concept, much like Derrida’s notion of differance as "what makes the presentation of being-present possible, [but which] never presents itself as such." (Derrida, 1973, p. 134) Also, similar to differance, "flesh" can be compared to the Freudian unconscious, the "real" which remains unnameable. "Flesh" is this same latency, as Merleau-Ponty (1960) would say, towards which both phenomenology and psychoanalysis, as well as Derrida, are aiming.

That Merleau-Ponty would put forth such a concept, "flesh," as a kind of originary absence, seems to contradict his phenomenological method. But it does not, for as Merleau-Ponty (1968) asserts, it is "to our experience that we address ourselves." (p. 159) But, unlike modern philosophy, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of "flesh" does not reduce the other to the same. "The flesh is the trace of the other, the inscription of the other, in the subject’s own selfhood— in its very flesh. What ‘flesh’ means’ is that the subject is for itself an other." (Madison, 1992, p. 31) If we are to think of an other science, a space in between, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of "flesh" points the way to this place. To return to this place is not to return to a ground of certainty, but to that fundamental ambiguity which is the bottomless abyss of fundamental thought (Merleau-Ponty, 1960, p. 21) – what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the ecart.

The ecart is "the gap, the separation, the differentiation between the touching and the touched, the seeing and the seen, mind and world, self and others; it is the fissure that language tries to bridge and that the philosophical methods of reflection, dialectic and intuition have historically attempted to close through their respective theories of meaning, only to ignore thereby how this ‘un-tamable,’ at once secretly nourishes and undermines the habits of thought and experience that they sought to establish." (Burke, 1990, p. 84) That fissure is the abyss from which each discipline is given birth and to which each must return to nourish itself, like a child returning to the mother’s breast. That gap of ecart is the "there is" within "the Being that lies before the cleavage operated by reflection, about it, on its horizons, not outside of us and not in us, but there were the two movements cross. . ." (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p. 95) It is an interdisciplinary space which is the non-space by virtue of which each discipline has its place in relation to one another. I submit, therefore, that a scientia media, the middle knowledge – if it is to erupt from this dehiscence of Being – must turn once again to the wonderment of this "eternal splitting open of Being into the touching and the touched, the seeing and the seen, the site of their differentiation as well as their union and intimacy." (Burke, 1990, p. 90)

The middle knowledge of scientia media appears to be precisely a reflection upon what does not appear, and yet which is the very condition for appearance. And in this sense, it brings us to a science that is always already inaugurating a new paradigm, always already underway, and as such can never cease to return to the ground upon which it rises so that it can reaffirm itself. A scientia media is the Janus-headed threshold which opens upon the space of a science which is always other to itself, and becomes in that moment ethical, if only for a moment, until it once again opens upon the next threshold, and the next . . .


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