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Doctrine of science
La doctrine de la science

The reflections on a ‘doctrine of science’ in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse draw on two conceptions, one derived from Fichte, the other from Bolzano. The concern in both instances is whether or not science might have a singular ground, or ‘doctrine’, to which all particular sciences might be referred. Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault are the main contributors to the Cahiers who address this issue.

The French expression ‘doctrine de la Science’ (‘doctrine of science’) translates the German Wissenschaftslehre, a term used by both Johann Fichte and Bernard Bolzano for their major works of philosophy. Though anticipated in some respects by Leibniz’s call for a mathesis universalis that might encompass the whole of science, Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre was distinguished by its grounding in transcendental idealism rather than pre-critical metaphysics or rationalism. What specified this effort as neither dogmatic nor rationalist was that it began with ‘the freely posited I’. According to Fichte, the free act of self-positing establishes the primordial I as condition of all knowledge and experience; this self-positing I further posits the ‘non-I’ and thus the domain of external objects or nature. An exclusively subjective practice thus lay at the beginning of any viable theory of science. Fichte himself hoped that his Wissenschaftslehre - the general name for his own philosophical project, developed over many years - might one day replace philosophy as such, or at any rate relegate it to a second-order status as a reflection upon a ‘theory of science’, a theory that was itself the result of a more primary ‘theoretical’ power of mind on the one hand and ‘practical’ power of will on the other.

Bolzano’s notion of Wissenschaftslehre was similar to Fichte’s in that it privileged science as something prior and superior to philosophy. It was markedly different, however, in that it took leave of any notion of a self-positing I in favour of a totalizing tendency toward the ‘arithmetisation’ of the field of science itself. According to Jocelyn Benoist, ‘the presentation that he gives of the problem is singular and striking in its modernity, because what appears with Bolzano is the question of knowing how a science must be written and what the book (in the sense of a manual, Lehrbuch) of science will be.’1

Bolzano is a central figure in Jean Cavaillès’s Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, a crucial text for the editors of the Cahiers. Though Bolzano’s efforts will ultimately be found wanting for their failure to provide an ontological account of the objects of science, Cavaillès lauds his insight that science is not an intermediary between the human mind or spirit and some ‘being’ exterior to it, but is itself an ‘object sui generis, original in its essence, autonomous in its movement.’2 What is more, this ‘conceptual evolution’ of a scientific theory is something that proceeds irrespective of the consciousnesses or intentions of particular scientists. Above all, Cavaillès notes, Bolzano shows that ‘if there is to be science, it is to be in its entirety demonstration, that is to say, logic.’3 This emphasis on demonstration as the modus operandi of science is crucial to Bolzano’s conception of the Wissenschaftslehre and Cavaillès’s mitigated endorsement of it. The ‘doctrine of science’ in this sense does not determine what the contents of science will be. What it establishes is the univocal form of science as logical demonstration, in contradistinction to all models which privilege the indemonstrable reflections of intuitive consciousness or empirical experience.

Although Louis Althusser does not specifically discuss the concept of a ‘doctrine of science’, his concern for science in its opposition to ideology was likewise of fundamental importance for the editors of the Cahiers. In addition to his affirmations of science in this singular sense [la science] in his published works of the 1960s, many of Althusser’s unpublished circulars, such as ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourse’, find him grappling with the challenge of how to establish a general scientific framework within which to situate historical materialism. The status of science qua la science, and in particular its relations to ideology and philosophy, was also the guiding concern of his ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’, held in 1967-1968 and attended by many of the contributors to the Cahiers.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the introduction to the inaugural volume of the Cahiers, Jacques-Alain Miller writes: ‘Epistemology, in the sense we are using it, is defined as the history and theory of the discourse of Science [la science] (its birth justifies the singular noun)’ and the definite article (CpA 1.Introduction:2). The concern for science’s singular quality is intimately connected with the notion of the epistemological break and the distinction between science and non-science (or ideology) that is accomplished in the ‘birth’ of each new science.

Beyond a general concern for the singularity of science mediated by an epistemological break, however, there was explicit discussion of the ‘doctrine of science’ in two of the central texts of the Cahiers: Francois Regnault’s ‘Dialectique d’épistémologies’ (CpA 9.4) and the ‘Note sur les causes de la science’ that Miller added to his text ‘Action de la structure’ for its publication in 1968 (CpA 9.6).

Regnault’s ‘Dialectique d’épistémologies’ is an ambitious attempt ‘to effect the enumeration of all the possible relations between science and epistemology’ (CpA 9.4:45). More specifically, Regnault posits that the sequence of possible relations between science and epistemology, that is, between science and its theory, can be correlated to the hypotheses concerning the relationship between the One and Being that constitute Plato’s Parmenides. For Regnault, Hypothesis I of the Parmenides (‘the Absolute One is’) is dialectically related to Hypothesis V (‘if the Absolute One is, what follows for the others?’). ‘If unity is posited in its absoluteness, without exterior, there is no place for the epistemological discourse that is correlative to it’, and so epistemology must either be ‘identified’ with science (as ‘the science of science’, in line with Bolzano’s epistemology), or must be posited in an instance ‘exterior’ to the unity, without any assignable features other than that of being a language (as is the case in logical positivism) (CpA 9.4:58). If we are to insist on the first option then Regnault agrees with Cavaillès’s claim: ‘if there is to be science, it is to be in its entirety demonstration, that is to say, logic.’ However, the very assigning of such a metalinguistic status to epistemology makes it relative to a particular science. As indicated by the troubles encountered in logical positivism, a program that was at once an inheritor of Bolzano’s Wissenschaftslehre and an object of Cavaillès’s critique, the absolute of science meets a limit in its constitutive inability to provide a ‘scientific’ account of its own processes without privileging one form of science over all others at the outset.

If Regnault’s primary concern is the fundamentally dialectical quality of epistemological accounts of science that results from the aporias of a thoroughgoing arithmetisation or formalisation, for Jacques-Alain Miller the failures of this Bolzanoan model of a ‘doctrine of science’ point to an element of truth in Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre. In the Appendix added to his ‘Action de la Structure’ for its publication in 1968, entitled ‘Note on the Causes of Science’, Miller claims that ‘the crucial problem for the Doctrine of science, its defining problem, concerns its own status’ (CpA 9.6:103). In contrast to a particular science, it has no exterior. ‘The principles which govern it fall solely under their own jurisdiction’. In an allusion to Russell’s paradox, Miller admits that ‘the Doctrine can […] only be posited on condition that it is not counted among the number of its objects’. It ‘suffers an introjection’ that yields it up to ‘all the phenomena of self-reflexivity’.

It is instead Fichte’s emphasis on the self-positioning of the I in the gestation of a ‘doctrine of science’ that is of primary value for Miller. The effort to expound a doctrine of science ‘depends on a law, a law of a priori reason, [which is precisely] a posteriori with regard to the sign: an auto-reflexive, and thus auto-reproducing, object has for its correlate an impossible construction, or an infinite activity’ (104). Miller argues that the subjective ground of the doctrine of science in Fichte’s sense is not to be confused with ideology:

How is the Doctrine sure that it exhausts science, including the science to come? Because its task is to discover its causes. How is it distinguished from particular sciences? By the way it thinks what cannot be integrated into their field - the decisions which institute their principles. How is it distinguished from logic? As logic of the signifier. How is it led into a relation with its object? It is antinomical to it, that is to say that they are incompatible with each other, that the latter absorbs the other, while the former dissolves itself in it: they only exist in the non-relation, as incommensurable (105).

In his conclusion, Miller insists that science must not be confused with the ‘indistinct totality of all human knowledge’. But if we understand science as ‘the thought that calculates, verifies and experiments, to the exclusion of perception, of consciousness, and of all modes of sentiment, [then] a place in the Doctrine will be reserved for the history of the sciences insofar as it teaches which position of the subject makes science possible’ (105).

Alain Badiou’s contributions to the last two volumes of the Cahiers (CpA 9.8; CpA 10.8) are in some ways a resumption of the Bolzanoan line, making the case for the foreclosure of the subject in all science. In ‘Marque et manque’, Badiou follows Althusser’s praise of Auguste Comte, suggesting that the latter’s ‘greatness resides in his having seen that the multiplicity and hierarchy in the signifying order, whatever displacements and intersections might be engendered in it, were properties inherent to the concept of scientificity’ (CpA 10.8:163). Badiou’s position in the Cahiers elaborates a claim Althusser put forth in his ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourse’: ‘Increasingly, the notion of subject seems to me to pertain to ideological discourse alone, of which it is constitutive.’4

The tension between the two approaches of the ‘Doctrine of Science’ in play in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse - the Bolzanoan and the Fichtean - is again at work in the fundamental argument in the Cahiers concerning the relation between science and subject.

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings, ed. François Matheron, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Badiou, Alain. The Concept of Model: An Introduction to the Materialist Epistemology of Mathematics, ed. Zachary Luke Fraser and Tzuchien Tho. Melbourne:, 2007, online at
  • Benoist, Jocelyn. Bolzano et l’idee de ‘Wissenschaftslehre’. In Les Philosophes et la science, ed. Pierre Wagner. Paris: Gallimard, 2002.
  • Cavaillès, Jean. Sur la logique et la théorie de la science [1946]. Paris: PUF, 1960.
  • Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings. Daniel Breazeale, ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.
  • ---. The Science of Knowledge. Peter Heath and John Lachs, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Milner, Jean-Claude. ‘Le Doctrinal de la science’. In L’Oeuvre claire: Lacan, la science, la philosophie. Paris: Seuil, 1995.
  • Russ, Steve, ed. The Mathematical Works of Bernard Bolzano. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


1. Jocelyn Benoist, ‘Bolzano et l’idée de Wissenschaftslehre,’ 665.

2. Cavaillès, Sur la logique, 21.

3. Ibid., 25.

4. Althusser, ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourse’, 77.