At present, we are witnessing an escalating inflation of competing and mutually irreconcilable truth claims. Amplified through social media, this is an internally contradictory process involving debates about what should count as (factual) evidence. It involves those that profess knowledge about ‘(alternative) facts’, some of whom are even willing to press home their truth claims by means of hate crimes, and others who criticize the arbitrariness of what they call a ‘post-factual world’ and trying to engage in nuanced debates based on reasoned arguments.
The ZKF project group suggest that a productive way to scientifically deal with the important questions raised by contemporary and historical controversies about truth, while simultaneously keeping a critical distance from them, is to make plausibility an object of empirical investigation and theoretical reflection.
The notion of plausibility as a social category challenges our conceptual understanding of truth and evidence practices by emphasising the mutual expectations of social actors in historical and contemporary settings. Concurrently, it expands our views on the historically changing concept of probability and on the consequences of the ‘probabilistic revolution’, which has been a central topic of research in the 1980s (Hacking 1975/2006). It is a baseline assumption of the project group that the notion of plausibility needs to be included in studies on ‘provisional rationalities’, which in the Western history of ideas have reshaped the relationship between notions of certitude, probability, evidence, conjecture and truth since the seventeenth century (Daston 1998).
In comparison to the exclusive rigidity often sought for in discourses and practices of truth, plausibility is a much more elastic notion that, in everyday life, occupies the conceptual space between what is perceived to be factual and evidently given on the one hand, and the incredible and counterintuitive on the other. Representing neither established truth nor the unconceivable, it stands for an evaluation of claims about the world which are assigned the ambiguous status of ‘well-founded possibilities’. While expressing what is considered credible in the light of previous experiences and the given state of (uncertain) knowledge (cf. Dilley & Kirsch 2015), the invocation of plausibility is open to reconfigurations in its line of reasoning and largely indifferent towards alternative claims. As such, plausibility is characterized by a great degree of flexibility and, most importantly, it is always contextual, provisionally located in ‘a space of possibles’ (Hawthorn 1991: 17), and thus constantly in abeyance.
The project group probes into the heuristic potential of the notion of plausibility from an interdisciplinary perspective. Drawing on theoretical approaches from anthropology, history, literary studies, sociology and art history, we explore the varied sociocultural articulations of plausibility in different regions of the world and with a view to different historical epochs. We ask, among other things: How are plausibilities construed in a given sociocultural context? What resources are used in the ‘politics of plausibility’ (Sinfield 2004) to make one’s (representational) practices plausible, such as through rhetoric persuasion, evidence-based forms of argument, appeals to tradition, or authorization by institutions? To which degree does plausibility rely on people’s common-sense assumptions and forms of tacit/practical knowledge? By which processes are people socialized into culture- and context-specific logics of plausibility? In which ways do ‘plausibility structures’ (Berger 1967), understood as the accepted ideas and routinized social practices that inform what members of a society find plausible and what not, shape people’s being-in-the world, and in turn, how do their lived experiences give rise to new senses of plausibility? How do plausibility claims relate to and interact with alternative claims that are voiced with regard to the same problématique? How are they questioned, contested, or even subverted? Which role do fiction and art in general play in making the unheard of or the unconceivable plausible, in rational as well as emotional ways? How do the what-if of fiction and its capacity to create counter-worlds also make the taken for granted questionable, how do they challenge socially accepted plausibilities? How do plausibility structures change over time and in the historical long run? And, last but not least, how can we conceptualize the relationship between plausibility, truth, fact, common sense, and the taken for granted (‘das fraglos Gegebene’)? Generally speaking, plausibility serves as a hinge between the everyday life and its common-sense assumptions and scientific truths that are often difficult to integrate into the former. The gap that has emerged between both realms in the course of scientific progress will be an important topic of the group.
Taken together, we understand the accomplishment of plausibility to be an epistemological and representational practice that unfolds in social space, providing people with an intersubjective, yet provisional interpretative framework when making sense of the world and coordinating interactions.
At the same time, the project group's discussions about this concept take account of three mutually interrelated dimensions: (a) emic concepts of plausibility and practices of plausibilization as objects of empirical research and analysis, (b) methods- or rhetoric-based strategies of establishing plausibility within the wider field of the sciences, and (c) the modes and role of plausibilization in science transfer, i.e. when communicating scientific knowledge to a wider audience. In combination, these three dimensions allow us to bring together and treat symmetrically empirical insights, scholarly self-reflexivity and the challenges posed by science transfer.
Berger, Peter 1967. The Sacred Canopy. New York: Doubleday.
Daston, Lorraine 1998. Probability and Evidence. In History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, edited by M. Ayers and D. Garber. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 2: 1108-1144.
Dilley, Roy & Thomas G. Kirsch (eds) 2015. Regimes of Ignorance. Anthropological Perspectives on the Reproduction of Non-Knowledge. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Hacking, Ian 1975/2006, The Emergence of Probability. A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hawthorn, Geoffrey 1991. Plausible Worlds. Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sinfield, Alan 2004. Cultural Materialism, Othello, and the Politics of Plausibility. In Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 743-763.