Process epistemology in the COVID-19 era: rethinking the research process to avoid dangerous forms of reification


Whether we live in a world of autonomous things, or a world of interconnected processes in constant flux, is an ancient philosophical debate. Modern biology provides decisive reasons for embracing the latter view. How does one understand the practices and outputs of science in such a dynamic, ever-changing world - and particularly in an emergency situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where scientific knowledge has been regarded as bedrock for decisive social interventions? We argue that key to answering this question is to consider the role of the activity of reification within the research process. Reification consists in the identification of more or less stable features of the flux, and treating these as constituting stable things. As we illustrate with reference to biological and biomedical research on COVID-19, reification is a necessary component of any process of inquiry and comes in at least two forms: means reification, when researchers create objects meant to capture features of the world, or phenomena, in order to be able to study them; and target reification, when researchers infer an understanding of phenomena from an investigation of the epistemic objects created to study them. We note that both objects and phenomena are dynamic processes and argue that have no reason to assume that changes in objects and phenomena track one another. We conclude that failure to acknowledge these forms of reification and their epistemic role in scientific inquiry can have dire consequences for how the resulting knowledge is interpreted and used.

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Author Profiles

John Dupre
University of Exeter
Sabina Leonelli
University of Exeter

Citations of this work

Maps and Models.Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther - forthcoming - In Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Scientific Modeling. London, UK:

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