Yesterday, in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class, we worked our way through Bertrand Russell's essay on "Appearance and Reality" (excerpted, along with "The Value of Philosophy" and "Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description" from Russell's 'popular' work The Problems of Philosophy.) I introduced the class to Russell's notion of physical objects being inferences from sense-data, and then went on to his discussions of idealism, materialism, and realism as metaphysical responses to the epistemological problems created by such an understanding of objects. This discussion led to the epistemological stances--rationalism and empiricism--that these metaphysical positions might generate. (There was also a digression into the distinction between necessary and contingent truths.)
At one point, shortly after I had made a statement to the effect that science could be seen as informed by materialist, realist, and empiricist conceptions of its metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, I blurted out, "Really, scientists who think philosophy is useless and irrelevant to their work are stupid and ungrateful." This was an embarrassingly intemperate remark to have made in a classroom, and sure enough, it provoked some amused twittering from my students, waking up many who were only paying partial attention at that time to my ramblings.
The great historian of logic and mathematics Ivor Grattan-Guinness passed away about a month ago, aged 73. I only heard it yesterday, when Stephen Read posted a link to the Guardian obituary on Facebook. From the obituary:
He rescued the moribund journal Annals of Science, founded the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, and was on the board of Historia Mathematica from its inception. A member of the council of the Society for Psychical Research, he wrote Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History (1982). In 1971 the British Society for the History of Mathematics was founded: Ivor served as its president (1986-88) and instituted a formal constitution.
Indeed, many of us owe him eternal gratitude for founding the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, which continues to be the main journal for studies combining historical and philosophical perspectives on logic. Ivor's work and scholarship spans over an impressive range of topics and areas, and is bound to continue to influence many generations of scholars to come. It is a great loss.
This is the third installment of my series of posts with different sections of the paper on conceptual genealogy that I am working on. Part I is here; Part II.1 is here; a tentative abstract of 2 years ago, detailing the motivation for the project, is here.
I now turn to Canguilhem as an author exemplifying the kind of approach I have in mind when I speak of 'conceptual genealogy'. The main difference is that Canguilhem focused on scientific concepts (especially from biology and medicine), whereas I am articulating a methodology for the investigation of philosophical concepts (though of course, often the line between the two groups will be rather blurry). The same caveat of the previous installment on Nietzsche applies: this is a very brief and inevitably superficial discussion of Canguilhem's ideas, on which there is obviously much more to say.
The thesis of the relevance of historical analysis for philosophical theorizing rests crucially on a historicist conception of philosophical concepts, namely that they are not (or do not correspond to) a-historical essences or natural kinds. However, ‘historicism’ can have different meanings (Beiser 2011, Introduction), so let me now spell out in more detail in what sense I defend a historicist conception of philosophical concepts.
My friend Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida, has drawn my attention to a number of concerning events at the eminent journal Science.
One was an appalling magazine cover, for which they were roundly and rightly criticized. The Editor-in-Chief issued a non-apology for the cover, saying that she is "truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone" and promising "that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves."
A second recent development is the shortening of book reviews to 600 words, with an increased focus on popular books and fewer reviews coming from scholars in the history and philosophy of science as compared to the past. This is an unfortunate loss of an important perspective from Science.
Now, a blog post from Michael Balter, who has been with the journal for over 21 years, talks about some of the behind-the-scenes troubles at Science and its publishing organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). These include the recent dismissal of four women in the art and production departments, with essentially no notice in three cases and very little notice in the fourth case, and the absence of any serious response to the concerns expressed by the overwhelming majority of Science's news staff about the way these dismissals were handled.
I am not in a position to fully comment on these recent developments; I am only reporting what I have read and what I have been told. But as a member of the AAAS Section on History and Philosophy of Science (Section L) I am very concerned. Indeed, perhaps given the important role that Science plays, we should all be concerned about what what is involved with the "strategic transformation that AAAS is currently undergoing, to enhance its engagement with its members and to be in the forefront of the multimedia landscape of the future."
One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy,
rather than discovery of fundamentals. Nobody really cares much about economic
data except as a guide to policy: economic phenomena do not have the same
intrinsic fascination for us as the internal resonances of the atom or the
functioning of the vesicles and other organelles of a living cell. We judge
economics by what it can produce. As such, economics is rather more like
engineering than physics, more practical than spiritual.--Robert J. Shiller [HT Jeff Bell]
Is the younger generation of economists like Raj skipping some of the
big questions of economics because some smaller questions are easier to
answer? If so, is that optimal from the standpoint of society as a
The character of cutting-edge, academic economics has changed during the last few decades. It is not entirely easy to characterize these changes in part because economics is a very large, fast-moving field (and, of course, I pay more attention to philosophers than economists). Even so there can be merit in this simplification: (i) between 1947 and 1970, there was a formal revolution in economics (associated with names like Samuelson, Arrow, Debreu, etc.); this revolution occurred more or less simultaneously with (ii) the development of econometrics (associated with names like Tinbergen, Koopmans, etc.)--many of the people involved interacted with each other at the Cowles Commission. Of these two developments, the first had a more theoretical ethos and the second a more policy oriented focus. (Of course, lots of fields in economics -- development, labor, forestry, agriculture, etc. -- have always been very focused on policy.) With the break-down of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s, policy,
"big questions of economics" returned to the center of the discipline's attention.* In the quoted passage above, Shiller's "necessarily" takes the centrality of policy for granted...so much so that most of what is published as "theory" by theoreticians in economics these days has some such policy orientation.**
“No variation of things arises from blind metaphysical necessity, which must be the same always and everywhere.” [A cæca necessitate metaphysica, quæ utique eadem est semper & ubique, nulla oritur rerum variatio.]--Isaac Newton, General Scholium (1713), Principia.
This week we're celebrating three hundred years since Newton published the General Scholium, attached to the second edition of the Principia. The passage above was only inserted in the final (1726), third edition. The argument of the sentence seems to be something like this:
A1: (Metaphysical) Necessity <--> Homogeneity
A2: Homogeneity and Variety are disjunctive alternatives (suppressed premise)
P: We observe variety
Therefore, no metaphysical necessity
From textual context it is very clear that Newton wants to defend the legitimacy of final causes. In particular, in circles around Newton it was common to refer to Spinoza as having defended the system of “Blind and Unintelligent Necessity” (S. Clarke (1705) Demonstration, 12.102); or “A Blind and Eternal Fatality” (S. Clarke, Demonstration, Intro.8);
or "blind mechanical necessity” (H. More, Confutation of Spinoza, 91). In fact, More refers to Spinoza as that “completely blind and stupid philosophaster” (H. More, 91; recall!) So, because Spinoza's denies final causes, the necessity he defends is unguided and undirected, that is, "blind." In the quoted passage above, Newton is, thus, offering an empirical argument against a metaphysical thesis: observed variety is not compatible with Spinoza's proposed system of nature. Moreover, the General Scholium argues more generally that we do not just observe variety, we observe quite determinate and peculiar variety (of the sort that leads Newton to offer his famous argument to a designer).
A "sardonic" tweet by a "Duke sociologist"* about this year's Nobels in economics generates an op-ed response in the New York Times by a MacArthur ('genius') fellow and Harvard economist, Raj Chetty. [HT Matt Zwolinski] It's been a few decades since an elite economist felt the need to notice a sociologist. Chetty reveals what is at stake:
the headline-grabbing differences between the findings of these Nobel laureates are less significant than the profound agreement in their scientific approach to economic questions, which is characterized by formulating and testing precise hypotheses. I’m troubled by the sense among skeptics that disagreements about the answers to certain questions suggest that economics is a confused discipline, a fake science whose findings cannot be a useful basis for making policy decisions.
If economics is not "a useful basis for making policy decisions," its seventy year, lucrative (jobs, funding, prestige, etc.) reign as the the privileged discipline in the policy sciences ends. (The only time I have discussed Chetty's views on the blog, I provided historical context for that claim.) Before I turn to Chetty's argument for why economics is "useful" in the relevant fashion, it is worth noting that he accepts the idea that consensus in methods ("formulating and testing precise hypotheses") and answers ("simple, unassailable finding") is an adequate proxy to a discipline not being a "fake science." Such consensus, need not prevent it being "ideology," too.
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
While Ancient writers (Pliny) certainly noted the existence of
fossils, the meaning of the existence fossils was explosive during the eighteenth
century. In posthumously published work on Discourse on Earthquakes (1705), the secretary
of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, had while surveying fossil evidence suggested that "There
have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find
none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers
new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." (here)
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave
a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and
Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave
the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and
fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000
years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture,
although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
There is a new edition of Toland's (1704) Letters to Serena, edited by Ian Laesk. It is the first modern, English language edition. (I have not read it yet.) In order to celebrate this great news, I want to point to one non-trivial, generally overlooked feature that helps to explain the enduring significance of Toland's Letters (for other features, recall here, here, here, and here).
The official aim of the fourth (out of five) of Toland’s
rhetorically complex Letters
is to show that Spinoza’s “system is without foundation.” While there may be “incidental truths” to be
found in Spinoza’s system, it is “false” (Letter 4.4, p. 135 [I quote by letter, paragraph, and page-number). In particular,
throughout the fourth letter, Toland echoes Henry More’s criticisms of Spinoza[or so I claim]
and argues that Spinoza’s account of motion and its relationship to matter is
confused. Toland claims this criticism sets up his own positive
argument, to be offered in the fifth letter that matter is “necessarily active
as well as extended.” (Letter 4.17, 161; repeated in Letter 5.1, 164). In
particular, he praises those mathematicians, which
“compute the quantities and
proportions of motion, as they observe bodies to act on one another , without
troubling themselves about the physical reasons of what every person allows,
being a thing which does not always concern them, and which they leave to the
philosophers to explain.” (Letter 5.9, 177).
To this claim Toland attaches without
comment a quote in Latin from the scholium to proposition XI of Newton’s Principia. An innocent reader could not avoid thinking
that Newton endorses Toland’s stance.
Cuiuscumque humanae mentis ideae aliae adaequatae
sunt, aliae autem mutilatae et confusae.--Spinoza, Ethica 3p1dem
Last week I had the good fortune to examine a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Nienke Roelants (now: Dr. Nienke Roelants). One thing (among many) that I learned is that Luther and Melanchthon promoted an epistemology that includes a doctrine that has something like these five components: (i) in our Post-Lapsarian state, we need (ii) a mental emendation, that
(iii) makes exact/clear (iv) the (innate) confused idea [of God] we already posses; (v) this emendation is rarely complete in an ordinary life. Part of the process of such emendation is (a) by way of the rigorous (mathematical) study of nature, and (b) by copying the right sort of exemplars.
Descartes' version of the doctrine of innate ideas is that these are always clear and distinct in us. (Is that so? Descartes scholars should feel free to correct me.) So, that once one learns to recognize what is already in one's mind by way of the study of geometry, one has access to clear and distinct ideas. (He attributes a version of this to Plato's Meno in a letter, I think, to Voetius.)
Three illustrations of why scientists need to know history:
 Biologists often appeal to founders in the field such as Darwin or
Haeckel, either as a point of contrast or as intellectual ancestor - but
are their depictions accurate?
 Scientists need to know the nature of the scientific practice, e.g.,
the refutations of well accepted theories, the failures, the dead ends.
 Terms like "fitness" may be loaded with historical baggage that scientists are not aware of, but which affects their reception.--Roberta Millstein. [Numbers added to facilitate discussion.--ES]
The image(s) of science that philosophers of (the) science(s) describe and promote often has an afterlife in (the) science(s).
Ever since Kuhn projected his experiences within and about physics onto a persuasive and widely discussed image of science, philosophers of science and the scientists that embrace Kuhn and his image [see here], have thought that progressive science requires certain features (paradigmatic consensus, mythic history, puzzle-solving, etc.)* In the exchange over her post, Millstein offered three reasons for thinking that praticing scientists need to know an accurate history. Let's grant a critic that  is not very persuasive. For those kind of appeals are primarily rhetorical techniques; there is a sense in which the truth does not matter in such appeals. Let's grant a critic that  can be achieved without knowledge of history (which now is conceived as a repository of error). So,  is not intrinsic to scientific practice, but it does not mean that history does not have this useful, therapeutic role.
"Scientific philosophy" as I will be using it here is an eighteenth century invention by now-forgotten philosophers (McLaurin, 's Gravesande) or not read as philosophers anymore (Euler) (and then opposed by now-canonical philosophers like Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and folk that are fun to read like Mandeville and Diderot) that, after the split between philosophy and science, was re-introduced into philosophy by people like Russell, and echoed by Carnap, and Reichenbach. Scientific philosophy has six characteristics:
‘success’ trumps other
(rational/methodological) claims. Given that scientific philosophers sometimes retreat to the idea that philosophy is an a priori discipline, the 'empirical' (in 1) is often re-packaged as, say, inference to the best explanation in light of a variety of enduring 'scientific virtues' (i.e., simplicity, scope, predictive power, fruitfulness, exactness, etc.)
(a) Physics is the foundational science and/but it (b) has no need
for ultimate foundations. While 2(a) may seem obvious (see, e.g., Ladymann & Ross) due to its universal scope, its foundational nature was contested well into the nineteenth century. One could imagine, say, the science of information taking over as the foundational science in the future.
Within scientific philosophy reason
limits itself in various ways: in doing so (a) it avoid the fallacy of systematicity because it does not try to say
everything about everything; (b) it embraces the intellectual division
of labor (from 3(b)); it avoids the fallacy of (metaphysical) foundationalism because it has no
need to try to to secure its practice in un-shakeable, first principles
(see 2(b)). So, it is no surprise that Russell rejected the principle of sufficient reason or Bradley's regress argument.
is a self-directed, autonomous practice; once one has mastered certain rigorous tools, one moves
from one given experiment/solution (etc.) to the next problem. Given the emphasis on rigor, it is no surprise that:
Scientific philosophy is often opposed to a licentious or unintelligible
alternative(s) associated with past failures, sometimes even moral. (Exhibit a.) It, thus, embraces commitments to transparency (and clarity).
offers submission to the
facts (recall) and is disciplined (recall) by way of a careful, painful, modest and most
importantly open-ended progressive method. This entails that any scientific philosopher will enter a pre-existing, moving research trajectory and can expect to die before any destination is ever reached.
Last week I received a widely distributed announcement on a conference celebrating "The 'Stanford School' of Philosophy of Science." The 'core' members of this school are taken to be: Nancy Cartwright (Durham), John Dupré (Exeter), Peter Galison (Harvard), Peter Godfrey-Smith (CUNY), Patrick Suppes (Stanford). The parenthesis are the current affiliation of the 'core' members; this immediately suggests that if there is a 'school' at all we are either dealing with a historical phenomenon or very distributed one. Scanning the list of the 'next generation' confirms that Stanford is not the current base of the purported school.
First, I adore much of the work done by many in the 'core,' but the idea that this group is a 'school' is deeply flawed. For, Suppes is far better understood (as he does himself) as belonging to the first generation (including Kyburg, Pap, Isaac Levi) intellectual off-spring of Ernest Nagel, who successfully created American analytical philosophy by combining the Scientific wing of Pragmatism with the new approaches emanating from Vienna, especially, and Cambridge (recall and here). In his autobiography, Suppes describes how assimilated from Nagel the significance of history of science.
It may well be irrational to believe that history is progress after the unprecedented moral and political calamities of the twentieth century. But it does not follow, as [John] Gray apparently assumes, that history has no meaning. There is another possibility. To my knowledge Gray never endorses it, and it extremely difficult for a post-Darwinian mind to grap, but it has been presumed true by most civilizations and philosophies of the past, and is still so regarded by many non-Westernized cultures today. The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history's development is backward not forwards. History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.--David Hawkes reviewing John Gray "The Silence of Animals" in TLS (30 August, 2013).
Let's distinguish four main conceptions of history:
Eternal Return. Within philosophy this goes back to Book 3 of Plato's Laws. It was revived by Nietzsche (and is part of the sub-structure of much continental philosophy and via Ian Hacking it is seeping into philosophy of science). It accords well with a cyclical conception of history with a rise and fall narrative or with periodic destruction of civilization(s) (think of the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Bacon's riff on it). I expect it to become increasingly attractive to people as we head for man-made environmental catastrophe.
Let's distinguish between Mythical history (Myth) and Mistaken history (Mish).
Myth uses narratives about the past to indicate conceptual linkages among (various) and within natural and social kinds.
Mish contains factual errors about the past.
It's possible that Myth = Mish; but Myth need not be Mish (nor does Mish always need to be Myth).
In reflecting on the public and private responses I have received to my criticisms on Thomas Nagel's abuse of history (here and here), I realize I need some such distinction. (In particular, I thank Mazviita Chirimuuta for making me see what's at stake here!)
Myth and Mish are both compatible with (i) messy history, that is, one that suggests the past is (always more) complex and ambiguous (etc.) and (ii) clean history, that is, one that extracts some determinate claim about the way it was (other than being messy). In practice, Myth tends to be clean (but, say, Foucault practices the genre, in part, by being very messy). Mythical history (be it Mish, clean, messy, or not) is philosophially interesting because it can structure how we think about the world and the way we conceive of the nature of the the problems at hand (or overlooked).
Let me here observe too, continued CLEANTHES, that this religious argument, instead of being weakened by that scepticism so much affected by you, rather acquires force from it, and becomes more firm and undisputed. To exclude all argument or reasoning of every kind, is either affectation or madness. The declared profession of every reasonable sceptic is only to reject abstruse, remote, and refined arguments; to adhere to common sense and the plain instincts of nature; and to assent, wherever any reasons strike him with so full a force that he cannot, without the greatest violence, prevent it. Now the arguments for Natural Religion are plainly of this kind; and nothing but the most perverse, obstinate metaphysics can reject them. Consider, anatomise the eye; survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favour of design; and it requires time, reflection, and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse objections, which can support Infidelity. Who can behold the male and female of each species, the correspondence of their parts and instincts, their passions, and whole course of life before and after generation, but must be sensible, that the propagation of the species is intended by Nature? Millions and millions of such instances present themselves through every part of the universe; and no language can convey a more intelligible irresistible meaning, than the curious adjustment of final causes. To what degree, therefore, of blind dogmatism must one have attained, to reject such natural and such convincing arguments?--Hume, Dialogues 3.
In her post yesterday, Helen de Cruz asserted that Cleanthes "makes an important empirical claim, namely that belief in a designer flows spontaneously, irresistibly and non-inferentially from our consideration of order in the natural world." Because Helen only quoted the sentence on with "anatomise the eye," she left me the straightforward rejoinder that according to Hume such anatomizing always presupposes expert judgment/taste/cultivation. In response, the up-and-coming Hume scholar, Liz Goodnick, pointed to more evidence for Helen's position. (I think it is a bit misleading to call that evidence "Later in Part III,"--it is the very same paragraph, and part of a single, non-trivial argument, but strictly speaking Goodnick is correct.) I am afraid that in larger context the claim by Helen and Liz cannot be sustained, or so I argue below the fold in some detail (apologies).
The ideal of a pure language in which a pure, pared-down, unambiguous translation of
the truths of pure mathematics can be effected deserves a more extended discussion
than I have given it here. But I will limit myself to pointing out that this ideal language is very far indeed from the languages of man as conceived by Whorf; for to Whorf the least visible structures of a language, those that seem most natural to its Speakers, are
the structures most likely to embody the metaphysical preconceptions of the language
Community. On the other hand, the case of gravitational attraction does not at all
demonstrate what Whorf asserts about Newtonian cosmology as a System, namely that
the key concepts of the cosmology emerge smoothly from or fit smoothly into, the
structures of Newton's own language(s). Instead we find in Newton a real struggle, a
struggle sometimes — e. g., in the General Scholium to Book III of the Principia —
carried out in awareness of the issues involved, to bridge the gap between the non referential
symbolism of mathematics and a language too protean to be tied down to
single, pure meanings.--J.M. Coetzee (1982) "Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language," Journal of Literary Semantics.
Among recent philosophy the Whorf hypothesis is primarily an object of curiosity as background to Kuhn's Structure (and maybe Quine's Word and Object), although two of my favorite philosophers, Lieven Decock and our very own Helen de Cruz (and a few others), work on it. (Undoubtedly part of the lack of interest is recent, philosophical abhorrence of relativism, but the thesis has not disappeared from linguistics and psychology.)* A charismatic economist, Keith Chen, rediscovers a version of it in economics by focusing on the surprising impact of linguistic structure and financial activity (saving rates)--here's a popular video. (HT Hülya Eraslan; I ignore my methodological qualms today.) In the article quoted in the epigraph above (it's his conclusion), Coetzee is interested in the version -- he attributes it directly to Whorf -- that "we see nature along lines laid down by our native languages." I call this version, the "narrow Whorf thesis" (to distinguish it from broader claims about linguistic/cultural relativism and also Whorf's explanation for the narrow Whorf thesis.)
Now, what does the narrow Whorf thesis have to do with Newton and Coetzee?
The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to
such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a
crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the
physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness,
meaning, intention or purpose. The physical sciences as they have
developed since then describe, with the aid of mathematics, the elements
of which the material universe is composed, and the laws governing
their behavior in space and time.--Thomas Nagel in the NYT.
I have blogged about a variant of this mythological (I think Heideggerian) history before. (This is not to be confused with other blogging at NewAPPS on Nagel's recent views, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) If all you know is Descartes then this myth might seem plausible. But the Cartesian 'crucial limiting step' was successfully rejected throughout the seventeenth century. Many philosophers are familiar, of course, with Leibniz's monads, but may dismiss Leibniz as not really contributing to the scientific revolution (as opposed to mathematics and mathematics). So, let's focus on Newton. When he thought through the metaphysics of body (in critical response to Descartes), he embraced the idea that an
extended body had to be the kind of thing that was capable of exciting various perceptions in the senses and imagination of minds (this is from a piece known as "De Gravitatione;" I am linking to a very nice treatment by Zvi Biener and Chris Smeenk.) While this doctrine is not stated in the Principia; there are glimpses of it in the General Scholium (added to second edition) and in his Opticks. Newton is not ideosyncratic; as I learned from my PhD Student, Marij Van Strien, through the second half of the nineteenth century leading physicists (including Maxwell) were tempted by anti-reductionist conceptions such that mind was not excluded from their inquiry.
One can’t help but share in
Chagnon’s frustration at the hasty decision of the majority of his disciplinary
peers to disown its historical connection to any branch of the complex and
variegated scientific tradition. After all, until very recently (and to some
extent to this day still in languages such as French and German), a ‘science’
was any relatively systematic body of knowledge, anything the goal or product
of which was scientia, and it is only
in the very most recent times that the notion has been reduced to the figure of
somber men seeking to run the world on the basis of claims of unassailable
expertise. Yet the cartoon version of science that Chagnon proposes in
response, in its total failure to recognize that there might be special
problems of theory-ladenness, power inequality, looping effects, prejudice --in
a word, all those factors that make the scientific study of humans a more
delicate matter than the study of other domains of nature--, can easily make
one wish to take the ‘postmodern’ turn oneself, if only to get away from this
astoundingly simplistic pretense of scientificity.--Justin Smith (writing about Napoleon
Chagnon’s book, Noble Savages: My Life
among Two Dangerous Tribes- The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon
& Schuster, 2013).
Justin is one of the leading historians of philosophy of my generation. He is also a staunch defender of the fact that "one can in fact approach the subject matter
of anthropology naturalistically, using the conceptual tools of European
traditions of thought, and still come up with theoretically sophisticated
accounts of indigenous beliefs that remain nonetheless sensitive to the actual
concerns, to the ‘voices’, of the people being studied." (He also wants to bring some anthropological methods into the history of philosophy.)
If this collection leaves it unclear just what naturalized metaphysics
comes to, its advocates are at least making a serious attempt to engage
with our pre-eminent knowledge-producing disciplines. Newton famously
compared his efforts to those of a boy on the seashore who succeeded in
picking up a smoother pebble or a prettier shell while the great ocean
of truth lay all undiscovered before him. While naturalist
metaphysicians are at sea trying to oversee the reconstruction of
Neurath's boat, many a contemporary analytic metaphysician remains on
the beach embellishing his or her own sand castle, oblivious to the
incoming tide.--Richard Healey.
I mentioned Healey's review favorably a few days ago. Even so, the polemical closing paragraph above, which gives voices to "the deep suspicion" of "many naturalistically inclined philosophers," is unfair and dangerous myth. Before I turn to argue this, some terminological clarification. Healey's review is about a book about "scientific metaphysics" and he calls the practitioners of it, "naturalist metaphysicians," which are contrasted with so-called "analytic metaphysicians." He never settles on definitions, but after some empirical analysis, he writes, "Whatever naturalized metaphysics comes to, it is clearly less enamored
with logical analysis of language but pays much closer attention to
actual science than a lot of what goes by the name of analytic
metaphysics." This is a decent first approximation (and captures nicely the contrast between those that, say, start-from-David Lewis and those that, say, develop their views from grappling with the Scientific Image, or Structure).*
[This post was inspired by an email correspondence with John Doris.--ES]
The sciences play an important role in (at least) two ways of doing philosophy these days: (a) as an ingredient or constraint in so-called 'naturalistic turns;' (b) as an object of study in Philosophy of X (POX) -- with X = any particular science -- or General Philosophy of Science (GPOS). This (a-b) is not to deny the existence of other roles of science in philosophy, including: (c) functioning as the exemplary model of doing philosophy--I tend to refer to this as "Philosophy as Normal Science" (PANS; regular readers know I want us diminish PANS) and (d) being a source of discipline of philosophy (as, say, Williamson wishes). In practice, there are lots of blended positions. I will not define "philosophy" or "science", and I recognize that those of us that work in Europe (and, perhaps, elsewhere) are often taught (and paid/evaluated) to think of ourselves as scientists.
Here I focus on some problems that (a) and (b), especially, share in practice. The source of these is that we philosophers are generally not practicing scientists. (What I am aboout to claim also applies to those that have a PhD in some science, but it may not apply fully to those that also have ongoing research projects within some science.) This means that any science we rely on (in a-d) will be inevitably: (i) dated (science can move very fast as Bertrand Russell emphasized--it is hard enough for the professionals 'to keep up'); (ii) potentially misunderstood (we are -- despite our fabulous reasoning and conceptual skills -- not the experts in the science, after all); (iii) a partial perspective (most sciences are much larger than philosophy and can have a huge division of intellectual labor). Even if one were to ignore the effects of (i-iii) in (a-d) bits of science 'travel' from properly (stabilized) scientific domains/contexts to philosophical contexts; it is, thus, very likely that (iv) science will be partially transformed in translation (one need not be a Quine-ean holist, Kuhnian incommensurabalist to see that any disciplinary appropriation is not prima facie truth or meaning/pragmatics preserving). In practice, i-iv can be blended--and, perhaps, the list ought to be longer. I call the effects of i-iv, "NAPPs." The idea is that NAPPs is internal to naturalism (and not to be confused with excesses such as scientism or positivism).
[UPDATE 8 August, 2:25 pm CDT: comments by Roberta Millstein and by "bizarre" have convinced me that the author of the review, David Haig, is better seen as *diagnosing* tough guyism in his neo-Darwinist colleagues rather than as exemplifying it. My thanks to them for pushing me to see this. I'll leave the post as is -- for the record, as it were -- but ask readers to keep this change of view in mind in reading it.]
This is a fine review of Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Jablonka (MIT, 2011), but its conclusion is somewhat marred by a classic flaw: it attributes an "emotional reaction" to its targets without acknowledging that its own position is also emotionally inflected rather than being simply "intellectual." We can call this the self-denying political affect* of tough guyism.
Inspired by Plato onwards, theories of cosmic, physical, and moral sympathy (συμπάθεια--'fellow feeling') were developed in a variety of contexts (e.g., Galenic medicine, Stoic metaphysics, magnetism, moral psychology, magic, etc.). For all its variety, in most thinkers and traditions the very possibility of sympathy presupposes that sympathy takes place among things that are in one sense or another alike (sometimes within a single being/unity/organism) to be contrasted with the antipathy (ἀντιπάθεια) of un-alikes. (Here I just flag the non-trivial moral issues this raises for ethical theories that rely on sympathy/empathy.) Let's call this condition of the possibility of sympathy, "The Likeness Principle" (or TLP). I learned the significance of the TLP in Plotinian and Stoic thought from Eyjólfur Emilsson, René Brouwer.
I start losing my grip on the distinction between being a source of
change and a mere transmitter of change when the change isn’t just local
motion....Locke does come to think that attraction may be real, not
reducible to the transmission of motion, and not the direct exercise of
divine will. That would make attraction an active power that is not
will. So I wish I’d hedged my claims a bit more, and said that the only
active power we have a clear idea of, and the only active power we are
sure there is, is will..--Antonia LoLordo
My favorite early modern blog, the Mod Squad, is hosting a week long 'author meets critics' on LoLordo's Locke’s Moral Man. The first exchange between Sam Rickless and Lolordo is terrific. Lolordo's remark above caught my Newton-obsessed attention.
During the last few days I have been rather critical of Timothy Williamson's dismissive-ness toward most of the rest of us and his inability to accept honest disagreement as a potentially intrinsic feature of philosophy (here and here). Now, amidst Williamson's (2006) kvetching about debased standards he does offer a positive proposal worth reflecting on:
But when philosophy is not disciplined by semantics, it
must be disciplined by something else: syntax, logic, common sense,
imaginary examples, the findings of other disciplines (mathematics,
physics, biology, psychology, history, ...) or the aesthetic evaluation
of theories (elegance, simplicity, ...). Indeed, philosophy subject to
only one of those disciplines is liable to become severely distorted:
several are needed simultaneously. To be ‘disciplined’ by X here is not
simply to pay lip-service to X; it is to make a systematic conscious
effort to conform to the deliverances of X, where such conformity is at
least somewhat easier to recognize than is the answer to the original
philosophical question. Of course, each form of philosophical discipline
is itself contested by some philosophers. But that is no reason to
produce work that is not properly disciplined by anything. It may be a
reason to welcome methodological diversity in philosophy: if different
groups in philosophy give different relative weights to various sources
of discipline, we can compare the long-run results of the rival ways of
Williamson's final paragraph begins: "In making these comments, it is
hard not to feel like the headmaster of a minor public school at speech
day, telling everyone to pull their socks up after a particularly bad
term". I cannot speak for the participants at the conference, but my own
reaction to being compared to a wayward British schoolboy was: So who
died and made you headmaster?--Tim Maudlin
I much prefer searching self-criticism than kicking the outsider. So, I was about to start really liking Williamson. But it turns out, Williamson is not above kicking down. For the very same passage continues: "within the analytic tradition many philosophers use arguments only to the extent that most ‘continental’ philosophers do: some kind of inferential movement is observ able, but it lacks the clear articulation into premises and conclusion and the explicitness about the form of the inference that much good philosophy achieves." (11) Okay, so the point is: most analytical philosophers think they are superior in philosophical virtue to continental philosophers, but they are as bad as the legitimately despised continental philosophers. Yes, in context Williamson says he is deploying "crude stereotypes," but he is not disowning the stereotype about continental philosophy! (Cf. "Much even of analytic philosophy moves too fast in its haste to reach the sexy bits." (15; emphasis added--ES)) The main point of Williamson's piece is to double-down on the stereotypical virtues of analytical philosophy: "precision" and "rigour" (15), and to do so in opposition to the despised 'other.' In fact, the un-argued hostility toward Kant, which I noticed yesterday, is a trope in Williamson: "if we aim to be rigorous, we cannot expect to sound like Heraclitus, or even Kant: we have to sacrifice
the stereotype of depth." (15; logically that allows Kant to rigerous, of course, but if you sound like Kant, etc...) [Doubling-down is not the whole story, but about that more tomorrow.]
'The history of philosophy as practiced by professional philosophers [hereafter HOPPP] is a service to the rest of the profession; HOPPP's scholarly output is primarily geared to facilitate (undergraduate) teaching.' This suspicion [hereafter HOPPPS2P] had lodged in my mind when a few years ago I started to reflect on (a) the extremely low citation rates for journal articles in HOPPP, which suggests that there are no genuine controversies nor classic papers that ground future research; (b) the lack of concern about the proliferation of Handbooks and Companions that are effectively slowing down research in HOPPP; (c) the extreme difficulty of getting a position in HOPPP if one is not working on a canonical figure. (There are, of course, extreme regional differences on (c); in some places there are no positions for HOPPPers; in other places so-called 'systematic' and 'practical' philosophers do not even regard HOPPP as philosophy, but let it exist out of institutional inertia, benign neglect, etc.) But I wondered if I could ground ground HOPPPS2P in hard data.
Luckily, Michael Beaney, the thoughtful editor of British Journal for the History of Philosophy (BJHP), wrote areview of the last 20 years of the BJHP, with some recommendations for the future. Now BJHP is a young journal, but it has become one of the top venues in the sub-field. (In Europe it certainly also helps that it is listed in Thompson's Web of Knowledge/Science index so that publication can count in the right metrics.) Beaney and his team compiled data on the contents of the first twenty years.
"What this shows is that almost half the journal has been devoted to the work of just seven philosophers – the ‘big seven’ of early modern philosophy – and that around two-thirds of the journal has been devoted to the work of just sixteen philosophers, with three more early modern philosophers included as well as Plato and Aristotle from the ancient period and four [Hegel, Mill, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche--ES] nineteenth-century philosophers.
1. Leibnizian substance: Something is a substance if and only if it evolves by the fundamental laws 2. Russellian laws: The cosmos is the one and only thing that evolves by the fundamental laws 3. Spinozan monism: The cosmos is the one and only substance (from 1 and 2)
As Schaffer is well aware, there is lots of irony in all of this. (At NewAPPS we have discussed Russell's reservations about Spinoza several times here, here, and also Jeff. [Recall also Russell's debts to Boole on Clarke vs Spinoza; and Stebbing on Spinoza.]) Now, my objection to this argument is inspired by my reading of Spinoza's so-called "Letter on the Infinite," but what follows is not meant to be a historical argument (or a gotcha, 'you got the history wrong' moment). Recall that I read Spinoza as claming that characterizing and grasping substance as such does not involve our ordinary scientific 'utensils' (e.g., measures, mathematics, laws of nature), but rather concepts like essence and eternity. Mathematical physics can only give a partial view of substance as such. Now one reason for this is that mathematical physics of Spinoza's day, treats some part of nature as a closed system (governed by its own 'conservation' rules/laws). Moreover, Spinoza would deny that fundamentally the universe evolves. For, applying temporal concepts to the universe is, however useful it may be, always a less than fully adequate conceptualization of the universe.
Since an article by Macfie (1971), scholars
have recognized that Smith uses the phrase “invisible hand” three times in his corpus; once in Wealth of Nations; once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Recently the great, late Warren Samuels bequeathed us a lifetime of
scholarship on the enormous variety of interpretations that Smith’s
“invisible hand” has generated. In this post I focus on the "third" use, which occurs in Smith's "History of Astronomy" -- one of the founding documents of the philosophy of science (and simultaneously the history of the philosophy of science) -- published posthumously in 1795.
Hence the origin of Polytheism, and of
that vulgar superstition which ascribes all the irregular events of nature to
the favour or displeasure of intelligent, though invisible beings, to gods, daemons,
witches, genii, fairies. For it may be observed, that in all Polytheistic
religions, among savages, as well as in the early ages of Heathen antiquity, it
is the irregular events of nature only that are ascribed to the agency and
power of their gods. Fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and
lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was
the invisible hand of Jupiter s ever apprehended to be employed in those
matters. But thunder and lightning, storms and sunshine, those
more irregular events, were ascribed to his favour, or his anger. Man,
the only designing power with which they were acquainted, never
acts but either to stop, or to alter the course, which natural events would take, if left to themselves. Those other intelligent beings, whom they imagined, but knew not, were naturally supposed to act in the same manner; not to employ themselves in supporting the ordinary course of things, which went on of its own accord, but
to stop, to thwart, and to
disturb it. And thus, in the first ages of the world, the lowest and most pusillanimous superstition supplied the place of