ILLUSIVE.

Errol Morris has for the last few years been writing the occasional brilliant series of articles in the NY Times; his latest, just completed, is about his deep disagreement (which I share) with Thomas Kuhn‘s cockamamie idea of the “incommensurability” of different “paradigms,” a theory he was never able to explain to the satisfaction of anyone who could think clearly. I recommend it highly, but the bit that made me want to post about it comes at the very end, in the last few sentences:

There are endless obstacles and impediments to finding the truth – You might never find it; it’s an illusive goal. But there’s something to remember, there’s a world out there that we can apprehend, and it’s our job to go out there and apprehend it. It’s one of the deepest lessons that I’ve taken away from my experiences here.

But his “illusive” implies exactly the worldview he’s fighting against (the Kuhnian view that you can never find the truth); the word he wanted was “elusive.” What are the odds against a verbal error so perfectly encapsulating a philosophical one?


Incidentally, in case anyone reads the series and wonders about the original Spanish of the Cervantes/Menard quote he repeatedly cites (“truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor”), it’s “la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir.” And on Borges, see this post from last year.

Comments

  1. Are you sure he intended elusive? I think his point is that the goal is not just elusive (hard to find a way to reach) but illusional. Illusive sounds to me like a jeu d’esprit.

  2. I think his point is that the goal is not just elusive (hard to find a way to reach) but illusional. Illusive sounds to me like a jeu d’esprit.
    If so, then he’s lost that game. Nobody is going to apply for a job to “go out there and apprehend” an illusional goal.

  3. Heh. Clearly you haven’t been following the academic job market lately.

  4. Thomas Kuhn’s cockamamie idea of the “incommensurability” of different “paradigms,” a theory he was never able to explain to the satisfaction of anyone who could think clearly.
    That statement is a perfect example of what Kuhn was pointing out. Your view of “the world” is incommensurable with Kuhn’s. When confronted with this situation you, just like Kuhn (as Morris claims in his article), can think of nothing else but to charge those who disagree with unclear thinking, or with just plain being wrong.
    Many writers have suggested ways to avoid this vicious circle of I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong without crash-landing on some “metalevel”, i.e. still hooked on right-and-wrong but more deviously and with fancier words (“the intellectual fate of Habermas”). Some recent writers on avoidance technique are Atlan, Morin, Luhmann, Sloterdijk. Hundreds of people have written about these matters for hundreds of years. I don’t suppose you seriously espouse the principle of “I don’t know what philosophy is, but I know what makes sense”.

  5. The avoidance techniques I refer to are not ones that propose “relativism”. Nor do I mean that people should be nicer to each other, more forgiving or (shudder) “tolerant” about dissenting views. (If only because I am constitutionally incapable of such a disposition.)
    Let me put it another way. Aren’t you just plain *tired* of all this to-ing and fro-ing about “truth” and “reality” ? Do you think it impossible that there are more useful ways of understanding and dealing with stuff ?

  6. I suggest that many of the controversies about “truth” and “reality” are due not to elusiveness or illusiveness of the concepts or what they refer to. Instead, too much allusion is being deployed. By that I mean unwitting reliance on artefacts from the “history of ideas”.
    If you want a vivid analogy of how how hard it was for people in the 17th century to imagine a meaningful life without religion and God, look no further than this comment thread. Hat apparently cannot imagine a meaningful life without truth and reality.

  7. Coming right after “You might never find it”, it seems reasonable to assume he meant “elusive”. But I don’t agree with his point, and I think “illusory” would be a more sensible position. The ambiguity invites another: “apprehend” as “perceive” (which is unavoidable) or as “understand” (achievable only to a limited extent). The pursuit of “truth” needs constant tempering with humility, lest we trick ourselves into the certainty that certainty is something we’re entitled to expect.

  8. Stan Carey: The pursuit of “truth” needs constant tempering with humility
    How do you arrive at a connection between morally approvable behavior (humility) and the pursuit of truth ? Is the pursuit of truth inherently overweening, on your view ? This takes us way back past 17th century theology, into Greek tragedy – putting one idea back into the history-of-ideas box, and taking out another.
    Some people believe that the pursuit of truth is inherently a humble undertaking – not a pursuit in fact, but a patient watching and waiting. But it’s all mumpitz. We get nowhere by grafting a pride/humility distinction onto one between truth and falsity. Morality as the last resort of epistemology ? It’s been tried, and found wanting – in the European 17th century.

  9. dearieme says:

    Kuhn is a yawn.

  10. ‘Is the pursuit of truth inherently overweening, on your view ?’
    Grumbly Stu: Of course not. But the way this pursuit manifests often is.

  11. It’s all very well dismissing Kuhn, but it’s important to understand the context in which he developed his theories: a genuine attempt (starting from his first book in the 50s, and broadened in his more famous work of the 60s) to understand how Copernicanism superseded previous universe-models, and a frustration with simple Enlightenment progressivist models (ie. Copernicus triumphed because it was true and Ptolemy was false). Nobody now is satisfied with the latter explanation, and Kuhn was pioneering (though not the only one) in his attempt to re-interpret the problem.

  12. Could it be that this is because it is not truth that is being pursued in those cases, but reputation and personal aggrandizement as a scientist ? Can truth be endangered or fostered by reputation ? Is reputation a constituent of what counts as truth ? Is truth a social construction ? If not, why do you think that moral behavior should play a role in the discovery of truth ? Towards whom is the humility directed – God ? Nature ?
    By the way, the expression “social construction” probably gets people’s backs up because they are taking “construction” in the sense of building construction, and imagine that it implies “arbitrary”. But we don’t construct buildings on arbitrary principles. In any case, what is mean is “construal”. Things are less confusing in German.
    In the context of ideas, Konstruktion is a construal. Pseuds occasionally use it to mean “architectural construction”, but this is due to adulteration by the English word “construction” in this sense. An architectural construction is a Gebäude, Bau, Aufbau etc, and “construct” is bauen.
    In an industrial context, konstruieren means “design”. Die Konstruktion einer Brücke is the design process for a bridge, not its construction.
    “Construe” is konstruieren, which never means “architecturally construct” – barring such a use by Anglophile pseuds. Konstruiert can also have the sense of “interpreted in an artificial, unconvincing way”.

  13. ‘how Copernicanism superseded previous universe-models’
    Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers offers an excellent account of this, and shows vividly how scientific progress, far from being linear, moves in stops and starts and surges and deviations and backtracks and happy accidents, and is contingent on personal, historical and cultural contexts.
    I never encountered Kuhn’s Structure… in my formal scientific studies. For all its problems, it remains a very interesting and useful book.

  14. My last comment was directed to Stan Carey’s: “But the way this pursuit manifests often is [overweening]“.
    I fully agree with Conrad’s clarification.

  15. The most challenging (in the spit-in-your-face-and-see-how-you-like-it way) book on this subject is Feyerabend’s “Against Method”, highly recommended.

  16. Definitely recommended. “Against Method” purges the system something fierce.

  17. Also–having taken a brief look at the linked piece–this, briefly:
    “But when Homer speaks of the “sun,” is he speaking about a different object than T.S. Eliot?”
    Yes, not in denotation but in connotation.

  18. We can make sense of Homer’s “sun” by saying it has the same denotation as Eliot’s “sun”, but a different connotation. Sense is always construed – there’s no other way for it to make sense.

  19. Conrad: Copernicus triumphed because it was true and Ptolemy was false). Nobody now is satisfied with [this] explanation,
    Nobody? Could you expand on that please ? Why was the Enlightenment model “frustrating.? Because it was simple – some people wanted a more complex explanation for their intellectual satisfaction ?

  20. Well, it’s an enormously complicated qusetion upon which many books are still being written (and I am not by any means up-to-date in my knowledge of the subject), so I hesitate to dilate at any great length. A good overview of competing explanations of the Copernicus problem is given by Imre Lakatos and Elie Zahar in Robert S. Westman, ed. “The Copernican Achievement”, though that’s quite old now.
    Briefly, why nobody (ie. no historian of science) would accept the old line is a) because it does no justice whatsoever to the messy historical reality of how the Copernican theory was accepted and rejected at the time–by the old model, if Copernicanism were simply ‘true’ it should have been immediately accepted by everyone who first saw it. Given that it was still being debated in 1700, 160 years after C’s death, this seems hardly likely. And b) because what it even means for a scientific theory to be ‘true’ is itself highly debatable. Different people in history have had different criteria for what they consider to be true. Nobody has unmediated access to the truth: only to what seems to them be true, and of course everything is in the “seems”, just as everything is in the “connotation”, not the “denotation” of concepts like “sun”.
    In my own work (not on Copernicus) it has been my experience that some views are incommensurable, others not–it is very difficult to generalise. But this can only be seen by studying actual historical disputes in detail, where we see some pairs of interlocutors simply failing to understand each other’s premises, let alone conclusions, and both “saving the same facts” (Duhem’s expression), while others finding common ground for rational disagreement.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    This whole issue seems eerily reminiscent of the pop-Sapir-Whorf thing, or even the “Language [X] doesn’t have a word for [N]” pattern.
    If we all spoke some Russellite perfectly logical language(s), perhaps it would be the case that we would find ourselves living in incommensurable worlds; but the messiness and ambiguity of our real natural languages (and thought processes) gives us the loopholes we need to open up channels of communication. And to talk fruitfully about things which are “nonsensical” to those who have decided a priori that only what can be expressed in some approved way is meaningful.

  22. Real natural languages may (or may not) be like thought processes. But they aren’t like theories.

  23. the expression “social construction” probably gets people’s backs up because they are taking “construction” in the sense of building construction
    It’s true that in English the two verbs “construct” and “construe” share the noun “construction”, and this can lead to misunderstandings.
    Stu, are you saying that, while the practitioners of these theories who use terms like “social construction” have construal in mind, some bystanders are getting their backs up because they don’t get this?
    A glance at WiPe gives this bystander the idea that plenty of practitioners are really thinking of social constructs as things that are built up.
    Did these theories originate in English? Is bad translation really a big problem here?
    I do recognize that my distinction between practitioners and bystanders may belng to an outmoded paradigm, in this age of the google, the wiki, and the blogosphere.

  24. David Derbes says:

    I don’t pretend to know the first thing about the philosophy of science, but I do have an amateur’s love and interest in the history of science.
    In fact the Copernican model is badly flawed; though Copernicus sought the simplicity of the heliocentric model, agreement between observational data and circular orbits cannot be reached without the ingenious but completely fanciful Ptolemaic epicycles. The much more nearly correct model had to wait more than sixty years till Kepler found elliptical orbits. But Copernicus deserves all his fame for putting the earth in motion, and forcing the early physicists (notably Descartes and Galileo) finally to come to grips with inertia.
    Even today we probably don’t have a completely correct theory of gravity. Einstein’s general relativity has passed with flying colors every test thrown at it, but there is not as yet (as far as I can follow these things) an established quantum theory of gravity.
    I think Kuhn (again, as far as I understand his stuff, which isn’t very far) is basically right that physics has periods of comparative normalcy (applying fairly well understood principles to a wider and wider variety of situations) and periods of intense development in which the ground shifts very dramatically (eg the emergence of the standard model of particle physics 1961-79 or so.)

  25. if Copernicanism were simply ‘true’ it should have been immediately accepted by everyone who first saw it.
    That’s absurd; people are often both conservative and uninterested in accuracy, and the truth/reality has very often had to wait ridiculous amounts of time to be accepted (cf. Aristotle’s mistake about the number of teeth, or in more recent times the delay in accepting vaccination, anesthesia, etc.).
    Aren’t you just plain *tired* of all this to-ing and fro-ing about “truth” and “reality” ? Do you think it impossible that there are more useful ways of understanding and dealing with stuff ?
    No. As he says at the end of his series, you’d feel very differently if you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit and found yourself in the electric chair. Somehow I suspect your fancy philosophistications about how it’s all in the eye of the beholder would go right out the window. It’s only the well-fed and secure who can afford to pretend there is no truth/reality.

  26. Are you sure he intended elusive?
    The Times has now changed it, which pretty much answers that.

  27. To say that the criteria for (and meaning of) truth in scientific theories is much debated is a far cry from saying “there’s no such thing as truth / reality”, which is a pretty childish caricature not really worthy of you.
    And for Christ’s sake, thank heavens for the much-maligned “well-fed and secure”.

  28. To say that the criteria for (and meaning of) truth in scientific theories is much debated is a far cry from saying “there’s no such thing as truth / reality”, which is a pretty childish caricature not really worthy of you.
    I disagree, but fortunately our disagreement has no effect on truth/reality.

  29. In fact the best linguistic analogy would be to the descriptivist / prescriptivist debate. Liberman likes to insist that descriptivism doesn’t entail “anything goes”, or “there’s no such thing as grammar”, but rather an acknowledgement of the messiness of the way people actually use grammar / language. The knowledge that grammar is more complex than 19c. quasi-Latin stylistic prescriptions hardly makes one unable to turn a good phrase, nor blind to the difference between, say, “we” and “us”… just as an appreciation of the complexity of scientific history (and the meaning of truth) does not prevent us from agreeing that given propositions are true, given criminals are guilty, etc.
    Nobody denies the existence of either grammar or reality–but making categorical pronouncements on either is a pretty dangerous business.

  30. Nobody denies the existence of either grammar or reality
    This is not true. Lots of people deny the existence of reality, and they are materially aided in their folly by the sophistications of Kuhn and his ilk, who so muddied the waters with their fancy formulations that they made it not only thinkable but chic to deny reality. Of course, as I say, that’s only possible for people who don’t have their faces rubbed in reality every day. I have nothing against the well-fed and secure, but they do tend to indulge themselves in absurdities, whether overpriced cars/handbags or the denial of reality.

  31. It’s only the well-fed and secure who can afford to pretend there is no truth/reality.
    What an odd conceit ! Why would well-fed and secure people want to pretend there is no reality ? Is “reality itself” threatening, or only some kinds of social reality ? Are you suggesting that people in general would pretend it doesn’t exist, if only they had the money ? As a theory of drug addiction, that would explain why poor people use crack, but not why rich folks snort coke.
    I don’t see how moral disparagement has anything to add to the discussion – except if you fervently believe that Truth and Reality are reference points for evaluating right behavior, as God used to be. I have never said “there is no truth or reality”. What I have said is that Truth and Reality are useless terms when trying to understand things like truth and reality. Too many conflicting issues are fused together in these monolithic words.
    In the hope it will reassure you about my moral fiber, I admit that life is not any easier lacking the cudgel concepts of Truth and Reality with which to lay into other people. Analysis and mockery are my only recourses. Brother, can you spare a dime ?
    you’d feel very differently if you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit and found yourself in the electric chair.
    One difficulty with this thought experiment is that you pretend to be outside reality, looking in and evaluting from a neutral vantage point. You imagine that I am “charged with a crime I didn’t commit”, but in real life nobody knows whether I did. Anyway, you are overlooking this possibility: the prosecutor says I committed treason, I say I didn’t. There is no disagreement about what I did – or is there ?

  32. Correction: “As a theory of drug addiction, that would explain why rich folks snort coke, but not why poor people use crack”.

  33. I disagree, but fortunately our disagreement has no effect on truth/reality.
    On the contrary, it is constitutive of what you think the truth to be in this case.

  34. empty: Stu, are you saying that, while the practitioners of these theories who use terms like “social construction” have construal in mind, some bystanders are getting their backs up because they don’t get this?
    Yes. But there are “radical constructivists” who really mean “construction”. If you want a tag for me, “skittery realist with a penchant for mockery” would do. Hat currently thinks I am well-fed and secure, whereas I am only overweight and insecure.
    A glance at WiPe gives this bystander the idea that plenty of practitioners are really thinking of social constructs as things that are built up.
    But not that they are built up out of nothing, by arbitrary decisions:

    The underlying assumptions on which social constructivism is typically seen to be based are reality, knowledge, and learning.
    Social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature. This is not usually taken to imply a radical anti-determinism, however. Social constructionism is usually opposed to essentialism, which instead defines specific phenomena in terms of inherent and transhistorical essences independent of conscious beings that determine the categorical structure of reality.

    The opposition to essentialism is crucial.
    Did these theories originate in English? Is bad translation really a big problem here?
    Not all of them. Bad translation is sometimes a problem, but explicating unfamiliar ideas is always one.

  35. You imagine that I am “charged with a crime I didn’t commit”, but in real life nobody knows whether I did.
    Nonsense. You know whether you did. This is the problem also with those idiotic philosophical theories that claim we have no consciousness; you may not know whether anyone else has consciousness, but you know for a fact that you do, and I’ve never understood the impulse to pretend otherwise (except of course as a tenure-gaining maneuver).
    Hat currently thinks I am well-fed and secure
    No, I think that the well-fed and secure are particularly prone to such intellectual luxuries, but others can and do embrace them for reasons of their own.

  36. You seem to be convinced that only the poor and oppressed, and those who must work so hard that they have no time to think, are capable of certain knowledge. Could this be called economic constructivism ? The right-thinking Old Left in new clothing ?
    Of course we have consciousness. But so many people have made such a hash of accounting for it over the centuries, that a little round of “we have no consciousness” can’t hurt. On your own view, fortunately that has no effect on whether we do or no.
    I still don’t understand what you hope to accomplish by morally discrediting people who hold dissenting views. Such epistemological behavior is precisely what social constructivism directs attention to.

  37. To express it more precisely: I still don’t understand what you hope to accomplish by morally discrediting people who hold dissenting views about reality. That goes much deeper than just making a category mistake – but it’s sociologically significant, since many people do it. Thus social constructivism.

  38. I still don’t understand what you hope to accomplish by morally discrediting people who hold dissenting views.
    And I don’t understand why you think I’m morally discrediting people who hold dissenting views. Where have I done that? Citations, please, and bear in mind that I have already stated that I have nothing against the well-fed and secure.

  39. If anyone has grounds for complaint, it’s me; Conrad’s “childish” may not be moral condemnation, but it’s pretty damned insulting.

  40. Sorry, Hat, but here you are some citations (and I have to add that I agree with Grumbly’s position on the subject of this thread)
    “they are materially aided in their folly by the sophistications of Kuhn and his ilk, who so muddied the waters with their fancy formulations”
    “idiotic philosophical theories”

  41. I notice nobody here’s mentioned Saul Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity”. What does everybody think of him and his ideas? Thanks.

  42. Of course, as I say, that’s only possible for people who don’t have their faces rubbed in reality every day. I have nothing against the well-fed and secure, but they do tend to indulge themselves in absurdities, whether overpriced cars/handbags or the denial of reality.
    This is discrediting and dismissive. You may object that it’s not morally discrediting – but then what kind of discrediting would you prefer to call it ? It has none of the features of discursive argument that I am familiar with.

  43. Julia: I think the ideas are idiotic; that’s a far cry from morally discrediting anyone.
    This is discrediting and dismissive.
    I don’t see it that way.

  44. Seriously, go conduct a survey among the dispossessed of the earth and see how many of them doubt the reality of reality. I continue to believe that such doubts are a luxury, and I don’t think that’s dismissive.
    Furthermore, people who decide to embrace blatantly counterintuitive views shouldn’t get bent out of shape when those views are dismissed; as an anarchist, I’m quite used to having my views dismissed and am perfectly cheerful about it. Such is life in the margins, comrade!

  45. And really, isn’t a little silly to be arguing about the nature of reality? This is why I have a hard time taking philosophy seriously.

  46. blatantly counterintuitive views
    So now we’re being asked to defer to intuition ?! I’m beginning to think you may be onto something with your technique of dismissiveness. It’s very disarming, I’ll say that for it – and not so rude as just telling the guests to shut up. If that’s all you’ve got to say about these matters, then indeed there’s not much to say in reply.

  47. LH : Thomas Kuhn–incommensurable. QED.
    Strangely, this is what I feel like when I listen to people talking about politics. Let’s move on. Have you heard there’s a really good online Tagalog database?

  48. Sólo para dejar las cosas en claro:
    Nobody is doubting the reality of reality. I know I’m here and of course this is real, I know that to love people is better than to hate them, etc, etc.
    But I do subscribe completely this words of Grumbly which I believe are essential:
    “I have never said “there is no truth or reality”. What I have said is that Truth and Reality are useless terms when trying to understand things like truth and reality. Too many conflicting issues are fused together in these monolithic words.”

  49. Oh, Grumbly, you’re so cute when you’re angry! Come come, I dismiss no one (and certainly ask no one to shut up), I just express my own views and welcome others to do the same. This is Liberty Hall!

  50. <* bridles *> I was trying to be haughty. Por lo menos he encantado a Julia con mis sutilezas. Thanx, mi corazón !

  51. rootlesscosmo says:

    I’ll agree with Kuhn so far as objecting to Whiggishness, which I take to be the basis for what E. P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” (Something of this is what puts me off “Mad Men,” though I know mine is a minority view.)

  52. Still, you should take a look sometime at “Against Method”, as Conrad recommended. It should gladden any anarchistic heart. I can’t imagine where you got the idea that philosophy is about “the nature of reality” – whatever that may be. Of course everybody should also read Luhmann, but that is probably not gonna happen.

  53. John Emerson says:

    He never believed in any sort of relativism that says there is no truth other than the point of view people take on it. He believed very much in truth, but he also knew that understanding what it is to be true is much more complicated than it might first appear.
    Kuhn’s son has weighed in on this. I find what he says to be very interesting. He’s not an uncritical admirer of his father at all.

  54. John Emerson says:
  55. I’ll agree with Kuhn so far as objecting to Whiggishness
    Oh, me too. Give the devil his due (I agree with Chomskyites, for instance, when they object to prescriptivism).
    Still, you should take a look sometime at “Against Method”, as Conrad recommended.
    OK, it’s a deal. If the two of you recommend it, it’s got to be worthwhile.

  56. This should give me a decent start, and it’s free!

  57. Sí que lo hiciste, Grumbly. ¡Gracias a vos!
    Another thing, do you know where in the Quijote appears the paragraph cited here: is in the First Quijote, chapter 9. Cervantes made that statement with … (how do you say it?) tongue-in-cheek spirit. The “author” is talking about the veracity of the arabic manuscript he has found. There is here a very ironical use of the concept of truth in fiction as well as in history. Please, don’t think that I am saying that Cervantes didn’t believe in any truth, but he always points out that human affairs are too complicated and complex to think about them in absolute terms.
    Not for nothing Borges chose this particular paragraph for his short story.

  58. Count me in as an admirer of Feyerabend, and of Against Method in particular! Even if you disagree with him, which you almost certainly will, it’s hard not to appreciate the book as a fantastic piece of writing and argument.
    Sorry about the namedropping, but I was talking to Steven Shapin (probably the foremost living historian of science, depending on who you ask) about Morris’s Kuhn piece the other day. According to him, Kuhn was, if anything, on Hat’s side of the debate–he couldn’t stand it when people took his work as evidence of any kind of relativism, strange as it may sound. Shapin sees this as a failure to appreciate the consequences of his own position, and I’m inclined to agree–but perhaps there was more to it than that.

  59. And, incidentally, Shapin’s Social History of Truth and Leviathan and the Air-Pump are also great reads if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.

  60. Kuhn was, if anything, on Hat’s side of the debate–he couldn’t stand it when people took his work as evidence of any kind of relativism, strange as it may sound.
    It doesn’t sound strange to me. It was in the ’70s that I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, so I don’t remember detail. Yet occasionally, in something I happen to be reading, when I run across a sentence or two criticizing Kuhn I get the sense that the author must have read some entirely different book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, also written by Thomas Kuhn.
    I have had similar out-of-body experiences reading Deleuze on Nietzsche, Habermas on Luhmann, Pappnase on Sloterdijk etc. I suppose this is just par for the course when one reads widely in a particular discipline, not just the Great Books of the Western World. It can sometimes be profitable to study what seem to be crass misunderstandings – either you modify your views accordingly, or acquire a firmer understanding of the matters at issue. Another option is to cast a commentary aside as wrongheaded.

  61. What I do remember is that in the book Kuhn was at pains to make clear that he was not pushing relativism. Interpretive difficulties arise from what people take “relativism” to mean, quite apart from what Kuhn wrote. At any rate, as Conrad reminds us above, Kuhn’s ideas shook people out of complacency, and that is always a productive move.

  62. I’ve been looking over my old copy of Against Method, and here are a few things to keep in mind if you’ve not had the chance to encounter it before:
    1. Feyerabend isn’t a “postmodernist,” although his ideas may be congenial to “postmodernists”; he fits in a lot more comfortably with other philosophically-oriented humanists like Lévi-Strauss and Richard Sennett than with relatively narrow academics like Derrida, Lacan, or their American heirs. He’s not antagonistic to the “Western tradition” and especially not to science.
    2. Don’t skip the footnotes.
    3. The first few chapters are calculated to get you riled up. (I don’t think he was expecting any of his readers to agree with him right off the bat.) You might be tempted to chuck the book at the wall and forget about it, but stick with it–he’s more than capable of sustained stepwise argument, and his defense of the Church against Galileo is just a masterstroke. I still can’t tell if he’s trolling half the time, but the arguments are strong either way.

  63. I should confess that I have never quite understood what various people mean by “relativism” – no more than I understand what they mean by “truth” and “reality”. To me these words are not concepts, but cans of worms. When somebody gets upset about “relativism”, I do say “No, no, that’s not relativism … [more words]“. But they just as well might have gotten upset about “sin”, with me replying “No, no, that’s not sinful … [more words]“. I discovered this technique while honing my seductive skills in younger years. It’s remarkable how reassuring terminology can help to win over the interlocutor.
    It’s also remarkable how many philosophical “concepts” you can just ignore most of the time, and still address the philosophical issues you want to address. “Freedom”, “identity”, “determinism”, “universals”, “necessity” – these are words that can be mentioned, but rarely need to be used or thought about. Even “and” and “the” are suspect, as I learned from Mary McCarthy.

  64. Max Stirner wrote a book which among other things is an attack on the word “the”: Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum.

  65. That’s an amusing description of Saint Max’s book, which has some spirit in common with Feyerabend.

  66. For those who haven’t read the book: the “the” Stirner tears into is the kind of der that appears in der Mensch ["Man"]. As if der Mensch were some kind of well-understood nature or essence.
    Men of my father’s generation talked about “the Russian”, “the German” in a similar way: “the Russian is determined to destroy our freedoms, because they threaten his dictatorial society”. Or: “the German has an innate discipline, whereas discipline in this country has been destroyed by liberal lawyers and politicians”.

  67. John Emerson says:

    I think that in American academia complex (especially continental) ideas tend to get picked up in a simplistic form and elaborated from there, with relativistic interpretations being especially favored. This has to do with the various liberation movements nowadays afoot throughout society, together with the academic’s effort to distinguish himself from the mass. Relativism is espoused as a weapon to be used against conventionality, not against all ideas whatsoever, for example not against liberationist ideas. But there has also emerged a parasitical counter-relativism of the right which uses relativistic arguments against liberal and radical principles such as equality or due process.
    I can’t be completely sure about later developments, but I know that in Foucault’s early work he deliberately chose to write about the less-developed, less-respected, and less-successful sciences such as penology and criminology. So if he was a relativist or a skeptic, initially at least it was only about scientifically questionable applied sciences, and not about science. To me he was primarily talking about the way that, after a certain point, various authoritative public organizations came to justify and explain what they were doing in scientific language rather than in Christian, philosophical, political, or traditionalist language.

  68. JE: But there has also emerged a parasitical counter-relativism of the right which uses relativistic arguments against liberal and radical principles such as equality or due process.
    Can you please explain this, or link to an example ? I hope it’s more than the traditional deployment of sophistical arguments against sophists, showing that they contradict themselves.

  69. John Emerson says:

    I was just referring to a flavor of argument you get when you talk to certain educated sorts of enraged conservatives or libertarians, not a well-developed body of thought.
    Imagine a bright, conventional 18 year old who takes a few liberal arts courses on his way to some other degree, or on the way to dropping out. One of his teachers is charismatic liberationist / relativist trying to get people to think critically in a properly liberationist direction. Some of the students adore the teacher and accept his message, but the student I’m thinking of hates the guy. What he then does is picks up the skeptical, critical-thinking part and points it back at liberationism.
    There’s a genre of this among libertarians especially. Some people in the media are of this type — Jonah Goldberg, Megan McArdle, maybe Amity Schlaes. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about who these people are, I just run into them on the internet a lot.

  70. What he then does is picks up the skeptical, critical-thinking part and points it back at liberationism.
    Hmm … “Sceptical”, “critical-thinking”, “liberationism” – I don’t know what these things mean in America. Sounds like the guy you’re talking about is what I would call a resentful, phrase-slinging pseud. Is that a fair summary ?

  71. JE, I’m not criticizing your own use of the concepts. I’m just not sure what they mean. I understand that you are trying to give an example of what you referred to, as I requested. My reaction was to consider whether that type of student is not a universal type characterized by resentfulness and phrase-slinging, no matter what the subjects are.

  72. John Emerson says:

    I’m not sure that the liberationism is any different in Europe. It’s the reduction of all politics to the liberation of individuals and of suppressed groups. “Critical thinking” is something taught in high schools and colleges which holds that questioning everything is the way to truth, but which most often questions conventionality in terms of values which are in themselves unexamined. I refer to all of these things in the particular forms which they take in American education, not in any high philosophical sense.

  73. There is a pretty commonly seen bumper sticker hereabouts, “Question Authority”. A number of years ago my wife had one those on her car, and one day she got yelled at by a perfect stranger who took exception to it.
    There is also the parody “Question Reality”.
    And (I particularly like this one) “Don’t believe everything you think”.

  74. empty: “Question Authority” … she got yelled at by a perfect stranger who took exception to it
    Well, he was questioning the unquestioning questioning of authority, which is a reasonable thing to do, wouldn’t you say ? I very much like “Don’t believe everything you think”. It seems paradoxical and impossible, but the paradox can be “resolved in the time dimension”, as Luhmann puts it. Just partition everything you think into five parts T1, T2, …, T5. On Mondays you question T1, while holding on to your belief in T2, …, T5. On Tuesdays you question T2, while holding on to your belief in T1, T3, …, T5. Similarly for the subsequent days up to and including Friday. On Saturdays, you deploy everything you think in order to consider whether it is possible to partition everything you think into six parts, and whether it makes sense to do that if possible. On Sundays, you rest.
    Apart from that, it would be rather unfair if there were no bumper stickers giving unsolicited advice to Authority. Are there any ? I mean something like “Keep ‘em guessing”, or “Let them question Authority, there’s not a damn thing they can do to change it”.
    There’s something about Feyerabend’s book I had been intending to remark on here, but kept forgetting. “Against Method” seems crass. It does not do justice to the optimally packaged original title Wider den Methodenzwang, which means “against the compulsory use of method”. This lacks pizazz, but it’s more accurate.
    However, now that I think about it, “Against X” is a traditional title pattern that, in better behaved times, did not give one to expect that the work was an out-and-out rejection of anything and everything having to do with X. This may have been true of the corresponding title pattern in other languages as well. There’s Summa contra Gentiles, for instance. I blush to relate that I can’t off the bat think of specific German titles along this line using the preposition wider, only Luther’s unambivalent attacks such as Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern. I bet Conrad could give several examples.

  75. One particular badly rendered title translates me into an impotent rage, more than any other such title. Saramago’s fabulous novel Ensayo sobre la ceguera is given in German as Die Stadt der Blinden [City of the Blind]. The English title is Blindness, which is only a little better. Why not just publish it as Essay on Blindness, for Christ’s sake ??? It’s a novel, after all.

  76. Well, he was questioning the unquestioning questioning of authority, which is a reasonable thing to do, wouldn’t you say ?
    Reasonable if that’s what he thought the bumper sticker meant. But isn’t it possible to question authority in a not unquestioning way?

  77. Somehow “Question Authority, but not in an unquestioning way” doesn’t seem suitable for a bumper sticker, because to understand it requires too much thought. Also, it encourages a kind of deferent caution that suits the purposes of Authority to a T.

  78. If I were in a position of Authority, I would arrange to have such bumper stickers manufactured on the sly by my minions, but marketed as rebellious stickers of grassroot origin. The public would spend lots of time competing with each other as to who displays the coolest anti-authoritarian sticker, time that otherwise might have been devoted to looking too closely into my activities as a person of Authority.

  79. This is merely an application of that question of sovereign importance in politics and elsewhere: Cui bonum ?

  80. I’ve really enjoyed reading this thread.
    “Question authority” is my favourite bumper sticker. Everybody benefits; I’d certainly be reassured to find the sticker on the car bumper of my doctor, for example.
    I can’t find anything wrong with “Don’t believe everything you think”. In fact, the more counter-intuitive solutions there are, the less likely we are to be as fucked as we seem.

  81. John Emerson says:

    “Question Authority” presumably started off with liberal-radical-anarchist types. But now it’s been commercialized by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et al. “The LIBERALS are telling YOU (X) — but are they telling you the TRUTH?” Nihilism is on the right now, and it’s less fun there.

  82. I didn’t know that. I don’t know anything about those guys, but questioning authority (i.e. “Is this true and is it a good idea?”) is standard procedure for me (unless it’s something really boring, like a tax form) and I’m sure it is for you too.

  83. John Emerson says:

    Apparently other people here don’t have much contact with Glenn Beck / Michelle Bachmann questioners of authority.

  84. They may just get up late.

  85. Reader’s Digest had an anecdote about a professor who comes into his classroom and sees “Question Authority” written on his blackboard. So underneath he writes, “But if Authority answers, will you listen?”
    Nobody answered my query about Kripke. I hope I wasn’t being annoying, butting into your enjoyable discussion of Kuhn. Doesn’t anybody care about Kripke?

  86. Doesn’t anybody care about Kripke ?
    I myself had hoped you would tell us something about Kripke that adds to the discussion about Truth, Reality and Kuhn. I am a very caring person, but in the internet I don’t go looking for people to care for – I expect them to come knocking at my door.

  87. In other words, please go right ahead and tell us something about Kripke.

  88. You don’t have to be a relativist to acknowledge that naive realism is not the only way to understand scientific theorizing. I can believe in the absolute truth of a scientific theory without thinking that it bears an exact correspondence with the real. Cf. Bas van Fraassen.

  89. “Correspondence” is an extremely mushy notion to describe what a theory has to do with a reality, and vice versa. Adding the adjective “exact” to the mushy notion of “correspondence” does not make things any clearer, so the negation “not an exact correspondence” is equally mushy.
    I don’t know of a reputable scientist, or philosopher of science, who has been able to make any kind of “correspondence theory” make sense. What corresponds in a theory to something in a reality ? A word to an atom ? A sentence to a molecule ? A sentence to the concept of a molecule ? What is the aorist of a ball of wool ?

  90. I don’t know of a reputable scientist, or philosopher of science, who has been able to make any kind of “correspondence theory” make sense.
    Agreed. Do you think this means no such theory is possible?

  91. Arguments about what is possible and what is impossible are important when research funds are being applied for. Since I don’t want money from anyone, it’s no skin off my nose to say that I believe no such theory is possible. One might be possible, for all I know or care. But I’m not into soothsaying either, so the distinction possible/impossible is pretty useless to me. I use intelligible, productive theories now available.

  92. One of these productive theories is Luhmann’s sociological version of “systems theory”. It is a supertheory about theories, and is perfectly compatible with certain other supertheories of which I have a little knowledge, such as mathematical logic. In contrast to the latter, however, Luhmann’s theory can handle self-referentiality, and so can and does give an explicit account of itself – which it must as a supertheory, because it itself is a theory.
    If you’re wondering what all that means, I can at the moment only come up with an analogy from model theory, which has its little techniques for skirting around self-referentiality instead of addressing it straight on. Do you know the ’80s work of Aczel/Barwise on universes with sets which are elements of themselves ? When you postulate the NFA – the “non-foundation axiom” – you get a consistent model of the indicated kind. Standard ZF + FA is tightly embedded in it.
    It all becomes possible (!) when you rearrange your thoughts a bit. Luhmann’s theory is not right, and not wrong – it’s just a way to think, but a very useful one for all kinds of purposes, I find.
    Why are you interested in the possibility/impossibility of a correspondence theory of theories ? Or is it a correspondence theory of realities (theories are part of reality) ? Do you think a correspondence theory of correspondences is possible ? What would it correspond to in reality ? What would be its cash value ? Or would you have to take it on credit ?

  93. What is the aorist of a ball of wool ?
    A sheep.

  94. Why are you interested in the possibility/impossibility of a correspondence theory of theories ?
    You’re giving my train of thought far more credit for directness than it deserves. I was just making conversation. As a working scientist, I am never sure what I am *doing*, really, when I make theories, and an amateur interest in the philosophy of science follows from that.
    What of Luhmann’s do you recommend?

  95. You can’t go wrong with Introduction to Systems Theory, the transcript of an introductory sociology course he gave. This English version will appear in August of this year, but the original Einführung in die Systemtheorie is not difficult, and has lots of funny bits (examples from everyday life). It’s the first book by Luhmann that I myself read.
    After that, you might want to look at Social Systems (Writing Science) [in German Soziale Systeme]. The customer reviews at the English link are worth reading, and the refer to other works on and by Luhmann.
    By the way, that parenthesis “(Writing Science)” in the English title is suspect, and not in the original. Luhmann is not one of those obsessive “everything is a text” people who get on my nerves massively. Maybe the parenthesis is intended to entice English department pseuds – like putting a “fatback with okra” TV dinner on the market, with “Only 0,1 % cholesterol !” displayed prominently on the packaging to attract bulemics.

  96. A sheep
    I feel finessed. I’ve got to make my sarcastic questions more water-tight in future.

  97. I was just making conversation. As a working scientist, I am never sure what I am *doing*, really, when I make theories, and an amateur interest in the philosophy of science follows from that.
    I always just make conversation, admittedly of a flamboyant kind. Even though I’m not a scientist, I too am never sure what I am doing, really – except when at work in the IT industry. My interest in general philosophy, sociology and philosophy of science follows from that.

  98. I think we’re all bozos on this bus.

  99. The Hic Mundus Line ?

  100. Rodger C says:

    I’ve been away or I’d have come in earlier. What a great discussion.
    Since this is a language site, can we recall when “reality” originated? According to the OED, it entered English in the 16th century in debates about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It acquired its present meaning ca. 1630, the age of Bacon. Now, Bacon famously said that in order to conquer Nature we must obey Nature. Once this idea spread, writers resolved this paradox by dubbing she-that-must-be-obeyed Reality. The term is thus a pseudo-philosophical bludgeon word connected with the subjugation of Nature (another vacuous, imho, term dating, in our sense, from the 12th century).
    No no no, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as truth. But there’s no such “thing” as “reality.” What I’d like to do is abolish ideological scare words like Reality and Nature altogether (they don’t exist in, for example, traditional Appalachian speech or any other non-modern language) and just go back to talking about the truth about the world.
    It’s precisely a misunderstanding of this history that leads to fashionable relativism. How many relativists at research universities have to deal, as my science colleagues do, with large numbers of students who deny that the world is X billion years old and that they’re related to their hound dog? The cleverer of them are perfectly ready to misuse talk of paradigms to say that these things can’t be shown to be true about the world. Talking plain English would clarify matters considerably, I think.

  101. Two afterthoughts: (1) to me, “Truth is correspondence with reality” is an operative definition of “reality”, not a statement about truth at all. (2) I apologize for belatedly jumping in on the end of a discussion that had reached a perfect wind-down. As I said, I just got back to a computer and couldn’t resist.

  102. On Kripke and Kuhn:
    1a) Kripke’s theory of proper names is obviously correct: we call something “Richard Feynman” because his parents called him so, and we call him so by reference to someone who called him so through a chain of references to the original naming event. It has nothing to do with picking out the the thing with the particular Richardfeynmanesque features that make it a Richard Feynman.
    1b) Kripke’s extension of this theory to “natural kinds” is just as correct, except for the fact that there are no natural kinds: they are a relic of essentialism, which is a good occasional servant but a very bad master.
    2a) Kuhn’s perfectly right about the incommensurability of classifications. It’s no use asking what the English word for ruka is, or what term modern scientists use for phlogiston.
    2b) Kuhn’s extension of his notion to whole scientific theories is as bogus as Kripke’s. It’s possible, if you are willing to pay the price, to create a Tycho-style geocentric theory, but you cannot create a Ptolemaic one that fits the observations, and that is why Ptolemaic theory is false, and indeed more false than a Newtonian one, for it is more out of whack with observation.

  103. Bacon famously said that in order to conquer Nature we must obey Nature. Once this idea spread, writers resolved this paradox by dubbing she-that-must-be-obeyed Reality.
    That’s “naturae enim non imperatur nisi parendo”. But Bacon also wrote that we must continually interrogate (inquisitio) nature. This all sounds pretty henpecked, don’t you think ? You can nag all you want, so long as you toe the line.
    - “Who was that man I saw you with last night ?”
    - “That was no man, that was my father confessor”.
    Do gender studies need to direct their attention to the Novum Organum ?

  104. Quaestio: Should scientists model their behavior on Dr. Proudie ?

  105. John, that implies a pretty naive view of “observations.” There are clearly revolutionary moments in which one theory is suffering from epicyclical degeneration and the other isn’t, but the idea that you can take the kinds of observations that are made in periods of “normal science” and just abstract them to plug into a different theory is nonsense. (Even revolutionary moments don’t necessarily need adequacy-to-observation in order to explain the ascendancy of a new theory.)

  106. Even revolutionary moments don’t necessarily need adequacy-to-observation in order to explain the ascendancy of a new theory.
    Gender studies is a good example of that.

  107. Rodger C: Thanks very much for your lucid comment; it’s precisely the “misunderstanding of this history that leads to fashionable relativism” that gets my dander up. I understand the desire to avoid loose talk about Reality, but loose talk about No Reality is even worse, because it encourages the loonies (who are already full of passionate intensity as it is).

  108. because it encourages the loonies (who are already full of passionate intensity as it is)
    And annoys the ceremonially innocent.

  109. I have just run across a quote that reminded me very much of this discussion. Tzvetan Todorov, reviewing E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, identified two contradictory senses in which the titular word is used in the book, concluding: “there is one Wilson who writes, a little cunningly, on two levels. His hard version is the sensational one, designed for the newspapers. His soft version is the prudent one, which enables him to respond to objections by retorting ‘But that is exactly what I’m saying!’”

  110. John Cowan: It’s possible, if you are willing to pay the price, to create a Tycho-style geocentric theory, but you cannot create a Ptolemaic one that fits the observations, and that is why Ptolemaic theory is false, and indeed more false than a Newtonian one, for it is more out of whack with observation.
    Slawkenbergius: John, that implies a pretty naive view of “observations.” There are clearly revolutionary moments in which one theory is suffering from epicyclical degeneration and the other isn’t, but the idea that you can take the kinds of observations that are made in periods of “normal science” and just abstract them to plug into a different theory is nonsense
    Hat: I have just run across a quote that reminded me very much of this discussion.
    There is another resemblance to be seen here, one which should give pause for thought.
    Over several hundred years there was no agreement among contemporaries as to what to make of the writings of Ptolemy, Tycho, Copernicus and others. Several hundred years later, today, there is no agreement as to what to make of what philosophers of science have written about those writings. Can anyone give an account of this resemblance ?
    Is it just a matter of each person doing his best to understand, as a laborer in the laboratory of the Lord ? Everybody used to know what was meant by epicycles, truth and falsity. Now everybody here knows what is meant by “adequacy of observation”, truth and falsity. Everybody except me, that is.

  111. The Kuhnian notion of normal science was invoked above. Surely it is possible that some or all of the contributions to the present discussion are suffering from epicyclical degeneration ? Maybe that is why nobody seems to be bothered by the form which the contributions take, including their own. How could they be bothered, sez Kuhn, when the contributors are operating in a phase of “normal philosophy-of-science discussion” ?

  112. I.e. what they see as a normal philosophy-of-science discussion. From my current point of view, the conceptual ground beneath the current contributions has collapsed. The disagreements are due not to matters of substance, but to the very form of the disagreements.
    A paradigm-shift is in progress. You saw it here – or rather, you didn’t.

  113. John Emerson says:

    I ended up believing that the whole argument was pretty theological. Popper was a science-worshipper. Kuhn tried to make PoS a little more historical and realistic, but he still cared whether something was a science or not. Lakatos I know less about, but he seemed to have made each science and each scientific research program autonomous and immune to outside criticism. This was convenient for scientists but was a little unnerving for everyone else, and even some of them. It was “Sure, relativism, but so what?”
    Foucault came along and said that it doesn’t make as much difference whether something was a science or not, because there were crappy, tendentious sciences like penology that were still sciences. Physics is a science, penology is a science, one is triumphantly successful and one of the great glories of the human mind, and the other is a bunch of crap convenient for the justification of certain categories of bureaucratic decision-making.
    Truth. Suppose someone says that it is raining outside, or that the atmosphere of Venus is mostly CO2, or whatever. The key questions about these statements are, “Is it raining outside?” and “Is the atmosphere of Venus mostly CO2.”
    You gain nothing much by making the key question “Is it true that it is raining outside” –> “How do we know that it is true that it is raining outside?” –> “What does it mean to say that it is true that is raining outside?” –> “What is truth?”

  114. Tsk, tsk. What a faint-hearted crowd, and lacking in a humorous sense of perspective too ! “Oh my God, another one of those crazies. I’m certainly not going to respond to that.” As if nobody had read Alice in Wonderland – or could recognize Alice in Wonderland unless it said “Alice in Wonderland” in big red letters on the cover.
    My last few comments were intended to make several points indirectly:
    1. To talk about “incommensurability of theories” is a projection, or hypostatization. It suffices to note that it’s the proponents of those theories who find themselves mutually incomprehensible. To put it more sharply, and indeed closer to what they themselves would say: each understands the other, but rejects what the other says, instead of accepting it.
    2. When we think a person is not making sense, we make sense of that by calling it “nonsense”. It’s considered OK to reject what another person says as crazy. But what if someone else rejects what you say as crazy ? Do you curl up and die ? No. You just keep truckin’. Does this have any implications as to whether you are right or wrong ? No. But it gives you an opportunity to see things from a different point of view: to see incommensurability from the inside looking out, as it were.
    3. Are we entitled a priori to exempt ourselves from sheer inability to “understand” a certain point of view ? No – although whether we actually exercise such caution with repect to the views of others is a moot point. It must have dawned on us that we do have points of view, just as Ptolemy, Copernicus , Galileo and Kuhn had points of view. It is even currently fashionable to believe that no point of view has privileged status over any other. But doesn’t such a view – the belief that no point of view has privileged status over any other – enjoy a kind of sneakily privileged status when I myself think it ? It seems not to want to be applied to itself !?
    4. As I said, it appears to me that much of the above discussion in terms of “adequacy of observation”, “true theory versus false” etc. is treading on air – although the participants certainly don’t see it like that. Nor do I think that I am treading on air – although I freely admit that it’s merely melodramatic to say “the conceptual ground has collapsed beneath this discussion”. Luhmann, Atlan and Morin, to mention only these three writers again, have written tens of thousands of pages of careful discussion of these and other issues.
    5. What should have become clear, though, it that you don’t see what you don’t see. This should give some plausiblity to Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm shift”. There is no guarantee that a notion such as “adequacy of observation” will continue to be regarded as a notion adequate for observing science and the history of science. But it is not to be expected that you can break with that heliocentric notion from one minute to the next.
    6. It is perfectly possible to switch viewpoints from time to time. On 6 days of the week, you can conscientiously churn concepts such as Truth, Reality and Adequacy of Obervation, along with everybody else. On Sunday, you have an opportunity to rest while looking back over the week’s discussions, including your own contributions, in the same way as you look over the funnies. It might give you some new ideas for next week’s round of discursive churning.

  115. Hey, just ’cause I used the phrase doesn’t mean I’m, like, ontologically committed to it!

  116. Heh. And here I was just getting ready to accuse you of believing in adaequatio intellectus ad rem.

  117. One of the things I like about the high-tone “discussions” in the works of male philosophers is the carefully modulated academic bitchiness towards each other that peeks through ever and again. Usually one has to rely on female actors or theatrical characters such as Joan Collins for cognitive bloodletting.

  118. Do gender studies need to direct their attention to the Novum Organum ?
    Been there, done that. Merchant, The Death of Nature; Harding, The Science Question in Feminism; etc.

  119. But doesn’t such a view – the belief that no point of view has privileged status over any other – enjoy a kind of sneakily privileged status when I myself think it ? It seems not to want to be applied to itself !?
    Isn’t this the bone that sociologists and philosophers of science are always growling over?

  120. That’s one of the problems I see here: growling over notions that have no meat on them. Even chasing wild geese might be more productive.

  121. Can anyone provide examples of “epicyclical degeneration” from some area of science other than star-gazing and physics ? What I see in, say, 20th century medicine and neuroscience is that points-of-view are changed like underwear.
    When something new is discovered, there can be opposition for a while, but nobody bothers with epicycles. Fairly soon everybody jumps on the new bandwagon. This is car-hopping, not paradigm shift.

  122. Slawk, it’s not about “degeneration”. No finite number of circular motions can be superposed to represent an elliptical motion: the idea was broken from the start on strictly rationalist grounds. Of course that couldn’t be seen until afterwards, but once you had explained and demonstrated empirically that the motion of the planets could be modeled as elliptical, your epicyclists (who were perfectly good geometers) would have abandoned their circles forthwith, at least if they were as logical as they should have been.
    On a more general note, it’s true that experiments “must be for or against some view to be of any service” (so Darwin), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t convertible, once made, to other views.
    John Emerson: Quite so. “ ’Snow is white’ is true” means neither more nor less than that snow is white. We can say what “is true” means in specific cases, but we can’t have a general theory of truth, on pain of contradiction.
    Grumbly: Often people don’t know if their difficulties are real or semantical. In two villages, says Quine, the language is the same except that their words for ‘circle’ and ‘ellipse’ are reversed with respect to the other. Two villagers meet, not knowing where the other comes from, and argue about a closed curve drawn in the dirt. One says it’s circular, the other elliptical; are they agreeing de re, or disagreeing? They cannot tell. But knowing as we do how the languages differ, we can ask questions of the first one, such as “Is it very circular?”
    Doubtless you don’t see what you don’t see, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ever see it. Once I could not see how Scheme’s macros were different from Common Lisp’s, if the latter were carefully written with gensyms; now I know, and can even explain it. It’s very unlikely that I’ll come to think otherwise — not inconceivable, because I might lose it as I grow senile.

  123. Doubtless you don’t see what you don’t see, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ever see it.
    Exactly. I refute incommensurability thus.

  124. argue about a closed curve drawn in the dirt
    Their conversation might go in circles for a while. Especially if they speak elliptically.

  125. Hat: Yes indeed, with the proviso that one cannot understand something if one’s livelihood depends on not understanding it.
    Note: For Quine above, read Smullyan; and do read Smullyan.

  126. Hat: I refute incommensurability thus.
    Some people have a habit of kicking stones to make a point. If they kicked that habit, they would have a different point of view. From that point of view, they might come up with ways to design their epistemological rock gardens so as to appeal to a wider public.
    John Cowan: Yes indeed, with the proviso that one cannot understand something if one’s livelihood depends on not understanding it.
    Ideologieverdacht ! Here this means: nobody can understand something if he doesn’t have the right motives. You’ve made several comments in this vein over the past weeks. It seems you have a firmly entrenched policy of moralizing all questions of understandability. Luhmann discusses this in considerable detail in Die Moral der Gesellschaft, which I just finished. His philosophical views are convincing precisely because he is a sociologist.
    I have considered several variations on your statement. In contrast to you, I don’t think it is automatically the case that one succeeds in understanding something because one’s livelihood depends on understanding it. Nor provided one’s livelihood depends on it, nor despite one’s livelihood depending on it.
    In sum, I don’t see any particular connection between motives and knowledge. In particular, since we know just as little about other people’s motives as we do about what they know, an account of understanding is not likely to be furthered by bringing motives into the picture. Unless, of course, understanding can be reduced to motives – which seems to be your view. But then there would be no point in talking about understanding. Everything would be a matter of Good and Evil, and the pastor would arbitrate on Sundays.

  127. Hat: no hard feelings, please. That was a little rhetorical opportunity that I couldn’t bring myself to ignore. Maybe I’m just a Bad Person – but if I really thought that was the explanation, I would have to agree with John Cowan, whereas in fact I disagree with him.
    I may be a Bad Person, but not only that. At least I’m not reduced to shoring up my arguments by appeals to Right and Wrong.

  128. John, please consider that I am arguing with a persona “John Cowan”. I don’t know you personally.

  129. Even “Grumbly Stu” is a persona. Or not ? What are his motives ? Are they always the same ? Does he actually have any, apart from a penchant for mockery ? Is he “serious” ? What difference would it make to anything ?

  130. The way I generally present my views could be called “conditioned logic”. The way many people argue is by simple negation:
    Slawk: “A”
    Cowan: “No: not A”
    I do this instead:
    Cowan: “A”
    Grumbly: “But A implies B”
    Implication is a way of “changing the subject”.

  131. In sum, I don’t see any particular connection between motives and knowledge.
    I find that very odd, but more power to you if it proves a useful way to view the world.

  132. Hat’s too cool quote himself, but what this conversation reminds me of is an exchange he had with Grumbly some time ago.

    [From memory] Grumbly: Hat, do you really think of reality as “out there”?
    Hat: Yes. And if the bishop comes along I kick the stone. And if that doesn’t work I throw it at him. He usually goes away.

    Stu: I’m beginning to think [Hat] may be onto something with [his] technique of dismissiveness.
    It held back this conversation for about a year.

  133. Ah, but Grumbly actually knows what he’s talking about, whereas I just enjoy annoying him by playing the Plain People of Ireland.

  134. Yeah, Jim, this is WWE epistemology. Hat and me actually go fishin’ together offstage.

  135. That anecdote, reported by Boswell, about Sam Johnson claiming to refute Berkeley by kicking a stone, has purely literary interest. Kicking a stone is neither a refutation nor a confirmation – it’s not an argument at all. In addition, to relate this kicking of a stone is not an argument for or against anything – it’s not an argument at all.
    Even if the kicking of a stone were an argument, this would not make relating it an argument as well. To establish an argumentative connection between kicking and relating would require further argument – because relating is not an instance of kicking a stone. Without any loss in philosophical import (because at zero already), the anecdote might just as well have gone like this: “I refute my own thesis thus” <* scratches nose *>. When Johnson scratches his nose, he does not contradict himself.
    Only communications can be communicated. “Reality” cannot be communicated. Thus the preceeding sentence says nothing about “Reality”, although it does communicate something.

  136. Quoth Grumbly:
    [N]obody can understand something if he doesn’t have the right motives. [...] In contrast to you, I don’t think it is automatically the case that one succeeds in understanding something because one’s livelihood depends on understanding it. Nor provided one’s livelihood depends on it, nor despite one’s livelihood depending on it.
    No more do I, but that’s not what I said. I said, in your terms, that people usually fail to understand something provided their livelihood depends on it (sc. that failure). I said nothing whatever about success in understanding. You can mock me for my positions all you want (though I hope you won’t; mockery hurts my feelings), but it’s rather doubtful tactics to erect straw-man positions I don’t hold and mock me for supposedly holding them. Please engage in close(r) reading.
    In any case, you may be arguing with me, but I am not arguing with you; I am simply telling you what I myself think. Indeed, my annoyance with you stems from your pretensions to be a persona, an actor’s mask that may be removed at any time and replace with another. It’s not for nothing that I post under my real name.
         —John Cowan, Plain Person of Hiberno-Deutschland

  137. What is communicates is an opinion about “”Reality”" (note the quoting of quotes).

  138. John, I had already noticed, too late, that I should have written “In contrast perhaps to you”. I slipped up at close writing, not close reading.
    It’s not for nothing that I post under my real name.
    Surely you see a substantial difference between a blogsite and a registrar’s office ? Merely claiming that you are “John Cowan, Plain Person of Hiberno-Deutschland” doesn’t make it so. We need registrars for certain purposes, but not for establishing bona-fides as a contributor to a free-for-all blogsite. I don’t even know whether there is such a person as “John Cowan, Plain Person of Hiberno-Deutschland” – so for you to claim that you are that person doesn’t advance your bona-fides.
    Indeed, my annoyance with you stems from your pretensions to be a persona, an actor’s mask that may be removed at any time and replace with another.
    It’s not that I (whatever that may be) am pretending to be a persona. It is “Grumbly Stu” that is the persona, and is the interlocutor of “John Cowan”. I really don’t see how that can be plausibly gainsaid. However, that is not a denial that two people are behind those monikers.
    Although you haven’t said so in as many words, it is pretty clear to me that you are annoyed by what you think is a lack of honesty on my part (or perhaps meta-honesty ?). But I’ve never said or suggested that honesty is never important ! Instead, I am saying that in the virtual world of free-for-all blogsites honesty is irrelevant. It’s also irrelevant to baking a cake, and many other things. You say that you are not arguing with me. Well, I’m not trying to sell you anything either, so why bring honesty into the picture ? Moralizing raises danders, but not cakes.

  139. John Cowan: Once I could not see how Scheme’s macros were different from Common Lisp’s, if the latter were carefully written with gensyms; now I know, and can even explain it. It’s very unlikely that I’ll come to think otherwise — not inconceivable, because I might lose it as I grow senile.
    I know just what you mean, on similar matters in programming. But there is something going on in that view of things that I want to take issue with. There is a widespread tendency to believe that “later is truer” (or “more realistic”, “more accurate” etc). People believe that when they change their minds, they have made progress. As the hymn Amazing Grace has it: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see”.
    Well, progress maybe, sometimes – but I hold more with the attitude: “Now you see it, now you don’t”. The older I get, the more I find myself changing my mind in all kinds of ways, sometimes even back and forth. What you call “losing it as I grow senile” could well be just changing your mind again. Nuttin’ wrong with that.
    In any case, one of the blessings of senility is that it prevents you from noticing that you’re senile. There may be an initial period of anxiety about not being able to remember things, but later you forget that.

  140. The Ancients knew that changing your mind back and forth is not a bad thing: Omne animal post coitum triste praeter gallum, qui cantat [every animal is sad after sex, except for the rooster, who crows] – Pseudo-Aristoteles, Problemata physica, XXX, 1

  141. Just call me a rooster, then!
    Anyhow, using the name “John Cowan” is not a claim, which is a term that belongs to the world of proof and argument. I am not claiming to be John Cowan (or Sir Roger Tichborne or the King of France whether bald or not), but trying to show you who John Cowan is. In that context, the name is a revelation that falls on mostly deaf ears: as Genly Ai (“I”, “aiiii!”) says, “That I was not [verbally] dueling with Argaven, but trying to communicate with him, was itself an incommunicable fact.”
    Anyhow, I do change my opinions, yes. I read Quine, and he convinces me, and then I read Kripke, and he convinces me. Eventually I muddle something out of both of them and convince myself. Frye was once asked “What is your position relatively to Burke?” and though he couldn’t remember what he actually said, he said he should have said that that was a matter for some third party, neither Burke nor Frye.
    I’m not clear from your reference to “the virtual world of free-for-all blogsites” whether you mean to distinguish between this virtual world and the actual world, or whether you think there are only virtual worlds. If the former, then I’ll just say that you apparently see this blog as a virtual world where the participants wear masks, and I see it as the actual world, or more precisely the world of action (see Arendt), where people reveal themselves in and by what they do. If the latter, I don’t know what to say that will communicate anything at all to you: if all of life is a dream, you obviously bear no responsibility for it (but as Freud said, whom else would you hold responsible?)
    And honesty might be irrelevant to baking a cake, but it’s certainly relevant to serving it.

  142. And “eye” too, dammit.

  143. Who here claimed “there are only virtual worlds” ? Not me. What I mean by “virtual” is pretty banal. A certain person, supposedly in northern Germany (or at least someone with your name), is sitting at a computer tapping the keys. Another, equally certain person, supposedly south of you, is doing the same. Somehow all this is treated as communication – but only by virtue of a considerable amount of imagination. As in a novel by Le Guin. Honesty is still irrelevant in novels, last time I checked.
    And honesty might be irrelevant to baking a cake, but it’s certainly relevant to serving it.
    What would be the relevance ? Me, I wouldn’t mind being served a piece of Mandeltorte by a dishonest waiter. It would only be when he presents the bill that I might find myself tempted to rub his moral fiber between my fingers, to judge the quality. It must be very exhausting to have honesty on one’s mind all the time. Diogenes was on his feet day and night with a lantern (open by day, hooded at night), looking for an honest man. I trust you don’t suffer from insomnia ?

  144. Dishonesty can be a very convenient character trait. I have found that dishonest young men tend to be more open-minded towards advances of a certain kind than virtuous ones are. I must admit that my views on honesty may be influenced by this fact – and so are more realistic. Who needs virtual reality, when hic mundus is so full of goodies ?

  145. In case that shocks you: I have, all this time, been trying to lead the conversation away from moralizing, but you’ve dug in your heels. Morality is polemogenic, so when you find your propriety outraged you’re just reaping what you sow.

  146. And, as always, you cannot know whether I am telling the truth, or just pulling your leg (admittedly pretty roughly). The notion of “person” (persona) is a functional equivalent to a Hat of Invisibility – it gives you a word to describe an interlocutor whom you can’t see.

  147. Once I could not see how Scheme’s macros were different from Common Lisp’s, if the latter were carefully written with gensyms; now I know, and can even explain it.

    Is it worth my while learning this? I have in general no interest in Scheme, but lots in Common Lisp, but if something is clearly better and well-thought-out, it’s always worth learning.

  148. A certain person, supposedly in northern Germany (or at least someone with your name), is sitting at a computer tapping the keys.
    This is incomprehensible, unless on the supposition that you think I’m in northern Germany. I am in fact on a small island off the eastern coast of North America, and have been there (with brief interruptions) for almost thirty years. I call myself a Hiberno-Deutscher to reflect my ancestry, not my location.
    And whyever do you privilege face-to-face communication over computer-mediated communication? Studies show that most people are no better at telling truth from lies in person. As I said several threads ago, truth need not always involve facts, and I had novelists explicitly in mind, but for whatever reason you jibbed at that concession.
    As for honesty, I was actually thinking of a cook who serves their own cake: if they’re not honest, you may well find yourself drugged for the sake of your wallet or poisoned in order to inherit your estate. I agree that thinking about honesty all the time is tiring as well as tiresome, so it’s better to deal only with people who are in fact honest, as determined by their deeds; words of action being, in fact, deeds.
    Aidan:
    Since LH is not a programming blog, I will simply say that carefully written CL macros protect identifiers that are free in the macro call from being captured by variables bound in the macro definition (since such variables are by convention gensyms), but do not (and in fact cannot) protect identifiers that are free in the definition from being captured by bindings surrounding the point of call. Scheme macros, on the other hand, are protected both ways unless you take special steps to prevent it, because all Scheme forms are preprocessed, not only those containing macro calls.
    The problem isn’t as evident in CL as it would be in Scheme because CL has multiple namespaces (specifically for functions and variables) and names in the CL namespace can’t be portably bound anyway, so binding, say, LIST by a LET surrounding the macro call doesn’t interfere with calls to LIST in the macro definition, as it would in Scheme. However, that doesn’t mean the problem can’t bite you anyway, particularly if you mess about much with FLET, LABELS, or especially MACROLET. There are, I dare say, hygienic-macro packages for CL, but they must use something other than native macros.
    If you want further explanations, talk to me elsewhere or at cowan@ccil.org.

  149. Thanks John, that’s clear enough for my purposes!

  150. Here is another example of everyday moralizing and Ideologieverdächtigung, from an IT newsletter:

    Building and using cloud computing services at scale is hard. It takes coordination and teamwork among groups of people that never usually work together. It takes courage to adopt a new approach to design and architecture, in many cases switching off old systems and processes to install new ones. Plenty of IT naysayers in your company would love to see your innovative plans fall flat.
    These naysayers are actually geek imposters. Once upon a time, these employees were excited by new technology and finding better ways of doing things.
    But now they’re comfortable with the systems they’ve built and are wary of change. They may be jaded or cynical, possibly for good reason. They are no longer open to new ideas, especially anything to do with cloud computing, which they think smells a lot like outsourcing and job elimination…

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