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If You Read Joseph Agassi, Man and Nature Become More Complex July 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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For other entries in the series, please see most especially this post as well as this post

I. Dichotomies pose problems for philosophy and the social sciences

In “The Rationality of Science is Partial” in Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology (1977) TRPA  Joseph Agassi points out the two of the key dichotomies in philosophy, namely between nature and convention and between the “utterly universal” and the “utterly particular.” It is possible to view any”specific society as merely arbitrary” … “because although from the outside a custom in a given society may look quite arbitrary, from within it may look quite rational” (263). Many social institutions, such as organized religions, contain both rational and supposedly irrational elements. They are a mix of the universal and the particular. Because they appear to be a mix of dichotomies, social scientists and philosophers are at a loss to explain them. They then explain one and explain away the other. Explanations typically end in an arbitrary manner.

Thus, many have concluded that religion is rational, but not rational enough (Ludwig Feuerbach). Because social institutions are rational, but not rational enough, various solutions have been applied. Relativism more or less declares the debate useless: everything is particular (266-7). For relativists, one can only describe and not engage in causal reasoning. For functionalism, customs, like religious institutions are “natural” and perfectly reasonable, “though only from within.”

Functionalism presents every institution as 100% conducive to good order. Opposite to relativism, everything may be explained. Functionalism also promotes a kind of quietism. If customs and institutions are rational and perfectly reasonable, “natural,” even Hegelian, then how they are to be improved remains a mystery. Their naturalness speaks against their reform. “How can natural things have errors in them?” one would ask. Of course, any modern biologist would tell you that nature is full of errors. Some of them quite interesting.

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The Benefits of Technology: Productivity as a Measure July 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Cui bono?

Cui bono?

This post is more a meditation than a proper review of economists’ and historians’ interest in how to evaluate the benefits of technology. It is prompted mainly by recent articles by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times) and Matthew Yglesias (at vox.com) about a current state of stagnating or falling productivity in spite of new technologies being produced. The measurement of the benefits of technology in terms of productivity may seem somewhat odd, narrow, or sinister to some, so I thought it would be useful to look at some of the history of thought surrounding these issues to show why progressive economists and policy wonks regard it as a useful measure.

The benefits of medical technologies—ethical and cost-benefit quandaries in certain cases aside—are relatively easy to measure in terms of their ability to improve health and the efficacy of treatments. However, the benefits of other technologies, marvellous or disruptive as they may be, are harder to evaluate. Because technologies tend to replace other technologies and to alter prior modes of working and living, technological change tends to create both winners and losers, leaving it difficult to determine whether, on balance, the process is beneficial at all.

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On the Absence of Phrenology in Our Daily Lives: An Application of Joseph Agassi’s Philosophy July 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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In my various conversations about my Joseph Agassi series, as well as most importantly here (email and otherwise), I have been challenged on the idea of “intrinsic value”: do ideas have value, can any idea be useful for politics and conversation; or are ideas simply to be explained rather than used? Does our ever-increasing knowledge of the complexity of past ideas and intellectual movements allow us to say that our understanding of ourselves and our world has improved from, say, the 19th century?

Of course, the answer is yes. Science has progressed; the question is whether there are rules (or even hints to the forces or interests) responsible for the progress of science. Philosophers and historians of ideas also know this. No one today would defend phrenology as a science. Neurology is now the science of the brain. Is neurology superior to phrenology? Yes, but I would very much like to hear an argument to the contrary.

Phrenology-journal

What separates the philosophers from the historians and sociologists of science is the degree to which philosophers (at least the diminishing numbers who are flexible rationalists like Mary Hesse) cautiously affirm that one of the tasks of the philosopher is to decide what intellectual inventions are worth keeping (tolerance, for example, or the non-random nature of scientific inference, to take another) and perhaps say something about how good ideas come about, as opposed to bad ones, which hopefully do not last.

However, just because phrenology is now not a science does not mean that one can not learn about it and hazard some arguments about the connection between science and social context and how we differentiate between “good” and “bad” ideas. Can we say really that phrenology was a “bad” idea? Yes. But how to explain it?  That is much harder. (more…)

Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.

Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.

Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.

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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

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Henry C. Carey on Law and Civilization (Part 2) April 5, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology, Philosophy of Law.
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In my previous post on the 19th century political economist Henry C. Carey I underscored some of his methodological suppositions (his Newtonianism, his Baconianism and his dependence upon William Whewell). I made two further points: first, that Carey’s system-building and his emphasis on man and nature being under the rule of law was typically of social theory penned during the nineteenth century. One finds the same flavor of contention in the work of John William Draper and Henry Buckle, where both authors attempted to bring diverse sorts of information ranging from facts concerning the course of civilization to the laws and regularities of human psychology under one kind of generality, where facts and the laws which they illustrated were exemplars of a well-ordered universe.  This is more or less the purpose too of later sociological reasoning.4a29884r

Depending upon the writer involved, this mammoth reductionism and systems-building, with its consequent determinism, was to differing degrees rhetorical, heuristic, deadly serious, and inconsistent. As importantly, these efforts at system-building and reduction often obscures digressions and departures which form intriguing sub-arguments and sub-systems.

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Joseph Agassi on Rationality and Psychiatry April 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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After a highly stimulating (successful?, entertaining?) talk for the members of Zilsel and le séminaire de sociologie des sciences (SoS) at Laboratoire Printemps, CNRS-UVSQ, which included an all-departmental search for my memory stick, I wanted to expand on a few points and point out some new directions. Arnaud made the observation that much of Agassi’s language is permeated with the language of psychiatry. Although the quote concerning sadism and masochism concerns Lakatos and Feyerabend and is not an invocation of Agassi (unfortunately), Agassi spent much of the 1970s and early 1980s examining psychology, medical diagnosis, and the brain sciences.

Why the interest in psychiatry? Very simply, Agassi’s engagement with psychiatric matters was key to his understanding of human beings as not-quite-rational; psychiatry pointed to the pitfalls of assuming too much rationality; men were conditioned by their environments; they had beliefs and they made mistakes. Agassi wrote a great deal on psychiatry at the exact moment when he was formulating the bulk of his philosophical anthropology. Thus, any discussion his writings on psychology is an account of his philosophical anthropology.

This is not an obvious choice for a prominent student of Popper and a post-Second World War philosopher of science. Psychiatry in all of its variants was labeled frequently by philosophers of science as a pseudo-science. Of course there have always been problems with any of these diagnoses. In the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatry in its Freudian and non-Freudian variants was under attack by both behaviorism and anti-psychiatry. The former underscored that man was simply a product of environmental conditioning- he was no active agent; the latter, that mental illness was merely a way for society to impose conformity.  The schizophrenic was simply a non-conformist whose behavior was “deviant” only due to a society interested solely in the imposition of its norms.  For those who know Agassi, both behaviorism and anti-psychiatry are absurd forms of “monism,” which in its most extreme forms (perhaps not, perhaps all monisms are like this) is a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude.

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“I am a sadist; you are a masochist; so let us have some fun together”: Agassi on Feyerabend, Feyerabend on Agassi March 19, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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My previous posts on Joseph “Joske” Agassi are here and here.

I was very disappointed when the parties responsible for this utterance were not, as I recalled, Joseph Agassi and Paul Feyerabend.  This utterance is found in the correspondence between Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos, where Feyerabend is grousing about Kuhn and a few other things, but it is mostly about scientists being honest about who they are and what they actually do, instead of pretending. Lakatos, before his early, tragic death in 1974, was one of the most important historians of physics and mathematics to emerge after the Second World War and a top-rate philosopher of science.

Agassi believed Lakatos a bully who actively tried to sabotage him (also here) and an unparalleled operator, whom in Agassi’s felicitous phrasing “was burning day-and-night with the ambition to control.” (A Philosopher’s Apprentice: In Karl Popper’s Workshop, pg. 281) I do not think that Agassi does justice to Lakatos (although his critiques are provocative).  Agassi is better on Lakatos’ pedagogy than his history of mathematics (I am not a historian of mathematics, but I am very interested in pedagogy). I have no idea if Agassi’s following statement on Lakatos’ teaching is valid: “Lakatos’ classical ‘Proofs and Refutations’ reports the ongoings in a classroom in Utopia.” But it is interesting; it is provocative; and it is Agassi’s mind wandering in a funny way.  Agassi’s humor and his mind wandering are important things to keep in mind.

Paul K. Feyerabend

Paul K. Feyerabend

Feyerabend is known for his relativism and his methodological anarchism.  His historical studies are exquisite and sometimes obscure. I most enjoy him on Galileo Although Feyerabend abuses the existence of “scientific method”, he is most likely inveighing against “the scientific method” as synonymous with knowledge and a “rationalism first” perspective He is not the worst enemy of science, as my one-time teacher Peter Achinstein put it to me.  Agassi knew this; Feyerabend agreed with Agassi that Feyerabend was a brilliant philosopher.

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“Toleration is obligatory, not criticism”: Joseph Agassi on Criticism and Pluralism March 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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In the previous post on Agassi, I began to answer two questions: what are Agassi’s core positions as a philosopher of science? My answer: the necessity of criticism, or at least an openness to criticism; the history of science as the history of its promotion of criticism or of its suppression; rationality as criticism; pluralism as the embodiment of this respect for criticism. Second, why is Agassi no longer read as much?  Part of this answer is his “bad manners”.  Part of this answer is Agassi’s unique writing style, which editors almost immediately had to apologize for. I add now that part of the answer too has to do with his geographic position within the profession.  He is very much an Israeli philosopher of science.  This provides a certain kind of community, but also a certain kind of marginal status.

Israeli academia is intertwined with Israeli politics (as I am quickly learning), which produces literary particularities which obscure persistent generalities (Agassi’s liberal nationalism is inseparable from his defense of rationality, one is also not prior or foundational to the the other, they are interconnected.) Part of the answer also is the degree to which Agassi does not care about Bruno Latour (nor should he.) He does not bother with STS (should he?). Neither are existential threats to Agassi. Wittgenstein and Feyerabend are.  So was anti-psychiatry, although I wonder why he does not still care about neo-Darwinism, which is now more alive than ever.

Agassi’s philosophy  is also rooted in reactions to post-war ideas. This makes extracting his present usefulness difficult. However, he gives one of the best defenses of rationalism against relativism (here, I show my cards a bit.) His stance is appreciated against the recent revival of pluralism.  Pluralism can not be the suspension of criticism or of the suspension of judgment. The recent revival of pluralism appears to be the suspension of judgment in order to remain polite.  It is a doge.  I say more on this below. I also untangle and amply these strands within Agassi’s thought for the remainder of this post.

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Why Joseph Agassi Is No Longer Read as Much, An Introduction March 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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Joseph Agassi, the one-time anointed successor of the philosopher of science Karl Popper, still writes a book a year and an article perhaps once every few months.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Agassi was considered to  be one of the premier historians and philosophers of science. His works such as 

  • Faraday as a Natural Philosopher, 1971
  • Science in Flux (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 28), 1975
  • Paranoia: A Study in Diagnosis (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 50), 1976
  • Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology, 1977
  • Science and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Science, (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 65), 1981
  • Technology: Philosophical and Social Aspects,1985
  • and his essay collection, published in 1988, The Gentle Art of Philosophical Polemics 

encapsulate the core of his philosophical and social perspective.

All of these works were debated and reviewed extensively, oftentimes by infuriated and bewildered commentators. Now, many of his most recent books, such as Popper and his Popular Critics: Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, published last year, are barely reviewed at all. Agassi has become a bit of a niche writer.  This is remarkable given the attention he received twenty-five years ago and unfortunate given the power and cogency of many of his ideas.

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