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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.


“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?  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.

With Hillel Kook

with Hillel Kook

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.


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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Agassi at Rest

Agassi at Rest, Note Slippers

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.


“The Rational Life”: Issues in Quote Truncation March 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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The specter of rationalism haunts the historiographies of the Cold War-era social sciences, of mid-twentieth-century policy analysis, and, particularly, of the RAND Corporation. The basic idea is that there existed after World War II a belief that scientific method, new technology, logical analysis, and quantitative measurement could be used to find solutions to difficult problems of national policy. While it is generally taken that this belief was widespread within institutions of elite learning, it is regarded as having been particularly concentrated at RAND. And, as a prominent military contractor, RAND is taken to have been a crucial vector for the transmission of this rationalism from the realm of ideas into the corridors of American power.

One compelling illustration of this rationalism has been the opening address given by mathematician Warren Weaver, director of the natural sciences programs at the influential Rockefeller Foundation, at a September 1947 conference sponsored by RAND to recruit social scientists. In his address, Weaver remarked on his belief that the people at the conference were all united in their commitment to what he called “the rational life.”

Journalist Fred Kaplan was the first to quote this line in his 1983 book on American nuclear strategic thought, The Wizards of Armageddon:


Rational Action: The Blog March 7, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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A game of chess in a tourist sleeper, c. 1906. Photograph by George R. Lawrence Co. Source: Library of Congress.

A game of chess in a tourist sleeper, c. 1906. Photograph by George R. Lawrence Co. Source: Library of Congress.

We’re about a month away from the debut of my book, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960. Anyone who has written an academic book knows that this is a very exciting thing for the author, because publishing the book can be almost as long and arduous a process as researching and writing the thing. So, I’m going to be talking about the twentieth century a lot more here.

However, I’ve also created a new Rational Action blog, which will both expand on things found in my book, as well as develop the discussion well beyond the history of the specific fields I concentrate on in the book. My hope is that, by focusing on the historical problem of rationality, as manifested in both theory and practice, I can attract a cross-disciplinary audience interested in everything from optimization algorithms to philosophy of mind. The object will be to create a space where we can do free-form explorations of the affinities between such topics without conflating them into a single “contested history of rationality,” as seems to be the historiographical fashion these days.

I think it will be more useful to create a separate blog, rather than a new post series here, because I don’t want the historiographical excursions that I favor here to alienate readers interested solely in the new blog’s focus. I anticipate there will be some cross-posting, or possibly even two different versions of the same post appearing in each location. In fact, there are a number of archived posts here that I already want to adapt to the new forum.

So, please check out the new blog, and follow me on Twitter to know when I put up a new post either there or here. Also, for American customers, Amazon is offering a discount on pre-orders of my reasonably-priced-but-not-altogether-inexpensive book, and the size of the discount appears to be diminishing as we get closer to release—just saying.

The Culture of Mechanism: Margaret Jacob versus “Proto-Industrialization” February 20, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Margaret Jacob

Margaret Jacob’s emphasis on “scientific education” as an essential element of industrialization is best understood in view of her ongoing effort to stem the tide of portraits of industrialization that she characterizes as “mechanistic.” Such portraits, she claims, rely exclusively on “economic and social history” to identify certain “factors” as prerequisites of industrialization, which was a process that then developed more or less spontaneously.

Many of the factors comprising the portraits she opposes will be familiar to those who have taken a Western Civ course: regional population pressures, falling family income, labor availability, resource availability (notably coal), the commercialization of agriculture, access to remote markets, and innovations in socio-economic organization (notably the “putting-out system”). In such contexts, the important machines were mainly scientifically unsophisticated devices devised by artisan “tinkerers,” including such famous inventions as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny.

While such historiography of industrialization was venerable, it flourished within an influential theoretical framework provided by Franklin Mendels (1943–1988) in his article, “Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241–261. In The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (1988), Jacob points us to “Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many,” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 435–448, an oft-cited polemical review by D. C. Coleman (1920–1995), covering the concept’s quick proliferation [ngram].


Graham Wallas on Dispositions, the Great Society, the Failures of Experimental Psychology, and Some Novel Connections (Part 2) February 17, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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Christopher Donohue:

Here I discuss Wallas more mature thought (c. 1914) and detail his account of dispositions, the discussion of which underscores his consistent commitment to a critique of the hedonic calculus. Wallas also used his understanding of human nature to position his social psychology as well as belittle (perhaps too strong a word) experimental psychology. It has not been sufficiently pointed out, and his discussion of the work of Charles Myers uncovers this, that social psychology of Wallas’ stripe was a move away from introspection and the study of consciousness as well as the laboratory. The results of the laboratory and the testing of individual subjects could be read as contrary to a inquiry which sought to explain past history and present politics through reference to pugnacity.

Wallas, I think, understood this as a real danger. In his “Great Society” of 1914, he also comes upon a fundamental realization brought about through his understanding of evolution and the instincts: if mankind had stopped evolving biologically long ago, if he was adapted to the savanna and the very small village, was society a benefit for good or for ill? The idea of human beings as adapted or maladjusted for society is essential to discussions of social selection. Furthermore, the conception of social life being in disequilibrium with the biological adaptation of the human race is one of the mainstays of bio-social anthropology.

It is thus worth positing: can the Cambridge Mind and turn of the century psychology in Britain give us an insight into contemporary debates about universals, particulars and biological reductionism in anthropology and psychology? Perhaps.

Through an attention to social psychology have we uncovered a debate over methods in early psychology? Perhaps too this is the case.

Originally posted on The Grote Club:

Wallas understood the Great Society as the form of social organization brought about in large part by what economists then referred to as “The Great Industry”, the technological transformation of life and its social dislocations has resulted in a “general change of social scale” “without precedent in the history of the world (The Great Society, 1914, pg. 3).”  The question for him, as for many others, was whether such a change in the state of affairs, leaving behind the Malthusian England of old, was for the better or worse.   That progress would indeed be the reality was the “deeper anxiety of our times”, overshadowing even the worries of the ever-present commercial or industrial crisis (ibid, 6)  The idea of progress was easier to entertain in Herbert Spencer’s time, when England and America was under the sway of Lamarkianism.  That time had passed and the biologists have come to the conclusion…

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Graham Wallas on Instincts and the Study of Politics (Part 1) February 17, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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Christopher Donohue:

Here I introduce Graham Wallas who applied the study of instincts to the science of politics. Unlike many previous glosses of the rise of mass psychology as the eclipse of reason, careful reading and situation of Wallas’ within the developing field of the social sciences in Britain demonstrate that the application of human nature and biological instincts to the study of politics was an avowed attempt to render the inquiry more scientific. Here the discussion of instincts, an important element of the model Simon calls the ‘Cambridge Mind’, was not a species of anti-democratic thinking or illustrative of the ‘eclipse of reason’ in thought and philosophy, but a revision of the hedonic calculus of Bentham and others. I also discuss William James in all of this in order to underscore that the Cambridge Mind drew from a wide variety of sources, not merely in the UK.

Originally posted on The Grote Club:

My posts on William McDougall and Simon’s on the “Cambridge Mind” underscores the emergence of a  model which sought to explain the varieties of human behavior in the civilized nations and savage climes.  This model underscored that the difference between instinct and intelligence was one of degree rather than one of kind.  Theorists who articulated this model all understood that it provided a far more robust explanation for human behavior than the hedonic calculus developed a generation earlier by utilitarians and their followers.

As importantly, writers in the emerging social science disciplines in the United States and Britain began to wrestle with a series of interlocking questions, the most important of which were: as instinctual behavior was plainly apparent in the action of everyday animals, what did this mean for the study of human nature?;  as human beings were part of the order of nature by virtue of their…

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The Challenges and Opportunities of Policy Analysis History: Some Notions February 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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Historian of economics Beatrice Cherrier has asked what a history of policy analysis might look like. She quite reasonably notes that, as a faculty member at the Centre de Researche en Économie et Management at Rennes, she wants her “students to know why and how the theories, tools and practices they will later use on a daily basis were conceived and spread, and a good 80% of them will participate in a policy evaluation in the next 10 years.”

cover_5_2upI suspect we will be best served in answering this call if we admit the poverty of our current historical knowledge. We have a number of useful historical studies of various bits of policy analysis, and many more dislocated fragments of such a history are also to be found in the practitioner literature. However, I do not think we can even, at this stage, outline what a synthetic history would look like.

I arrive at this conclusion out of lessons learned while researching and writing my book, Rational Action, which is due out in a couple of months (and which I will not attempt to dissuade you from pre-ordering). The book uses 300 pages of text to outline the history of a cluster of influential fields—primarily operations research/management science (OR/MS), systems analysis, and decision theory—that developed in the middle of the twentieth century.

One of the key lessons learned is that many, including most historians, have been too quick to assume that they understood the basic outlines of the story as having primarily to do with these sciences’ attempts to apply “scientific” methodology to the realm of policy. Conceived in this way, the history becomes one of various attempts to define what constitutes a properly scientific approach, and of various attempts to command authority through the application of such an approach. As a consequence, the histories of very different fields become blurred together as part of a general mid-twentieth-century movement to make politics and society more scientific.


Book Review: Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers February 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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McCray, Visioneers

I have a new book review out in Technology & Culture of Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2012). Access the review here. If you can’t get by the paywall, the “excerpt” constitutes virtually the entire review.

The only section excluded is my suggestion of a number of books that complement McCray’s history. The Visioneers is a very able contribution to a growing historiography of activities and ideas that have existed at the edge of mainstream science and technology, often flitting between legitimate, even groundbreaking work, and sheer fantasy. While the book revolves around Gerard O’Neill’s prospective studies of viable space colonies, and K. Eric Drexler’s interest in the development of molecular machines, it is really about a broad, multifaceted culture of technological enthusiasm, which McCray also explores through his Leaping Robot blog. If you are not aware of the blog, please have a look.

Other entries in this historiography might include:

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006)

Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches from Another Future (2010)

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011)

Helge Kragh’s Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology (2011 - see my Centaurus review)

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011), and

Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (2012).

If you have additional suggestions, please drop them in the comments.


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