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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.

Agassi, in his 1999 article, “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: Popper’s Popular Critics” wrote “First, toleration is obligatory, not criticism. So do not try to make people critically-minded: do not force them in any way to try to offer or accept criticism, to learn to participate effectively in the game of critical discussion. If they refuse, then they are within their right.” It would have been more apparent what he meant if he said, “Toleration is obligatory, as is criticism.”  This would actually be a good slogan.

But not so with Agassi, and his proviso that we can not expect everyone to be critical, everyone to be rational, all the time, that we must accept the world as it is, reveals the moral facets of his position.  Criticism, being the highest form of thinking, is also the highest form of ethics.  As ethics in its highest form, it is optional and inspirational. Strongly encouraged, but optional. We can not force people to accept our criticism; if that occurs, it is not criticism. Obligatory criticism is the sign of authoritarianism.

The demand that criticism must take a certain form to be valid is also authoritarian. Thus, the injunction towards “constructive criticism”, that in order to criticize something existing you must offer an alternative, is Leninist (and Kuhnian) (“Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: Popper’s Popular Critics.”)  Much like the bald suppression of criticism (for whatever reason), the demand for an alternative is many times used as a way of dismissing criticism. For Agassi, Popper’s fallibilism was essentially criticism (rightly understood). In Popper’s philosophy, the persistent search for alternatives or the elimination of some errors in the search for truth emerged as the “alternative to Plato’s theory of rationality as demonstrated truth.”

Both Popper and Agassi believed that rational progress only comes about through the reduction and correction of some errors.  It was incorrect to think that one method could lead to the reduction of all errors.  This was the stance, Agassi argued, of the rationalistic tradition before Popper, the position of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Kant, among others. Agassi thought Bacon especially a bully in his inauguration of a tradition of the suppression of criticism as a necessary condition for the progress of science.  Agassi narrates this in The Very Idea of Modern ScienceFrancis Bacon and Robert Boyle, especially in section 7.1, “The Suspension of Judgement.”

In his Science and Culture (2003), Agassi gives a clear account of pluralism (as a method of scientific inquiry, as a political philosophy, etc) and its connection to his account of rationality and his notion of criticism.  He begins by giving a definition of what pluralism is not: monism.  Monism as he notes in Science and Culture comes in many different forms: there is the “take it or leave it attitude” which is “the demand of bullies to dare not dissent,” the attitude of “classical rationalism” which is “the recommendation to adhere to science and only science.”   In this scheme “dissent is tolerable only until the discovery of the right answer.”  There is “Romantic reactionary or traditionalist Relativism” or the “view that there is no finality, that legitimacy is relative to space-time regions, each with its own criteria of choice.” Through the rejection of universal standards, the criterion for a choice rests on faith, tradition, or the consul of wise elders (Thomas Kuhn).  But ultimately, there can be no dissent, no arbitration between perspectives as arbitration by definition lies outside the parties in question. One can only be a relativist if one does not question relativism.

“Pluralist critical rationalism” on the other hand “is the view that different simultaneous answers can be legitimate (rational, reasonable, putatively true), but not all….” Pluralism underscores that there is “one final answer to each question-even though disputes are seldom totally settled and finality is seldom reached.” While pluralism does “recognize and value agreement on matters of fact and of action” as well as practical consensus, it does not mandate “unanimous belief” either in the supremacy of science (traditional rationalism) or in the lack of rules (relativism).  Monism in all its forms is a “disapproval of disagreements: it requires quick settlements.” Pluralism also contends that not all answers are rational and that the problem of not-rational answers is not how on earth individuals can believe such nonsense, especially when there is such a wonderful thing as science, but rather, the problem of bringing believers in the not rational to question their ideas and to come to rational positions.  The move from not-rationalism to rationalism is a question of pedagogy and of discussion, of disagreement and the search for the truth.

Pluralism is not relativism is that it underscores that there is a final answer or truth. Pluralism has strict standards, while relativism, but definition has none; its standard is a lack of standard.  A relativistic position, once adopted leads to a quick settlement; this is antithetical to the work of rationality properly understood.  Pluralism underscores that such a search for finality may not ever be reached; it certainly does not think this search is easy. It proposes that the search and the effort is the most important aspect.  In this way, it is ethics.

Hasok Chang, in Is Water H2O?: Evidence, Realism and Pluralism, has recently advocated a vigorous pluralism which he distinguishes from relativism by noting that instead of saying “Anything goes,” “Many things go.” Pluralism takes a stance against absolutism in the construction of scientific knowledge; it argues that the most vigorous fields are those which embrace a multitude of approaches and techniques (pg. 253ff).  I cannot discuss in any detail his work on the Chemical Revolution (nor do I wish to).  What interests me is his statement that “pluralism is a doctrine about how many places we should have at the table; it cannot be expected to answer a wholly different question, which is about the guest list” (262.) This is his response for how to “keep crazies from the table?” From Agassi’s perspective this is as bad as relativism or any other kind of monism as it declares that certain questions (the guest list) are not to be discussed.  Chang’s pluralism settles things quickly and is constructed in such a way as to silence his critics (Peter Machamer)

In Agassi’s model of pluralism, the question of “how do we keep crazies from the table?” is easily answered: we discuss with them that there are errors in their ideas and hope that they fix them, we try to educate them with the realization that they may educate us.  Perhaps they shall not abandon their ideas which we know are wrong; that’s fine; criticism is an aspiration; we can tolerate people while still saying they are wrong. We can like people while still saying they are mistaken (when did this not become the case?)

When Agassi debated Feyerabend, he thought it very important to consider the guest list.   The debate between the two will be the subject of my next post. Agassi’s Feyerabend writings are among his best and most passionate.  I also have a fondness for Feyerabend. Agassi from my perspective misrepresents Feyerabend.  Agassi does not however break his rules of criticism.  I will follow with a post on the philosophy of Agassi from the standpoint of intellectual history, as I consider his Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology among the most interesting works in postwar social science.


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