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Towards Joseph Agassi’s Key Ideas March 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
Tags: , , ,

This post contains some errors and mistakes, read about them here. where I revise them.

Joseph Agassi 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.

I have asked the forgiveness of my friends at Zilsel to post portions of material for my upcoming talk on March 20th at their “SOS seminar” (le séminaire de sociologie des sciences), where I will present on Joseph Agassi’s intellectual career and attempt to explain why he is now not read so much. This is the result of a number of factors.  Most importantly, it is Agassi himself, his interests, his unusual background and writing style. As important however is the degree to which after the 1980s, if not before, both history and philosophy of science (inquiries which he made decisive early contributions in) moved away from those issues which Agassi still believes to be of the utmost importance. Added to this is the degree to which, even at his peak, Agassi was seen as a brilliant but obnoxious and obsessive gadfly. His sanity has been questioned by his critics (more than a few times) and there are many examples of slanderous reviews of his works.

A well-known example is L. Pearce Williams 1975 review of Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. The review is entitled “Should Philosophers Be Allowed to Write History?” Williams responds: NO. Agassi’s response, oddly appearing three years later, was titled “Williams Dodges Agassi’s Criticism.” This is vintage Agassi. Agassi asks who is Williams to decide who can write history? Can there be any such arbiter? If there is a such arbiter, it is certainly not an individual like Williams. What gives a historian the position to decide who can write what, and what would be the process of such a validation? Agassi paints Williams’ review as an effort to stifle criticism and dissent, as authoritarian.

Agassi’s exchange with Williams reveals much of his core philosophy—rationality as disagreement and dissent, criticism as essential to the progress of science, a commitment to pluralism (many ways to knowledge and the truth) and the autonomy of the individual. Agassi detested the imposition of a uniform, unforgiving standard to thought—he felt it should not be, pace the Vienna Circle, science or nonsense.

Agassi thought (like Karl Popper) that not every statement could be refuted, nor should all statements be.  Even irrefutable statements, political and religious beliefs or metaphysics, could lead to positive contributions. All thought need not measure to the standards of science, science is only the summit of critical thinking. It is foolish to think that everyone subjects his thinking to these stringent standards at every moment or that every statement passes this kind of muster. (This is cribbed from his long article on Karl Popper posted on his website. He notes that this piece was inappropriately rejected by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; they are poorer for it, I think.)  In this way he hoped to rescue metaphysics from Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle. He thought both to be trafficking in an anti-philosophy.

Agassi viewed Wittgenstein especially as an “existential threat.” The reasons for this were outlined in a 1981 article “Was Wittgenstein Really Necessary?” Agassi’s thesis was simple: if Wittgenstein was correct and metaphysics was useless, there could be no philosophy. Wittgenstein’s hostility to metaphysics irked Agassi in its cynicism and lack of understanding of the positive contributions of metaphysics (Spinoza especially) to ethics, morality and our understanding of justice. Wittgenstein’s “take it or leave it stance” regarding his account of metaphysics struck Agassi as that of a bully.

Agassi’s philosophy of science as well as his ethics, best articulated in his magnum opus Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology extols the virtues of a pluralistic account of rationality. This does not mean that there are no answers and no methods.  Agassi imputes these views to Paul Feyerabend and his anarchistic relativism. Agassi ties his theory of pluralism (it is always good to disagree about the truth and ways of finding the truth out) to a theory of criticism (disagreement is always a good thing) which reflects his account of change of science in history (science progresses through disagreement).  His pluralistic view of rationality as disagreement is behind his deep displeasure with Thomas Kuhn (there are personal reasons for this as well.) His suspicion of any method as “the method” or of any truth as “the truth” (or no truth, Feyerabend) lay behind too his critique of Neo-Darwinism, behaviorism, and the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here then is an additional partial explanation of Agassi’s present marginality: we are no longer transfixed by Feyerabend and Wittgenstein, Thomas Szasz and anti-psychiatry and the Neo-Darwinists; we no longer consider B.F. Skinner a threat to our very souls and our-self understanding. We no longer rise in anger over Thomas Kuhn. Agassi’s philosophy was forged against these opponents, whose threat is no longer with us. In this way, Agassi’s story is as much a story of the very complex currents of 20th century ideas as it is philosophy of science.  In subsequent posts, I shall begin to unravel this story. I begin with Agassi’s pluralism.


1. Gabriel Finkelstein - March 15, 2015

I will try to keep my mind open, if only because I don’t want to feel like the two weeks I spend on Agassi last year were a total waste of time.

Christopher Donohue - March 15, 2015

An open mind is all Agassi asks of you. Reading him is NOT easy. And there is no one text (article, book, etc.) which serves as a convenient introduction to his thought. It’s taken me the better part of five years to come to a synthetic view of him. Following the threads of his arguments is a bit like trying to eat soup with a slotted spoon.

Gabriel Finkelstein - March 15, 2015

I look forward to your posts.

2. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #39 | Whewell's Ghost - March 16, 2015

[…] Ether Wave Propaganda: Why Joseph Agassi Is No Longer Read as Much, An Introduction […]

3. araybold - March 30, 2015

You are probably writing for someone more informed of the specifics than me, but your paragraph on Agassi against Wittgenstein gives me the impression that Agassi’s argument is simply that he doesn’t like the conclusions that follow from Wittgenstein’s position. Of course, if that demonstrates Wittgenstein is being contradictory, then it works.

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