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Joseph Agassi’s Philosophy and Influence Resist Simple Answers August 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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I. My errors thus far (I have changed the title, so this portion of the post is somewhat dated.) The discussion of influence is still fresh.

At the start of this series (which by the way I am not concluding for some time, so don’t worry!) I gave a broad outline of Joseph Agassi’s major philosophical tenets.  I think my title, “Why Joseph Agassi is No Longer Read as Much,” is unfortunate now. If I would have written the post today, I would resist cleverness at the expense of correctness. I would change the title, but the posts seem to be very popular and the nature of my mistake should be clear for everyone to see. Having stated that Agassi is not as read as much, I revise my statement: This may be true. This may be false. I have no way of knowing.  

I think this is an important statement, because historians and philosophers of science are typically very cavalier in assigning importance and influence. I will be equally cavalier and underscore that we historians and philosophers of science have no clear way of doing so. Perhaps we will never have the ability to do so.  How does one really measure the influence of a philosopher and historian of science like Agassi?

Citation metrics are very poor. Moreover, the philosophy of science is in many ways approachable from the perspectives which Agassi provided twenty years ago, when he was ostensibly at his “peak,” e.g.  the social content of scientific knowledge, the contributions of social institutions to that same knowledge, the nature of metaphysics and of explanation, the interconnections between political philosophy and philosophical anthropology, induction, theory evaluation, reduction. So, one can not simply say, as I did, that philosophy of science has moved on from Agassi’s positions. I can argue that it has not. Other philosophers can argue that it has.

Theory evaluation is still a considerable point of discussion among philosophers of science, as it was in Agassi’s work. Philosophy of science has not changed in its fundamentals. Much of what has animated the philosophy of science in the 1990s, when Agassi’s influence perhaps “waned” (such as the debates over realism which came after the contentions over logical positivism which Agassi helped to greatly push forward), has itself more or less burned out. Or has it?

In correspondence, it has been pointed out to me that perhaps the reason behind the decline in Agassi’s influence has much to do with how many of these topics and problems in the philosophy of science are answered now (in a social constructivist way). The static nature of the topics themselves is of lesser importance. Again, I am not sure. I think this is a question rather than an answer.

Finally, a number of people have said that Agassi’s brand of rational reconstruction “lost” to sociological accounts. This assumes that polemics occurred and that such polemics had a clear resolution.

II.  Philosophical Controversies Unclear 

Too often both philosophers and historians of science outline the results of theoretical engagements as clear in their outcomes, and assume that opponents are clear in their positions. The polemic nature of philosophy of science in the 1970s and 1980s (and history and sociology of science for some time) made strict positions difficult to hold without qualifications, and without, perhaps, the consistent modification of positions.  Added to this was the dicey problem of delayed publication. In short, edited volumes (such as the many Agassi contributed to) from conferences for Boston Studies and allied publications sometimes appeared some years after the dispute occurred. I am thinking of the “infamous” Kronberg conference of 1975 which sought to articulate a middle ground between critical rationalists and Feyerabend and Kuhn.  The edited collection only came out in 1978. By this point Lakatos was four years dead. The reviews of the volume are not really illuminating or sympathetic. This problem is still with us.

To argue that disputes existed in the philosophy of science is to contend that disputes occurred. This assumes that participants understood each other’s arguments and represented positions faithfully. Although any response to Feyerabend is an easy example, it is worth pointing out that polemic and disputation usually involved sometimes unthinking but usually deliberate misrepresentation of arguments. If positions are misrepresented, can any side be said to have won or lost? Added to this is the further dilemma of qualification. Qualification occurs in the positions of both weak thinkers and in very strong ones (like Feyerabend.) Agassi often grants the criticism of his opponent. Feyerabend would write with the criticisms of his opponents in mind (but he would often try to dodge criticism through the application of copious erudition or obscure examples.How many philosophers do the same?)  So does the biosocial anthropologist Robin Fox. Writers whom are neither good nor bad tend to not really engage with criticism, as they do not understand its purpose.

Ernest Gellner is a perfect example of this. Gellner reviews Feyerabend’s Against Method in 1975 in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (“Beyond Truth and Falsehood”). Feyerabend responds with a sometimes unfair and deeply biting review, which is also about 70% correct (“Logic, Literacy and Professor Gellner.”) Feyerabend’s point: Gellner cannot read plain English. He makes a good case for this. Feyerabend is dishonest in the remaining 30% of the review. Gellner does not respond to Feyerabend’s criticism. He merely reprints his review. By pointing out this, I am moving against the current which finds great merit in Gellner’s work.

There then appears to be a myth in the philosophy of science (and perhaps in history of science) that disputes over methodology or terminology resolve (it is worth underscoring that it is unclear whether they occur). By this I mean sometimes discussions in philosophy of science so misrepresent the positions of disputants that it is not reasonable to consider it a controversy at all, particularly if (following Agassi) you consider criticism and disputation an effort to find merit in all of the positions entertained.

An attention to disputes is also warranted because, in the course of disputation and in the course of criticism, interesting ideas are formulated, even if the controversy is not addressed or concluded.  The more I search through Boston Studies, the more I have come to realize not only has much of our “philosophical technology” been lost due to neglect and due to the deaths of key participants.

Then, to state, without argument, that Agassi’s philosophy, his emphasis on rationalism, as being on the decline due to the surge in popularity of STS or social constructivism or other variants of the sociology of knowledge, is a mistake in two ways. One: it assumes that Agassi “lost” in some way or/and that the issues which he considers central to the history and philosophy of science are no longer central. Two: it assumes, since Agassi lost, his ideas are of no value. This carries with it the suppositions, one: that philosophies of science (or approaches to philosophies of science or to the history of science) are antagonistic (if one adopts a social constructivist position, one can not take anything from Agassi’s work); two: that approaches in the philosophy of science are competitive and progressive. Hence, Agassi’s approach to the history and philosophy of science is inferior. But this assumes a universal standard about how to appraise methodology which lies outside of the methods itself. This then makes relativism and social constructivism into the highest form of objectivity. This is interesting.

III. Agassi’s influence and relevance difficult to describe

Added to all this uncertainty is the fact that the philosophies of biology, technology and the social sciences are quite robust and engaged in the issues which animated Agassi’s work in the 1970s and 1980s. Agassi moreover is referenced a great deal presently by philosophers of the social sciences (and he reviews prominent works by well-known authors, although they seem to never answer his criticisms). He is referenced less so by philosophers of technology and by “general” philosophers of science. As I’ve noted a few times earlier, philosophical pluralism is back in vogue but without Agassi mentioned at all.  This is an oversight. But his influence in other areas of philosophy is presently clear and apparent.

Agassi would probably say that he has never had influence and that his work has consistently been rejected by reviewers: Science in Flux was subjected to some very unkind reviews (which totally missed and misrepresented the arguments presented). Example, see David Miller’s 1978 review of Science in Flux. He has reported active sabotage at the hands of other academics (A Philosopher’s Apprentice: In Karl Popper’s Workshop, rev. ed. 2008, pg. 111ff.)

As I (we) have no way of measuring influence and its change over time, I cannot say that Agassi is less influential than he has been. I am now glancing at Rationality: The Critical View ed. by Agassi and Ian Jarvie (1978). This edited collection was part of a decade or so long “rationality bubble” (my term) which produced very interesting work from the late 1970s to the late 1980s (another question: has any historian noticed this? I do not think so). Could such a book be produced today? Probably not. Why not? Good question.


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