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Making Joseph Agassi the Subject of a Scholarly Work Leads to Nothing but Questions February 16, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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I am at the start of a highly interesting venture, writing about an important living philosopher of science, Joseph Agassi, the significance of his ideas and how the development of those ideas informs our understanding of the development of postwar history and philosophy of science. It is a very high-risk (people tell me) venture. I hope it works. This is not something that historians of science (or philosophers of science, sociologists of science) do very much of, in any aspect, as I will describe. There are of course numerous examples of living philosophers writing about living philosophers and living philosophers discussing dead ones. But, our history of science kin don’t really (and apologies to those who do) address the complex heritage of philosophy of science, except to suit very specific purposes. Philosophy of science is usually deployed in order to suit a methodological or theoretical approach. This is very different than writing about the philosophy of science as a historical development. Last, no one has really begun to ask, among this contemporary or just-past generation of philosophers of science, are there any worthy of attention? This is a serious problem, as it is a serious problem for my writing and thinking about Agassi.

I have argued, not explicitly, that Agassi (and his close friends, students and admirers), the development of his ideas and what that development illustrates about the course of post-war Anglo-American philosophy is worthy of a scholarly treatment, but why? I shall begin to address that in this essay. I have earlier discussed how Agassi’s influence is very hard to measure. He is now very well-cited, but does this mean that his influence is at its peak? How plausible is this when philosophy of science (but not the philosophy of the social sciences, to add complication to a complication) today is very different from when Agassi first developed the core of his philosophical research program.

But Agassi’s importance (not just his influence) very much goes back to what I have described as the “Nineteenth Century Problem”, but is now a very acute problem for recent or contemporary history: how do historians and philosophers define relevance and defend their subjects as relevant, especially when there is no established body of literature, no titans (no Wittgenstein’s, Carnap’s or Popper’s) of ideas, no critical anchoring events (think about a conference on “Ronald Regan and the philosophy of science”). We know so little? What happens when a scholar is outside a well-defined narrative?

Agassi is not Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn. He is not Feyerabend. He is not Lakatos. He a Popperian, but his engagement with Popper has outlined clear differences. He cannot be said to be responding to any particular school of thought. He is not a Marxist or anti-Marxist. He is against the “inductivists” (This is not a school and needs to be explained by him, as one of his students explained to me. It confuses everyone) 

The Cold War influenced him, but he has written for so long (and on so many topics) that describing him as a “post-war” or “Cold War” philosopher of science is without meaning without significant details and qualifications. The Cold War may have transformed the philosophy and history of science, so too did that generation of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle a generation earlier. But what came after? What happened in the US? What of the second and third wave of philosophers after Popper and Wittgenstein. How do you describe the development of a discipline like history and philosophy of science without anchoring it in the discussion of personalities every department chair and series editor knows (without dismissing detractors out of hand)? How do you discuss the slow development of the history and philosophy of science in the United States especially?

Are his ideas important, even if (as someone responded with disbelief to my project) no one has “heard of” the majority of Agassi’s interlocutors? Or even Agassi himself? If his ideas can be clearly stated and reduced to a half dozen, does it make them less profound? Is already established fame among the criteria for scholarly merit? Is public controversy? If the controversy is forgotten or dishonest, do we use those controversies as guideposts (see my “Philosophical Controversies Unclear” sub-post)?

These discussions are predicated on professional mentalities which see all efforts at scholarship as a zero-sum game. If I work on Agassi, I do not work on something else. The disbelief in my project is usually followed up by, “well, you should work on Popper then, rather than Agassi.” This is an example of a kind of “Matthew effect” in scholarship (not necessarily just the history of science) where one book, especially if successful, leads to multiple books on a topic, and a gravitational pull towards working on that person, topic, area. Novelty is encouraged in speech, but not in practice. If a number of scholars are working of an area, or a related area, then it is much easier to get an issue together and divide the labor for the purpose of reaping the publication spoils.

This leads to a kind of “hero-worship” dynamic where certain topics, whose importance is easy to justify, receive a great deal of attention, at the expense of lesser-known topics. When monographs and articles underscore their novelty in approaching a well-known topic from a new position, in most cases the argument takes as a given the majesty of the subject, or they depend on what other people have said- which is a kind of hero-worship, or can be. Conversely, historians of science especially have very little vocabulary for dealing with novel topics or with lesser-knowns other than the idea of hiddenness which places the historian of science in a position of moral rightness, who announces that hidden narratives have come to light thanks to their excavation.

This is both circular, as the methodology validates the evidence, and vice versa. This also makes the historian of science the opposite of an objective narrator because of the implicit justice in the stance of uncovering what has been hidden. It is righting a wrong. There is nothing wrong with partisanship but it cannot be stated as objectivity, its opposite. Partisanship must also be understood and announced. Many historians and philosophers of science are partisans in this way and they do not announce themselves as such.

Philosophers of science pose a different problem. Perhaps they are uninterested in their own history. Perhaps they are uninterested in Agassi. Many tell me stories of Agassi. But I immediately say, “OK, was he right?” This is uncomfortable for many people. Perhaps the divisions between the first generation of philosophers after the Second World War, between Popperians and those not of Popper, and even among Popper’s students makes such a history of philosophy impossible, because it is too partisan. I think some contemporary philosophers of science cannot write of the history of their profession simply because it is too painful.

To address another problem, because the relative youth of the philosophy of science, perhaps historians of ideas are mostly uninterested in more contemporary developments, perhaps they do not wish to discuss with contemporary history, especially with some participants mostly living (although this statement in context dependent). Perhaps the history of the philosophy of science in the 1970s and 1980s has too much technical language. Perhaps there is a lack of sureness or awareness of the correct methodology.

Last, books and articles are not supposed to be risky. They are supposed to be natural progressions. The research for your book or article is not supposed to fail. You at the very least are not supposed to announce that this very well may fail and that what you are working on is high risk. You are supposed to work very carefully, quietly and methodically. I do none of this. This is maybe immodest and obscene. But here I take great pleasure in the writing of Alan Macfarlane, who would consul to write on anything that interests you, for a maximum of four years. And always write on something risky. And because of that, all of his writing is excellent. And he is very successful. Fingers crossed.

Because of all of these dynamics, there are no answers for the following questions (I want to bracket the big question of “where is American intellectual history in this? That is another post) which animate my work on Agassi. This means that any work on Agassi will lay part of the groundwork for a social, institutional and posopograhical study of contemporary (c.1970 to 1990) American philosophy: “Why did Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science publish the volumes it did in the 1970s and 1980s?” or “Who wrote them and why?” or “Did these studies reflect the nature of critical philosophical questions being asked in philosophy during the 1970s and 1980s?” or “How do the plurality of questions addressed in the philosophy of science in the 1970s and 1980s and approaches compare to the philosophy of science today?” or “What was the position of the Boston University philosophy department in the 1970s and 1980s vis a vis other institutions? Does marginality or centrality work here?” or “Where was the best philosophy of science work being done?” The same exact questions could be posed for the Minnesota Studies. And if you collected information on the authors and progression of monographs, as well as the fates of the ideas presented in them, you might have a deeper understanding of the philosophy of science in its slow accreditations in America, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

Last question on this score “was philosophy of science weakened by the debates among the Popperians (esp. Feyerabend) so that it could present no unified front against postmodernism and sociological studies of science?”

All of these questions can be combined. And philosophy of science is rarely written about because it is interesting (or novel) or for its own sake but because it proves some point or validates some approach taken by a historian, philosopher or sociologist of science. The history of the philosophy of science has become historiography. This is not good. This means frequently that the errors of philosophy of science are mostly broached in order to underscore the historian’s strengths (of either their evidence or their methodology).
John Zammito has written about the historical development of post-war philosophy of science most broadly.

But the presentations of the ideas themselves are more and more molded by critique by the conclusion: “Philosophy of language ceases to illuminate any of the concrete concerns that drive actual research. Rather than elucidate and concretize decisive concerns of such inquiry…it has pronounced such terms pointless.” The linguistic turn has resulted in a “fundamental deflation of the claims of philosophy” (A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, 271-2). This is very interesting but it mirrors what Agassi said many years ago and continues to say. Agassi understands Wittgenstein as an existential threat to philosophy and post-modernism as a sickness. Zammito references Agassi with brief mentions but does not credit him with ideas (other than “bootstrapping” in a Popperian sense, which is a technical issue) or engage him.

Agassi has been written about, in the context of criticism or support, but no one has written on his ideas and how the development of his ideas reflects the development of the philosophy of science. I have described some plausible reasons for this. People have responded (in many volumes) to Agassi’s ideas, but no one to my knowledge has written about Agassi’s ideas in a “consolidation of gains” sense. This is sad and unfortunate.
My respondents typically lament that he has not written something systematic which outlines his core ideas. His students tell me, he has written on all of these topics but not comprehensively on a single topic. He is a genius and a gadfly. I know he dislikes the latter label immensely, as this suggests a lack of seriousness. So, he has not written a general treatise. This is an immense standard and maybe inaccurate.

With hundreds of publications this cannot be. And I do not think this to be the case. His ideas are very clear and number to a half dozen. Many of them are outlined in his Science in Flux and in his Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology. They include: the desirability of criticism and pluralism, the necessity of tolerance, the history of science as a history of authoritarianism (this I disagree with strongly), the freedom of science before the Royal Society, the idea that democracy is painful, but necessary, imperfect yet the best political philosophy we have; last, that it is unwise and cruel to demand that people behave rationally all the time. People are rational some of the time, we should be thankful for that. We should suggest that they behave themselves more (people should not lie, cheat, hurt or fake their experimental results). What Agassi has been trying to do is to wed a theory of rationality to a theory of politics.

This leaves me with three quandaries, suggested by a student of his: 1) is Agassi a public intellectual? This is a very difficult question. Even more interesting: what does that mean today? Can a philosopher be a public intellectual in the United States? Is Agassi a public intellectual in Israel and not in the United States? 2) Is Agassi a political philosopher or a philosopher of science? I need to ask him this. But this goes back to the question of relevance. His political ideas are portable out of a Popperian context. Does his critique of Popper travel well outside of a Popperian context? The two are connected and important for Agassi himself. Is his theory of rationality as important as his theory of democracy? 3) Is Agassi a Popperian philosopher (and important)? Is he part of the generation (along with Larry Laudan, Lakatos, and Feyerabend who are Popperians (even if they reject the label)? Or is he a philosopher in his own right, freed from Popper’s legacy? This is the most important question.


1. Steve Wykstra - December 17, 2016

I’ve been reading John Watkin’s 1959 “Confirmable and Influential Metaphysics”–he mentions Agassi favorably. Another factoid: L. Pearce Williams of course detested Agassi’s work on Faraday. Yet another: you’re aware of HOPOS, right?

2. Christopher Donohue - December 19, 2016

Thank you for the note. When I saw Joseph in Israel, he and I discussed Williams. Williams was a friend but as you say correctly detested Agassi because of his book on Faraday. I did not catch the Watkin’s reference. Thank you. I also know of HOPOS, but I, much to my shame have never tried submitting an article

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