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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.

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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?

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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.

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 4: History as Text, Philosophy as Lexicon April 1, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Perhaps the greatest barrier to more effective relations between the history and philosophy of science is the notion that the two disciplines should have a lot to say to each other.

In my last post, I posited that historians might regard the philosophy of science not as a theory of science and its development, but as a lexicon that we could use selectively to describe both historical actors’ explicit reasoning and arguments, as well as the implicit reasoning informing patterns by which scientific figures have accepted, entertained, and rejected various sorts of claims.  The more developed historians’ lexicon is, the more reliably will we be able to capture important intricacies of history.

Of course, this suggestion is hardly original. In 1962, when Norwood Russell Hanson (1924-1967) famously declared that “history of science without philosophy of science is blind,” and that “philosophy of science without history of science is empty” (580), he was not making a vague feel-good suggestion that the disciplines should get together, have a drink, talk more, and really get on the same page.  To the contrary, he, like many philosophers, saw crucial differences between the fields, accepting:”The logical relevance of history of science to philosophy of science is nil” (585).

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 3: Empirical History, Transcendental Standards, and the Unity of Science March 28, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverIn my previous post in this series, I noted that the program of “historical epistemology” rejects conceptions of science informed by traditional philosophy of science in favor of seeking portraits that are both historicized, and that follow the historical record more directly.  In general, I agree that historicity and fidelity to the historical record are both principles that must inform historians’ work.  At the same time, I am not convinced that it is either necessary or wise to abandon traditional philosophy of science to realize those principles.  To investigate this issue, I would like to turn to what I believe may be its high-water mark: the Kent Staley-Peter Galison dispute,1 which has been summarized by Allan Franklin in his 2002 book Selectivity and Discord.  To conclude the post, I will develop my own opinion on the issue, elaborating on points I made in my recent article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Strategies in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950”.

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 2 August 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my previous post on Harry Collins’ ideas about “methodological relativism”, I discussed how in the early 1980s Collins began explicitly using relativism as a “natural attitude” that could be used to produce “sociological explanations” of scientists’ behavior.  Methodological relativism was premised on a clear delineation of tasks, which makes it appropriate for the sociologist, but not for scientists.

However, this delineation of tasks remained incomplete: in particular, the relationship between sociology, philosophy, and history of science remained confusingly unresolved.  Further, it was unclear what sociological fruits would actually be obtained via methodological relativism.  Finally, it left unclear what the relationship was supposed to be between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the more general sociology of knowledge, upon which STS appears to be based.

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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Intellectual Characteristics March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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First off, apologies if some of the themes and arguments of this post have become repetitive.  I find that in trying to arrive at a synthesis, it is useful to go over and over the points, making sure to try and modify a bit each time through.  Ordinarily this process takes place in private, usually in notebooks, but part of the idea of this blog is to open the process to public scrutiny for whatever benefits it might produce.  Readers can tune in or out as they see fit.

What were those natural philosophers thinking?

The natural philosophy problem appears to have remained a topic of serious historiographical conversation through the course of the 1980s.  One big problem is that natural philosophy is a vague term: it applied to aspects of Peripatetic philosophy, but in the twentieth century Harvard physicist Percy Bridgman (1882-1961) still held a chair in mathematics and natural philosophy and was in fact a well-known writer in the philosophy of science.  Some natural philosophy chairs even still exist today (Bertrand Halperin now holds Bridgman’s old chair, and they apparently still officially spell “mathematicks” with a “k”!).

Obviously, all these “natural philosophers” are doing rather different things, so historians would be ill-advised to try and look for a single definition of natural philosophy, even within delimited time periods, or to try and locate a “real” natural philosophy.  One promising tactic is to apply ahistorical analytical criteria to different aspects of natural philosophical work, while allowing that natural philosophers might not have perceived the distinctions between these “aspects”.

As we have seen for the eighteenth-century heyday of natural philosophy, Simon Schaffer was keen to analyze natural philosophy in terms of a fully fleshed-out “cosmology” of ideas.  Analyzing these universalizing aspects of natural philosophy makes a lot of sense: in many venues natural philosophers (being philosophers) would have been expected to draw upon their general store of learning to discourse on topics ranging from astronomy to epistemology to ethics, and to articulate the connections between these subjects.  Through the 1980s, Schaffer argued (especially early on) for embracing the sincerity and importance of the particular questions posed within systems of thought, rather than seeing the cosmology or system as simply some extension of an underlying fundamental commitment or accommodation to a partisan religious, political, or intellectual program, such as atheism, royalism, or “Newtonianism”.  Looking at systems of arguments in this way, one could query the underlying intellectual assumptions that governed what made particular features of these systems into coherent arguments, and thus better understand why they were formulated and argued in the particular ways that they were.  As in his discussions of early Kant or William Herschel, one could also query what constituted an actual innovation within natural philosophical systematizing without whiggishly relying on later acceptance as a category of analysis. (more…)

The Great Escape July 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Abandoning philosophy

Abandoning philosophy

This post is meant to be the first in a series concerning the relationship between the history of science and the philosophy of science, paying special attention to the influential notion within the history of science that the philosophy of science has a deleterious influence on historiography.

Philosophy, in this view, injures inquiry by removing from consideration some of science’s most important non-scientific contexts; by causing historians to attempt to investigate incoherent questions rooted in philosophically defined problems (such as those relating to moments of discovery, confirmation, falsification, and proof); and by concentrating narratives on histories of disembodied ideas (vacuum versus plenum, atoms versus continuum, myth/confusion versus reason, determinism versus vitalism/free will, mind-body questions) and on the Whiggish pedigrees of disembodied theories (the theory of natural selection, the periodicity of elements, etc…), instead of on the actions and debates of scientists themselves, which the archives reveal did not turn on these preoccupations.

Sociology played a big role in “the great escape” (as I am calling it) from philosophy.  If philosophy has to do with the interaction between ideas and experience, it then has only a very narrowly defined role in the history of scientific practice.  The sensibility, I think, is captured nicely by sociologist Harry Collins in his recent overview of his career-long research program on the practice of gravitational wave physics, Gravity’s Shadow (2004).  Here he defends a “relativist” versus a “realist” (one might say sociological versus philosophical) perspective: (more…)

Methodological Unity, Revisited June 20, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Buchwald and Franklin, eds., Wrong for the Right Reasons.

In my recent look at historiographical language, I discussed Kent Staley’s 1999 critique of Peter Galison’s division of particle detector history pre-1970 into epistemologically discontinuous “image” and “logic” traditions.  I noted that Staley might have made his point less palatable through an appeal to the methodological “unity” of science (rather than contiguousness), which Galison jumped on as contrary to the construction of coherent history.  For Galison, it is the methodological divisions in science that keep it nimble, intellectually diverse, and heuristically powerful, and it is an appreciation of this disunity that allows us to make any sense of its history consistent with a detailed reading of the historical record.  What, then, is the appeal of philosophical “unity”, and do historians have anything to gain by letting philosophers espousing it in the door?

If, indeed, philosophers believed philosophy could be used to reconstruct an algorithmic history of science, then surely they should be kept out at all costs, but this does not appear to be the case.  Staley, for one, appears to seek conceptual clarity rather than to follow Imre Lakatos’ notion of the “rational reconstruction” of history—science may be epistemologically diverse, but underlying epistemological connections may be revealing of the sources of the strength of certain kinds of knowledge-making acts: “We might entertain the following version of the ‘unity of methods’ thesis: there are a small number of forms of argument that are shared among otherwise diverse areas of investigation, or that are employed in common during (more…)

Watch your language, Pt. 2: Galison vs. Staley June 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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In Pt. 1, I discussed the historiographical problem of under what circumstances it is useful to criticize someone else’s characterization of history, highlighting Peter Galison’s rebuke in Image and Logic to Andy Pickering’s account of the discovery of the J/ψ particle from Constructing Quarks.  I noted that Galison took exception to Pickering’s idea of “tuning” experiment to theory on the count of its adherence to an antipositivist understanding of the history of experiment as proceeding in some sort of theoretical relationship to theory rather than on its own terms.  This independence of experimental tradition from theoretical concerns is part of a useful view of history Galison calls “intercalation”.  I noted that the issue of theory-dependence can have political overtones, but that the issue is also important to understanding how knowledge-production works, and to constructing coherent and accurately-worded historical accounts.

But just how important is accuracy in wording?  When is one making a point and when is one just nitpicking?  To address this question I want to skip ahead a couple of years to a special issue of Perspectives on Science dedicated to Image and Logic in which philosopher of science Kent Staley disputed Galison’s division of modern particle detection into epistemologically distinct “image” and “logic” traditions.  Galison responded in the same issue entirely confident that he was being visited by some easily vanquished ghost out of the historiographical past.  Yet, to my mind, this is a dispute that Staley won.  I’ll explain why, and then get on to the ultimate question of whether it matters.

First off, I should say that I’m predisposed to Staley’s argument.  When I first thoroughly read Image and Logic in (more…)