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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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If You Read Joseph Agassi, Man and Nature Become More Complex July 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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For other entries in the series, please see most especially this post as well as this post

I. Dichotomies pose problems for philosophy and the social sciences

In “The Rationality of Science is Partial” in Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology (1977) TRPA  Joseph Agassi points out the two of the key dichotomies in philosophy, namely between nature and convention and between the “utterly universal” and the “utterly particular.” It is possible to view any”specific society as merely arbitrary” … “because although from the outside a custom in a given society may look quite arbitrary, from within it may look quite rational” (263). Many social institutions, such as organized religions, contain both rational and supposedly irrational elements. They are a mix of the universal and the particular. Because they appear to be a mix of dichotomies, social scientists and philosophers are at a loss to explain them. They then explain one and explain away the other. Explanations typically end in an arbitrary manner.

Thus, many have concluded that religion is rational, but not rational enough (Ludwig Feuerbach). Because social institutions are rational, but not rational enough, various solutions have been applied. Relativism more or less declares the debate useless: everything is particular (266-7). For relativists, one can only describe and not engage in causal reasoning. For functionalism, customs, like religious institutions are “natural” and perfectly reasonable, “though only from within.”

Functionalism presents every institution as 100% conducive to good order. Opposite to relativism, everything may be explained. Functionalism also promotes a kind of quietism. If customs and institutions are rational and perfectly reasonable, “natural,” even Hegelian, then how they are to be improved remains a mystery. Their naturalness speaks against their reform. “How can natural things have errors in them?” one would ask. Of course, any modern biologist would tell you that nature is full of errors. Some of them quite interesting.

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On the Absence of Phrenology in Our Daily Lives: An Application of Joseph Agassi’s Philosophy July 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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In my various conversations about my Joseph Agassi series, as well as most importantly here (email and otherwise), I have been challenged on the idea of “intrinsic value”: do ideas have value, can any idea be useful for politics and conversation; or are ideas simply to be explained rather than used? Does our ever-increasing knowledge of the complexity of past ideas and intellectual movements allow us to say that our understanding of ourselves and our world has improved from, say, the 19th century?

Of course, the answer is yes. Science has progressed; the question is whether there are rules (or even hints to the forces or interests) responsible for the progress of science. Philosophers and historians of ideas also know this. No one today would defend phrenology as a science. Neurology is now the science of the brain. Is neurology superior to phrenology? Yes, but I would very much like to hear an argument to the contrary.

Phrenology-journal

What separates the philosophers from the historians and sociologists of science is the degree to which philosophers (at least the diminishing numbers who are flexible rationalists like Mary Hesse) cautiously affirm that one of the tasks of the philosopher is to decide what intellectual inventions are worth keeping (tolerance, for example, or the non-random nature of scientific inference, to take another) and perhaps say something about how good ideas come about, as opposed to bad ones, which hopefully do not last.

However, just because phrenology is now not a science does not mean that one can not learn about it and hazard some arguments about the connection between science and social context and how we differentiate between “good” and “bad” ideas. Can we say really that phrenology was a “bad” idea? Yes. But how to explain it?  That is much harder. (more…)

Joseph Agassi on Rationality and Psychiatry April 4, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century.
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After a highly stimulating (successful?, entertaining?) talk for the members of Zilsel and le séminaire de sociologie des sciences (SoS) at Laboratoire Printemps, CNRS-UVSQ, which included an all-departmental search for my memory stick, I wanted to expand on a few points and point out some new directions. Arnaud made the observation that much of Agassi’s language is permeated with the language of psychiatry. Although the quote concerning sadism and masochism concerns Lakatos and Feyerabend and is not an invocation of Agassi (unfortunately), Agassi spent much of the 1970s and early 1980s examining psychology, medical diagnosis, and the brain sciences.

Why the interest in psychiatry? Very simply, Agassi’s engagement with psychiatric matters was key to his understanding of human beings as not-quite-rational; psychiatry pointed to the pitfalls of assuming too much rationality; men were conditioned by their environments; they had beliefs and they made mistakes. Agassi wrote a great deal on psychiatry at the exact moment when he was formulating the bulk of his philosophical anthropology. Thus, any discussion his writings on psychology is an account of his philosophical anthropology.

This is not an obvious choice for a prominent student of Popper and a post-Second World War philosopher of science. Psychiatry in all of its variants was labeled frequently by philosophers of science as a pseudo-science. Of course there have always been problems with any of these diagnoses. In the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatry in its Freudian and non-Freudian variants was under attack by both behaviorism and anti-psychiatry. The former underscored that man was simply a product of environmental conditioning- he was no active agent; the latter, that mental illness was merely a way for society to impose conformity.  The schizophrenic was simply a non-conformist whose behavior was “deviant” only due to a society interested solely in the imposition of its norms.  For those who know Agassi, both behaviorism and anti-psychiatry are absurd forms of “monism,” which in its most extreme forms (perhaps not, perhaps all monisms are like this) is a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude.

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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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“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.

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Towards Joseph Agassi’s Key Ideas March 15, 2015

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

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Robin Fox: Biosocial Anthropology as Philosophical Anthropology (Slightly Updated) November 8, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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UPDATE: It has occurred to me that my two part argument—leveling a criticism of the philosophers’ portrayal of biosocial anthropology as censure-worthy at the expense of an understanding of the complexity of its ideas and normalizing biosocial anthropology in post-war ideas by re-categorizing it as philosophical anthropology—that I focused less on ideas and their genealogies (especially the Gellner bits) than was satisfactory. Thus, quite soon, I will analyze in depth Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger’s The Imperial Animal (1971) as both philosophical anthropology AND as an outgrowth of the re-configuration of the social sciences in the US and the UK after the Second World War. Hopefully, by the time of my review of Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (2013) my views on post-war, Cold War American and UK social sciences will be reasonably apparent.  

In a previous post, I attempted a taxonomy of post-war inquiries which interrogated the connections between the biological and social sciences in various post-war intellectual communities. Bio-social anthropology, biosocial anthropology, sociobiology and social biology were loosely defined. Part of the challenge of discussing these (mostly) post-war inquiries is in going beyond the fraught discussions over the extent that any or all of these inquiries engage in biological reductionism and biological determinism.

What is needed more is a discussion of the ideas themselves and their genealogies and, by extension, their connections to broader themes in post-war and Cold War sciences. The ideas themselves are quite complicated, and many philosophers of science, such as Mario Bunge (though much of his work is among my favorites in philosophy of science), reduce them to caricatures (intelligent distortions—but reductions which worry about their societal implications and evil intent). On a philosophical and ethical level, these ideas are troublesome and distortions—but they are with us and have been with us for some time.  One can talk about the ideational content of (say) public choice theory, without the merits of its practical application.  It seems impossible to talk about Hayek or Keynes outside of their virtues as policy, but this must change as well.

9.7_Society

Biosocial anthropology, as noted in the last post, is, especially in the works of Robin Fox, part of a philosophical and social science critique against relativism in the social sciences as well as in epistemology. Such a critique draws strength from the methodological writings of Karl Popper (previously mentioned), but even more so from Ernest Gellner. Gellner is the subject of a remarkable biography by John A. Hall (that is not without its problems, and will be reviewed here shortly). Fox’s appropriation of Gellner’s ideas also points to a rather bifurcated legacy on the part of this diverse social thinker: as a philosophical critic and anthropologist and as a theorist of nationalism. Mary Douglas, whose diverse works have never been much understood by anthropologists, but whose ideas have been appropriated by diverse other fields, was deeply scornful of Gellner’s books on nationalism (as evidenced by her oral history with Alan Macfarlane). Fox seems to prefer Gellner the philosopher to Gellner the theorist of nationalism.  Hall, valiantly tries to unify them. Such an account is incredibly useful, but at odds with my understanding of Gellner.

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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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