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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…)

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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From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.

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Pitirim Sorokin on Fitness and “War Waste” May 25, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Pitirim Sorokin

Питири́м Алекса́ндрович Соро́кин (1889-1968) was considered in many ways to be the anti-Talcott Parsons due to their notorious disagreements over the merits of Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1937) as well as his rather tyrannical personality.  Both Sorokin and Parsons were philosophers of history (due to Parson’s late embrace, like Karl Popper, of evolutionary models of societal growth and development) and the separation of their intellectual projects is not as pronounced as is thought.  Sorokin was an evolutionist who was also an “old-school” sociologist insofar as he considered the social scientific heritage of the latter nineteenth century to be quite valuable.  His 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories is a compendium of the mental furniture of social theory in the long nineteenth century.  Robert Merton, who was always careful to distance himself from Sorokin, betrays Sorokin’s influence in his citation methods and in his adherence to the “spirit” of the argument of his sources, rather than the letter.  Both Merton and Sorokin were lumpers (see Merton’s 1936 paper, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”), but they lumped heuristically.

Sorokin’s Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life (1946) immediately reminds one of R. A. Fisher’s work, or that of Alexander Carr-Saunders.  All three looked at rates of differential fertility and the impact of social forces (wars, revolution, migration) on the evolution of human civilization.  All considered human evolution to be determined by differing forces than those governing natural selection.  As importantly, Sorokin continued the “war and waste” debate, also referred to as the “military selection” debate, a controversy which marinated through much of the later nineteenth century, but which really had two great stimuli: the Boer War and the First World War. David Starr Jordan as well as Thorstein Veblen were two important interlocutors in this debate.

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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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R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 2 February 9, 2013

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

In his 1932 lecture, “The Bearing of Genetics on Theories of Evolution,” R. A. Fisher compared the fissures between different scientific techniques to God’s confounding of languages in the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel. If the fissures in scientific method were assumed to hold the construction of an “edifice” of scientific knowledge back, much as the division of language prevented the construction of the Tower of Babel, then the obvious question was how method could be reunited. According to Fisher,

If we were to ask … what universal language could enable men of science to understand each other sufficiently well for effective co-operation, I submit that there can be only one answer. If we could select a group of men of science, completely purge their minds of all knowledge of language, and allow them time to develop the means of conveying to one another their scientific ideas, I have no doubt whatever that the only successful medium they could devise would be that ancient system of logic and deductive reasoning first perfected by the Greeks, and which we know as Mathematics.

As we saw in Part 1, the bulk of Fisher’s statistical theorization was dedicated to the problem of inductive reasoning, that is, the development of defined conclusions from well-structured observations. But it is clear that Fisher also valued deductive uses of mathematics, because it permitted different observational conclusions to be related to each other through a fully coherent language. It is just not clear what he understood the epistemological status or function of deductive knowledge to be.

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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 2 October 21, 2012

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This post is an interlude in my look at Cold War Social Science. It paves the way for further discussion of that book, but contains no reference to its contents.

A new whig historiography of the social sciences, which I began to describe in part 1, posits a crucial role for intellectual figures’ ideas in history. These ideas need not be the source of the broader (non-intellectualized) ideas that drive social and political trends. Intellectuals’ ideas do, however, at least have the power to reinforce such trends by helping to prevent alternative ideas from instigating change. Thus, in this historiography, past intellectuals’ ideas tend to be illiberal ideas.

The historiography is whiggish rather than anti-intellectual in that it is constructed from the narratives of intellectuals who purport to represent the advent of a genuinely liberating intellectual movement. To understand the narrative features of this historiography, it is important to understand how it retains elements of narratives generated by a long line of purportedly liberating intellectual movements, and how it claims to diverge from them.

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