28 December 2009

Kuhn and Putnam/Kripke Essentialism

From Rupert Read & Wes Sharrock's "Thomas Kuhn's Misunderstood Relation to Kripke-Putnam Essentialism":

It is only given our post-Lavoisieric framework that we are forced to see water as largely H2O. Absent that framework, ‘water’-in-all-its-states is not necessarily viewed as a natural kind (as the quotes above from Kuhn make clear: liquidity was regarded as an essential property of water [in the 1750s]) – and still less is H2O. Kuhn is bringing talk of possible worlds, one might say (paraphrasing Wittgenstein), back from its metaphysical to a more everyday (i.e. everyday scientific) use. A taxonomy supplies a ‘set’ of possible worlds between which normal science goes on to choose. If something really threatens the taxonomy, we (imagining ourselves now into the position of scientists actually confronted by such an anomaly) cannot retreat to philosophers’ assurances about what all possible worlds must turn out to be like. Rather, sometimes, we must face the need to uproot fundamental assumptions about the set of possible worlds available to us and enabled for us by our taxonomy, our ‘ontology’, our thought-style.

Redubbing is then at least as important as dubbing; and, of course, in concert with Kuhn’s reasoned scepticism as to ‘Correspondencism’: progress through revolutions is not well-described as bringing us taxonomies which themselves come closer and closer to matching the universe’s ‘own’ taxonomy.

This sounds like a Kuhn much more to my taste than I found in "Structure"; I need to read Kuhn's later stuff some day. Though I'm not quite sure what a "taxonomy" is; it seems it can't just be a vocabulary if it carries with it "assumptions", but it's clearly supposed to be something more like a vocabulary than like a set of beliefs, or else the name (and all of the talk of "failures of translation") seems quite strange. Maybe the "assumptions" here are supposed to be analytic truths; but then it looks strange that they can need revising when things get rough. Though perhaps I'm wrong that Kuhn thinks they can need revising; perhaps it's just a fact that we do revise them. It's not that a taxonomy starts to look confused so much as that whatever taxonomy you use will end up looking shaggy after repeated use. So you get a new one, which isn't better, just new. Kuhn then ends up looking weirdly Carnapian. This seems like it can't be right.

The picture seems to be that a "taxonomy" involves assumptions about how the world might be, and it's these assumptions (inter alia) which provide a set of possible worlds that normal science tries to whittle down to a singleton. And then when that inevitably falls apart, a different taxonomy is adopted. And I think Kuhn does hold it to be inevitable; this seems to be why he denies that change of paradigms is progressive. You cease to be bothered by certain anomalies in normal science; this is the progress made by changing paradigms. But there will always be more anomalies elsewhere which previous paradigms didn't have to worry about (because they didn't come up). (I may be misremembering "Structure" here; I can't remember if he allowed a sense in which revolutions meant progress. Skimming the last chapter suggests he didn't.) Maybe it is a sort of ersatz Carnapianism, then. Hmm. Have to read more about this.

Read's article is a good counter to the "'Water' is a rigid designator, so it was never an element" line that people seem to take as decisive against Kuhn, though. This other article of his is pretty decent, too; he wants to stump for a version of "incommensurability" which is "non-semantic", but involves something related; he opens with Wittgenstein's bit about someone who "believed in the Last Judgement" and how his disagreement with the believer "would not show up at all in any explanation of the meaning" of their words. Incidentally, Jason Bridges's paper "Wittgenstein and Contextualism" (which has very little about Wittgenstein) closes with this quote, to make the point that "meaning" and "point" (in the Charles Travis sense, that the meaning of an utterance is heavily tied to our particular point in making it) are not the same thing. Getting clear on what's at stake in saying that something is or is not a matter of meaning seems potentially fruitful. It seems to be something different for Bridges and for Read.

7 comments:

Daniel Lindquist said...

It turns out that Kuhn discusses analyticity in "Dubbing and Redubbing: The Vulnerability of Rigid Designation", which is in volume 14 of the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. He is ambivalent about it, and prefers to talk of the synthetic a priori instead. But the substance of his "synthetic a priori" seems to be (late) Quine's notion of analyticity from "The Roots of Reference": one is prohibited from revising sentences one learned to affirm while learning to use the terms they contained without changing the meanings of the terms involved. Kuhn doesn't want to call this "analytic" because terms don't have their meanings fixed by definitions, but by (e.g.) the way one is taught to use "force" while learning a lot of other things when being introduced to Newtonian physics. (See footnote 17 of "Dubbing and Redubbing".)

He does talk about revising them like any other statement (since their "epistemic status" can vary depending on the details of how a particular scientist was taught -- one scientist can take the law of gravitation as empirical, another as stipulated); they thus have the odd status of something which is stipulated as true, but which can be doubted by others, assuming I've read him correctly. This is an interesting sort of view, I think. Though I don't see why any particular scientist should feel bound to affirm what they learned stipulatively; it's one of Kuhn's points that this sort of "stipulative" introduction involves empirical content, so it seems like the sort of thing that one could reverse one's judgement about later on. If it involves changing the meanings of one's words: well, they remain as constant as they would if the other fellow doubted the same thing normally. That doesn't seem like an interesting sort of meaning-change; all I can see that changes is what you say about whether or not you learned X stipulatively, or empirically (and perhaps incorrectly). Dunno what would hinge on that distinction. Nothing that I can think of. Communication goes on unhindered despite it. I wish he said more about this; maybe there's more in "The Road Since Structure". Apparently he replies to Quine & Davidson in that.

N. N. said...

I havn't read any Kuhn (it's embarrasing to admit), but from what little I know of him, he's someone I need to get to know. From what I understand, he's a FOW (Friend of Wittgenstein; doesn't Read call him the 'Wittgenstein of science'); indeed, his central notion of a paradigm seems to be a direct appropriation of Wittgenstein's central notion of a paradigm.

This sounds like a Kuhn much more to my taste than I found in "Structure."

Judging by the quote below, (this) Kuhn sounds very unDavidsonian.

"[D]ubbing and the procedures that accompany it ordinarily do more than place the dubbed object together with other members of its kind. They also locate it with respect to other kinds, placing it not simply within a taxonomic category but within a taxonomic system. Only while that system endures do the names of the kinds it categorizes designate rigidly … Here and there the old and new lexicons embodied differently structured nonhomologous taxonomies, and statements involving terms from the region where the two differed were not translatable between them."

Untranslatable statements belonging to different 'lexicons'? What, exactly, is to your taste?

Daniel Lindquist said...

"indeed, his central notion of a paradigm seems to be a direct appropriation of Wittgenstein's central notion of a paradigm."

Kuhn gives credit to LW for much of the inspiration for chapter V of "Structure", "The Primacy of Paradigms", among other places. And Read does stress the LW connection pretty hard. There's certainly a connection. (He's also a very easy read; no reason to put off getting into him. Kuhn's a very clear writer.)

"Judging by the quote below, (this) Kuhn sounds very unDavidsonian."

Read brings up Davidson in "How to Understand Kuhnian Incommensurability" (and Kuhn apparently responded to Davidson in an article I haven't read in "Road Since Structure"). Here's a quote from Kuhn: "[T]he dogma to which [Popper] objects is not that frameworks are like languages but that languages are untranslatable. But no one ever believed they were! What people have believed, and what makes the parallel important, is that the difficulties of learning a second language are different from and far less problematic than the difficulties of translation. Though one must know two languages in order to translate at all, and though translation can then always be managed up to a point, it can present grave difficulties to even the most adept bilingual. he must find the best available compromises between incompatible objectives. Nuances must be preserved but not at the price of sentences so long that communication breaks down. Literalness is desirable but not if it demands introducing too many foreign words which must be separately discussed in a glossary or appendix. People deeply committed both to accuracy and to felicity of expression find translation painful, and some cannot do it at all."

Read here comments: "We see here Kuhn quite clearly denying that he is advocating an ‘untranslatability’ thesis -- the kind of Relativist view, radically opposed for example to Davidson, which is often attributed to him under the heading of ‘incommensurabilism’.Instead, he advocates something profound but modest: an attempt to understand what it is that is lost if one translates (say) one paradigmatic theory into the terms of another. There can be no point for point, word for word translations, in such domains, in such cases."

I think Read is right that if this is what Kuhn wants to say, then it's not Davidson's target. For Davidson never held that all languages must be intertranslatable without adding new words to either lexicon, or that all languages must be equally smooth for the expression of all thoughts, or anything like that; what he argues against is just the idea that there can be two languages which are in principle so radically different that nothing can be done to bring them together, and yet each is a genuine language on its own, and we can recognize this while only being able to understand one of them. Something as simple as "you can learn the other language after learning the first one" is enough to make trouble for Whorf, for example. (Whorf explicitly worries about the fact that languages "trap" the minds of those who understand them, and says that this makes physics etc less than fully objective. He actually ends up giving pride of place to linguistics, over physics, because of this insight.)

It's understandable that Davidson would list Kuhn as among his targets, though. Kuhn sometimes *sounds* like he wants to make the more radical claim in "Structure" (as Read admits); he comes very close to denying that someone who's trained in one paradigm can ever learn another one. (Later on this is noted as merely a practical difficulty: it is very hard, and a practical impossibility in a decent number of cases. Which makes it interesting, but nothing Davidson disagrees with.)

character limit hit, tbc

Daniel Lindquist said...

Here's a footnote from McDowell's "Gadamer and Davidson on Understanding and Relativism" (which was the article I wrote my thesis on, more or less). McDowell gives a fine summary of what's involved in rejecting the scheme-content dualism, and then appends this to his argument: "The only substantial divergence from Davidson's text is that I have replaced Davidson's specification of his target, as the idea of languages untranslatable into ours, with a specification in terms of languages unintelligible from our standpoint. This does no harm to the argument, and it is a better fit with Davidson's usual focus on interpretation, rather than translation, as a focus for reflection on understanding. In a limiting case, we simply adopt into our own linguistic repertoire our subjects' means of giving expression to thoughts we have contrived to understand, in order to say what it is that we have come to understand them as stating; this is hardly translation."

McDowell is simply right about all this. Davidson has always allowed for "translation" to include these sorts of maneuvers. It's one of the things that separated "radical interpretation" from Quine's "radical translation". So Davidson probably should've not talked in terms of "translation" quite so much, since it seems to commit him to things he doesn't hold.

Still, that leaves the positive question unaddressed: what did I like about the section I quoted, as a Davidsonian?

The anti-essentialism, for one thing. I think Kuhn (probably) goes too far in granting that (for a time, within a paradigm) natural-kind terms rigidly designate, but I think this is pretty well compensated for by his emphasis on the fact that there's nothing forcing us to use one set of "natural kind" terms rather than others. And Kuhn's primary target here is Putnam-Kripke-style essentialism about natural kinds (cf. the third lecture of "Naming and Necessity), and arguments against that seem all to the good. The enemy of my (more mainstream) enemy is my friend, and all that.

I also liked the reworking of "possible worlds" talk; Kuhn apparently has an entire article on this in "Road Since Structure". It reminded me of Isaac Levi in the first chapter of "The Enterprise of Knowledge", which is my favorite treatment of modal-talk. Finding more mainstream figures that remind me of Levi pleases me, since Levi seems to not get read outside of hardcore decision-theoretical circles. (Levi was one of Duck's dissertation advisors; the first chapter of his dissertation is a wonderful little exposition of Levi's epistemology in nuce. I can't remember if you have a copy of that or not.)

Incidentally, Haugeland (who edited some of Kuhn's stuff, with Conant) is also hostile to the mainstream ways of talking about "possible worlds" and the like in his "Two Dogmas of Rationalism". But I don't think his attacks or his positive proposal quite hit the mark. Haugeland failed to be a good Levi-style pragmatist about things. (Haugeland attacks certain modal accessibility relations, which strikes me as nuts; the problem with modal logic has always been the semantics, not the syntax.)

And finally: I like the way Read put Kuhn's stuff about paradigm ["taxonomy"] change, here. It seemed more... not "muted", but smoother. In "Structure" he really does talk about scientists "living in different worlds" and stuff, it all gets out of hand. I am pleased to hear that later on that stuff got mellowed. It's not always something that would have to be world-shakingly weird.

Ben Wolfson said...

The last sentence of the quotation from McDowell strikes me as somewhat odd:

"In a limiting case, we simply adopt into our own linguistic repertoire our subjects' means of giving expression to thoughts we have contrived to understand, in order to say what it is that we have come to understand them as stating; this is hardly translation."

Take "Märchen" rather than "fairy tales" or "folk tale" or whatever because of the particularities and subtleties it expresses (assuming there are some).

IME the ability to do things like that (adopt foreign terms without precise analogues) comes before you can really articulate what the difference is that leads to the foreign rather than the native term. It's not (to me) that I've come to understand the relevant thought as this, and then take over "Märchen", but that I come to be able to recognize this or that as a Märchen, specifically, rather than as a folk tale. The limiting case isn't that I adopt your linguistic repertoire but that I come to inhabit it (and—one wants to say—its way of looking at things) the way I do my previous linguistic repertoire. But that's not an example of something coming to be intelligible from my standpoint so much as it is my standpoint coming to be different. Which, really, is not very important, I don't think. It's just, you know, odd. I thought.

I just remembered that I never said what Thompson had said about lotteries in his Q&A. Will do presently. (But not today, probably.)

Daniel Lindquist said...

"IME the ability to do things like that (adopt foreign terms without precise analogues) comes before you can really articulate what the difference is that leads to the foreign rather than the native term."

Well, in a certain sense this is surely right: You can only explain to someone unacquainted with either what distinguishes a Märchen from a folktale after you've found ways to characterize both in terms that the novice can understand, and which lays out what makes them distinct. Which is harder than just coming to be able to call a Märchen a Märchen and a folktale a folktale. But in another way, this latter ability is enough to say what the difference is between a Märchen and a folktale: "A Märchen is a Märchen, not a folktale, and a folktale is a folktale, not a Märchen."

"It's not (to me) that I've come to understand the relevant thought as this, and then take over "Märchen", but that I come to be able to recognize this or that as a Märchen, specifically, rather than as a folk tale."

Well, I think it depends on what "this" is supposed to be gesturing at. If "this" is "the sort of thing which you call 'Märchen'" then it seems fine to me to say that I come to understand the relevant thought, and then use "This story is a Märchen" to say what I've come to understand (rather than "This story is what you call a 'Märchen'", where "Märchen" is mentioned rather than used).

In this case, I don't see any difference here between the thing you say it's not like and the thing you say it is: recognizing a Märchen as a Märchen and recognizing this (and then calling it a "Märchen") coincide. Anyone who can do the one can be said to do the other just as well.

Of course, if "this" is supposed to be something unlike "what you call a 'Märchen'", then it does seem that it can't be like the thing you say it's not like. Since it's hard to figure out what else "this" can be that gets the thought right.

So, I'm inclined to be squeemish about saying either that (in coming to understand what is distinctive about Märchen-talk) I come to inhabit someone else's linguistic repertoire or that my own changes; it seems equally plausible to me to say that my linguistic repertoire stays the same, and I just notice new facts about how "Märchen" is used by others, as that my linguistic repertoire slides over to include part of the other guy's. I come to see that certain stories are called "Märchen" and to be able to tell what other stories would be called "Märchen"; this no more an adjustment of my linguistic reprertoire than learning to tell by looking at them which peppers are bitter and which sweet.

(The above assumes that I already knew that "Märchen" was a word which people sometimes use, as I still need to mention it to say what I've learned, and so my linguistic repertoire has to be sufficient to enable me to talk about the word. But I could mention it before I'd learned how it was used, so it still seems to me that I can maintain that my linguistic repertoire has remained constant as I learn about what distinguishes a "Märchen" and a folktale. Nothing forces me to adopt the foreign term into my lexicon. And I can always use a neologism of my own coining, perhaps "German fairytale", to mark the new thing I've glommed onto, if I get tired of talking eliptically. If it pleases me to, I can steadfastly refuse to ever adopt the other guy's way of talking.)

Daniel Lindquist said...

Of course, I don't think there's anything really *wrong* about talking in any of these ways, per se. They could each be useful for some particular purpose. But the holism of belief and meaning seem to me to warrant holding off from letting any one way of saying what goes on here stand by itself, for fear of thinking it must be *the* thing to say. Must be ever-mindful of the holism of the propositional attitudes, forever & amen.

"But that's not an example of something coming to be intelligible from my standpoint so much as it is my standpoint coming to be different. Which, really, is not very important, I don't think."

Well, we can say either thing here. We can talk about two different standpoints (which one guy occupying both of them at different times), or of one identical standpoint (which changes so that it enables the guy occupying it to grasp different things at different times). Don't see that anything forces us to count standpoints one way rather than another; it's not like they have to be listed on your census form. Though, noting that we can talk either way seems important; I suspect a lot of people who hate hate hate "On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" in effect are opposed to the idea that "Everything is intelligible from any standpoint, in principle". Which is one of Davidson's points on one reading, and something obviously false on the other. (I think this is what's behind Macintyre/Charles Taylor/Forster's attack on "Conceptual Scheme" as exhibiting a sort of cultural imperialism, for instance.)

Though, I think I've wandered rather far afield from what you actually wanted to say. Back to that point: "The limiting case isn't that I adopt your linguistic repertoire but that I come to inhabit it (and—one wants to say—its way of looking at things) the way I do my previous linguistic repertoire. But that's not an example of something coming to be intelligible from my standpoint so much as it is my standpoint coming to be different."

Here's McDowell from the first afterword to "Mind and World", p.153: "Davidson's radical interpreter starts with a sideways-on view of the relation between her subjects and the world. But she finishes with a theory whose point is exactly that it is not from sideways on: a theory that enables here to capture some of her subjects' relations to the world from their own point of view, through in her terms rather than theirs. It is just the beauty of disquotation in the extended sense that it is available for this capturing of the inside viewpoint."

Here I take McDowell to be talking in a way more to your liking. I don't think there's any conflict between what he says here and the footnote from "Gadamer and Davidson" you opposed yourself to. Perhaps that's clarifying. (Perhaps not.)

Incidentally, I just noticed that McDowell talks of radical interpretation as going on with a singular interpreter and plural interpretees. I don't think I've noticed that before. It would be interesting if McDowell usually spoke of radical interpretation as being the interpretation of a group, rather than an individual; I'll have to watch out for that in the future. (I don't think it makes a difference what you say here, and Davidson talks both ways, though later on he emphasizes that it's always individual speakers that you want to understand, in the end, and so speaks of singular interpretees. But I think McDowell might disagree, for reasons I can't fathom. This reminds me that I need to reread the "Modesty" essays and get back to Kremer....)