26 March 2011

A Link Post

I haven't been keeping my blogroll maintained, so here's some links to blogs the reader might not have known of:

Early Modern Experimental Philosophy is about reading the early moderns along an experimental-speculative dichotomy rather than an empiricist-rationalist one. This has the merit of being a distinction actually in use at the time, rather than being one which first comes into full flower with Karl Reinhold. I continue to be impressed with how much of what "everyone knows" about Kant and Kantianism comes from places where Reinhold varied from Kant.

OLP & Literary Studies Online regularly links to/mentions new work on Cavell and Wittgenstein.

The Renaissance Mathematicus is a history of science blog. I should probably read more of those. They're fun.

Child's Play is a psychology blog that regularly says nice things about both Wittgenstein and "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs". They also had a nice post on the "Knobe Effect" a while back that I can't recall if I ever got around to linking.

Extrablogically, I am currently going back and forth between Schopenhauer, Frege, and Wittgenstein, looking for term paper ideas. Lots of connections slip in and out of view. Still in search of something term-paper-sized to poke at.

14 March 2011

Wittgenstein: Bacon and Potatoes

I record this quotation for Google, because I'm happy to finally run across it again. (It's something Anscombe told Bryan Magee in conversation, apparently. This is why I never could find it in "Culture & Value" when I looked for it there. The context is Magee's wondering why Wittgenstein doesn't mention Schopenhauer more.)

From Brian Magee's "The Philosophy of Schopenhauer":

[Wittgenstein] used to say that if a man had been physically nourished on bacon and potatoes we should all see the folly of trying to identify which bits of his person derived from bacon and which bits from potatoes, and yet we make exactly that mistake with regard to whatever intellectual nourishment he may have metabolized into himself.

10 March 2011

"And then there’s Kuhn’s philosophical concept – the incommensurability of meaning - ...."

A claim in one of Eroll Morris's footnotes bugged me, specifically the bit I made my title.

Using Google Books, here are the things Kuhn calls "incommensurable" in "Structure" (with the page numbers in parentheses): ways of seeing the world (4), traditions (103), "the world of his research" (112), traditions (148), paradigms (150), solutions to problems (165), viewpoints (175), theories (not said in his own voice -- this is part of a view philosophers have attributed to him) (198). viewpoints (200). Here are things of whose "incommensurability" he speaks: traditions (148), standards (149), paradigms (150), paradigms (157).

Not in the book: "incommensurability of meaning".

In the collection "The Road Since Structure", we find the following called "incommensurable": theories (34) the hypotenuse and side of an isosceles right triangle (35), the circumference and radius of a circle (35), theories (36, twice), terms (36 -- he does mention "the meanings of incommensurable terms" here), "parts of an older scientific vocabulary" (53), portions of French and English vocabularies (56), points of view (124), theories (163), theories (164), theories (189), the hypotenuse and side of an isosceles right triangle (189), theories (204).

Not in the book: "incommensurable meanings".

"Incommensurability" shows up 50 times, says Google Books, and this doesn't count repeated hits on a single page. Often it's occurring without being clearly "of" anything in the immediately context, where it's something like a watchword for Kuhn's ideas about the history of science broadly. Where it does seem clear to me that the text allows for a citation of what "incommensurability" is of or between, I get these results, tabulated by page first now:

34: theories

36: theories, a local claim "about language, about meaning change" (this is introduced with "insofar as incommensurability was a claim about...").

49: natural languages

60: theories

97: theories

188: pairs of theories

189: theories

And here are some passages that seem especially relevant:

p. 34, footnote 2: "Both Feyerabend and I wrote of the impossibility of defining the terms of one theory on the basis of terms of the other. But he restricted incommensurability to language; I spoke also of differences in "methods, problem-field, and standards of solution" (Structure, 2nd end., p. 103), something I would no longer do except to the considerable extent that the latter differences are necessary consequences of the language-learning process." (He notes in footnote 1 on the previous page that Feyerabend and he had arrived at the metaphor independently at around the same time.)

p.36 : "'meaning' is not the rubric under which incommensurability is best discussed."

p. 93: "Incommensurability thus becomes a sort of untranslatability, localized to one or another area in which two lexical taxonomies differ."

p. 309 (the final interview): "...but it struck me very forcefully that all of them entirely dropped the problem of meaning when they made that [historicist] turn, and that they therefore dropped incommensurability...."

p. 237-8: "In Structure I spoke of meaning change as a characteristic feature of scientific revolutions; later, as I increasingly identified incommensurability with difference of meaning, I repeatedly referred to the difficulties of translation. But I was then torn, usually without quite realizing it, between my sense that translation between an old theory and a new one was possible and my competing sense that it was not.... I was wrong to speak of translation. What I described, I now realize, was language learning, a process that need not, and ordinarily does not, make full translation possible."

So, Kuhn usually speaks of the incommensurability of theories. He used the term more widely in "Structure", and never for anything narrowly linguistic. Post-"Structure" he does emphasize language more, but he realizes before too long that meaning is not the aspect of language that matters most for his purposes. That's not the way to frame the problem, if he's to make any progress.

But, Morris is no innovator, as Googling "incommensurability of meaning" easily shows. I did like that Reed & Sharrock put that phrase in the mouth of their "mainstream critic" of Kuhn. And it is still nice to see some real philosophy discussed in the NYT, and Morris is a fine writer. But what bugs me bugs me. And I'm not even touching the "relativism" rubbish. Or the straight-up depressing fourth part, where Morris misses that the thing about the two Kuhns is a joke. (Kuhn notes, immediately following the bit Morris quotes, that he "lacks the wit to further develop the fantasy" and so drops the gag. Morris's misreading is so striking that I suspect it's genuinely out of malice. I can't even bring myself to care about the absurd charge that Wittgenstein is a relativist, at the end of the piece, due to how sad that opening is.)

Also, the entire third part of Morris's series is ridiculous: Kuhn never says anything about getting his metaphor from the legend of Hippasus. He gets it from the boring mathematical fact: You can't say what the square root of two is if you're limited to expressing numbers as ratios of whole numbers. To talk about the square root of two, you need to learn a new way of thinking about numbers. And once you have, you still can't express the square root of two as a ratio of whole numbers. I don't see how he missed this. It's not a complex metaphor. But the imaginative fiction he weaves to suggest "that Kuhn’s entire theory of scientific change might be an imaginative fiction" does make for a more gripping yarn than something about irrational numbers.