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.

12 comments:

David said...

I did read the fourth part, and the part about Wittgenstein made me just about spit. I hate it when people justify their ridiculous misreadings by saying "well, yes, not everyone reads him my way, but you know there's a lot of disagreement about Wittgenstein, so whatever." (On the other hand, he's right - lots of people get Wittgenstein ridiculously wrong.)

You say you can't bring yourself to care, but I might have to say something. In fact I find that most of what I manage to produce nowadays is because I read something that really burns my buttons. Like this crap.

Duck said...

Sorry, that was me. (I have two Google accounts.)

Daniel Lindquist said...

Yeah, part of why I didn't talk about it was because I suspected it'd annoy you enough to post about it.

Duck said...

Ha! (I am a bit predictable that way, I suppose.)

You know, when I peer at that icon of yours I can see that it's a green-haired manga chick, but at first glance it always looks like a squid or something.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I see the fifth part has been posted. It seems even more brazenly awful than the fourth: his orienting point is the charge that incommensurability makes description of past science impossible. As if Kuhn didn't discuss this repeatedly in "Structure" and in his work afterwards. And he keeps mentioning astrology and the like. Just shameful.

But it's hard for me to maintain the good sort of motivating-annoyance when he says things like this: "I often think of the attraction of smoking, that it simplifies the world into three parts. There’s you, there’s the cigarette, and everything else is the ashtray." That's just damned fine writing.

But then again, there's this: "Close reading? Who would argue with that? Close reading is entirely commendable. Three cheers for close reading. But close reading is the opposite of incommensurability. It tells us that by carefully studying a passage we can understand it. Incommensurability tells us that unless we inhabit the paradigm in which it was written, we can never understand it." Which ignores the (trivial) idea that close reading might (eventually) enable one to take up a view from within an older paradigm. Such as Kuhn describes when he talks about reading Aristotle's "Physics" and suddenly having a sort of gestalt-switch where the world looked Aristotelian. Which Morris quotes a bit of and tells the reader 1) he can't understand it and 2) it's like an alien abduction story. If Kuhn had said this, Morris would've came down on him for denying that we can understand alien abduction stories (and see them as false). But charity doesn't apply when you're writing about a guy you hate from a bad time in grad school, apparently.

"The Fog of War" was overrated.

I am totally fine with my ~anime waitress~ icon looking like a squid; I do like her, but she's too silly to make more prominent (which was the flaw in my old blog design -- she should never have been in the header). Ideally she'd look like a cuttlefish, to fit with the blog's jokey-Hegelianism. I'm currently reading Schopenhauer for an aesthetics class, and the prof looked up this quotation for my amusement: the crest of a Hegelian university should be "a cuttle-fish creating a cloud of obscurity around itself so that no one sees what it is, with the legend, mea caligine tutus (fortified by my own obscurity)".

Daniel Lindquist said...

Actually, that's a darned fine tag-line for a blog, come to think of it.

Daniel Lindquist said...

The comment thread on Leiter Reports is pretty good. This Goldfarb comment made me feel better; I'd noticed he was thanked at the end of the series, and was wondering what that was about.

J said...

Feyerabend is Mr Hyde to Kuhn's Dr Jekyll.


Feyerabend was a part of the 60s zeitgeist ---and there's some 60's shamanistic BS to his writings (ie Sapir Whorf hypothesis---which actually has made a bit of a come back--) but he never made apologies for the academic science or philosophy establishment (as did Kuhn with his tame relativism...not to say reductionist aspects (ala Quine)). PF had a keen grasp of the politics of research and funding as well--not to say the relation of research to industry. He was "engaged" as they say, unlike, well, you, S-Dan.... and yr cronies (including the pseudo-Hegelian-rightists of P-burgh, etc).

Daniel Lindquist said...

Duck: To further annoy you, be sure to read Morris's reply to critics.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Oh wow, the SEP article on Wittgenstein is AWFUL. It doesn't even name Conant or Diamond (or anyone) when discussing the "new" reading of the Tractatus, and it asserts that "It is now widely agreed that the writings of the period from 1946 until his death (1951) constitute a distinctive phase of Wittgenstein's thought." The only people I know who've claimed this are Moyal-Sharrock and Zizek. The reviews I've read of Moyal-Sharrock's book have not been positive. I expect better from the SEP.

Ben W said...

"In fact I find that most of what I manage to produce nowadays is because I read something that really burns my buttons. Like this crap."

In the ancient world, philosophy began in wonder; in the nineteenth century, in despair. These days in begins in being annoyed.

Duck said...

I finally did write something, here: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/06/errol-morris-on-wittgenstein-or-someone-like-him-in-certain-respects.html