Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kuhn Correspondence Intro.

In February 1994 I sent Thomas Kuhn the following letter with a copy of an article, ‘On Misunderstanding Science’ which subsequently became chapter 11 of my book: Philosophy and Mystification. His generous response to the letter and to the article began a correspondence which lasted until his death in 1996.
Since I first read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions shortly after it appeared I regarded Tom Kuhn as having opened up a whole new perspective on the sciences which made it possible to see how the attempts to produce logical or metaphysical models of scientific reasoning and development were incapable of producing genuine understanding of how the sciences and the scientists actually worked and developed, or even of providing a model for the scientists to use as a guide or against which to be judged. Starting from a concrete and practical background in the sciences, Kuhn was able to turn his back on the long tradition of attempting to make the sciences into a kind of ‘theology of the real’ and to see them as a historical, practical human enterprise. This revolutionary change of perspective produced a great many misunderstandings and misrepresentations of his view which I tried in my piece to address.

One

Guy Robinson Foulkstown, Ballinure, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.

22 Feb 94
Dear Tom

Many years ago when you kindly took me to lunch in Princeton (and in conversation we discovered that we had both been to Solebury) you mentioned your interest in art as illuminating the sciences. I think I may, at long last got onto what you were after back then. It comes out in the enclosed, which I hope you may find interesting in its general thrust even though it is only part done and requires a lot more work on the notion of objectivity by way of trying to break the hypnotizing and paralyzing grip of the real and ultimate reality and suchlike. I think those notions, for example, completely paralyze the discussion in that collection of pieces by Putnam, Van Fraasen et al called Scientific Realism, and that the strength of their grip has deep and subterranean sources not easy to break till those sources are brought out and understood.
I have tried to bring them out, a bit anyway, in accounting for the multiple misunderstandings that your work has encountered. I think that the basic thrust of your work is far too revolutionary (just as Wittgenstein’s is) and confronts deeply-held and multiply-connected elements of a world view that has been dominant since the Seventeenth Century.
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear if I have finally got the right end of the stick that you were tendering back then (somewhen in the 70’s).
I’m assuming you’re settled somewhere in the Princeton area, I hope happily. I remember your wife saying at the 1964 Bedford Conference when you were just moving there: ‘Not another permanent position!’
Yours
Guy


Thomas S. Kuhn 985 Memorial Drive, Apt. 303, Cambridge, MA 02138

July 16, 1994

Dr. Guy Robinson
Foulkstown, Ballinure
Thurles, Co. Tipperary
Ireland

Dear Guy Robinson:

It's close to six months since you addressed a fine letter to me in Princeton. As you'll gather from this letterhead, it had to be forwarded (I left Princeton in 1979 for "another tenure position" shortly after my divorce from the wife who put that phrase into the language. Since then I've been at, or emeritus from, MIT where your letter finally reached me in mid-March. Unfortunately, at that time I was still engaged in an exhausting battle (it's occupied most of a year) to recover from major surgery followed by radiation treatment. That recovery is putting me back into very nearly the shape from which I began, but l'm only now finding the strength and concentration to face the large pile of manuscripts and mail that accumulated while I was "away". Your letter has at last surfaced, and I'm immensely glad of it, for the manuscript that came with it has given me intense pleasure.

Before trying to give an account of my reaction, I've an embarrassing confession to make. I've never had a good memory, and I've entirely forgotten our past meetings. Your letter is too circumstantial and the reactions you report too plausible to leave me with doubts. I can reconstruct the events you speak of and also participate in them here and there. But its your memory and my sense of self that permits that participation.

All this is a prelude to saying that I like the manuscript pages you've sent me very much indeed. How could I not? They flatter me in ways I long for and rarely achieve. Kuhn and Wittgenstein, eh! Egad! I would not, however, react in that way if I didn't think you'd seen, to an almost unprecedented extent, what I've been up to. I couldn't have identified my position so clearly at the time I wrote Structure, but I've learned since and many of the views you express emerge loud and clear in the early chapters of the book I've now got underway. People to whom I say what I now believe, sometimes tell me I've changed my mind. I think I've only developed it, and the parallel between the positions you and I have reached after these years tends to confirm that description of what's occurred. In particular, both you and I would now emphasize that the position towards which Structure points requires the abandonment of anything like the realist's notion of truth and the approach of scientific belief to it. I think we'd agree also that the charge of relativism was and always has been a red herring.

A couple of more specific remarks. I initially responded with a big marginal "WOW!" to your second paragraph, the one in which you demolish Scientific Realism by asking what changes in the world could change its status from true to false or vice versa. That's just the sort of argument I most love, one that leaves readers wondering how they could ever have held such demonstrably absurd beliefs. The first argument against metaphysical realism in my projected book aims to be of that sort, and it delighted me to be supplied with another. Now, however, I'm not so sure that yours works as we both want it to, and I suspect that what has come to trouble me about it may be important to us both. If I'm reading you properly, the "world" you have in mind is the natural world, the one that natural scientists aim to understand. But Scientific Realism is not a doctrine about the natural world but about the relation between it and a social practice. If one addresses your question about the effect of change to that relationship Other than to the natural world by itself, it may get a different answer. Scientific Realism would not, of course, be reintroduced by that change in the object of the question, but the argument would work very differently in ways that should perhaps be explored

My other remark is quite different. Since I don't remember our conversation, I can't be sure what I had in mind in speaking of studying art to illuminate the sciences, but I doubt it's the point you make so splendidly on p. 3. I agree fully with that point, think it important, and doubt that I could have made it so cogently when I wrote Structure. But I'm more likely to have had in mind the desirability of studying art to explore what made it different from science. I thought of Structure as buying into the categories used in history of art, literature, etc., and declaring that science was like that too. Partly as an unintended consequence of that book, there's developed a considerable body of sociological literature arguing that science is just like all other human practices, and that it's claims to special status are simply a political ploy. I, without any thought of establishing a hierarchy, have always felt a need to recapture what's special about science, what differentiates it, not from other practices as a group, but from other practices considered individually. Art is an obvious and an especially apposite practice to choose for this purpose. I suspect that that is what I was getting at in my remark to you.

There's much more in your paper that interests and cheers me, but I can't now go on. I'd value being kept in touch as you develop these themes. And I'd be glad also, if you respond positively to that suggestion, to learn a bit more about who you now are and what you're more generally up to.

Warm greetings,

Tom Kuhn

Two

Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire

25 July 1994

Dear Tom
How could I not respond immediately to such a gracious and enthusiastic reaction to my letter and paper!
Sorry you have had such a tough medical time and hope that’s pretty well behind you.
I’m not surprised that you don’t remember that lunch you gave me in Princeton, (graciously, again as we had only brushed glancingly by one another at that famous Bedford conference in 1960-whatever.) But I have it in my mind that at that lunch you told me that you had been to the same tiny school I went to, Solebury, but only for a year before transferring to Germantown Friends. (We used to play Germantown in Football and always got slaughtered - Well, we only had fifty boys in the whole school.) Am I dreaming all that?
Still keeping to the personal: Who am I? Not sure how to answer. Brief CV: after Solebury, I went to Bard at the time of Mary McCarthy (The Groves of Academe gives a distorted account of those times and my teacher.) It was a pretty interesting place, though. My introduction to philosophy was via Aristotle, and his conception of philosophy’s business, I am coming to see has kept me away from the disastrous ‘theorizing’ conception of philosophy that has held pretty much sway since Descartes. (I’m working on getting clear about that question of philosophy’s business in the process of trying to bring out in an introduction to what has always been there implicit in the scanty few pieces I have published and now want to collect. I certainly don’t think that my second paragraph gives a knock-down argument against Realism. -As you can imagine, I don’t believe in those - But it’s something to think about.
Anyway, after Bard came Harvard, which I thought too self-important, and anyway I was already well out of tune with the way philosophy was done there. (There was no Stanley Cavell in ‘49 -50). After Harvard, Oxford, which I liked a lot better. It was, after all, the Oxford of Ryle and Austin and Gwyl Owen and Anscombe and Geach were about, Waisman lecturing on Relativity Theory, and, above all, I discovered Wittgenstein through the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics in a struggle with the Cantorian transfinite and the so-called notion of ‘the actual infinite.’ However, Oxford (with some exceptions) was operating with something of the same conception of philosophy as theorizing and people talked about the ‘use theory ‘of meaning they claimed to get from Wittgenstein. And so, once again I found myself at a slight distance - particularly from the account of ‘rules for the use’ and from the account of what people are pleased to call ‘the private language argument’ that was accepted as canonical.
So, I was always a bit to the side of the way the stream was flowing without having any formulated critique of the assumptions and conceptions that pushed it that way. At the moment I’m working now on just that formulation and on identifying the assumptions and pressures, the agenda and aims that have established a certain, I think disastrous, conception of what it is to do philosophy - one that differs from the one that I got from Aristotle and Wittgenstein. And there, I want to say that I would agree entirely with your remark that it is a ‘political ploy,’ the giving a special status to Science (I always want to give it a capital letter when using it as a singular term for reasons to do with the mystifications that are going on when people talk about ‘Science’ instead of ‘the sciences’ - of that more in the piece I’ll send you, Deus sive Natura). What I want to make out is just what it was that made that move attractive and apparently necessary. There is a bit toward that aim in Deus but more in something I’m working on called ‘Philosophy &Madness, which lays in all on Descartes and his Method, and the whole search for ‘method’ and the whole historical situation which made the search seem so urgent. (Heavens! not another historical explanation coming in? What have such things got to do with philosophy!?!?)
Now, it may not come as a complete surprise that I want to dissent from the phrase you use to describe something you and I really both agree on, namely the ‘requirement’ that we abandon ‘the realist’s notion of truth’. I would want to say that the so-called ‘conceptions of truth’ from Tarski on are riddled with words and phrases to which no sense has been given, so that there is no real ‘realist conception of truth.’ There is only a tacit, clubby agreement to use that phrase as if it had meaning The notion of truth has itself to be demystified, prized loose from that old warhorse, the ‘correspondence theory’ (another theory!) which itself has to be shown to be an empty show. There is no ‘realist’- ‘anti-realist’ opposition. Both sides of this famous and clangorous opposition depend on assumptions that can’t be made good and notions that turn out to be empty. That’s the way I think we have to approach it. We can’t ‘abandon’ what isn’t there.
That’s a long tirade about a single word, but I think we have to be clear about the form of the question and of the investigation. There is a lot to be said for the old Tractatus injunction: ‘The correct method in philosophy would be this: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science - and then whenever someone wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.’ There are also some things to be said against it, but of that another time.
Yes, I think you are a Wittgenstinian - of the best kind, an instinctive one, one who has come to those things is his own way, through his own struggles. Not one who keeps the book in hand and the phrase in mind, or worse, one who guards the temple.
A propos your concern to bring out what is special and differentiates the sciences from other human practices: I think that one is not going to solve that within a sociological frame that deals with religion, art, science, sport, or whatever, simply as practices. I would prefer to use the word ‘enterprise’ or ‘project’ of the sciences, hoping that this would go some way toward helping us see the nature of the shaping constraints on the practice of the sciences as a product of the meeting of human aims and projects with the blank walls of possibility and impossibility that they come up against. That way, I hope we avoid both the notion of ‘reality’ of some pre-formed sort (what used to be called ‘Providence’) and that which terrifies those who reach for the word ‘relativism’, namely: the idea it is all in control of the old-boy network, or even humanity as a whole, as you might think the arts were.
Of course that involves turning Popper and the standard conception on its head and seeing the sciences as essentially and at bottom practical enterprises and the purely theoretical flights as aids and adjuncts to practical pursuits, as waiting in a kind of limbo (as imaginary numbers or non-commutative algebras) till practical applications should be found that give them sense.

Enough for now, though I will be more than pleased to carry on a discussion and to send you further stuff in which the above sketched notions are worked out - when they are. In the meantime here is the promised piece, Deus sive Natura, which develops some of them. I’d be interested in your observations - positive or negative.

To return to the personal for a second: I didn’t find place earlier to say that I spent my teaching life at the University of Southampton, though I was briefly at Leeds where I hung out with Alasdair MacIntyre and Jerry Ravetz, though I haven’t kept up with Jerry. In 1982, fed up with British universities, I took early retirement and tried my hand at being an American a bit, but found that didn’t really work and went back to London, re-married and we have now moved here to rural Tipperary, where the talk is about the weather, hay and the headage payments on cattle. My wife, Bee (Ring) is a writer of short stories.
I myself am trying to gather up the scanty work of a lifetime, survey it and articulate the conception of philosophy that has been implicit in it from the first, and to set that conception against the prevailing conception of philosophy as theorizing, as ‘contemplating the truth’ as Descartes has it, and to reduce the attractions of the latter by uncovering the historical situation philosophers were trying to make sense of and the historical pressures acting on them - to do for philosophy what you did for the sciences, that is to show them as historical human enterprises that take place in and react to a definite historical milieu, both their own history and a larger.
Greetings and thanks and hopes that we will have much useful to say to one another,



Yours,

Guy

Three

Foulkstown, Ballinure, Thurles, Co. Tipperary

July 28 1994


Dear Tom
This will be a bit of a supplementary note because I see that I need to say something more about the argument you liked but came to have misgivings about - the one asking what changes in ‘the world’ might make realism false, having been true, &c. You worry about what ‘world’ I am talking about there.
I suppose the short answer is that I don’t myself want to use the expression ‘the world’ at all in any hard sense, in any way that rests weight on it, neither ‘natural world’ nor any other. My own view is that the expression ‘the world’ (of any sort) is a fa├žon de parler, OK for informal indicating, but not capable of sustaining any theoretical weight. It hides traps that won’t spring if we only tread lightly. But that’s not the view of the (would-be) realists. They think that it has a hard sense and real work can be done with it. In particular, they think that the notion is implicated in, and has work to do in understanding, both the notions of reference and of truth. The notion of world at issue would, I guess, be the broadest sense, something like ‘the way things are.’ What I am asking is the Wittgenstinian question -’Does Scientific Realism say anything?’ (or ‘Anti-Realism’ for that matter?)
What I regard myself as doing in my argument is to use that ‘belief’ of theirs that the notion of the world has real content or real reference to undermine itself. Given their views of truth, falsehood and reference, what is the status of their would-be thesis of Realism? What kind of an account can they give of it? Is the notion of proof really applicable at all? If not, what does that tell us?
Again, I don’t want to put this forward as a ‘knock-down’ argument, because I don’t think that that is the way philosophy works. I just want people to mull over that question and hope that mulling may end by reducing the attractiveness of the view. But it will be a hard and long business because of the great network of mutually supporting notions and views that we are up against.
Maybe as Wittgenstein thought in his pessimistic moments, those views will only be cured with the curing of ‘the sickness of a time.’ Still, I think there is work to be done by identifying the sickness, trying to say something about its causes, and by sketching an alternative picture. What else can we do?

Incidentally, my memory of your wife’s remark was: ‘Not another permanent position!’ - which makes the paradox nicer. (Actually, the stress has to fall on another.)


All the best

Yours,
Guy

Four

Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire

19 August, 1994


Dear Tom
I don’t want to overload you with correspondence, but your enthusiastic response to my paper emboldens me.
I’m writing now because a friend of mine, Dermot Moran of University College Dublin as editor of the International Journal of Philosophical Studies has asked to publish ‘Misunderstanding Science’ and wondered whether you would be interested in writing, or could be persuaded to write, a brief afterword. He has already published a piece from Hilary Putnam and one from Crispin Wright that are roughly in the ‘scientific realism’ - ‘anti-realism’ area.
Of course, you and I want to say ‘a pox on both your houses’ and to change the debate in a way that eliminates that so-called issue entirely. (That’s why I call you a ‘Wittgenstinian’ - though on my view of Aristotle I could equally call us both ‘Aristotelians’ in taking the business of philosophy to be that of clarification not theorizing and in insisting on thinking concretely and on not choreographing abstractions.) I would take Cora Diamond as an ally with her emphasizing the Wittgenstein remark ‘Not realism but the realistic spirit.’ I see this as a rejection of abstract theory in favor of concrete thought.
What I think that you and I share that is not shared by the majority of those who identify themselves as ‘Wittgenstinians’ is a sense of the importance of historical understanding, of its uneliminability. That is not to the fore in Wittgenstein and so many carry on with the search for the timeless and the universal. But it is there - in his talk of ‘the sickness of a time’ and his describing his remarks as being concerned with ‘the natural history of mankind.’
My own conception of the entry point for historical understanding in philosophy is that one cannot come to a critique of the agenda and the assumptions that seemed ‘natural’ to the philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (whose heirs we are) without understanding the projects that were laid on them by the great historical changes that had been taking place. The feudal form of social organization was being eliminated, along with its style of philosophizing, and being replaced by a society shaped by market forces, one that created problems that the old way of philosophizing could not deal with. Scholasticism was in no way refuted. It simply came to seem irrelevant, ridiculous even. And that change can only be understood historically.

So, you see, I’m a ‘Kuhnian’ in relation to philosophy itself. (Scandal! Alarm! Noises off!)
It would be nice if you felt able to make some brief comment on the paper to be published along with it, though Dermot has not made that a condition of publishing. He likes it well enough himself as it stands. What struck him particularly was the discussion of the notion of progress and particularly the example of progressing in playing the piano not implying a goal approached. But certainly a comment from you would make people read the piece more carefully. I would be glad of that. The name ‘Guy Robinson’ does not make people sit up and take notice the way ‘T.S. Kuhn’ does.
Incidentally, I have ended the paper just before setting off to explore the temptations to the ‘passive’ picture of seeing, knowing and so forth that seem to call for the formed, external cause that lies at the heart of ‘realism’. I think there is some important stuff there, particularly the business about the incommensurability of the vocabulary within which seeing has its place and the vocabulary of optics, neurology and of scientific understanding and explanation. Also I want to develop the point that the project of a comprehensive single vocabulary is essentially a religious, not a scientific one - the use of the sciences (or Science, their religious amalgam) for religious purposes. All that remains to be developed.



All the best.

Yours,
Guy




Thomas S. Kuhn 985 Memorial Drive, Apt. 303, Cambridge, MA 02138

September 4, 1994


Dear Guy:
I am sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your generous receptions of my initial letter. I had difficulties knowing how to respond and resolved them by procrastination, as is my custom. Probably I would not have continued in that mode for much longer, but your last letter, which needs an answer, forecloses the possibility of my doing so.
I am greatly pleased to hear that "Misunderstanding Science" will be published, but I've decided against attempting an afterword. To me that's an unwelcome decision, and it's not the one I anticipated when your letter reached me. You read me as I want to be read, and there are not many who do. That's what I intended to communicate in my first letter. and I'd welcome a way to say it for a wider audience.
But I also find myself uneasy with aspects of the enterprise into which you occasionally want to fit me, and I've seen no way either to deal with my discomforts or to avoid them in the suggested afterword. They're too complex and too deeply entangled with the problems I'm currently trying to work through in my book. You and I must some day explore them together. But I'm not ready for that yet, and the results, whatever they may be, won't fit an afterword.
I've not gotten to this point without soul searching and that's a process in which I regularly appeal to my wife, Jehane, for help. I enclose a note she wrote to you in the midst of the process.

As ever,

Tom

Incl:

Dear Guy,
Of course you can “abandon what isn’t there.” What’s more it’s just what you’re asking your reader to do. I’m worried because the bit in your letter that ends with ‘you can’t abandon what isn’t there’ (and begins with ‘you and Tom don’t really disagree) has to be more than an unnecessary twist. More like a surface eddy signalling a deep snag below. (One that is part of the difficulty of what you’re trying to do.

Warmly,
Jehane (another permanent spouse)

Five

Foulkstown, Ballinure, Thurles, Co. Tipperary

13 September 94


Dear Tom & Jehane,

First, Tom: - Fair enough, I’m sure there are differences enough between our conceptions and styles to need some working out. Though I should perhaps say that I wasn’t looking for a ‘seal of approval’ so much as an indication that I hadn’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick, - so that the piece wouldn’t be taken to be a purely idiosyncratic view of your enterprise.
As for my own enterprise - you’ve had your role in it and cannot now be prized loose. It is really only to clarify things in my own mind in the hope that that process and whatever success it may have may have some benefit to others. I’m not trying to found a philosophic party, or recruit you to one - that would go completely against my conception of the point and nature of philosophising. Perhaps I gave the wrong impression by talking about ‘Wittgenstinians’ and ‘Aristotelians’. Those expressions had only the role of broad indication of a style and conception of philosophising - of its tasks, its methods and the resources it can call on. There was not lurking behind them, a set of shibboleths, passwords and articles to be subscribed to.
And that is where I come to your remarks, Jehane. I think you must have had some private information that the piece I have just started out working on is called ‘Understanding Nonsense’ and is in a way addressing itself, or will address itself to your question. Perhaps my question could be put oppositely - ‘Can one embrace what isn’t there?’ People do seem to embrace nonsense, often with great passion and with great resistance to recognizing it as such - like people in the middle of a lush, amorous dream resisting waking. What is going on in that embrace is something that is not easy to understand. Still it happens. I guess my role and task is the thankless one of trying to convince them that there is nothing there, that their arms are in fact empty. Perhaps I could rephrase my original remark that gave you trouble and say that people ‘can’t put from them what isn’t there.’
Much of my philosophic work has been of that thankless, negative sort, concerned to show that something that people have embraced passionately or rejected with as much passion was a thing of air and no substance. Artificial intelligence, for example, or ‘the actual infinite’. What I have tried to do in dealing with them was to show that the would-be notions that were being argued about were in fact made up of parts that could not be combined. That if, for example, the proponents or opponents of artificial intelligence really examined the notion of machine or of artifact they would find implicit in both notions a prior connection with the intelligence of a user or maker that precluded the sort of combination that was being argued for or against.
So maybe I was asking them not so much to ‘abandon what isn’t there’ as simply to recognize that it isn’t there. I’m not sure. I’m not sure I want to go to the wall over that phrase, but maybe you can see a little better what was behind it.

Bee and I will be in the States for a month and a half in the latter part of November till after Christmas - Bee maybe longer if she goes to a low-residence writing course at Bennington in January - so maybe we can manage to meet and argue some of these things out. Bee and I will be mostly in Virginia where Bee wants to try to assemble her scattered children & grandchildren, see her brothers who live there and do some background research for of her writing, which is firmly set in that neighborhood. I have a son in NY and two daughters and three grandchildren in Britain - so we don’t assemble so easily.




Yours

Guy

Six

Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire

17 Dec, 1994

Dear Jehane and Tom,

Herewith the missing picture - or at least another copy. What happened to the first I don’t know.
Thanks for the meal and the criticisms. I am still trying to work out how to deal with them without getting into a major discussion of a large issue that is to one side of my own main concern - namely, to show some different ways in which nonsense arises and gets worked into our ways of talking. I still think that Einstein’s analysis is a fine example of the unmasking of an expression and a would-be notion as one that had been given no sense and furthermore could be given none. The trouble came because I was riding an old hobby-horse of mine that what I would call ‘absolute’ notions have no real place in the sciences, that they are religious rather than scientific notions, that as termini they propose to step outside processes that from a scientific point of view and from within the sciences themselves, are endless. The kind of end that those absolute notions propose is not a scientific end, but one that involves a standpoint outside the scientific enterprise, looking at it as a ‘whole’ and at the subject of its study as also a whole.
Right there are the roots of that ‘scientific realism’ which you and I oppose as creating great misunderstandings of the sciences. What I would say is that ‘scientific realism’ is essentially a religious position offering an external and religious perspective on something called ‘the World’. I would go on to say that that very notion of the World is itself a religious one that involves just such a leaping over processes that from our human point of view are endless and tentative to an external and, if you like divine, point of view that gathers up those untidy infinities into a comfortable whole.
Hidden in all of that is perhaps how I would want to respond to the second thoughts you had about my arguments in ‘Misunderstanding Science’ against theories and theses in philosophy. I’d like to reinstate that initial ‘WOW’, and would like to do it by entering caveats and cautions about the implications of the notion of the World, whether the ‘natural World’ or any other, as involving a notion of wholeness and completion that in turn involves an external and divine point of view.
I have nothing against such a conception of an external and divine point of view. I just want to say that it has no place or legitimate function within the sciences as a human enterprise and can get no licence from them. Scientific Realism is an attempt to posit a closure or completion for the human scientific enterprise, a closure or completion that has a logical or metaphysical standing, a place where the human enterprise must end, not an end that might be brought about by some historical catastrophe or by some human decision to give up that activity.
I am in the middle of an argument with Alasdair MacIntyre about some of these matters, an argument that started over the notion of miracles and my opposition to attempts to ‘secularise’ that notion by giving it some relation to the sciences. An old paper of mine on that subject tried to define that separation between the religious and the scientific points of view and to bring out the way in which the attempts to define ‘miracle’ as some kind of residue on scientific explanation implied such a notion of completion or closure that had no scientific licence and could only have a home within a religious point of view.
Of course we all use those ‘absolute’ notions, those ‘closure’ notions such as ‘the World’, ‘the origins of the Universe’, ‘the end of time’, ‘fundamental particles’ and so forth. Most of the time they are convenient ways of talking that can be unpacked into other, untroublesome ways - as I tried to do at the tail end of Deus Sive Natura in relating the unsplitability of Dalton’s atoms to their function within the state of knowledge at the time.
Ideally, I should try to do something of the same kind for Newton’s absolutes to follow out your suggestion that they were essential at that time for the development of dynamics. They would then be like Wittgenstein’s ladder we climb up to a position from which we can throw it away. Aristotle has a similar conception of hypothesis in the Posterior Analytics - as something we take on board for the purposes of progress in the subject, though we may progress to the point where we can turn back and criticise that starting point.
That’s how I see the problem anyway, and I’ll have to see what I can do in that line. One of the other things I take to be at least useful is to try to see what differences I can make out between a mathematical model and a method of analysis - if there are any. It might have been better to have described the Principia as a ‘method of analysis’ of dynamic changes than as a mathematical model - taking the description of the heavens as a paradigmatic application rather than the Principia as primarily a mathematical model of them.
Still, I’m not sure I can take all that on in the confines of the discussion in that Introduction. We will see.
Jehane, we never got to talk about the problem of belief in nonsense, which I think is an interesting, and maybe a pretty important one. Another time.
At the moment the problem I’m anxious to get working on is the nature and function and consequences of the inverted picture of humanity as individuals first and social beings after - that the Seventeenth Century laid down as its starting point, thus setting the agenda to which, in large part, we are still working. Much of the confusions generated by the notion of method in the sciences and elsewhere can be set down to their being aimed at a putative isolated individual for her or his private use.

Enough for now. Needless to say, Tom, that without benefit of pencil and paper, I immediately forgot your e-mail number. But I detected a slight reluctance to communicate that way. Perhaps I should say that I will never get into ‘chat mode’ because logging on involves a long distance call for me. My mode is to get in, grab and send mail and get out.


All the best,
Guy

Thomas S. Kuhn 985 Memorial Drive, Apt. 303, Cambridge, MA 02138-5740


January 17, 1995


Dear Guy:
Your good letter, written the week before Christmas, has done much to clarify what I take us to disagree about. I'm correspondingly glad to have it, for I was not by any means satisfied with my attempts to describe them during your visit. But I've needed to get past the residues of the season before repeating the attempt. I'm now as nearly there as I'm likely to get, so I resurface.

There are three aspects of your letter that bother me: the rejection of theory as a legitimate enterprise for philosophers, your notion of nonsense, and your talk of throwing away the ladder. The first two we've talked about before but not, on my part, very well; the third provides a means to clarify what I've had in mind.

As to philosophical theories, my disagreement is personal. In response to questions about whether Structure treats science descriptively or normatively, I've repeatedly said that it presents a theory in the sense that it explains many previously anomalous observations about the development of science and the behavior of its practitioners. Its technique for doing so is redescription, but redescription that claims to be generally applicable, not restricted to the particular cases used to illustrate and explain it. The generalizations it makes or suggests are, in a sense that needs explicating, lawlike. What I'm doing now is often even more explicitly theoretical. In particular, it claims to explain incommensurability for which purpose it develops a theory of meaning for kind terms, making use in the process of considerable material from developmental psychology. I can't make my points without undertaking that sort of work, and I don't see why I should. You may respond that the aim of the efforts I'm describing is not theory, to which I'll respond it's usually called that. Alternatively you may say that what I am doing isn't philosophy, to which I'll respond (not entirely disingenuously) that it's you, not I, who said it was. It's not that I think philosophers must introduce theories or that they regularly do (though the line between theoretical and non theoretical work is extraordinarily difficult to draw). But your conception of philosophy would exclude, among others, both Aristotle and Kant, two of the figures I most admire. I'm against many of the same things you are, but I think you're throwing out baby with the bath.

Next comes nonsense. I'm sure there is such a thing, but if you ask for indubitable examples the only ones I come up with are in the writing of Edward Lear, and I've no desire to extirpate them. None of the examples you give seem to me like nonsense. You are right, of course, that we use them to climb and can then throw them away, but that throwing away, in my view, always requires that they be replaced by another which has the same status as what they replace. If they were nonsense, then so is what replaces them. That's what my onetime talk of paradigms and revolutions was about, and I've always been upset by people who thanked me (as students in the '60's often did) for telling them about paradigms thus enabling them, they assured me, to get along in their absence.

Your nonsense, in short, seems to me just as absolutist as Descartes' sense: it's outside of time, culture, and space. For me, nonsense must always be situated in a context of language, belief, and custom. In another context it might not be nonsense at all. You think of Einstein as "unmasking an expression and a would-be notion as one that had been given no sense and could be given none," and in our time and place that's nonsense His argument depends upon a then much contested generalization about nature, one drawn directly or indirectly from experience. It presupposes, that is, that the speed of light is the same in all Galilean coordinate systems. If the Michelson Morley experiment (or other available sources of the same conclusion) had given a different answer, simultaneity would not have been relative.

In my view (but it takes a book length elaboration as well as a theory of meaning to make this out) the statements which get unpacked as claims about the absoluteness of space or time or simultaneity are deeply embedded in a larger (but not Quinean) web of statements and procedures through which members of a community learn what space, time, etc., are. The individual statements are not quite definitions (various other statements and procedures could be substituted for them), but they or their substitutes must be learned to supply what I think of as quasi-Kantian categories, prerequisite to experience of the realm to which they apply. In that sentence, the "quasi-" functions to open the possibility that different language communities, cultures, periods, etc., may operate from somewhat different prerequisites to experience. These prerequisites are then constitutive of different form of life; they are not to be thought of as true or false (or nonsense) in themselves.

Which brings me to a final point in your letter. You speak of the seventeenth century's inverted picture of humanity as individuals first and social beings after, and suggest that it sets an agenda for much that follows. Except that I would not speak of what results as "confusions" (for the same reasons that I resist your use of "nonsense) I agree entirely. But I take "social being" to mean member of one culture or another, not simply member of the human race (another mode of thought with ties to the seventeenth century). And since I think different cultures may have (partially) different prerequisites to experience and correspondingly different way of describing the world, I see my way to talking of different group's living in (partially) different worlds. That sort of world (lower case not upper case) is not something I would know how to dispense with, in part because in any culture one can say things about it that are to be judged true or false on the basis of shared empirical evidence. But it does bring a lower case realism with it.

I can't now go further. Instead, I send Jehane's and my thanks for the missing picture, and our warm greetings to the three members of your family who are represented by images in our archive. We hope some day to acquire living images of the other two.

Yours,

Tom