Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire
19 August, 1994
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.
Thomas S. Kuhn 985 Memorial Drive, Apt. 303, Cambridge, MA 02138
September 4, 1994
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.
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.
Jehane (another permanent spouse)