Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire
Jan 31 95
Thanks for your letter. It gives me a lot to respond to. But I want to thank you again for your criticism of my ahistorical treatment of Newton. It sent me back to the Principia, where I found some useful things and came away with a greater admiration for the instinctive philosophy underlying much of it (where his theological interests didn’t impinge). In fact, there are parts in which he is radically at odds with the philosophy of his time, particularly that of his professed admirer, Locke and the individualism that was the premise and starting point of it all.
What I have in mind is the Preface to the First Edition in which he discusses the relation of mechanics to the geometry which he now wants to use in his analysis of motion both in the heavens and on Earth. I don’t think anybody has picked up on the radical character of his statement that ‘Geometry is founded in mechanical practice.’ In practice! - (Sounds like Kuhn, Heaven forbid!)
Certainly Locke never considered that statement or thought about it deeply. Nor have the others who have wanted to hold geometry up as an example of the power of pure rationality to generate out of itself, or as proving the existence of innate ideas, or as ‘pure intuition’ (whatever that is) or pure formal creativity, à la Hilbert. None of them have attempted to come to terms with that striking discussion. (‘After all, he was only a physicist not a philosopher. What would he know about it?’) Actually, I think the philosophers never thought about that discussion of Newton’s or its implications. The achievements of Newton’s system were all that later generations were interested in. Those achievements bedazzled them and sent them off on great speculative flights (‘determinism’ and all the rest). It would have brought them sharply to earth if they had accepted the view that this great analytical tool that allowed them to describe what they took to be God’s own order, was founded in the practice of ordinary mechanics working with the brute things of this world - carpenters, surveyors, draftsmen and other menials.
For Newton, geometry was only paying back its debt to mechanics in what could be described (talking for myself, now) as a dialectical development. Geometry was only the idealization of that practice of carpenters and surveyors, &c. And so it could found a mechanics and new practices that were still in touch with that world, were still grounded, without needing the notion of truth to give them point and reference and applicability. (How many problems could be solved by that recognition!)
[Now, if that process of idealization of practices is what you want to mean by ‘theory’ then I’ll say ‘fine’ - yes, you have theorized the sciences in that way in offering us a way of looking at them and understanding them by examining those practices. But then the notion of truth doesn’t come into it in the way that the proponents and opponents of the various ‘isms’ (particularly ‘realism’) would have it. It’s that latter sort of thing I want to shoot down with my short argument. All the backing and forthing of those ‘ism’ mongers is only sterile and depressing. A track that is going nowhere.]
I happen to think that Newton is right - right in the sense that his way of looking at geometry gives us more insight and enables us to clear up mysteries that have defeated those who have looked at it in those other ways that had to see it as founded in individual faculties and capabilities that are supposed to be uniformly and universally distributed. I think that Newton’s view was also Euclid’s and is implicit in the setting out of the definitions, common notions and axioms. In particular, as I put in that brief note in my Introduction, if we look for a mechanical practice that underlies Euclid’s otherwise mysterious definition of straight line, it becomes simple and plain and easy to understand. And the advantages of Euclid’s definition over the others, ancient and modern that have been proposed become equally plain. Analogously, Euclid’s definition of plane becomes plain if one thinks of the practices of the rude mechanic in testing surfaces for ‘flatness’. Perhaps having myself worked briefly as a draftsman/ inspector has given me some advantage and insight there.
But the notion of a practice, whether proposed by Newton or by Kuhn, is a subversive one, subversive, anyway, of the individualistic premise that has underlain philosophy in the modern era and defined its problems for it. A practice is after all a social notion - something that is developed, refined, transmitted socially, like a language. It is not something available to the atomized individual with which modern philosophy has sought to start. [That is where the deeply challenging force of Wittgenstein’s remarks about rules and private languages make themselves felt.] A practice is not something an atomized individual can engage in. The notion of a solecism or a mistake in practice is a social notion. That it is a social notion comes out in the fact that the whole of a linguistic community cannot collectively commit a solecism. The group collectively defines what a solecism is. The individual, on the other hand can commit one but cannot define one. A habit, which is something individual, is not a practice in the sense meant. A deviation from a habitual pattern is just that; it is not thereby a mistake or a solecism.
(Perhaps I should send you a piece of mine: ‘Language and the Society of Others’ that goes into these things more.)
Now I’m going to risk something - for what I want to do is to convince you of the radical nature of your own work and perhaps to make larger claims for it than you are willing to make yourself. That may make you uneasy. When I read the Structures in the ‘60’s it was with a sense of revelation and liberation and I never saw the problems of the philosophy of science in the same way after. I saw the SSR as a concrete working out and a confirmation of the Wittgenstinian critique of the individualistic premise of the philosophy and maybe even the weltanschauung of the time. Maybe that is too much responsibility for you to take on. But I think it is there in the presentation of the sciences as the activity, and the collective practice of groups practicing together and collectively giving direction and setting standards, training and inducting new members. (Of course that does not make it into an ‘old boy network’ as the unsympathetic have wanted to pretend. The sciences are not like ballroom dancing. They have a practical outcome too. And without that they would be something very different.)
I want to say to you: ‘Don’t listen to the philosophers. Let them listen to you.’ You have provided philosophy with the raw materials of and impetus for a critique of assumptions that have kept it pursuing the impossible project of showing how an isolated, atomized, pre-social individual had available, internally or externally, the means to reach an objective, true picture of thngs that would be a bridge to others and the basis of a common language. That project inverts things. Your analysis brings out that inversion in bringing out the social nature of the scientific enterprise, both actual and necessary. And so the old question whether your account was ‘normative or descriptive’ is one that should not in any way be answered. It should be critiqued and rejected as being implicated in the whole old framework. Don’t be hauled onto that old ground where, if descriptive, then your work is ‘merely’ historical, and of no philosophical interest, and if ‘normative’ then what is the sanction or the basis of recommendation? And so forth. Neither of those notions can capture what you are doing in SSR. ‘Descriptive’ asks us to bring into play the notion of truth and falsehood whereas what you are doing there is offering a way of looking at the sciences, their history and their practice, and ways of looking are not true and false. But ‘normative’ doesn’t get anywhere near it either. You are hardly making a recommendation to the scientist of how they should go about their business. You are saying ‘Look at it this way and it will make more sense to you. Look at the sciences as the historically developed practices of a set of related communities. Not as a set of abstracted and timeless logical methods and canons that are set over those communities as guide and judge of whether what they are doing is ‘science’ or not.’
That search for the ahistorical, timeless logical methods and canons that will generate scientific truth if followed by even an isolated individual, that attempt to ‘mechanize’ or ‘Taylorize’ scientific work, is part of that individualistic program that was laid out in the Seventeenth Century and not deeply critiqued since - till Wittgenstein looked at language and rules and saw that they could not be cut loose from the social notions of practices, solecisms, of training, imitation, criticism and correction. All of which imply a social structure and social relations: between teacher and student, master and apprentice, initiated and neophyte and so forth. All I have to say is that whether consciously following or intuitively and as parallel discovery, you applied those notions to the understanding of the sciences, and so, willy, nilly have become part of a radical critique of the basic premise of philosophy in our era, of its aim and its ‘problematic’, which is to make language, thought and the search for knowledge to be within the reach of each individual, whose joining with others is taken to be a matter of convenience only. This is the view that requires that abstract ‘realism’ as a common focus and a test of progress. If we dump it, we dump that need for a mythical ‘Reality’ as the focus of our endeavors and source of our community of view.
There were good historical reasons that recommended that individualistic view and the myth of the Social Contract as well. But they had to do with combating the feudal order and hierarchy and with justifying the market based social relations that required the throwing off of the old social bonds of serfdom that were associated with a subsistence economy. Those problems are not our problems anymore, though the power of the individualistic myth lives on. There is a large measure of inertia involved. Those notions are deeply worked into a way of doing philosophy and of setting out its problems that we really have an incommensurability problem here.
Perhaps this is the place to mention a worry I have, abstract and perhaps unfounded, about appealing to developmental psychology in giving an account of the notion of incommensurability. On my own view, the source of incommensurabilities is in incompatibilities of practice and project - that one has to choose between hunting with the hounds, or running with the fox. One can’t do both at once. And I would say that our classifications and the kinds we recognize in any community or society are bound up with the way of life and the projects recognized and engaged in by that community. There is a dialectical relation here - that is, those recognitions and classifications both form and are formed by that way of life. They shape lines of development which then reflect back to modify and develop those classifications and recognitions. My abstract worry about developmental psychology is that it may tend to conceal those social dimensions of practice, project, and way of life, - and history.
As for my notion of nonsense, I would and do connect it with incompatibilities of role within specific historical languages, though there may be larger common features and projects of human societies that shape common features across languages. It is for that reason that Aristotle’s discussions of ‘cause’, ‘matter’, ‘good’, ‘change’ and the rest are still clarifying for us. But take my example of ‘infinite whole’ as an example of nonsense because of the play on two senses of ‘whole’ one of which implied completion and the other implied openness. Another language might have two different words and English might even come to adopt two.
And take my large categorizing of a source of nonsense in taking the metaphorical for the literal and asking questions and drawing conclusions appropriate only to the literal. The borders between the metaphorical and the literal change with time and often pass from the poetic to the cliché to the literal. Again, maybe there’s a book more to be said.
I think there is a lot of agreement hidden in our apparent disagreement, even over nonsense. This comes out particularly in your final paragraph, with which I am pretty well in agreement. That use of ‘world’ you propose and want licensed is one that I think raises no problems and is much needed. The trouble comes with that use of ‘world’ that calls for capitalization because it claims uniqueness for its referent and implies a standpoint outside and unconditioned. Your use is precisely contrary to that and might even be said to have echoes of the Tractatus ‘The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.’ - as transferred, in the spirit of the later Wittgenstein, to a linguistic community.
But, enough for now. I’ll have to leave something for later.
Bee and a brother of hers have been jointly left (in trust) a lovely house in the pretty little town (c 300) of Fincastle Virginia, the county seat of a county (Botetourt Co.) that was once roughly the size of Western Europe. None of that glory remains, though there is a handsome courthouse and several fine churches as well as a couple of log houses. We have the aim of spending a few weeks there in the year. Maybe you and Jehane would like to come visit some time. We’d like that.
All the best.