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,
Thomas S. Kuhn 985 Memorial Drive, Apt. 303, Cambridge, MA 02138-5740
January 17, 1995
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.