Thomas S. Kuhn

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As an experiment, I'm starting this thread on Thomas Kuhn. Basically, I find his ideas fun, though I doubt that many of them apply anywhere outside of the history and philosophy of science. I know very little science, and not much more history or philosophy, but strangely enough, I think I "get" Kuhn far better than most of the people who talk about him. People mistakenly believe that Kuhn has something significant and unsettling to say about The Nature Of Truth, and want to assimilate his ideas to "Nothing is true; everything is permitted" and then get all upset or excited by this and use it in battles for and against "relativism" and "diversity." Whereas when I read Kuhn I think "This guy makes Kepler sound really interesting" and "He tells a good story about how a science changes from A to B and about how we can go about trying to retrieve A" and "I wish that I understood enough math to be able to read his book about black-body theory." Most people only know Kuhn through The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is not the only or necessarily the best thing he ever wrote. My favorite, especially if you don't have much free time, is Section 4 of a paper called "Revisiting Planck," which was originally published in 1984 in some magazine called HSPS (14[2]: 231-52) but which he reprinted as the Afterword to the second edition (i.e., U. of Chicago rather than Oxford) of Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912. I also recommend the brief essay "What Are Scientific Revolutions?" which is the first piece in The Road Since Structure and shows clearly what he means by "incommensurability" (though it doesn't actually use that term) and also puts his Planck idea into laymen's terms. And the Kepler chapter in The Copernican Revolution is excellent for showing how a great thinker wasn't being irrational or unscientific in believing stuff that we now tend to think of as hooey.

Anyway, this thread is an experiment in that I want it to be one where everyone can play, whether they know anything about Kuhn or not. My first post is going to be really long, which will drive a lot of you away, but my hope is that it will inspire those who stay to simply start discussing the man's ideas, rather than to say something vague about what you vaguely remember some teacher having said about him in some course whose name you've forgotten. And when you yourself post, I recommend that if an idea is important to the point you're making, you state the idea rather than merely alluding to it. E.g., if you say "Kuhn undermined Popper," state a Popperian idea, and say how Kuhn's idea undermines it. This way, someone who can't differentiate Popper from Crystal Meth can nonetheless comment on what you say. I get frustrated when people allude to what seem like provocative ideas without actually stating the ideas, as if the real discussion were happening elsewhere and we were allowed only to cite such discussions rather than engage in them ourselves.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 14:45 (11 years ago) Permalink

Thomas Kuhn saw sciences getting increasingly varied and specialized, and increasingly precise, over time, and he didn't think this process was likely to be reversed. But he argued against the idea that (1) a science progresses inevitably towards a particular outcome, and (2) that the outcome can be used to explain why the science arrives at the conclusions it does. This last point is the most crucial. It might seem obvious - an effect can't be used to explain its cause - but it runs against some powerful intuitions, for instance the idea that physics came up with atomic theory because atoms are really there. I have trouble shaking such intuitions myself. But the fact is, the idea that atoms are really there came as the result of an intellectual process and is worthless as an explanation of how Bohr et al. came up with that result - worse than worthless, because it produces bad history, a story in which the younger Bohr is confusedly groping around with a hodge-podge of right-and-wrong ideas towards a new theory, rather than what he was actually doing (according to Kuhn), which was modifying earlier theories in a way that kept the evolving ideas as coherent as possible. So Kuhn the historian was demanding that we tell how the past gave birth to the present rather than try to make the present cause the past.

Though Kuhn didn't use these exact words, think of him as basically saying that there is no explanatory value in claiming that physics evolves towards the truth, or towards a true description of reality. You can - if you want - say that physics has evolved towards the truth, but that tells us no more than that you believe, e.g., that atomic theory is true. It doesn't tell us why it's true or why anybody came to believe it. For that you have to go to Bohr et al.

Please note: This does not mean that nothing is true, or real. Making correct judgments about what is true and what is real are crucial human survival skills, and those who generally can't make such judgments die young or end up in mental institutions. All it means is that saying that something is true doesn't explain why it's true or how you came to believe it was true, and to explain that "a statement about the world is true when it corresponds to reality" isn't an explanation at all, doesn't explain why the statement is true, it just repeats in slightly different words your contention that it is true. And saying "science evolves towards a correct description of reality" isn't wrong so much as it is vacuous. It's on a par with a creation scientist or an advocate of "intelligent design" claiming that giraffes evolved long necks so that they could eat the leaves off trees, or that "things happen the way that they're supposed to." For my purposes, it's just as useless, for the same reason. I realize that intelligent people - e.g. Aristotle - can believe that an outcome can explain the event that caused it. And most people in the world actually do believe that "things happen the way that they're supposed to." But I can't make use of such beliefs myself, and I don't think science can either.

For what it's worth, a conclusion that I draw, though Kuhn didn't, is that there is nothing to say in general, for all ideas, any ideas, across the board, about when or why ideas are true or about when we're justified in believing them. There is plenty to say in specific, however, about whether a particular idea is true.

Kuhn's refusal to explain a cause by its effect fits right in with his idea of incommensurability. For Aristotle, motion was a change in quality, an asymmetric change from an initial state to a final state, so that motion not only included a rock's moving towards its place in the center of the universe, and fire reaching outwards to its place on the periphery, but also an acorn growing into a tree, a man returning from sickness to health, and so forth. Newton's idea of momentum - that an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force - would have made no sense in an Aristotelian system, since it wouldn't have involved a change in quality and therefore wouldn't have been motion, and couldn't possibly explain how a rock gets from one place to another. (And Aristotle's conception of place and space were a lot different from ours, too.)

A point Kuhn made was that you could see motion as a change in quality, or you could see it as an object only changing its location (while changes in its quality, if any, are irrelevant), but that there was no third thing, "the datum" or "what is really there," for you to look at, to compare the ideas to, in order to see which was right. What would such a third thing be? Say you're an observer whose concept of motion is that it includes a man's returning from sickness to health. If this is your concept, how, by carefully observing a man as he actually returns to health, can you possibly decide that this is not motion? And conversely, if you think of motion as a change in location but not a change in state, how could your observing this man make you abandon your idea and decide that his return to health is an example of motion after all? You can compare the two ideas to each other, to see which is better, but not to an independent measure applicable to both. And the belief that there would be such an independent something, "what is really there," is the belief that an effect can cause its cause, though this belief is dressed up as "empiricism." To claim that Newton chose his idea of motion over Aristotle's on the ground that he saw that it was really there would be to claim that Newton's conclusion - his laws of motion - caused him to come to it. This doesn't mean that nothing's really there, or that what's really there doesn't constrain us, just that "really there" has no explanatory value. It's a conclusion, not a cause.

(By the way, I've barely read Aristotle and Newton, so I'm going by Kuhn's account. Also, Kuhn as far as I know never said "an effect can't cause its cause," but I find the statement useful in showing how his ideas connect. He certainly never contradicted it.)

The switch from the Aristotelian to the Newtonian concept of motion was part of an overall shift in many concepts, assumptions, theories, models, and practices, a shift in one leading to a shift in another, and so on; Kuhn wrote about these shifts in The Copernican Revolution. In his next book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he called such a wholesale constellation of shifts a "paradigm shift," though he later abandoned the word "paradigm" as being too confusing. (Kuhn: "Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.") New paradigms are modifications of old, just as new biological species are variations on old. But the new paradigms don't merely add new characteristics to the old, don't simply add new truths to the truths that already exist, add to what was already scientific within the old paradigms. They destroy many of the old characteristics; e.g., the Copernican Revolution wiped out old ideas of "planet" and "motion." The word "planet" remains, but it no longer picks out the same type of object as before; and the new concept of planet is incompatible with the old. In later years, Kuhn said that he'd probably overstated the suddenness of paradigm shifts, but this doesn't change his fundamental idea that the old ideas and the new are incommensurable and that, in scientific revolutions, change is noncumulative. (Note that the sentence "in scientific revolutions, change is noncumulative" is not equivalent to "science does not progress or produce more and better knowledge as it goes along.")

Another crucial idea of his is that paradigms are models of how to solve problems, not rules that scientists follow; so science is an analogic activity not a methodical one, and each field or subfield has its own paradigms rather than following some universal "scientific method." (But note that Kuhn is using "paradigm" here to refer to individual models, though he also used "paradigm" to mean a whole set of related concepts, assumptions, theories, models, and practices. So a paradigm contains paradigms, just as the game of basketball contains basketballs. Kuhn discovered that his double usage was confusing everybody, so he dropped the word and called an overall set of models, assumptions, etc. a "disciplinary matrix" and an individual model an "exemplar.")

Kuhn is sometimes described as an "irrationalist." This is a terrible misreading, but frequent. E.g., Greil Marcus says "Kuhn's argument was that great scientific discoveries were powered by irrational impulses, and so was the acceptance or rejection of those discoveries." And Christopher Green over on the greenspun History And Theory Of Psychology board says "paradigm shifts in the history of science did not appear to be based on strictly rational grounds." Kuhn said no such thing, and when people claimed that he'd said it he told them they were projecting, and when they said, "Well, the shifts as you describe them can't be rationally based," he vehemently disagreed, and told them why he thought the grounds were rational. Having said this as emphatically as I can, I'll add that the phrase "not rational" does appear occasionally in Kuhn's work - very occasionally - and I haven't in all cases figured out what it's doing there. But if you compare Kuhn's account of Kepler in The Copernican Revolution to, say, Arthur Koestler's in his entry on Kepler in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in Kuhn's account Kepler's ideas hold together, while for Koestler they're an odd mixture of modern science and old superstition. So in Kuhn's account, Kepler and Copernicus and Planck and Bohr et al. come off as more rational than they do in conventional accounts, and that's one of the reasons that Kuhn thinks his account is better, that Kepler and crew come off as better scientists. Rationality wasn't an issue for Kuhn. He simply assumed that if you're not self-defeating and if you try to make your beliefs and values as non-self-contradictory as possible, then you're rational.

Kuhn: "Kepler was an ardent Neoplatonist. He believed that mathematically simple laws were the basis of all natural phenomenon, and that the sun is the physical cause of all celestial motions." This explains why Kepler was willing to jump to a Copernican viewpoint a lot sooner than his contemporaries; for most other people, the minor increase in simplicity and coherence that Copernicus brought to astronomy was vastly overbalanced by the chaos that adopting his ideas would bring to physical laws, to cosmology, to religion. (Copernicus's system was full of almost as many convolutions and epicycles as Ptolemy's, and didn't predict planetary location any better than Ptolemy's.) Whereas for Kepler, Copernicus's ideas bolstered ideas that Kepler already had, so adopting Copernican cosmology actually brought greater coherence to a part of Kepler's thought. I think people like Marcus steer themselves wrong while trying to grapple with the following type of problem: Once Kepler had figured out that planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits and that both the speed and the locations of the planets could be predicted with great accuracy, the Copernican Revolution was won, and people now had strong motives to change their ideas of mechanics, religion, cosmology, etc. to move them closer to Kepler, rather than to dismiss Kepler in order to preserve coherence elsewhere. But the question arises: Why did Kepler, before he'd figured out the elliptical orbits and so forth, believe he was on the right track? And Kuhn's answer - that Kepler had a neo-Platonic religious faith that the planetary orbits must be simpler than Copernicus had shown them - registers as "Kepler was powered by faith, not reason." But I don't see it like this. If Kepler had dogmatically asserted, "the orbits are simple, they must be," and then made no effort to identify such simple orbits or show the planets actually following them, then he'd have been irrational. But he did just the opposite; he worked hard to make his ideas hang together. If that doesn't define someone as rational, I don't know what would. The fact that a lot of his ideas - he practiced astrology, said that the Sun was worthy to become the home of God - don't match modern beliefs, just means that I would be irrational to hold them, not that he was. I don't see how it's irrational to try and make one's cosmological and religious views cohere. I'd say just the opposite.

And people like Green and Marcus go wrong in assuming that "incommensurable" implies "no rational way to choose between the two." I basically throw up my hands at this argument, since Kuhn wrote books and papers all about people's rationales for choosing between paradigms.

But there's something else going on, too, when so many people get Kuhn wrong: People want to have an irrelevant argument about capital-R Reason just as they want to have their irrelevant argument about capital-T Truth, because they think it bears on the battle over whether we should protect the Official Intellect from the horrible barbarians or open it up to the wonderful hordes. And people look vainly to Kuhn for general permission either to stick to accepted rationales or to abandon them in favor of new or disreputable ones. Whereas, what I get from reading Kuhn is that these decisions are worked out in specific circumstances, for each rationale; so your or my choice to accept or reject a rationale is simply that - your or my choice. And we can't call on Kuhn to authorize our choice for us.

"Rationality" is simply not Kuhn's issue - he doesn't think it's under threat, and he doesn't want to liberate us from it - and in Structure he doesn't address it. That doesn't mean we can't address it, but it's a wrong issue, a nonissue, the wrong conversation, and simply detracts from our seeing what is interesting in Kuhn. He wants to understand past modes of thought and to understand the process by which modes of thought change, and he thinks that to do so you need to get a handle on incommensurability. Rationality can take care of itself.

Kuhn felt that, to understand a discarded mode of thought, we must learn the old mode as if we were learning a lost language, some of whose terms can't be understood from the perspective of the new mode that replaced it. And Kuhn gives us advice on how to do so:

"When reading the works of an important thinker look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer..., when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning."

This is the one aspect of Kuhn's thought that I do think we can put to use. Even though rock criticism, for instance, doesn't have and doesn't need a reigning disciplinary matrix, and thus is never going to undergo a "paradigm shift" in the Kuhnian sense (which doesn't mean it won't change, just that the change won't follow Kuhn's model), ways of talking about music nonetheless differ from situation to situation and from social group to social group, and so what Kuhn did in trying to understand Aristotle and Kepler is something that we can do in trying to understand our fellows.

I've touched on just some of Kuhn's ideas. I didn't say much about the relationship between "normal science" and "revolutionary science" (among other things, Kuhn thinks that the former creates the latter), or about something I've been thinking a lot about: Kuhn's attempt in the last decade of his life to deepen his concept of "incommensurability" by connecting it to a theory of meaning. The attempt seems as much a wrong direction as would be attempts to connect it to a Theory of Truth or a Theory of Rationality, and some of his ideas here just seem obviously wrong; but then I'm not at all sure I understand what he's saying, and maybe I need to follow his recommendation and re-examine his absurdities in a new light, since his other work seems so non-absurd. So if any of you have read his later stuff and can help me here, please do.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 14:46 (11 years ago) Permalink

So here's a questions: if discussing Kuhn in the realm of Absolute vs. Relative etc. is unproductive, what other realm IS there to discuss him in aside from his concrete historic descriptions of various scientific innovations etc.?

Also I want to contribute more but actually feel significantly out-of-depth compared to Kogan right now and need to read more Kuhn beyond the obv. first.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 21:25 (11 years ago) Permalink

Frank Kogan, you seem much more well-read than me on the subject. It's been about five years since I read Kuhn though. I own some of his books, but they collect dust. I studied a little of the history and philosophy of science and when I got to Paul Feyerabend I just quit. Feyerabend really blasted Popper's ideas. He was rather amusing for such a potentially dry subject in Against Reason.

Kuhn for kicks. Hah. Fight for your right to party! I need some refreshing on the subject, then I may contribute something meaningful.

I was uncertain when normal science becomes extraordinary science. Is it like a great naval battle when a single flagship is sunk and one decisive battle usually determines the outcome of the campaign?

I like the nonlinear view of history with "swerves" in biological, linguistic, and economic systems. The institution of science is no monolith of truth. Which means one isn't pushed over a shattered as a newly erected one (paradigm) is put in its place until it is pushed over. And Kuhn does not say that either.

Oh, it used to give me mental pangs to think that we are now finding out we really don't understand the truth so we might as well have fun with language itself and anomalies in thought. But then, Chomsky's linguistic breakthroughs and his rationality are "incommensurable" with much of Foucault or Baudrillard's babble. I trust Chomsky more than the poststructural Frogs. He's doing serious work I cannot understand so let the wierdo professors indulge themselves because they are sophists and charlatans to begin with.

Wooly Reaper, Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:14 (11 years ago) Permalink

foucault is a historian mainly

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:22 (11 years ago) Permalink

of sex and such

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:22 (11 years ago) Permalink

& chomsky hasn't made a linguistic "breakthrough" in well on 20 years or so.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:23 (11 years ago) Permalink

ilx = proof of existence of shallow structure!!

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:25 (11 years ago) Permalink

That's cuz Chomsky IS the paradigm. Twenty years ago is still recent. And he wrote important linguistic works in the nineties that and he remains peerless in linguistics. I just don't understand the work, but I've heard and read that he still does important work. Shit, Foucault's been dead, dead, dead about twenty years.

mark s, ilx is deep and wide compared to Yahoo's boards. There are some brilliant ideas floating there.

Wooly Reaper, Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:43 (11 years ago) Permalink

Forget Foucault.

Wooly Reaper, Tuesday, 11 March 2003 22:45 (11 years ago) Permalink

yeah but baudrillard said that!!

mark s (mark s), Wednesday, 12 March 2003 00:21 (11 years ago) Permalink

Frank, you might find this fairly sympathetic account of Kuhn’s theories, taken from M. Williams’ latest book ‘Problems of Knowledge’ of interest. (I hope so, it took me ages to type up.) Some of this excerpt may be a little hard to follow out of context, as it’s taken from the penultimate chapter and refers in passing to ideas which had been elaborated on at great length in earlier sections of the book (especially contextualism and radical vs. non-radical scepticism).

Objectivity and Progress


Nature and convention

The distinction between nature and convention does more than record the facts of variability in belief: it suggests an explanation. In the case of matters belonging to nature, universality of belief is explained by the existence of ‘hard facts’: facts that obtain independently of what we think or believe. Such facts are found, not made. In the case of matters that are customary or ‘conventional’, our judgements and responses are not answerable to any such external standard. Our standards of morality, say, are made not found. Accordingly, there is no question of one group’s being right and another’s being wrong, for there is nothing to be (objectively) right or wrong about. This is another route to a position that might be thought of as relativistic. The thought is not so much that truth is relative as that, in some areas of discourse, the notion of truth gets no real purchase, so that any view is as good as any other. Plato’s opponents, the Sophists, seem to have adopted a kind of relativism on something like these grounds: they offered to teach the art of speaking well as a neutral skill, adaptable to the values and customs of whatever city the pupil found himself in. Plato, by contrast, thought that even in matters of value, there are ultimate universal and objective truths that, with sufficient diligence, we might hope to discover.

One of the fundamental aims of philosophy has always been to determine what belongs to nature. This is one way of understanding the task of metaphysics, as the investigation of what is ultimately real. A certain conception of nature as what is there anyway, independently of human perception, custom, or artifice, gives content to the metaphysical concern. Philosophers who have taken up this task – with the possible exception of certain Idealists – have tended to assume that something belongs to nature, so that there are significant demarcational lines to be drawn. In particular, philosophers in the analytic tradition, have tended to view science ‘realistically’. The goal of science, which it sometimes reaches, is to discover facts that belong to nature. This is what makes it objective and capable of progress.

Whereas philosophy of science used to concern itself with highly abstract questions about explanation and confirmation, many contemporary students of science take an interest in the historical and sociological details of scientific research. The main impetus for this turn comes from Thomas Kuhn’s theory of ‘scientific revolutions’. Kuhn’s writings have probably had more impact – especially outside professional philosophical circles – than any other writings concerned with broadly epistemological issues. But Kuhn’s views seem scandalous to many philosophers, and one of the main reasons is that they appear to challenge the realistic perspective. On a certain reading, which his rhetoric does a lot to encourage, Kuhn’s social-historical account of scientific change implies that ‘scientific facts’ are just claims that (reputable) scientists endorse. The ‘facts’ are, so to say, made in the laboratory. To use a phrase that is popular today: scientific ‘facts’ are socially constructed. For realists, to take such a position is to give up on the notion of fact altogether.


The two-phase model

Kuhn’s views develop out of sharp criticisms of what was, when he wrote, the standard empiricist account of science. This account embodies substantive foundationalism. It postulates a fixed ‘observational language’ capable, in principle, of capturing any empirical finding, and connected to theoretical statements by an inductive logic (or rules of confirmation). Kuhn finds this picture to be wildly at variance with the actual practice of science. Scientific observations never take the form of the foundationalist’s reports on simple sensory occurances, but are ‘theory laden’. The telescopic observations used by Galileo to confute the Aristotelians are bound up with complex assumptions having to do with optics, and this penetration of observation by theory is typical. Also, theories play a role in determining what observations are relevant to their confirmation. It used to be thought important to explain the number of planets, but after Newton no one thought this any more. Newton’s theory was so successful that facts it couldn’t explain became not worth explaining. But this decision on the part of the scientific community was not, in any simple way, mandated by Nature.

Kuhn also objects to Popper’s idea that science aims constantly at refuting theories. Such a policy would be destructive of science. Even the most successful theories are ‘born refuted’, in that there are typically many phenomena that, it seems, the theories ought to be able to explain but can’t. Some phenomena may even amount to Popperian refutations. However, researchers treat them as ‘anomalies’ rather than as counter-examples. The existence of anomalies is not a signal to reject a theory but a challenge to develop it further. In any case, testing a theory is by no means as simple as Popper’s writings sometimes suggest. As science becomes more sophisticated, devising ways to subject theories to experimental test is itself a challenging undertaking. Refutation is never routine.

These reflections lead Kuhn to a two-phase model of scientific change. A striking achievement like Newton’s mechanics constitutes a ‘paradigm’ around which future research crystallizes. This crystallization gives rise to ‘normal science’. In normal-scientific research, the fundamental assumptions, theoretical and methodological, implicit in the paradigm – what Khun later calls a ‘disciplinary matrix’ – are simply not in question. The challenge for normal science is to further refine the theory, to take care of apparent anomalies, and to extend its application to new phenomena. Normal science’s characteristic activity is not debate about fundamentals but ‘puzzle solving’. However, for even the most successful theory, a time comes when anomalies begin to accumulate at a rate that taxes the ingenuity of even the theory’s most devoted adherents. At this point, investigators begin to look for alternatives. Science now enters a revolutionary phase, in which there are no rules to guide research. If a new theoretical paradigm emerges, the grounds for prefering it will not be straightforwardly observational but will also involve broad holistic considerations of economy and elegance. Once the new theory is in place, erstwhile anomalies come to be seen as refutations. A scientific revolution has taken place and a new period of normal science begins.

Kuhn has a tendency to emphasize the non-rational elements in scientific change. For example, he notes that older scientists who have given their lives to a certain type of research may be unwilling to abandon it. The triumph of a new paradigm may therefore depend as much on this generation’s dying off as it does on decisive confirmation or refutation, as more traditional philosophies of science understand such things.

This aspect of Kuhn’s work has done a great deal to encourage to so-called ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of knowledge. According to this conception of science, scientific change is to be completely accounted for in terms of social factors: generational shifts, the politics of the laboratory, influences from surrounding culture and society, and so on. This is an odd view, as sociology is supposed to show that physics is a just a social construction, as if the social ‘sciences’ were in any better shape than physics.

In fact, nothing in Kuhn’s account of science, as presented so far, supports such extreme reactions. Indeed, Kuhn’s views are much closer to Popper’s than they first seem. What obscures the similarity is that, whereas Popper remains mired in the methodological individualism of traditional epistemology, Kuhn is interested in scientific research as a socially institutionalized endeavour. Popper presents his falsificationist methodology as rules for how the individual scientist should conduct his investigations. Kuhn points out that this couldn’t work. The normal-scientific testing of an advanced theory is a difficult business. Working out how to do it demands intense efforts from committed adherents, who will not regard the first disappointing result as a signal to go back to the drawing board.

In revolutionary times, the situation is more fluid. But though anomalies are now potential counter-examples, there is no algorithm to tell us when to abandon the received view, or exactly how to trade off theoretical elegance against empirical precision. Sometimes it may be best if competing theories exist in tandem for a while, so long as all attract a critical mass of component investigators (which means that there can’t be too many options in play). Only this way can one theory eventually acquire decisive advantages over its rivals.

What all this shows is that it makes sense for the institution of science to tolerate investigators displaying a range of ‘epistemic styles’ and theoretical preferences: for example, some more empirically oriented, others inclined to place more weight on general theoretical considerations. Over time and trans-personally, science may still function as something like a Popperian conjecture-and-refutation machine, though it will do so only if individual practitioners do not adopt a Popperian methodology. On Kuhn’s model, science works because, as an institution, it has managed to strike a delicate balance between freedom and constraint, and because its procedures, however theoretically mediated, involve interactions with nature that we do not fully control. Normal-scientific research is what throws up the anomalies that eventually provoke theoretical advance. And, as abandoning foundationalism allows us to see the observational/theoretical distinction as methodological rather than ontological, with advancing techniques of experimentation, theoretical entities cross the line into the domain of the observable.

I do not mean that there is nothing to be learned from sociological analyses of science. However, we should distinguish between analyses that are refuting and those that are not. With regard to particular bodies of theory, we may well come to think that genuine empirical constraint is wholly lacking, so that the apparent credibility of such theories is completely accounted for in ideological, political, or other non-epistemic terms. By contrast, in other instances we may find that theories, though equally subject to such social-historical influences, pay their way, so that their credibility is not exhaustively accounted for in non-epistemic terms. In my view, refuting analyses are available in connection with much of the theorizing that makes up the ‘human sciences’. In abnormal psychology, for example, theories seem all too easily blown by the winds of fashion, changing with changes in what is thought to be ‘normal’ behaviour. But how we sort things out in particular cases is an empirical matter. Recognizing ‘external’ influences on scientific theorizing and non-rational factors in scientists’ decision-making does not commit one to dogmatic, across-the-board relativism or social constructivism.


Different worlds

What has made Kuhn an icon for sceptics and relativists (although Kuhn always repudiated the relativist label) is not his socialized Popperianism but his provocative remarks about how scientists on opposite sides of a revolutionary change live in ‘different worlds’, so that their theoretical views are ‘incommensurable’.

We should not read too much into this talk. Kuhn’s scientists are not living in ‘different worlds’ in any sense of that phrase that conflicts with Davidson’s strictures on global conceptual relativism. Galileo and his Aristotelian rivals could agree on lots of mundane facts: they disagreed about what ‘world system’ best accommodated them. Furthermore, their disagreement extended into fundamental methodological issues: the questions a physical theory ought to answer, the importance (and appropriateness in physical matters) of mathematically precise laws, and the sorts of observation that could be trusted. Even so, their dispute – however wide-ranging and fundamental – lies in the region of intelligible disagreement that Davidson’s argument leaves open (Though Davidson sees himself as criticising Kuhn I think he is mistaken.)

That said, there is something fishy about Kuhn’s talk of meaning-shifts. In one way, it involves taking talk of meaning too seriously, and in another, not seriously enough. The doctrine of incommensurability is underwritten by the view that the meaning of a term is entirely a function of the theory in which it occurs. Newton and Einstein both use the word ‘mass’; but since their laws of motion are different – indeed, since Einstein recognizes two quantities, rest mass and relativistic mass, where Newton only recognizes one – they are not talking about the same thing. Or as Feyerabend (another devotee of incommensurability) explains, the replacement of old principles by new ones entails ‘the elimination of the old meanings’. This is an overreaction. Because Newtonian mechanics is approximately correct for bodies moving slowly relative to the speed of light, there are various ways of relating Newton’s theoretical vocabulary to Einstein’s. We might take Newton to be talking mostly about rest mass while believing that it is the only sort of mass there is. Or we could take him to be referring indifferently to rest and relativistic mass, not realizing that any such distinction could be made. Provided we understand how the theories as a whole are related – particularly, the way in which one can be seen as approximately true of a restricted range of phenomena – it doesn’t much matter. For such questions of interpretation, there is no definitely right way of proceeding. It depends on what similarities and differences we are interested in highlighting, which is a pedagogical matter, of no great theoretical import. This is the way in which Kuhn makes too much of the idea of meaning.

In another way, however, he doesn’t look at the idea of meaning hard enough. Kuhn sees that a term’s ‘meaning’ is partly determined by its inferential position in a wider range of assertional commitments. He also takes on board Sellar’s point that the distinction between the ‘observational’ and the ‘theoretical’ is methodological, not ontological. However, by stating this point in terms of the penetration of ‘observation’ by ‘theory’, he slides towards the view that nothing is really observational, or that observation exerts no independent check on our theoretical commitments. But no such conclusions follow from the epistemological and semantic views that Kuhn shares with Sellars. Observation reports are still causally tied to circumstances, and thus constitute a body of evidence whose contents we do not fully control. This much independence of observation from theory is not only consistent with but required by Kuhn’s socialized Popperianism.


Not so sceptical

Kuhn’s tendency to overstate his ‘sceptical’ conclusions is connected with a tendency, shared with Popper, not to distinguish between radical and non-radical scepticism. It is one thing to say that, when theoretical choices have to be made, there is no algorithm that singles out a uniquely right answer; it is something else again to say that it never matters what choice we make, or that any choice is always as good as any other. The locally holistic character of theoretical inference does not support any such radical conclusion. An example due to Thomas Nagel makes the point: suppose I adopt the theory that eating lots of ice cream is the way to lose weight. It is true that in testing my theory by stepping on the bathroom scales I am taking for granted a lot of extra theoretical ideas, for example, the principles of mechanics that determine how the readings on the scales correspond to different weights. But it would be lunacy for me to conclude, in the face of the constantly rising numbers I encounter, that my diet must be affecting the laws of mechanics. One reason for this is that I have to take those same laws for granted in many other inquiries. Since they are effectively held fast, my odd dietary ideas are what have to go. It is not contextualism but an ill-thought-out form of radical holism that encourages relativism and irrationalism. It does so by encouraging us to see empirical inference as a largely unconstrained choice between competing ‘total views’ in which anything and everything is up for grabs. Something like this form of holism may lie behind Kuhn’s talk of ‘different worlds’.

The effects of failing to mark the radical/non-radical distinction can be compounded by playing back and forth between the considerations available to guide inference during the initial phases of a scientific revolution and those available when an alternative theory has emerged as a mature alternative to a received view. It may be that, in the early days, choices can only be made flying by the seat of one’s pants. But they can become practically unavoidable as further evidence accumulates (though to accumulate that evidence some investigators may have to make a seat-of-the-pants commitment.)

I think that these failures – making too much of meaning and failing to mark the distinction between radical and non-radical scepticism – afflict Kuhn’s critics too. For example, according to Hilary Putnam, we need to block a disastrous meta-induction, encouraged by the Kuhnian model of progress through revolutions. Past revolutionary changes in science suggest that ‘all the theoretical entities postulated by one generation invariably ‘don’t exist’ from the standpoint of later science’. There is thus a serious chance that electrons will go the way of phogiston. Indeed, the conclusion to be drawn seems to be that ‘no theoretical term ever refers’. In theoretical science, we have no reason to suppose that we are ever talking about anything.

Putnam’s hope is (or was) that the theory of reference – the theory of the word-object relation – is our best hope for responding to this sceptical view of theoretical discourse. But why suppose that a theory in the philosophy of language either could or should block this argument? (Hasn’t the electron of the 1920s already gone the way of phlogiston?) How are we to rule out the possibility of drastic theoretical change at some point in the future? Putnam wants something that is neither possible nor desirable: he wants philosophy to underwrite the truth of our current theories.

Putnam’s problem looks dramatic at first sight but proves less than compelling on closer examination. Like Kuhn’s reflections on incommensurability, it takes questions about meaning, or reference, too seriously. We aren’t by any means compelled to suppose that the terms belonging to rejected theories ‘don’t refer’, so that the objects postulated by the theories don’t exist. We could say that, because the atoms as we conceived them are very different from the ‘atoms’ conceived by Dalton, Dalton was never referring to anything. But we can just as well say that, while Dalton was talking about atoms alright, he had lots of false beliefs bout them: for example, he didn’t realize that they were composed of particles even more elementary. Again, the difference is more rhetorical than epistemologically significant.

Putnam sees a serious issue here because he sees far too close an analogy between the possibility of saying that even currently favoured theoretical entities ‘may not exist’ and radical general scepticism. That he fails to make the radical/non-radical distinction is evident from his noting that his disastrous meta-induction is a form of the old sceptical argument from error, an argument which enforces only fallibilism and not radical scepticism. That our current theories may be false is compatible with our having powerful reasons for holding them true. That he assimilates his problem about theoretical entities to general scepticism is apparent from his remark that an argument for the view that our words really do refer to things will turn on ‘the success of science, or, in an earlier day, the success of common sense material object theory’ don’t refer or that most of our everyday beliefs about such things might be false. Those beliefs are covered by the argument from charity. By contrast, beliefs about theoretical entities belong to the area of possible significant disagreement that the argument from charity opens up. In that area, we don’t want philosophical guarantees.

I am not questioning the success of science. Indeed, I am happy to agree that the rhetoric of ‘scientific revolution’ is overblown. The phrase inevitably calls to mind the dramatic intellectual developments surrounding the over-thow of the medieval world-picture and the emergence of modern mathematical physics. But Kuhnian revolutions are typically much more local and small-scale affairs. The fact is that modern science is remarkably stable. It is not remade every time some theory or other is replaced. At the same time, we should accept the stable yet progressive character of science for what it is: an empirical fact. We should not try to provide it with any kind of metaphysical underpinning.


A new paradigm

Although Kuhn’s incautious talk about meaning is one of the reasons why his work has been taken to encourage irrationalism and ‘mob rule’, it is not the only reason why some philosophers find his work hard to assimilate. In a way, Kuhn’s work exemplifies what it describes. It represents a new paradigm: a way of thinking about epistemological questions – especially methodological and demarcational questions - that does not put scepticism first. Kuhn is careless about his sceptical-sounding remarks because he is not interested in the sort of scepticism that has dominated mainstream epistemology: scepticism that is both radical and general.

Although Kuhn’s ideas are often seen as promulgating relativism and irrationalism, Khun is better viewed as exploring the social and institutional dimensions of rational inquiry: an exploration with clear normative implications for the conduct of successful research. What prevents our seeing Kuhn as making a normatively significant contribution to epistemological self-understanding – to our seeing him as a methodologist and not as either a ‘mere’ historical/sociologist of science or epistemological nihilist – is our Cartesian blindfold, which makes us think that all rationality is individual rationality, hence all method ‘rules for the direction of the mind’.

Now we have seen that, while the dominant tendency in epistemological theorizing, ancient and modern, is individualist, individualism can take radically different forms. Ancient individualism reflects the ideal of self-control: of a life lived according to self-conscious knowledge of nature, human and material. By contrast, post-Cartesian epistemology is individualist because subjectivist. The sceptical problem of our knowledge of the external world apparently forces us to seek the foundations of knowledge within: in the contents of our minds, conceived as an inner arena of irreducibly private events. Breaking with individualism of both sorts, we can see knowledge as a socially shared and transmitted achievement, where entitlements are passed on by testimony and where not everyone needs or can reasonably aspire to know everything there is to know.

The source of modern individualism is methodological scepticism in its Cartesian variant. Kuhn is not an individualist because he is not wedded to methodological scepticism of any kind. He is thus not wedded to the idea that all epistemology worthy of the name is epistemology-as-first-philosophy. Something like this could be said of Popper too. However, Kuhn makes a much cleaner break with scepticism than does Popper. Being free of sceptical entanglements, Kuhn is able to move methodological questions, such as ‘How and why does science progress?’, to centre stage. Moreover, he is able to answer such questions by developing ideas that are rooted, not in a priori reflections on the possibility of knowledge, but in views about the specific history and institutional structure of modern science.

Kuhn was anticipated in his social and non-sceptical approach to methodological questions by Francis Bacon. Epistemological theorizing might have taken a very different form if Bacon, rather than Descartes, had captured Europe’s philosophical imagination.


Truth as goal

Kuhn has attracted a lot of fire for denying that science is making progress towards the truth. To many philosophers, this seems like irrationalism of the worst kind. I disagree. I have suggested that truth can be understood in a ‘deflationary’ way and that, so understood, truth is not an epistemologically interesting notion. Of course, we want our beliefs to be true, in the sense that we will modify or reject them if we find reason to think that they are in error. But the process of evaluation is guided by epistemic factors, observational and theoretical. Truth is not a goal or norm that guides, even in the most theoretical matters. ‘Hold true beliefs’ is as useful a piece of advice as ‘To win, score more goals than the other side’. Quite, but how? Lacking a hot line to Nature’s mysteries, we choose theories for their epistemic virtues. We want theories to fit well with the relevant empirical data, theories that ‘work’. Finding theories that work is a way of finding theories that are (as far as we can tell) true, not the other way around.

‘Working’ involves more than accounting for well-known data. We want theories to make novel predictions and to sponsor new and interesting lines of inquiry. Good research programmes keep inquiry moving: they are ‘progressive’. When they get to the point of being able to accomodate, via modification, new (and initially inconvenient) findings, while no longer suggesting new investigations to pursure, they are ‘degenerating’ and it is time to consider something new. So long as a research programme is in a progressive phase, whether the latest theory it has produced is strictly true is not all that important.

I would go further. Although we do not want to hold false views, truth alone is not a goal at all. There are countless matters that we will never look into, countless truths that we will never know, because they are of no conceivable interest or importance. We want interesting truths: truths that bear on matters we have some reason, paractical or theoretical, to care about.

So far, I have been talking about truth with a little ‘t’: the sort of truth that can be explained in a deflationary way. But I think that when Khun talks about truth he has something grander in mind. He is thinking of truth with a capital ‘T’: the truth embodied in an ideally completed theory that gets everything right, leaving no stone unturned and no anomaly unexplained, so that the prospect of further revolutionary developments can be discounted. I think Kuhn is right to be suspicious of this idea. We no more need – and can no more understand – the idea of Truth in science than we need or understand the idea of utopia in politics. We measure progress more by where we have been than where we are going: by the ways in which current theories improve over their predecessors, not their distance from the end of inquiry. This scepticism about Truth as the Goal of Inquiry should not be seen as an invitation to either relativism or irrationalism but simply as a salutary reminder that we can always turn out to know less than we think.

The idea of (significant) truth as a goal has its clearest application to matters of practical concern, where the facts at issue are close to the observational level. (Not that they have to be observed, but that they could be.) These are the sorts of facts at issue in courts of law, for example: we want to know whether the accused was where he says he was when the crime was committed. But as the goal of theoretical inquiry, truth is uninteresting and Truth is implausible (if even fully intelligible).

What goes for truth goes for knowledge. Our concept of knowledge involves the idea of conclusive reasons, and this idea is most at home in relatively commonsensical matters. In more theoretical pursuits, theory choice can involve reasons that, while not negligible, are visibly less than conclusive, even when ‘conclusiveness’ is understood in a contextualized and non-demonstrative fashion. I think that the temptation to think of truth (or knowledge) as the (dominant, if not sole) goal of inquiry has the same roots as infallibilist intuitions about knowledge: the classical or demonstrative conception of knowing. This conception is deeply bound up with the ancient, contemplative ideal of knowledge. It expresses the urge to settle things once and for all, to bring inquiry to an end. A fallibilist should have no sympathy with this ideal.

andy, Wednesday, 12 March 2003 09:20 (11 years ago) Permalink

is this thread an entry for the highest words:posts ratio competition?

Frank could prob write a better entry in the wikipedia than

Hurray for incommensurability. "College reading lists reunited" You know I never got round to reading The Order of Things, so I've bought it again. I wish I knew whether it's the translation that's annoying or Foucault really was a prolix twunt.

Alan (Alan), Wednesday, 12 March 2003 13:42 (11 years ago) Permalink

(Does no-one like Foucault? I can remember really liking what he said, ie, found it interesting.)

Cozen (Cozen), Wednesday, 12 March 2003 20:59 (11 years ago) Permalink

I like him, more than I like many of his contemporaries.

I see him as the second great 'writer' of that generation / period / movement, (a long way) behind Barthes. I don't have much evidence that this intuition is correct, but it helps me get by.

I admire Mr Kogan's efforts on this thread, but don't feel able to keep up with them. I tend to agree with his point re:

>>> E.g., if you say "Kuhn undermined Popper," state a Popperian idea, and say how Kuhn's idea undermines it.

I think - and I think Kogan agrees - that brisk claims that 'thinker x finished off thinker y, after all' are usually poor things.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 March 2003 21:42 (11 years ago) Permalink

He's also a great 'thinker', too, PF. Admit that he's a better 'writer' than a lot of those hoary old bores (Derrida, Habermas). But I'm making Kogan's eyebrows creep up his brow, to the point they almost fall off the back of his head. Sorry Frank. I'll step off.

Cozen (Cozen), Wednesday, 12 March 2003 22:06 (11 years ago) Permalink

I hope you lot can keep this thread going long enough that I get the chance to read it carefully (it needs that, at least for me) before it fades away. Don't know that I'm likely to contribute, but I appreciate the existence of a thread like this.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Wednesday, 12 March 2003 22:24 (11 years ago) Permalink

Martin, you can always revive it (and email us to tell us that you have, if you do it many moons from now; I'd be curious to know what you think). Actually I don't mind that you guys mention Foucault et without stating his ideas, since you're not claiming a connection between him and Kuhn, I don't think. Really, I'm more interested in your ideas. (And I'm trying to set aside time to read all the Cozen stuff I've bookmarked.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Thursday, 13 March 2003 01:32 (11 years ago) Permalink

So here's a question: if discussing Kuhn in the realm of Absolute vs. Relative etc. is unproductive, what other realm IS there to discuss him in aside from his concrete historic descriptions of various scientific innovations etc.?

Incommensurability, paradigms, whether his model of scientific change is a good one, whether his model can be extended to nonsciences, whether I'm full of shit when I say that an effect can't cause its cause, how to use Kuhn's advice to understand the thought of others (e.g., people on the P&J Stats thread reading you as if you were a "populist" and discovering "contradictions" when what you'd written didn't match the "populism" that they'd read into you; Kuhn's advice to them would have been to hypothesize not that you were contradicting yourself but that they had so far failed to grasp how your ideas hung together). Those are just a few.

I don't think "absolute vs. relative" is a realm I find interesting for now, though I'm interested in people who were interested in it in the past.

Also I want to contribute more but actually feel significantly out-of-depth compared to Kogan right now and need to read more Kuhn beyond the obv. first.

Damn. I was hoping I'd written my posts well enough that you could comment on them even if you hadn't read Kuhn. Really, I'm not looking at anyone's credentials. (Of course, if you want to comment on how well I've presented Kuhn, you'll definitely want to read him, and I'd hope that you'd want to read him anyway. But you can comment on the ideas even if they turn out not to be Kuhn's. Hey, maybe Kuhn as I've misread him is better than Kuhn as he was.)

I was uncertain when normal science becomes extraordinary science. Is it like a great naval battle when a single flagship is sunk and one decisive battle usually determines the outcome of the campaign?

I like the metaphor, but I don't understand it. I'd say it's like, you're mending a thread, and in doing so you've fixed up one square inch of cloth, and suddenly you realize that you've inadvertently unraveled the rest of the suit and it has to be rewoven to fit your square inch, and your square inch needs more work after that, to fit with the retrofits, and so on.

foucault is a historian mainly

Kuhn is a historian.

M. Williams' latest book 'Problems of Knowledge'

I'm wondering (and assuming the answer is "Yes," since the M is for Michael) if this Michael Williams is the same guy as the Michael Williams who appears in this footnote in Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: "As Michael Williams has pointed out to me, Kuhn is simply not concerned with skepticism, either pro or con, but is always read by philosophers as if he were advancing skeptical arguments." I think the Williams of the footnote is right, which makes the Williams of Problems befuddled in believing that Kuhn is overstating skeptical conclusions or failing to distinguish between radical and non-radical skepticism. Actually, I'm damned if I know what Williams means by non-radical skepticism here: "It is one thing to say that, when theoretical choices have to be made, there is no algorithm that singles out a uniquely right answer; it is something else again to say that it never matters what choice we make, or that any choice is always as good as any other." The first thing simply isn't skepticism at all, and the second isn't something Kuhn ever remotely suggested. In epistemology, "skepticism" means more or less that you can't know if you know anything. The lack of an "algorithm" -whatever - merely means that you don't have a sure-fire way of knowing right off if the theory you've chosen is the right one. I don't see how this is any different (or any more philosophically interesting) than your not having an algorithm that tells you right off if you've chosen the right marriage partner. You may never know if you have, but this doesn't mean that you can't ever conclude that you have. And since Kuhn writes at length about how scientists do come to consensus about theory choice, I'll reiterate what Michael "The Footnote" Williams said in the first place: Kuhn doesn't give a fuck about skepticism. And Williams goes on to say pretty much the same thing here, when he starts to talk about Putnam. Williams would have been better to say flat off: "KUHN DOESN'T EVEN RAISE SKEPTICAL ISSUES." There's nothing in Kuhn that concerns itself with what we can't know. So whether Kuhn is incautious or not in whatever it is he says about "meaning" (Williams doesn't tell us what Kuhn says), he's not even considering the idea that we can't in principle figure out what something means. Which doesn't imply that we shouldn't consider it, except that I can't think why we'd want to.

What I wonder about Williams is what he's getting at. Since Kuhn has told an interesting story about scientific revolutions, and you can read this story without even thinking about skepticism or about whether or not facts are "found" rather than "made," or whether or not you should distinguish between "nature" and "convention" (those aren't two words that I would normally pose as opposites, myself), just where does Kuhn impinge on Williams's concerns? (Would help if I knew what Williams's concerns were, I guess.) I mean, "Problems of Knowledge"? What problems?

I'm not claiming that Kuhn didn't know that such questions were out there, since a motive for writing Structure was to knock down some of the answers to those questions. But it seems to me that not only did he knock those answers, he knocked down the questions.

A few more comments about the Williams stuff: a lot of it is stupefyingly vague, and only some of this vagueness can be excused by his referring back to what he'd written earlier. Section I is too summarily wispy to be useful, in later sections Williams doesn't explain what's "theory-laden" in Galileo, the phrase "mandated by nature" doesn't tell us much, the paragraph beginning "Kuhn also objects to Popper's idea..." is accurate and useful ("the existence of anomalies is not a signal to reject a theory but a challenge to develop it further"), some of the rest (before Williams starts arguing) waves its hands in the right direction but is too generalized to make much sense ("the grounds for preferring it will not be straightforwardly observational but will also involve broad holistic considerations of economy and elegance" - like, is there a law against giving examples?), and the following paragraph is dead wrong:

Kuhn has a tendency to emphasize the non-rational elements in scientific change. For example, he notes that older scientists who have given their lives to a certain type of research may be unwilling to abandon it.

First off, the mere fact that scientists won't give up old projects doesn't tell us anything about whether the change that they're resisting is rational or not. It might imply just the opposite (the change is rational, and the old men aren't), except that this is what Kuhn wrote: "Though the historian can always find men - Priestley, for instance - who were unreasonable to resist as long as they did, he will not find a point at which resistance becomes illogical or unscientific." (This sentence sort of wavers, doesn't it?) As I've said six or eight times, I don't think "rationality" even gets raised as an issue in any interesting way in Structure. I think what raises it for some people is that rational people sometimes choose different premises. From this the leap is made to, "If rational people can disagree, there can be no rational reason to choose one premise over the other," by which point the word "rational" is buzzing around in Goo Goo Ga Ga Land, for all it matters.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Thursday, 13 March 2003 01:39 (11 years ago) Permalink

I'm flattered by your interest in my views, Frank, but I was saying a day or two ago that my vision of my own intelligence importantly includes knowing when I'm out of my depth. This isn't just intelligence, this is a complete lack of any philosophical education, except reading a random handful of books on philosophy. I knew only the tiniest fraction of this stuff about Kuhn for instance.

In the tiny and simplistic slot in my mind allotted to this stuff, I kind of thought of Popper as a Modernist, accepting that after Einstein (arbitrarily) a new world view had been justified, and science accordingly shifts to a more correct paradigm. I sort of see Kuhn in more Postmodern terms, claiming that the privileging of one particular metanarrative is not soundly justified in the scientific method but instead happens for a complex conglomerate of reasons, some or all of which might have little to do with the scientific method as it is understood. I should add that I think this is a pretty pointless and dubious link to a pet interest of mine (PoMo), and what little truth there may be in it is useless.

I went to a lecture recently at UCL, the university where I work, that was more or less about a major paradigm shift in museum studies. The lecturer read out an old and new mission statement for one institution, and the shift was from (paraphrasing) "collecting and safeguarding artefacts for study, plus showing them" to "serving the public by" doing that stuff - she went on to explain what this meant in practice. Not science precisely, but a clear example of how a paradigm shift in something not so far from science can be entirely sociological. It's hard to see how that element could be wholly removed from the menu of causes as we move towards more purely scientific arenas, even if its impact is diminished.

As for the idea of an effect causing its own cause, this as expressed is scientifically contradictory (though I half expect quantum physics to disagree). In psychological terms, we can think of goal-based thinking as having an effect on the framing of any account, scientific or otherwise, and on the studies and experiments which try to support that account. Bringing up the quantum level again, it is well established that if you look for wave-like properties in subatomic particles you will find them; and if you look for them to behave as physical particles, you'll find that too. I do see the evolution of scientific studies as a kind of cybernetic operation in a way, in its original scientific sense (I am not bringing Kevin Warwick into this!) - I'm envisaging scientists (maybe collectively as well as individually) as having goals in mind, and aiming research to fulfil those aims. I'm not necessarily suggesting that they distort findings because of their aims (though that is certainly not unknown), but that they choose areas and direct experimentation with such goals in mind.

For instance, at the 'top' level of theoretical physics, one of the great directing ideas of recent years has been what used to be called the unified field theory. There was a notion that in the same way as scientists have brought the electrical and magnetic forces together, the other three forces can be merged with the electromagnetic, perhaps with effects as spectacular as electromagnetism produced. There was a secondary idea (not restricted to this area) that this answer would have a mathematical elegance and simplicity (of a sort), in some sort of 'truth is beauty' assumption. This research and thought has led beyond unifying those forces towards theories unifying far more (space and time and matter and energy all at once with those forces), and we've all heard at least a little about superstring theory and m-branes. We might easily argue that the shared ideas in these constructions, that there is some underlying 'substance' that composes time and space as much as matter and energy, amounts to a paradigm shift. I should emphasise that I don't think there is anything wrong with this as science - these people are building theories that account for the facts as we observe them, that are falsifiable and that make useful and accurate predictions, which are the criteria of good science. Nonetheless, their relationship to 'truth' is a very slipery one indeed. The point I am trying to make is that these ideas have gained wide acceptance as useful and fruitful, with arguably nothing to prove them 'true', and certainly with a motivation that is linked to desired end results.

The key difference here is that the end result is only something that is in the minds of the scientists. Whether scientists find an elegant and simple answer at the end of this is irrelevant in that sense, since the effect has already happened - the cause is what the scientists had in mind, what they intend, not at all what actually comes about because of this.

To be honest, it surprises me that teleology, the belief that things naturally move towards goals, has had the legs it has. It's not just this kind of sloppy scientific/philosophical thinking, it's there all the time in the talk of ordinary people, both in the way they understand science (evolution and the gaia idea are particularly prey to this) and the way they see the world. I think, with the very limited exception of intention as discussed above, it's a foolish idea.

One final point. Frank rather dismisses the applicability of this to music criticism. While I accept that there is no ruling paradigm, I think there is something close to one, debated only by a minority. We might call it 'rockism', except I'm loathe to muddy the waters so. What I mean is that I think that the Beatles, more than any other single cause, did produce a paradign shift in how we assess the worth of pop musicians, and that this shift is audible in the insistence that singers who do not write their own songs are of vastly less artistic value, in the privileging of the album as a measure of achievement, in the striving for an artistic legacy - some of this (the last one, really) is the inevitable growth of a young form, maybe, but the first two (songwriting, albums) are part of the prevailing paradigm and were not before, and there is no purely rational reason why this newer paradigm is superior to the old.

I was briefly talking last night, while we walked to Trafalgar Square to get our night buses home after the FAP, to The Pinefox about something related to this. I'm hoping he might contribute something here on paradigm shifts in literary criticism, as he might have studied this kind of thing (not just in literature) in more depth than anyone else here.

Good grief, this is a thread that brings out long posts!

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Friday, 14 March 2003 18:02 (11 years ago) Permalink

(i will write something here i will i will)

(but fist i believe i need to read something)

mark s (mark s), Friday, 14 March 2003 18:12 (11 years ago) Permalink

Nah, just ramble pointlessly from a position of ignorance, Mark. It 'works' for me.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Friday, 14 March 2003 20:59 (11 years ago) Permalink

Martin - I am happy about your response. Here are some points I want to highlight.

(1) Kuhn's most crucial idea is incommensurability. His eureka moment as a young man was his suddenly seeing how Aristotle's physics cohered once you realized that Aristotelian concepts of "motion" and "space" don't match ours. "Paradigm shift" is derivative of this. If the new paradigm is commensurable with the old, then it isn't a new paradigm, just an extension of the old. Your museum example isn't a Kuhnian paradigm shift given that both roles (museum as repository vs. museum as exhibition space and public service) co-existed and aren't incompatible. The shift in museums has been one of emphasis; seeing one role from the perspective of the other doesn't make the other role seem to fall into incoherence.

Among other things, Kuhn the historian uses the phrase "paradigm shift" to alert himself to the fact that he needs to suspend his new mode of thought in trying to understand the old, to remind himself that the old cannot be understood as prelude to the new. Now, though the museum-studies people are being non-Kuhnian, their use of the phrase "paradigm shift" nonetheless helps them to identify changes museums have undergone. But I don't imagine that they're using the term to alert themselves to the necessity of suspending their modern-museum mode of thought when they want to understand an old-museum mode of thought.

(2) The concept "paradigms" eliminates "scientific method." Scientists use models not methods (according to Kuhn).

(3)...not soundly justified in the scientific method but instead happens for a complex conglomerate of reasons, some or all of which might have little to do with the scientific method as it is understood

But all of which are necessary for science, believes Kuhn. So what he's saying is that what scientists do is science, since it produces scientific knowledge, which it obviously does (well, not obviously to me, since I don't know much science, but obviously to Kuhn). And if scientists want to keep on doing science (says Kuhn), they should continue to do variants of what they are doing.

Be careful of the word "sociological." Yes, Kuhn is sociological or anthropological, in that he's studying how scientific communities and subcommunities achieve what they achieve, what the group dynamic is, individuals' relations to the group, and how the group loses and gains consensus. But you could say that Darwin is being "sociological" too, since Darwin talks about how species evolve, and both he and Kuhn emphasize that the group must have a variety of individuals with somewhat different characteristics or else there's no evolution, nothing for selection to select. (That will be the subject of a different post, if I get the chance.) The point here is that calling a process "social" or "sociological" doesn't make evolution any less evolutionary, or science any less scientific. This is the spot where people's reading comprehension of Kuhn collapses most frequently. He tosses "scientific method" onto the scrap heap for not being applicable to science, and with it he tosses "the correspondence theory of truth" (that a theory is true when it corresponds to reality). But some readers want to conclude from this that what scientists do is somehow less than scientific because it doesn't conform to "scientific method" or to the "correspondence theory of truth." The radical hope and the conservative fear that Kuhn is undermining science are equally conservative, in that both the "radical" and the "conservative" are committed to conserving the old notions "scientific method" and "correspondence theory of truth" as definitive of science, whereas Kuhn will take science over either notion, thank you.

Kuhn is not pomo: he does not derive from and then break with modernism. He derives to some extent from Darwin, and has similarities to Dewey - e.g., sees science as a problem-solving activity, hence like Dewey he sees it as a social activity rather than as a description of an antecedent reality. And I can't make sense of Darwin or Dewey being called "postmodern," and don't think the narrative "Modern-To-Postmodern" can be made to fit philosophy.

[Kuhn is also infected by neo-Kantianism, a fact that I do my best to ignore.]

(4) I'm envisaging scientists (maybe collectively as well as individually) as having goals in mind, and aiming research to fulfil those aims.

Crucial point, actually: Without goals and expectations there simply would be no science. An expectation that's confirmed helps to bolster a hypothesis, an expectation that's disconfirmed gives a science a wonderful problem to work on. I'll add this, rather cryptically: If, as Kuhn says, science is a problem-solving activity, the scientist is trying to find and make problems, not facts (facts are useful only insofar as they help to solve and create problems). Looking for problems means looking for things that need to be tested or for which current explanations are inadequate. And I'd say that the scientific spirit (whether the thus-spirited person ends up in science or not) involves creating the unknown. So a good paradigm is one that, among other things, helps to create and order the unknown.

Future magazine editor-in-chief, age 6: "I will sit down and try to describe the feel and texture of talcum powder."

Future scientist, age 6: "What will happen if I throw this lit match into the talcum powder?"

So the young scientist is creating questions for herself: All right, I got this flame, will I get the same color flame if I try another powder? If I add cooking oil? If I use an electric grill rather than a match? (I actually don't know if you do get a flame, since I've never tried it. Maybe just some smoke and a weird smell.) Anyway, in the course of burning up most of her house, the young scientist creates explanations and expectations for herself, and when things don't go as expected she has to either modify her explanations or figure out what she did wrong; in any event, she needs both consistent results and unexpected results, since without the former you can't have the latter, and the latter not only expand her knowledge but expand the amount of the unknown that she's in touch with; e.g., "I didn't expect the perfume to smell like cotton candy when burning; I wonder if there are other things in this room that will smell like burning candy." So the editor has got his little bit of talcum powder and he's got it down on the page, and got it right, while the scientist discovers in the same powder ever more worlds of the mysterious and the not-completely explained, right at the tip of her nose.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Saturday, 15 March 2003 06:30 (11 years ago) Permalink

Yes, you're quite right about the museum example - it doesn't fit with Kuhn's meaning. Really, it's a major shift of emphasis, of weight, rather than any kind of incommensurable change of thinking.

I was trying to address the point that reasons for scientific shifts of thinking that are aside from the 'scientific method' aren't necessarily a bad thing or a weakness or anti-science in what I said about all the superstring/m-brane stuff. They obviously have to argue and justify these theories on the grounds of scientific method, but the direction and focus of the work is driven by things entirely different. There are fashions in science - I've heard Hawking talk about how when he started getting interested in black holes, hardly anyone else was, whereas now they are a widespread hot item - and this is the major hot area at present (along with complexity, maybe). I am perfectly happy with this, and I am convinced that it has launched new ideas that will shift the scientific paradigm in major ways - and if the ideas prove 'true' (in scientific terms - I'm not bringing in some idea of correspondence with reality here, I'm meaning that they fit what we experience and predict other behaviour accurately) they will be as revolutionary and important as electricity, say. The ideas of time alone will certainly force the incommensurability that is crucial to the Kuhn idea - and I think there is a great deal more in m-brane theory that is as catastrophic a change.

I'm rambling. I'm interested in this stuff, but I'm very ignorant. I find myself in conversations with people about the status and meaning of scientific theories or truth pretty often, and I am keen to better understand what I try to talk about in these conversations.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Saturday, 15 March 2003 12:14 (11 years ago) Permalink

Here's an excellent chapter-by-chapter summary of 'Structures' (I wish all books came in condensed versions like this):

(Your comments on the Williams piece were interesting Frank. I haven't responded because I feel I need to read up some more on Khun first.)

andy, Wednesday, 19 March 2003 11:45 (11 years ago) Permalink

learning to spell his name might be a start..

andy, Wednesday, 19 March 2003 11:52 (11 years ago) Permalink

Kuhn isn't pomo, but a radical view of incommensurability does manifest itself as the "no priveleged meta-narratives" thing.

Alan (Alan), Wednesday, 19 March 2003 11:57 (11 years ago) Permalink

after further reflection i have a bit of a gripe -- the examples seem too pat perfect and only suited to particular moments in physics and in particular bound to the trad-stodgy "scientific" method as demonstrating a set of hypotheses while plenty of hard (i.e. not social) science is investigation into non-reapeatable conditions: evolution, for example. here the idea of a dominant paradigm seems much less the case, because there investigation of reality rather than confirmation of theoretical mechanisms is primary. really the "revolution" idea seems mainly to be "we assumed this was a discrete unit but in fact we need to examine its inner workings" which occurs time and again in physics partly just coz we get better and better instruments. also there are "partial" paradigms which say "look we don't have a place to start, so we KNOW there's more going on but lets make these obv. silly assumptions to give us a foothold and then question those silly assumptions later" -- lots of the harder psych stuff seems to work at that level.

and look at cold-war science and ask -- was the pattern of investigation/research really determined by a disciplinary matrix etc. generated from scientific worldview or from the needs of the mil/industrial complex? I mean were the things necessary to make fancy nukes the same bits which were the most important from a "pure science" pov?

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Wednesday, 19 March 2003 22:47 (11 years ago) Permalink

Sterling, I haven't read the Structure summary (and tend not to trust such things, so might not get to it), so don't know if your gripe is with their examples or with mine, Sterling; but in any event I don't understand how the gripe could possibly be relevant to Kuhn, since his examples of scientific revolution involve not the supposed "scientific method" of testing your hypotheses against data, but of, e.g., changing your definition of motion, or moving the Sun to the center of the solar system, or deciding that you're dealing with energy quanta rather than with average energy, and so forth, all of which are moves in which the new paradigm changes the data, so you can't compare two competing paradigms against a set of data that is independent of each.

And I don't get your point about the cold war at all. Again, I recommend that you state your idea, not just allude to it. Obviously, cold war politics motivated and financed some research, just as calendar reform helped to motivate Copernicus; what you need to do, if you're trying to make a Kuhnian point, is to show how a particular cold-war doctrine or policy contributed to, say, some important physicists' understanding of the makeup of the atom, and how this new understanding led to a revolution in the field. (This would be analogous to Copernicus's and Kepler's neo-Platonism predisposing them to believe that the Sun could be the center of the Universe.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Thursday, 20 March 2003 17:50 (11 years ago) Permalink

Okay: briefly, Kuhn argues that an accumulation of anomalies creates the conditions for a new paradigm, right? but here's the problem: don't those accumulations grow more as an aspect of refinement of methods of investigation into the world than anything else? I mean his examples are good and all, but of limited use. Like I appreciate his points about not reading back into history and seeing it on its own terms but is there any point for the now or is this just an exercise in history? Which is my point about the cold war. I'd argue that the necessities of big boom weapons drove research more than any particular paradigm of atoms etc but that the *notion* that a paradigm of "pure science" WAS driving research was in itself vital to driving the research.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Friday, 21 March 2003 07:00 (11 years ago) Permalink

Sterling, what you say about the cold war still seems like a non sequitur. The question isn't whether scientists are working for Ivory Tower University for the sheer fun of it or whether they're working for Dow Chemical in the expectation of big bucks, it's how their field or subfield responds to a series of anomalies: Does the field explain the anomalies without having to change its axioms etc., or does it make a wholesale readjustment? One can assume that anomalies in the areas financed by Big Bucks Inc. get lots of attention while interesting anomalies elsewhere might languish, but so what?

You're expecting the verb "drive" to convey far too much.

Your sentence confuses me for that reason, and for two others: (1) The necessities of atomic-bomb manufacture didn't run counter to a "particular paradigm of atoms"; bomb manufacture was dependent on the paradigm (I don't understand the physics very well, but my laymen's belief is that there's been no fundamental paradigm shift in atomic theory since Bohr and those guys). (2) You're using "paradigm" in two drastically different ways: first, a model of the atom, which is a scientific paradigm; and second, "pure science," which is not a scientific paradigm at all but at best a vague stand-in name for some no doubt bad philosophical theories about how scientists conduct themselves; at worst, it's just a buzz word. This doesn't mean that scientists can't take heart in buzz words and bad philosophy; but "vital" is a vast overstatement; how about "mildly encouraging to some researchers, even though it had no bearing on the research"?

As for your first few sentences, you write, "here's the problem," but I don't see a problem. Kuhn would say that scientists confront anomalies all the time but that they usually manage to explain them or ignore them (a lot of normal science consists of the former). It isn't as if no astronomer in the 1,400 years between Ptolemy and Copernicus had noticed that planets weren't quite where Ptolemy said they'd be, or that no one between Copernicus and Kepler noticed that Copernicus still hadn't gotten it right. But people could assume that Ptolemy or Copernicus were on the right track, since observations weren't all that accurate anyway. By Kepler's time, the observations were accurate enough for him to believe that Copernicus's model needed changing - which is what he wanted to believe anyway, but he couldn't have changed it without the accurate observations. For a paradigm shift, not only must anomalies be persistent, they must be seen as significant, someone must come up with an alternative explanation that isn't a mere refinement of old ideas but rather overthrows a lot of them, and there must be at least some advantage somewhere in adopting the new explanation.

As for your question about "Is there any point for the now?" - excuse me if I gape for a moment.


[done gaping]

OK. If Kuhn's model is good, then, among many other things, he's done something utterly new: created a model of human cultural development that actually works (though of course it takes in only a restricted facet of culture). I can't think of another historian who's done this. Not Marx. Now, assuming that neither science nor history is at an end, if Kuhn's model is good it also ought to help us explain scientific paradigm shifts of the present, and those of the future. I don't necessarily assume that it will help us manipulate those shifts, but then I doubt that Darwin had any idea that future generations would be able to manipulate natural selection.

By the way, I enjoy arguing with your posts, so that's another benefit for the now: to provide me with entertainment.

Which leads naturally to Martin's posts, and of ideas of how to apply Kuhn to the nonsciences, and I hope to respond one of these days.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Thursday, 27 March 2003 00:41 (11 years ago) Permalink

1 month passes...
I was uncertain when normal science becomes extraordinary science. Is it like a great naval battle when a single flagship is sunk and one decisive battle usually determines the outcome of the campaign?

"Could Newtonian mechanics withstand revision of the second law, of the third law, of Hooke's law, or the law of gravity? Could it withstand the revision of any two of these, of three, or of all four? These are not questions that individually have yes or no answers. Rather, like Wittgenstein's "Could one play chess without the queen?" they suggest the strains placed on the lexicon by questions that its designer, whether God or cognitive evolution, did not anticipate its being required to answer. What should one have said when confronted by an egg-laying creature that suckles its young? Is it a mammal or is it not? These are the circumstances in which, as Austin put it, 'We don't know what to say. Words literally fail us.' Such circumstances, if they endure for long, call forth a locally different lexicon, one that permits an answer but to a slightly altered question: 'Yes, the creature is a mammal' (but to be a mammal is not what it was before). The new lexicon opens new possibilities, ones that could not have been stipulated by the use of the old."
--Thomas Kuhn, "Possible Worlds in History of Science," 1986. [He points out in a footnote that the Wittgenstein quote appears nowhere in Wittgenstein's writings, so it's something that Wittgenstein either said but didn't write, or could have said even though he didn't.]

Kuhn isn't pomo, but a radical view of incommensurability does manifest itself as the "no priveleged meta-narratives" thing.

Well, I'll put aside the pomo question altogether (except to wonder how an idea that's probably hundreds of years old can be "postmodern," especially if some of the supposed "postmodernists" don't abide by it). Your statement is interesting, Alan, but I'm far from understanding it; this is another instance where it would have done me good if you'd stated the idea rather than just alluding to it.

As far as I know, Kuhn never addressed the question of "meta-narratives" directly, but my guess is that he'd say that he didn't believe in "meta," period. In any event, speaking for myself, I don't believe in meta, and I'll speak for myself not Kuhn in the rest of this entry, though I don't claim any originality for what I say.

There's lots of confusion about the prefix "meta": the dictionary defines it as "beyond, transcending," but most people on this board and elsewhere use it to mean "about," so that a meta-grammatical discussion would be a discussion about grammar but it would still be grammatical, hence in no way transcends grammar. But nonetheless the term "meta" is uttered with the sense (usually derogatory) that in being meta we're not quite doing the thing itself but are merely hovering in the air near it. So "meta" actually confuses the two usages, gives us "about" but with a whiff of being transcendent or unmoored.

When I say that I don't believe in "meta," it means I don't believe in transcendence - don't believe it exists - though this is a merely philosophical point and doesn't have any interesting implications beyond philosophy, as far as I can tell. And in modern philosophy the metaphors tend to have to do with depth and foundations rather than heights and transcendence.

So, here's the attack on "meta":

"Independent" and "dependent" are comparative terms.

That's it. (Sky splits, planets hit, the world as we know it is, um, whatever, or something.) Oh, and "comparative" is a comparative term to, but we needn't go into that.

So, if you take two somewhat-related phenomena A and B, to say, "A is independent of B, but B is dependent on A," is to mean that A is less dependent on B than B is on A. "Independent" and "dependent" are comparative terms, like "loud" and "soft" (a sound is loud by virtue of being louder than some other sound), rather than either/or terms like an on-off switch.

Where this universe-shattering insight impinges on philosophy is that philosophy tries to transcend the comparative use of the concepts "dependence" and "independence" by trying to make them into superdependence and superindependence, where B would not exist if not for A, whereas A would remain unchanged if there were no B. So if something is to serve as the ground for something else, it must be superindependent of what it is grounding, so much so that if the thing it were grounding did not exist, the ground would nonetheless remain unchanged. You could sheer off the mountain without affecting the bedrock. So, in normal comparative usage, "natural selection" and "genetic drift" can be called the grounds of evolutionary biology without anyone assuming that this means that the concepts "natural selection" and "genetic drift" could play a role if there were no evolutionary biology; and evolutionary theory can be grounded in observation without our needing to assert that the observations would be available without the theory. Whereas for evolutionary biology to be grounded philosophically, it would need to be grounded in something such as "empiricism" or "logic" or "scientific method" that would be valid in principle even if there were no biology. So the dogmas of philosophical empiricism that Quine and Davidson attacked (the division between analytic and synthetic truths, the division between scheme and content, and the idea that to be meaningful a statement must be equivalent to a logical construct upon terms that refer to immediate experience) were supposed to underlie the sciences but were also supposed to be true in themselves and unaffected by discoveries in paleontology. Anyway, Kuhn has told a story in which a science is grounded by paradigms within the science rather than by a universal scientific method, and he has theory grounding observation as well as observation grounding theory (that was a point of my discussion of "motion," that your concept of motion determines which observations count as observations of motion). Presumably he'd think it silly to assert that a ground can't be somewhat grounded in the things it grounds. "Ground" and "thing being grounded" denote relative importance, not different levels of being.

Anyway, as for a radical view of incommensurability manifesting itself as the "no privileged meta-narratives" thing, I still don't know what you mean. Quantum mechanics isn't grounded in a metadiscourse, but nonetheless it's a privileged discouse in comparison to Aristotelian mechanics, in that quantum mechanics rules and Aristotelian mechanics is extinct. That two things are incommensurable doesn't magically put them on equal footing. As I've been saying, a meta level isn't a science's footing, so its absence (and therefore its unavailability as a common measure) leaves things unchanged.

Be careful of The Bearded Man fallacy:

(1) God is not a bearded man in the sky.
(2) There is no bearded man in the sky.
(3) Therefore, there is no God.

(1) A ground need not be utterly independent of the practice it grounds.
(2) Grounds are not independent of the practices they ground.
(3) Therefore, there are no true grounds and everything is equal.

The two syllogisms are identically fallacious, but the latter has somehow wormed itself into otherwise intelligent minds.

By the way, if you have trouble understanding something I write, you can ask me about it.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 28 April 2003 19:04 (10 years ago) Permalink

"comparative" is a comparative term to

Compared to what? (Or perhaps it's a comparative term too.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 28 April 2003 19:13 (10 years ago) Permalink

It's not so much trouble understanding, for me: I feel like I can follow you where you've taken me, but I can't really see far in any direction so I can't much think what to say. I'm thinking about what you say, though, because I think there is still something in what Alan said. I want to get it clear before I try to argue it, though.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Monday, 28 April 2003 20:28 (10 years ago) Permalink

The trouble is that Alan never got around to saying it. But I'll take a shot, anyway.

First off, the term "incommensurability" isn't unproblematic. For one thing, it's metaphoric: It means that e.g. you can't check Aristotelian mechanics and Newtonian mechanics against a third thing ("reality," "motion as it really is," "what's really there"), since Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics each differently defines what motion is and hence what would count as really being there. But "checking something against what's really there" isn't the same concept as "measurement" anyway, even if it might sometimes include measuring. Also, that two discourses are incommensurable doesn't mean that you can't have good reasons for picking one over the other, and as I said above, a good deal of Kuhn's work involved detailing just what those reasons were. And so, one might ask of Kuhn, if you're going to metaphorically extend the concept of measure to include "checking things against what's really there," why can't you also extend it to include "the reasons we have for choosing Newton's mechanics over Aristotle's"? Just because you've eliminated one common "measure" ("what's really there") doesn't necessarily mean that you've eliminated them all. Kuhn would have a good retort to this - he'd say that there are usually a multiplicity of reasons, and they are not always the same ones, so you can't just say "Let's see which mechanics is the most consistent, or the most useful, or the most accurate on its own terms, or the simplest, or the one with the broadest applicability," etc., since it might do better in one category and worse in another. But I'm not sure that he ever totally dealt with the issue. (And I'm well aware that I haven't discussed the reasons he gave, either. Some other time.)

But anyway, for the sake of argument let's say that incommensurability is defined and established. The next question is how is "incredulity towards metanarratives" analogous to "no common measure"? Even by metaphoric extension, I don't see how "measurement" is much like "narrative." And what in the hell do we mean by "metanarrative," anyway?

I've only read one article by Lyotard, and that was 15 years ago and I don't particularly remember it, though I believe that his incredulity was towards any metanarrative, not just "privileged" ones. But I never was clear on what he meant by metanarrative, and neither was he. "Metanarrative" is a (typically) bad word choice, the "meta" as well as the "narrative," and like everybody else he conflates the "transcendent" with the "about," so you're not sure if a metanarrative is supposed to transcend narrative (be something that isn't a narrative but grounds narrative), or is a narrative that exists on another level of being from ordinary narratives, or is just a narrative that contains or explains or judges some other narratives. I'm not in love with the word "narrative" either, since it doesn't really fit Descartes and that bunch, whom Lyotard had somehow implicated in the term. Anyway, let's forget Lyotard and let's come up with a concept that we can use. Actually, I'll junk the prefix "meta" altogether, since it's inaccurate and confusing. I'll keep "narrative" in order to preserve some continuity, despite my distaste for it. How about the term "master narrative"? I'll define it as "a narrative or discourse that explains or justifies a lot of other narratives and discourses," but point out that it's no less or more a narrative than any other. And I'll forget about transcendence and levels of being, since I don't believe in them.

Now Marxism would be the big daddy behemoth of master narratives, and I'm as incredulous towards it as the next guy, but not because (tsk tsk tsk) it's a master narrative and we can't have that, but because it couldn't be made to work across the board for all social and economic systems, though it tried. I doubt that anyone ever will come up with such a social theory that works across the board, but I would be dogmatic to insist that no one could. And I'm not impressed with the argument that goes "Marx treated consciousness as a historical product, but Marxism itself is a historical product" - as if no historical product could be right. All that's necessary for it to be right is for it to explain to our satisfaction what it's trying to explain. And for the moment I'll pretend that it is right. Now, can it be compatible with the idea of incommensurability? Sure. Take two incommensurable discourses, say American Football and Australian Rules Football; the fact that they're incommensurable means that you can't translate all the crucial terms of one game into those of the other, and you can't understand one game in terms of the other (or, for that matter, score one game in the scoring system of the other, though they're close). Now, their being incommensurable wouldn't prevent a Marxist from comparing the two games and describing how they arose as historical and class products, and wouldn't prevent him from, let's say, talking about how the different games have different rules due to the games' differing social functions etc.

For what it's worth, contributions to a thread entitled "Taking Sides: Australian Rules Football vs. American Football" would be master narratives, albeit small in scope, so maybe we could call them mini-master-narratives.

Or suppose someone in the future succeeds where Marx failed and comes up with a generally applicable theory of "society." His use of such crucial terms as "society" and "community" and so forth may be as different from our use as Newton's use of "motion" was from Aristotle's. And so if we were transported by time machine into this future sociologist's world we wouldn't understand what the fuck he was talking about and would probably dispute that he even was talking about social systems. But I don't see why that should concern him any more than it should concern a modern physicist that Aristotle couldn't make heads or tails of his ideas. I can imagine that this future sociologist would correctly use his theories of "society" to explain our "culture" but would also take into account our notions of "society" in order to explain a good deal of our cultural behavior, e.g., elections, Marxism, and so forth. Just as someone today could use modern physics to explain Aristotle's motions but wouldn't use it to convey Aristotle's concept of motion.

Another point: there is a latter-day universalizing master narrative that is standing (as far as I know): Darwin's theory of evolution, as supplemented by genetics. It provides a basic model for the evolution of all species, not just some. (Of course, there are people who choose not to believe in Darwin's theory, but these people aren't providing alternatives; they just don't want anything to do with it.)

All right, finally, here's one more latter-day universalizing master narrative (too soon to know how well it will stand, or how long): Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Yup. I decided to throw that in as a whammy. It purports to apply to all scientific revolutions, not just some. It's somewhat circular, in that it not only describes scientific revolutions, it defines them (a change in a science is revolutionary when a new disciplinary matrix breaks off from or replaces a previous matrix that's significantly incommensurable with it; without the incommensurability, it isn't a revolution). The circularity here isn't vicious, however, any more than in Newton's laws of motion (which don't just describe motion but define it).

So take this passage I wrote atop this thread:

For Aristotle, motion was a change in quality, an asymmetric change from an initial state to a final state, so that motion not only included a rock's moving towards its place in the center of the universe, and fire reaching outwards to its place on the periphery, but also an acorn growing into a tree, a man returning from sickness to health, and so forth. Newton's idea of momentum - that an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force - would have made no sense in an Aristotelian system, since it wouldn't have involved a change in quality and therefore wouldn't have been motion, and couldn't possibly explain how a rock gets from one place to another. (And Aristotle's conception of place and space were a lot different from ours, too.)

A point Kuhn made was that you could see motion as a change in quality, or you could see it as an object only changing its location (while changes in its quality, if any, are irrelevant), but that there was no third thing, "the datum" or "what is really there," for you to look at, to compare the ideas to, in order to see which was right. What would such a third thing be? Say you're an observer whose concept of motion is that it includes a man's returning from sickness to health. If this is your concept, how, by carefully observing a man as he actually returns to health, can you possibly decide that this is not motion? And conversely, if you think of motion as a change in location but not a change in state, how could your observing this man make you abandon your idea and decide that his return to health is an example of motion after all? You can compare the two ideas to each other, to see which is better, but not to an independent measure applicable to both.

What I've done is to take two incommensurable discourses, compared a piece of one to a piece of the other, and explained why the two are incommensurable. Now, my description may turn out to be wrong, but I don't know any reason to be incredulous of it in advance, even if it is a discourse about two other discourses.

So this is the crux: Incommensurability doesn't mean that no discourse can talk about any other discourse ("incommensurability" can't mean this, since the concept itself was derived in a discourse that compared other discourses to each other), and if a discourse can talk about some other discourses, I can't see any reason in principle that there can't be a discourse that talks about all other discourses. That said, I don't think it likely that we'd come up with such a discourse, or even want one, or that such a discourse would have much to say that wasn't so general as to be vacuous, in which case our response shouldn't be incredulity but boredom.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 6 May 2003 22:25 (10 years ago) Permalink

(i am sort of in the middle of a grebt idea abt incommensurability and how it might relate to music and stuff, but i am also on the way to being away from the interweb for a week so HOLD THAT THOUGHT!!) (i will take my notes on holiday and also a print out of this thread)

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 6 May 2003 22:46 (10 years ago) Permalink

I want Frank's brane. Could you burn off a copy and send it to me as a pdf?

Ned Raggett (Ned), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 00:16 (10 years ago) Permalink

I know the feeling, Ned.

For what it's worth, scientists have been claiming that they are on the verge of having it all sorted for ages. I think the first such claim that was taken seriously was in early Victorian times. These days it's not even uncommon for scientists to claim that they are working on some kind of 'Theory Of Everything', so they are shooting for the all-encompassing master-narrative that Frank refers to. Obviously they are not even close to it - we can all think of countless enormnous oceans that science has barely dipped a toe into, and even on its own terms, which are far more limited than scientists seem to routinely realise, there are colossal problems that science has not killed off - reconciling relativity and quantum physics and where mass comes from are two giant ones.

But while we are nowhere near it, we are learning lots of useful stuff, and I'm not sure that I see anything that we can never encompass in a theory - if we're willing to accept that the genuine randomness at the quantum level when combined with chaos theory means that this will still not make answers in various areas (such as the sociological) computable. We are tying the functioning of the brain more and more in to observable physical phenomena, for instance, so we can look at MRI scans and determine the potential for psychopathy (which is actualised in dangerous ways by environment, but the fundamental cause is brain damage). It is not beyond imagining that we will eventually be able to map all of what we can call 'mind' onto observable physical phenomena. That's just one example, but I think it's a pretty good one.

How that would explain, say, aesthetics, I don't know, but I can't begin to say what there is in aesthetics that isn't merely a functioning of the brain.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 10:53 (10 years ago) Permalink

(as long as brain also includes the entire body)

mark s (mark s), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 10:55 (10 years ago) Permalink

Martin, a discourse that talks about all other discourses isn't a theory of everything. Those are two different concepts. If Kuhn's ideas work, incommensurability applies to all scientific revolutions, including revolutions in physics, but nonetheless incommensurability isn't an idea that explains the structure of the atom. A super theory of everything would do just that - be a single theory that explained incommensurability and the structure of the atom. A theory of everything would be a discourse that superseded and united all other discourses (including those that have been abandoned), eliminated all incommensurability among them, AND found a single theory to explain everything. I don't want to dogmatically say that such a theory is impossible, but I can't wrap my brain around it. As a matter of fact I will say that it's impossible, even though I can't prove this. What would be a theory that found a common language to explain the quark, how to cook chicken, how to type, unicorns, phlogiston, incommensurability, the fact that incommensurability no longer exists, Aristotle's concept of motion, Australian Rules football, American football, jokes that are set in airplanes, the cure for the common cold, the social significance of mustaches, why the Stooges are better than the Velvet Underground?

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 19:58 (10 years ago) Permalink

That language = english!

(or arabic or korean or etc. obv)

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 20:07 (10 years ago) Permalink

I was thinking the other way round, Frank: that if science did find the complete answers to everything, that could also be, as it is fully worked through in all its implications in all spheres of life and thought and art and imagination, that super-discourse. I don't really believe it either, but I can't think of anything to make it beyond possibility.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 20:17 (10 years ago) Permalink

Okay, Sterling, not only a common language, but a discourse within that language that only said commensurable things about (for instance) incommensurability, hair care, and how to tickle your friends.

Botany and cookery can both be conducted in English, and a botanist can be a cook and can have no trouble jumping from conversations about botany to conversations about cookery; but nonetheless, botany and cookery are incommensurable. E.g., a tomato is not a fruit in cookery but is a fruit in botany, and to try to make a tomato something other than a fruit in botany would pull botany as we know it to pieces. This is what it means to say that the language of cookery and the language of botany are incommensurable. (The word "language" has more than one use.)

I can't imagine our finding a theory to unite cookery and botany, but I can imagine a discourse that discusses and compares cookery and botany (in fact, this paragraph is such a discourse) and could imagine there being a master narrative that explains how things such as cookery and botany become incommensurable, and how the use of words (such as "fruit") become incommensurable.

Martin, I can't even imagine what it would be for a science to arrive at a complete theory of everything (nor sure what it would mean for such a theory to be worked through in all spheres of life, since such a theory would have to take account all spheres of life in the first place, wouldn't it?). A scientific theory (or nonscientific theory) can play a role in many spheres without being a theory of everything or even a theory that's particularly about other spheres. For example, paleontologists use atomic theory to date their fossils, but this doesn't bring atomic theory any closer to having an explanation for whether feathers first developed to aid in jumping or to keep animals warm - so atomic theory doesn't explain anything in paleontology, even if paleontologists can find a use for atomic theory. Kuhn seemed to think that the trend in the sciences was for ever greater specialization, which means an ever increasing number of disciplinary matrices.

(For anyone new to this thread, disciplinary matrices are the matrices formerly known as "paradigms." Not to be confused with the exemplars formerly known as "paradigms.")

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 20:46 (10 years ago) Permalink

That has been the trend, and a lot of the 'theopry of everything' hype is down to physicists thinking that physics is all there is, but what if they are right? That was what I was trying to say about the mind - what if the scientific advances, before or after this probably chimeric theory of everything, can fully explain mind? We have physics sorted, we fully understand mind, what can't we get from these two arms of the pincer?

Yes, it's all speculation and a bit pointless, but then read a book like Mind And The New Physics by Frederik Allan Wolff (from memory, may have spelt his name wrong), where he tries very hard, and entirely unsuccessfully for me, to tie quantum physics and consciousness tightly together. Physics is very ambitious these days, and there are all kinds of hugely promising and interesting things happening in, particularly, the area best known for 'superstrings', but m-branes are overtaking them. There are people who claim that we will have quantum computing, and as a corollary a proof that there are vast (maybe infinite) numbers of parallel universes, within a decade.

Yes, I realise this is a bit beside the point, until such an all-encompassing theory ever comes about. And as I hinted earlier, I don't believe that it will ever be up to explaining, say, the idea of unicorns - quantal randomness magnified by 'the butterfly effect' is far too big to ever allow that kind of detail, unless we have something very wrong there.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 20:58 (10 years ago) Permalink

I can't imagine our finding a theory to unite cookery and botany, but I can imagine a discourse that discusses and compares cookery and botany (in fact, this paragraph is such a discourse) and could imagine there being a master narrative that explains how things such as cookery and botany become incommensurable, and how the use of words (such as "fruit") become incommensurable.

Okay except imagine a world were cookery and botany are the same -- e.g. where things are grown only to be cooked by the person cooking them. Now these things will be considered part of one process conducted by one person, and therefore would completely share a discourse. So discourse = contains the seeds of its own intentionality?

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 21:05 (10 years ago) Permalink

One final point. Frank rather dismisses the applicability of this to music criticism. While I accept that there is no ruling paradigm, I think there is something close to one, debated only by a minority. We might call it 'rockism', except I'm loathe to muddy the waters so. What I mean is that I think that the Beatles, more than any other single cause, did produce a paradigm shift in how we assess the worth of pop musicians, and that this shift is audible in the insistence that singers who do not write their own songs are of vastly less artistic value, in the privileging of the album as a measure of achievement, in the striving for an artistic legacy - some of this (the last one, really) is the inevitable growth of a young form, maybe, but the first two (songwriting, albums) are part of the prevailing paradigm and were not before, and there is no purely rational reason why this newer paradigm is superior to the old.

I held off my response while I tried to figure out how to answer in a way that kept this thread Kuhncentric rather than musiccentric. Here's my attempt: Even though I'd like to see the term "rockism" retired, I'll say for the sake of argument that there is such a thing and that it functions in the way you say it does. Now, if it were to function as the ruling paradigm of rock criticism ("paradigm" being used here in a Kuhnian sense), then statements such as "the Stones were better before they started writing most of their songs" (once said to me by Jody Harris) or "'When the Levee Breaks' is Led Zeppelin's greatest song" could not be accepted as even intelligible without its bringing total disarray to rock criticism, equivalent to the tumult that would be caused in botany if it had to define tomato as something other than a fruit, or the tumult that was caused in physics when Planck and others figured out that energy levels changed in discontinuous jumps rather than continuously. Whereas, actually, such statements, and the disagreements over them, are the expected thing in rock criticism. (This doesn't mean that the Beatles didn't change the game, just that Kuhn's notion of paradigm shift isn't likely to help us understand the change.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 21:33 (10 years ago) Permalink

Sterling, if the cook's botany skills were at all complex (say as complex as modern botany) then the cooking and the botany would still be incommensurable; the terms used for growing food, for plant reproduction, etc., wouldn't map onto the terms for cooking it. This point of mine, by the way, isn't any more interesting than if I'd said that a botanist who also plays tennis can't map his botany terms onto his tennis terms. "Incommensurability" only becomes an issue when different paradigms compete for the same space, or when one eyes an activity through the wrong paradigm.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 21:47 (10 years ago) Permalink

frank yr. confusion of "terms" and "discourse" and "language" is terribly frustrating.

imagine if I said "the terms for describing a chord don't map onto the terms for describing a rhythm" -- have i just demonstrated that there doesn't exist a discourse of music or that a guitar player is incommensurable with himself?

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Wednesday, 7 May 2003 21:57 (10 years ago) Permalink

You're completely right about the confusion, of course, though maybe it's not a problem. Which is to say, incommensurability is only an issue when you have incommensurable terms potentially occupying the same space. ("Space" isn't a self-explanatory term either.) Strangely enough, chords and rhythm aren't concepts that are tied to each other, even though you can play chords in rhythm. Whereas Newton's key terms are all interrelated (mass, velocity, momentum, motion, acceleration, force), so changing one was likely to cause changes in many others.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Thursday, 8 May 2003 00:58 (10 years ago) Permalink

B-but did newton's terms map onto the same space in what they described, or just map onto the same, y'know, words. So maybe Newton exposed and filled a blank space which hadn't been noticed before?

i.e. you can't play chords without rhyhthm but you can play chords without *thinking* about (or talking about) rhythm. so if everyone just played chords and analyized them and suddenly somebody says "hey! rhythm!" and explains that the duration of the chords and of the spaces between them matters too then you've changed "music".

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Thursday, 8 May 2003 03:49 (10 years ago) Permalink

Sterling, you're raising good questions, not all of which I'm ready to address. But here's a long passage from Kuhn that (only) somewhat addresses it.

Remember briefly where the term "incommensurability" came from. The hypotenuse of an isosceles right triangle is incommensurable with its side or the circumference of a circle with its radius in the sense that there is no unit of length contained without residue an integral number of times in each member of the pair. There is thus no common measure. But lack of a common measure does not make comparison impossible. On the contrary, incommensurable magnitudes can be compared to any required degree of approximation. Demonstrating that this could be done and how to do it were among the splendid achievements of Greek mathematics. But that achievement was possible only because, from the start, most geometric techniques applied without change to both of the items between which comparison was sought.

Applied to the conceptual vocabulary deployed in and around a scientific theory, the term "incommensurability" functions metaphorically. The phrase "no common measure" becomes "no common language." The claim that two theories are incommensurable is then the claim that there is no language, neutral or otherwise, into which both theories, conceived as sets of sentences, can be translated without residue or loss. No more in its metaphorical than its literal form does incommensurability imply incomparability, and for much the same reason. Most of the terms common to the two theories function the same way in both; their meanings, whatever those may be, are preserved; their translation is simply homophonic. Only for a small subgroup of (usually interdefined) terms and for sentences containing them do problems of translatability arise. The claim that two theories are incommensurable is more modest than many of its critics have supposed.

A few comments: First, I don't understand the examples from geometry; I'll give a slightly different one. Time and distance are incommensurable, in that they aren't the same thing and they don't have a common measure: one is measured in hours etc. the other in miles or kilometers etc. But not only can one compare them, graph one against the other, and so forth, one can even come up with a concept (velocity) and unit of measure (miles per hour) that compares them. "But that achievement was possible only because, from the start, most geometric techniques applied without change to both of the items between which comparison was sought." This seems like an important point, but again I'm not sure what it is. But using my time and distance example, suppose that in two theories the relationship between time and distance was significantly different. Then the theories would be incommensurable, and maybe even what the terms "time" and "distance" referred to wouldn't match up in the different theories (as "motion" and "planet" are drastically different for an Aristotelian and a Newtonian).

Now, if someone told me to draw a yellow square, and I responded "'yellow' and 'square' are incommensurable," in a way I would be right, since there is no common measure for "yellow" and "square" - but still, what I'd said would, in most contexts, almost be gibberish, since it would have no point (unless I was joking, or a toddler, or something). And I'd say the same for my pointing out that "time" and "distance" are incommensurable, or that "rhythm" and "chords" are incommensurable. In doing so, I'm not saying much of anything. The concept "incommensurability" only has application where words or discourses or theories are jostling for the same space and may be confused with one another, or where a common measure is wanted or at least thought possible.

Second, within a normal conversation, terms often jostle for the same space without necessarily being incommensurable. These terms are usually considered "value judgments." E.g., when a couple of people argue over which movies are better than others, it isn't useful to claim that their respective uses of the term "good movie" are incommensurable. (Strangely, Kuhn gave little thought to this issue; whenever he comes across as a social retard, it's becuase he didn't give this issue enough thought.)

Third, the word "language" has lots of uses, and I'm not sure Kuhn always kept them straight. In any event, "the language of Newtonian mechanics" is not analogous to "the English language."

I'll elaborate on these points sometime. But I don't want to lose a particular idea here; the claim was made that "incommensurability" is a manifestation of "the no privileged metanarratives thing" (or maybe it's a manifestation of what Lyotard called "the incredulity towards metanarratives," whatever he meant by that). Now, I've changed the term "metanarrative" to "master narrative" and said that there's no incompatibility between "incommensurability" and "master narratives," so there's no reason why belief in the former should lead to incredulity towards the latter. And I gave Kuhn himself as an example of someone who believes in the former and nonetheless created the latter. Now it seems to me that this knocks down Martin's and Alan's suggestion. And Martin has slipped into another conversation altogether, one about theories of everything. And my point is that a theory of everything is not a metanarrative/master narrative. There are as yet no theories of everything, and none has been proposed, so no one's had much opportunity to be incredulous towards them. And more to the point, they're not what the post-whatsywhatsies are being incredulous towards (not that the posties necessarily know what they're being incredulous towards).

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 21 May 2003 18:57 (10 years ago) Permalink

Frank you can understand the geometry examples (as can any student with freshman high-school geometry) but Kuhn is just being a bit elliptical with them.

the circumference of a circle = 2*pi*radius, right?

i.e. the distance around a circle is twice pi*(the distance from the center to the edge of the circle).

But pi is irrational -- a nonrepeating infinite decimal; i.e. NOT the ratio of two integers. Hence we can't find a common unit of measure (a unit of length which can constitute both the circumference and the radius if multiplied "an integral number of times"). Hence the two (radius and circumference) are "incommensurable". However we CAN say the radius is smaller than the circumference, or even that twice the radius is smaller than the circumference or the radius of *another* circle is larger than the circumference of the first circle or etc.

Hence incommensurable but comparable.

Meanwhile when Kuhn sez "Only for a small subgroup of (usually interdefined) terms and for sentences containing them do problems of translatability arise." this is what is rather confusing. Because if we have a sentence talking about aristotelian concepts and newtonian concepts of motion can't we just say motion-Aristotelian and motion-Newtonian in place of the word "motion" depending? And similarly can't we replace "vegetable" with "vegetable-Botany" and "vegetable-Cookery" and end the confusion?

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Thursday, 22 May 2003 03:08 (10 years ago) Permalink

''But I never was clear on what he meant by metanarrative, and neither was he. "Metanarrative" is a (typically) bad word choice, the "meta" as well as the "narrative," and like everybody else he conflates the "transcendent" with the "about," so you're not sure if a metanarrative is supposed to transcend narrative (be something that isn't a narrative but grounds narrative), or is a narrative that exists on another level of being from ordinary narratives, or is just a narrative that contains or explains or judges some other narratives''

Meta=> the next level. So something like philosophy of science, as a subject, would be like 'meta' science. As in, it talks about what is or isn't a science. I think Alan meant it as in judging other narratives but I'm not sure.

(Aristotle wrote a book called ethics but didn't he also write a book called meta ethics?)

I Have printed this whole thing (so far abt 37 pages ho ho) and have read it. yesterday I picked up a book by Kuhn second hand (a book of essays 'The essential tension'). I'll try and write more soon.

Franks wrote: ''[Kuhn is also infected by neo-Kantianism, a fact that I do my best to ignore.]''

why? (my knowledge of philosophy is close to nil)

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Saturday, 24 May 2003 18:35 (10 years ago) Permalink

a wider use for Kuhn?s ideas?

OK start with stuff i posted on the ism/jism thread on ilm

i. if more people wrote really wilfully unclearly then the gap between conceptions and conceptions of conceptions would grow and grow obv, vastly increasing the range of ideas "out there", and with this the chances that the ideas were good (unclearly expressed but good)

ii. besides, if it's a BAD idea unclearly expressed you can always misread it yrself, and enjoy the better idea yr actually projecting onto it!! it's win-win!!

iii. (incidentally the above is the key and core of my theory abt why music is a socially valuable thing above and beyond being fun blah blah: it consists of ideas "wilfully unclearly expressed" ? viz in music not in language. this non-communication is received as if it's communication, which produces fitful (or frantic) attempts by the listener-brain to "decode" it, which translate as the rest of the listener's mind joins in into ideas ? or activities ? which are new to listener AS WELL AS never envisaged by the musician)

iv. (trans. = "osmotic alien tongue pressure")

Can that be clarified?

i. An artist who can draw can never draw one thing: a picture that looks as if it was drawn by someone who CAN?T draw: the gulf goes both ways.

ii. I think there are two levels where the idea of "incommensurability" might operate in music (both manifest a lot on ILM, one more intractably and interestingly than the other)

iii. The easy, obvious level comes between different types of music: rockers vs jazzers, serialists vs minimalists (when Elliott Carter and Philip Glass are willing to refer to each other?s music-zones as "fascist", that?s pretty much the sign of an unbridgeable gulf). Zappa was unable to mimic disco competently (or garage rock or doowop, says I, though he may have defenders here...)

iv. The interesting level of failure of fit, I think, comes between schooled musicians and unschooled listeners. It?s some of what the argument in this thread's about, for example: the idea that a certain key portion of what?s going on ? which the musicians involved understand perfectly, easily, instantly ? is absolutely and forever beyond certain listeners. Is "incommensurability" the right word for this even? Even if it?s not, something interesting seems to be going on here: the idea, maybe, that there?s something those certain listeners know and hear when they?re listening to the music that the musicians involved no longer. In other words, while a schooled musician gains something valuable, by virtue of essential acquire skills and ?ear? and whatever, s/he also LOSES something valuable.

[In that thread, at one testy and probably unforgiveably rude moment, I suggest to ArfArf that the reason he can?t get what I?m trying to say is that there?s a "Lady if you have to ask" dimension to WRITING, also. It?s odd that a lot of my more intractable, sometimes bad-tempered arguments on ILM have been with posters who are also working musicians: ArfArf, Phil Masstransfer, Momus, pinefox... I?ve never actually argued directly with Geir, but a similar unbridgeable gulf seems to be there.] [I'm not dissing any of you listed there btw: I'm fascinated by this difference, it's what draws me to music most of all -> some of the gap is very likely the result of my poor understanding, I just very much don't want to lose sight of the nature of the gap itself by assuming it's ALL my poor understanding]

ANYWAY, my thesis: this gulf is CENTRAL to the meaning and use of music. If by some miracle of high-speed education all currentl listeners were inducted into the knowledge that gave them musicians? ears, music, far from flourishing, would decline. What musicians get out of music is a *minority* passion, necessary but not sufficient: what non-musicians get out of it is what keeps it vital, growing, changing. Musicians get on with what they as a community believe they should be doing: the deep, elaborate, untranslateable or anyway hard-to-translate commitment to rules and practices which accord with assumptions, beliefs, patterns, shared habits NOT yet spoiled or distorted by the dumm touch of the common word


(In fact I don?t really believe in the gulf in writing, which is why it was rude of me to invoke it ? obviously it exists between those who can read and can?t, but that?s a different matter. Being understood is part of the ethos of writing in a way that it isn?t in music. The tension between to the two modes of "understanding" in music is one of the things we constantly revivify in it, from both sides of the gulf: because we NEED it...)

mark s (mark s), Sunday, 25 May 2003 14:56 (10 years ago) Permalink

Q: Why do tigers have stripes?
A: To distinguish them from horses.

Momus (Momus), Sunday, 25 May 2003 16:30 (10 years ago) Permalink

Because if we have a sentence talking about aristotelian concepts and newtonian concepts of motion can't we just say motion-Aristotelian and motion-Newtonian in place of the word "motion" depending? And similarly can't we replace "vegetable" with "vegetable-Botany" and "vegetable-Cookery" and end the confusion?

We don't need to, because there is no confusion: Once you know that Aristotle's concept of motion differs from Newton's, you can just say "Aristotle's concept of motion," which is exactly what we've been doing. (I was going to call it "Aristotle's notion of motion," but then I'd have had to find a way to work the words "ocean" and "lotion" into the concept, and I couldn't figure out how to do so.) And we don't need to replace any words in botany and cookery, since we're perfectly adept at using the word "fruit" differently in the two different contexts, just as we're perfectly capable of using "out" differently in baseball from the way we use it in tennis, and using it differently again when we say that someone was "knocked out" in boxing. And within baseball there's a difference between a fielder throwing the runner out at first and an umpire throwing the manager out of the game or the team at bat knocking the pitcher out of the game. (Sorry to the non-Yanks reading this, but baseball really does provide the best examples that I know of. I don't know cricket's terminology, and I don't know how well it matches up with baseball's, though comparing the two might be useful for this discussion.) But people who know the games can use the various "outs" in quick succession, just as I have, with no problem. My only point in comparing botany to cookery is to show that two discourses' being incommensurable in some of their key terms doesn't necessarily prevent someone from understanding both and moving with ease from one to the other. Nonetheless, the terms are incommensurable in that they can't be mapped onto each other or translated into one another. If you choose to call botany and cookery one combined discourse ("bottery"), nonetheless, the part dealing with plant classification and reproduction cannot be mapped onto or translated into the part dealing with food preparation.

Don't lose sight of the issue: We can't translate Aristotle's concept of motion into Newton's laws of motion. If we fail to understand the Aristotelian concepts, and instead write about the transformation from Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology to Newtonian on the assumption that Aristotle's ideas are just primitive versions of Newton's, and Newton's, therefore, corrected versions of Aristotle's, then we will write shit history, and Aristotle will appear as a dunce. This is one of the imports of "incommensurability."

Another, I think, is that, if you combine Kuhn's idea of incommensurability with my idea that
paired opposites are comparative rather than antithetical, then we can dispense with Sinker's (and I presume Hegel's and Clover's) idea of "aufhebung." I'd challenged Mark to define "aufhebung" in 25 words or less, and he wrote: "Think of Cat's Cradle as a theory of knowledge. Someone lifts the string loops off onto their own fingers: their 'theory' destroys yet preserves yours." Newton's concept of motion destroyed Aristotle's and did not preserve it, just as Copernicus's concept of planet replaced all previous concepts of planet. Of course, there are family resemblances between the old and the new, and some features are preserved (Mars is still the same light in the sky, for instance); but it's the features that aren't preserved that make the concept new. You could say that if you started with rocks laid on the ground in a circle, and then you reorganized them into a square, you've preserved the rocks. What you haven't done is to preserve the circle. Before the Copernican revolution, "planet" was an immaterial object that traveled in a complex pattern around the Earth; afterwards (once you got to Kepler), "planet" was an Earthlike object that revolved in a fixed orbit around the Sun.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 27 May 2003 19:20 (10 years ago) Permalink

'But I never was clear on what he meant by metanarrative, and neither was he. "Metanarrative" is a (typically) bad word choice, the "meta" as well as the "narrative," and like everybody else he conflates the "transcendent" with the "about," so you're not sure if a metanarrative is supposed to transcend narrative (be something that isn't a narrative but grounds narrative), or is a narrative that exists on another level of being from ordinary narratives, or is just a narrative that contains or explains or judges some other narratives'

Meta=> the next level. So something like philosophy of science, as a subject, would be like 'meta' science. As in, it talks about what is or isn't a science. I think Alan meant it as in judging other narratives but I'm not sure.

You mean, like, all the discussions in physics take place on the fourth floor, and all the discussion about who is or isn't a physicist, and what is and isn't physics, takes place on the fifth floor? As opposed to the different discussions taking place in different pavilions?

"Level" isn't any more helpful than "meta," here. The word "about" doesn't automatically imply "hierarchy," nor does the word "judgment." I don't see how a discussion about "who's a physicist?" and "what is physics?" is on a level that's different from one that is "physics." Can you always tell the difference, anyway? Don't physicists, tenure committees, academic publications, and the like have a good deal to do with determining who's a physicist and what is physics?

I still don't know what it is that Lyotard is supposed to be incredulous towards: Is he incredulous towards the idea that a discourse or a narrative can be about and can judge some other narratives? Or is he incredulous towards the idea that a discourse or narrative can occupy different levels of being from another? He ought to be incredulous towards the latter, but to reject the latter is just to make a point in an arcane subject (philosophy) and has no bearing on whether one should be incredulous towards the former and has no bearing one way or another on whether one should accept or reject (say) Marxism or philosophy of science.

Martin wrote: "I sort of see Kuhn in more Postmodern terms, claiming that the privileging of one particular metanarrative is not soundly justified in the scientific method but instead happens for a complex conglomerate of reasons, some or all of which might have little to do with the scientific method as it is understood."

And I don't understand this, because among other things I don't know what "privileging of one particular metanarrative" is supposed to mean, and Martin hasn't elaborated.

Alan wrote: "a radical view of incommensurability does manifest itself as the 'no privileged meta-narratives' thing."

And I don't understand this, because I don't understand "the 'no privileged meta-narratives' thing," or what it has to do with incommensurability. In particular, I don't see where "no third thing, 'the datum' or 'what is really there,'" (and therefore nothing independent to "measure" Aristotle's and Newton's differing concepts of motion against) is analogous to "privileged metanarrative." How is "what is really there" a "metanarrative"?

In fact, let me point out that it is phrases like "no privileged metanarrative" and "there was no third thing, 'the datum' or 'what is really there,'" that themselves "talk about" and "judge."

As for Marx, his designations of what goes into "base" and what goes into "superstructure" just don't work; but nonetheless, if we treat "base" and "superstructure" as comparative terms like "loud" and "soft" (a sound is loud by virtue of being louder than some other sound; something belongs to the base if it is more basic than something in the superstructure), rather than either/or terms like an on-off switch - so if we allow the base to be somewhat based in its superstructure, rather than demand that the base be utterly independent and self-supporting - then there's nothing in principle to prevent us from assigning some things to a base and others to a superstructure, and to claim that changes in the base are more critical than changes in the superstructure, and that the latter follow the former. I'm not saying that we should do this, just that my disbelief in "meta" has no bearing one way or another on whether I would accept or reject the idea of a base and a superstructure. The issue of "meta" doesn't address the issue of "base and superstructure" at all.

But I'm talking to myself here.

(Sterling, "relative" and "absolute" are comparative terms. Are you happy now?)

I'm going to continue to ignore Kant for as long as I can get away with it.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 27 May 2003 19:24 (10 years ago) Permalink

If you choose to call botany and cookery one combined discourse ("bottery"), nonetheless, the part dealing with plant classification and reproduction cannot be mapped onto or translated into the part dealing with food preparation.

Um, Frank, wait. Some parts might map OK, other parts might not, just as "goal" in hockey maps right onto "goal" in soccer and "basket" in basketball. I don't really know enough about botany to know where plant reproduction might map onto cookery. (Even if "fruit" did refer to exactly the same objects in both, they serve such a different function in each that for practical purposes the word "fruit" is a different word in the different contexts.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 27 May 2003 22:36 (10 years ago) Permalink

hey my theory was a theory of knowledge!! a tiny weeny little little concept of a planet can easily be destroyed when the string changes fingers!!

i think it's pretty much built into hegel's idea of antitheticals that it's a mental machinery to produce better theories, and and NOT an accurate portrait of how the world stands (or even how certain words work)

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 27 May 2003 22:43 (10 years ago) Permalink

mark: define "better theories" pls. (also yes frank claiming the unity of opposities as "my idea" is a bit -- whew; and also somewhat reductive if it reduces them to "comparatives" and cuts out all the other funny dialectical stuff that can happen)

And frank yr. point about "function" gets to the deep heart of the matter I think (or at least deeper into something or rather), and beyond all this "overlapping terms" thang. Hence my point earlier when I said "Okay except imagine a world were cookery and botany are the same -- e.g. where things are grown only to be cooked by the person cooking them. Now these things will be considered part of one process conducted by one person, and therefore would completely share a discourse. So discourse = contains the seeds of its own intentionality?"

i.e. reduce two things to one functional process towards an internally concieved purpose and the vocab slippage slips away -- which is a roundabout way of starting in on the "better theories" point.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Wednesday, 28 May 2003 00:14 (10 years ago) Permalink

In other words, while a schooled musician gains something valuable, by virtue of essential acquire skills and ‘ear’ and whatever, s/he also LOSES something valuable.

Sounds plausible to me.

Presumably all, or most gains are also losses; and possibly all life can be considered constant loss (as well as constant gain).

the pinefox, Wednesday, 28 May 2003 13:11 (10 years ago) Permalink

the pinefox has been watching buffy!

mark s (mark s), Wednesday, 28 May 2003 13:17 (10 years ago) Permalink

This isn't a considered reply to Mark (to come, perhaps), just some immediate responses.

I don't see a basic gap between how car mechanics/car manufacturers take road trips and how other people take road trips, so I don't assume there's a major gap between how musicians respond to music and how nonmusicians respond. Of course, we can claim that musicians are like drivers and listeners like passengers, but I reject that. (And anyway, what do drivers do when someone else is driving? How different is their passengering from a nondriver's?)

On ILX is there a gap between writers and readers? (The latter are called "lurkers.")

Haven't you made a disanalogy? You start by talking of Writer A's conception and Writers B, C, D, E, F, G, H's written responses (new conceptions). Then you jump to Musicians A, B, C, D's music and listeners E, F, G, H's responses.

When would it make sense to say that a dancer is trying to decode a piece of music? (Say, when he's been told to dance differently to cumbias, boleros, and rancheras, and is trying to figure out which he's hearing.)

Do you consider dancers "unschooled listeners"? How about people who sing and clap in church? Members of the choir? Producers, publicists, A&R people? DJs? Retailers? What about nonprofessional musicians who've been to music school? How about professional musicians who haven't? What about the people - such as Mark Sinker (who has stated publicly that he can play "Prelude 20" by Frédéric Chopin) and me - who have learned an instrument at some time or another (and perhaps still play)?

I see different roles (and far more than the two that your musician-listener dichotomy implies), but not always different people in them. Incommensurability or something like it only becomes an issue when roles and expectations get confused or come into conflict. "Stating and receiving concepts" may not be a good analogue, though. (It may not be the best for talking about incommensurability among scientists, either.) "Differing understandings of what the other person is doing" would be better. Do you have any examples?

The gap that I would see (which applies to any product, not just music) is between understanding what the person who made the product is doing and understanding how you yourself can use it. But I don't necessarily see the former inhibiting the latter. Maybe it'll be the guy who can't tell a bolero from a cumbia who develops a great new dance out of the bolero, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Robert Christgau, in Why Music Sucks #2: "Does making music remove you from the audience? Not necessarily, but it changes your relationship to it - not least by inclining you towards music that enriches your own music instead of music that enriches your own life."

What I immediately thought when I read this (as did Chuck, I found out) was, "What about music that enriches your writing?" And from there, what about music that enriches your teaching (if you're a teacher), your politics (if you're a politician or an activist), your sex appeal (if you're a prostitute), your social understanding (if you're a sociologist)? What baffles me is Christgau's "instead of." Sure, musicians have special interests; what doesn't make sense is to say that serving those interests somehow isn't serving their lives, or that those interests would somehow truncate the rest of their interests. Comes across as "Can't walk and chew gum at the same time." If you go to high school, you'll gravitate towards music that enriches your high-school experience, if you go to ILM you'll gravitate towards music that enriches your ILM experience; if you're a musician that goes to high school and/or ILM, would this suddenly make you move away from music that enriches your high-school and ILM experience? Seems to me that it might, rather, inspire you to play music that enriches your high-school and ILM experience.

(Of course, as a writer I make a special effort to detract from my readers' life experiences. Maybe this is where incommensurability comes in.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Thursday, 29 May 2003 02:44 (10 years ago) Permalink

I'm finally giving this thread a bash. It's awfully impressive.

Tim Finney (Tim Finney), Thursday, 29 May 2003 04:11 (10 years ago) Permalink

Okay so Meltzer and uh, say, Reynolds or even Danyel Smith. Incommensurable maybe. Why? Coz when they use the word "music" they mean different things, different ways of hearing, different things to listen for, different ways to live. Better yet Meltzer and Adorno -- coz I know f'sure they both confused their personal experience -- their set of revelations and narrowscope whizbangboom belief in art as doing THIS in THAT way -- they're incommensurable, no?

And maybe its precisely coz of what you hinted at in yr voice review of Meltzer:

His ability to write and ability to understand music in reverse proportion coz his writing coheres as an ethos, a worldview, a sharp fixity of intent. And the sharper it gets the less the ethos of this or that musician can intrude. The less he could have a damn thing to say about anything new (like rap -- did he *ever* have anything to say about it) coz the way he heard didn't let the things it did in. But to write as G-U-D as he did, he hadta keep hearing that way, keep feeling that way. So you compare him with someone like Adorno who could only hear the sedimented sociality in a difft. sorta music and even though they're talking about the same thing -- ppl. and how they listen to and treat one another -- there's no way to map the discourses.

So then maybe there's no one ruling "disciplinary matrix" of rock but a set of competing discourses and languages. Or maybe there IS a disciplinary matrix. After all how often does "the Stones were better before they started writing most of their songs" get y'know, published? Just like there are always kooks in science and competitions for theoretical frameworks, you've understood for ages that yr. ideas make you a "kook" in rockwrite.

But look -- the other point Kuhn makes is that incommensurable things are COMPARABLE, right? But posit that difft. critics & schools have their own "languages" or better yet "discourses" -- sets of precepts and methods too ("when in doubt, write about something else" "analyze the lyrics" "unknown bands deserve the biggest props" "what matters is how it makes *you* feel" etc.) and then ask if you can actually compare them the way you can compare scientific paradigms. ("Using Newton's motion we can launch a cannonball with .5 foot precision." "Using Kogan's hallway/classroom idea we can start to explain the theory/practice divide.")

Lets say we call this non-translatable and non-comparable (these are, ahem, comparative terms of course) sort of thing "strong incommensurability" and ask why it would be a useful term to have around.

Well okay -- the moment you ask "why would we want to launch a cannonball with etc." the answer comes from another field of discourse: politics, religion, military strategy, etc.

But ask why we might want to explain the theory/practice divide and things get dicier. Not coz there aren't reasons but coz "we" don't talk about them, and there's no sustained and continuous discourse to do so in even.

So meltzer, like adorno, & probably like reynolds and smith for that matter well I think they'd all like to explain that divide & probably bridge/eliminate it too. But they don't even have a way to talk to one another convincingly about it.

So okay suppose we tend to listen to things that enrich who we are (what we do, even) and we each make our own ethos out of it. How do we communicate except in more things which we seek or avoid depending on how they enrich who we are? Which is to say, how do we share enough common facets of an ethos so that our words and concepts line up at least roughly? Well see even if I like lotsa stuff Meltzer hates, Meltzer himself (or his writing at least) enriches my experience.

So what you have is this mutating field of exchanged missives of ways of experiencing the world shufflepucked around through, from, about, etc. those who are experiencing the world, of which the field is a part. All of which is actually by way of answer to oops who posed the puzzler "what good is criticism if all it produces is more criticism?"

Well, criticism produces people too, and the music they produce, and the way they feel about it, and etc. And the trick then is that to judge if Koganism is better than Adornism is better than Meltzerism is better than SFJonesism is better than oopsism you havta pass judgement on the whole friggin shebang. (For "better" in the last sentence, read "more useful" and insert "and what you wanna do with it" after "shebang").

Which is maybe why more people don't talk about this stuff.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Thursday, 29 May 2003 04:40 (10 years ago) Permalink

i. if more people wrote really wilfully unclearly then the gap between conceptions and conceptions of conceptions would grow and grow obv, vastly increasing the range of ideas "out there", and with this the chances that the ideas were good (unclearly expressed but good)

Mark, I don't want to say that this can't happen (more good ideas generated from an originally unclear, badly worded expression than would have been generated if the expression had been better worded and clearer), but it's rare, in my experience. We remember the good mishearings, but most of the mishearings aren't worth remembering, and we don't remember them. Mishearings tend to lead to convention and cliché, the same pseudoconceptions rendered endlessly. In any event, if I mishear an idea, it may improve the idea, but it won't improve my ideas, because I'd just have heard what was already in my head, rather than learning something new.

Putting aside the question of whether I state my ideas well or poorly, I can only think of one time in the past 18 years - since I started publishing criticism - when someone improved an idea of mine by misreading it.

I think that you arbitrarily and incorrectly believe that clarity entails closure, and you follow a stream of consciousness that goes "well-worded = clear = nothing more to say = boring" and "poorly worded = unclear = more to say = interesting." So you only see two possibilities, where I see 16. You see a poorly worded conception as leading to a multiplicity of misconceptions, but for some reason you can't see a well-worded conception as leading to a multiplicity of other conceptions; it's as if ideas could only lead to other ideas by being misunderstood.

Putting aside the question whether Copernicus and Kepler expressed their ideas well or poorly, some people managed to understand those ideas; and those who not only understood but tended to accept the ideas were then faced with the question of how to develop a new mechanics to explain planetary motion, since if the Sun really was at the center, there was as yet no good way to explain either why the planets moved as they did and - now that it was decided that the planets were material bodies like the Earth - why they didn't all fall into the Sun. If Copernicus and Kepler hadn't been understood, there'd have been nothing to explain, and no new ideas (including none of the ideas that superseded Copernicus's and Kepler's).

There have been a lot of ideas in physics and cosmology since Kepler, despite the fact that people sometimes understand each other.

By the way, "well worded" doesn't always mean "clearly worded." Sometimes you communicate better and the readers learn better if you make them do some work. But you need to give them the material to work with. (You know this already, and you know that I know it. I just want everyone else to know that I know it.)

(Can't there be various different strategies: e.g., express an idea "clearly" in one instance and "unclearly" [or incompletely, or differently] in another, as if it were a different idea, and seek out people who will get it wrong and those likely to get it right?)

If by some miracle of high-speed education all current listeners were inducted into the knowledge that gave them musicians’ ears, music, far from flourishing, would decline.

You don't say which musicians' ears we would get. If I get Pablo Casals's, I can do a good job of detesting and misunderstanding the Beatles, since he thought they were the worst sort of garbage. (That's what I remember reading, anyway.) It seems to me that you probably shouldn't have separated out your point iv from your point iii.

the idea, maybe, that there’s something those certain listeners know and hear when they’re listening to the music that the musicians involved no longer [know]. In other words, while a schooled musician gains something valuable, by virtue of essential acquired skills and ‘ear’ and whatever, s/he also LOSES something valuable.

An artist who can draw can never draw one thing: a picture that looks as if it was drawn by someone who CAN’T draw

Yes he can. But he will have to train himself to. A drawing teacher who works with young children might want to do just this.

When I read, I barely notice sentence structure, though when I write, I think about it a lot. Sometimes I will deliberately reread a favorite book in order to observe the sentence structure, so I can learn from it. But I rarely have the discipline to keep this up. After a few pages I just go back to reading normally.

Is someone who can play Beethoven but not Brown someone who can "play"? He can't play Brown, after all.

Casals is in the position of someone who can't "hear" the Beatles, and he will have to learn how. But "learning how to hear the Beatles" can consist of a number of things; does it mean understanding what the Beatles were doing, or does it mean understanding what he, Casals, can do with the Beatles? As I've been saying, the first can be a pathway to the second, but it isn't the only way. What strikes me as wrong is your tendency to believe that the first bars us from the second. And this is where you and I might be at loggerheads.

If there's anything analogous to "incommensurability," it's that to understand what the Beatles were doing back then we have to deliberately not take into account what we do with the Beatles now, since if we "read" the past as precursor to the present then we don't understand it. And besides wanting to know "Beatles then" for its own sake, it might hold surprises for us.

The most interesting passage I've written this year is:

For Aristotle, motion was a change in quality, an asymmetric change from an initial state to a final state, so that motion not only included a rock's moving towards its place in the center of the universe, and fire reaching outwards to its place on the periphery, but also an acorn growing into a tree, a man returning from sickness to health, and so forth.

Interesting, because it's truly an idea I'd never run into until I'd read Kuhn. And if young man Kuhn had simply decided that Aristotle's physics was as poorly thought and unclear as it had first seemed to him, and he hadn't worked hard to break through and understand it clearly, then he wouldn't have come up with his idea of incommensurability. All of which seems more interesting than if Kuhn had read into Aristotle ideas that Aristotle had never envisaged.

Is this fair to say: You've a sense that the culture and concepts that have been given us are potentially spare and closed, and so our way into abundance must be through subterfuge and mistake?

Xgau misread my PBS metaphor in Why Music Sucks as my wanting to get out from under my knowingness, whereas I'd thought I was using it to get us out from under an area of overcontrol where the symbol stood in for the event. See upthread where I claim that to expand knowledge is also to expand the unknown, hence knowledge is no threat to novelty. (Readers, don't worry that I haven't given you enough info to figure out what I mean by "an area of overcontrol where the symbol stood in for the event." It's not important to this thread, except in that I hope it will be important to Mark, who I hope already understands what I'm referring to - important in this sense: I think that it's the area of overcontrol that you yourself are trying to get out from under, and that - at least on this thread - you've mistakenly fixed on "clarity" as the culprit, just as Meltzer and the Sits mistakenly fixed on "meaning," perhaps because they believed that they had a way out from under that.)

I still haven't bitten into what I think is the main nut of your post. That'll wait for later, but let me summarize where I think we are so far.

You are seeing a relationship between, and perhaps want to run together, two ideas that you are putting forth:

(1) Miscommunication and misunderstanding are frequently an advantage over, perhaps even in most instances are preferable to, "good" communication and "clear" understanding.

(2) Suppose that you belong to group of listeners Class A and ArfArf belongs to group of listeners Class B. Now it's certainly true that because of your different experiences, skills, imaginative inclinations, training, talents, etc. there are things that you know and ArfArf doesn't and things he knows that you don't, and most likely things that you know that he lacks the skills or imagination to ever know and things that he knows that you lack the skills or imagination to ever know. But that's just a gap in expertise, skills, etc., and there's nothing in principle that prevents someone like you from learning what someone like ArfArf knows and vice versa. But there's a further gap, the one that concerns you, and that is not only unbridged in fact but unbridgeable in principle. That is, one can move from Class A to Class B, but once one does, one has lost some of the attributes of Class A; and there are things known by members of Class B that cannot ever, no matter what, be known by anyone in Class A (because then that person would no longer be in Class A) and things known by people in Class A that can never, no matter what, be known by people in Class B.

Anyway, I think that point 2 is "the nut" of the matter (or perhaps the fruit of the matter, since in botany many nuts are fruits) and that you're proposing it as a serious position with practical - and good - consequences. (That is, you're not just playing word games of the form "Say that Class A are the people that don't know anything and Class B are the people that know something, then no one in Class B can ever know what it's like not to know anything.") Point 2, I think, rather than being similar to Kuhn's notion of "incommensurability," runs counter to it, but in running counter to it may help illuminate it. As a historian Kuhn made it his business to go back and forth between Class B and Class A and to understand what was known by people in both classes, and his concept "incommensurability" is the result of his being able to do so. Only by knowing both B and A was he able to decide that they were incommensurable.


Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Friday, 30 May 2003 00:44 (10 years ago) Permalink

Okay so finishing Vinyl Reckoning again (man wotta beautiful ruthless relentless BULLSHIT ending to a book) and I run into this:

"It isn't so much that rock history is or must be revisionist (it generally is, but so what?) but simply, and more to the point that it is and can't help but be visionist. Historical hands, insofar as they're dealt at all, are dealt to persons -- to singles and multiples of 'em. Persons are touchstones of the efficacy of chronology: how history did its thing. What exactly happened? Everything. But sequence, hierarchy, synchronicity -- scratch that -- the assertion of all such meat 'n' taters, of a calculus and phenomenology of micro-moment progression, scale, nuance, and tangent, is at least two-thirds the statement, voiced or unvoiced, of each and every rockcriticperson. His/her stab, strut, and (in a nutshell) oeuvre.

"Or let's do it this way. Every rockwriter (sportswriter) (geekwriter) has his/her own book of genesis. Has? Exudes. An Old Testament concatenated fable. Gospel according to fill-in-the-blank. Every critic a "witness," a zealot and crackpot, and everyone's testament different, heck, it had better be. A fragment from MY glorious goddamn scripture -- the Absolute unfolds itself, thusly (take it or take it):"

[also reading this I realized that I think I'd somehow begun to imagine that I like Greil Marcus' approach more than I really do, in the wake of ppl. picking on him for stupid things fairly frequently. but then I go search through the ILM archives and notice that I've talked about Hannah Marcus about twice as much!]

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Friday, 30 May 2003 06:27 (10 years ago) Permalink

'The Beatles were not alone. The list of pop songwriters capable of touching on serious themes...harked back not to their pop predecessors such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, purveyors of doggerel notwithstanding the necromancy that surrounds them decades later, but to Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, the self-styled 'folk' songwriters of the American labor movement' - Jack Chambers, 'Milestones'

dave q, Monday, 2 June 2003 09:41 (10 years ago) Permalink

I'm finally giving this thread a bash. It's awfully impressive.

I won't until I read Kuhn and Lord knows when that'll happen.

Michael Daddino (epicharmus), Monday, 2 June 2003 09:59 (10 years ago) Permalink

if more people wrote really wilfully unclearly then the gap between conceptions and conceptions of conceptions would grow and grow obv, vastly increasing the range of ideas "out there"

Which people? Which conceptions? Which ideas?

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 9 June 2003 03:54 (10 years ago) Permalink

Joe Hardy [excitedly]: "It's raining. Do you know what that means?"

Frank Hardy [helpfully]: "Um. Drops of water are falling from the sky?"

Joe: "Ha ha ha. That's very funny. No, it means that we have to unload my umbrella stash. Come help me."

Frank [not moving]: "Oh. I thought it meant that we had to cancel our picnic."

Joe [impatiently]: "What picnic? I didn't know we'd planned a picnic. What are you talking about?" [Goes over to a closet and rummages around.]

Frank: "Well, we hadn't planned a picnic. But if we had, we'd have to cancel it. [Brightens up.] Unless we chartered a plane to some place where it wasn't raining."

Joe: "Help me with these umbrellas." [Lugs a box of about 30 umbrellas.]

Frank [still not moving]: "However, in weather like this, I suppose everyone will want to charter an airplane."

Joe: "Frank, stop babbling and help me with these. I'd bought them real cheap for just a situation as this. We'll go out and sell them on the street for four times what I paid. We'll make a bundle."

Frank [slowly walking over, grasps one end of the box, helps Joe carry it to the door]: "And with the profits we can charter an airplane, so we won't have to give up our picnic."

[Joe rolls his eyes.]

Frank: "I feel that I've been deprived of a picnic."

[Exeunt, with umbrellas.]

From this dialogue, we see that there is only one correct understanding of the sentence "It's raining," which is "We have to charter an airplane to fly us to a place where we can have our picnic." If anyone ever utters the sentence "It's raining," in whatever circumstances, and you understand it to mean something else, you are mistaken.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are many correct understandings of "It's raining." Perhaps there are practically an unlimited number of correct understandings.

So, there is no need to write willfully unclearly to produce a multiplicity of ideas. Clear understandings can provoke multiple responses.

Why would you assume otherwise?

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 9 June 2003 03:56 (10 years ago) Permalink

Let me pose a question. Do you think it would be a good idea to walk? I mean overall, in general. So I'm not asking whether it would be good to walk in this particular circumstance, or that, or from here to there, or when a runner is on first, or towards or away, or for your health, or as opposed to riding or running. Nothing that specific. I just want to know in general whether walking is a good idea. Walking c/d.

With such a question, there is nowhere to put my feet, no world on which to tread. There's not even the possibility of walking in place, since there is no place.

A third thing, "motion" that belongs neither to Aristotle's conversation nor to Newton's, nor to anyone's, but simply "motion as it really is" or "the motion that's really there," is just as vacuous as "walking" is two paragraphs back - vacuous because in a vacuum.

And so it is with the word "metanarrative" on this thread, and "Chomsky" and "Foucault" and "pure science" and "idea unclearly expressed." I can imagine that billions of years ago, in distant galaxies, these words had sense because they lived a life, belonged to sentences that contrasted with other sentences. But here it's as if they've journeyed across the vastness of space and somehow have gotten caught in this thread's gravity but have yet to find a way to touch down - have not brought enough of their old world with them to carry along their old sense, but have not gotten enough of a role in this world to get a new footing.

Or perhaps they do lead a life here - it's their natural home, or their new one - but for some reason when I look at them they fall mute, and I'm the alien.

But I don't see why you would plump for this alienation - this adamant refusal to communicate and to understand, this insistence that worlds not talk to each other, that the creation of new worlds is dependent on the inarticulateness of the old.

There must be a story here, some reasons why a man would advocate this.

I get the sense of someone using a feather duster to brush against his own nerve endings, but I don't know how his words actually brush, or where the nerves send their impulses. In other words, I just don't know what's going on, what's at stake. I feel that the issue is a stand-in for something else, but I'm damned if I know what.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 9 June 2003 03:59 (10 years ago) Permalink

Kuhn made it his business to go back and forth between Class B and Class A

So Kuhn had little interest in "philosophical skepticism." He rarely spoke of what we can or can't know, though he was concerned with what we do and don't know. "Incommensurability" has nothing to do with skepticism. That old physics is incommensurable with new doesn't mean that we can't learn the old physics. That there is no third thing - "what is really there" - to match the old and the new against doesn't mean that we can't have good reasons for choosing the new over the old.

But Mark is taking a position akin to skepticism, since he's saying that people with musicians' ears can't know what the unschooled listener knows, and vice versa. This isn't incommensurability, but incomprehensibility.

Philosophical skepticism actually refers to a whole mess of loosely related (or barely related) arguments. The one that might concern us would be something like this:

"I may believe that this thread is written in English, and my belief may be correct, but I can never know that this thread is in English. Just as I may be correct in believing that I know how to speak English, but I can't know that I know how to speak English." This is close to claiming that I can't know that I'm not just a brain in jar. Kuhn is right to be indifferent to such "skepticism," since the word "know" in those sentences is used so differently from "know" in "I know that she would like the Justin Timberlake album for her birthday" that the two words are homonyms. "Knowing" or not "knowing" the first sort of thing has nothing to do with knowing anything anyone ever needs to know.

"Incommensurability" doesn't imply that someone who knows modern physics can't learn Aristotelian physics, any more than it implies that someone who knows English can't learn French, or that someone who knows how to shop for groceries can't learn botany, or that someone who knows baseball can't learn tennis.

Of course, learning Aristotelian physics is difficult in a way that learning tennis or French or botany isn't, since there are no practitioners of Aristotelian physics to help us or to tell us whether we're doing it right. So this just means we have to use our best judgment. And though there may be practical barriers that prevent us from knowing Aristotelian physics as well as we'd like - missing documents, ideas that Aristotle never got to writing down in the first place, not enough knowledge of the ideas of Aristotle's contemporaries - there's no principle that says we can't understand an obsolete physics.

(By the way, I have no idea if the phrase "Aristotelian physics" is an anachronism, if or how Aristotle's "physics" separated out from his other ideas, or even if he used a term at all equivalent to "physics.")

I'm going to be using the phrase "what it's like" in the next few paragraphs, but it's one I feel iffy about. E.g., since I don't speak French, I can feel ignorant when everyone around me is speaking French. But in general, ignorance is not a feeling, a mood, or a state. I am ignorant of the languages that were spoken 20,000 years ago, but I wouldn't say I'm walking around in a state of ignorance because of it, or that I carry the ignorance inside me like a mood.

Mark, are you driving at something like this: The people who made Psycho are incapable of knowing what it's like for the audience not to know how the movie is going to come out; just as the person who's already seen Psycho is no longer able to experience what it's like not to know how the movie comes out? This argument is fundamentally wrong: The filmmakers are very aware of what it's like for the audience not to know; otherwise, the movie would not have been very suspenseful. And the person who's seen the movie can certainly imagine what it's like not to know how the movie comes out. And sure, he can't precisely relive the pleasure of seeing Psycho for the first time, but he can know what that pleasure is like, and if he wants something similar he can go see another suspense film.

Parents can understand what it's like for their toddler not to have a good sense of balance. An arithmetic teacher can have a good idea what it's like for his students not to know how to multiply and divide. If he wants to be any good, he'd better. Just as a drawing teacher needs a sense of what it's like not to know perspective, a reading teacher needs a sense of what it's like not to know the new vocabulary, a mystery writer needs to imagine what it's like not to know who done it. Even I, occasionally, take it into account that my readers haven't heard the record.

And Kuhn made it his business to understand what it was like for Planck not to know yet that energy came in quanta, and what it was like for Copernicus not to know what Kepler knew.

I think you're making a mistake in treating a social gap as if it's an intellectual one. That is, musicians don't always hang around the same people as their audience does, and so the musicians may have different social group with different goals and values, hence a different idea of what's going on and of what's worth doing. But this social difference is no stranger than any other social difference and no harder or easier to cross than any other social barrier, such as that between a jazz fan and a Britney fan. Also, the musician making a record may be engaged in a very different activity from the person who's hearing it on his car radio, or dancing to it. But so what? This doesn't tell me that the musician can't understand the listener's activity and vice versa, and doesn't tell me what the advantage is supposed to be in not understanding.

And I'm nowhere near to figuring out why you think that the words "concept" and "decoding" are relevant. They're mystifying.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 9 June 2003 04:08 (10 years ago) Permalink

because "if a star should doubt..."

dave q, Monday, 9 June 2003 07:11 (10 years ago) Permalink

(that was referring to your second-to-last post btw, not the last one)

dave q, Monday, 9 June 2003 07:23 (10 years ago) Permalink

My God. I used to teach this stuff. Now I can't even understand it. But I'm not sure where the brain damage occurred.

colin s barrow (colin s barrow), Monday, 9 June 2003 07:37 (10 years ago) Permalink

my idea started life as a deliberately perverse joke, on a dull thread where the dullness arose from the facts that both sides were falling over themselves to agree that clear writing is good writing — anyway i can't tell if frank is giving me a show-as-well-as-tell lesson in the wrongness of the idea or whether the fact that he's giving me this tell lesson is a show proof of the rightness of the idea

our brains are hardwired to "read" faces, and so we see them where they maybe aren't => :)

what i'm suggesting is that, since our brains are hardwired (or super-well trained) to "read" language (to prioritise this), music — which (often) presents as sounds-like-language-but-isn't — gives listeners a space to project meaning that isn't there onto it, to explore and discuss (but musicians find it harder to do this, because they already find a richness of musician-type things to discuss, and this front-brain activity distracts from the intuitive almost unconscious stuff that non-musicians receive much more strongly)

the gulf isn't absolute: but it takes real time to cross (length of a course in "learning to be a musician") (musicians could also teach themselves to turn down the volume of what their professional antennae were picking up on)

social vs intellectual space: i don't see why these need be dichotomous

the reason i'm resisting frank's call to be specific abt which musicians is that i also think the way this "generalised" gulf manifests varies tremendously between types of music (and also probably within types of music), and that rock in particular gained a lot of its social energy from allowing the line between "musician" and "non-musician" to blur, compared to the musics it likes to contrast itself with...

but to be aware of this difference — even if it's a phantom difference — you have to believe that someone believed in the phantom

frank is saying "i don't believe the phantom existed" (which is fine) but then going on to say "therefore belief in its existence can't have been a part of the reason things happened" (which is not)

(his point that i'm overstating in sceptical fashion is probably true, i wasn't being very careful about that — i was being playful and joky and trying to wriggle an idea out of my intuition into public space without moulding it into a more normalise shape: actually i'm NOT a sceptic, but i'm often mistaken for one by ppl who've done a lot of battling with sceptics)

understanding gulfs create many of our key social spaces (schools = obvious example) => but the fact that frank and i left school long ago isn't a proof that ppl just entering now don't need to go (something like this is often a sort of unwanted corollary of his argument about mutual understanding, i think)

mark s (mark s), Monday, 9 June 2003 09:02 (10 years ago) Permalink

understanding something is like a journey, and there isn't this platform that certain blessed-learned ppl have got to where they've stopped having to go on journeys

if everyone instantly knew what was in everyone else's head instantly, the fun would go out of communication

the "wilfully unclearly" joke only works as a joke if the reader is aware that i don't really believe in what i'm saying, obv (that i'm making a plainly ridiculous argument against clarity to justify my own oft-times lack of same): HOWEVER having made the joke, then occurred to me that i do increasingly tend to read "achieved disciplinary ability" as the opening up of a gulf, and that the "closing of the gulf as if it never was" is NOT the purpose eg throwing a pot or writing a song or striking a pose

frank is saying that i'm saying the gulf is ultimately uncrossable
i'm saying he's saying there's never actually a gulf in the first place

but i think BOTH of these are wrong

mark s (mark s), Monday, 9 June 2003 09:35 (10 years ago) Permalink

(for more on the intra-musician ethos of musicians, cf exchange between me and david on this thread)

mark s (mark s), Monday, 9 June 2003 14:12 (10 years ago) Permalink

3 weeks pass...
I find Sterling's post on rock critics to be strong, but if I ever get the chance to answer most of it, I'll do so on the Meltzer thread or one of the Frith threads, so that I can get into all the rockcrit stuff without being Kuhn relevant. (Another good reason to read Performing Rites is that Frith says that when we talk about music, each of us is running three different discourses at once!)

But here are a couple points in relation to Kuhn:

the moment you ask "why would we want to launch a cannonball with etc." the answer comes from another field of discourse: politics, religion, military strategy, etc.

This isn't necessarily true. It might be true as a matter of sociohistorical fact that for physicists now, the question of why you would want to launch a cannonball is not an integral part of their physics (even if a physicist, like everyone else, does ask such questions of political leaders); and it's probably true that Newton wasn't asking himself that particular question when he was developing his laws of motion. So perhaps, once we've studied the matter, we can conclude that "the answer comes from another field of discourse" rather than being an integral part of physics, but we can't assume this beforehand. This is one of Kuhn's points about the paradigms of the past being different from those of the present: They give us a different map of what counts as relevant. "The sun is the home of God and therefore the source of planetary motion" could once be a part of a great scientist's theory.

So then maybe there's no one ruling "disciplinary matrix" of rock but a set of competing discourses and languages. Or maybe there IS a disciplinary matrix.

No, this makes no sense whatever. As the rest of your post shows, rock criticism isn't within a megazillion light years of being a disciplinary matrix. I don't get why you'd say otherwise. It's as if we were discussing how to distinguish left hands from right hands, and you suddenly said, irrelevantly, "Or maybe left hands ARE right hands, but with their digits reversed and on the other arm." In trying to understand what Kuhn means by "ruling paradigm" and "disciplinary matrix," you need to wipe from your brain the idea of "majority vs. minority," or "mainstream vs. fringe," or "culture vs. counterculture." If there are competing paradigms, then there's no ruling paradigm, even if one side gets all the seats on the student council and gets to threaten the other side with being burned at the stake.

If I consider myself a rock critic, and if my ideas put me at odds with the core ideas of other people I consider rock critics, then there's no ruling paradigm, no disciplinary matrix. Period. Even if no other people agree with my ideas, or know of them, even if I'm a madman scribbling in the attic, if I think my ideas are good and that they are rock criticism, then I can't say that there's a disciplinary matrix without contradicting myself. "Ruling paradigm" means (I'm quoting Richard Rorty here) "solving problems against the background of consensus about what counts as a good explanation of the phenomena and about what it would take for a problem to be solved." If you and I aren't part of the consensus, then there isn't a consensus. Kuhn uses phrases like "working within a paradigm" to distinguish sciences in their normal phases both from sciences in their revolutionary phases and from relevant nonsciences; in the latter two, people don't share an overall disciplinary matrix. So you're not doing any good to claim that revolutionary sciences and nonsciences also have ruling paradigms, unless you're doing so in order to jettison Kuhn. Which you're allowed to do, but most people who want to do so try it from the other direction, by claiming that no science has a ruling paradigm and that the premises of a science are always under attack.

("Relevant nonsciences" might be psychology and economics and, um, semiotics, disciplines in which some members aspire to be "scientific" but which have not achieved consensus. I'm wondering if some sports can be said to have ruling paradigms. Or whether mathematics can. Rock criticism isn't even trying for consensus. Rather, it builds itself around maintaining basic disagreements.)

Obvious question: When is a premise seriously under attack? E.g., I don't think creationists have mounted a serious attack on natural selection or genetic drift, even if they eventually succeed at decreasing the funding for evolutionary biology. This is because "God did it" doesn't work as an interesting explanation in biology, and biologists therefore don't even have to bother with it, even if they do so elsewhere in their life.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 1 July 2003 20:31 (10 years ago) Permalink

Evolutionary theory is perhaps not the best example for premise-under-attack--it's not like evolution was ever totally accepted and then this wacky new creationist theory arose to take it down. It's more the other way around: the creationists are under (prolonged) attack from the evolutionists. The last vestiges of the once-ruling creationist paradigm are being swept away, slowly but surely--there are just these last hiccups of resistance.

Check geocentric (is that the word? Universe revolving around the earth etc) vs heliocentric back in the day. The established premise/paradigm was under attack and (to extend the metaphor) defeated by the upstart.

adam (adam), Tuesday, 1 July 2003 23:51 (10 years ago) Permalink

First off, I was using it as an example of premise not under attack. Second off, it is a good example, since if you don't accept evolutionary theory you're simply not a biologist, just as someone who doesn't accept quantum mechanics isn't a physicist. (I mean, assuming that what I've read is correct; I don't actually know the physics or biology well enough. But the point here is to understand what Kuhn meant by "disciplinary matrix," and why evolutionary biology is said to have one while rock criticism for sure doesn't.) "Ruling paradigm" and "disciplinary matrix" means "rules the discipline" not "is accepted by everybody in the world." The Copernican Revolution was won by Newton, even though the Catholic Church condemned it for another 200 years. My point is to distinguish a ruling paradigm (natural selection, genetic drift) from a nonruling paradigm ("rockism," if it were a paradigm rather than a buzz word). The difference isn't that there are no contrary voices in the world, but that if there's a ruling paradigm/disciplinary matrix, the discipline doesn't have to take the contrary voices into any kind of intellectual account. This is not the situation in philosophy, history, psychology, and so forth. A discipline with a ruling paradigm/disciplinary matrix, as Kuhn has defined it, is rare.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 2 July 2003 14:33 (10 years ago) Permalink

this thread makes me so happy that there are so many intellectual people here.

it makes me even happier that I don't understand any of it, that my entire Ivy League education is gone, and that I'm having so much more fun now that I don't have to read/get/like stuff like this anymore.

but no hating on paradigm matrices or critical perspective shift from me. someone's a-gotta. go kidz go!

oh and what's a hardy boys mystery without EPMD and/or olive-skinned Tony?

Neudonym, Wednesday, 2 July 2003 14:41 (10 years ago) Permalink

From a creationist's viewpoint, there is no ruling paradigm, whereas from a Darwinist's there is, since he doesn't have to bother with creationism as a competitor, given that his discipline doesn't bother with it either. I'm hammering this point home because, if we're going to ask ourselves, "How can we apply Kuhn's ideas to rock criticism?" we have to know what those ideas are. Incommensurability might apply; paradigm/disciplinary matrix doesn't. And yeah, as Nabisco pointed out in the P&J Stats thread, there's no law that says we need to use the word "paradigm" as Kuhn used it. But if we're using "ruling paradigm" differently, then we're not applying Kuhn.

Say that rock criticism is an ongoing battle among premises. The story of how rock criticism changes, then, wouldn't be the story of a ruling premise being displaced by an upstart, but of a battle that evolves.

(But that's way too simple, since rock criticism isn't just an ongoing battle among premises, but a battle among practices, which are battles themselves. So it's an ongoing battle among battles. Of course, premises will change along with the battles, but these changes would constitute lots of competing premises undergoing shifts, not a discipline undergoing a paradigm shift. A criticism's shift may be as significant as a science's, but it won't be a Kuhnian one.)

To continue hammering, is it ever possible for someone who doesn't accept a paradigm to claim that it is nonetheless a ruling paradigm? I mean, to make this claim without its being self-contradictory? The only case I can think of is a historian saying that a paradigm used to rule in some past time. I don't think a sociologist of the present would be right to say, "Physics has a ruling paradigm, but I have no opinion as to whether we should accept it." To call it a "ruling paradigm" is to state that it has no competitors worth paying attention to, which is to accept it. At most, the sociologist who doesn't want to endorse the paradigm can say, "Physicists are behaving as if they had a ruling paradigm, and they seem to be getting away with it."

By the way, though a big motivation for this thread is to have fun discussing ideas, I'm not speaking idly here. Many discussions of recent cultural "sea changes" founder very badly (in fact, fall head first into crap) because these discussions try to apply a model that goes, "Old idea replaced by new idea, old premise replaced by new one," and this model just doesn't work for the nonsciences.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 2 July 2003 16:54 (10 years ago) Permalink

Colin's comment in particular disturbs me, since I actually don't think Kuhn's basic ideas are hard to understand. Maybe I'm just writing poorly. Also, a lot of the discussion here isn't taking on Kuhn's ideas directly.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 2 July 2003 17:08 (10 years ago) Permalink

"Old idea replaced by new idea, old premise replaced by new one," and this model just doesn't work for the nonsciences.

It doesn't work for the sciences either. Regarding the history of say rock criticism as Phase 1 -> Phase 2 -> Phase 3 is interesting/helpful but flawed and oversimplified. I'm down with that. But that same goes for the sciences: It's not all thesis + anti = syn, it's a convoluted mess of yr battles on battles on battles.

For example look at all the snippiness going on in the physics world right now--Joao Magueijo et al monkeying around with the speed of light vs those still backing the rock solid "c." This is a minor diversion on the way to a complete cosmological reckoning but it will surely have an effect on the ultimate outcome--much like the recent rise in the visibility of rock criticism (Almost Famous, Let it Blurt, etc) does not signal any kind of paradigm shift (b/c as you said there is no paradigm) but it is bound to have some effect on the discourse.

I lost the thread there in that last sentence--there is no disciplinary matrix in rock crit but the idea of this absolute ruling paradigm means very little when applied to any ongoing discourse. Where does room for improvement come in?

NB Obv I have not read Kuhn but I shall go to the library and investigate later.

NB Also Frank pls do not regard this as an attack on your wonderful thread I am simply groping for a better understanding of its content.

adam (adam), Wednesday, 2 July 2003 19:32 (10 years ago) Permalink

Because when you say the ruling paradigm doesn't even have to acknowledge its competitors I'm imagining an inbred mutation of a science going down the tubes very quickly. There has to be some allowance for conflict/error, right?

adam (adam), Wednesday, 2 July 2003 19:34 (10 years ago) Permalink

Adam, you wouldn't believe how little I actually know about the sciences (or maybe you would); which of course makes my evaluating Kuhn somewhat difficult. You're right, having one idea give way to another idea is far too simplistic; Kuhn's notion is of a whole constellation of ideas, models, theories, examples, and practices unravelling into a period of scientific revolution which eventually ends in a ravelling of a new set of ideas, models, etc. It's a sort of punctuated equilibrium. But still, I think we probably can compare before-and-after ideas in a way that we can't in the nonsciences. That is, before Copernicus, all European astronomers had a concept of what a planet was (nonmaterial body [incl. sun and moon] that orbited the Earth [which was not a planet] in convoluted orbit), after Newton all European astronomers had a different concept of planet (material body like the Earth [and incl. the Earth but not the Sun or moon] that orbits the Sun in an elliptical orbit that is modified by the gravitational effects of the other planets on it). Whereas in philosophy you don't get "Before Kant all philosphers believed X whereas after Dewey they all believed Y," or even all that much agreement over who is a philosopher.

Kuhn has some interesting thoughts on why a variation of different responses to anomalies is crucial for a science. The variation of response is analogous to the variation of attributes in a species. So you might get one physicist who thinks that an anomaly is cause for a major overhaul of many of the ideas of physics, while another might work hard to fit the anomaly into the current pattern, and a scientific selection takes place analogous to natural selection. I'll write more about this when I get the time, since it's real interesting, but first I need to respond - finally - to Mark.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 14 July 2003 21:44 (10 years ago) Permalink

Mark, you're at the start with your idea, like where I was in 1987 when I was sitting on the 33 Ashbury bus as it made its wide turn from upper Market to Clayton, overlooking the city, and the analogy popped into my head that the indie-alternative music-and-fanzine network was functioning like PBS for the youth. The thing is, my idea hadn't taken shape: I felt an analogy but hadn't drawn it yet. And you're at the same point of lift-off: you've gathered your colored pencils and your paper and you've drawn a few lines, one line near the top of the page, another over by a corner, but you haven't sketched anything in. You've yet to either show or tell. I hope I don't come across as hectoring you, but I do want to goad/inspire you onwards, so that you don't just sit back satisfied with this quasi-poem-sketch of yours and not turn it into anything. It's up to you, but the following says where I think you are (and if I'm stating these wrong, maybe that'll inspire you to state them better):

(1) Misunderstanding is better than understanding at producing good ideas. [This originated as a joke, but you repeated the joke here, so it must signify more than just "ha ha" to you.]

(2) There's a gulf between those with musicians' ears and those without, and the former therefore can only with difficulty hear as the latter hear.

(3) Our hard-wiring makes us try to hear music as if we were hearing sentences, though in fact, since music isn't sentences, we're "hearing" something that isn't there and thus creating ideas where there had been none. [You didn't say "sentences," but this will make your idea more potent. I explain below.]

(4) If everyone instantly knew what was in everyone else's head, the fun would go out of communication.

I broke these into four pieces because each piece is independent of the others. That is, what I think of one of them won't necessarily affect what I think of the others; none needs the support of the others. But you've run the points together yourself, via some sort of emotional or experiential association. You should explore why you associate these points, recall what events provoked these sentences of yours. But you should also rethink their association, since it's leading you astray.

Point one just seems wrong (and it requires the absurd corollary that to understand someone is to end discussion, that understanding equals closure); point four makes me say "So what?" Yet somehow, these are hot points for you, relate to whatever emotional glue is binding your thoughts.

Point two has the problem that I don't know what you think musicians' ears consist of, so I don't know yet what you're talking about. This is where you have to draw the picture, rather than writing the phrase "musicians' ears" and imagining that a picture or idea will form in our minds.

I don't believe in a general "musician's ear" any more than Kuhn believed in "scientific method" (people don't learn a "scientific method" that they then apply to any old thing, they learn to be physicists, chemists, biologists, etc.). This point of mine is minor, since it doesn't preclude there being gaps between musicians and listeners; but the gaps, if they exist, may be drastically different among different musicians and different listeners, so different that the gap in one situation may not resemble the gap in another, and "hears as language vs. doesn't hear as language" may not be the gap you get everywhere. You sort of make this point yourself, but then use this as a reason not to be specific, whereas I see it as one of many reasons why you must be specific.

You need to consider the analogy I made about the car mechanic. Let's grant for the sake of argument that someone who is playing an instrument is doing something very different from someone who is listening to music. So those are two different social roles; musician and listener. But you've given no reason why the same person can't occupy those two roles at different times, or even at the same time - just as a car mechanic on holiday who's driving a car can play three roles at once, can pay attention to how the car is running (mechanic), can watch the road (driving), can look at the scenery as he does so (passenger). This doesn't mean that there's no gap in the roles; nor is it about difficulty in bridging a gap. All it means is that skill in one role doesn't necessarily detract from skill in another; just as skill in checkers doesn't necessarily detract from skill in chess. If someone keeps up his listeners' chops (so to speak), let's say by engaging with a lot of other listeners, then he'll continue to listen as a listener as well as he did before. (A car mechanic who doesn't drive much may not be a very good driver, even if he's a good mechanic. But a mechanic may drive a lot too, and may drive well, or still poorly.) But as I said, point two has no bearing on point three. If nonmusicians are hard-wired to hear music as sentences, why shouldn't musicians be as well? (Just as people like me who pay attention to sentence structure are nonetheless able to read for content; as a matter of fact, I have trouble not reading for content.) You've given no reason whatsoever, other than dogmatically restating your contention while providing no examples, why musicians don't hear what laymen hear, why one type of hearing drowns out the other. And your saying "they already find a richness of musician-type things to discuss" has to do with the context of discussion, and tells us nothing about what they fail to hear. What people discuss depends on whom they're talking to. Of course, what they listen for may have a lot to do with whom they frequently talk to; but really, you can talk to more than one type of person in your life, and learn more than one language-game, and listen for more than one thing.

None of this necessarily precludes our having to suspend some knowledge at some time. Nor does it refute your intuition. To turn that intuition into an idea, though, will require an explanation of what particular listeners actually hear, and how that differs from what particular musicians hear, and in what circumstances musicians can walk and chew gum at the same time, and in what circumstances they can't.

Your point two, disassociated from point three, may well be right under certain circumstances, but you have to give the circumstances. A trained physicist may do worse than the layman at reading Aristotle's physics, but not because he has a "physicist's eye" that prevents him from reading with a layman's eye, but rather because his Newtonian and Einsteinian training have led him to expect a pattern in Aristotle's writing that isn't there, and the expected pattern is at odds with the pattern that actually is there. And for someone to learn botany, he will have to suspend what he knows from cookery, since the latter has a classification system at odds with the former. Whereas the car mechanic has no trouble with driving and sightseeing, because they're not at odds with car mechanics. Now, it's well-known that a car mechanic's brain is bigger than a musician's; nonetheless, the musician, pinhead though he may be, is capable of holding three or four ideas in his head at once. So where a layman may hear "the chord pattern to 'Louie Louie,'" the musician will hear "E-A-Bm-A," and the musician who knows theory will hear "I-IV-v-IV." But the musician will also hear "chord pattern to 'Louie Louie,'" since it's not at odds with the other two. Where you're going wrong is in assuming that it's the amount of info in a musician's head that makes it impossible to hear as the layman hears. Let's suppose that your point three is right. You're hypothesizing that we're hard-wired to listen for illusory "content" in music. But you're also supposing that the musician is too busy listening for other stuff to do this. I doubt that you're right, since I can't see a reason why what the musician knows about chords and rhythms and stuff would conflict with his listening for illusory "content" - just as grammarians and linguists are quite capable of reading texts for content, despite their also reading for sentence structure, inflections, and so forth. In my earlier post I made a small attempt to explore where one's knowledge might actually put one at odds with knowing what the untrained person knows. To turn this point two of yours into a real idea, you'll have to do the same, but more extensively. Just what is at that you, the nonmusician, hear that I, the musician, can't?

According to your hypothesis, Chuck Eddy will hear the sorts of things in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that I won't be able to hear, my inability to hear such things being due to my knowing how to play an instrument. You have to tell me (1) what Chuck is hearing that I can't, and (2) why it's my knowing guitar and bass that prevents me from hearing what Chuck hears, how it is that my musicianship causes the sorts of things that I hear to conflict with the sorts of things that Chuck hears.

Except I recommend you go a somewhat different route for point two. Forget point three for the time being (which would be "Chuck hears music as if it were language, but Frank has lost this ability"), and put aside the music that Chuck and I both hear a lot of, such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And go back to something like my example of a modern physicist reading Aristotle. Actually, I wouldn't necessarily assume the layman will do any better than the physicist; but at least I can understand why he might. So now imagine a German musician in about 1800 being confronted for the first time with African music. German music of the time - unlike British - uses the do-re-mi scale across the board, from folk music to popular music to upper-class music. So the German musician (of whatever type) may well hear the African music as out-of-tune, and the rhythm as wild or confused, since he's not aware of the different scales in African music and he doesn't understand counterrhythm. Now it's possible - though I wouldn't automatically assume this - that the German layman will be able to hear the African music better, as he's less committed by training and practice to the do-re-mi scale or to the European rhythms. So to transfer the question to the present: What in particular is the rock-pop-jazz musician of 2003 likely to be committed to that conflicts with his hearing something that the laymen might be open to hearing? Say, the laymen might be more open to music that's really new, or really old, or extraterrestrial. But be specific. Point out an actual piece of music, actual acts of listening to it, actual differences. Another question you need to explore: How are the sociomusical practices of the rock-pop-jazz fan-who-doesn't-play-an-instrument so different from and at odds with those of the rock-pop-jazz musician that the musician can't hear music in the way that the fan does? Again, I mean, specific differences, just as expecting to hear one scale may conflict with your being able to hear another. And I don't mean that the musician has values and goals that differ from the fan's; rather, that the musician's expectations are so at odds with the fan's behavior that the musician can't come close to correctly interpreting the fan's behavior (at least not without doing some research on the habits of this peculiar social species: the fan). What are the premises and ideas that put the fan's behavior beyond the musician's immediate comprehension?

So, to point three: I like the image of our straining to hear something in the music when actually it is our projections we are hearing there. That music does generate concepts is worth hypothesizing, but this hypothesis needs a lot of playing with before it will make sense. The reason that, in my summary, I wrote "We are hard-wired to hear music as if we were hearing sentences" rather than "We are hard-wired to hear music as meaningful" is that, hard-wired or not, we are generally right to hear a whole lot of meaningful stuff in music, e.g., our reading musical styles for their social markers, which is no more mysterious than reading hairstyles or clothing or writing styles or pronunciation for their social connotations. Of course, you can sometimes misread those too, but that's not mysterious either. And hearing moods in movie music is part of the social skill of watching movies; and this seems on a par with reading body language and the mood of a room. And musicians and listeners and fans can act out social relations sonically, and again this shouldn't be any harder (or easier) to interpret than other acting out would be. (And to go back to point two, there's zero reason to think that musicians would be worse than nonmusicians at such reading/interpreting, any more than hairstylists would be worse than nonhairstylists at interpreting the social implications of a haircut.) So for your intuition to have the bite you want it to, I would state it, "We are hard-wired to read sentences for concepts and to try to hear music as if we were hearing sentences and hence to try to 'read' music for concepts - and therefore, actually, to create concepts that we project onto music." I don't see any reason to believe this, particularly, and I don't really understand it (examples would be useful, as always), but it's worth pursuing, because it's not a suggestion I've heard before. Bear in mind that "reading for concepts" is not the main thing we do with sentences, much less music. Also, in discussing music we're rarely reporting how we hear it. Consider: "The Smiths are Godlike, while XTC sucks shit in the mud." In general, we're more interested in using music in our personal relations than in reporting on it, and most music discussion is a ping-pong match of back-and-forth value judgments. But also, when we do want to report, we find that music is difficult to describe and impossible to convey, and therefore what people say about music isn't a good record of what they hear. Musicians' jargon refers to how you make the music, not what it does; and laymen generally just give you genre names plus "sounds like" comparisons (as do musicians, usually).

And once again I'll ask why projecting concepts is more creative than learning concepts, or is creative at all, for that matter.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 14 July 2003 22:11 (10 years ago) Permalink

and laymen generally just give you genre names plus "sounds like" comparisons (as do musicians, usually)

Aargh I had to do this recently and I hated it. Maybe I am neither a layperson nor a musician!

Tracer Hand (tracerhand), Monday, 14 July 2003 22:26 (10 years ago) Permalink

Well, what would you have given them instead, if you'd had a choice in the matter? (Assuming that your goal is to describe the music, which is what I was talking about in that sentence. I generally hate describing music, though paradoxically I obsessively wonder why I tend to categorize a piece of music in a certain way, given that I almost always categorize what I hear, and often have little idea why I categorized it in such and such a way.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 14 July 2003 23:24 (10 years ago) Permalink

WHOA how did I miss this thread before!????? This must have been created during one of my hiatii

I haven't read this yet but I'm almost creaming my jeans! I don't know much about Kuhn but I do about care about Kepler.

SOMEONE has to convert, compare, and contrast his medieval Western astrological theories with more ancient Eastern ones, as well as with the underlying Vedic/planetary philosophies behind the mechanics of jyotish, and metaphysics as a whole.

And the Kepler chapter in The Copernican Revolution is excellent for showing how a great thinker wasn't being irrational or unscientific in believing stuff that we now tend to think of as hooey.

Don't use that "we" so authoritatively Mr. Kogan! =) Thank you for posting this; I shall bookmark now and read later.

Vic (Vic), Tuesday, 15 July 2003 00:25 (10 years ago) Permalink

It's tough to think of a short-hand that's going to be understandable but not overbroad (like a genre name, or a band). With food you can just talk ingredients; everybody knows what chicory is, right?

Tracer Hand (tracerhand), Tuesday, 15 July 2003 03:57 (10 years ago) Permalink


Josh (Josh), Tuesday, 15 July 2003 03:59 (10 years ago) Permalink

(I hate "hey presto, it's like x meets y!" Don't bootlegs prove that this isn't an accurate way of describing original recordings, since bootlegs actually combine x and y exactly? The bootleg doesn't sound like whatever band you were describing with your formula, it just sounds like x and y run together at the right tempo and pitch. The only actually important part, the crucial thing about THIS band that you want to convey, has been left out by the "x + y" description. I started a game once to try and get everyone sick of it. (NB the philosopher mentioned in THAT title could use some more nuanced storytelling, since his name has become at least as much of a short-hand as Kuhn's is))

Tracer Hand (tracerhand), Tuesday, 15 July 2003 04:21 (10 years ago) Permalink

The Fluffy Milkman sound like Kepler crossed with the Velvet Underground performing Led Zeppelin's "Going to California," but not as interesting as that description makes them seem.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 22 July 2003 19:51 (10 years ago) Permalink

Before the Copernican revolution, "planet" was an immaterial object that traveled in a complex pattern around the Earth

"Immaterial" is probably incorrect. I'll have to research this, when I get the chance. "Differently material"? The matter must have been considered non-Earthlike; otherwise, at the time there'd be no way to explain why the planets didn't all fall to Earth.

Obviously, I know almost nothing about Hegel. Presumably, Mark and Sterling know more. But they've not succeeded in communicating to me what they know. I find the statement "My theory was a theory of knowledge" totally inscrutable, so "their 'theory' destroys yet preserves yours" still reads like gibberish.

my idea that paired opposites are comparative rather than antithetical

Sterling, calling it "my" idea means that I'm the one who introduced it into this discussion, not that I'm the first person in the world to notice that, say, "hot" and "cold" are comparative terms. But "comparative terms" does not mean "the unity of opposites," so I'm not claiming the latter idea as mine, or anyone's, since I don't understand the phrase "unity of opposites." In any event, I don't see what "unity of opposites" has to do with the fact that a cold star can be a couple thousand degrees above zero, and a high-temperature superconductor a couple of hundred below. Nor do I notice any funny dialectical stuff. "Dialectical" is another word that so far has added nothing to my understanding here.

I wouldn't say that I've successfully conversed with anyone on this thread.

To elaborate on what might be one of Adam's points: A change in what counts as a "planet" is only revolutionary enough to be a paradigm shift if it throws enough other ideas into incoherence that a large number of the other ideas have to change as well.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 4 August 2003 06:01 (10 years ago) Permalink

Ok, I've read some Kuhn now. Disregard my earlier posts as they were made in ignorance.

Still I think Kuhn neglects the little paradigm shifts and the ripple effect they can have. Modern physics for example is almost comically compartmentalized and segregated--high-energy over here, string theorists over there, solid state in the basement etc etc--but at some level or another they're all working on the same thing, right? So an unexpected/unwieldly discovery in one area (a paradigm shift for that microdiscipline) has implications for everyone else that could change the rules of "normal science" but perhaps not revolutionize it. I say "could" because at that point it is a perfectly valid option to continue with business as usual (outside the revolutionized specialty) but eventually when this new idea is incorporated into a paradigm-shifting discovery for a larger, more visible field when/where do we say the shift began? What is the revolutionary idea?

It gets especially frustrating when you imagine thousands of people working on a variety of somewhat-related problems making frequent minor breakthroughs that may or may not be relevant to other problems--tracing a major discovery back down a tangled path like that would be extremely difficult for the scientific historian. It all just sounds so neat and well-trimmed with Kuhn--though I guess with the editing powers of time the most important ideas stay important while minor ones become footnotes--though I'm not sure how much I trust that.

adam (adam), Monday, 4 August 2003 11:45 (10 years ago) Permalink

Kuhn was thinking about the very same things you were as he went on. See the quote above about chess without the queen. But maybe the various physicists are not all working on the same thing. (You'd know better than I would, probably.) Also, his two major works of history, The Copernican Revolution and Black Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, don't make things seem trim at all. (I've not read all of the latter, since I don't have the math to truly understand it.) One interesting thing about Black Body is that it claims that Planck was very late to realizing that his work entailed quantization; Einstein and Ehrenfest grasped this first, when Planck still thought he was dealing with mental divisions of total energy, not with energy quanta.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 5 August 2003 21:37 (10 years ago) Permalink

Creative scientists can be, and typically are, responsible for the emergence of beliefs that they did not hold themselves, at least not during the period when their discoveries were made. If one is to learn how those discoveries came about, how new knowledge emerged, then one must find out how the discoverers themselves thought about what they were doing. Often it turns out that not just their beliefs but their very modes of thought were different from the ones to which their discoveries gave rise...

Entry into a discoverer's culture often proves acutely uncomfortable, especially for scientists, and sophisticated resistance to such entry ordinarily begins with the discoverer's own retrospects and continues in perpetuity....

Systematic distortions of memory, both the discoverer's memory and the memory of many of his contemporaries, are a first manifestation of resistance. Another, regularly found among members of later generations, is the attribution of real or supposed anomalies in the discoverer's behavior to "confusion."...

The famous paper that announced the Bohr model of the hydrogen atom was submitted from Copenhagen on 6 March 1913 and published the following July, the first installment of a three-part series. I first read it during the fall of 1962 in preparation for interviews with its author. Not surprisingly, the paper includes a full description of the quantized Bohr model for the hydrogen atom as it would be taught in an elementary physics course today. But it also includes a number of phrases incompatible with that model. In particular, Bohr sometimes wrote as though the hydrogen spectrum were emitted by an electron falling into the ground state from outside the atom and strumming all the stationary states that it passed along the way.

These anomalous remarks, together with Bohr's repeated assertion that he had not known the Balmer formula until February 1913, suggested an unexpected hypothesis, subsequently fully confirmed by the discovery of an unpublished manuscript. Many months before he attempted an explanation of spectra, Bohr had developed a quantized version of the Rutherford atom for chemical applications of the sort made familiar by J.J. Thompson. That model, which I was quite sure had had only a ground state, provided the basis for the second and third installments of the 1913 series. The first, which developed the Bohr model for hydrogen and derived the Balmer formula from it, was a last-minute insertion.

My first few interviews with Bohr dealt with the background for his atomic model, and I asked what sorts of connections he had made between the Rutherford atom and the quantum during the period before his attention was directed to the Balmer formula. He replied that he could not have had developed ideas on the subject before turning to spectra, and his assistant later reported to me that, after I had left the room, Bohr shook his head and said of our exchange, "Stupid question. Stupid question."

All that occurred at our first interview. For the next one, I included a similar question in a list submitted to Bohr in advance, and it was received in much the same way as the original. One last attempt to retrieve memories of an early quantized Rutherford atom occurred late in the third interview. This time, however, when Bohr said again that there could have been no concrete model without the Balmer formula in hand, I for the first time showed him the passages in his famous paper that led me to enquire. He looked them over and then muttered to himself, "Perhaps it was a mistake to put the paper into print so fast. Perhaps I should have waited until I had it right." Then, he went over to his personal collection of reprints, took from it a paper he had presented to the Danish Academy of Sciences six months after the publication of his original paper, and handed it to me with the words, "It's alright there, isn't it?" About the earlier model not a word was ever forthcoming.

...Faced with apparent anomalies in the work of the discoverer, scientists and at least an occasional historian protect their version of the discovery by invoking the discoverer's "confusion" during the early stages of its emergence. It is only because he was confused, they explain, that his words fail to fit their story.

These appeals to confusion are damaging, but not because discoverers are never confused. Typically, they are, and Bohr's discovery of the Bohr atom is a clear example. When he wrote the paper announcing his discovery, he had two incompatible models in mind, and he occasionally confused them, mixed the two up. No reading of his first reports on his invention will eliminate the resulting contradictions, and those contradictions, which testify to his confusion, provide essential clues to the reconstruction of his route to the discovery. The standard appeal to confusion dismisses those clues, rejects them as challenges to historical reconstruction, and permits the attribution of confusion to stand as the end of the story. That is the first part of the damage.

For the second, more serious part, compare the case of Planck. Again there are anomalies in the early papers; again they provide clues to an unsuspected state of mind; and, again, dismissing them discards evidence essential for historical reconstruction. Thus far the damage is the same. But in Planck's case, unlike Bohr's, the anomalies do not take the form of internal contradictions, and they therefore provide no reason to suppose that Planck himself felt or had reason to feel confused. If it is nevertheless appropriate to apply the term to him, that is by virtue of the second standard use of the word "confused," one independent of the state of mind of the person to whom it is applied.

Consider, for example, the case of a student who, having read a textbook derivation of the black-body distribution law, then wrote it up in a way like the one found in Planck's early papers. That student would be confused, not in the sense of being pulled about by conflicting elements in his thought, but in the sense of having seen only dimly or confusedly the structure of the derivation that had been set before him by the text. That, I believe, is the sense of "confused" in the minds of people, mostly scientists, who complain, for example, that I try too hard to make the thought of a Planck or a Boltzmann logical and coherent. Why, I am repeatedly asked, can I not simply acknowledge that they were confused?

That way of talking about a discoverer makes no sense. Taken literally, it suggests that the discovery, of which its author is to have had only a confused view, had already been made, was somehow already there, in the discoverer's mind. Occasionally that implication is explicit. The discoverer, I am then told, was relying on intuition; his view of his discovery was still so clouded that he could only grope his way to it; that is why he described what he had in mind in such odd and inconsistent ways, appeared so much a sleepwalker as he proceeded towards his discovery.

Doubtless, few of those who explain anomaly by resort to confusion would go quite so far, but all must encounter the identical difficulty. What licensed our calling the student confused was our knowledge of the concepts he brought to the text and of the proper way to fit the two together. If only he had clearly seen that much himself, he would not, any more than we, have described the derivation as he did. When, in the absence of internal contradiction, we apply the label "confused" to Planck, we are again using ourselves as the measure. We assume that Planck brought to his problem the same concepts we do, and we explain his anomalous behavior as we would explain similar behavior of our own. But the concepts we bring to the black-body problem are themselves products of the discovery Planck had not yet made. To claim for them a role in the emergence of his discovery is again to make him a sleepwalker or else clairvoyant. That is an incoherent notion of discovery - one that makes discovery dependent on prior grasp of what is to be discovered. No other result of the resort to confusion is so damaging.
--Thomas Kuhn, "Revisiting Planck," HSPS (14[2]: 231-52), 1984, reprinted as the Afterword to the second edition (i.e., U. of Chicago rather than Oxford) of Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Tuesday, 5 August 2003 21:42 (10 years ago) Permalink

(i'm not ignoring this thread even if it looks like it: more answers soonish maybe tho not today)

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 5 August 2003 21:46 (10 years ago) Permalink

Also, his two major works of history, The Copernican Revolution and Black Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, don't make things seem trim at all.

Thanks, Frank. I'll go to the library this week.

adam (adam), Wednesday, 6 August 2003 20:56 (10 years ago) Permalink

By the way, we're only about 1,150 posts short of the first Jay-Z vs. Nas Throwdown.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Wednesday, 6 August 2003 21:33 (10 years ago) Permalink

1 month passes...
Incommensurability featured here:

But just as much of the error derives from semi-digested assumptions about what battles are MEANT to be like. The observing experts - who comment on the action in another room, then come in to show what really happened - pointed out (scathingly) that the tactics adopted suited troops with muskets facing cavalry, not legionaries facing tribesmen in chariots: the participants half-knew too much about later-hence-'superior' warfare, and - after being goaded out into the open and completely surrounded by vastly larger numbers - decided that savages would all just run away if their leader was killed.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Monday, 15 September 2003 17:36 (10 years ago) Permalink

1 year passes...
ok i've been reading some history of science/soc of knowledge in prep for the big project that may never come. finally made it back round to structure... but also some latour and fuller (tho not the kuhn book) and rj ackerman (and on the list is hacking and pickering [read some essays already] and some other stuff too)

but back to kuhn. another fun thing to talk about is his idea of "normal science" which seems like the biggest easiest thing to contest.

kuhn claims that "normal science" in fields which are ALREADY paradigmatic and NOT in paradigmatic crisis is essentially puzzle-solving -- i.e. finding anomolies and demonstrating that they are not anomolies. i.e. not only within, but FOR the paradigm. kuhn also claims that generally paradigms don't shift within generations but between them and a key reason they are ABLE to shift is young ppl. come in and accept the new ones and the old foax eventually go away.

this is a strong claim. it applies only if ppl. are NOT reflexive about paradigms, which is dodgy. furthermore it applies only if scientists really get to set problems for themselves and if they really choose problems based on puzzle-solving to bolster existing paradigms.

so take the fact say that physics still doesn't have a grand unified theory but instead two incommensurable accounts (quantum and relative) that apply at different scales. physicists acknowledge this a problem, accept it, some work to solve it but many don't. so posit a unified theory is worked out -- this is a paradigm shift, obv. but would scientists die out before young ones accept it!? does this instead mean that physics is in a period of protracted crisis? if so we would expect MOST research, by kuhn's account, to go towards resolving this crisis. but most research does NOT. instead "normal science" proceeds to do different things largely NOT driven by a desire to resolve this massive anomoly but to extend othere discrete areas of knowledge. what areas? is this puzzle-solving of smaller issues? again, largely no. it's investigating the specific properties of certain elements and interactions. but *not* chosen by their key status in resolving anomolies, but rather b/c these elements and interactions are impt. to those giving the $, most of whom even if they're funding pure science are interested in particular applied ramifications. (i.e. if you're the dept of defense, how to make things go boom -- if yr. doing physics related to chemicals in dna, maybe how to understand cancer)

so we have to conclude that kuhn's story either doesn't hold or that "normal science" is nonparadigmatic or that it held in the special cases he examined but not today. which then means we have to ask what made it hold more for say concepts of physical motion from the greeks thru newton than now, which then means we have to say maybe this is because kuhn wasn't constructivist ENOUGH and so he can actually describe an activity called "doing science" that the greeks and newton both did, and this abstracted "doing science" contains in it the seeds of how kuhn can describe what "doing science" involves. which is to say we have to ask what about these historical actors kuhn left out b/c it wasn't "doing science."

another thing we can do with kuhn is ask if his NORMATIVE perscriptions were correct, which argued that a paradigm-driven "normal science" that he described was the "best" type of science to do b/c the loss in freedom of topics to explore was made up by a wealth of specifics.

which can also be asked by positing that paradigm-driven normal science does exist and does provide a specific set of anomoly-related questions to answer and then posing the question -- if one IS to accumulate a specialized body of data is the best way to accumulate this data and theory to choose the specialized areas of research based on anomoly-resolution ANYWAY?

we can also ask do scientists THINK they are doing "normal science" involving anomoly-driven puzzle-solving and do they think this more now that kuhn is widespread than before he was, and does kuhn's dissemination have a role in why ppl. think this is what they are doing more now. and does kuhn's dissemination also mean that they are more reflexive towards their paradigms than before.

this also reminds me that i have to read Leviathan and the Air-Pump.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Tuesday, 26 July 2005 05:21 (8 years ago) Permalink

sterl's argt condensed: kuhn relativizes the cartesian divide without overturning it, and therefore renders it general.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Friday, 29 July 2005 22:33 (8 years ago) Permalink


I've read through your post several times without seeing where Kuhn's story is wrong or why you conclude that physics as it's currently practiced is not paradigmatic. I wonder what you think "paradigmatic" means. The phrase "anomaly-driven problem solving" isn't relevant to the question - it's a straw man, since Kuhn never said that the problem solving in normal science is mostly devoted to explaining anomalies. Whether it is or not is beside the point, at least in regard to the concept "paradigm," given that according to Kuhn all problems within a normal science - not just the anomaly-driven ones - must be approached within the framework of the accepted paradigms, and most use exemplars. The question of whether there is life on Mars is not anomaly-driven, but nonetheless is within the paradigms of modern chemistry and biology. For what it's worth, where Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions discusses anomalies (chapter 6), they are not the bread and butter of normal science but rather the precursors to revolutionary science (albeit the result of normal science).

A quick example that illustrates both normal and revolutionary science (and I don't pretend to understand the physics that I'm summarizing): When Planck back in the 1890s and early '00s, doing normal science, tried to derive a distribution law for black-body radiation, he modeled his derivation after Boltzmann's derivation of the entropy and velocity distribution of a gas. So Planck wasn't trying to fix an anomaly, but rather to solve problem B by following a strategy used earlier in solving a similar-seeming problem A. This is an example of what Kuhn means by normal science, and Boltzmann's derivation is an example of what Kuhn means by an exemplar. Again, what makes it normal science of its day is that it uses an accepted model and is within the framework of classical physics. What eventually takes it out of normal science and makes it revolutionary is that one of the adjustments that has to be made to Boltzmann's method in order for it to work on the black-body problem is that energy levels have to be posited as discontinuous; this adjustment blows a hole in classical physics. (By the way, according to Kuhn, Planck didn't recognize at first that discontinuity was a requirement - he had in fact botched his derivation, though this was only discovered later by Einstein, who'd already figured out in 1906 (as had Ehrenfest) that discontinuity was required. Planck himself didn't come around to this view until 1908 (according to Kuhn).)

Your point about money is as irrelevant here is it was upthread. Why shouldn't problem solving go where the money is? If you want to say that Kuhn's account of normal science is wrong, you have to show that, whoever chooses the problems, and however the research is paid for, (1) the science conducted does not model itself upon strategies derived from previous puzzles, and (2) the science is not conducted within the framework of accepted paradigms.

"Pure science" versus some other sort of science (that paid for by the Pentagon, etc.) is your bugaboo, or Fuller's, but it has nothing one way or another to do with Kuhn, who never uses the phrase "pure science" or distinguishes between pure and impure. The question as to whether the science is "pure" or not, and who pays for it, simply has no bearing on the concepts "paradigm" and "normal science."

Mind you, I don't understand modern physics well enough to speak with any competence about whether it's paradigmatic or not, or whether it's going through a protracted crisis or not. Physicists don't seem to be acting as if it's in crisis, at least not in accounts read by this layman. Whether it's in crisis or not, relativity and quantum physics don't seem to be on the verge of being abandoned, and physics hasn't broken into two competing schools, those who support relativity versus those who support quantum physics, has it? Therefore, I don't see how you can say that physicists don't share the same disciplinary matrix/paradigm.

Also, is the lack of a unified field theory an anomaly? I suppose this depends on how one defines "anomaly." My understanding or - misunderstanding - of modern physics is that relativity can't be reduced to quantum terms and vice versa. However, if no one's challenging the terms themselves - i.e., relativity isn't making quantum physics wrong, and quantum physics isn't making relativity wrong - then there's no urgency, and no anomaly. Even if you think there should be urgency, the lack of urgency doesn't in any way undermine the concepts "normal science" and "paradigm," and Kuhn never said that crises must lead to revolutionary science. And - conversely - in the postscript that he added in the second edition of Structure in 1969, he said that he'd overemphasized the role of crisis in provoking a paradigm shift and that scientific revolutions need not invariably be preceded by crisis.

(I'm once again talking in ignorance, but it seems to me that an example of a potential anomaly in physics would be if "dark energy" was determined not to exist, making the accelerating expansion of the universe a true anomaly, i.e., something not yet explicable by the theory of relativity.)

kuhn also claims that generally paradigms don't shift within generations but between them and a key reason they are ABLE to shift is young ppl. come in and accept the new ones and the old foax eventually go away.

Well, first off, even if Kuhn had said this, it wouldn't be an integral part of his ideas. But in fact it's not what he said. He said the shifts sometimes take a generation, implying it's because oldsters are less likely to make the shift than are young 'uns, but he didn't say that no one in the old generation accepts a shift, which would be absurd, since sometimes the guy who starts the shift is in the old generation himself, e.g. Copernicus, Planck. Kuhn's own writing shows examples of adherents of an old theory going over to the new: Lorentz and Jeans, for instance, in regard to the quantum (and Planck too, for that matter). Whether the scientists are old or young, a significant number of scientists in a field must be converted from the old paradigm to the new one, and old people dying off won't have an impact on whether young 'uns convert if the young 'uns don't have good reason to. People aren't born into a new paradigm; they have to invent it, or embrace it.

So your word "key" and your capitalization of "ABLE" are very wrong. The key reason that a paradigm is able to shift is not that old people die off but that the new paradigm does stuff that the old one can't. That is what chapter 12 of Structure is about. The idea that old people have trouble accepting a new theory was old hat (Kuhn: "these facts and others like them are too commonly known to need further emphasis"). Kuhn's reason for bringing it up was to emphasize that shifting one's allegiance to a new paradigm was like a conversion experience, but also that people who resisted the new paradigm were not being irrational - that the functioning of science in its normal state demands that a lot of scientists assume that the paradigm they've got "will ultimately solve all its problems, that nature can be shoved into the box the paradigm provides." In any event, look at pp 150-159 of the second edition of Structure, and you'll see that Kuhn is chiefly concerned not with what prevents people from adopting a new paradigm, but rather with what persuades them to.

Also, a reason that paradigm shifts may take a generation or longer is that it takes a while for the new paradigm to be worked out. That it took until 1928 for quantum physics to pull itself together into a paradigm wasn't due to obstruction by fogies but rather due to the whippersnappers taking that long to come up with a worked-out model. So when we talk of "competing" paradigms, we're being somewhat misleading, since the "new" paradigm doesn't fully exist yet: It's under construction. Even if everyone has abandoned the old paradigm, the revolution isn't over until the construction is substantially complete.

Here's a thought (based on what Kuhn himself said): What's a crisis for one person might not be a crisis for others, hence what's a reason for overhaul for one person won't be for another. Was astronomy really in a crisis in the early 1500s due to the need for calendar reform and to the imprecision of Ptolemy's system? Hadn't these "problems" been known for years, without anyone revamping cosmology due to them? Maybe it was a crisis for Copernicus but wasn't a crisis for astronomy and physics until the Copernican ideas began to be plausible to more than a few intellectuals; it was then that you had to come up with a new concept of motion. So you could say that Copernicus caused the crisis more than that he responded to one. To return to the quantum discontinuity, in Kuhn's account it wasn't introduced in response to any big crisis but just because in 1906 Einstein and Ehrenfest realized you couldn't derive Planck's distribution law without it. This is what caused all the excitement and led to rethinking a bunch of other stuff as well.

Again, the pieces by Kuhn that I recommend most are "Revisiting Planck," which is reprinted as the Afterword to the second edition (i.e., U. of Chicago rather than Oxford) of Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, and "What Are Scientific Revolutions?" which is the first article in The Road Since Structure. I still feel that you and I are talking passed each other, and that you don't have Kuhn's ideas fully in sight. Some preconception or need is blocking your vision, or distorting it. Kuhn's most crucial ideas - his opposition to teleology, his belief that scientific knowledge does not accumulate incrementally, his quasi-Darwinian account of how different scientists vary in their response to anomalies, his idea that scientists use models rather than following rules, and his understanding that a scientific revolution doesn't simply involve adjusting theories to facts, since the new theories create different "facts," which is what makes them "incommensurable" with the old - haven't yet piqued your interest. One thing you need to do is to set aside for the time being questions relating to mainstreams and margins and whether good stuff gets shunted aside when paradigms dominate and whether power relations as they reveal themselves in science are fair or not. You might even want to set aside for the moment the question of whether Kuhn is right or not and rather make an effort to get inside of Kuhn's head - become Kuhnian, as it were, in relation to Kuhn. Study Kuhn's writing from "the viewpoint that gives [his] opinions the maximum internal coherence and the closest possible fit to nature." Assume that, within his framework, he knew what he was about. E.g., he lived until 1996, and he certainly would have noticed that physics hadn't come up with a unified field theory, and he would have known what postwar physicists spent their time working on - he'd been trained as a physicist, after all. So you have to ask yourself why it didn't, from his point of view, jump out at him that his story either doesn't hold or that normal science is nonparadigmatic or that it held only in the special cases he examined but not today. Assume that - in fact - from his point of view, his story does hold today and that normal modern physics is paradigmatic. Read him with an eye towards finding out what that point of view is.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Sunday, 7 August 2005 03:10 (8 years ago) Permalink

you cretin

ulrich schnauss, Sunday, 7 August 2005 03:16 (8 years ago) Permalink

sterl's argt condensed: kuhn relativizes the cartesian divide without overturning it, and therefore renders it general.

I can't make sense of this statement. It's written in some sort of code that I was never taught.

Anyway, for the sake of argument, let's say that, except where I explicitly dispute Kuhn, every idea that I attribute to Kuhn on this thread can also be assigned to me. And of course any of the ideas on this thread that I seem to be presenting as my own can also be assigned to me, even if I stole them. So now let's rewrite your sentence as follows:

kogan relativizes the cartesian divide without overturning it, and therefore renders it general.

So, now, explain and support this contention, using the actual words on this thread as your evidence. Not from anywhere else; just this thread. If you think an idea or an assumption is Kuhn's/Kogan's, check the idea against the words on this thread. And if a sentence or two on this thread seems to point towards a particular belief being Kuhn's/Kogan's, check to see if other Kuhn/Kogan words on the thread are compatible with that belief.

A brief thought, from Kogan if not Kuhn: Descartes' mind-matter divide has nothing to do with the functioning of science one way or the other, including Descartes' science. ("Nothing to do with" being a bit of an exaggeration. Descartes and others never put the divide into effect, but some of them used the divide in their philosophy, some of which was used to justify, explain, and protect science. But it was never an integral part of science.)

Another brief thought from Kogan: I haven't read Descartes in 30 years, and don't remember much of what I did read.

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Sunday, 7 August 2005 04:13 (8 years ago) Permalink

(Futile attempt to get someone to respond to my actual ideas.)

Frank Kogan (Frank Kogan), Sunday, 7 August 2005 04:15 (8 years ago) Permalink

your attempts would be better timed in about thirty-odd hours from now

kingfish (Kingfish), Sunday, 7 August 2005 07:55 (8 years ago) Permalink

if it doesn't have anything to do with 'intellectual' analysis of gwen stefani videos, folx here ain't interested

Atom Heart - Dots, Sunday, 7 August 2005 08:30 (8 years ago) Permalink

bloody khunts

latebloomer (latebloomer), Sunday, 7 August 2005 13:09 (8 years ago) Permalink

Two years ago I contributed the gnomic thought to this thread that tigers have stripes to distinguish them from horses. Well, there's been a paradigm shift in my thinking since then. I now believe that tigers only exist because tiger stripes require it. I was too naive to see, back then, that stripes have tigers and not vice versa.

Momus (Momus), Sunday, 7 August 2005 14:42 (8 years ago) Permalink

i know a thomas kuhn! he went to antartica. he's crazy.
i don't think it's the same person though. hmmmm

dahlin (dahlin), Sunday, 7 August 2005 14:44 (8 years ago) Permalink

Kuhn's most crucial ideas - his opposition to teleology, his belief that scientific knowledge does not accumulate
incrementally, his quasi-Darwinian account of how different scientists vary in their response to anomalies, his idea that
scientists use models rather than following rules, and his understanding that a scientific revolution doesn't simply involve
adjusting theories to facts, since the new theories create different "facts," which is what makes them "incommensurable" with
the old - haven't yet piqued your interest.

I can't give a full answer to yr. post right now Kogan, which would involve the "cartesian divide" thing and also pulling objectionable quotes from Kuhn on "normal science." I will though, I promise. In the meantime, the points you consider Kuhn's main ones are interesting, and are useful, but aren't all that contestable. Opposition to teleology and belief that scientific knowledge doesn't accumulate incrementally are key, yeah, but once you accept them then.. what. I want to know what you think Kuhn thinks "normal science" mainly involves.

One interesting extension of Kuhn was by Lakatos who coined the idea of "Kuhn loss" which encompasses the *destructive* element of scientific revolutions -- those things which had been theoretically encompassed prior, but which a new paradigm fails to account for.

(v/v the cartesian divide thing, a small explanation for now is that Kuhn holds that every paradigm is as "true" as every other -- hence relativizes -- but, he holds that there is a divide between those who CREATE the paradigms and those who do the "puzzle solving" of "normal science" -- hence between the theorizers and the "doers" and so rather than bridging the gap between "theory" and "reality" [i.e. mind and body, knowledge and substance, etc] he simply creates many theory-reality pairs. a monist account of science would recognize that the difference between paradigm-innovative science and "normal" science is in how they are recieved nore than how they are conducted, and thus render them part of a single process rather than two distinct entities)

Secundus Covarient (s_clover), Sunday, 7 August 2005 23:23 (8 years ago) Permalink

Since you say you don't know that much about philosophy and science, you can't evaluate your take on Kuhn by evaluating his take on Plato, modern physucs, etc.(comparing your take on Plato and modern physucs to his). So why should we bother evaluating your take on Kuhn by reading him?Not meaning that as a reproach,but it's what I'm wondering. Why don't you just present your ideas as your ideas, anyway? Kuhn is one source, but we shouldn't get hung up on causes and effects, right?H In other news (I'm not that familiar with this whole thread, but that's okay, right?) effect can't cause its own cause in the sense that, say, Fire Outbreak X27 caused the conditions that started it, but that outbreak can cause the conditions (heat causing chemical change, etc.) that cause another fire, in another part of the area{one that couldn't be reached by the time-space of pre-Fire Outbreak X27, of Fire Outbreak X27's birthing spot]; indeed, these conditions might extend the duration and intensity of Fire Outbreak X27 as well as causing the cause of X27. So, while there is some sigificant degree of truth in "a cause can't cause its effect," there can also be siginicant degree of its almost being true (to somebody studying or otherwise effected by the fire's pattern, for instance)(does this effect extend to anyone reading this?)

don, Monday, 8 August 2005 03:59 (8 years ago) Permalink

oops I meant "extend the duration and intensity of Fire X27 as well as causing the cause (heat affecting combination of chemicals etc.) of Fire X28": self-perpetuating/preserving *and* effecting the next unit of the same phenomenon.But mebbe you covered that in a class I missed?

don, Monday, 8 August 2005 04:06 (8 years ago) Permalink

(another of yr. influnces, I'm reminded by reading and not reading this whole thread, is Wittgenstein--how do you compare him to Kuhn [TS: KUHN VS LUDWIG!] I know I told you to leave that stuff alone and present your "own" ideas but you got me hooked and these are your own too:misprision, swing with it daddyo!)

don, Monday, 8 August 2005 04:28 (8 years ago) Permalink

6 years pass...

attn kogan:

s.clover, Friday, 20 April 2012 20:32 (1 year ago) Permalink

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