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Monday, September 7, 2009


Today's Buggy Topic

Over the years, the buggy web-site has commented now and then and at length on various philosophical theories of scientific work . . . in both the natural and social sciences, and whether the latter should or could emulate the former.  The current buggy commentary continues this analysis, with a long post found at Economist View: click here for it.

The Background 

Serious philosophical analysis of scientific theories and testing began early in the last century, prompted by breakthrough work in new or symbolic logic and its foundational-status (tautological) by the German mathematician Godfrey Frege in the late 1800's and in the early 1900's by Bertrand Russell at Cambridge.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, a brilliant young Austrian engineer who became interested in these new trends in philosophy, studied briefly with Frege and was told by him that Russell in Britain would be a better, more advanced teacher.  That's how Wittgenstein ended up as Russell's student there before WWI.  

In WWI, Wittgenstein returned to Austria and volunteered to fight in the ranks.  Simultaneously, he finished his pathbreaking book Tractatus Logico Philosophicus that completed the shift in philosophy --- which began with Russell and others --- away from focusing on psychological data in epistemology and ontology, whether pure reason or sensory observation, and instead to the language in which statements about the world were formulated.  The study of psychological matters, it was said, are the concern of the new sciences of psychology and evolutionary theory, both of which were empirical.  By contrast, the linguistic turn in philosophy to language distinguished a pure philosophical analytical approach --- which is apriori, and not empirical --- from first-order empirical and theoretical work by scientists.

The Outcome: Logical Positivism

The linguistic turn, note quickly, also  occurred in what became called Continental philosophy ---- with roots in Hegelian traditions and later Nietzsche, but specifically inspired in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl's path-breaking work in phenomenology (and to an extent by his windy student Martin Heidegger . . . a Nazi party member early on who didn't event attend the Jewish Husserl's funeral ceremony in 1938, even though Husserl had been instrumental in having Heidegger appointed to his chair of philosophy at Freiburg University.   Despite all that, logical positivism --- together with earlier British empiricism --- regarded Continental philosophy and almost all of early and modern philosophy as lacking rigor, as beset by confusion between speculation and careful analysis of philosophical and scientific concepts and syntax generally, as further confused about  metaphysical matters because of confusion between the semantics of words and syntax and sound reference to the world, and not least, as unwilling to subject its claims to untrammeled, ongoing exchanges with other philosophers.

The early logical positivists were themselves all German-speaking and mainly Austrian, centered in Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s until all of them emigrated as the Nazis took over Germany and later Austria to Britain and the United States. 

Even before that emigration, several young British and American philosophers traveled to Vienna and its outposts in Prague and Berlin to study with the logical positivists.   A.J. Ayer was the best-known Briton.  Willard  Van Orman Quine was the best-known American who later repudiated the logical positivists --- in fact, delivered death-blows to its influence, even as he and became the greatest influence in analytical philosophy in the last half of the 20th century.  

Enter Karl Popper

Popper, another Austrian philosopher who ran from the Nazis, took a post in WWII in New Zealand, then went to Britain where he became one of the most influential philosophers of the post-1945 period, was never a member of the Vienna Circle logical positivists.  Like Wittgenstein, though --- another non-member --- he would occasionally show up at their weekly or monthly conferences and enter into the discussions.  In the early 1930s, though, he set out his important and innovative views of science and epistemology generally in his pathbreaking book of 1934, Logik der Forschung (translated 25 years later as The Logic of Scientific Discovery) that severely criticized the logical positivists reliance on inductive logic . . . plus several other topics. 

No need to say more about Popper here.  His criticisms of logical positivism are part of what the buggy commentary at Economist View deals with.   That commentary sets out briefly what the logical positivists tried to do; looks at Popper's criticisms;  notes with a lengthy example drawn from Marxism how Popper's views of science distinguished clearly between genuine science and pseudo-science like Marxism and psychoanalysis; and ends by noting what Quine did to undermine fully the logical positivist and even Popper's falsifiability criterion as the distinguishing feature of sound scientific work.

Final Section 

All of which, as you'll see, leads in the bugged-out stuff to the key question raised by Thomas Kuhn in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1964) . . . probably the most famous book in philosophy published during the 20th century.    That question?  What are the criteria for choosing between rival scientific theories? . . . at any rate,, given what Quine had established (theories are tested holistically, not by one proposition after another) and what Kuhn, a physicist who turned philosopher, found about the nature of scientific revolutions in his strikingly innovative book. 

Almost 60 years after Quine's devastating repudiation of logical positivism in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951) and nearly a half century after Kuhn's radical thesis of scientific revolutions, the debate on theory-production and theory-selection continues to rage in philosophy and elsewhere.