[FOM] methodological thesis

rgheck rgheck at brown.edu
Thu May 1 16:28:31 EDT 2008

Harvey Friedman wrote:
>> Counterexample 1: John Rawls, /Theories of Justice/
>> Counterexample 2: Peter Strawson, /Individuals/
>> Counterexample 3: Willard Van Orman Quine, /Word and Object
>> /Counterexample 4: Thomas Kuhn, /The Structure of Scientific  
>> Revolutions/
>> Counterexample 5: Saul Kripke, /Wittgenstein on Rules and Private  
>> Language/
>> Counterexample 6: Saul Kripke, /Naming and Necessity/
>> Counterexample 7: David Hume, /A Treatise of Human Nature/
>> Counterexample 8: Immanuel Kant, /A Critique of Pure Reason/
>> I can't think of any formal systematization of the insights in these
>> books that would "fully subsume" them. That is absolutely not to say
>> that formal work can't be inspired by them, or important to the
>> assimilation and development of the insights contained in those books.
>> But it is asking far too much of formal methods to ask them to do all
>> the work.
> I haven 't the slightest idea why you would think that any of these  
> works are counterexamples. Can you give us just some sample insights  
> from some of these that constitute intellectual progress, but which  
> you think are not subsumable with appropriate systematizations  
> combined with a relatively small amount of prose? I don't mean "no  
> prose".
And I haven't the slightest idea why it's not fantastically obvious that
these are counterexamples. You, Harvey, are the one who made the bold
claim, not me. You owe me definitions and corresponding theorems, and
some kind of argument that they adequately capture the total content of
these works, in so far as it constitutes "intellectual progress". Or is
that you don't think any of these works constitute "intellectual
progress"? That would really be a bold claim.

Scientific work can be and has been inspired by every one of the works I
quoted, but that was not the thesis. The thesis was that the entire
content of such works, in so far as it constitutes "intellectual
progress", can be "subsumed" by "systematizations" plus a small amount
of prose, whose function has been left completely vague. This is
patently absurd---unless you intend the utterly boring thesis that the
first Critique could be re-written in the notation of first-order logic.
But what is really worrying is it reflects a frighteningly narrow
conception of what is of intellectual value. I mean, do you also think
you can formalize "The Taming of the Shrew"? Presumably not. But what
the very best and most important philosophical work offers us is in many
ways not very different: It offers us a better _understanding_ of
something, a different way of thinking about an entire set of issues and
questions. This understanding may be prerequisite to real scientific
progress, and so it may that the achievement of such understanding is
precisely what makes that further progress possible. But I see no reason
to suppose that it is "subsumed" by it.

I'd think a comparison here between, say, Descartes's work on optics and
the _Meditations_ would be revealing. The former is read, for the most
part, only by historians of ideas, and by philosophers who are trying to
understand other aspects of Descartes's work. The latter continues to be
read, profitably, for the ideas that are contained in it. Another work
worth considering is Spinoza's _Ethics_, which really did try to apply
the "geometrical method" to philosophy. I don't know of anyone who
thinks that aspect of the work was a success, whatever interest the book
as a whole may have.

But that said, some examples.

(1) Rawls's thesis that the basic liberties include freedom of speech
and religion; that the basic structure of a constitutional democracy
should be founded upon what people behind a "veil of ignorance" would
accept as such; the idea that justice is fairness; etc. Rawls is
attempting a very general re-orientation of the way we think about
issues connected with political justification, and the way of thinking
that lies behind it is what is most important about Rawls's book. Of
course, formal work could be (and has been) done that was inspired by
Rawls, but that's too obvious to be worth saying.

(2) Strawson's maddeningly difficult but profoundly inspiring conception
of how our conception of objectivity is bound up with our conception of
ourselves as things located in an objective space. This idea can be, and
has been, pursued by cognitive psychologists, but Strawson was not
primarily interested in a thesis in psychology. He was interested (as
Kant was) in the question what it is to have a conception of an
objective world. Whether Strawson's conception is ultimately correct, it
is at this point impossible for me (and, I think, anyone else) to say.
But putting it on the table constitutes intellectual progress in my book.

(4) I chose Kuhn precisely because one of the central claims of
_Structure_ is that the content of scientific traditions is rarely
subject to "systematization". On Kuhn's view, research traditions are
typically organized around "concrete scientific achievements" rather
than around scientific theories, and much of the content of the
tradition lies in broadly metaphysical theses that shape empirical work
but often lie unnoticed in the background, at least during periods of
"normal science". And what leads to transitions between research
traditions---what Kuhn calls "scientific revolutions"---very often
involves aesthetic and philosophical views, as much as it involves
experimental results, not least because the crucial results are often
unavailable until well after the transition has occurred. Of course, all
of that could be wrong---and some of it surely is---but it would need
investigating which bits those are.
To be sure, Kuhn's thought has had profound effects upon the methodology
of history of science, but it seems very doubtful that this methodology
is subject to "systematization", let alone that there are definitions
from which theorems stating the correct methodology could be proven.
PS Philosophy is the archetype of pre-normal science, in Kuhn's sense.

(5) The puzzle Kripke raises regarding the normativity of meaning. Sure,
one can prove that no finite (indeed, no proper) subset of {<x,y,z>: x +
y = z} determines the rest of it, but this is staggeringly obvious. It's
not this simple fact but what Kripke makes of it, argumentatively, that
is powerful. It raises questions about how we think about meaning and
the constraints the contents of our thoughts place upon us as thinkers.
This example reminds us that what is significant about a piece of
philosophy is often not the answers it offers but the questions it
raises, or how it reconceives an otherwise familiar bit of terrain.
Compare here Goodman's "new riddle" and Gettier's famous little paper.
Speaking of which, epistemology is an especially interesting example to
think about here, since there are both formal and informal approaches to
epistemology. The question how they ought to relate to one another is
very much in the air nowadays, and the extreme approach that Harvey is
advocating is not even on the table. The reason is that even formal
epistemologists (at least the ones I know) think there are significant
questions about how the formal frameworks are to be interpreted, and
these are not themselves going to be resolved by formal arguments. Thus
the question (e.g.) whether Dutch book arguments offer a merely
"pragmatic" case for the principles of classical probability theory.

(6) The distinction between the a priori and the necessary; the
epistemic arguments against the description theory given in lecture II.
Indeed, even the notion of rigid designation is interesting in this
connection, because the relevant formal work preceded the writing of the
book by over a decade. The book constitutes a sustained investigation of
how the formal work should be *interpreted*, and I don't mean
`interpreted' in any logical sense. And if you think it's utterly
obvious how to map rigidity on to possible worlds semantics, then you're
forgetting Kripke's discussion of whether the mathematical term "pi" is
synonymous with a description and so the entire literature on de jure
versus de facto rigidity. Ultimately, of course, it turns out that we
can characterize each of these in broadly formal terms, but that doesn't
decide the question which of these is the really important notion. That,
indeed, is one way of understanding what is at issue in the current
dispute over two dimensionalism.

Remember: It's no use suggesting that each of these might inspire
"systematizations". The claim was that the whole content of each, in so
far as it is worth anything intellectually, can be "subsumed" by such
work. That, as I've said, is just absurd.


Richard G Heck Jr
Professor of Philosophy
Brown University

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