Friday, April 27, 2012

A Pair Of Dimes: Notes Toward A Medium Opus II

If you wanted a BA in political science at Alfred University in the 1980's, the road led through Robert Heinemann's course on political philosophy. Introducing an abundance of names - Machiavelli, of course, and Hegel and Marx, but also Thorstein Veblen and Michel Montaigne, as well as Bob's favorite, Edmund Burke - the course assignment was an amazing research project. Students were to choose a thinker, not necessarily one studied in the class, and write a three-part paper. Each part was to be ten pages. The first part was to be the historical background and setting. Bob wasn't too pleased with my decision to treat Mein Kampf as a serious work of political thought; my argument, which he accepted, was that it formed the basis for the most important political movement of the first half of the 20th century, and deserved to be taken seriously. Thus I found myself, near the mid-point of the semester, on the verge of a nervous breakdown* and having nearly forgotten the reason why I had to spend a month studying the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the mystical nationalism of Heinrich von Treitschke. Bob had insisted we needed to understand political thought in its historical setting because of some guy named Kuhn who wrote about a pair of dimes. At least, that's what I heard.

 Of the many mistaken applications of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Bob's has a special place in my heart. Who could blame him for thinking that Kuhn's description of the way scientific thinking changes has applications far beyond what Kuhn wrote? The "pair of dimes" that I kept hearing about, actually paradigms, are one of those marvelous philosophical terms that practically beg readers to find in them something special and important. Like Immanuel Kant's Thing-in-Itself, Hegel's World Spirit, and Montaigne's ideas on Law, Kuhn never quite gets around to defining what a paradigm might be; he points to the edges and limits of it, discussing everything from Gestalt psychology to the changing nature of language without ever landing on his target. This lack of definitional clarity, however, doesn't render the word itself meaningless. It does, alas, allow others to borrow the word and use it in ways for which it is, to say the least, ill-suited.

 Six years later, I took a course on Religion and Science at Wesley Theological Seminary. Taught by the late Roy Morrison, the class included in its reading list Gerald Holton's The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought. Holton, like Kuhn a physicist as well as historian of science, offers a variation on Kuhn's theses regarding "normal science", "revolutionary science", and "paradigms". The book's main virtues, for me, were two-fold. There is a long chapter describing the Michelson-Morley experiments, the only I'd read up to that time, that include the not-unimportant observation that, rather than failing to find the so-called luminiferous ether, they were in fact, merely equivocal on the subject, with some experimental results landing squarely within acceptable parameters. The other virtue the book offered was name-dropping T. S. Kuhn. 

Working at the seminary bookstore, I had retained, even with the many changes of managers and supervisors, the ability to order books on my own without prior approval. Thus, I ordered Kuhn's major work as well as an earlier one, The Copernican Revolution. With all the other things I had to read, I set the books on my shelf, promising myself I would get to them. Someday. Someday was two years later.

 Lisa was ordained in 1994, and we moved to Jarratt, VA. As that first summer after our move neared its end, I had just finished my borrowed copy of Dreadnought and decided, more on a whim than anything, to pick up Kuhn's book on Copernicus. In hindsight, reading his work in chronological order helped me understand Kuhn's thought on the growth and change in scientific thought far more clearly than had I just read the latter book. Several things in Kuhn's book leaped off the page at me. First, the traditional view that astronomy was some undeveloped science was, historically speaking, nonsense. Indeed, Copernicus's "breakthrough" was little more than what the German's call a gedankenexperiment, fully embedded within a far more traditional, highly mathematical treatment of the motion of the planets. Later on in the work, discussing Galileo, Kuhn notes that Galileo's insistence that he was seeing satellites around the planets, as well as more stars, had little to nothing to support it. The theory of optics his opponents had at their disposal was time-tested, and on it the very telescope Galileo was using had been constructed. That Galileo was to proved correct is more a historical accident, in Kuhn's view, than any claim that Galileo had in fact discovered some "truth" about the way the Universe worked.

Reading this latter passage, I remembered something I'd read years before. I went to the book shelves and found my valued copy of National Geographic. I flipped to the page in the story discussing the Shepherd Moons and the way they seemed to violate our understanding of celestial mechanics. A piece - not the first, but an important one - in the puzzle I first thought I could assemble when I'd first read that magazine article landed squarely in my lap. There was something here, something about science, what it does, how it works, what we thought it was, how we thought about what science does. It took me a while to see the exact shape of the piece. After finishing both of Kuhn's books, I picked up another one of those science books I'd ordered for myself, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Right there, in the opening, dueling essays of Kuhn and someone named Karl Popper, the piece became clear. Language. There was something about language and meaning that was important, that linked all these weird, disparate things like the history of science and political philosophy and the Shepherd Moons and their odd dance around Saturn.  Pieces were starting to fall in to place, it seemed, but connecting more disparate parts would mean studying this stuff about science and language on its own terms.  So, I thought, why not go back to school and study philosophy of science?

*Some friends staged a bit of an intervention after a publicly embarrassing display I made in the Dining Hall one Friday afternoon. The deep immersion in to the depths of the darkness of the life and work of Adolf Hitler certainly took its toll on my fragile psyche; what twenty-year-old can really grasp the cruelty and evil, from the personal to the social level, in Germany during those twelve years? I am embarrassed by my behavior, and hereby, 26 years later, apologize.

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