Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Self-Taught Can't Be Done: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VI

The year between my decision to study philosophy and actually entering graduate school I learned that if a person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, an auto-didact has a moron for a student and an ignoramus for a teacher.

Ignorance has never been a deterrent in human affairs, so why should I be any different?

Reading through the essays in Criticism and The Growth of Knowledge, it became clear to me that if I was going to figure out what my subject was all about, not only would I have to go back and re-read Kuhn, there was this other guy I was going to have to read. The fact that Karl Raimund Popper wrote a lot during his very long life wasn't intimidating. More books? Bring them on. At the same time, the specific criticism Popper made of Kuhn in his essay in Criticism demonstrated to me that Popper just didn't understand Kuhn. At no time did I think it odd that I had absolutely no basis upon which to lay such a claim, and even less understanding of the questions and issues at stake. 

So, there was Popper. There was one of the editors of the volume, whose very long essay - "The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes" - demonstrated that he was yet another person of interest on the matter. Other, somewhat related subjects appeared.  For example, there is what is called the sociology of knowledge. This is addressed generally, as in Peter Berger's The Social Construction of Reality or specifically, such as David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery* or Steven Shapin's A Social History of Truth.

Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery was an immodest work by an immodest thinker. If anything characterizes Popper's entire career as a philosopher, it is a palpable, smug satisfaction that he exists in a world of fools, some of them quite dangerous**. Dismissive of pretty much everyone from the 19th century neo-Kantians through the Vienna Circle Logical Positivists (whom, he insisted, didn't understand what he was doing) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (in a sarcastic footnote early in his magnum opus that is an example of ur-snark anyone writing on the internet should admire), Popper not only argued that was setting forth a clear understanding of scientific practice and knowledge, but precisely because science was the one true way to Knowledge and Truth, he was setting forth the only path to Knowledge and Truth. The rest of his career, everything Popper wrote with the exception of his The Open Society and Its Enemies was dedicated to defending the basic structure he set forth in his first, major monograph.

Popper's description of science is simple enough to summarize: Using the deductive method (as opposed to induction, assumed since Bacon's Novum Organum to be the logical method of the emerging sciences; the Logical Positivists, who reigned as the philosophical definers of science, were particularly enamored of it), scientists construct theories out of a series of basic statements (a technical term he introduced that far too many people confused with the "protocol sentences" of the Logical Positivists; more on these later) along with specific criteria for falsifying their theories (as opposed to verifying theories, the preferred approach of, you guessed it, the Logical Positivists; if you're detecting a theme here, you're spot on). The work itself is long and detailed, including a very long section on the roll of probability, particularly in regards to quantum mechanics, in falsification, but this suffices for the major points to which Popper would return again and again. And again. And again.

My problem, which I didn't even know I had, was figuring out what, precisely, all this meant. What are the stakes in these competing visions of the scientific project? What is the relationship between these abstruse musings on the nature of human knowledge and understanding and my own, still whispered, questions regarding what any of it might mean for figuring out how it related to all this other stuff I'd learned at seminary, and other concerns including shaping it in to some coherent whole.

Lacking any context for really understanding the stakes and issues, I had, in a sense, been introduced to yet another conversation in yet another language, been taught a few words so I wouldn't be completely lost, yet thought I was ready to jump right in. When I started graduate school in the autumn semester of 1995, I had no idea that pretty much everything I'd taught myself the previous year would vanish in short order, leaving me with . . . well, that's for more posts.

*I discovered a great go-to publisher for titles in philosophy and history of science is University of Chicago Press. Many academic publishers have specialty imprints or specialize in certain topics. I learned very quickly to scan through the catalog from UoCPress for something new and interesting.

**While in the midst of graduate studies, a now-famous work entitled Wittgenstein's Poker was published.  Musing on matters of contemporary philosophy, the title recalls the one, infamous encounter between Popper and Wittgenstein, each of whom held the other in contempt for what each believed to be the other's idiocy.

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