Sunday, July 29, 2012

Browne on Kuhn

Gregory M. Browne is the author of Necessary Factual Truth (University Press of America, 2001), the inspiration for the title of this blog.  He offers these comments on my recent reviews here and here of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn makes some good points, most of which are a reaction to the philosophy of science of the Logical Positivists.  But both the Logical Positivists and Kuhn share faulty assumptions that lead them to misunderstand what I call “Deep Kinds”. 

In short, they are unaware of the existence of Deep Kinds, or at least are unaware that some kinds have deep essences—that is, deep sets of necessary attributes, more than what one may be aware of any given time, more than what one learns when one learns the meaning of the term referring to them, more than what one may put in a short definition or concept.  Such are most kinds in chemistry and biology, such as gold and horses.   These have attributes that it took as much investigation to discover—the atomic structure of gold and the DNA of horses—which nonetheless were as necessary to the kinds as the known attributes we had put in our dictionary definitions.  Aristotle understood this, but this was forgotten in the reaction to Scholasticism and not rediscovered, by most philosophers, until the work of Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke in the 1970s.  Ayn Rand realized this truth independently, and, through Leonard Peikoff, influenced me to elaborate the idea and gives this type of kinds a name.

In the interlude, the doctrine that only defining attributes are necessary, and that definitions are just the short “Nominal Definitions” that we find in dictionaries, whose function is merely to express meaning and not summarize knowledge, prevailed by the early 20th century reign of the Logical Positivists.  So “All triangles have 3 sides” was considered necessary (but non-factual, because it expressed a conventional definition), but “Gold has 79 protons” was not considered necessary (though admittedly factual).

But by the 1930s it was seen that this simple model was inadequate, even by many disciples of the Logical Positivists.   The Ordinary Language philosophers came up with “cluster concepts” and “family resemblance concepts”, and in general “open textured” concepts, W. V. Quine came up with a holistic view of knowledge, and others extended this to a holistic theory of meaning.  Meaning and knowledge came to be widely seen as relative to a conceptual scheme.  And Kuhn concluded that scientists with different conceptual schemes or different “paradigms” could sometimes not communicate, because what was said in one scheme or paradigm was incommensurable with what was said another, and that they were not talking about the same things, because the meanings and references of their terms differed.

However, the later Putnam and Kripke rejected this, as he said that the scientists in different paradigms were talking about the same things, that their terms had the same referents, the “natural kinds” (Deep Kinds) even though their definitions might differ.  So scientists from ancient Greece on down who talked of gold were talking of the same kind of thing, the same natural kind with the same essence.
 
And Rand avoided the mistakes too, since she did not consider that what was excluded from the definition was not necessary, and insisted that new discoveries need not invalidate old theories but rather can add to our knowledge.

Nonetheless, Kuhn deserves credit for exposing some of the weaknesses in Logical Positivist philosophy of science.

Dr. Browne and I met at Eastern Michigan University.  I was walking the halls waiting for a criminology class to begin and I saw “Ayn Rand” written on the blackboard at the end of a couple of columns of philosophers starting with Thales.  Over the semester, I stood outside and eventually took a seat to watch the lectures.  He now teaches online for Yorktown University in Denver.

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