Banality, vaguesness, paradigms & pokers

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein [W@dawn], Arendt, Popper & Kuhn in LH, and Tim Williamson on vagueness in PB.

First, let’s be clear about vagueness:

Frankly, I don’t much care how many grains of sand make a heap, or how many hairs I’m short of baldness. Sorites Paradoxes are logically important, if you’re into that sort of thing (as was Lewis Carroll, btw-beware the rabbit hole of logical obsession), but I think my old friend Bill Gavin wrote the more interesting book on why vagueness matters.

Gavin argues that William James’ plea for the ‘reinstatement of the vague’ to its proper place in our experience should be regarded as a seminal metaphor for thought in general. The concept of vagueness applies to areas of human experience not captured by facts that can be scientifically determined nor by ideas that can be formulated in words. In areas as seemingly diverse as psychology, religion, language, and metaphysics, James continually highlights the importance of the ambiguous, the contextual, the pluralistic, or the uncertain over the foundational. Indeed, only in a vague, unfinished world can the human self, fragile as it is, have the possibility of making a difference or exercising the will to believe.

But if you’d rather split hairs and play in the Fuzzy Logic sandbox or talk to computers, feel free.

Hannah Arendt didn’t bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:

The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…”

The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth

Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality]

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas.

“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.

I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.


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