Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (7)

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.
Part III: Professional Philosophy, 1912-2000
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13. Harvard and Oxford, 1946-1975
14. The Tribulations of Professional Philosophy, 1962-1999

Chapter 13: Isaiah Berlin was taken with C. I. Lewis’ Mind and the World-Order and spread the word to his British colleague. His seminar was attended by Wilfrid Sellars studying in England in 1935. Berlin visited the USA during World War II and made direct contact with pragmatism at Harvard. On the American side, Morton White also served as philosophical middleman between the two countries. This led to the marriage of analytical philosophy in Britain with American philosophy (pragmatism). The Americans Quine and Nelson Goodman linked up with Carnap, a point of attraction being a commitment to rigorous logic. Quine and Goodman were suspicious of hypotheticals, of modal notions. Epistemology became philosophy of science became philosophy of language.

In the 1950s the public philosophy of an earlier era vanished. Kuklick does link the constricted purview of analytical philosophy to the Cold War and the anticommunist crusade. (247) Harvard and Oxford cemented their hegemony and maintained their connection. Oxford was less rigorous and less focused than Harvard on logic and science.

Contrary to Peirce, Goodman attacked epistemological realism, determining the problem of induction insoluble, and affirming nominalism. He introduced the neologism “grue” to illustrate the problem, and worked out rules of inductive inference, associated with the concept of linguistic entrenchment. (Later he would work on aesthetics). By 1951, empiricism without guarantees was a common consensus in American philosophy with internal differences debated around this common core. (251) Contrary to his predecessors, Goodman based his epistemology on language rather than concepts or mind. Lewis however could not tolerate Goodman’s jettisoning of the justifiability of knowledge.

Quine’s landmark paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” appeared in 1951. It is noteworthy for its holism and rejection of a boundary between analytic and synthetic statements. But also, philosophy was held to be continuous with science, and epistemology must be naturalized. Quine’s pragmatism allowed for a multiplicity of world views (scientific or religious), but remained committed to natural science as the only legitimate form of knowledge. He prioritized phenomenalism as a basis for conceptual schemes, but affirmed the reality of physical objects. Mind and meaning are only behavior. Quine’s commitment to this led him to the “indeterminacy of translation,” which he illustrated with his own neologism “gavagai”. This leads to the “inscrutability of reference” and “ontological relativity”. This eventually led to the underdetermination of theory, allowing for “empirically equivalent alternatives”. However, he deferred to the actual practice of scientists and the authority of physics.

Kuklick finds a contradiction in Quine: “His radical translation was an a priori thought experiment”; he ignored actual linguistic and scientific practice. “Then he claimed that his underdetermination thesis was about science, but it was not about the practice of science.” (256-7)

He came to his indeterminate and underdeterminate conclusions when he philosophized from his armchair, engaging in a style of thought that other pragmatists, and Quine himself in his more positivist moods, found to be dogmatic, unconcerned with the practices of scientific communities. (257)

Some older philosophers could not tolerate the narrowness of analytical philosophy and positivism. C. I. Lewis roundly condemned Quine and Goodman. Morton White sought to widen the analytical perspective. The Harvard-Oxford alliance continued to dominate the philosophical scene. (Several philosophers are listed.) A brain drain from Britain seeded a number of American philosophy departments.

Chapter 14 brings us up to the present with “The Tribulations of Professional Philosophy, 1962-1999″.  I want to skip ahead a bit to the book Kuklick considers the most influential of the last third of the 20th century, Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I will return to Kuklick’s assessment of Kuhn in my next post: I want to emphasize now that Kuhn displaced the ahistorical formalist epistemological approach to science with an historical approach that changed the direction of much of philosophy of science.  The notion of progress in science, if we accept the concept, is come to be seen as not due to some formal metric of the suitability of one theory over another, but rather marked by discontinuous revolutions in scientific theory (vs. normal science) which may also be marked by a generational shift among scientists. Kuklick links Kuhn to other historic shifts of the 1960s, but I would like to emphasize my own points regarding philosophy of science.

First, while Kuhn opened up the path to an extreme relativism for many, there are quite different lessons to be drawn. What I call the formalist approach involves a general epistemological framework that disregards the actual content of scientific theories. But a historical approach is content-driven: not all thoughts can be thought at any time whatsoever, but rather theory choice and theory plausibility is driven not only by the incremental empirical evidence but by the conceptual options made possible by the theoretical framework of a science as it has progressed through time and the reactions and rebellions with respect to previously given theories.  The work of Harold I. Brown is one place to look for historical examples.

Another point to consider is that philosophy of science in the USA, incestuous as it is, is not limited to the artificial concerns that consume a substantial slice of analytical philosophy, i.e. purely logical artifices and aprioristic concerns over the justification of knowledge claims, always threatened by the possibility of skepticism, which is as aprioristic and dogmatic as traditional metaphysics. That is, Quine and company is not the only game in town, not even in the USA. Feyerabend is mentioned in passing, though nothing of his views is offered. Curiously missing here is mention of Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, who, while not Americans, were key influences in philosophy of science in the United States. And there is a wider history of philosophy of science from Curt Ducasse to my teacher Edward H. Madden (e.g. his work on causal powers), not limited to the concerns of those considered paradigmatic thinkers. Philosophy of science looms huge in American philosophy, and it is broader than it is represented in Kuklick’s book.

Given the institutionalization of philosophy in every country, there is bound to be an accompanying provincialism. Sometimes one has to look at alternative views from outside. As an alternative to prevailing analytical philosophy of language here, I suggest this book published by a Lithuanian author in the Soviet period:

Pavilionis, Rolandas; translated by H. Campbell Creighton. Meaning and Conceptual Systems. Moscow: Progress, 1990.

Not only is there more to life than Harvard, there is also more to life than Oxford. Hence the work of a leading Yugoslav Praxis philosopher:

Marković, Mihailo. Dialectical Theory of Meaning, translated by David Rougé and Joan Coddington from the Serbo-Croat. Dordrecht; Boston: D. Reidel / Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1984.