Martin Kusch, Psychologism (3)

Kusch, Martin. Psychologism: A Case Study in the Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. London; New York: Routledge, 1995. See also the Four Appendices to Psychologism (1995).

Finally we come to Kusch’s summary and conclusions. Kusch summarizes the book and his approach to Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge (SPK). Kusch adheres to Bloor’s strong programme in the sociology of knowledge, but he does not practice sociologism, or the reduction of the intellectual content of intellectual disputes to personal or institutional interest. (274) Not all social variables are identifiable. All sides of an argument involve social variables, though some will see one side or another’s arguments as a smokescreen for personal interest. Social variables apply universally, not just to the losing or undesirable side.

The researcher’s neutrality is difficult to maintain, the more so the closer one approach’s issues endemic to the sociology of knowledge itself. (275) The arguments of the neo-Kantians are similar to those who oppose the strong programme today. Kusch’s only sympathies lie with the psychologisticists rather than with Frege or Husserl. Kusch finds two weaknesses in his field: adherence to the whiggish history of science, and failure to explain adequately the closure of scientific debates. Case in point is Shapin’s and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), to which Kusch’s work is nonetheless indebted. Kusch feels he has avoided said two weaknesses.

Based on this case study, Kusch offers a set of metaphilosophical hypotheses. (276-8) (1) Controversies in philosophy are much fuzzier than those in natural sciences. (2) Controversies in philosophy like those in science are often cases of boundary projects and policing. (3) A very small number of publications can and most often is the focal point of philosophical controversies. Candidates for focal points are texts which are boldly accusatory, short, and highly rhetorical. (4) Charges of relativism, irrationalism, extreme skepticism, etc. tend to be more central in philosophical controversies, especially as they influence a wider reading public. (5) Philosophical controversies are abandoned, not resolved. (6) The victors create the philosophical canon, determining who we read today and how we interpret the history of philosophy.

I see one mention of Marxism in the extensive bibliography, though I do not know what the text’s argument is:

Lewalter, E. ([1930], 1982), ‘Wissenssociologie und Marxismus’, in V. Meja and N. Stehr (eds.), Der Streit um die Wissenssociologie, vol. 2: Rezeption und Kritik der Wissenssociologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 551-83.

This book is invaluable, but here is a list of my concerns.

(1)   I do not see what is particularly “strong” in Kusch’s application of the strong programme. It seems eminently reasonable to me.

(2)   Taking sides overall is difficult, because all sides seem wrong to me.

(3)   The sense of inadequacy is heightened by the social and political illiteracy of all parties concerned, their reactionary politics above all. Quite clearly, taking psychology or logic as the foundation for an entire world view, let alone explanation of social institutions, is bankrupt.

(4)   Mathematics and logic form a special case in which in my view psychologism is completely wrong. The disputes end up being more wide-ranging, but Kusch’s narrative morphs from the case of logic and mathematics to the total gamut of psychology and epistemology and losing this vital distinction in the process.

(5)   Endemic to issues both in psychology and philosophy is the mind-body problem, but it is not clear that this foundational issue is adequately addressed in either discipline involved in the controversies covered in this book. Given the focus on the mental, experimentation notwithstanding, it is not clear to me from Kusch’s account how the psychologists relate the mental to the neurophysiological structure of the organism.

(6)   The broader issue in these controversies, relevant also today, is the question of naturalizing epistemology. As both traditional and naturalized epistemology are highly skewed and thus not necessarily reliable guides, how is this fusion to be accomplished? On the naturalistic side, there is not only the inevitable incompleteness of knowledge to be considered, but changing and ultimately ideological paradigms, e.g. behaviorism, sociobiology (evolutionary psychology), computationalism, or neurophysiology. Yet epistemology to escape from artificial and at this point fruitless concerns, e.g. what the Popperians call justificationism, must answer to advances in scientific knowledge. Also, scientific knowledge claims, though they must be adjudicated by scientists, nonetheless are subject to philosophical scrutiny for conceptual coherence and ideological bias.  Hence there remains a presently ineradicable creative tension between the two.

(7)   Kusch’s case study is fertile ground for the analysis of the dynamics of bourgeois philosophy, its vacillation between positivism and irrationalism (e.g. Lebensphilosophie), scientism and Romanticism—or however the dichotomy expresses itself.  This goes beyond Kusch’s apparent conscious awareness of what is ultimately at stake.

(8)   The ontological status of formal logic and mathematics, precisely because of the nature of formal systems, involves further considerations. But concerning epistemology generally, there is the peculiarity of the experiential gap between the world (and cognition itself) subjectively perceived and objectively measured, and thus the need to correlate if not merge the two. Philosophical speculation cannot alone settle the problem once and for all, but there can be a guiding thread connecting subject and object. Marx’s early concept of praxis provides a clue. Not actual praxis (as substitute for critical reflection), but the concept of praxis.