Thursday, June 23, 2011

Quick, uncited thought on the way Kuhn is used

I don't have any examples to point to, but for a while now I've meant to post on two tendencies to disparage certain concepts that people seem to have when talking about science that I think misunderstand Kuhn's attitude - one tendency touches directly on Kuhn, and the other somewhat more indirectly.

- The one that touches directly on Kuhn is disparaging references to "puzzle solving" scientists. This is what Kuhn thought the normal business of science amounted to - solving puzzles. You can think of puzzle-solving science as the normal hypothesize-test-falsify-rehypothesize iteration of the scientific method. Since Kuhn identified more totalizing paradigm shifts as the source of progress in science, people often scoff at puzzle-solving as missing the point, banal, boring, etc. I don't think that was Kuhn's perspective. First, puzzle-solving is the normal disposition of the scientist. Paradigm shifts don't come around all the time, after all! But more importantly, puzzle-solving facilitates paradigm shift by pushing the utility of a given body of theory to its limit. It doesn't require the same intuition and genius and ability to think outside the box that paradigm shift does, but I don't think he saw it in the diminutive way that people often talk about it.

- The second thing that people do touches more indirectly on Kuhnian themes, and that's the tendency to use "Potlemaic" or "phlogiston" as insults. In a way, this one bothers me more than the previous one. It's true that modern chemistry and cosmology are unambiguously considered progress from the Ptolemaic system or phlogiston chemistry to Kuhn. But part of his point was precisely that prior paradigms aren't wrong so much as immature. They only seem bizarre to us if we ignore the idea of a discontinuous shift in perspective. This passage from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is especially good at illustrating the point with respect to Newton:

"Yet, though much of Newton’s work was directed to problems and embodied standards derived from the mechanico-corpuscular world view, the effect of the paradigm that resulted from his work was a further and partially destructive change in the problems and standards legitimate for science. Gravity, interpreted as an innate attraction between every pair of particles of matter, was an occult quality in the same sense as the scholastics’ “tendency to fall” had been. Therefore, while the standards of corpuscularism remained in effect, the search for a mechanical explanation of gravity was one of the most challenging problems for those who accepted the Principia as paradigm. Newton devoted much attention to it and so did many of his eighteenth-century successors. The only apparent option was to reject Newton’s theory for its failure to explain gravity, and that alternative, too, was widely adopted. Yet neither of these views ultimately triumphed. Unable either to practice science without the Principia or to make that work conform to the corpuscular standards of the seventeenth century, scientists gradually accepted the view that gravity was indeed innate. By the mid-eighteenth century that interpretation had been almost universally accepted, and the result was a genuine reversion (which is not the same as a retrogression) to a scholastic standard. Innate attractions and repulsions joined size, shape, position, and motion as physically irreducible primary properties of matter."

In another passage I can't put my fingers on right now, he talks about how Einstein then "reverted" back to pre-Newtonian physics by explaining the source of gravity rather than just taking it as an innate, given quality. Accusing Newton of retrogression for thinking of gravity as an innate quality is in a lot of ways like criticizing Keynes's citation of the mercantilists. If Keynes just said "you know - forget the nineteenth century, let's just take the mercantilists as is" there would be cause for concern I think. But seeing problems in a somewhat similar light to past paradigms itself is not a fault, because past paradigms are never really "wrong" so much as they are interpretatively immature. I don't think there's any chance of stopping people from using "Ptolemaic" or "phlogiston" as insults and I have even made use of "Ptolemaic" on occasion. That's OK as shorthand, so long as we understand the point I'm trying to make here. The idea of science as being "wrong" doesn't really make sense. Science is developmental. In the way that people call the Ptolemaic system "wrong" there's probably a lot now that we think that is "wrong". This isn't to say that the Ptolemaic system is "right" either of course! As Kuhn protested - he's not a relativist! Planets simply don't move the way Ptolemy said they moved. The point is that instead of thinking of the Ptolemaic system as a thumbs up or thumbs down idea we need to instead (or in addition?) think of it as a conceptual framework that we have simply transcended because we figured out a more useful conceptual framework.

In a lot of ways it's like why we think (well at least I think) Louis CK is funny when he talks about his kids. He's got a lot of jokes where the basic approach is to judge his kids by adult standards and highlight how miserably the fail. It's funny, but why is it funny? It's funny because kids aren't "stupid" per se - they're simply still developing. The standard he holds them to is instinctively off for us and we don't naturally judge children that way, so it's funny to think of them by that standard. Ptolemaic cosmologists and phlogiston chemists, of course, are not children - which is why we judge them so harshly. But it's still important to remember the developmental character of conceptual frameworks in science as well as the self-referentialism of these conceptual frameworks. Within the framework of the Ptolemaic system the world makes a lot more sense than the Ptolemaic system does from the perspective of the Copernican system. The Copernican system is progress but that does not mean that we fully understand the Ptolemaic system if we try to understand it from a more modern perspective. We miss something. That's really the whole point of Kuhn, after all - we miss something if we do that.


  1. You know, you talk about the glories of mercantilism in rather vague ways here. So which parts do you and Keynes approve of?

    High tariffs?

    Wage controls?

    Forcing overseas polities to trade with you exclusively?

    Staple ports?

    Export subsidies?

    "Infant industries" policy?

    Government direction of which companies will and will not work in a field (sort of Japan's old system - the one that would have made Honda a non-automotive corporation)?

    The government organized guilds and monopolies of Colbertism?

    Because as far as I can tell, Keynes thought anything goes - and when anything goes, well, any sort of monstrosity is possible.

  2. Read the Grampp paper, that helps.

    The basic problem is that people have conflated the policies of politicians at the time with what was actually written by the mercantilists who - if you read them - were for the most part liberals.

    The key was this - they saw the money supply as an important constraint on growth. What they did not succeed in doing was connect it with the interest rate (although some - like Franklin who I mentioned - were pretty close).

    If you're curious about Keynes instead of being snide about him, I imagine the chapter he wrote called "Notes on Mercantilism" in the GT might be a good place to start. Last time I read it for something was a couple weeks ago - so my memory could be foggy - but I don't recall reading anything about tariffs, wage controls, or Colbertism in that. You can read it and refresh my memory.

  3. Surprisingly enough, Foucault also nailed the mercantilist, as well as the fallacy that a lot of modern economists have had in reading them.

  4. I've read a number of biographies of Colbert and even wrote a shortish paper on the guy in graduate school (under ten pages); he was most definitely taking ideas from the mercantilists who were writing in France. So as far as Colbert is concerned, your argument doesn't really fly.

    As we know, politicians are generally second hand dealers of ideas; so some portion of the mercantilists must have been coming up with these ideas.

    The first thing you should know about Foucault is that he was a very poor historian; as is evidenced by his work on the prison (historians have had to undo a lot of the damage he did to the field).

  5. Anyway, your argument sounds suspiciously like the the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. What I have illustrated are widely recognized examples of mercantilism; one cannot simply ignore them just because they are inconvenient to one's argument.

  6. Speaking of Colbert (and this pre-Rev France), let me put a good word for Louis XIII - he wasn't nearly the bumbling fool that Dumas made him out to be. I think of him as a far more sagacious monarch than Louis XIV.

  7. Daniel,

    On the right thread now...

    "The basic problem is that people have conflated the policies of politicians..."

    Keynes himself in the opening of the chapter talks about the awesomeness of "practical men" (meaning politicians mostly) of the past as opposed economists of the 19th century.

    The entire chapter is dripping with sarcasm, derision and spite for those that oppose him.

  8. "The mercantilists were under no illusions as to the nationalistic character of their policies and their tendency to promote war."

    Keynes, John Maynard (2007). The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Kindle Locations 5471-5472). Evergreen Review, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

    I love how anyone opposed to Keynes' idiocy is automatically pingeonholed as an advocate of some sort of unbending religion. Coming away from reading the chapter I find Keynes to be even more of an asshole than going in.

  9. re: "Anyway, your argument sounds suspiciously like the the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. What I have illustrated are widely recognized examples of mercantilism; one cannot simply ignore them just because they are inconvenient to one's argument."

    No Gary. What one cannot do is substitute a biography of Colbert for the treatises of English mercantilists. You're essentially defining mercantilism as protectionism because that's how historians have chosen to define it. If you just mean "protectionism", fine. But that's a different point.

  10. And if you want to call people assholes, please go to another blog - I don't appreciate that.

  11. Daniel,

    Keynes is dead (and will never trouble us again with any more of his works - though, sadly, we do have to deal with what he did write); so I don't think he minds.

    Well, mercantilism is protectionism; even Keynes admits that. The whole point of mercantilism (whether you agree with Keynes' supposedly benign, practical sources or not) is to protect employment (mostly employment), etc. at home. There are various motives for protectionism/mercantilism, but the whole "they took our jobs" line is always a primary motivator. In this bizarre worldview there are "British jobs" and "French jobs" and "Argentinian jobs" and "Nigerian jobs" that need to be coddled and otherwise maintained, otherwise it is a disaster! It doesn't take a lot to see a degree of paranoia in Keynes' thoughts.

    And yes, historians do define mercantilism as protectionism; for very good reasons.


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