14.0080 Feyerabend's Conquest of Abundance

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Fri Jun 30 2000 - 06:08:47 CUT

  • Next message: Humanist Discussion Group: "14.0083 new on WWW: Italian history; Nunberg's pieces"

                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 80.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2000 07:06:18 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: abundance vs abstraction

    Within a day of each other we have two major reviews of Paul Feyerabend's
    posthumously assembled last "collage", as he called it, Conquest of
    Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, ed. Bert
    Terpstra (Chicago, 2000), by two of the leading figures in the philosophy
    of science:

    Ian Hacking, "'Screw you, I'm going home'", London Review of Books 22.12
    (22 June 2000): 28-9
    Bas van Fraasen, "The sham victory of abstraction", Times Literary
    Supplement 5073 (23 June 2000): 10-11.

    Unfortunately at the moment neither review is online, even to subscribers,
    so reading these will involve more than the minimal locomotion of
    mouse-clicks, but the effort is very richly rewarded. Hacking's piece is
    printed with Feyerabend's "Letter to the Reader" -- which, if I were not
    interested in keeping my involvement with the law to a minimum I'd
    re-publish here; van Fraasen's with a wonderful photo of Feyerabend, older
    and *much* mellower looking than I dimly recall him from the time when, at
    age 17, I sat fascinated in a classroom at Berkeley while he hung over his
    crutches and taught us about science.

    The issue that Feyerabend takes up -- as Hacking notes, much more subtly
    than the careless reader might notice -- is central to what we do, whether
    or not we think what we do is a "science" or regard experimental scientific
    practice as relevant to our own. In that Letter to the Reader he warns us
    that although the form of writing is an academic essay, "it is not my
    intention to inform, or to establish some truth. What I want to do is to
    change your attitude. I want you to sense chaos where at first you noticed
    an orderly arrangement of well-behaved things and processes.... I
    conclude", he says, "that the life we lead is ambiguous. It contains not
    only one future, but many and it contains them neither ready-made nor as
    possibilities that can be turned into any direction.... It is very
    important not to let this suspicion deteriorate into a truth, or a theory,
    for example into a theory with the principle: things are never what they
    seem to be. Reality, or Being, or God, or whatever it is that sustains us
    cannot be captured that easily. The problem is not why we are so often
    confused; the problem is why we seem to possess useful and enlightening
    knowledge.... Is argument without a purpose? No, it is not; it accompanies
    us on our journey without tying it to a fixed road. Is there a way of
    identifying what is going on? There are many ways, and we are using them
    all the time though often believing that they are part of a stable
    framework which encompasses everything. Is there a name for an attitude or
    a view like this? Yes, if names are that important I can easily provide
    one: mysticism, though it is a mysticism that uses examples, arguments,
    tightly reasoned passages of text, scientific theories and experiments to
    raise itself into consciousness...." Ah, ferocious courage to the last.

    What does this have to do with us? Everything, I am tempted to say, and
    just have :-). More specifically, though: it's about what we get from the
    computational discipline of rigorous consistency and absolute explicitness,
    which takes us to the point of being able to glimpse the chaos that
    Feyerabend would have us see and to keep alive the question of "why we seem
    to possess useful and enlightening knowledge". Amidst the daily grind of
    clever buttons to click and annoying animations to swat away, Feyerabendian
    mischief is, as Hacking says, "profoundly liberating. He is great fun, but
    there is more to it than that."


    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)20 7848 2784 fax: +44 (0)20 7848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratias agere

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Fri Jun 30 2000 - 06:17:01 CUT