Overweening Generalist

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weirdness Around Thomas Kuhn

One of the big revelations for me in reading David Kaiser's How The Hippies Saved Physics was the stories about Ira Einhorn's chummy relationship with Thomas Kuhn, which, in hindsight seems totally bizarre to me. And therefore wonderful. All I had known about Einhorn came after he was charged with the grisly murder of his girlfriend, how he fled to France, how it eventually played out. I knew Einhorn ("The Unicorn") was a big player in the first Earth Day, and was a Allen Ginsberg-ish ambassador between the worlds of New Age ideas and the Establishment. Einhorn was seen as legit by hippies and Bell Telephone executives alike. I followed the story of Einhorn being suspected of murder, and traced some of his story backwards. I had no idea he had as much influence as he apparently did getting the wild New Physics books of the 1970s published. I certainly had no idea he was close pals with Kuhn, who in my readings by and about him outside his landmark The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, seemed to me the kind of tweedy academic who would not have anything to do an intelligent hippie like Einhorn, but Kaiser shows me I was wrong, and I love that bit in the book. It's like finding out Darwin was pals with Bakunin or something. (As far as I know Chuck and Mike never met, just for the contingent record.)

I consider Kuhn's book the most influential High Culture book of the second half of the roaring 20th century, and if you haven't read it, think about doing so. It's readable and totally fascinating, and gives you a strong purchase on the philosophy of science, and it will always speak to your readings of Michael Polanyi, Sir Karl Raimund Popper, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Imre Lakatos, and my favorite, the anarchist Paul Feyerabend.

You'll also be able to see why his Strong Poetry of "paradigm" became such a powerful meme in non-high culture books and discourse.

Another passing strange story involving Kuhn only came into my ambit in the last two months: one of my two or three favorite living film documentarians - indeed, one of my favorite living artists - Errol Morris, was once a student of Kuhn's, and asked him so many questions that aggravated Kuhn that eventually Kuhn threw an ashtray at Morris's head. And missed. Morris calls this rhetoric "Argument by Ashtray." I loved how Morris relates this time with Kuhn in a recent series in the NYT. The ashtray missed him, and he thought, suddenly, "Einstein's office is just around the corner. I'm at Princeton!" (I paraphrase, probably.) He says the Ashtray Incident changed his life, and eventually will probably do something on film about it. (Maybe?)

(Note: Herbert Butterfield's "The Whig Interpretation of History" that influenced Kuhn seems related at least tangentially to the thrust of my blogpost here.)

Again: my preconceived notions about Kuhn the man were wonderfully violated. Here's a guy who went from Harvard to Berkeley (where he wrote Structure), to Princeton, and finally to M.I.T., where his office was not far from Noam Chomsky's. (Noam disagreed with his esteemed colleague about the philosophy of science; Chomsky thinks there was one revolution, and it was Galileo's and it's still being played out.)

Kuhn interviewed Niels Bohr the day before Bohr died. I am still working on integrating Kuhn's model of the sociology of science with Bohr's model agnosticism. If anyone wants to recommend a book here, please do...

Two items of interest before I let you go: Kuhn took classes given by the great sociologist of knowledge and science, Michael Polanyi. Polanyi emphasized the subjective nature of the scientist's experience, and how that meant that there must be a relativism built into the search for scientific knowledge. When Kuhn's first version of Structure came out, he used that idea but did not credit Polanyi, which raised cries of plagiarism. In his second edition, Polanyi received credit.

Finally, a basic take-away vis a vis Popper's notion of "falsifiability" and Kuhn: Popper seemed to want to argue that when a scientist (or a series of them) falsified some aspect of what Kuhn considered within the current purview of "normal science," that it made a significant impact on that discipline. Kuhn thought that was mostly wrong: when an idea within the reigning paradigm is subjected to test and it seems to have been "falsified," the community usually attributes this as a mistake by the scientists! I think, given my outsider's readings in the history of science, that Kuhn should be heeded more by Popperians.

Here's an interview former Scientific American editor John Horgan did with Kuhn.


Loba said...

I'm a little behind, but in response to your Aug. 5th post:

Stumbling, staggering, finally reduced to a toe-dragging crawl through the fetid muck of her 40th decade, Mildred wept vengeful but reluctant tears, blinding her to the presence of the lantern-jawed white/black knight passing by, her last chance at a good bodice-ripping fling disappearing into the sunset as she crawled miserably on.....

Loba said...

oops. 4th decade, not 40th!

michael said...

Not bad! I find when I try my hand at these I make myself laugh out loud. How delightful and liberating to, instead of trying to produce passing "good" sentences, we intentionally tap into what seems not-so-good. I think it causes us to think about STYLE in a new way, because writing Bulwer-Lytton sentences forces us, as an exercise, into a new perspective. But enough about that. Let us continue with poor Mildred:

"Her ample bosom heaving in sobs, which increased like the monsoon rains of Jaipuhr, Mildred began to obsess over life's doleful missed opportunities, and she felt used-up, gone, wasted, much like the clothes selection at the Goodwill before the new stuff comes in, which added further sorrow, for this pig-iron world in which we all breathe, alas, seemed bereft of any good will at all."