Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, May 26, 2011

OMNIUM GATHERUM

While I have been trying to get my body adjusted to East Coast time, several people have made interesting comments to one or another of my blog posts, and I thought I would try to say at least a word about two of them before the moment slips away. [I still cannot get used to the speed with which things become old and fade from view on the web.]

A propos college education, one comment called attention to the enormous importance placed in the United States [and elsewhere, of course] on where one goes to college, as opposed simply to whether one has gone at all. The obsession with the Ivy League and its imitators seems to proceed from the premise that "everyone, my dear" goes to college; all that matters is where you go. The endless media discussion of every aspect of this subject helps to obscure from view the fact that only a third or fewer of Americans "go to college" at all. By the way, although this is not the place to expand on the subject, I am deeply sceptical of the purported vast superiority of an Ivy League education [I mean, the students who took my classes at Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia got the same me as those who took my classes at UMass.] But there is absolutely no doubt that the Ivy League and the other elite schools are the royal road to good jobs -- not because they have taught their students anything so special, just because employers think the students are elite. Well, don't get me started.

Somebody with the webname Pliny quotes the following passage from my last Freud segment:

"Obviously, it takes training, patience, experience, and sensitivity to draw this sort of distinction, just as it takes a combination of ability, training, and experience to enable a research laboratory scientist to distinguish between an important experimental anomaly and just some glitch in the equipment. A skilled luthier [someone who makes stringed instruments] can tell, by picking up a piece of wood, flexing it, plucking at it with a thumbnail, and even smelling it, whether or not it will make a good back of a violin. I cannot do that, needless to say, but the luthier is not claiming to have magical powers when he tests a piece of wood. He is simply exhibiting the result of long training, experience, and some native talent."

He or she then says, "This is a very interesting passage, and it suggests to me that you mean something different by "science" than most modern philosophers do. Many scientists and philosophers would bristle to hear it suggested that doing work in physics or biology require (in principle) wisdom, discretion, prudence, intuition, all those intangible qualities. Could you talk a little bit about what you think science is?"

I am now very much out of my depth, as I have not kept up at all with recent writing on the philosophy of science, but I was under the impression that the old "Covering Law Model" "Inductive inference" "confirmation and disconfirmation" view of the nature of science had given way maybe thirty or forty years ago to a recognition that science is a social activity [see all the discussion about citations as making a claim a scientific fact, not simply evidencing that it is a fact]. Scientists learn to be scientists by working in someone's laboratory, where they not only develop skills with equipment, but also learn, through imitation and such, how to craft an experiment, what constitutes a significant experimental result, and all the rest. This is why people who read all the books and articles but never come into contact with a functioning laboratory seem so often to have a tin ear for science, and come off as cranks. Can one of them actually make an important discovery? Of course. And how does it become an important discovery? By being taken up into the ongoing social activity of science and being used as the basis for other scientific work.

Well, I know from nothing about any of this [although I do know a little bit about what it takes to be a good musician], so I welcome comments from folks out there who actually do know something about it [and from others as well -- far be it from me to discourage comments from novices like me!]

2 comments:

Marinus said...

Re: science, I wonder what the contrasting option is supposed to be if doing science isn't an activity requiring good judgement (intuition, wisdom, etc.). Even if your results didn't require interpretation (and they do, even if you deny that observation is theory-laden), the covering laws have to come from somewhere. They are themselves the product of the good judgement of the scientists who formulate them.

Michael said...

Marinus basically beat me to it. Still, I'll chime in. Of course science requires all the things Pliny mentions: wisdom, intuition, etc.

Like Marinus, I'm confused about what the alternative is. Scientists aren't just machines grinding out theories using some formal system. The best ones are supremely creative (as much as any great artist or author), and the other good ones also have a decent helping of creativity, wisdom, and intuition.