Mirrors aren't even mirrors 
I am puttering around today and thinking about scientific realism.*

A standard albatross to hang around the neck of realists is that they are committed to thinking that proper science doesn't depend on us at all. Catherine Elgin, for example, writes, "Scientific realism holds that scientific representations are utterly objective. They describe the way the world is, independent of any point of view."**

Elgin rightly rejects that view. What caught my attention today, though, is something she says in summarizing her rejection of it. She writes that, "science, as currently practiced, or foreseeably improved, is not the mirror of nature."

This a common metaphor, of course, famously associated with Rorty's rejection of it. Today I was struck by the oddity of it. Actual, literal mirrors aren't utterly objective and point-of-view independent. They don't provide a cosmic and inhuman truth.

They are partial: I can't see the back of the back of my head in a single flat mirror. Contriving to see the back of my head with multiple mirrors is hard, and the effort required is because each individual mirror has a point (or at least a surface) of view.

They misrepresent in certain ways: The image of me in the bathroom mirror is out there, even though I am still right here. It's handy to see my hair as-if-at-a-distance, and I have learned to look at that image to adjust my hair. The phenomenology is complicated, but navigating the representation is something that requires experience. A device which literally pulled off my hair and presented it to me as-if-in-a-mirror would be a very different sort of thing.

So the (trivial, blog-weight) point, is that the metaphor of philosophy or science as a mirror of nature is deeply confused. It is used to point out a bad way of understanding the target of the metaphor, but does so by presuming a confused conception of the metaphor's source.


* A sure sign of having gone off the rails.
** "Keeping things in perspective", Philosophical Studies, 2010; because she's as Harvard, there's a free preprint.

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Incommensurable numbering 
I'm teaching an undergrad course on scientific revolutions this term. The central pivot, naturally, is Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

There is a new, fourth edition of Structure. It's just called the "50th Anniversary Edition" on the cover, and it boasts an index and an introductory essay by Ian Hacking. Hacking writes, sensibly, that readers should skip his essay.

The new edition is typeset in a smaller font. Aesthetics and readability aside, this means that the pagination is different from prior editions by just a little bit. This means that I won't be able to teach from the copy I've owned since the mid-1990s, the one that I've carefully annotated marks and marginalia.

What's worse is that nobody will ever be able to cite Kuhn in a sensible way ever again. Any good edition of Descartes, Hume, or Kant (for example) has marginal page numbers which correspond to what's taken to be the canonical edition. Now there simply is no canonical edition of Kuhn. Scholars will cite one or the other willy-nilly. It will be within a few pages of right either way, but not quite. The 'not quite' means that it will never be entirely clear what to do when citing Kuhn.

Why did University of Chicago Press do this?

It's not about length. They're about the same, with the new edition ending on page 208 and the old one ending on page 210.

It might be about design. Because the pagination is not too far from older copies, marginal page numbers would be odd.

It might also be commercial. Everybody has to buy a new copy now.

Still! Argh.

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Birds and fishes 
In my recent Birds post, I wrote that my only proper background in philosophy of art was a seminar I took during my first year of grad school. That isn't quite right.

When I was an undergraduate, I TAed for the introductory philosophy course. The second year, the semester was evenly divided into units on business ethics, aesthetics, and logic. This was decided at the last minute, so students in the Fall semester came in expecting a more traditional survey of topics and got this off trifecta. Many were angry.

One student actually liked the new curriculum. He was an older guy who had come back to college after a career as a commercial artist. If I recall correctly, he asked for one of the original drawings from the daily cartoon that I drew for the campus paper. He traded me a print he had done a few years earlier, "Three Fished in Four Frames". I have it hanging on the wall of my office.

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My chair, my shelf, my desk 
I am becoming department chair presently, so the outgoing chair and I have been swapping offices for the past week. I had managed to accumulate a considerable amount of clutter in the years that I was in my old office.

The move gave me the opportunity to decrease the local information entropy. My books are now alphabetized by author, which replaces the clusters-by-topic approach that I had used ever since grad school. When I consulted books regularly, my memory could get me close enough that visual inspection would lead me the rest of the way. Now there are books that I haven't thought about in more than fifteen years, and the memory of them is less lively. The alphabet sorts everyone. The downside is that I no longer have historical figures arranged in any chronological or geographic patterns.

The move has also given me a chance to file some old papers and the nerve to throw away a lot others. For the first time, probably the first time ever, I don't have a stack of miscellaneous notes and ideas on my desk or on a shelf next to it.

I expect this pristine condition to last at least until tomorrow.

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Guest post for birds 
Christy Mag Uidhir recently started a blog about philosophy of art called Aesthetics For Birds. The title is a riff on a quotation from Barnett Newman, "Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds."

I'm reminded of the quip often attributed to Richard P. Feynman: "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." I'm not sure whether Feynman said it (if he said it at all) before or after 1952, when Barnett Newman made the parallel crack about aesthetics. I'm not sure why Newman and Feynman held ornithology in such low esteem, either. Birds are interesting, and the study of them is a worthy enquiry. I'm enough of a generalist to think that's true about most things.

Today, Christy published a guest post by me: How I came to be interested in interesting things

UPDATE: John Wilkins and Malte Ebach, in their forthcoming The nature of classification, suggest that the ersatz Feynman was probably actually by either Steven Weinberg or someone summarizing Weinberg and that it's a reuse of the earlier Newman bon mot.


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