Monday, May 25, 2009

Unified Frameworks vs patchworks (etc)

This past week-end I enjoyed participating at a small conference on new perspectives in history and philosophy of science hosted by the distinguished philosopher and historian of mathematics, Niccolo Guicciardini, who is actually descendant of the Renaissance historians and political theorists with the same last name, in idyllic Bergamo [yeah, life is a bitch!]. (In a bookstore in Milan I noticed Niccolo has also published a textbook on philosophy of quantum mechanics, but that has not been translated into English yet.) The speakers included Michael Friedman, George Smith, Menachem Fish, Andrew Janiak, Andre Carus, and Nico Bertoloni Melli. The conference was inspired by the work of Howard Stein; I was impressed (but unpersuaded) by Carus' efforts to show how Stein's works can be understood in light of his mentor's (Carnap) understanding of pragmatics.
Anyway, nearly all of us gave programmatic papers (perhaps, undermining my claim in an earlier posting that the field is moribund). Maybe I'll try to summarize these in a future post. Here I focus on the only fierce debate at the conference. In his paper, Fish tried to extend Friedman's project of *Dynamics of Reason* in order to address the question how individuals operating within a framework can generate normative criticism of the framework. (Frish's solution was fresh by drawing on a mixture of Peter Gallison's stuff on trading zones and Frankfurtian moral psychology.) George Smith, who has become the world authority on Newton's Principia and who is increasingly intolerant of philosophical toy-examples (Smith was my undergraduate teacher), criticized Fish's (ahum) framework by being so framework-focused. On Smith's account there are just many different (and potentially conflicting) formulations of what we call 'Newtonian mechanics' that may only share a certain way of using deflections from inertial motion. Amusingly, Smith did not think he and *Friedman* differ on these matters; by the end of the workshop this was left unresolved--but I expect they are having an entertaining conversation in Stanford this week.

Added on May 30: just noticed that in the last few pages of *Word and Object* Quine (of all people) defends the patchwork view. (He cites *Modern Science and Modern Man* (1952) by Kuhn's mentor, James B. Conant, approvingly twice.) I seem to recall that in Two Dogmas (and maybe later) he has a more unified picture.

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