Saturday, August 04, 2007

2 Fun Facts About Philosophers

... courtesy of The Sociology of Philosophies:

Bertrand Russell's godfather was John Stuart Mill

Jean Paul Sartre's cousin was Albert Schweitzer.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Idealism is the Cover Under Which Secularists Took the Universities

Randall Collins spends a significant section of The Sociology of Philosophies on why Idealism appeared where and when it did. The philosophical lineage of Kant and Hegel argues against materialism in terms that sound like a defense of the reality of God and the spiritual vision of traditional religion. Yet really, says Collins, Idealism is at best a halfway house, keeping the terms of spirit, while removing the hard-to-digest revelation and historical particularity of religion.

Collins' sociological insight is that Idealism became the dominant philosophy in universities at the very moment when they were being secularized, cutting loose from either direct church control, as in the United States, or from state church control, as in Germany and England. This holds true despite the fact that each of these countries secularized their universities in different generations -- it is not simply the zeitgeist talking. Collins' most impressive evidence is that philosophers in Japanese universities invented a Buddhist-sounding Idealism at just the moment that those institutions were separating from Buddhist control.

And within another generation, all these dominant Idealisms had been displaced by more thorough-going secularist philosophies.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Science is a Small-Numbers Operation, After All

One of the useful structural ideas in Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies is the Law of Small Numbers. He argues that creative intellectual life works when a limited number of networks, representing different positions, gather around a common problem and compete with one another to solve it. He says the minimum number of positions is three, and the maximum is six or seven, eight at the outside. The minimum number comes from the initial claim - "this is a problem worthy of serious attention, and here is our proposed solution" - which, if successful, draws a contrary view; the argument between the two almost inevitably draws a "plague on both your houses" third position. The maximum number of positions is a little vaguer, but seems to be about the limit of the number of competing solutions to a problem that participants can keep track of.

Science today, what Collins calls "rapid-discovery science," seems to be composed of thousands of creative groups pushing along a research frontier, not a small number arguing over a problem for a long time. At first glance, then, science would seem to abrogate the law of small numbers.

If we take a finer-grained look at science as a human enterprise, though, we see that it is composed of many nodes of small numbers gathered around a problem. Moreover, argues Collins, the scientific revolution was really three different revolutions working together. First came a revolution in mathematics, which was driven by developing many new mathematical notations that turned into a technology of discovery. Then began a revolution in scientific equipment, driven more by tinkerers than philosophers, which also turned into a technology of discovery. Only then could there be scientists who use both kinds of technology to attack problems. At that point, they create an attention space organized around a small number of positions competing as fast as they can to both make crucial discoveries and to interpret them convincingly.

The difference between science and philosophy is that science, armed with these efficient technologies of discovery, moves much faster in creating little problems and solving them. This is Kuhnian normal science. Where philosophers might spend decades, whole careers, even generations arguing the same problem, scientists working on a hot topic compete to a solution, solve it, and move on to a new competition. Scientific problems that don't get solved quickly get pushed to the side, where fewer networks will keep working on them; hot problems are not so much the most important ones, as the ones that promise a reachable solution soon.

From a distance and from the outside, science appears to be a vast moving research frontier carried on by millions. Up close, though, science proceeds by many small-numbers competitions gathered around specific problems.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Starting Configuration of Monotheistic Intellectual Life

Randall Collins argues that intellectual life depends on competing networks who oppose one another across a common set of problems. The Western faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- tend to start (and restart, and restart) their intellectual arguments in the same configuration. All three faiths begin with a faith in one God, and an overlapping set of texts about God. Rituals develop, standard prayers get established, practices of daily life get a religious gloss, and everyday ethics grow up in the life of the community of believers. In other words, a viable life of faith can grow up without intellectual reflection on how, exactly, God's universe works. I expect that most of the believers in most faiths around the world and through the ages are happy to just do it, without a full intellectual account of how and why.

Some people, though, have the intellectual itch. They want to know how and why. They want to have an intellectually deeper and, to them, more satisfying faith. And they want to make a name and a living from arguing about it. So they begin to reason about the faith.

Collins details what happens next. It is hard to create the conditions for sustained intellectual life. If, though, conditions are ripe, intellectuals of one position get the attention of other intellectuals who take an opposing position, which in turn draws in at least one other network of thinkers arguing for yet another position. This argument also typically draws a reaction to the whole business of intellectualizing faith that says "a plague on all your houses." Thus, the opening configuration of intellectual life.

In The Sociology of Philosophies Collins goes on to name each of these four positions in the opening configuration of Western theology.

The rational faith position comes first. They argue that the rules of reason apply to God, too, so we can reason about what God and God's actions can be like based on reason, even if some particular points can only be supplied by revelation.

The rational faith position provokes the traditional scripturalists to offer a reasoned defense of why God is not limited by human reason.

The argument between the rationalists and the traditionalists creates a market for a third party to import classical philosophy -- in the case of all the Biblical faiths, Greek philosophy.

These three parties could be a stable configuration for an intellectual argument. Almost inevitably, though, mystics criticize the whole idea of reaching God through intellectual argument; ironically, by criticizing the intellectuals, the mystics are drawn into the intellectual argument willy-nilly.

The argument may branch out into many further positions from there, and the power of one group or another within the argument may wax or wane, depending on how well they argue. Moreover, it is difficult to sustain the right external conditions for a focused intellectual argument over generations, so the whole project may collapse for a time. Still, the opening configuration -- rationalists, provoking traditionalists, importers, provoking mystics -- is likely to be repeated at the start of each new round on intellectual creativity.