Saturday, September 26, 2015

Fact-Opinion 11, Against epistemic conceptions of fact

I've written before about epistemic conceptions of fact, according to which the first word in the phrase 'established fact' is redundant. These conceptions define 'fact' in such a way that a fact must already be established, verified, or known by (at least) some community of experts.

Here are three examples of recent, epistemic definitions of 'fact':

First, there's this definition in a psychological dictionary:
Fact: An actual occurrence or state of affairs, empirically established and usually consensually validated, distinguished from fictive, confabulated events. The latter may be held as opinion, belief, or theory. (Raymond J. Corsini, The Dictionary of Psychology [Philadelphia, PA: Brunner Mazel, 1999], p. 362)
Next, there is the definition that Justin McBrayer quoted in his contribution to the New York Times (March 2, 2015), according to which something can be a fact only if it 'can be tested or proven' (McBrayer, 'Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts', New York Times [March 2, 2015]).

Finally, I obtained (from a source in California) this image of teaching material for a Grade 6 class:

'Fact' is here defined in terms of a consensus among the relevant experts. In this case, the definition requires that a fact be believed (or agreed to) by qualified scientists but doesn't strictly entail that this agreement on the facts should rise to the level of knowledge. Still, given the context, agreement among qualified scientists seems to be what grounds knowledge. (I'll leave aside the difficulties in the conceptions of theory and law in this image.)

I'm baffled by these epistemic conceptions of fact. Surely, it makes perfectly good sense to say, 'We don't know all the facts,' where 'we' refers to all of humanity. That is, there remain facts about our world no one yet knows. But if we adopted an epistemic definition of fact, then any such expression of epistemic humility would involve a self-contradiction; for, given an epistemic definition, the statement that 'Humanity does not yet know all the facts' would be equivalent to saying, 'Humanity does not yet know all the known facts.'

Or consider this uncontroversial expression of epistemic humility: there are facts that no one yet knows. Given the first definition that I quoted, this claim would be equivalent to saying, 'There are empirically established (and therefore known) facts that no one yet knows.' On the second definition, it would be equivalent to saying, 'There are facts that can be tested and proven (and that are therefore known) that no one yet knows.' On the California definition, it would be the same as saying, 'There are things currently agreed on by qualified scientists (and thus known) that no one yet knows.'

Not only do these epistemic definitions render a perfectly sensible claim self-contradictory, but they are inimical to the continued progress of science; for they nullify a primary reason for continuing to pursue scientific investigation. There would be little need, if any, to pursue science if humanity were already in possession of all the facts about the world. The continued pursuit of science presupposes that we don't know all the facts. It assumes that there remain facts about our world and its workings that continue to elude us -- all of us (even the qualified scientists).

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Early September links

Syrian refugee philosopher receives Goethe Medal. 'The Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm, one of the most recognized intellectuals in the Arab world, is a strong advocate of freedom of speech and democracy.'

Toni Morrison 'on Primo Levi’s defiant humanism'.

Computers predict schizophrenia by analyzing one's language use. 'Several studies of at-risk youths have found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.'

Daniel Chernilo on 'the case for a philosophical sociology'.

Audio recordings of John Rawls' lectures on John Stuart Mill

Beate Roessler: 'What is there to lose? Privacy in offline and online friendships'.

Sam Houston reviews Kenneth Garden's The First Islamic Reviver: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and His Revival of the Religious Sciences.

At Philosopher's Zone, Joe Gelonesi interviews Akeel Bilgrami about .Islam and identity'.

From last February, an Aussie radio interview of Charles Taliaferro, Richard Swinburne and others on the soul.

Bill McKibben on the Pope's Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

Artur Rossman interviews Thomas Pfau on his book Minding the Modern.

Karl Barth's anthropology.
Laura Guerrero reviews Amber Carpenter's book Indian Buddhist Philosophy.

Evan Thompson on recent results concerning whether consciousness is a 'stream', and the relevance of the Buddhist Abhidharma tradition.

Mark Siderits reviews Jay Garfield's Engaging Buddhism. Also reviewed by Charles Goodman.

Michael Puett on Zhuangzi in Relation to Confucius"

Now available -- Feminist Investigations and Other Essays (an issue of New Literary History):
We have called this cluster of essays “Feminist Investigations,” in reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. 1 The five essays that follow work in the philosophical tradition after Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and Stanley Cavell.
Claire Messud, 'Why I Write' (with mentions of Camus, Kant, Thomas Bernhard, Tolstoy, etc.).

Rohan Maitzen on George Eliot: '“You would have to feel with me,” Dorothea tells Celia at the end of Middlemarch, “else you would never know.” Turning feeling into knowledge is the process Eliot’s fiction enables for us as well.'

Barry Stocker on 'Kierkegaard as Philosopher of the Novel'

Anil Ananthaswamy: 'If a philosopher argues that our sense of being an “I” comes from being agents of actions, meaning that we feel like an “I” because of our sense of agency, then the phenomenology of schizophrenia questions that philosophy.'

From last June, David Kordahl reviews three philosophical books by physicists.

'Experiment confirms that quantum mechanics scoffs at our local reality'.

Austin L. Hughes on Jerry Coyne's book Faith versus Fact.

From Buzzfeed, atheist academics asked about finding meaning in a purposeless universe.

Daniel José Camacho on 'Why James H. Cone’s Liberation Theology Matters More Than Ever'.

David Womersley on Richard Bourke's book Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke.

Harald Sack on Locke and the social contract.

The always interesting David Auerbach on taking a Wittgenstein course (ht Phil Percs).

Videos from the Character Project (Wake Forest University, funded by the Templeton Foundation).

Philosophy Bites - David Owens on duty.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

August philosophy links

Kevin Berger interviews Mazviita Chirimuuta about colour.

'How to teach classical Chinese thought'.

Chris Power on David Markson's book Wittgenstein's Mistress:
The most impressive element of Kate’s narrative is its ability, in David Foster Wallace’s description, to 'make facts sad'. ... Markson finds the profound in trivia, and the effect of this is so powerful precisely because every life possesses its footnotes, and it is most often in them, in asides rather than signal events, that the real business of living takes place.
The Scofield's inaugural issue is devoted to the work of David Markson.

From Carroll Clarkson's article, 'Not I':
Coetzee makes an observation about Beckett’s Watt, with reference to philosopher, René Descartes: 'The Meditations are written in the first person and the present tense. If we rewrite them in the third person and past tense we have something close to the philosophizing of Watt.' ... In a Cartesian, “I think, therefore I am” we have a congruence of narrating and narrated consciousness .... In Beckett’s use of the third person, past tense, these congruencies and signs can no longer be assumed .... Yet in Coetzee, the signature style is the third person, present tense, and if there is a rift between ... narrating and narrated consciousness, it’s never a clean break.
Benjamin Crockett on Hélène Cixous' book Tomb(e).

Ty Clever on skepticism and Annie Dillard

Audio recording of Lilian Calles Barger's interview of James Turner about his book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities.

Colin Guthrie King on August Boeckh (1785–1867):
Philology, according to Boeckh’s famous definition, is the business of “understanding knowledge” (Erkenntnis des Erkannten), and philology’s objects in this business are not only, or not primarily, texts.
Steven Poole reviews Frank Wilczek's A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design:
[Wilczek's] eccentrically brilliant book is a ‘meditation’ on the possibility that beauty really is truth. From the Pythagorean mantra that ‘All things are number’, and Plato’s atomic theory (wrong in detail but surprisingly right in many principles), through to Newton’s work on light and gravity, and up to modern quantum theory, Wilczek offers a stirring defence of rationalism: the uncovering of truth through pure reason. These days, we tend to assume that empiricism is the only game in town. Yet time and time again, Wilczek shows, ideas in theoretical physics long precede the evidence that turns out to support them.
A symposium on 'the unknown Newton'.

La pensée des lumières - and English-language site on French Enlightenment thinkers.

Siris on Hobbes and a national Church of England.

Hazlitter on Jim Holt on Hugh Aldersey-Williams' book on Sir Thomas Browne, 'an excuse to cite some astonishing passages of prose'.

A new Hume biography, by James A. Harris, is being published by Cambridge.

Nick Barrowman on 'Correlation, Causation, and Confusion'.

At the Atlantic, James Parker reviews Carol and Philip Zaleski's The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. Parker quotes Owen Barfield's idealist claim that
When we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself … Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.
Michael Nelson on the Inklings.

Zinzi Clemmons' Young Black Writers: After Michael Brown', with an extensive reading list.

'In Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, Aysha Hidayatullah explores ... the works of Muslim women who have produced commentaries (tafsirs) on the Qur’an in the past half-century.'

J. L. Schellenberg on divine hiddenness.

Rowan Williams: 'Violence is an unavoidable part of being human'.

'Identity is lost without a moral compass'.

From last March, Galen Strawson reviews John Gray's Soul of the Marionette. John Banville reviews Gray's book in the Guardian.

Calvin Normore and a bro 'Debate The True Meaning Of A Sandwich'.

'Counterfactuals: The Short Course'  by Kadri Vihvelin and Terrance Tomkow.

Several video clips from Susan Haack's talks.

Stuart Elden on 'the last of Foucault’s courses from the Collège de France to be published'.

First post in a series on the reception of Hegel in 19th-century Britain.

August episodes from the BBC's History of Ideas series.

Podcasts and videos from the University of Queensland's Centre for the History of European Discourses.

Tilo Wesche's 'Dialectical negativism: Michael Theunissen, 1932-2015'.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Broadly philosophical links

Neuroskeptic on whether 'cognition and perception [are] ultimately inseparable'.

Susan Dominus writes about four guys in Bogota. They are two sets of identical twins: A1 & A2, and B1 & B2. A2 and B2 were switched at birth. A2 is taken home by the B-parents and raised as B1's fraternal twin; B2 is taken home by the A-mother and raised as A1's fraternal twin. The mix-up isn't discovered until the guys are well into adulthood. The story is scientifically fascinating. It's also very moving. The story has been reprinted by the SMH.

Christopher Donohue continues his series on Joseph Agassi.

Harald Sack looks back at Thomas Kuhn.

At the BBC, Melvyn Bragg interviews Melissa Lane, Janet Radcliffe Richards, and Brad Hooker on utilitarianism.

Videos and podcasts from the conference 'New Insights and Directions in Religious Epistemology', which ex-apologist liked.

Carlos Fraenkel recommends five books of philosophy for a divided world. Noël Carrol recommends five books on the philosophy of art. Jerry Coyne recommends five books on 'the incompatibility of religion and science'. Beth Shapiro recommends five books on evolution and such.

James K. A. Smith reviews Peter Harrison's The Territories of Science and Religion.

Charlie Huenemann on 'early modern revolution':
Spinoza’s advice – to see the universe as determined to follow its own laws, and to console ourselves by turning our minds to what is eternal and divine – was not just pretty words; it was offered as a palliative for existential anxiety and despair. When we ignore their complicated circumstances, we risk mistaking these philosophers for university professors, with nothing more at stake than records of publication.
Partially Examined Life on the philosophy of history, part 1 and part 2 (on Vico).

Mark Jay Mirsky reviews Thought Flights: Stories, Glosses, Literary Fragments of Robert Musil, translated and with an introduction by Genese Grill.

From last October, Arcade's forum on the essay (with contributions on Montaigne, Swift, Borges, and a piece by Thomas Harrison on 'the essayistic novel', which is about Musil).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fact-opinion 10, Opinions and matters of opinion

Let's begin with a quotation of Raymond S. Nickerson, a psychologist who uses 'opinion' as another term for taste:
We might say that a belief is something that, at least in principle, can be shown to be either true or false. It does not make sense to say that an opinion is true or false, because people differ greatly in their preferences and tastes. ... Here, an effort will be made to use beliefs to represent our ideas about what is objectively true, and opinions to represent such subjective matters as preferences and tastes. (Nickerson, Reflections on Reasoning [Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986], p. 21)
Granted, Nickerson's claims have an air of stipulation. Still, why limit opinions to taste? Previous posts show that 'opinion' hasn't historically been defined in terms of taste. Indeed, before the 20th century, authors generally kept tastes out of the extension of 'opinion'. For example, here's a bit from Hume's 'Of the Standard of Taste' (1757):
Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness and a false brilliancy: But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions. In all matters of opinion and science, the case it opposite: The difference among men is there oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance. An explanation of the terms commonly ends the controversy; and the disputants are surprised to find, that they had been quarreling, while at bottom they agreed in their judgment. (italics added)
In the first part of this passage, Hume is talking about taste (about which 'critics' dispute). He then turns to 'opinion and science', which are not matters of taste. His use of 'matters of opinion' as being different from matters of taste seems sensible in view of the meaning of 'opinion'. In his time, 'opinion' had come to mean something like a belief for which the justification was less than certain. The opinion would concern some matter of fact (on our more modern use of 'matter of fact'); e.g., it might concern whether all ideas originate in the senses. So, opinions were true or false, even if there was no consensus about their truth value.

Hume's use of 'matters of opinion' fits with the definitions of 'opinion' in today's general dictionaries (addressed in an earlier post). For example, the most recent edition of Webster's has it that an opinion is 'a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something'. Hume's use is also in synch with the definition of 'opinion' in the American Psychological Association's Dictionary of Psychology, in which an opinion is said to be 'an attitude, belief, or judgment' (2007, p. 648).

Hume wasn't alone in keeping tastes out of the domain of matters of opinion. Consider these sentences by Jeremy Bentham:
There is no incident imaginable, be it ever so trivial, and so remote from mischief, from which this principle [of sympathy and antipathy] may not extract a ground of punishment. Any difference in taste: any difference in opinion: upon one subject as well as upon another. No disagreement so trifling which perseverance and altercation will not render serious. (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ch. 2, sec. 16 [1789])
Bentham is making a general claim about all disagreements. To cover such a wide range, he conjoins differences in taste with differences in opinion, implying that the former are not already included among the latter.

In recent fact-opinion distinctions, it has been customary to categorize expressions of taste as matters of opinion or even to equate opinions with tastes (as Nickerson does). I maintain that before the 20th century, matters of opinion were not equated with, or even taken to include, matters of taste. Matters of opinion concerned beliefs that were true or false and that were subject to logical principles. By contrast, rightly or wrongly, many authors from the 18th century to our own time have subscribed to the adage de gustibus non est disputandum ('there is no disputing about tastes') and have accordingly regarded matters of taste as lying outside the domain of logic and truth claims.

It's difficult to support my contention by finding old (pre-20th-century) examples of authors explicitly distinguishing between matters of opinion and matters of taste. So, I'll have to rest content with the less direct support that I've taken from the above quotations of Hume and Bentham, supplemented by two quotations from less famous sources. First, in his study of the New York Public Library's history, Tom Glynn says that near the end of the 19th century, the library's administrators took the view that 'there is a great distinction between matters of opinion and matters of taste' and that the library's holdings should include materials that represented both sides in debates over conflicting opinions (Glynn, Reading Publics: New York City's Public Libraries, 1754-1911 [New York: Fordham University Press, 2015], p. ???). Next, there is a line in a memorial to a Unitarian preacher, James Freeman, where the author says that Freeman 'carried [his] freedom of mind into matters of taste as well as matters of opinion' (James Freeman Clarke, Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit [1865], p. 169). The author is compelled to mention matters of taste because they are not included among matters of opinion.

At some point in the 20th century, authors began to include tastes among matters of opinion and even, in some cases, to use 'matters of taste' interchangeably with 'matters of opinion'. For example, in a 1958 article, David Peace writes that '"Matters of taste" are matters of opinion' (Peace, 'Planning and the Promotion of Good Taste' The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 78 [1958]: pp. 339-40).

Similar views are evident in empirical research about when children are able to distinguish between statements of fact and of opinion. In one study, the authors say, '3-year-olds acknowledge and understand disagreements between individuals about matters of taste and opinion more readily than disagreements about matters of fact' (Larisa Heiphetz et al. 'What do Different Beliefs Tell us? An Examination of Factual, Opinion-Based, and Religious Beliefs' Cognitive Development 30. April - June 2014 [2014]: 15–29). Here, statements of taste and opinion are lumped together as being mere subjective expressions that must be distinguished from statements concerning objective matters of fact (claims about what's true independently of us). In the 'Appendix' to Heiphetz et al., all of the 'statements of opinion-based belief' that were used in their research are expressions of taste (e.g., 'Oranges are the tastiest fruit', 'Monopoly is the most fun game'). Something similar happens in this report about an article by G. P. Goodwin and J. M. Darley ('The psychology of meta-ethics: Exploring objectivism' Cognition 106 [March 2008], pp. 1339-1366). (One sometimes gets an impression of similar uses of 'matters of opinion' in the literature on faultless disagreement, though contributors to that literature are generally more careful about the phrase.)

Even if we set aside its deviance from the pre-20th-century use of 'matters of opinion', this recent equation of matters of opinion with matters of taste is puzzling. After all, one today hears occasionally about opinions as including primitive prejudices that stand in the way of science. That seems to account for the popularity of this Hippocratic line: 'There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.' (For more about this quotation, see the end of this post.) But if opinions were mere tastes, then how could they obstruct science? After all, claims about what is the most fun or the tastiest don't pose any apparent threat to scientific data or theories. Clearly, if opinions are to include anti-scientific prejudices, they can't be mere expressions of personal taste; they must involve (wrong-headed) truth claims about something other than tastes.

Somehow, the phrase 'matters of opinion' slipped its moorings and drifted away from the standard meaning of 'opinion'. This slippage has prompted some authors to consider the possibility that many opinions (even those that do not count as knowledge) do not concern matters of opinion (Reuben Stern and Sam Wilkinson, '“That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man”: Jesus, the Dude, and Ordinary Language Philosophy', in The Big Lebowski and Philosophy: Keeping Your Mind Limber with Abiding Wisdom, ed. Peter S. Fosl [Wiley, 2012], p. 244).

As an antidote to this frankly screwed-up change in the use of 'matters of opinion', I recommend Michael Scriven's 1971 contribution to the Diablo Valley Education Project in Orinda, California. Scriven's paper is called 'Values and the Valuing Process' (pdf). Scriven there writes, 'Matters of opinion are issues where the possibility of the opinion being right or wrong exists; matters of taste are not' (p. 3).

There's also a 2009 psychology paper in which the authors try to make sense of some recent data by distinguishing between matters of opinion and questions of taste. They say, 'we define matters of taste as essentially arbitrary preferences that therefore have no intrinsic power or prestige associated with them, whereas opinions (like beliefs) refer to views that can at least in principle be evaluated at some level for their correctness' (Russell Spears, Naomi Ellemers, and Bertjan Doosje, 'Strength in Numbers or Less Is More? A Matter of Opinion and a Question of Taste' Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35 [2009]: pp. 1099-1111).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fact-opinion 9, opinion (part d)

The earliest English-language logic texts carried over the medieval distinction between knowledge and opinion, according to which contingent statements cannot be known but are, instead, fit only for opinion.

Let's differentiate between two types of knowledge-opinion (and fact-opinion) distinction. On the one hand, such distinctions can be drawn in a way that is topic-neutral; in which case, there is nothing in the proposition in question that determines whether it can be known or merely opined. A proposition that is opined on one occasion can, in other cases, be known, and what determines whether it is known or merely opined will be the amount of evidence in its favour. On the other hand, a knowledge-opinion distinction can be topic-based; in which case, the content of the knowledge or opinion determines its status as known or merely opined; that is, the nature of the proposition determines which of the two categories it can fall into. For example, recent fact-opinion distinctions tend to relegate value-judgments to the category of opinion simply because they concern values.

The medieval knowledge-opinion distinction was topic-based. Only universal, necessarily true statements were candidates for knowledge. Contingent propositions could be, at best, opined but not known. This topic-based distinction appeared in several English-language texts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Examples follow. (I've reproduced here two quotations from the previous post this series in order to gather these examples all in one place.)

First, we have Abraham Fraunce's The Lawyer's Logic (1588), according to which, 'Artificial logic then is the polishing of natural wit, as discovering the validity of every reason, be it necessary, whereof cometh Science: or contingent, whence proceedeth opinion' (Fraunce, The Lawyer's Logic [1588], p. ???).

Next, from Blundeville's Art of Logike (1599) there is this proclamation:
All these intellectual habits are contained under a certain and most sure knowledge, which is always true, for uncertain knowledge is sometimes true, and sometimes false: whereto belongeth opinion, suspicion, conjecture, and such like. (Thomas Blundeville, The Art of Logike [1599], p. 28)
The next example is from a text (Elementa logica, 1598) that was first published in Latin and then translated by the author into French. The author is Pierre Du Moulin. His text was very popular in Europe and went through 40 editions. It was translated into English by Nathanael De Lawne in 1624. According to Du Moulin,
To have the science of a thing, two certainties are required. The one is, that the thing be certain of itself and unchangeable. The second is, that the persuasion which we have of it be firm and clear. If either of these two certainties be wanting it is no Science, but opinion. ... Science is a certain knowledge of a certain thing by the next cause. Opinion is a doubtful or false knowledge. Faith is a firm persuasion grounded upon the testimony of some other. If a man know certainly a thing because he seeth it, or toucheth it, that is neither called Science, nor Faith, nor opinion; but sense, which knoweth only things singular : but Science is of things universal. (Du Moulin, Elements of Logick [1624], pp. 162-3)
Thomas Spencer's Art of Logick (1628) has this passage:
A true axiom is ... Contingent, when it is in such sort true, that it may also at sometime be false. This is called opinion' (pp. 156-7).... Illations being pronounced by God, have always a necessary verity .... [B]ut these propositions being pronounced by man, do contain (at the best) but opinion, contingent, and conjecture all knowledge. (Spencer, The Art of Logick [1628], p. 232)
In his Art of Logick (1654), Zachary Coke distinguished between contingent and necessary syllogisms, adding that 'a Contingent ... getteth a suspended and weak assent to the conclusion, and is called opinion' (Coke, Art of Logick [1654], p. 157, italics in original).

Finally, we have this selection from Robert Burthogge's Discourse of Reason and Truth (1678):
Firm Assent in matters in themselves mutable and of a contingent nature, may be called Confidence: but in matters of a necessary, firm, and immutable nature, it is Science. Infirm Assent, or Assent with Dubitation, is called Opinion. Suspicion is a beginning Assent, or an inclination to believe a thing, and is short of Opinion. Suspicion on grounds is called just suspicion. Suspicion on no grounds is mere suspicion. Probability is appearance of Truth : And ground of Suspicion is Appearance of Probability. (Organum Vetus &Novum or, a Discourse of Reason and Truth [1678], p. 47)
Lyrics NSFW.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Corporate social-scientism in Whyte's 'Organization Man'

Seventeenth in a series of seventeen posts (123456789101112, 13, 14, 15, & 16)

In the previous post in this series, I distinguished between, on the one hand, the social-scientism of the early positivists and, on the other hand, the X-club's scientism, which was championed by T. H. Huxley, among others. I hummed and hawed about the latter variety's label (e.g., reductive-scientism, eliminative-scientism). I should simply have called it physical-scientism. For adherents of physical-scientism, the physical sciences, armed as they were with the new evolutionary theory, were poised to solve all the erstwhile mysteries about human beings, thereby putting the humanistic and social sciences out of business.

I've said that critics of social-scientism trace its lineage to 19th-Century France, particularly to the work of Comte and Saint-Simon. Hayek and others trace it back to the founding of the École Polytechnique.

French social-scientism was largely a left-wing creature. The French association of social-scientism with the political left probably inspired the American cold-war use of 'scientism' as a term of abuse in political debate. On that note, it's interesting that one of the more famous deployments of 'scientism' in 1950s America saw the word applied not to big government but, rather, to big, private corporations. I have in mind William Hollingsworth ('Holly') Whyte's use of the term in The Organization Man (1956), the third chapter of which is called 'Scientism'.

[Here's Whyte interviewed on PBS. I think Whyte would have liked The Wire.]

Citing Hayek and Voegelin, Whyte introduces 'scientism' as follows:
The first denominator is scientism. This is the practical part of the Social Ethic, for it is the promise that with the same techniques that have worked in the physical sciences we can eventually create an exact science of man. (Whyte, The Organization Man [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002/1956], p. 23)
That's a nice, in-a-nutshell statement of social-scientism.  Like Hayek and van Duzer, Whyte traces the ideology back to France:
With the founding of the École Polytechnique in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century scientism was given another forward push; Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte energized a formidable school with the promise of positivism (Ibid., p. 25)
To display the extent to which private corporations have taken up social-scientism, Whyte quotes from advertising, personnel, and public-relations journals. He quotes an editorial in Public Relations Journal, according to which, 'The challenge of social engineering in our time is like the challenge of technical engineering fifty years ago' (Ibid., p. 26). Whyte embraces the phrase, 'social engineering' (Ibid., p. 27), a locution with which I, myself, was more familiar as an epithet for the batch of concerns that he addresses. Perhaps 'social engineering' has displaced 'scientism' as the preferred term of abuse for social-scientism.

I believe that social-scientism in its corporate incarnation is the brand of scientism on which Sebastian Benthall and Adam Elkus focus in their interesting posts on scientism. Benthall links this kind of scientism to recent enthusiasm about 'big data'. Elkus characterizes scientism as,
a generalized philosophy that argued modern life was too complex, bewildering, and dangerous for the common man to navigate without the aid of enlightened elites, who would use supposedly scientific methods to direct society through managerial control of social life and the flow of information. Hence, Scientism is really about the idea that a small group of people might be uniquely endowed to engineer the fates of others due to superior knowledge and rationality.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fact-Opinion 8, Opinion (part c)

As indicated in the previous post, the Aristotelian, medieval philosophers drew a clear distinction between science (episteme, scientia) and opinion (doxa, opinio). Opinions were inferior to science (=knowledge or fact in its epistemological sense). The inferiority was marked by saying that opinions are merely probable (rather than certain). Of course, the medievals (and Aristotle) meant something very different by 'scientia' than what we mean by 'science'. According to Ian Hacking,
In medieval epistemology, science -- scientia -- is knowledge. Knowledge is knowledge of universal truths which are true of necessity. (Hacking, The Emergence of Probability [1975], p. 20)
Science was restricted to knowledge of universal, necessary truths that are either axioms or deducible therefrom with demonstrative certainty. The deliverances of the senses had no significant role. According to Douglas Lane Patey (whose book contains a wealth of info on this topic), the sciences typically included theology, metaphysics, mathematics, and physics (Patey, From Rhetoric to Science, [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984], p. 11).

This knowledge-opinion distinction appeared in some of the earliest logic books to be published in English. Here are two examples:
All these intellectual habits are contained under a certain and most sure knowledge, which is always true, for uncertain knowledge is sometimes true, and sometimes false: whereto belongeth opinion, suspicion, conjecture, and such like. (Thomas Blundeville, The Art of Logike [1599], p. 28)
A true axiome is ... Contingent, when it is in such sort true, that it may also at sometime be false. This is called opinion' (pp. 156-7). 'These Illations being pronounced by God, have always a necessary veritie .... [B]ut these propositions being pronounced by man, doe containe (at the best) but opinion, contingent, and coniectur [conjecture] all knowledge. (Thomas Spencer, The Art of Logick [1628], p. 232)
While inferior to knowledge, opinion wasn't relegated to some purely subjective or non-cognitive dustbin, and it was taken to be amenable to some form of rational support. In fact, whole disciplines, such as law, medicine, and history, were regarded as trading in opinions rather than scientific knowledge. So, the medievals (and many renaissance and early modern scholars) took it to be a matter of some importance to draw up canons for the intellectually responsible management of opinions. In this endeavour, they built on Aristotle's (and Cicero's) dialectical and rhetorical studies.

For the most part, even as the understanding of science changed (becoming more empirical), opinion retained its old status. Here's a passage from Locke's Essay:
The entertainment the mind gives this sort of proposition is called belief, assent, or opinion, which is the admitting or receiving any proposition for true, upon arguments or proofs that are found to persuade us to receive it as true, without certain knowledge that it is so. (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Ch. 15: 'Of Probability')
As in the medievals, opinions aren't so bad. Sure, they're not knowledge, but they're there when we need 'em and they get us through the day. Just be sure to trust one only when it's vouchsafed by some argument. As Isaac Watts put it,
Where we cannot find weight enough on either side to determine the scale with sovereign force and assurance we must content ourselves perhaps with a small preponderation. This will give us a probable opinion and those probabilities are sufficient for the daily determination of a thousand actions in human life and many times even in matters of religion. (Watts, The Improvement of the Mind [1741], p. 207)
It comes as some surprise, then, to find Joseph Glanvill's righteous fulminations against opinion in 'The Vanity of all Dogmatizing' (1661). This work includes the following magnificent lines:
Verisimilitude and Opinion are an easie purchase; and these counterfeits are all the Vulgars treasure: But true Knowledge is as dear in acquisition, as rare in possession (p. 64). ... Opinions are the Rattles of immature intellects, but the advanced Reasons have out-grown them. True knowledge is modest and wary (p. 226). ... I Expect but little success of all this upon the Dogmatist, his opinion'd assurance is paramont to Argument, and 'tis almost as easie to reason him out of a Feaver, as out of this disease of the mind (p. 224). ... 'Tis zeal for opinions that hath fill'd our Hemisphear with smoke and darkness (p. 229). ... Thus Opinions have rent the world asunder, and divided it almost into indivisibles (p. 231).
Glanvill associates opinion with the wars over conflicting religious and political opinions. In future posts, I'll try to identify other reasons for the growing pejorative connotations of 'opinion' in the the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Fact-Opinion 7, Opinion (part b)

This note adds to my introductory reflections on 'opinion'.

In its current use, 'opinion' is generally value-neutral. It does not mean 'mere opinion'. Opinions include responsibly formed beliefs and can even be instances of knowledge. The Oxford English Dictionary's definition reads as follows:
a. What or how one thinks about something; judgement or belief. Esp. in 'in my opinion': according to my thinking; as it seems to me. a matter of opinion: a matter about which each may have his or her own opinion; a disputable point.
In an older use, to label something as an opinion implied an epistemological limitation. Opinions were less certain than knowledge. It doesn't follow that opinions are devoid of epistemological value or that they must be irresponsibly formed.

The shift from the older to the current sense is reflected in Webster's Dictionary's changing definitions. In 1828, Webster's says that an opinion is supported by evidence that boosts the probability of a proposition's truth but that falls short of yielding 'absolute knowledge or certainty'.  By 1913, Webster's definition hasn't changed much, though it adds that an opinion is a 'belief stronger than impression, less strong than positive knowledge'. Today, Webster's has dropped any suggestion of an epistemological ranking, saying only (in its primary definition) that an opinion is 'a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something'.

In linking 'opinion' to probability, the older Webster's definitions echo a longstanding tradition in medieval and early modern philosophy. The tradition derives from Aristotle's work. Like Plato, Aristotle regarded opinion (doxa) as inferior to knowledge (episteme). Unlike Plato, Aristotle accorded to opinion a necessary role in our lives and formulated rules for forming rational opinions. He stressed that opinions, while not susceptible of certainty, can be more or less probable. The close link between opinion and probability in Aristotle's works is clearer in ancient Greek, where Aristotle's word for opinion is doxa and one of his words for probability is endoxa. However, what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote of probability is very different from our modern conception. Some of the differences are brought out in Ian Hacking's The Emergence of Probability, the third chapter of which is called 'Opinion'.

For Aristotle, knowledge and opinion have different subject matters. As Sir David Ross put it (in his book Aristotle [1923]), 'Knowledge is of the necessary, opinion of the contingent' (p. 48). Roughly, logic concerns itself with what can be known by demonstrative proof; by contrast, our views on contingent things admit of probability but not demonstrative certainty and, as a result, fall within the purview of dialectic and rhetoric.

Aristotle's approach was hugely influential in medieval thinking about rhetoric (which treated opinion). Indeed, among medieval authors opinions were sometimes referred to as 'probabilities' (or matters of probabilis). According to the authors of a guide to medieval Latin (Mantello and Rigg),
True science requires certitude (certitudo), but it is also possible to have only an opinion (opinio) about physical matters or, somewhat better, to have arguments that fall short of certitude but that are credible (probabilis). Such arguments could include the evidence of the senses. (F. A. C. Mantello & A. G. Rigg, Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide [Catholic University of America Press, 1996], p. 357)
On that note, I'll conclude this post with another interesting, old logic textbook. It's by Father Peter Coffey, who taught at St. Patrick's College, MaynoothCoffey studied at Louvain under Cardinal Mercier. According to Thomas Kelly's brief bio of Coffey, 'He was for his time a radical social reformer, supporting trade unionism and, though qualifiedly, Christian socialism, and the ideas of James Connolly' (Thomas A. F. Kelly, The Encyclopedia of Ireland, ed. Brian Lalor [Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2003]). Kelly adds that Coffey encountered 'difficulties with ecclesiastical censorship' (ibid.) for his writings on social matters.

Coffey's Science of Logic (1912) echoes the older definition of 'opinion' (and the older definitions given in Webster's). According to Coffey: 
In all such cases, where prudent fear of error is excluded, and where the judgment to which we assent is actually true, we have certitude. When such fear is not wholly excluded by the grounds or reasons we have for our assent, the judgment is described as 'probable': our attitude towards it is called 'opinion':2 the mind here inclines towards one of two contradictory judgments as true, but not so strongly as to exclude a prudent fear that it may be false and the other true. ... Opinion, therefore, is the provisional assent of the mind to one of two contradictory judgments, with more or less fear of error. When the fear is so trifling as to be practically negligible, our assent is commonly described as moral certitude. When, on the other hand, our fear of error in assenting to a judgment is exceedingly great, our assent is called a mere suspicion, rather than an opinion. (Coffey, The Science of Logic, v. 2, pp. 212-13)
In the footnote (2), Coffey adds, 'Or, also, "belief," in one of the many meanings of this term'.

Wittgenstein didn't like Coffey's logic book, which he panned in his first publication.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Fact-Opinion 6, more data on the changing sense of 'fact'

It was standard for textbooks on critical thinking in the 19th- and early 20th-Century to devote some space to a fact-opinion distinction. As was noted in my last post, this distinction was typically presented in connection with the topic of testimony as a source of evidence.

What I'm calling critical thinking textbooks were referred to at the time either as textbooks on philosophical rhetoric or as logic texts, where the logic was of the sort that would be eclipsed by the new formal logic. Much of the subject matter of these old texts (fallacies, Mill's methods, etc.) is now generally presented to students in critical thinking courses.

One difference between these old textbooks and today's post-secondary, critical thinking texts is that the latter volumes seldom include material about a fact-opinion distinction. Why? I conjecture that the change is due, in part at least, to shifts in the  meanings of the key terms.

I've posted some notes on an older interpretation of 'fact', on which only particular, observable occurrences (or conditions) were said to be facts. General laws of nature, mathematical truths, etc. weren't. This older reading of 'fact' was evident in some of the textbook passages quoted in my last post. It's even more in evidence in John Grier Hibben's 1905 textbook, when Hibben calls
attention to the difference between the terms, a 'truth' and a 'fact'. A fact carries with it only the special and individual character of the particular occurrence in which it is manifested. A truth, however, is always universal in its very nature, admitting of universal application, and capable of illustration in an indefinite number of different facts which embody its essence. (Hibben, Logic: Deductive and Inductive [1905], pp. 171-2)
Clearly, Hibben (who went on to become President of Princeton University) did not equate facts with truths, not even with objective truths.

It's interesting, though, that back in 1849, George Cornewall Lewis acknowledged another reading of 'fact', one that sounds more modern. Recall what Lewis wrote:
A fact, as so defined, must be limited to individual sensible objects, and not extended to general expressions or formulas, descriptive of classes of facts, or sequences of phenomena, such as that the blood circulates, the sun attracts the planets, and the like. Propositions of this sort, though descriptive of realities, and therefore, in one sense, of matters of fact, relate to large classes of phenomena, which cannot be grasped by a single sensation, which can only be determined by a long series of observations, and are established by a process of intricate reasoning. (Lewis, 'Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion', 1849, pp. 1-2 [Emphasis added]) 
Lewis here allows for a broader reading of 'fact', one on which the term applies to any reality.

The ambiguity of 'fact' is explicitly noted by Father George Hayward Joyce, a Jesuit whose textbook, Principles of Logic, first appeared in 1908. He wrote:
The Fact is sometimes restricted to signify the particular concrete facts of experience. Sometimes it is extended to include whatever has been proved to be real, and in this sense can be used of a theory whose truth has been established. (Joyce, Principles of Logic, 2nd edition [1916; 1st ed. 1908], p. 362 [Emphasis in original])
Perhaps, by the early 20th Century 'fact' was being used often in its more general, modern sense (at least in the UK and Ireland). Authors of textbooks (such as Hibben) may have been fighting a rear-guard battle, insisting on the word's older, proper use -- much as writers of critical thinking texts now insist on the old meaning of 'begging the question' even though that reading has largely been abandoned in the wider culture.

By the 1950s, philosophers seem to have given up and adopted the more popular interpretation of 'facts' as being equivalent in meaning to 'truths'. Some scientists, though, stuck to the old meaning of 'fact'. At least, such divergent uses are indicated by Henry Siggins Leonard in his 1957 text, Principles of reasoning: an introduction to logic, methodology, and the theory of signs. After defining 'facts' as true propositions (p. 47), Leonard adds that 'some scientists use the word "fact" in a somewhat narrower sense, perhaps to refer to those true propositions whose truth can be directly confirmed by observation.'(Leonard, Principles of reasoning [Dover, 1967, 1st published in 1957], p. 47, n. 3)

This state of play is partly confirmed by Stuart Chase in his Guide to Straight Thinking, with thirteen common fallacies (1956). When it comes to facts, says Chase, he'll rely on the definition adopted by scientists rather than that of the philosophers. His definition is as follows:
A fact is an event in space-time which remains the same from different viewpoints -- or, more technically, is invariant under a transformation of axes. In ordinary discussion a fact is invariant as seen by competent observers. (Chase, Guide to Straight Thinking [Phoenix House, 1959, 1st published in 1956 by Harper's], p. 47)
This conception of facts preserves part of the old meaning by including in the category of facts all the objective, observable occurrences. It diverges from the old meaning by not explicitly requiring that all facts be observable (e.g., facts will include micro-events that are too small to be seen even via our best microscopes); and it diverges from the old reading by not including the inner mental events that can be detected by means of introspection.

So, again, the old fact-opinion distinction that was a mainstay in old critical-thinking textbooks relied on a different (and much narrower) understanding of 'fact', according to which the facts did not include all the objective truths. As a result, it was a very different distinction from the one that is so often conveyed today to high-school students.

In the next post in this series, I'll document changes in the use of 'opinion'.