Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 497-499
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Against the Idols of the Age
Against the Idols of the Age, Essays by David Stove, edited and with an introduction by Roger Kimball; xxxv & 347 pp. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999, $39.95.
Given the amount of humbug tolerated, indeed rewarded, in the academic world today, a title like Against the Idols of the Age sounds quite promising: perhaps another champion of rationality, logic, and empirical fact has entered the lists. But alas, the book of that title (which is a selection from David Stove's books and articles) soon dashes a reader's hopes. The first essay, "The Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science" is an attack primarily targeting Karl Popper's argument that a statement can be regarded as a scientific proposition only if it is falsifiable. Stove believes that this position of Popper's is the foundation of what he regards as the unacceptable views of science promulgated by Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend. Now although these writers are hardly responsible for the radical extrapolations and exaggerations of their views that one frequently meets with, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend do have a good deal to answer for. But the path from them back to Popper that Stove traces depends on a fundamental misinterpretation of Popper's use of "falsifiability." Stove writes, incredibly, as though to say that a proposition must be "falsifiable" means that there must be evidence against it; what Popper is saying is that it must be testable and that there must be a logical possibility of refuting it. Thus, using one of Popper's own examples, to say "It will rain or not rain here tomorrow" is not an empirical (scientific) proposition. Neither are the statements "God foreknows everything that will happen," or "sometime in the future human beings will destroy themselves by triggering an enormous atomic explosion," or "all existing objects possess extra-sensory qualities that we as human beings can never discover" or, indeed, "John has an unconscious Oedipus complex." (Logical positivists would of course agree with Popper about these sentences even though Popper does not agree with them about inductive logic.) Stove is also uncomfortable with Popper's position that no scientific theory can ever be proved to be absolutely true and that the most one can say is that a theory that is falsifiable has not been falsified. Popper's argument is that there is always the possibility that any theory may some day be falsified (if it has successfully passed repeated and various tests, falsification would almost certainly mean that the theory has been shown to be only an approximation, or not to hold in certain cases). It is hard to know why this, a position quite like C. S. Peirce's "fallibilism," so disturbs Stove.
While the essay "Sabotaging Logical Expressions" is a useful reminder of the ways statements can be made that seem to be logical propositions but are not, the delight with which Stove leaps upon Popper's use of "preferred" rather than "preferable" or accuses Quine of failing to make a statement about logical relations when in fact Quine was neither intending nor in any way required to make that kind of statement should make a reader uneasy. "'Always apologize, [End Page 497] always explain': Robert Nozick's War Wounds" is salutary in pointing out that the question "How is p possible given q? is too often asked before it has been proven that p is possible or that q does exist. On the other hand, to write as though we are all agreed that the Vietnam War was lost through "a massive sedition at home" (p. 93) and that the withdrawal from Vietnam made the United States "an ex-world-power" (pp. 94-95) without supporting these points, or to assume that his critique of "How" questions disables Kant's question "How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?" without stating an argument against the possibility of such judgments (there are still varieties of Kantians around) is hardly a wise or convincing...