Software Musings

Glimpses of Kuhn and Popper

Posted on: 24/03/2007

I’m currently reading several books, including Edmund Crispin’s The Glimpses of the Moon and Steve Fuller’s Kuhn vs. Popper.

The former I bought in a second-hand bookshop (the one referred to in an earlier blog entry as stocking Husserl) last week to replace a copy I lent many years ago to someone now forgotten. This is probably the best WhoDunnit ever written (Reginald Hill tried to rewrite it in Pictures of Perfection but didn’t seem able to carry it off with such lightness of touch).

The latter I bought on the recommendation of a friend (a confirmed and paid up Popperian) as part of the library for my first grandson, born last December. I had assumed that it would be a popular retelling of the 1965 Kuhn/Popper confrontation much in the flavour of Wittgenstein’s Poker. But it isn’t, it’s a full-blown argument containing what I must put forward for the best throw-away remark of the year:

…a World War I veteran, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a self-loathing engineer who was heir to Austria’s leading steel-making family.

As far as I remember this is the only reference to Wittgenstein in the whole book and, while being totally accurate, it would be difficult to find a more misleading description of him. I would like to think it was slipped in as a joke but there’s no evidence of this—the rest of the book, although written in very large letters (presumably for small readers like my grandson), is humourless. There are, I find, sites on the web dedicated to Wittgenstein as an aeronautical engineer and he did indeed fight in World War I and he may have loathed himself and he certainly was heir to the family fortune but this reminds me of the famous review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the gamekeeping magazine that explained that the book didn’t contain much practical instruction for gamekeeping. Wittgenstein did not take up his legacy of course, and I seem to remember that he spent some time doing philosophy after he finished his engineering studies.

But this is not the main thrust of Fuller’s book. The main thrust seems to be “Kuhn said X but most people misinterpret him as having said Y. I will now show how Y is inferior to Popper’s views.” Perhaps, having pointed out the misconception, it would have been useful to continue with X rather than the wrong interpretation of X. It has always struck me that Kuhn and Popper are talking about different things anyway: as my friend said this week when we were discussing the book: “Kuhn’s views seem to those found when looking in the rear-view mirror”. As Kuhn was an historian this is probably a valid view to take.

Anyway, I suspect that my grandson’s library will survive for a while without Fuller.


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March 2007
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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