Yada yada yada: the incommensurability of philosophical paradigms

I learned this lesson intellectually some time ago, but it was driven home to me over the last week: philosophers with different paradigms will find no central question, no decisive claim, that will provide an objective ruling in favor of one paradigm or the other.

The lesson was taught most famously by Thomas Kuhn in his Theory of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn focused on the debate between Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomers, and argued that the Copernican revolution in fact was not triggered by any objective observation or test. The Ptolemaic astronomers could account for everything Copernicus could – indeed, with greater accuracy – and once the Copernican system was revved up to match Ptolemy’s, in predictive accuracy, it was every bit as complicated as the Ptolemaic system. (With one exception: Copernicus needed epicycles and eccentrics, he didn’t need equants; still, small shavings from Occam’s razor.) Why then did the revolution occur? According to Kuhn, the young astronomers were excited by the radicalness of Copernicus’s view, the old astronomers died, and the young ones took their jobs. Hardly a rational way of doing science.

It should be no surprise that the same is true in philosophy. My friend and I were arguing about the biomechanics of life, and whether materialism had all the answers, or whether something Aristotelian is needed (an immaterial form). I kept insisting that “livingness” is a matter of complexity: arrange the parts in the right way and it’s alive, nothing immaterial needed. My friend kept insisting that “the right arrangement” is in fact what Aristotle means by “form,” and so it is required, and obviously an “arrangement” is immaterial. I responded that he was turning an adverb into a noun: a “way” into a “thing.” And we kept going round and round, until we were left just giving one another incredulous stares, wondering how any intelligent and informed person could not agree with what each of us was saying.

“Incommensurable” means “no common measure.” And that’s the situation we were in, and the situation the Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomers were in: there was no question that could be formulated, no decisive test proposed, that would clearly say, “This one is right and that one is wrong.” Each paradigm had its own way of answering each question or interpreting each test or observation. So, if someone does switch sides, it’s not for any genuinely compelling argument: it’s a vague matter of “what fits best” given that individual’s experiences, preferences, and values.

Now not every dispute is incommensurable in this way. Once two people share a paradigm, there’s lots of stuff that can be settled through experiments and arguments. And some paradigms might be subject to practical refutation, if not theoretically pure refutation. (Meaning, the theory gets so cumbersome and wonky that it just appears silly to defend it.) But it seems that on many big, very big questions, incommensurability stops us from getting any clear sight of the truth.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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9 Responses to Yada yada yada: the incommensurability of philosophical paradigms

  1. Kleiner says:

    Well put, I think this is the situation we find ourselves in.
    I think we are, then, faced with two choices.
    1) Just leave each other alone. You’ll go about your business within your paradigm, I’ll go about mine. Sure, I’ll talk shit about your view to other Thomists, and you’ll do the same with your materialist views. But other than a few smart remarks, we just go on our ways.
    There is something to be said for this, as sometimes when I am trying to read, say, Derrida, with an analytically trained person I end up feeling like the guy is just putting me off. This reminds me of what is perhaps the most incommensurable dispute in contemporary philosophy – the analytic vs contintental divide. Sure, attempts have been made to bridge the divide, and that is all well and good. But as a continental thinker I’ll confess that, for the most, I’d rather not spend my time running in circles with hard core analytic types who want to reduce Plato’s Republic to a set of syllogisms (I actually had a prof in grad school who made us put Book I into symbolic notation, a crime against the dramatic dialogue!!!).
    Instead, we share the occasional potshot (typically continental philosophers get made fun of for being ‘too poetic’), but otherwise we mostly leave each other alone. It is almost a temperament issue, so there is no sense in arguing about it. (Of course, the rare birds like Huenemann who – much more so than I – seem broadly open to both approaches are probably the best).

    2) Actually engage each other. But since we can’t make the two paradigms ‘see the same sun’, we won’t be able to engage the two views in direct conversation. When we do that, as Huenemann suggests, we end up talking for a few days, perhaps feeling like we have a bit of progress, only to be left staring at each other blankly wondering how the other side doesn’t get it.

    Instead, we’ll have to each work within the view of the other person and try to discredit it ‘from the inside’ as it were. How do philosophers proceed in such a situation? Well, I guess we pick at each other. In other words, I try to show that your view has serious/fatal internal problems/shortcomings (like, for instance, an inability to make sense of words having meaning). You try to show that my view has serious/fatal problems/shortcomings (being guilty of metaphysical reifications). Then we’ll argue over whose problems are (a) real problems and then (b) whose real problems are more serious. Since there is no ‘problem-free’ philosophical view, I think this is the way it must go.

    For the sake of sanity, we’ll probably only have these engagements every so often. In the meantime, we’ll make fun of each other behind each other’s backs – as I occasionally do with Huenemann’s materialism in my classes! 🙂


  2. Kyle says:

    Whenever I come across a truly incommensurable debate, whether it be materialism vs. dualism, analytic vs. continental, etc., my gut instinct is to wonder if perhaps both sides of the argument are right. I think that with a lot of these questions, although the two sides of the argument are saying different words, when it comes down to it, they mean essentially the same thing.


  3. Alrenosu says:

    Yet, Copernicus was (more) right and Ptolemy was not. Is it really inevitably that there be no significant difference between the two?

    Not that I disagree with the basic premise here – in fact, just yesterday I wrote a different incarnation of the same idea.


  4. Huenemann says:

    Yes, in retrospect we can see that it was smart to go with Copernicus. (Tho who knows? Could it be that if we had gone with Ptolemy we would have had some other Newtonian-like break-through and we’d be counting our lucky stars that we didn’t go with Copernicus? Seems really implausible, but I don’t see how to rule it out as a possibility.) You’d think that if revolutions were as arbitrary as Kuhn makes them sound, we’d be wrong as often as not. Yet the history of scientific progress is impressive. (I haven’t been able to take Feyerabend’s arguments seriously.) So I’m not sure what else needs to be factored in.

    Maybe a more complete history of science would show that we are indeed wrong as often as not, and frequently thinkers need to trace back to some arbitrary decision the scientific community made in the past and see how it goes with a different decision. I’m thinking of non-Euclidean geometry here, and also Einstein redefining ‘simultaneity’.


  5. Alrenous says:

    Yes, I typoed my own name.

    It’s true that, for example, there’s no university course called ‘Things Science Found That Were Completely Wrong.’

    Thinking about this, of course science is going to be portrayed as a journey going from success to success.


  6. Kyle says:

    My favorite example of two sides of an argument both being right is Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry. There is no experiment that can show whether the fundamental geometry of the universe is Euclidean or not. Both systems have merits and both systems have defects, but when it comes down to it, one system is just as “right” or “true” as the other.

    The other example I like (and this one is quite a bit more silly and ridiculous, but still a good example) is whether the earth revolves around the sun, or vice versa. Sure, we all know that the earth revolves around the sun, but that’s only because we’ve been conditioned and trained to think that way. If we consider earth to be an absolute, fixed point (which personal experience seems to suggest – it sure doesn’t feel like the earth is rotating or orbiting anything), the entire structure of the solar system, galaxy, and known universe can be re-thought of and re-configured with earth as a stationary point. It makes astronomy a hell of a lot harder and more complicated, and it may be much less useful than the accepted earth-revolves-around-the-sun paradigm, but it’s still just as valid.

    Incidentally, I wish there was a course titled “Things Science Found That Were Completely Wrong”! I would love to take it!


  7. Alrenous says:

    The problem with thinking of the Earth as a fixed point is that mass and force and thus acceleration are absolute.

    The Earth is accelerating towards the Sun, keeping it in orbit. The Sun is not appreciably accelerating toward the Earth. (Otherwise we could say the Sun is orbiting me, personally.) While the acceleration isn’t very high – 6 mm/s/s – since we can map underground features with gravimeters, I’m sure we can measure this right now if we wanted.


  8. Huenemann says:

    Way back in grad school I took a course which covered the days of the early logical positivists (1920s and 30s). It seems to me a number of people — Poincare and Mach and maybe Helmholtz, too — worked out just how you could keep tweaking a theory (“piling on the epicycles” is the euphemism) to accommodate each bit of evidence. Mach was showing how to get around Newton’s “spin a bucket in a void” thought experiment aimed at disproving Leibniz’s theory of space; Poincare was showing how to attribute to space any number of dimensions, and any shape. Anyway, you could accommodate the measurement of Earth’s acceleration by positing some special forces that arise when a massive body such as the sun starts orbiting it. If I recall, Sklar’s book “Space, Time, and Spacetime” covers at least some of the details.


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