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Howard Stein appreciation

I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who thinks of Howard Stein as something like “the greatest living philosophical historian of science,” though he himself would certainly find such a description distasteful (not the “living philosophical historian of science” part, but the superlative preceding it).  And it’s good to see his words examined closely, whatever quarrels I may have with the conclusions reached.  Howard’s papers are very dense; there is a lot in there, much more than one can possibly take in on a first reading; putting them under a microscope can only help.  He also taught me to read Carnap this way, who does not at all seem to lend himself to such close reading at first sight.  There could hardly be a greater contrast in style than that between Carnap and Stein.  (The continuity becomes much more apparent if one compares Howard’s style of teaching — which both Eric and I witnessed at length over years — with the live tapes that were made for transcription as the basis of Martin Gardner’s popular book — Christian Damböck mentioned to me recently that he wanted to make them publicly available; I hope this happens soon.)

Carnap did himself no favors with his apparently very cut-and-dried style.  It was all the rage for a while during the 40s and 50s, and then just as quickly became unfashionable, came to look rather klutzy and pseudo-scientific.  So you’d have thought that Stein’s extremely literary, evocative, dense, tangled style would be just the antidote.  Nope.  The problem both ways is that it’s hard — neither Carnap nor Stein is easy to read!  People (with the exception of a few former students, like Eric and me, and a few former colleagues like David Malament) pay just as little attention to Stein as they do to Carnap; close reading isn’t on the cards.  Which is why Eric should keep it up, despite getting no comments whatever on those posts, and I will — when I get around to it — join him (and how about all those other Stein students out there?).

2 thoughts on “Howard Stein appreciation

  1. Howard Stein is not “the greatest living philosophical historian of science”. He is the greatest living philosopher of science. Yes, I have some bias, as I also, with Andre and Eric, had him as my advisor and suffered and gloried in his oversight and his pedagogy for years. But the fact remains: his papers, so sadly unread and unappreciated by a contemporary academic culture that relies on abstracts and summary conclusions to judge a paper by skimming, have no equal for their poignant penetration of the methodological, epistemological, metaphysical and just damn plain content of the complex that is human scientific understanding. I personally have met (and significantly interacted with) only three human beings whom I think deserve the honorofic “philosopher” in the truest, deepest Platonic sense of the idea: Hilary Putnam, Bernard Williams, and Howard Stein. And of those three, Howard is the greatest.

    1. Well, I agree with your general point, though I’m not able, as you are, to compare Howard with Hilary Putnam as a live presence. I did have some limited exposure to Bernard Williams, and have to agree with you on that one. In his 1974 BJPS review article on Clavelin’s book about Galileo, Howard suggests that Galileo shared with Plato “the conviction that inquiry as such is not a profitable subject for positive doctrinal exposition (‘Discourse on Method’, ‘Rules for the Conduct of the Understanding’), but has to be learned and taught through its practice. . .” Insofar as I have attained to any glimmerings of how to go about philosophical “inquiry,” I owe it entirely to my long (and continuing) apprenticeship with Howard; despite the other philosophers deserving of that appellation you have encountered, I suspect you might say something along the same lines.

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