Bill Tait (1929-2024)

Of course it would have to happen that Bill Tait (William W. Tait, long-time philosophy professor at the University of Chicago) would die a few days after Howard Stein. Both of them would have found it hilarious. (Someone suggested to me that Howard might have said, “See, he can’t live without me!”) Bill was born a day later than Howard, and he never let anyone forget it. In their later years (for all I know, in their earlier years also), Bill was physically a lot fitter than Howard. While I was a graduate student, Howard always had to take his back support everywhere and generally came across as not in very good shape (though he also came across as an Old Testament prophet), while Bill was still mountain climbing and biking. As he would put it, “Howard’s a day older than me, and boy, that day really shows, doesn’t it?”

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Howard Stein (1929-2024)

Howard Stein died ten days ago — I only just found out. I’m finding it hard to assimilate this information; I keep catching myself thinking that I must ask Howard about it. The idea that I won’t ever be able to ask him about anything ever again seems utterly outlandish. When I was driving him home to Hyde Park after dinner at the Sai Cafe in Lincoln Park, last August, it all seemed so familiar and well-worn and comfortable that it seemed it would just go on as before, decade after decade. How could it suddenly just end?

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Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve (again)

From the obituary for Peter Strawson in the Guardian in 2006:

When his erstwhile tutor Paul Grice declared, “If you can’t put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying,” Strawson retorted: “If you can put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying.”

I actually agree with both of them, I think, though the versions of each I would go along with would insert an “often” or “usually” before “not worth saying.” Carnap, my philosophical grandfather (since Howard Stein, my Doktorvater, was a student of Carnap), would presumably have had more sympathy with Grice in this case than with Strawson (he said as much in his reply to Strawson in the Schilpp volume), but might also have agreed with his student Stein that there are things worth saying that, as Howard put it, can be “usefully vague” (by “vague” I assume he means something like “not amenable at the moment to any sort of formal or symbolic treatment”). He might also have added that the point wasn’t to put something into symbols but to make it more precise, that being “in symbols” is in itself no guarantee of precision, and that precision is (a) a matter of degree; (b) purpose-relative.

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Hylton (on Carnap vs. Quine) on analyticity

Peter Hylton reckons he’s got to the bottom of the debate on analyticity between Carnap and Quine. He hasn’t, but he comes surprisingly close to getting Carnap very right at certain points — which makes it all the more disappointing when he then backpedals and decides not to follow through on those episodes of insight.

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Ontology and explication: Lavers narrowly misses the point

In his paper on “Carnap, Quine, Quantification, and Ontology,” Gregory Lavers holds forth — mostly quite instructively — on the connections between Carnap’s and Quine’s conceptions of ontology, and on the connections between these and their respective conceptions of explication. He misses a few critical details, though, and it seems to me that these apparently minor omissions undermine some, at least, of the points he wants to make.

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Yet another friendly suggestion for Ladyman and Ross (with an aside on Quine)

I hope I’ve made clear in my previous posts about Ladyman and Ross and their wonderful book All Things Must Go (here and here) that my critical remarks about them are to be understood as supportive and constructive.  I’m trying to buttress their position and make it stronger.  I’m on their side, as are certain other sympathetic critics, who have pointed out other problems with their approach, not directly related to what I’ve said in those previous posts.  Of particular importance, I think, is the critique by Kyle Stanford in a 2010 symposium on the Ladyman-Ross book in Metascience. Stanford points out that the concept of “structure” central to Ladyman-Ross’s structural realism serves several distinct purposes in their book: it is what remains continuous through theoretical transitions, for instance, and is also what explains the novel predictive successes of those theories. Stanford doubts whether a single concept of “structure” can do all these jobs. Continue reading

More on “ontological pluralism”

Some afterthoughts on my previous remarks about “ontological pluralism.”  I said there that

A “string of symbols” cannot “come out true in some languages but false in others, while meaning what it actually means,” because “what it actually means” is not specifiable language-independently. To suppose that a string of symbols “actually” means something independently of the language it is expressed in is just to take an external statement literally, at face value.

Of course there may be multiple explicata for a single explicandum, but this is not a case of a string of symbols coming out true in some languages but false in others; Continue reading

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. Continue reading