Wednesday 11 May, 2022

The river at dusk

Taken walking back from dinner yesterday evening

Quote of the Day

”What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.”

  • George Bernard Shaw

Acute observation. I’ve seen umpteen confirmations of it in my lifetime.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Corelli | Concerto in D Major Op. 6 No. 4 | Adagio


I spent most of yesterday online, interviewing candidates for senior academic jobs. Listening to this seemed a good way to prepare for it.

Long Read of the Day

 The lady vanishes

Very nice essay in Aeon by Ann-Sophie Barwich on how the history of ideas still struggles to remember the names of notable women philosophers. Mary Hesse, pictured here in Peter Mennim’s beautiful portrait, is a case in point.

Mary was a Fellow of my college, Wolfson. She was quiet and reserved, with a lovely smile, but so eminent that she unwittingly terrified me. Once, I brought a philosopher friend to lunch and when he noticed her at the table he seemed dumbstruck to actually see her in person.

The essay is good on her views on the merits and uses of metaphor in scientific thinking (a favourite obsession of mine in trying to communicate ideas to lay audiences).

Hesse’s philosophical ideas about science were remarkably modern. She is often described as a ‘moderate’ between the ‘conservative’ scholars of logical positivism and ‘radical’ philosophers such as Feyerabend or Kuhn in the historical literature. This presents a remarkable misapprehension concerning the novelty of her ideas. Instead of obsessing over the justification of scientific knowledge, she highlighted the need to think about its generation. How do scientists develop their ideas about the world and come to discover new things? Hesse considered the use of metaphors and analogies in scientific models. Metaphors were analysed as a conceptual tool, and one might say a cognitive scaffold, to redescribe the nature of a scientific object by comparing the properties of a metaphor with its target phenomenon.

Consider the analogy between billiard balls and gas molecules. The positive part of the analogy is the properties we know from billiard balls with which we can also describe gas molecules. Of course, there also is a negative analogy since some properties of billiard balls certainly do not apply to gas molecules. Meanwhile, Hesse was explicitly concerned with the importance of neutral analogy: those properties of billiard balls that may or may not apply to gas molecules. Metaphors in their neutral analogies, she recognised, act as a cognitive tool for learning about the yet unknown dimensions of scientific phenomena. Hesse did not refer to metaphors as cognitive tools herself. This is admittedly modern terminology. Yet Hesse notably engaged with the cognitive conditions involved in creating scientific knowledge. At the same time, she was classically philosophical in style. Models and Analogies is partly written as a Platonic dialogue between two scientists of different persuasion: a Campbellian (from Norman Robert Campbell, who argued for the crucial role of models in scientific thinking) and a Duhemian (from Pierre Duhem, who favoured the logic of scientific theories as the principal characteristic of the special status of scientific knowledge).

For Hesse, metaphors were not passive representations of things but constituted conceptual tools actively shaping scientific thought: ‘It is still unfortunately necessary to argue that metaphor is more than a literary device and that it has cognitive implications whose nature is a proper subject of philosophic discussion.’ The cognitive power of metaphors, in her view, resided in their capacity to create similarity. The use of metaphors is an act of co-creating, not discovering, similarities between a metaphor and its physical target system. Such an act of metaphorical co-creation is inevitably shaped by cultural context…

It’s an interesting read that does something to offset the selective memory of historians of ideas.

My commonplace booklet

Why are watches usually set to 10:10 in advertisements?.

Ross Pomeroy investigates. It seems that since the 1950s advertisements for analog watches often have the time set to 10:10. Why?

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