Sunday, July 15, 2007

Duhem and the German Mind

From Ariew's entry on Duhem in the SEP:

In his last work, La science allemande, mostly a work of wartime propaganda, Duhem added a third kind of mind to his original two, namely, the German mind. If there are two basic types, the French mind and the English mind, then what could the German mind possibly be? Citing Pascal, Duhem tells us that truth requires both reason and argument—raison and raisonnement. Logic, or our ability to link propositions with one another, allows us to deduce one truth from another; but that ability, by itself, merely gets us back to first principles or axioms. We also need a faculty that allows us to intuit the truth of the first principles or axioms, that is, bon sens (good sense). Bon sens is to “esprit de finesse” what “pure logic” is to “esprit de géométrie.” Moreover, bon sens, our faculty of recognizing fundamental truth gets perfected by the practice of history, by our becoming more aware of the failures and successes of previous theories, by thinking about the trajectory of scientific theories, rather than by considering a single theory frozen in time. The dual scheme can now be expanded. We need logic, the ability to systematize, but we also need intuition, the recognition of truth. When one of these is allowed to dominate, we get a science which is all intuition, all “esprit de finesse,” but no logical coherence, namely, English science; or we get a science which is all logic, lacking bon sens, namely, German science. German science then is a degenerate kind of French science, the latter being predominantly “esprit de géométrie,” corrected by bon sens.

As a result, we can talk about a continuum of sciences; at one extreme on the theoretical side is German science, or logicism, and at the other extreme on the experimental side is English science, or crude modelism. In the middle is French science, which allegedly tempers the logical bent with historicism.


Can this be quite right? My text is in a box right now, so I can't double-check, but this sounds like a very different La science allemande than I remember. For one thing, I don't see that the English mind plays such an important role in La science allemande as Ariew is suggesting (even in the earlier works it seems to me to be more a way of looking at the role of models in science than anything else -- models, not experiments, which are something entirely different). For another, I saw no indication that the German mind is regarded as "a degenerate kind of French science". For another, Duhem seems to me to put the French mind on the side of esprit de finesse, not esprit de géométrie; it is the German mind that is a version of esprit de géométrie. In fact, the natural inference to draw from German Science (or, at least, the one that I drew) is that there are two basic mentalities necessary for scientific progress, found in their closest concrete forms in the German mind and the French mind, and the primary problem with the former is not that it is degenerate but that it has a tendency to refuse to recognize any other approach to science but its own, and to exalt rigor at the expense of understanding. (It is the English mind, I think, that Duhem regards as defectively scientific. The German mind would be entirely fine if it would only defer more to demands that its theories be intelligible. So it seems to me.)

My own interpretation of La science allemande is laid out in passing here.

In any case, this is not so much a criticism as a reminder to myself to look at this point again more closely when I have the chance. (Incidentally, I'm an Other Internet Resource; my post on Duhem's works online is linked at the bottom, as a convenient way of not having to link them all separately.)

UPDATE:

See my follow-up post.

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