|PR 3/ 2000 VOLUME LXVII NUMBER 3|
Defending Common Sense
Against the Idols
of the Age
The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century may not have been Wittgenstein, or Russell, or Quine (and he certainly wasn’t Heidegger), but he may have been a somewhat obscure and conservative Australian named David Stove (1927-94). If he wasn’t the greatest philosopher of the century, Stove was certainly the funniest and most dazzling defender of common sense to be numbered among the ranks of last century’s thinkers, better even—by far—than G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin. The twentieth century was not a period in which philosophers distinguished themselves as essayists, or even as capable of writing interestingly on any subject outside their speciality (or even within it). Stove, though, was an essayist, polemicist, and wit of the highest order, rather like a super-intelligent H. L. Mencken. A heavyweight admirer was once led to write that “Reading Stove is like watching Fred Astaire dance. You don’t wish you were Fred Astaire, you are just glad to have been around to see him in action.”
Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals, one of the original, and one of the best books that attacked the postmodernist movement in modern universities, has assembled a collection of Stove’s most provocative and acute essays. During his lifetime Stove avoided the limelight, but he deserves to be widely read. In fact, he deserves to be accorded the status of an all-time great. This collection may bring about a greater recognition of his brilliance, but in a climate where academic book lists are increasingly filled with pseudo-intellectual bilgewater, this may be a vain hope. But Kimball is at least loudly declaring Stove’s genius. His beautifully weighted introduction, “Who Was David Stove?”—itself something of a minor masterpiece of exposition—reveals his amazement and delight in stumbling across the work of an astonishing but relatively unknown talent—as well as the difficulty he had in finding an academic or commercial press willing to publish a collection of incisive and gleefully sardonic demolitions of modern academic orthodoxies.
Stove’s greatest contribution to philosophy was his attack on the irrationalism that infests modern philosophy of science, in particular the sort of relativist and “social constructivist” views so current in sociology of science and postmodernist humanities departments, in which modern science is regarded as no better (or worse) than voodoo or astrology or reading chicken entrails. Much of Stove’s effort in this matter was expended in attacking what he saw—quite rightly—as the source of this silliness, namely Karl Popper’s view that while we can refute theories, we can never have any reason to think that a theory is true or, more to the point, that we can never have any reason to think that one theory is more likely to be true than another. (Popper also held that we have no grounds whatsoever to suppose that our past experience is any guide to the future, an affront not only to scientific reasoning but to common sense.) Popper’s view has of course been enormously influential, and although its star has waned in philosophy of science, it continues to be an article of faith for the intellectual in the street, not to mention the countless third-rate lecturers who were nuzzled at its bosom.
The first part of Kimball’s collection brings together three articles on this topic, including the deadly “Cole Porter and Karl Popper: The Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science,” an article that caused apoplexy amongst Popperians, including Popper himself, when it first appeared in 1985. Kimball has also included an extract from Stove’s brilliant and irreverent book Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists (recently re-released under the title Anything Goes: The Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism). This book has achieved a legendary status in philosophy of science circles, and is another work that enrages Popperians—not least for its delicious and penetrating bons mots—whose devotion to Popper borders on the religious.
In these essays Stove engages in a hilarious and devastating analysis of how the ridiculous views of Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend (as well as the lesser-known Imre Lakatos) ever managed to find such a wide acceptance amongst the intelligentsia. In particular, he shows how various linguistic devices made these views seem plausible. One of the simplest such devices was to place words like “knowledge,” “discovery,” “fact,” “prove,” “confirm,” “objective,” and “truth” in scare quotes. A Popperian, for example, might say that through science we have come to “know” that the “law” of gravity is a “fact.” Popper’s philosophy, though, entails that we do not know—and cannot possibly know—any such thing. But the presence of the words “know” and “fact,” even in scare quotes, deflects attention away from this consequence of Popper’s theory. Stove points out, however, that once the implications of Popper’s views are presented straightforwardly, no one will take them seriously for a moment, as they are clearly ludicrous. But Popper and Kuhn have never presented their views non-evasively. J. L. Austin’s phrase, “There’s the bit where you say it, and the bit where you take it back,” was never more apposite than in the case of these writers.
Stove also undoubtedly identified the real reason why Kuhn so offended the Popperians, despite the fact that his doctrine essentially amounted to the same thing as Popper’s: the fact that Kuhn “bids fair, by the immense influence of his writing on ‘the rabble without doors,’ to make irrationalism the majority opinion. . .the cruelest fate which can overtake enfant-terribles is to awake and find that their avowed opinions have swept the suburbs.”
Another brand of philosophical irrationalist whom Stove routed was the sort of philosopher, whether idealist, postmodernist, Kuhnian or cultural relativist, who holds that it is impossible for us to gain any real knowledge of the world, or (like some Marxists and some academic feminists) that our knowledge is “inescapably limited.” Some of Stove’s essays on this topic were collected in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, and Kimball reprints one of them, “Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story (Part II).” This piece is one of the greatest philosophical tours de force ever written, in which Stove shows, with consummate panache, how the central arguments for these various “cognophobe” positions all turn out to contain nothing but empty tautologies.
Stove was also a trenchant critic of the misuse of Darwinism, and the third section of Kimball’s collection contains four essays from Stove’s book Darwinian Fairytales. In attacking Darwinism, Stove lost a few admirers who had been impressed with his defenses of science. And one would be entitled to be suspicious of such a book, given that most armchair attacks on Darwinism are written by ignorant cranks, usually of one or another religious stripe. But Stove has a considerable knowledge of Darwinism (as it happens he regards Darwin as one of the greatest of all thinkers) and a brain considerably sharper than most writers on the topic, and there is nothing here that an intelligent Darwinian should disagree with, although if he is a dogmatic sociobiologist he probably will. Stove does not doubt that natural selection is overwhelmingly likely to be the true explanation of our origins, but he does reveal the sloppiness in certain Darwinian views, especially those that attempt to explain all human behavior in terms of Darwinian principles and those that use simple Malthusian principles to predict population growth. (The latter sort of view resulted in environmental doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich claiming that it was a near-mathematical certainty that we would all die of starvation in the 1970s. I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that that didn’t happen.)
Outside of philosophy, Stove fearlessly attacked the received wisdom of modern liberals on a wide variety of topics, including feminism, racism, and the political aims of the Enlightenment, and the second section of Kimball’s collection contains some of his most audacious assaults on positions which the modern left-leaning intellectual holds dear. (Further essays of this type can be found in Stove’s collection Cricket versus Republicanism.)
Plenty of us will disagree with at least some of the opinions Stove argues for in these essays; indeed some of these opinions would get Stove lynched in the average humanities department. In fact, he was almost lynched at his own university for one essay called “A Farewell to Arts: Marxism, Semiotics and Feminism,” in which he ridiculed the work of some of his postmodernist and feminist colleagues, and described the arts faculty at the venerable old University of Sydney as “a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.” And that was just the opening paragraph!
But what makes these essays so compelling—what separates Stove from, for instance, your average angry-eyed reactionary propping up the bar at a military reunion dinner—is the startlingly brilliant way that he argues, combining, as he does, plain horse sense with the most nimble and skillful philosophical reasoning this side of Hume, along with a breathtaking wit. The result is unlike anything ever seen before. Stove has the lightest of touches, and an unerring sense for where to twist the knife, but he takes his subject matter seriously, and he never adopts a position for show, unlike some of his targets.
I’m very glad that Kimball succeeded in finding a press that would publish this book, for it is an ideal introduction to the work of an undiscovered master. (If only someone could do the same for Stove’s hero, the late Donald Cary Williams of Harvard, the other great under-appreciated genius of twentieth-century philosophy.) Stove is one of those writers who is either loved or hated, although in this respect he is of course hardly a rarity: plenty of gifted and entertaining writers fall into that category. What it is that makes him utterly unique amongst such a group is that he possesses an absolutely first-class brain, and—almost unheard of amongst philosophers—an ability to rigorously defend common sense without recourse to arguments that are almost as dubious as the positions they are supposed to overcome.