Inquiry into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory

By Arthur F. Bentley; Sidney Ratner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Physicists and Fairies

John Jay Chapman to William James: "You said something about a concept. Now what is a concept? . . . Are you sure that there is such a thing? If . . . the story of one of these concepts were brought before you, would you not . . . quench and dissipate it, and show it to be a mere mist and vagary and never-twice-alike will o' the wisp? . . . I can just imagine your polite 'not proven.' . . . But when you get on your tripod, you go puffing out these things at the top of the smokestack in perfect unconcern." ( Harper's Monthly Magazine, December, 1936, p. 52)

William James to John Jay Chapman: "A certain witness at a poisoning case was asked how the corpse looked. 'Pleasant like and foaming at the mouth' was the reply. A good description of you describing philosophy. There are concepts, anyhow." ( Letters of William James, II, 321)


I
FAIRIES

When the layman reads a book or two of popularized physics and then moves solemnly forth, as occasionally happens, to expound some comprehensive doctrine purporting to be built directly out of the materials he has picked up, the type of comment which the physicist will make is plain enough in advance. But why does it so rarely occur to the physicist that others may think of his epistemologizing much what he is sure to think of their quantizing?

The odds for intelligent statement are all in favor of the outsider and against the physicist. Physics offers the world a large amount of firm knowledge. But the philosophical and psychological sectors of inquiry have nothing of that kind to offer. They are at best in a Copernican, perhaps rather in a Ptolemaic, stage; their keenest investigators know this, and from time to time we find one or another of them breathing the hope that now at last his science is attaining some measure of Galilean directness and simplicity.1

The objection is not at all to either physicist or psychologist going into the other's territory, nor to his using as best he can what he finds

____________________
1
Thus: J. R. Kantor, Principles of Psychology, 1924, vol. I, p. xvi; Kurt Lewin, "The Conflict between Aristotelian and Galilean Modes of Thought in Psychology," J. Gen. Psychol., 1931, vol. 5, 141-177.
From Philosophy of Science, Vol. V, No. 2 ( April, 1938) pp. 132-65.

-113-

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