While many of us in the English department will be busy with Congress in early June, Professor Randy Harris will be a keynote speaker at Incommensurability 50, a conference in Tapei, China.
If, like me, you’re not quite sure what “incommensurability” means, here’s what I copied from the conference website:
In 1962 Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend independently suggested the provocative idea that under certain conditions theories (paradigms, world-views) are incommensurable – they have no common measure. Kuhn introduced the idea in his exceedingly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), dramatically claiming that the history of science reveals that proponents of competing paradigms fail to make complete contact with each other’s views and are always talking at least slightly at cross-purposes. According to Kuhn, competing paradigms lack a common measure because they use different concepts and methods to address different problems according to different standards. This effectively limits communication between conceptual frameworks across the revolutionary conceptual divide, and requires bilingualism, relearning on the basis of a conceptually incompatible perspective. Kuhn called the collective reasons for these limits to communication the incommensurability of pre- and post-revolutionary scientific traditions. The idea of incommensurability was also central to Feyerabend’s philosophical pluralism from its early stages in post-War Vienna in the late 1940s, through to his post-modern approach in the early 1990s, as the idea began to be applied to languages and cultures more generally. Ever since, claims about incommensurability have been central to controversies across an array of disciplines, and the idea of incommensurability has played key roles in a wide range of discussions within and beyond the philosophy of science. This conference will focus on a number of interrelated themes: from the nature of the notion of incommensurability, to incommensurability in logic, mathematics and the natural sciences, in the social sciences and the arts, in comparative philosophy, in intercultural communication, and as a challenge for global politics.
Dr. Harris will be giving a paper titled “(In)commensurability, Rhetoric, & the Curious Case of David Brewster.” Here’s his abstract.
[T]he claim that two theories are incommensurable is more modest than many of its critics have supposed.
—Thomas Kuhn (2000, 36)
Incommensurability, strictly construed, does not obtain of scientific theories. They are not numbers. The implied metaphor is bad. Weakly construed, on the other hand, incommensurability obtains, but carries little more force than misunderstanding. It just sounds more imposing. The material question, then, is whether incommensurability is meaningful in the middle ground. And that is a question rhetoric can help to answer.
We will look at the curious case of David Brewster, a nineteenth century Scottish physicist whose work, in attempting to bridge corpuscular and undulatory conceptions of light, occupied that middle ground.
Dr. Harris has published a book on Rhetoric and Incommensurability.
You can order your copy here.
We certainly hope that Dr. Harris comes home with lots of PHOTOGRAPHS for the blog. Thanks, Randy 🙂