Kuhn’s Paradigmatic Thought

Yoram Hazony’s latest is excellent. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, regardless of whether it makes you cheer or sneer, but of particular relevance to this blog is section II.

In assessing the impact of Thomas Kuhn’s highly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Hazony provides about as good a summary of the problem of factpinions as I’ve come across. The winning quote goes to Kuhn himself:

The proponents of competing paradigms are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case…. [Thus while] each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing…, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.

For some very bad reasons, paradigmatic thought repeatedly trumps intellectual honesty – not in principle but in practice. I would add that while bias has existed forever, recent years have seen a regression in the stature of facts in thought, and in the decision-making process. Not only are facts frequently misinterpreted, today they are often ignored or completely misunderstood, attacked as though they were synonymous with ideology. In such an atmosphere, factpinions manage to become both the dominant currency and the black market in the exchange of ideas.

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Factpinion Anecdote #1: “But Where’s the Money in it?”

So what are factpinions? Put simply, they are opinions masquerading as fact. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but figured I ought to at least touch on that one early on…

This blog came about as the result of many a heated discussion with some formidable, challenging, intellectual peers. After realizing that, gee, I’ve got some pretty strong opinions – often on the significance of, and process behind, opinion itself – I thought I’d write a blog on this. But for every concrete thought of mine, a small moment in my life arises by free association. Some of these went on to form cornerstones to the way I look at the world, and I have a vague feeling these anecdotes might get this viewpoint across better than my sometimes heavy-handed arguing.

Around five years or so ago, I was touching base with an old acquaintance with whom I hadn’t spoken in years. Let’s call him E. Our connection had been through a formal framework, so I can’t say we ever chose to be acquaintances, but we had gone through quite a bit together, and so at one time we were fairly close. The conversation took the form you might expect in this situation – nostalgia mixed with slight awkwardness. Anyway, we were asking the standard battery of update questions, and inevitably he asked about the band I’m in, which already at that time had been around for a while. “You’re still playing with them? Wow, that’s a long time. You seeing much money off that?” I had to answer that frankly, no, but I enjoy it tremendously, on many levels.

In the back and forth that followed, it was clear he was genuinely struggling to wrap his head around this. E. was (and is) highly intelligent, and certainly wasn’t trying to give me a hard time, but he could not imagine what would drive someone to invest considerable time, effort, and yes – money, in a non-financial endeavor. Again and again it came back to, “yeah, but where’s the money in it?” It took one conversation for me to feel worlds apart from him. Sure, I’d always felt a bit off the dial, in that I couldn’t believe so many people actually bought the horrible mainstream music that for years has been foisted on an undeserving public, but this was a new situation. How to explain something so obvious to me, so intuitive, to someone for whom money is the sole – not even prime – motivator? Depending on where you’re coming from, E. was either the ultimate pragmatist, or sorely lacking in imagination. To him, what I do makes no sense. Yet clearly, I’d never want to stop doing it.

This seemingly mundane conversation remains stuck in my head, an example of a recurring observation; namely, that people see and experience the world very (very) differently. Which begs the question: What do we do with this?