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Who was David Stove?
On the Australian philosopher & his work
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For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.
It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.
I shall doubtless look back on the second half of 1996 as my period Down Under. Last summer, rummaging through a pile of books destined for the used bookstore, I chanced upon The Killing of History by the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle.  This devastating anatomy of what has gone wrong in the teaching and writing of history is a masterpiece of scholarly polemic. Moving relentlessly through the sundry intellectual and political corruptions that have disfigured contemporary academic historiography, Mr. Windschuttle makes good on the promise of his dramatic subtitle and explains, in riveting detail, “How a Discipline Is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists.” One of my chief debts to Mr. Windschuttle’s book is the discovery of the work of his late compatriot, the philosopher David Stove. In a section of his book dealing with the vogue of relativism in the history and philosophy of science, Mr. Windschuttle relies heavily on Stove’s book Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists.  Impressed by the snippets that Mr. Windschuttle quoted—and by the arguments that he recapitulated—I scared up a copy of the book. It was a revelation. With a combination of dazzling philosophical acumen and scarifying wit, Stove does for irrationalism in Karl Popper’s philosophy of science (and that of such heirs as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend) what the Romans did for Carthage in the Third Punic War: he assaults and destroys it utterly. It had been a long time since I had read a book of philosophy as entertaining and illuminating as Popper and After. An Australian friend to whom I mentioned my enthusiasm recommended Darwinian Fairytales, Stove’s posthumously published attack on the absurdities of Darwinism, especially as it was applied to human beings.  I found Darwinian Fairytales every bit as absorbing as Popper and After: an invigorating blend of analytic lucidity, mordant humor, and an amount of common sense too great to be called “common.” Once I started it, I could hardly put it down. But who, I wondered, was David Stove? How had his work escaped me all these years?
A few inquiries revealed that Stove’s work had a kind of underground following. Popper and After, especially, enjoys a high reputation among a small but fervent group of admirers. The Plato Cult, seven essays attacking philosophical idealism wherever Stove happened to find it, made something of a stir when it appeared in 1991. But David Stove never achieved much public recognition, not outside Australia anyway. I believe this was partly because his non-technical work, some of which might have developed a popular following, tended to be published by exceedingly obscure houses. No doubt it was also partly by design: intellectually, Stove was the opposite of clubbable. And then there was the matter of his opinions, which flew in the face of just about every intellectual cliché going, from relativism and irrationalism on one side to doctrinaire Darwinism on the other.
Stove spent most of his career teaching philosophy at the University of Sydney. Disgusted by the mephitic winds of political correctness wafting through the Australian universities, he retired early, at the age of sixty, in 1988. He then devoted himself to writing and a variety of decorous private passions: music before Mozart, tending his rural property in New South Wales—and smoking. Being part of the anti-anti-smoking lobby myself, it saddens me to report that he died by his own hand in 1994 after a debilitating bout of throat cancer. He was sixty-six.
Obituaries by friends and colleagues all drew a similar picture. One described Stove as the Jonathan Swift of contemporary philosophy; another noted that, like David Hume (the philosopher he admired most), Stove “delighted in finding objections”— even, it should be said, in Hume’s philosophy. Who else would have organized a competition to find and publicize “the worst argument in the world”? (The winning submission, Stove explained, would be distinguished not only by its intrinsic awfulness but also by its degree of acceptance among philosophers and the extent to which it had escaped criticism.) It is not quite true that Stove was a “purely negative thinker,” as he once said of himself. But he was at his best on the attack; he was, in fact, one of those writers from whom even praise was a kind of challenge. In his Introduction to a posthumous collection of essays enticingly called Cricket Versus Republicanism, Stove’s literary executor, James Franklin, gives a clue to his friend’s sensibility in a (partial) summary of his dislikes. “The list of what he attacked,” Mr. Franklin writes,
was a long one, and included, but was certainly not limited to, Arts Faculties, big books, contraception, Darwinism, the Enlightenment, feminism, Freud, the idea of progress, leftish views of all kinds, Marx, … metaphysics, modern architecture and art, philosophical idealism, Popper, religion, semiotics, Stravinsky and Sweden… . Also, anything beginning with “soc” (even Socrates got a serve or two).
Of course, any crank could subscribe to such a list. The “Stove trick,” as Mr. Franklin observes, “was to be against things for reasons one would not have thought of oneself.” I will only add that Stove’s reasons, more often than not, were as compelling as they were fresh. It may be easy to dislike some of Stove’s views; it is generally much more difficult to dismiss them.
There are essentially three parts to Stove’s oeuvre. Most of his technical philosophical work was on the so-called problem of induction—on the problem, that is to say, of how we can reason convincingly from the observed to the unobserved. He wrote two books on this subject, Probability and Hume’s Inductive Skepticism (1973) and Rationality of Induction (1986). The second part of Stove’s work consists in his full-scale assaults on scientific irrationalism (Popper and After), philosophical idealism (some essays in The Plato Cult), and certain aspects of Darwinism (Darwinian Fairytales). This is Stove at his best and most deadly, patiently dismantling intellectual absurdity piece by piece. Finally, Stove was an occasional essayist of considerable charm and polemical snap. Writing for such magazines as The American Scholar and Commentary in the United States, Encounter in England, and Quadrant in Australia, he expatiated about everything from English cottage gardens and the virtues of cricket (a game, he says, that “requires gentlemanliness, and teaches it”) to feminism, racial antagonism, and John Stuart Mills’s On Liberty (“How did an argument so easily answered ever impose itself upon intelligent people?”). Fans of the early birth-control proselytizers Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes will want to read “O Pioneers! …” to discover how repulsive these benefactresses of humanity were in life. When Stopes’s second husband lost nearly all his money in the Depression, his wife lost no time in winkling him out of their beautiful eighteenth-century house and her life. “He was reduced to living alone in a single room in London,” Stove comments, “where in due course he died. This saddened Marie, who wrote a little poem about it, deploring the housing shortage.”
Stove is not always convincing. It seems peremptory, to say the least, to dismiss religion, as he does in “Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story,” as little more than a psychological “deprivation-effect”—especially since, as he puts it elsewhere, “not to understand religion is … not to understand nine-tenths of human history.” (There is a lot to be said, however, for his description of Victorian idealism as “a sickening evasion, forever restoring religious consolation while pretending to take it away.”) Similarly, his intolerance for balderdash sometimes led him drastically to undervalue the achievements of other philosophers. It is understandable that he should despise deliberately mystifying writers like Hegel and Heidegger—whatever their virtues, both were addicted to opacity. But it will hardly do to dismiss Plato (“that scourge of the human mind”) and Kant (for example) as overrated poseurs. In such cases, Stove’s impatience led him into caricature. “Plato’s discovery,” Stove writes, “went as follows”:
It is possible for something to be a certain way and for something else to be the same way.
There are universals.
(Tumultuous applause, which lasts, despite occasional subsidences, 2,400 years.)
Amusing, yes; but perhaps not quite fair to the author of Phaedrus, the Symposium, Theaetetus, and the Republic.
Stove was not usually so cavalier. But he clearly enjoyed tweaking the intellectual and moral complacencies of his readers. Consider the following paragraph, with which he opens “‘Always Apologize, Always Explain’: Robert Nozick’s War Wounds,” Stove’s review of that Harvard philosopher’s book Philosophical Explanations:
An unprecedented expansion of communism took place immediately after the second world war. For the next twenty-odd years, any possibility of resistance to communist expansion depended almost entirely upon America: no other country possessed both the requisite military capacity and the willingness to use it. But the outcome of the Vietnam war showed that, while America’s capacity for such resistance remained intact, her willingness did not. For that war was lost, not through defeat of American armies in the field, nor yet through treachery among them, but through a massive sedition at home. The nation showed that it had become utterly opposed to any further armed resistance to communism.
All true, of course, but that wasn’t the story one got from Jane Fonda, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, or professors of philosophy at Harvard University. Such a “revolution in national sentiment,” Stove argues, could not help but be reflected in intellectual life. He examines as exhibit number one Nozick’s call for a “non-coercive philosophy.”
The completeness of Nozick’s composition is remarkable: he touches somewhere in the book, however lightly, almost every note of American decadence. Gandhi is there. The necessary deference to feminism is there. The necessary reproof to “racism” is there. Carlos Castaneda is there, referred to as though he were a thinker, which he is not… . Drugs of course are there, and in no unfavorable light: drugs may have their place, Nozick thinks, in “the treatment for philosophical parochialism.” Has he left anything out? Is there anyone in post-Vietnam America who needs to be placated, whom he has not placated? This was obviously a worry, and there is a nervous catch-all reference to “children’s rights, the treatment of animals, domination and ecological awareness.”
Nozick looked forward to a new version of philosophy that would replace arguments with a kinder, gentler alternative—explanations—because arguments, after all, attempt “to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not.” Stove is withering about all this, noting among other things that “no ideal could be more destructive of human life than the ideal of non-coerciveness.” The only way, he writes, “of producing a non-coercive human being is to produce an autistic one. But then, autism is really the conclusion to which Nozick’s conception of philosophy tends, just as it is the conclusion to which American foreign policy in the same period has tended.”
There is something to offend nearly everyone in Stove’s essays. One can imagine the reaction of his colleagues at the University of Sydney when, in 1986, he published “A Farewell to the Arts: Marxism, Semiotics, and Feminism.” This bombshell began: “The Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney is 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.” Stove went on to quote from, and ridicule, the work of several of his colleagues. He cheerfully identified each by name, concluding that intellectually, “the sum of Marxism, semiotics and feminism is 0 + 0 + 0 = 0.” Again, he is quite right about this, but such observations are not a balm to collegiality. It was around that time that university administrators spoke of bringing nebulous “disciplinary proceedings” against Stove. In the end, nothing happened, but one imagines that the threat must have hardened his resolve and possibly hastened his departure from academic life.
He probably would have had to leave soon anyway. There are few universities in the United States, at any rate, at which Stove’s life would have been easy after he got around to writing “The Intellectual Capacity of Women” and “Racial and Other Antagonisms,” both of which appear in Cricket Versus Republicanism. “I believe that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men,” Stove wrote in the former essay, giving as his “main reason” for this belief the uncomfortable observation that “the intellectual performance of women is inferior to men.” In other words, he explains, it is the same sort of reasoning as that which convinces us that “Fords are on the whole inferior to Mercedes; or as that which convinces dog-fanciers that Irish setters are not as smart as labradors; or as that which convinces everyone that the intellectual capacity of seven-year-old children is on the whole inferior to that of nine-year-olds.” Stove deals with all the usual objections—that women haven’t been given sufficient opportunities, etc.—and concludes with an interesting thought experiment. Suppose that the historical evidence had been the reverse and that the intellectual performance of men had been “uniformly inferior, under the widest variety of circumstances, to that of women.” Would “those people who are at present equality-theorists be as confident then as they are now of the equal intellectual capacity of the two sexes? To ask this question,” Stove writes, “is to answer it. The fact is, our egalitarians treat evidence on a basis of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.”
Stove’s essay “Racial and Other Antagonisms” is similarly emollient. He begins by noting that some degree of friction is the common if not the inevitable result when “two races of people have been in contact for long.” Only in the twentieth century, however, has such antagonism been described as a form of “prejudice.” Why? Earlier ages had the concept, and the word. Part of the reason, Stove suggests, is that by christening racial animosity “racial prejudice” we transform it into an intellectual fault, i.e., a false or irrational belief that might be cured by education—and this, Stove observes, “is a distinctly cheering thing to imply.” Alas, while it is certainly true that racial antagonism is often accompanied by false or irrational beliefs about the other race, it is by no means clear that it depends upon them. And if it doesn’t, education will be little more than liberal window dressing.
Stove’s essay on race is full of discomfiting observations. He defines “racism”—a neologism so recent, he points out, that it was not in the OED in 1971—as the belief that “some human races are inferior to others in certain respects, and that it is sometimes proper to make such differences the basis of our behaviour towards people.” Although this proposition is constantly declared to be false, Stove says, “everyone knows it is true, just as everyone knows it is true that people differ in age, sex, health, etc., and that it is sometimes proper to make these differences the basis of our behaviour towards them.” For example,
if you are recruiting potential basketball champions, you would be mad not to be more interested in American Negroes than in Vietnamese… . Any rational person, recruiting an army, will be more interested in Germans than in Italians. If what you want in people is aptitude for forming stable family-ties, you will prefer Italians or Chinese to American Negroes. Pronounced mathematical ability is more likely to occur in an Indian or a Hungarian than in an Australian Aboriginal. If you are recruiting workers, and you value docility above every other trait in a worker, you should prefer Chinese to white Americans. And so on.
Stove readily admitted that some of these traits may be culturally rather than genetically determined. But he went on to observe that “they are still traits which are statistically associated with race, well enough, to make race a rational guide in such areas of policy as recruitment or immigration.” As I say, David Stove would not have been made to feel welcome at many American colleges or universities.
There is a certain amount of calculated outrage in Stove’s polemical essays. Whatever the subject, he finds the tenderest spot of the most sensitive nerve; then he presses. At the very least, his arguments issue a challenge (as Kant might say) to the “dogmatic slumbers” of his readers. When he turns his attention to irrationalism about science or the unthinking acceptance of certain Darwinian propositions about human nature, he manages a great deal more. Popper and After, which Stove dedicates to the memory of George Orwell, is a breathtaking combination of literary-rhetorical analysis and philosophical housecleaning.
Today, the late Karl Popper is generally regarded as a venerable figure whose book Logik der Forschung (“The Logic of Scientific Discovery”) deserves its honored place among the classics of the philosophy of science. Popper’s influence is enormous; his ideas long ago became part of the intellectual atmosphere, taken-for-granted assumptions even for those who hadn’t read him.
As Stove shows in “Cole Porter and Karl Popper: the Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science,” the lead essay of The Plato Cult, Popper reversed the central assumptions of the traditional philosophy of science. The long struggle of empiricism since Bacon had yielded a straightforward but powerful conception of science. Scientific propositions were distinguished from speculative or pseudo-scientific propositions by the degree to which they were verifiable; the method of science was essentially inductive, which means that it moved from the observed or known to the unobserved or unknown; the procedures of science were marked by caution; its results were held to be certain or at least highly probable.
Popper stood all this on its head. In his philosophy of science, we find the curious thought that falsifiability, not verifiability, is the distinguishing mark of scientific theories; this means that, for Popper, one theory is better than another if it is more dis-provable than the other. “Irrefutability,” he proclaimed, “is not a virtue of a theory . . . but a vice.” Popper denied that we can ever legitimately infer the unknown from the known; audacity, not caution, was for him of the essence of science; far from being certain, the conclusions of science, he said, were never more than guesswork (“we must regard all laws and theories … as guesses”); and since for Popper “there are no such things as good positive reasons” to believe a scientific theory, no theory can ever be more probable than another; indeed, he says that the truth of any scientific proposition is exactly as improbable as the truth of a self-contradictory proposition—or “in plain English,” as Stove says, “it is impossible.”
It would be difficult to overstate the radical implications of this irrationalist view of science. Popper was apparently fond of referring to “the soaring edifice of science.” But in fact his philosophy of science robbed that edifice of its foundation. Refracted through the lens of Popper’s theories, the history of modern science is transformed from a dazzling string of successes into a series of “problems” or (as in a title of one of Popper’s books) “conjectures and refutations.” On the traditional view, scientific knowledge can be said to be cumulative: we know more now than we did in 1897, more then than in 1697. Popper’s theory, demoting scientific laws to mere guesses, denies this: in one of his most famous phrases, he speaks of science as “conjectural knowledge,” an oxymoronic gem that, as Stove remarks, makes as much sense as “a drawn game which was won.”
If such ideas were merely the idiosyncrasy of a certain Austrian philosopher of science, they wouldn’t much matter. But Popper’s ideas did not only propound an irrationalist view of science: they also helped to license irrationalism for an entire generation. Without the bedrock—or, rather, the sandbank—of Popper’s theories upon which to build, the other philosophers of science Stove discusses—Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend—could never have developed their own influential permutations of irrationalism. And without the example of these and other such gentlemen, the blasé irrationalism that infects the humanities and social sciences today—and, indeed, that infects our entire “postmodern” culture—might never have achieved epidemic proportions. Kuhn’s famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which in effect denies that there is such a thing as progress in science, has by itself done incalculable intellectual damage to innumerable professors looking for excuses to deny the claims of scientific truth. (By the mid-1980s, Kuhn’s was the most frequently cited book in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index; the honor of being the most cited author went to Lenin.)
Of course, most people are uneasy about blatant irrationalism when it comes to science. They bristle if told that “no more is known now than in 1697.” They balk if informed that “no one ever knows anything.” Irrationalism, to be plausible, must be disguised, and Stove devotes the first half of his book to a brilliant analysis of the literary devices used to achieve plausibility.
There are two basic techniques. The first is to neutralize what Stove calls “success words”—words like “knowledge,” “discovery,” “facts,” “verified,” “explanation.” Such words carry an implication of cognitive achievement. No philosopher of science can do without them entirely. But the simple addition of scare quotes alters everything: “Galileo discovers x” means something quite different from “Galileo ‘discovers’ x.” (Stove remarks that the best title for Popper’s book would have been The “Logic” of Scientific “Discovery.”) The element of ambiguity is essential: consider the effect of a sign advertising “fresh” fish. Here for example is Imre Lakatos: “Michelson … was primarily frustrated by the inconsistency of the ‘facts’ he arrived at by his ultra-precise measurements. His 1887 experiments ‘showed’ that there was no ether wind on the earth’s surface. But aberration ‘showed’ there was. Moreover, his own 1925 experiment … also ‘proved’ that there was …” The same trick can obviously be used with words of cognitive failure: “mistake,” “false,” “refuted,” etc. A “refuted” theory is not the same as a refuted theory. As Stove comments, by skillfully using such devices, “you can have, as thick as you like on every page, all the optimistic words of the old historiography and philosophy of science, reassuring the reader,” but without saying anything inconsistent with irrationalism.
The second technique involves deliberately conflating the history or sociology of science with the logic of science. Stove focuses especially on what he calls “sabotaging logical expressions.” By embedding a logical statement in a historical context, one thereby undermines its logical status while preserving the impression that a logical claim has been made. A simple example is the difference between “P entails Q” and “P entails Q according to most logicians.” The first is a logical statement; the second is a historical claim; it is what Stove calls a “ghost logical statement”: it poaches on the prestige of logical entailment without actually making any logical claim at all: it is therefore completely immune to criticism on logical grounds. As Stove notes, “Once you mix the history with the logic of science, the possibilities of such sabotage are limitless.” By such means, indeed, was the entire pseudo-discipline of “science studies” born.
Stove’s analysis of how his authors manage to make their irrationalism plausible to their readers is a tour de force. So is his analysis of how they made irrationalism plausible to themselves. The key, at least so far as Popper was concerned, was the challenge to Newtonian physics by relativity and quantum mechanics. As Stove points out, this “changed the entire climate of philosophy of science,” replacing the nineteenth century’s blissful confidence about the impregnable certainty of science with a profound skepticism. Stove shows how Popper and his other authors, attempting “to ensure that no scientific theory should ever again become the object of over-confident belief,” overreacted and embraced instead a form of irrationalism whose philosophical roots go back to Hume. The best literary parallel, Stove suggests, “is given in Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. The parallel would be complete if the fox, having been convinced that neither he nor anyone else could ever succeed in tasting grapes, should nevertheless write many long books on the progress of viticulture.”
At bottom, Stove shows, his authors embrace irrationalism because of “a certain extreme belief, by which their minds are dominated, about what is required for one proposition to be a reason to believe another.” They all acknowledge that absolute certainty is impossible; but they assume that only absolute certainty will do as a warrant for rational belief. They exhibit, in other words, “a variety of perfectionism.”
It is, of course, a disappointed perfectionism. Its chief effect has been to introduce an irresponsible levity and what Stove calls “enfant terriblisme” into intellectual life. One thinks, for example, of Paul Feyerabend insisting in Against Method that the “only one principle that can be defended … is anything goes.” Disappointed perfectionism has also led to “the frivolous elevation of ‘the critical attitude’ into a categorical imperative.” The principal result, as Stove notes, has been “to fortify millions of ignorant graduates and undergraduates in the belief, to which they are already too firmly wedded by other causes, that the adversary posture is all, and that intellectual life consists in ‘directionless quibble.’ ”
Stove’s demolition of certain aspects of Darwinian theory, in Darwinian Fairytales and related essays, is equally thorough and convincing. Stove is unusual among anti-Darwinians. He is not a creationist; indeed, as he points out, he is “of no religion.” Moreover, he admires Darwin greatly as a thinker, placing him at the top of his personal pantheon, along with Shakespeare, Purcell, Newton, and Hume. Finally, Stove believes that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that our species evolved from some other and that “natural selection is probably the cause which is principally responsible for the coming into existence of new species from old ones.”
At the same time, Stove maintains that “Darwinism says many things, especially about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by any educated person; or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity at all for critical thought.” Some examples: that “every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase its numbers”; that “of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive”; that it is to a mother’s “advantage” that her child should be adopted by another woman; that “no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but … everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers, or four half-brothers, or eight first cousins”; that “any variation in the least degree injurious [to a species] would be rigidly destroyed.”
These quotations are from Darwin and his orthodox disciples. A moment’s reflection shows that none is even remotely true, at least of human beings. Take the last named: that anything in the least injurious to a species would be “rigidly destroyed” by natural selection. What about abortion, adoption, fondess for alcohol, and altruism, just to start with the A’s? As Stove notes, “each of these characterisitics [tends] to shorten our lives, or to lessen the number of children we have, or both.” Are any on the way to being rigidly destroyed? Again, if Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, “there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few in any generation can be winners. But it is perfectly obvious that human life is not like that, however it may be with other species.” Priests, hospitals, governments, old-age homes, charities, police: these are a few of the things whose existence contradicts Darwin’s theory.
Stove shows in unremitting detail that, despite its enormous explanatory power regarding “cods, pines, flies,” etc., Darwin’s theory of evolution is “a ridiculous slander on human beings.” He is particularly good at exposing the “amazingly arrogant habit of Darwinians” of “blaming the fact, instead of blaming their theory” when they encounter contrary biological facts. Does it regularly happen that increasing prosperity leads to lower birth rates? And does this directly contradict Darwinian theory? No problem, just announce that the birth rates in such cases are somehow “inverted.”
Indeed, Stove’s analysis shows that, when it comes to our species, Darwinism “is a mere festering mass of errors.” It can tell you “lots of truths about plants, flies, fish, etc., and interesting truths, too… . [But] if it is human life that you would most like to know about and to understand, then a good library can be begun by leaving out Darwinism, from 1859 [when On the Origin of Species was published] to the present hour.” It is not a pretty picture that Stove paints; but then the exhibition of gross error widely accepted is never a comely sight.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 March 1997, on page 21
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