Universal Laws and the Case of Cholera

Harvard STS CircleA presentation I gave November 30, 2015, to the STS Circle, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Harvard University.

Supposedly, induction cannot produce universal scientific laws. But here is a case where it did. In the 1800s, cholera epidemics could be devastating. Physicians could make general statements about the disease, but few universal ones. When there was an outbreak in Egypt in 1883, Germany sent Robert Koch to help. He was soon confident he had identified the cause—bacteria of a distinct shape. But other researchers could not confirm Koch’s findings. He replied that they were failing to identify “real” cholera. Community by community, physicians adopted Koch’s position: If it were not caused by this bacteria, it was not really cholera. Universal scientific laws about cholera came to be true by definition. But there was nothing subjective about this. Lives were saved. How should we think about cases where a scientific community defines certainty into its laws? How and why does the consensus emerge? Is it a good thing?

Short url: johnmccaskey.com/harvard-2015


The Sources of Mill’s View of Ratiocination and Induction

Sgarbi, Aristotelian Tradition and Rise of EmpiricismAn article, co-authored with Steffen Ducheyne, “The Sources of Mill’s View of Ratiocination and Induction,” in Antis Loizides (ed.), Mill’s A System of Logic: Critical Appraisals (London: Routledge, 2014). Steffen mostly wrote the part on ratiocination and I the part on induction.

I. Introduction

By 1800, at least in the British Isles, logic in the old Scholastic sense was, as a scholarly discipline, nearly dead. Only at Oxford was it still a meaningful part of the curriculum buteven there scholarship was slight and examinations were cursory. Edward Copleston thought the decline had gone far enough when there was a move just after 1809 to replace Henry Aldrich’s already skeletal thirty-seven-page Artis Logicae Compendium with Henry Kett’s new Logic Made Easy. Copleston and a few others complained not only about the shallowness of studies in traditional logic but also about the wholesale replacement of that topic with Baconian and Lockean epistemologies. Copleston and his collaborators, especially his student Richard Whately, successfully revived a scholarly interest in logic in the early nineteenth century. John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) was, as we will see, a part of the sweeping revival.

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The Other Kind of Induction

The Other Kind of Induction

Presentation (ppsx)

A presentation, “The Other Kind of Induction,” given at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Philosophy of Science, October 17, 2014.

Abstract: There is a nowadays unfamiliar kind of induction, and I want to introduce you to it—historically, philosophically, and with a few case studies. It goes back to Aristotle, who said he got it from Socrates. It was how “induction” was conventionally understood in antiquity and then again from the late Renaissance until the Mill-Whewell debate. This induction is a progression from particular to universal but not (or not primarily) from particular statements to universal statements. It turns on Aristotle’s notion of formal cause and holds that ampliation takes place at the conceptual, not the propositional, level. It challenges Kant’s notion that there is no such thing as analytic a posteriori. Use of this induction is easy to find in the history of science, especially scientific laws. I’ll describe a few such cases. I’ll propose that “the Humean problem of induction” simply does not exist when induction is conceived as it was in the Socratic tradition.

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Review of Aristotelian Tradition and Rise of Empiricism

Sgarbi, Aristotelian Tradition and Rise of EmpiricismThe first paragraph of a review of Marco Sgarbi, The Aristotelian Tradition and the Rise of British Empiricism (Springer, 2013), to be published in HOPOS in spring, 2015.

Marco Sgarbi wants to rebut the view that British empiricism had its roots in a revival of Platonism. Instead, he insists, its roots were in the Paduan Aristotelianism of Jacopo Zabarella, inherited, embraced, and developed by a century of British writers. “Put simply, without the legions of forgotten British Aristotelians, there would have been no Locke, no Berkeley, no Hume” (234). To make his case, Sgarbi surveys British writers, forgotten and not, obscure and famous, and successfully shows that wherever you look in British philosophical writings from 1570 to 1689, you find echoes of Aristotle. From these echoes, Sgarbi concludes that the “predominant . . . scientific method” (226) in the days of Gilbert, Bacon, Galileo, Harvey, Boyle, Leeuwenhoek, Hooke, and Isaac Newton was not a confident experimentalism but a skeptical empiricism that would find maturity in Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. The book’s back-cover blurb rightly calls the proposal “radical.”

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Induction in the Socratic Tradition

“Induction in the Socratic Tradition” in Shifting the Paradigm: Alternative Perspectives on Induction, ed. Paolo C. Biondi and Louis Groarke (De Gruyter, 2014)

Here are the first few paragraphs from my contribution to this volume of essays on unconventional looks at induction.

Aristotle said that induction (epagōgē) is a proceeding from particulars to a universal, and the definition has been conventional ever since. But there is an ambiguity here. Did Aristotle mean particular things and universal ideas, or particular and universal statements? Induction in the Scholastic and the (so-called) Humean tradition has presumed the second. Recent scholarship is so steeped in this tradition that we have virtually forgotten the other. But the alternate view prevailed until late antiquity and then again from the time of Francis Bacon until the mid-nineteenth century. This essay seeks to recover that alternate tradition, a tradition whose leading theoreticians were William Whewell, Francis Bacon, Socrates, and in fact Aristotle himself.

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Jacopo Zabarella, On Methods and On Regressus

Spines of Zabarella volumes

A collated Latin edition and original English translation for Harvard University Press’s I Tatti Renaissance Library. Harvard I, II. Amazon I, II. B&N III. From the introduction:

Jacopo Zabarella spent his entire life in Padua, the university town of Venice, one of the greatest intellectual centers in the Europe of his day. He was born to a noble Paduan family on September 5, 1533. He received his doctorate in the arts from the university twenty years later. He was appointed to the first chair of logic in 1564 and—although he did not have a degree in medicine as was typical for the position—was in 1569 appointed to the junior position of extraordinary professor on natural philosophy in the second chair. He was promoted to the first extraordinary chair of natural philosophy in 1577 and the following year published a collection of commentaries, essays, and teaching tools under the title Opera Logica. His largest single work, a commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, was published in 1582. In 1585, he was promoted to second ordinary chair in natural philosophy, the highest chair a native Paduan was allowed to hold. At the time of his death at age 56 on October 15, 1589, Zabarella was the most eminent writer in his field. 

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Myths in the History of Induction

Presentation (ppsx)

A presentation given December 4, 2013, in the New York History of Science Lecture Series, a series sponsored by, among others, the Columbia University Seminar on History and Philosophy of Science and the Gallatin School at New York University.

David Hume had nothing to say about induction. John Stuart Mill did not advocate its use. Francis Bacon did not originate his famous “idols.” And Aristotle did not think complete enumeration was a kind of induction. These are just a few of the myths in the history of induction. They all stem from a failure to recognize two conflicting views about how scientists develop universal statements and laws from particular observations and experiments. Both views go by the name “induction.” In this presentation, Dr. McCaskey will distinguish the views, untangle their entwined history, and show why, for example, we think Hume had something important to say about induction when Hume himself did not.

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When Induction Was About Concepts

Draft (PDF) for a volume on concepts, induction, and the growth of scientific knowledge, that was to be edited by Richard Burian and Allan Gotthelf. Sadly, Allan died in September, 2013. I don’t know the status of the volume.

The first part of this paper summarizes the history of induction. The second part explores three cases in the history of science where an inductive inquiry concluded with universal statements that were true by definition. The statements were both true by definition and true by induction.

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Professor Higgins’ Philosophy of Science: Why Can’t Induction be More Like Deduction?

Draft (PDF)

Draft from September 2010 of an historical account of the philosophy of induction. Too long to be an article and too short to be a monograph, this nevertheless provides an accessible summary of what I have found in my several years’ research into this topic.

» more » Professor Higgins’ Philosophy of Science: Why Can’t Induction be More Like Deduction?

History of the Relationship between Concepts and Induction

Presentation (ppsx)

The kick-off presentation at the Workshop on Concepts, Induction, and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Department of HPS, University of Pittsburgh, September 17–19, 2010.

» » History of the Relationship between Concepts and Induction

Regula Socratis: The Rediscovery of Ancient Induction in Early Modern England

Dissertation (PDF)

My dissertation of 2006. A revisionist account of how philosophical induction was conceived in the ancient world and how that conception was transmitted, altered, and then rediscovered. I show how philosophers of late antiquity and then the medieval period came step-by-step to seriously misunderstand Aristotle’s view of induction and how that mistake was reversed by humanists in the Renaissance and then especially by Francis Bacon. I show, naturally enough then, that in early modern science, Baconians were Aristotelians and Aristotelians were Baconians.

» » Regula Socratis: The Rediscovery of Ancient Induction in Early Modern England
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