The Rush-Lakatos Connection: It All Adds Up
What in the world do Rush and the late Hungarian philosopher Imre Lakatos have in common? And why is his image featured so prominently on this blog?
I ask because George Reisch, editor of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series from Open Court Press, of which the book Rush and Philosophy is a part, was wondering about the connection. I just reviewed his essay, “Rush’s Metaphysical Revenge,” which was one of the chapters in Rush and Philosophy, and after I sent him a link to the review he turned his attention to my use of Lakatos’ image:
I’m just perusing Robert Freedman’s Rushvault blog (including a very nice review of some guy’s contribution to Rush and Philosophy) and who should I see but. . . No, not Ayn Rand: Imre Lakatos, the hungarian philosopher of science . . . . (go to his blog)
So, what’s the connection? Well, let me crack my knuckles and explain . . .
Lakatos was a one-time communist who focused on the philosophy of mathematics and science. His biggest claim to fame, to put it in simplest terms, is his idea that failed experiments don’t necessarily negate a hypothesis as long as the overall core of the idea continues to progress. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you believe Four Loko would make a good weed killer. You pour a can of it on some weeds in your lawn and the weeds remain but some kind of fungus appears. So, your experiment fails but your hypothesis continues to progress because something is happening. You just have to figure out what.
As Lakatos has put it, “No experimental result can ever kill a theory; any theory can be saved from counter-instances either by some auxiliary hypothesis or by a suitable reinterpretation of its terms.”
Lakatos theory fits snuggly between two rival theories: Karl Popper’s contention that science progresses by a series of falsifications: as hypotheses are falsified through failed experiments, theories are discarded, and Thomas Kuhn’s idea about paradigm shifts. (Yes, he’s the one to blame for that buzzword from hell!) Once too many experiments fail to corraborate ideas that fall within a paradigm, researchers shift to a new paradigm. Old paradigm: Four Loko is a weed killer. New paradigm: Four Loko is not something you want to introduce to your body.
Lakatos’ theory is sometimes referred to as progressive research, and it certainly characterizes the evolution of Rush’s ideas over the years. As Neil has said in interviews and his books, he and the others were taken by Ayn Rand’s ideas early on but they quickly progressed beyond objectivism to something much more balanced: a broader focus on individualism. In other words, after objectivism failed to kill the weeds, they turned their attention to the far more fruitful pursuit of individualism and humanism.
But Lakatos was also a student of Popper, the great British philosopher, and Popper won my trust with his critique of Plato’s idea of the Forms—which, coincidentally, is the very same thing that Reisch’s essay in Rush and Philosophy tries to do.
In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper says academics have consistently failed to see Plato’s ideas about Forms for what they are: figments of the totalitarian imagination.
Plato says everything is an imperfect replication of an ideal Form, and in government, a philosopher-king should rule over people because only a lover of wisdom and knowledge—that is, someone who pursues knowledge of the ultimate Form of the Good—can rule people in the best way. What can be more undemocratic than that?
In any case, Reisch in his Rush and Philosophy piece challenges the idea that there’s an objective Form of rock and roll and in essence says that music critics, in acting as if there’s an objective standard against which all rock and roll should be measured, are in effect acting as pholospher-kings who’ve pronounced judgment on Rush’s music and say it doesn’t measure up, kind of like the priest in “2112” saying of the guitar: it doesn’t fit the plan.
So, a thumb’s up to Lakatos, who also, it should be mentioned, eventually had himself kicked out of the communist club. (Most Hungarians up to World War II weren’t communist by choice, in any case.) No doubt he used a bit of progressive research to reach a more democratic and individualist conclusion about politics.
A thumb’s up as well to the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, a great idea, and to George Reisch’s lively and thoughful blog, Popular Culture and Philosophy. I also commend this nice graphic touch on his blog:
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault