Monday, July 05, 2010

Old ideas just fade away

When we think, talk, act we need a frame of reference that gives it a sense. This is one of the insights so clearly formulated by Wittgenstein’s idea of language games. However, these frames are not fixed and unchangeable and we must be glad that this is so. It is true, fixed frames give stability and they make it easier to see the consequences of what we say and do. But on the other hand, this can become problematic when we discover new facts, encounter new experiences or new circumstances. What to do with them, how to deal with them, when they do not fit our frame of interpretation? Then two things are open to us: either to reinterpret the facts etc. or to change the frame. Both choices seem weird, for aren’t facts facts, and aren’t frames actually also a kind of facts? Nevertheless either happens and can have sense. As for changing the facts, we can come to the conclusion that we were wrong and that from a different point of view, things look different: just as we can mistake a marsh tit for a willow tit, or even think, as was done till not so long ago that it is one species. This is the usual thing: Facts are reinterpreted within a frame, sometimes even so that they are forced to fit within that frame of interpretation. Then the facts are distorted. This happens more often than one might think, and often people do not realize it, when they do it.
However, we can change a frame as well. Then we fit it to the facts instead of the facts to the frame. Happily we do not have to do that often, for it can bring much uncertainty leading to much turmoil in our mind if not in society. It is a kind of revolution, a minor one or a big one, but a revolution it is. It was not without reason that Thomas Kuhn, who described the changes of frames in science, called his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But is it really so that old frames are changed, if there is something basically wrong with them? If Kuhn is to be believed, often it does not happen that way, at least not in science. And I see no reason why what he describes is limited to science. According to Kuhn, it is not so that people change their own frames. New frames and new interpretations are developed, it is true, but they are developed by a new generation of thinkers. Only rarely they are proposed by those few “old thinkers” who have flexible, creative minds. New frames lead always to much opposition, in science as well in society, but gradually the opposition decreases. No, not because of what one might think: that the new ones are better and that those who opposed a new one first, are convinced of its value. That happens, too, but the most important reason that fundamentally new ideas become dominant is simply that the old ones die out, not only in science, as Kuhn pointed out, but in society in general. It is as with the old soldiers in the famous song: Old ideas never die, they just fade away.


Simon said...

Henk It would interesting to see how this working in with meme propagation and death. I would also throw in choice blindness.

I bet that many people think the reason that have such and such a belief is because of such and such reason, when really they just accept whatever is the dominant social meme of that day and rationalise the justification.

When the geo-social'food' that sustains that meme disappears, like a animal population that meme may start to disappear or evolve into something else.

Simon said...

Henk any ideas how this would apply to philosophers and philosophical ideas?

HbdW said...

Hello Simon. Thank you for your reaction. I must say that I did not follow the discussion about memes, so I cannot say anything about it. When people develop ideas, I see it as a psychological question in the first place. People grow up and are educated in certain values and ideas.When you are 20-25 years old, most of your values and your ideas are based on it have been established. What happens then is that you elaborate and develop them and deepens them. Or you just leave them as they are. There are only few people who basically change their opinions yet, and if there are it often happens gradually. People become more moderate in their opinions, for instance. But most older people do not support basically new ideas. That’s the way I see it. Of course there are exceptions and hardly any body is 100% static.
In philosophy you see the same. Positivism faded away, for instance, for most of the bearers of this idea were not personally convinced that they were wrong. But within philosophy much has been said already about it in the discussion around Kuhn’s book. What I wanted to do in this blog is to present it as a sociological phenomenon, since this psychological phenomenon has social consequences. As far as I know this idea has only been studied as an epistomelogical phenomenon, not as a sociological phenomenon.

Simon said...

You could be right about no one having studied it, I just don't know. I do bet you though that todays socities are fundamentally no different than past socities. The overwhelming majority always go wih the flow and that goes for the majority of academcis as well.