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DAVID STOVE (1927-1994)
(Encyclopedia article by Scott Campbell)
David Stove was born on 15 September 1927, at Moree, New South Wales, a small Australian country town. He later lived in Newcastle, before studying philosophy at the University of Sydney in the mid-to-late 1940’s. Here, like many Australian philosophers of his generation, he came under the influence of Professor John Anderson. He absorbed Anderson’s realism, but was later to shake off other elements of Anderson’s influence.
Early on in his undergraduate career Stove was part of the considerable political/bohemian set at Sydney University. Much of this crowd later became known as the ‘Sydney Push’, which had a tremendous influence on Australian cultural life (an influence which eventually spilled overseas in the early-mid 1960s). Stove flirted with Marxism at this stage, but soon abandoned it when he discovered ‘what real intellectual work was’. He eventually became a conservative, and was later to clash with some of his former comrades.
He obtained a lectureship at the University of New South Wales (in Sydney) in 1952, and in 1960 became lecturer at the University of Sydney, where he eventually became Associate Professor. In the early 1970’s his department became infamous for its internal battles between Marxists and conservatives, these struggles receiving national press coverage. Stove and David Armstrong both strongly resisted the attempts by Marxists to take over the department, and the result was that the department had to be split into two new departments. Stove continued to speak out about what he felt were abuses by Marxists and feminists in the University, whereupon he was warned that disciplinary proceedings against him would be taken by the University if he did not keep quiet. Disenchanted with what was happening in University life, he took early retirement in 1987.
Stove had long ago moved out of the city into the Blue Mountains area, in Mulgoa. An unusual step for a young man to make at the time, he has since been followed by a great deal of the Australian intelligentsia he was trying to escape from. He was devoted to gardening and preserving the wilderness around him, although, as ever apparently contradictory, he could be critical of environmentalists. His other great loves in life were his family, Handel, old books, and cricket. He contracted throat cancer in the early 1990’s, and died in 2 June 1994, aged 66.
Stove is best known for his scathingly funny and stylish attacks of a variety of topics, especially Popperian falsificationism, Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism. He is widely regarded as one of the best essayists philosophy has ever thrown up, one of its greatest defenders of common sense, and easily the wittiest philosopher of all time.
From early in his career he was regarded as a serious, top-flight philosopher of science, and he is still considered by many to have defeated inductive skepticism. He was also someone who always wrote articles on a variety of topics for non-philosophical magazines, an unusual trait even now in a philosopher, and this increased over time, as he became more in demand. As he got older many of his articles and books become increasingly irreverent, witty and devastating, and he acquired a cult following. This following increased in America in the early 2000’s, when Roger Kimball published a collection of his essays, and he became a figurehead of East Coast neo-conservatism. Since his death in 1994 four collections of his writings have been published.
Philosophy of Science, Induction and Probability
Stove considered himself to be at his best when he was critical and negative. This is perhaps true, but his positive work is outstanding as well. Both types of philosophy are exemplified in his philosophy of science.
Stove’s starting point in this area was Hume’s argument for inductive scepticism. Stove was a great admirer of Hume, but thought that this argument (which Hume appeared not to accept later on in life) was not only fallacious, but harmful in its effects, and that in fact it was one of the causes (though not the only one) of the ‘modern nervousness’. Stove traced a direct line from Hume to Popper, to Kuhn, and then to Feyerabend and other irrationalists about science and reason.
Stove took it as his main task to refute Hume’s inductive scepticism. There were two aspects to this task. The first was negative - to show that Hume’s argument failed. The second was positive - to provide a justification of induction.
Stove’s argument for the negative task was this. Consider a claim such as ‘All ravens are black’. Hume pointed out that we don’t know this a priori, and it can’t be entailed from necessary truths. Nor can it be deduced from our observations of ravens. We can only derive it from these observations if we add a premise to the effect that the unobserved is like the observed. But we have no a priori justification of this premise, and any attempt to derive it by empirical means would be circular. So induction is unjustified.
Stove pointed out that in this argument, Hume was presuming ‘deductivism’. (Stove’s best-known expression of this point was in the widely reprinted paper ‘Hume, Probability and Induction’). This is the view, rarely stated explicitly, but implicitly accepted by many modern philosophers, that the only good arguments are ones that entail their conclusions. But if we accept that premises can support a conclusion to a greater (or lesser) degree, without entailing it, then we have no need to add a premise to the effect that the observed will be like the unobserved - the observational premises themselves can provide strong support to the conclusion, and make it likely to be true. Nothing in Hume’s argument shows that this cannot be the case, and so Hume’s argument does not go through, unless one can defend deductivism.
This argument wasn’t entirely original with Stove, but it had never been articulated before so well, and since Stove put it forward, many philosophers have come to accept that it defeats Hume’s argument.
The positive task was attempted by Stove in Probability and Hume’s Inductive Scepticism (1973), and later in The Rationality of Induction (1986). Stove’s best argument for it came in the latter book, and was developed from an argument put forward by another of Stove’s heroes, the late Donald Cary Williams (formerly Professor at Harvard), in his book The Ground of Induction. It is a statistical truth that the great majority of the possible subsets of specified size (as long as this size is not too small) are similar to the larger population to which they belong. For example, the majority of the subsets which contain 3000 ravens which you can form from the raven population are similar to the population itself (and this applies no matter how large the raven population is, as long as it is not infinite).
If you find yourself with such a subset, then the chances are that this subset is one of the ones that are similar to the population, and so you are justified in concluding that it is likely that this subset ‘matches’ the population reasonably closely. The situation is like drawing a ball out of a barrel of balls, 99% of which are red. In such a case, you have a 99% chance of drawing a red ball. Similarly, when getting a sample of ravens, the probability is very high that the sample is one of the matching, or ‘representative’ ones. So as long as you have no reason to think that your sample is one unrepresentative, you are justified in thinking that probably (although not certainly) that it is.
Stove also worked on falsificationism, the raven paradox, grue and inductive logic.
Polemics against Popper and other ‘irrationalists’
Stove became best known to the wider intellectual community for his attacks on Karl Popper’s falsificationist philosophy of science, as well as the influential philosophies of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. His book Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists (1982), has acquired a semi-mythical status in philosophy of science circles, and has been reprinted in two new editions in recent years. In it Stove mercilessly and hilariously exposed the methods by which Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyeraband managed to make their philosophies seem respectable.
One such method was, Stove claimed, the ‘neutralizing of success words’. In the philosophies of these authors, such things as progress, discovery, evidence and knowledge do not exist. If this position was stated baldly and consistently maintained, then few would ever have taken it seriously. These authors got around that fact by using these success words, but in scare quotes, eg. ‘knowledge’. The fact that these words were used regularly, even if in scare quotes, gave the impression that the view being put forward was somehow not simply jettisoning these things.
Another method Stove called the ‘sabotaging of logical expressions’. This was the practise of robbing logical statements of their logical force by placing them in epistemic contexts; for example, instead of saying ‘P is a proof for Q’, one would say ‘It is generally believed by scientists that P is a proof for Q’. This produces what Stove calls a ‘ghost logical statement’: it gives the impression that serious statements of logic are being made, when they are not - all that is really being made are sociological or historical claims, which are immune to criticism on logical grounds.
Stove charged Popper with enfant terriblisme, claiming that his work was motivated by levity - the failure to take the truth about the topics under discussion seriously. That Feyerabend is guilty of this sin is obvious even to his supporters (nor does he deny it) - but the accusation against the apparently ultra-serious Popper seems at first glance surprising. But Stove makes a good case to show that Popper was a product of the ‘jazz age’, where, in the words of Cole Porter, ‘day’s night today’, and vice versa - only (being a priggish person) Popper’s jazz age was played out in the intellectual world of serious intellectual ideas, rather than at bohemian parties.
Kuhn’s writings, on the other hand, are free of levity. This is because, Stove says, he ‘is in earnest with irrationalist philosophy of science, while the others are not. He actually believes, what the others only imply and pretend to believe . . . and he even bids fair, by the immense influence of his writings on “the rabble without doors”, to make irrationalism the majority opinion’. Stove says this is the real reason why Popper dislikes Kuhn: ‘the cruellest fate which can overtake enfants-terribles is to awake and find that their avowed opinions have swept the suburbs’.
The Plato Cult
The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (1991) proved to be even more outrageous than Popper and After, not least for the fact that its analyses were often as sociological and satirical as philosophical, and it confirmed Stove’s reputation as the great scourge of philosophy, past and modern. Among the topics that Stove put to the sword included Nelson Goodman’s ‘worldmaking’, external world skepticism and solipsism, Popper again, and Robert Nozick’s idea that explanation should replace argument (Stove argued that the distinction was vacuous, and a product of the desire to appear non-coercive).
Berkeley and idealism also suffered particularly badly. Stove claimed that what Berkeley did was to try to produce a non-tautological rabbit out of tautological hat (a mistake that philosophers are often prey to). In Berkeley’s case the fallacy is not obvious, and this is because (as is usual in such cases) one premise is ambiguous, between one meaning which is tautological, and one which is not (but which is logically equivalent to the conclusion). Stove concluded that it was hard to avoid the view (which some idealists even conceded) that idealism is just a religious substitute.
About Kant he had this to say:
Kant’s questions are so strange and arresting that no one who has once heard them ever forgets them. It is just the reverse with his answers to them: no one can ever remember what these are! And there is a simple reason for this: the questions never get answered at all. Once they have served as an excuse for the darkening of sufficient acreage of wood-pulp, they just get lost.
The book ends with Stove showing (in ‘What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts?’) just how easily abstract thought can go wrong, the seemingly endless ways in which it can, and how little we know about these ways. To this end, he gave a list of forty propositions about the number three, all of which demonstrate thought going wrong, yet we can only say of a few of these what particular ‘disease of thought’ is occurring.
- Three lies between two and four only by a convention which mathematicians have adopted.
- There is an integer between two and four, but it is not three, and its true name and nature are not to be revealed.
- Three is an incomplete object, only now coming into existence.
- The tie which unites the number three to its properties (such as primeness) is inexplicable.
After his youthful flirtations with Marxism Stove abandoned the left. His views were summed-up well in his paper, ‘Why You Should be A Conservative’ (reprinted in part as ‘The Columbus Argument’). His main argument in this paper was that just as there are many more ways to make a television set worse than those which will make it better, so there are many more ways to make society worse than to make it better. If we think otherwise, that is only because we have been fed ‘a one-sided diet of examples’, such as Columbus, Copernicus and Lincoln, rather than Pol Pot, Robespierre, Hitler, and Stalin. So the odds are that a change will make things worse, not better. Hence it is rational to be cautious and conservative about proposed changes. There is in fact more reason to discourage innovation than encourage it.
This is not to say that we should never make changes, but that proposed changes should not be radical, and they should be very carefully considered, and should have very good supporting evidence on their side before they are implemented. Current opinion, however, said Stove, believed the opposite: the very fact that an idea is an innovation is an argument in its favour, and that we even have an obligation to take innovations seriously, simply because they are innovations. It was this view, Stove thought, that had predictably led to the chaos of modern life.
Stove also regularly derided the Enlightenment view of progress. This is the view which Keynes attributed to Russell: that ‘human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally’. There were many people in modern times, Stove thought, who hold such beliefs - that in the past the world was a dark place, run according to foolish principles, but that from now on, things will be run properly, and the world will be vastly improved as a result. But, he asked, what reason do we have to think that darkness is about to suddenly give way to light? Why is it that we will be so much better at running things than past generations? ‘Education’ is the answer that is the most likely to be given, but Stove was deeply skeptical about the effectiveness of education in making the world a better place. Stove sits on the side of those conservatives who think that learning has great value in itself, but, unlike Plato, does not think that the more educated a ruler is, the better he will be at ruling.
In his final years Stove turned his critical glare on Darwinism. This surprised and dismayed many of his supporters, who were good Darwinists and thought Stove was as well, judging from the way he sometimes spoke. However, Stove’s attack on Darwinism was not as radical as it appeared - he accepted evolution was true of all living things, and said he had no objection to natural selection being true of non-human animals. What he wanted to attack was the distorted view of human beings put about by some Darwinists. For example, W. D. Hamilton, the Oxford biologist and (Richard Dawkins’ mentor) famously said that no-one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for than two brothers. These sorts of false claims are often made by hard-line sociobiologists, yet they are seldom pointed out, even by many of their opponents. (Despite Stove’s attacks on sociobiologists, though, he sometimes talked in ways which seemed very sympathetic to sociobiology).
Stove also pointed out that leading Darwinists were confused about altruism, often talking as though altruism didn’t really exist, and was some sort of sham. What they should have said was that they had explained the origins of altruism. But the damage has been done: many people now share this suspicion about altruism, and this has contributed to the growth of cynicism and selfishness.
Darwinists have always had difficulties in trying to reconcile the supposedly universal nature of their theory, with the fact that there appears to be no Darwinian fight for survival in modern times, and Stove makes good sport out of the often desperate attempts to patch these holes up. What he calls the ‘Cave Men’ theory - a view that T. H. Huxley often resorted to - says that while the Darwinian struggle no longer occurs, it did so amongst cave-men. The ‘Hard Man’, though, says that there is still a Darwinist struggle for survival going on all around us, only we are blind to it (Spencer is a Hard Man). The ‘Soft Man’, on the other hand, never notices the inconsistency.
Stove also pointed out that the crude Malthusian view of population that many Darwinists accept is simply not true of humans - humans do not continue expanding in population until they have eaten up all of their food supplies which then results in massive deaths from starvation. In fact, the population growth of richer nations is typically slower than that of poorer nations.
Stove held opposite views about many things than most other philosophers, both past and modern. This in itself does not make him interesting, nor are those opinions all that uncommon outside Universities anyway. What made Stove a great thinker was the arguments he gave against those things. Stove’s colleague (and literary executor) James Franklin puts it like this: ‘anyone can be against lots of things; the Stove trick was to be against things for reasons one would not have thought of oneself’. Stove’s mix of common-sense backed-up by brilliantly original argument remains unique.
A selected bibliography
Probability and Hume’s Inductive Scepticism, Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.
Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, Oxford: Pergamon, 1982.
(Reprinted as Scientific Irrationalism, New Brunswick: Transaction, 2001; and as Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism Macleay Press, Sydney, 1998.)
The Rationality of Induction, Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.
The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Cricket versus Republicanism, ed. James Franklin & R. J. Stove, Sydney: Quakers Hill Press, 1995.
Darwinian Fairytales, Avebury Press, Aldershot, 1995.
Against the Idols of the Age, ed. Roger Kimball, New Brunswick (US) and London (UK): Transaction, 1999.
On Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Irvine, New Brunswick (US) and London (UK): Transaction, 2002.
Articles (some of these appear in the collections above):
‘Hume, probability, and induction’, Philosophical Review 74, 1965, 160-177.
‘Hempel’s paradox’, Dialogue 4, 1966, 444-455.
(With C. A. Hooker) ‘Relevance and the ravens’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 18, 1968, 305-315.
‘Deductivism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 48, 1970, 76-98.
‘Misconditionalisation’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 50, 1972, 173-183.
‘Why should probability be the guide of life?’, in D. W. Livingston & D. T. King, Hume: A Re-Evaluation, New York, 1976, pp. 50-68.
‘Popper on scientific statements’, Philosophy 53, 1978, 81-88.
‘How Popper’s philosophy began’, Philosophy 57, 1982, 381-387.
‘Paralytic epistemology, or the soundless scream’, New Ideas in Psychology 2, 1984, 21-24.
‘Karl Popper and the Jazz Age’, Encounter 65 (1), June 1985, 65-74.
‘A farewell to arts: Marxism, semiotics and feminism’, Quadrant 30 (5), May, 1986, 8-11.
‘The Columbus argument’, Commentary 84 (6), 1987, 57-58.
‘Righting wrongs’ Commentary 85(1), January 1988, 57-59.
‘D’Holbach’s dream: the central claim of the Enlightenment’, Quadrant 33 (12) December 1989, 28-31.
‘A new religion’, Philosophy 67, 1992, 233-240.
‘So you think you are a Darwinian?’, Philosophy 69, 1994, 267-77.
Department of Philosophy,
University of Nottingham.