Sunday, 27 August 2017

Induction and Concept-Formation in Francis Bacon and William Whewell

Portrait of Francis Bacon
Ayn Rand offers a glimpse of the close relationship between induction and concept formation in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Leonard Peikoff mentions the word “induction,” on page 90-91 in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Induction lies at the core of the Objectivist theory of concepts, but, as of now, we have very little information on how induction works. Objectivism still does not have a proper theory of induction.

Today I read a paper by John P. McCaskey, “Induction and Concept-Formation in Francis Bacon and William Whewell,” which offers a good introduction to Bacon’s and Whewell’s ideas on induction.

According to McCaskey, Bacon and Whewell, like Rand, believed that there exists a close association between induction and concept-formation, and by exploring their works we can learn more about this association.

McCaskey begins with an analysis of Bacon’s Novum Organum, which is a 60,000-word treatise on induction. McCaskey observes that “Bacon probably wrote more on induction than all European authors since Aristotle combined.” In Novum Organum, the subject of induction is introduced with these words:

“The syllogism consists of propositions, propositions consist of words, and words are tokens for notions. Hence if the notions themselves (this is the basis of the matter) are confused and abstracted from things without care, there is nothing sound in what is built on them. The only hope is true induction.”

In the above quote, Bacon is claiming that the validity of syllogism rests on induction. It is not only the major premise which depends on induction, but every notion (by which Bacon means a “concept”) which is there in every proportion is dependent on induction. In case the induction is poorly formed, the syllogism is rendered invalid.

McCaskey sums up his discussion of Bacon’s theory with these lines: “Bacon has proposed that true induction is the process by which a predicate notion is properly formed, and if that notion is properly formed, that it can be used in the structuring of an inductive argument in such a way as to yield a valid, certain, and universal conclusion.”

The next section in the paper is on Whewell’s work on induction.  Whewell describes his theory of induction in books like History and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, and in a few articles. According to Whewell, “Induction is a term applied to describe the process of a true Colligation of Facts by means of an exact and appropriate Conception.” A knowledge of the basic outline and terminology of Whewell’s theory of knowledge is necessary to understand his theory of induction.

McCaskey points out that for Whewell every valid induction must be accompanied by a new properly formed conception. “The ―Inductive Step is ―the Invention of the Conception.”

Overall, this is a fine paper, but as it is of only 15 pages it leaves many questions unanswered. I hope that McCaskey will someday publish an expanded version of this paper. Here are a few points for which I would like to have an explanation:

1. McCaskey says in the paper that “David Hume did not write anything skeptical about induction,” but this is contrary to the fact that Hume denied universals and basically concepts, and therefore he is bound to reject induction.

2. McCaskey says that the meaning of the word “induction” has changed from the time of Bacon and Whewell. In what ways has the meaning changed? Some kind of explanation is necessary?

3. The paper does not offer a comparative analysis between Ayn Rand’s ideas on induction, and the theory of induction that Bacon and Whewell have proposed. Also, has Ayn Rand commented on the epistemological theories of Bacon and Whewell?

4. What are the reasons for which Bacon’s theory of induction failed to make an impression on the British empiricists like David Hume?

5. McCaskey left ARI in 2010 in controversial circumstances (Robert Tracinski has talked about this controversy in his article, "Anthemgate"). What I would like to know is what does McCaskey think of the present state of the Objectivist theory of concept-formation and induction?

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