If you have not yet done so, I want you to read David Stove, one of the best philosophers of the twentieth century, a man who wrote with such clarity and vigor that his writing has often been compared to Fred Astaire’s dancing.
His literary executor Jim Franklin maintains a Stove site, which contains a few reprints of Stove’s works. Unfortunately, as happens with all websites, several of Franklin’s links are now dead. But you can still buy most of Stove’s books.
An annotated list:
- Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, preprinted twice as Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult, and Anything Goes. Popper and After is, somehow, on line freely.
It is from this book that we learn how scare quotes—like those used around the word “truth”—can be used to devastating effect. Stove also teaches us how philosophers like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn “sabotage logical expressions”, a technique used to imply truth while simultaneously denying it.
The first part of Popper and After may be read by everyone. The second part is harder going and contains some hard-core philosophy.
- Evolutionary psychology, memes and Richard Dawkins’s theories in general, and other loose thinking in evolution are taken apart in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution.
This is not—I repeat: not—a criticism of evolution, a theory which Stove says is “overwhelmingly probable” (Stove is a strict logician; no empirical theory can be 100% certain, but it can be 1 – ε certain). It is instead an evisceration of the faulty arguments used by many evolutionary psychologists who purport to have conclusively explained every aspect of human behavior. Stove’s remarks are thus on par with Stephen Gould’s, who frequently claimed that some evolutionary psychologists are more adept at creating “Just So” stories than they were at creating testable theories.
Stove also echoes philosopher Mark Midgley’s devastating critique of memes (see this; I cannot locate her works on line). Midgley is also not an anti-evolutionist. Memes are one of those toy ideas people, especially young people, like to play with that appear solid, but which dissolve like cotton candy in water when examined closely.
- If you are a statistician, logician, or mathematician of any kind, you must read The Rationality of Induction, Stove’s masterwork, a follow up to his Probability and Hume’s Inductive Scepticism. My copy is so marked up, I’m considering buying a new one so that I can start over undistracted.
Not only does Stove amply demonstrate induction’s rationality, he is the first author to have successfully defined what the skeptical thesis of induction is, which is this:
For all e and all h such that the inference from e to h is inductive, and for all tautological t, P(h|t.e) = P(h|t).
I won’t explain that here; but to statisticians it should appear absurd that anybody would believe it. Yet some do. I had a paper once rejected in Bayesian Analysis by a referee who claimed that induction was a “problem”; that is, that the skeptical thesis was true. From a statistician! (Well, a philosopher who does statistics.)
- The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies. An extended critique of idealism, which is the theory that nothing exists except our thoughts. Plato was an idealist, Berkeley perhaps its greatest proponent.
But there are many modern idealists; postmodernism is the most current incarnation. Idealism is also the basis of Stove’s contest—with cash prize!—to find the worst argument in the world. In short form, it is this: “We can know things only as they are related to us; therefore, we cannot know things as they are in themselves.” See this announcement.
From the book, Franklin posts the chapter, “What is wrong with our thoughts.”
- On Enlightenment. This work, though historical examples, illustrates Stove’s conservatism, which is solidly in the Burkean tradition, a tradition which, as readers know, is not always found in America. From the blurb:
Despite their best intentions, social reformers who attempt to improve the world as a whole inevitably make things worse….[T]oday’s social structures are so large and complex that any widespread social reform will have innumerable unforeseen consequences. For example, the welfare state may diminish individual initiative, the use of pesticides may increase the food supply while polluting the water supply, the popularizing of university education may lead to a decline in academic standards….[Government] powers must be limited in order to prevent large-scale damage.
- Cricket Versus Republicanism and Other Essays. Less philosophical, but entertaining works. His more polarizing essays are here: on race, on feminism.
- Roger Kimball brought Stove to the States with his edited volume of essays Against the Idols of the Age. If you’re only going to buy one book, or have only a cursory interest, make it this one. Each essay here appears elsewhere.