View Electronic Edition

What happens with presuppositions such as "Number is Different From Qunanity"?

I have taught various branches of behavioral biology and cultural anthropology to American students, ranging from college freshmen to psychiatric residents in various schools and teaching hospitals. At all levels I have encountered a very strange gap in their thinking which springs from a lack of certain sorts of tools of thought.  This lack is rather equally distributed at all levels of education, among students of both sexes, and among human- -ists as well as scientists.

The lacuna, is, strangely, less conspicuous in two groups of students who might have been expected to contrast strongly, one group with the other. These groups are Catholics and Marxists. Both of these have thought about or have been told about the last 2500 years of human thought, and both groups have some recognition of the importance of philosophic, scientific and epistemologicalpresuppositions. Both groups are difficult to teach because they attach such great importance to "right" premises and presuppositions that heresy becomes for them a threat - of excommunication.

Naturally anybody who feels heresy to be a danger will devote some care to being conscious of his or her own presuppositions and will develop a sort of connoiseurship in these matters.

My subject matter is close to the core of religion and to the core of scientific orthodoxy.  The presuppositions - and most readers need some instruction in what a presupposition looks like -are matters to be brought out into the open.

There is, however, another difficulty which is almost peculiar to the American scene. Americans are, no doubt, as rigid in their presuppositions as any other people (and as rigid in these matters as this writer) but they have a strange response to any articulate statement of presupposition. Such a statement is commonly assumed to be hostile or mocking or - and this is the most serious - is heard to be authoritarian.

It so happens in this land founded for the freedom of religion that the teaching of religion is outlawed in the state educational system. Members of weakly religious families, get, of course, no religious training from any source outside the family; i.e., what they get is from parents who went through the state system.

So, to make any statement of premise or presupposition in a formal and articulate way is to challenge the rather subtle counter-attack, not of contradiction because the hearers do not know the contradictory premises nor how to state them, but of the cultivated deafness which children use to keep out the pronouncements of their parents.

Be all that as it may, I personally believe in the importance of scientific presuppositions, in the notion that there are better and worse ways of constructing scientific theories, and in insisting on the articulate statement of presuppositions so that they may be improved.  Their authority will always,increase as the premises gather more and more verisimilitude.