Physicists and Fairies
Arthur F. Bentley
John Jay Chapman to William James: "You said something about a concept. Now what is a concept?.. . Are you sure that there is such a thing? If... the story of one of these concepts were brought before you, would you not. . . quench and dissipate it, and show it to be a mere mist and vagary and never-twice-alike will o' the wisp?.. . I can just imagine your polite `not proven.'... But when you get on your tripod, you go puffing out these things at the top of the smokestack in perfect unconcern." (Harper's Monthly Magazine, Dec, 1936, p. 52.)
William James to John Jay Chapman: "A certain witness at a poisoning case was asked how the corpse looked. `Pleasant like and foaming at the mouth' was the reply. A good description of you describing philosophy.... There are concepts, anyhow." (Letters of William James, II, 321.),
WHEN the layman reads a book or two of popularized physics and then moves solemnly forth, as occasionally happens, to expound some comprehensive doctrine purporting to be built directly out of the materials he has picked up, the type of comment which the physicist will make is plain enough in advance. But why does it so rarely occur to the physicist that others may think of his epistemologizing much what he is sure to think of their quantizing?
The odds for intelligent statement are all in favor of the outsider and against the physicist. Physics offers the world a large amount of firm knowledge. But the philosophical and psychological sectors of inquiry have nothing of that kind to offer. They are at best in a Copernican, perhaps rather in a Ptolemaic, stage;
(133) their keenest investigators know this, and from time to time we find one or another of them breathing the hope that now at last his science is attaining some measure of Galilean directness and simplicity.
The objection is not at all to either physicist or psychologist going into the other's territory, nor to his using as best he can what he finds there. The two fields of work are drawing closer, problems of increasing difficulty are arising, and aid from many sources is needed. The risk is great, but the forays into surrounding fields are apt rather to increase in the near future than to decline. What needs criticism is rather a gullibility in accepting without factual check materials that are tricky enough in the hands of their primary users; and a solemnity in taking a dogmatic stand upon issues which are so obscure, even to the philosophers, psychologists, and logicians who debate them, that these gentry themselves rarely profess to understand one another when their arguments run to a finish.
Psychology—at least the kind of psychology that the physicist is most apt to get his fingers on—deals mostly with fairies, sprites, and spooks. Some of our psychologists, rhetorically speaking, are born fairy-minded, others lapse into it, while still others have fairy-mindedness thrust upon them; it is almost a necessity for their academic and professional survival. I have not the slightest objection to a dainty Titania or a merry Till Eulenspiegel when the time is ripe, but these stodgy spooks that parade the field of modern inquiry in solemn pomp are another matter altogether. They are reminiscent of the mercury of the philosophers which purported to be the soul or essence of ordinary mercury, of vitreous earths, and of volatile principles; they are somewhat less reputable than was, in its day, phlogiston, the principle of inflammability—not fire itself, but that principle of fire by which combustible bodies burned.
The particular spook I propose to examine in this paper is the
(134) concept. This is the one that physicists take so confidingly and regularly, as if by common assent, into their households. The "whence and what art thou?" they do not ask; the "execrable shape" they do not suspect. They never seek to get a specimen in hand. The traditional philosophical and psychological abracadabra suffices to compel their belief. A word or two will be said later about the metaphysical pit from which the concept was first hoisted, but in the meantime the interchange between Chapman and James placed at the head of this essay will suffice for a warning that all the sailing is not so plain.
Physics deals with facts. Fact, conversely, is what physics establishes. Thus our physical knowledge stands securely as our soundest knowledge. These statements, separately or together, in one manner of emphasis or another, have long stood firm for the range of our inquiries into "nature."
Modern relativity and the quantum have brought difficulties; but the very difficulties are invigorating; they enable us to inspect more closely than ever before the issues of `factuality' itself. These issues display themselves in three historical stages, all of which, of course, have correlates at hand contemporaneously for our examination. The first is that in which ordinary perceptions under ordinary descriptions, such as rising suns, flowing waters, and smashing stones, are taken as basically factual; the second is that in which, upon a framework of superfactual space and time, the Newtonian lengths, durations, and masses, and the velocities, accelerations, and forces, take rank as the most assured `facts' of the universe; the third, finally, is the very recent
(135) stage in which the great superfact itself is brought back to its original dependence upon observer or observing mechanism, and in which, more annoyingly still, determinate positions and momentums, when jointly sought, demand capacities from the observer greater than he is able, under sound rules of workmanship, fully to provide.
I spare the reader expansion of these statements or even any attempt at precision for them, and content myself with remarking, (a) that in the first stage the `fact was always `experienced fact' so far as the individual observer was concerned, however rigorously `externalized' it was in its description, and that it always involved the tacit assumption that the individual experiencer was a good center for the universe and a good guarantor of actualities, however trivial he might be otherwise; (Ь) that, in the second stage, the grandiose absolutism was merely a provisional isolation of certain phases of the experienced fact in order to get better working control of other phases; and (c) that, in the third stage, not only do the reputed absolutes again find their way back into ordinary life from whence they came, but the earlier rigidities of externalization are themselves dissolved, and this with no harm to the virility of the `facts'—teste the steady progress the photon makes into domestic service.
Much excited discussion is natural in such a situation as this, with epistemological optimisms and epistemological pessimisms entering a new phase of their ancient war. Such discussions arise, however, in the narrow background of the conventions of the generation, and I confess to little worry over them or their outcomes. I have read a book, and I know that the excited armies of words march up the hill and then march down again, and that the pillars of the temple do not fall. The fact-finders in person look tolerantly on, and their work proceeds unhampered when the time is ripe.
What concerns us here is solely the manner in which physicists reach out for psychological aid—and the type of aid or hindrance that they get—in this new situation which introduces a human variable, or a variable that seems and may possibly prove to be human, into their equations. We shall seek a display of what is
(136) taking place in physical interpretation, with close confinement to actual pages written by actual physicists. The inadequacy and weakness of the daemons which the physicist summons to his aid can in this way most clearly appear. This procedure seems unkind to the particular physicists chosen for exhibit. Perhaps they will feel no need of solace, but if they do, they can find it in the fact that they are chosen not on their own account but because they are typical of many others, and because they hold the most prominent place in the particular locus in which I have sought my immediate materials, namely, the pages of Philosophy of Science. Understand, then, that my sole purpose here is to show what the fairies do to the physicist when they get at him.
So far as my observation goes, there is just one recent physicist who, in extended endeavors to interpret the status of the new knowledge, has in any sense dealt `factually' with the phenomena which he employs from the region of--or better said, from the vocabulary of—the `mental.' He is the one who has shown the least yearning for `mental' support, and the least dependence on it, which is probably a sufficient reason for the degree of `factual' success he has had. Even in the case of this man who is, of course, Percy W. Bridgman—the early Bridgman of the "Dimensional Analysis" (1922) and of "The Logic of Modern Physics" (є927)—he has been so steadily worked on by the Brethren of the Hobgoblin that in his latest book, "The Nature of Physical Theory" (1936), one finds it difficult at times to keep the bold scheme of his criticism and construction free from the fuzzy clouds surrounding. His early work identified and described the `haze' in ordinary observation more efficiently than anyone else had ever done. There he was dealing with the `human' as he found it; but the added degrees of needless obscurity in the later work are not the `human' that he finds, but an intrusion of `bad human talk' that should be got rid of—indeed an intrusion of the very type of bad talking that he had so successfully attacked in earlier work through his displays of meaningless questions and concepts.
What Bridgman did in his early work was to say in effect: "Space and time are right here in my laboratory just as much as they are off at the far ends of the universe. Einstein has destroyed the old self-subsistent space and time I grew up to know. If such a thing as this can happen to the space and time that is right under my hands, then what tests do I have for the validity of my other physical knowledge, and what assurance for its permanency?" Bridgman thus generalized the issues of relativity, and later of the quantum, with respect to himself as observer and operator, in a way that Einstein himself not only has not done, but has rigidly refused to consider as of physical importance.
Bridgman was a worker with high pressures. What he did, he did with his hands. What he talked about, he wanted to talk about competently. This much of bias, if that is what it should be called, we may allege against him from the start. His method in getting his answers was very simple. He just pushed away all the rubbish he found around him without any feeling of awe for it at all; he made fresh, direct observations of the way physicists actually work; and he asked the kind of questions the worker in the laboratory wants, and needs, to have answered. Then he established procedures for answering with a minimum attention to spooks of any kind. In doing this he gave `Empiricism' a modernized dress, both physically and psychologically, and set up programs which are deeply influencing psychologists as well as physicists, and which by all the signs will grow greatly in influence in the future, if their main lines can be kept clear of distortíon.
The wide attention Bridgman has received is in part due to the appeal of his terminology, and more to the fact that he was early in his special field of criticism. His matter-of-fact procedure had the effect of providing his very empiricism itself with an empirical origin, so to speak, which was in sharp contrast with the highly rationalized empiricisms of the preceding generations.6 This characteristic of his work, particularly as it is exhibited in the psychological range, is the one which he himself styles "naïve"; yet it must be regarded as immeasurably superior to the 'sophistication' he manifestly feels he has attained in his later work. This early "naive" approach we are now to examine, keeping always in mind that we are not now interested in his own beliefs or professions of faith—of which a further word later—but solely in his actual practice with hand and pen.
Psychologically what Bridgman did was to make use of the behaving physicist just as he found him in the special case of "himself in his laboratory"—a living, breathing, working organism, dated to his nation and generation, trained to his profession,
(139) and set at a definite position in a long, historical line of scientific advance. Bridgman opened his eyes and took the man he saw himself—and put him to work `performing operations' and `having concepts.' He made little effort to adapt his views to what the well-tailored mind is supposed to be thinking in this generation; he made inquiries, it is true, but found no nutriment in what was offered him, and let it lie. In this early development he made no use at all of the ancient psychological man, possessor of a `mental' faculty, nor of that pseudo-man's successor, a brain, or musculature, or neural or vascular system, or perhaps a "whole-organism' presented as a gnomic `plus' to the organism proper. Neither did he use the faculty-man's ancient rival, the idea-kaleidoscope, nor this fellow's recent successor, the mechanist's gearing of reflexes.
To develop his interpretation Bridgman adopted the two keywords with which everyone today is acquainted, `concept' and `operation.' What the world has to be thankful for and in my judgment will long appreciatively acknowledge is that instead of hunting up meticulous definitions for these words, and then doing his best to degrade himself to the level of his definitions, Bridgman shook the words out like two signal-flags, and planted them, one on each side, to mark out the territories that must be taken into account.
The word `operation' indicates the thing-happening, a specific case of the physical fact as it is taken up by Bridgman for interpretative inquiry. The word `concept' indicates any specific case of the presence or registration of the fact-as-known. In a way, then, but not at all in any of the ordinary ways, `operation' represents the empirical, and `concept' the rational element of the older disputations. The great difference is that the two are not split apart, detached; they are stresses in the one common situation of man-experiencing-fact. And right here is the point at which the primary Bridgman `feel' for his problem is sympathetic, physically and psychologically, to the great requirements of the undertaking.
'Operation' is certainly in the range of things-sensed, but it is with equal certainty in the range of things-planned; and it is planned-things in the specialized forms they have attained as the outcome of long human experience and history. It is experiment and it is fact, and it is technique for getting at fact; it is nature itself passing through the laboratory, but it is nature channelized in apparatus, with the laboratory itself as the sum-total of the apparatus at work in the channeling. Operation is thus experience with empirical emphasis, but it is not at all the ancient and absurd `passive' receptivity assigned in theory to fictive `senses,' nor does it consist of the equally ancient and absurd isolations of fragmentary experiences alleged to be `facts.' What Bridgman put to work in the laboratory was not a robot; neither was it a medicine-man; it was the physicist at work with his hands—himself a phase of the on-going natural process. He put him there with the clear-eyed recognition that where hands are at work, there head is at work also—a simple factual observation that our `mentalists' never can tolerate.
How about 'concept'? Concept also is something the physicist has or does; and just as operation involves planning, so concept involves empirical experiencing—fact—outer world—call it what you will. Simple evidence of this is the ease with which the words "the concept of" can be dropped out of many passages in Bridgman's texts with no noticeable alteration of meaning; as, for instance, where in place of "the concept of space" one may read simply "space." `Operation' and `concept,' therefore, exhibit the characteristics of a common psychological world and of a common empirical world, so that some real possibility exists of development in a common system. They represent, nevertheless, different phases or aspects, of the types most commonly spoken of as "fact" and "knowledge of fact." For the term 'concept,' its extension, the range of its meaning, is plain enough in Bridgman's use; the sum total of concepts is the sum total of knowledge existing at any time.
I have given a great deal of attention off and on for many
(141) years to Bridgman's words `concept' and `operation' with a view to their future possibilities when some one finds a way to produce a really intelligible psychology; and the best way I know to characterize them, in their signal-flag values indicated above, is that operation represents what goes on in the laboratory and concept represents what goes on in the library, the physicist himself in each case being present and at work.
In such a set-up as this it is plain enough that two great lines of inquiry open up. One is into the operations as they affect the concepts; the other into the concepts as they affect the operations. It is equally plain in Bridgman's work that he only undertakes the first of these two inquiries, that being in the field in which he himself controls expert accumulations of specialized knowledge. The other line of inquiry remains open, and is an enormously important line. But it is not sufficient to pick some kind of a concept off the ancient concept-tree to stick in. Much less is known about concepts today than about operations, and much difficult research will be needed before good constructions can be obtained. As to this, a word or two will be said later on. Instead of making a specialized inquiry in this direction, Bridgman just assumes that knowledge in the form of concepts is somewhere around in the neighborhood, and goes ahead. Adopting a common form of word-stress which he himself now and then uses, we may say that in his theory he employs a concept of an operation, but only a notion of a concept.
As to his own view of the `real nature' of his concepts there seems little question. At almost any stage of his career, if one asked him, his answer would doubtless be to the effect that they were a sort of little things kite-tailing along somewhere around a brain. The point about his work—the outstanding point—the great achievement—is that in his original construction he did not use in any way or attempt actually to use these little spooklets. Issac Newton oozed theological speculations and worked long and hard at numerology, and indications remain that he may even have thought better of his output in these fields than of the Principia. But who cares today? The point is that the vermin were kept out of the mechanics and the cosmology. So with
(142) Bridgman. He did not let his 'mentals' and his `consciousness,' nor even his `self-consciousness' and his `solipsistic' soul, operate in his early work; and so long as such things do not operate they do no harm.
In his inquiry Bridgman occupied himself with physical concepts without attempting to differentiate them sharply from nonphysical concepts, if any; he did not even take the trouble to tell us definitely whether he was concerned with all physical concepts, or solely with the good ones, assuming some are bad; he left open various issues as to the presence of `mental' operations alongside the physical operations. These uncertainties are all to his credit, in the sense that an open chasm is less dangerous than one that is camouflaged.
His conclusions themselves he put in a great variety of phrasings, all impressionistic. These are so well known that all I need do is to recall such assertions as that the concept "means" a set of operations, or is "synonymous with," or is "equivalent to," or is "defined in terms of," or "names a group of" operations; or again that operational meaning is "the analysis of what we do," or is found in "making application," or in the statement that we can "maintain correspondences." Here again the very impressionism of his presentation is to his credit. It might be summed up in the statement "you can best keep your head by using your hands." This may not seem such a wonderful delivery; but the merit of it will shine when we come in a moment to examine what happens in the case of a physicist who insists that his head occupies a separate compartment from his hands, and must be appealed to all by itself in cases of deepest need.
Bridgman and Pavlov are akin in a very important characteristic. Pavlov pushed physiology out into psychological territory, and it was precisely because he refused to do any psychology directly that he became one of the world's greatest contributors to psychology. In a very similar sense Bridgman pushed physics out into psychological territory, and just to the extent that he
(143) lets the psychologizing alone he gets sound psychological results. The `Pavlov' I have in mind is, of course, not the caricature offered us by the petty mechanists of the American psychological laboratories any more than the one offered by their distortionist rivals, the `purpositivists.' The real Pavlov is the grand old peasant who saw what he wanted and who went after it, and who was never satisfied until he got things under his own hands in a way that enabled him to talk definitely about them. He first worked with stomach secretions and gained the Nobel prize. He next worked with salivary secretions in dogs, still always the physiologist. He then made the blunt observation that if a dog salivates in response to the presence of meat on his tongue, and if that is a physiological process, the process ought to be just as truly physiological when the dog salivates to the sight of meat two feet away. Why insert a spook in the latter case and not in the former? To answer this, he just eliminated a couple of feet of rigid Newtonian space from his investigational background; and incidentally he did that long before Einstein gave the rest of us the tip.
Pavlov quite early made a further observation which was that when his colleagues in the laboratory attempted to report results in terms of what the dog `felt' or `wanted' or `saw' or `thought' or `knew' they never got anywhere; their reports were always vague and imperfect so that no two workers could come to definite agreement they could stick to. So he issued a rule: Cut out all the bad language in this laboratory, and talk facts. His original collaborator quarreled and went off on his own account; his students were always violating the rule; he himself kept slipping; finally a penalty was imposed, kopeks and rubels, for every offense, and in time precision was obtained in a considerable degree. Outside this `mental' range for the dog, there was much of his work for which Pavlov could not get definite terminology; here he
(144) made no pretenses, but did the best he could and shifted as need arose. Bridgman's best work is like that of Pavlov in both these linguistic attitudes, and Bridgman's later reversion to mentalist terms only serves, it seems to me, to point a moral to the tale.
IV. THE BIRTH OF THE CONCEPT
Before passing to our remaining exhibits we may spend a moment to consider how the concept got into the world. It was not always with us, as some faithful souls so strongly feel. The case was one of mountains in parturition, a mouse being born, but What-a-Mouse! The Middle Ages struggled with their pains for centuries before they recovered sufficiently to attend to the housework again. Men had words, and some of the words were nouns, and some of the nouns named `things,' or at least they named what the men of those days were in the habit of calling 'things.' What, then, did the other nouns name—those upstage nouns such as `animal' or 'virtue'? The official view was that the upstage nouns also named things, and upstage things at that; the heretic view was that the upstage nouns were just words, and that this was all there was to it. Realism on the one side, Nominalism on the other. Along came Abelard, at least so the story goes (for he was the publicity man who got all the headlines) to produce and exploit the `concept.' Here was one of the great verbal triumphs of history. This `concept,' present in mind, was to be `the thing' that the upstage noun named. Thus thing and word were to be alike happy, and each was to have its due. This was plain shenanigan, but it got by.
The British line of descent was in a by-path around the practical-minded nominalist, Hobbes, through the spawn of `ideas' that the conceptualist, Locke, let loose in a Newtonian framework, and past the epic campaign which John Stuart Mill waged
(145) against the shades of Sir William Hamilton, in the course of which he emitted his despairing lament over the wreckage of the human intellect. When George Henry Lewes wrote his history of these events he refused to tolerate even so much as an inkling that anybody could ever have been free from chronic concept-on-thebrain. Today the common sense of the common man never dreams that a word may possibly be something other than a sign of such a concept, or thought, or idea, or whatever he may call it; while in the American laboratories not a tired rat can fall from his perch but some bright-eyed young researcher will discover in him "a concept just like a man's," with never a thought as to what that may be.
The physicist who fails to get the meat of this brief narrative may perhaps be willing to recall the verb `phlogisticate' from the earlier history of his science, and understand me to mean that `conceptualize' and `phlogisticate' are piggies from the same litter. If he thinks I am wrong, all he has to do is to show me a concept in just the same sense he might ask me to show him phlogiston, if I insisted on its presence; which means, of course, showing something definite, and not merely waving one's hand towards a general region of human behavior to which such a word as 'concept' can roughly apply. The physicist is closer to an electron than he is to a concept; he is closer to a light-wave; he is closer to a probability-wave. He has more good sound practical reason for believing that he can some day grasp a `probability' in his strong right hand than that he will ever make contact with a concept in person. All he needs to do is to stop believing-outloud, and try to observe instead just for a moment.
(146) Such is the concept which Bridgman found and casually adopted, but from which he stripped most of the hokum. Without investigating its procedure directly, he allotted it some incidental work to do, but rejected all its claims to dominance.
We turn now to two physicists who are deeply pained by such irreverence and who, in their blacker moments, see in it the overthrow of all knowledge and the destruction of all possibility of attaining knowledge. Margenau says little of Brídgman, but has his eye steadily on him, and brings up the heavy artillery. Lindsay sniffs a beast in the underbrush, dubs it "operationalism," calls it the offspring of Bridgman, and starts to hunt it down with sidearms. Both men place all their faith and hope in the `concept' which they insist must be restored to its ancient
(147) throne, with `operation' reduced to the status of a humble, even if very necessary, slave. The word `concept' is used sparingly by Margenau (about once in two pages), but he has several alternate words, and his heavy specialization, the `construct,' dominates his entire treatment. As for Lindsay he produces 97 concepts in 30 pages of text, among them such specimens as "sophisticated abstract concepts," "intuitive and a priori concepts," "logically indefinable concepts," "instinctive and not analyzable concepts," " `economy of thought' concepts," "symbolic concepts," and "anthropomorphic concepts," apparently finding in them the proper ammunition for non-operational, though still soundly scientific, knowledge.
By distorting Bridgman grossly enough, either man can, of course, readily destroy what he has distorted. Both men distort alike; first by insisting `operations' must be all hands and no mind; second by alleging that no operation in this world can possibly have anything to do with any other operation, not even with its own repetitions of itself. Bridgman may be destroyed either in person or in distortion, so far as we are concerned at the moment; what we are to observe is what the distorters do to themselves.
We shall begin with an examination of Margenau and we shall confine ourselves to the manner in which he undertakes his anti-operational interpretation of physical knowledge, to the coherence of his mechanisms, and to the uses he finds for his construction after he has obtained it. We shall be compelled to omit a
(148) showing of his physical objectives proper, and of his frequently interesting and valuable organization of the physical material; though to give a fair picture of his position all this should be included, especially by way of indicating how readily his normal physics  may be detached from the `mentalist' and `conceptualist' interpretations thrust at it, and how these latter exhibit themselves more as matters of `temperament' than of either `philosophy' or `science.'
The first of Margenau's four papers analyzes causality with special reference to the quantum by the use of a construct, the `state,' the development and application of which is his main contribution to the direct interpretation of the newer theories. The next two papers build a system of what he calls methodology, but which might better be called conceptual mythology, to underlie the construct `state.' His last paper is oriented to issues of truth or fiction in physics; for these return to bother him in ways they never could have done, had the mythology been omitted.
What we should like to be able to do in a case like this is to examine the writer's utterances, which are not only the evidence but themselves the very fact of his construction so far as we can come into contact with it, with as much precision and care as a
(149) physicist would give to a study of tracks in a Wilson cloud chamber. Let the philosophers guess at what men mean and then squabble over their guesses; but we, in sharp contrast, ought to get down to the hard facts of the case, namely the specific assertions that are expressly offered us. We want to find out in which way, or in how many ways, Margenau's sentences curve, and how steadily they hold their curvatures. To accomplish this within any reasonable space we must select and sort, perhaps at times arbitrarily; and we undertake this task here with the disquieting sense that no matter what attitudes we may in this way most firmly assign to him, he will still be able to dig up out of his texts other and contradicting sentences to allege that we are wrong.
A. A Breath of Preliminary Unity. Deep down at the bottom of the pit of knowledge Margenau sees a frightful chasm opening to still lower deeps. Is Nature "merely a complex of awareness" or has it "the status of transcendental objectivity"? (60) [See footnote 17 for method employed in citing Margenau and Lindsay.] To a similar question the early Bridgman had replied that the answer did not make much difference, and that the question was operationally meaningless anyway. Margenau adopts what he says is "the most cautious and possibly the wisest course" by decreeing Nature to be "merely the aggregate of our perceptible experiences." What light this throws into the pit the reader may decide for himself. Margenau makes the further suggestion that by "coining a new and strange term," habita, and substituting it in physics for data, much good would follow.
B. Essential Dichotomy. Physical science, according to Mar-genau, begins with "perceptible matters of fact"; it then places these in "mental custody" where, "in the privacy of one's speculations," they undergo an "act of speculative creation" and become "endowed with abstract properties"; and it emerges again later in "the realm of perceptible facts" (57, 59, et passim). Such phrasings will answer anybody's purposes, anywhere, any-
(150) time, especially under the qualifications Margenau slips into his sentences from the very start; all depends on how they are developed. Margenau's development is to declare a "dichotomy" (50-50); an "essential distinction between two kinds of entity" (170); a "formal bifurcation" necessary "in principle" (179); not "philosophical" and not "artificial" but instead merely such that one cannot "get along with less than two classes of things" (187), and that one errs if one ever ventures a tiny bit to doubt the reality of the "ultimate" abstract (1 87).
One "kind of entity" lies in the general region of `mind' where it includes such items as the `intrinsically non-empirical" (53), the "totally abstract" (169), the "imperceptible concepts" (55), and the "transcendental elements" or "transcendental notions"(52).
The other "kind of entity" lies in the region of `fact,' or `sense,' or `perceptibility'; and while it is asserted just as bravely, it is not pictured so well. Margenau defies the world to get along without the "transcendental notions," but he allows their consort, the "transcendental objectivity," as we have just seen, to become somewhat blurred; and indeed in another passage (345) he even tells us that the split between physical systems and our knowledge of them is not nearly so deep as the general split of epistemology —which to my mind is a very considerable concession to make to the enemy. We find, nevertheless, on this fork of the bifurcation, the "totality of all matters capable of sensory perception" (57, 59), and these must have "attributes of extension and duration" (6o) and are sharply contrasted with items that involve even "simple processes of abstraction" (166).
C. Organization by Concept. Whatever fundamental criticism Margenau directs against Bridgman depends on this "dichotomy" which is unflinchingly vociferous despite the slight lameness in one of its legs. But Margenau's difficulty is that, with too much dichotomy in its materials, science can find no way to make any advance at all. Therefore, having forced a divorce, he now has to engineer a remarriage, or at least some kind of a conventionally tolerated, if not fully solemnized marital status. (Mixed arguments make me sprout mixed metaphors, and I have no inclina-
(151) -tion to apologize, either here or for other passages in this paper.)
He accomplishes this by a process of `conceptualization.' Under a strong declaration of freedom of choice, he establishes the "physical universe" in high estate as number-one Concept. This concept embraces two `classes' or `domains' of concepts—one class "Nature," the other "Constructs of Explanation"; and these he labels "data" and "constructs" for short (59, 61, 166, 174, et passim).
These words, "data" and "construct," have most important functions in his system. When he so desires they indicate `concepts' as here. When he does not so desire, they are bifurcations (as in B, above). They are therefore notably disingenuous; and this is true of them, I believe, not only in his work, but in all those regions of philosophizing from which he acquires them.
D. Chaos out of Cosmos. For all this procedure one can find analogues in Hindu mythology, except that Margenau's course is rather from cosmos to chaos than from chaos to cosmos. The gods wanted to stir up the sea of milk to get hold of the philtre of immortality. Vishnu, masquerading as the big sea-tortoise, sank to the bottom to give leverage for the stirring-stick; Margenau's "aggregate of experience" will do well enough for Vishnu. Out of the sea of milk finally popped up a White Elephant; Margenau's elephant unfortunately rises dichotomized, bifurcated—even, I fear, a bit schizophrenetic. On his back, Indra, Margenau's concept-maker, takes his seat, and proceeds to entrust himself with dominion over the firmament and the atmosphere, and to hold the earth in the hollow of his hand—quite some forerunner of the modern scientist. Our next step is to see what sort of immortal scientificity Margenau-Indra achieves out of it all. Again his sentences need much sorting.
a) The Data. Comparatively little attention is given to these; sometimes they are taken raw, sometimes conceptually; it is hard to disentangle. They include items like "pointer readings," "experimental decisions," and "countings of individual events" (6τ). In one illustration matter is a datum and mass a construct (6τ; and compare 69, footnote). Sometimes the "smallest part of nature" turns up "not a datum, but a collection of data," which
(152) seems hard on the bifurcator (66; though before the paragraph ends, a re-entry of the "single perceptible counter-part" is implied). Sometimes no experiment is practicable except by way of a theory (179) in which case datum is reduced to observation of the type which involves strict passivity in the observer, and this seems hard on the concept-maker.
b) The Constructs. The manipulation of constructs is Margenau's main activity. He offers three classifications of constructs proper, and a fourth classification, not of constructs but of "definitions of constructs," whatever such a distinction may mean. These are:
1. A classification of constructs into five manners of `existence' (164-6). This is not put to direct use, though it has sound value in eliminating various possible confusions and misunderstandings.
2. A classification, described as "more natural" (166) and again as "more qualitative" (174), into "sensible," "pseudo-sensible," and "abstract." Archetype for this is that magnifico among classifications (though hardly a prize-winner in recent physics) into the `absolute,' the `relatively absolute,' and the `relative.' What happens for Margenau is what always happens with classifications of this form. It will suffice to offer a sample or two from among scores:
"All constructs ... possess necessarily some of the characteristics of nature" (170).
"The systems themselves" (abstract systems being here in view, and all systems being constructs) "no longer partake of the attributes of data" (175).
The Hamiltonian operator illustrates constructs that are "totally abstract" and "wholly insensible" (169-7o); but it is "not entirely free from an admixture of sensible and pseudo-sensible constructs" (070); it involves space and time coordinates, and this is as it should be since "every abstract notion, if it is to be intelligible, implies some reference to sensory experience" (171). At a point like this nine days retirement to the desert for silent thought is indicated. The result of meditation will be that Mar-genau is obsessed by visualizability, that he merely suggests
(153) three degrees of it, and that the classificatory pretentiousness adds nothing to the import of his suggestion.
3. A classification of "definitions of constructs," ancillary to a third classification of constructs proper, into two typical forms of definition called "epistemic" and "constitutive" (61-62). The epistemic is approximately `operational' and permits measurement, but the constitutive is much nobler since by it "we are enabled to reason" (6). The far echo of one of Kant's most famous phrases is in this wording. If the question is asked why Margenau offers a classification of definitions separate from that of constructs proper, the answer is probably that he has now reached the particular point at which he must command a dichotomy for his warfare against `operational' physics; and since he cannot exhibit such a dichotomy in the `constructs' directly, he pushes it back into the region of "definitions of constructs," (even though he avoids so much as the implication of dichotomy for the definition-types) and on that basis proceeds to manipulate the definitions speciously with respect to the constructs to uphold his cause. The definitions thus act merely as a `front' in the old Wild West sense. This is at once plain from the uses to which they are put. He now obtains
4. A classification employing the words `system,' `quantity,' and `state,' which takes two forms:
4'; into systems and quantities, wherein the former permit constitutive definition only, while the latter may take both constitu-
(154) -tive and epístemic definition; and wherein the state appears as "a combination of quantities with a system" (64).
4"; into systems, quantities, and states, with the last of these "a third class of constructs" and with the comment that "it is a matter of practical indifference" whether we look upon the states in this way or "as associations of systems and quantities" (70).
Since `state' is Margenau's greatest engine of war, his trusty catapult, one regrets that he should be so unclear about its status under his basic definitions. If (as in 4') a `state' is regarded as a combination or association in which one of its elements is already a combination, we certainly have a right to be told something about ratios, and whether the second stage of combination is merely additive, or involves, so to speak, a second power of the 'constitutive.' If on the other hand (as under 4") the `state' is a third `class,' then we should know its standing under `definition,' if these definitions are to have the authority attributed to them. The sole schematic position Margenau has left open among his definition-types is 'epistemic only'; and the use of this would involve a surrender to Bridgman which manifestly is impossible. If a third type of definition is to be called on for the benefit of `state,' no hint is given us of what this may be.
Difficulties like the above are academic and trivial, however,
(155) compared with what happens when `system,' `quantity,' and `state' are put to work. `System' is handicapped by an unfortunate Siamese-twin-like start in life, since it is not only "constitutive only" but also an "entity," the "notion" of which is "largely carried over from previous physical experience" (Foundations of Physics, p. 401). In neither of its personalities, however, can it very well be quantity or do measuring, since, also from the start, the 'epistemic' is involved in that (63-4). And yet:
"All properties ... with which physical systems are endowed must be measurable" (341).
"There is no consideration which compels that states be directly measurable" (341).
Of course Margenau has an "emergency exit," here as elsewhere. The first sentence above is in terms of "properties," not of "systems" direct, under the super-elegant distinction already noted in the case of electron-as-system.23 This `exit,' however, opens upon a road which runs from a starting point in `reason,' where system is `constitutive only,' past a rough spot in which `properties' (341, et passim) crop out, to a terminus in which the systems have `behaviors' of their own (339). On such a road we need skis, waders, and dancing pumps, all at once. But for the "dichotomies," travel would have been smooth. No doubt Margenau can demonstrate my account here to be false. In doing it, however, he will not `refute' me, but rather illuminate still more brightly my exhibit of a linguistic mess, and of its uselessness.
We could perhaps overlook differences that seem to us incoherent at different stages of his development, or adjust ourselves to them without complaint since we are all errantly human, if only he would maintain separate coherences for the separate stages. But compare now these two sentences:
"A state function ... is not at all linked with physical experience" (344).
"States which ... fail to provide a definite connection with experience must be considered futile" (341).
Again there is a fire exit, but again one might as well stay behind and burn.
Margenau's idolized `mentality' is both origin and shield for these conflicts, giving him hope, or perhaps illusion, that behind the murky words the mind's still shining. It is this `mentality' which produces his concern over `reality' in his final paper, a concern which is intense and unchecked despite the devices he uses to disguise his very preoccupation from himself. After constitutive `system' has bobbed up as behaving `fact,' we find him spending many long pages debating the relative merits of `system' and `knowledge of system' (344, ff.); while even for `state' the comparable question comes up in the form: is it `state' or `representative of state' about which we are now talking? (340).
E. And What Good Came of it at Last? We have exhibited a chaos of inconsistencies and the presence of much wasteful rumination. It is further plain that Margenau violates every canon of simplicity. But he may retort that even though he exhibits inconsistency, wastefulness, and frightful complexity, this is the best one can do these days; and he may insist that despite all its defects the usefulness of his interpretative system still remains. The answer to this is the exhibit of its redundancy. After he has constructed his program, about all he does is occasionally to refer to it. Run through his illustrative matter (174-187) and see if this is not so. After an examination of "elementary diffuseness" which his section heading (174) suggests to be "a result of abstract physical constructs," he sums up: "By placing into prominence certain abstract features which have always been inherent in physical explanation it is possible to reconcile .... etc." (177). This is a sound statement, matter-of-fact and true; it tells exactly what he is doing, and incidentally what everyone else does, but it certainly does not exhibit physical facts in any way as the 'result' of constructs; it is unexceptional so long as he does not attempt to pursue the task, utterly hopeless under his `conceptual' methods, of making a basic development for the word, or procedure, `abstract.' Continuing further with simple, direct statement, he feels apology necessary for his use of a "customary,
(157) technical lingo which obscures distinctions between constructs and data" (178), apparently not noticing that if this `lingo' is proper to the extent he has used it, then the whole distinction between data and construct might as well fall out. He next (179) reasserts his scheme "in principle," but with the admission that "in actual investigations it is often" (he should have said `always') "impossible to maintain a sharp boundary"; and he follows this with a practical statement as to how physicists make theories, but one which has nothing whatever to do with his own interpretative mechanism. Finally, entering upon a longer discussion of certain constructions of Dirac and Fermi, he frankly writes: "We shall exercise little care in distinguishing constructs from data. . . for the result would be. . . tedious" (181). His actual appraisals of Dirac and Fermi are noticeably `operational' in tone.
Margenau's formal opinion has been that the only salvation of physics lies in a "dichotomy," but now after forty pages of dichotomic crutch-building he throws away his crutches and walks like anybody else—practically, instead of dichotomically. We may conclude that his theoretical interpretation has as little to do with physical science as a cutaway frock at a wedding has to do with the simpler facts of life. The world will always, one may suppose, include people who prefer the regalia to the reality. Margenau's essays will have served a useful purpose if they have demonstrated what regalia the physicist can most easily get along without.
Lindsay makes direct assault upon a certain `operationalism' he attributes to Bridgman (456, note). This may be treated much more briefly. It will interest us not only for the display of the weakness of the argument, but by showing how unscrupulous the anti-operational `conceptualist' can become when he goes on the loose with `ideas.'
An `ism,' in the general case, is just a lumping, and so to speak, personalizing, of misunderstandings, as opposed to efforts at their clarification. One thing that Bridgman certainly is not, is the creator of an `ism.' If he has ever used the word 'operationalism' a single time, I have failed to note it; and certainly it is alien to his entire attitude, since salvation from the 'ismic' disease would be one of the surest by-products of any steady operational stress on meanings.
Notice Lindsay's procedure in his first two paragraphs under his heading "Operationalism" (456-7). Watch the words wriggle. Beginning with broad generalizations in terms of meanings and definíngs, he is ready by the middle of the paragraph to assert that the content of an 'operationalist's' thinking is "glass and rubber tubing" and other "actual apparatus." He then admits that this is an extreme statement, and grants the operationalist other methods of defining than this. He next changes the issue to one of consistency, but asserts emphatically that the operationalist has now bound himself to believe very definitely that "no contradictions can ever arise in actual physical situations," and must be willing to trust himself "always. . . to the test of such situations." "This thesis" (meaning thereby apparently the chaotic contents of the two paragraphs) is the `ism' which Lindsay proposes to examine and refute; and he proceeds in his attack without any effort whatever to explain to us what can be meant by a "contradiction" in an "actual physical situation" or why a physicist should find it so appalling to be asked to give his confidence to the "actual physical situation."
"Actually" Lindsay's arguments against Bridgman are as follows: He first assumes naïvely the existence of a certain "purely theoretical" element which involves "ideas in mind"
(159) and "purely mental planning." Putting this "Charlie McCarthy" on his physical lap, and holding his breath till he thinks he has made us believe that his Charlie is radically different from "actual apparatus," he profoundly proclaims that no "apparatus" can get along without "ideas" (457). This proclamation we are supposed to accept as knock-out number one for 'operationalism.' He next asserts a rigorous isolation for all operations, each from every other, and thereby a second time puts 'operationalism' on the floor for the count (458). Fearing, however, that he may have gone too far, he proceeds to assure us, like a true Charlie, that theories require verification, that experimental tests are still useful, and that the goal of physics is still ultimately "to describe physical phenomena"; adding that what he really means to insist on is a reservation of his right to use "concepts which are not defined directly in terms of operations" (459). He is apparently unaware that this matter of 'directly' which I have taken the liberty to italicise in the citation, is the whole issue of inquiry. All he does is to assert a right of `indirection' as over against a crude falsification of `direct'; and there he stops, with no contribution at all to the solution. This, so far as I can find out, is his whole case against Bridgman's critical inquiry into physical knowledge.
He adds, however, a few minor considerations. He intimates that operationalists "flirt with the idea of emergence," leaving the implication that he is referring to Bridgman (465). Apparently he has not read Bridgman's own remarks on emergence ("Nature of Physical Theory," p. 97). He dislikes the way Bridgman talks about `text,' because "although it is of course true," yet "it seems to give a misleading impression" (459). He criticises certain of Bridgman's attitudes towards models, probability and statistics, but in ways only slightly relevant to the issues between `operationalism' and his primordial 'conceptualism.' He winds up with a summary of his overthrow of 'operationalism' by declaring a) that it is fascinating, b) that it casts light, c) that it has weaknesses, and d) that "certainly it would demand the complete scrapping of the well-recognized methodology of physics" (469-70). In other words he credits it with
(160) three trivialities and an absurdity. It is little above the level of devil-worship to believe that any such `ism' as Lindsay's imagination projects could ever have power to work such harm.
What this sort of `conceptualism' does to its advocates is to distract their attention from honesty of statement, and in large measure destroy all their sense of humor. What it does to Lindsay himself may be made evident in three brief examples. In his article on simplicity in physics he arrives at the fine pedagogical conclusion that the theory in physics which is the simplest, and thus presumably the best, is that one which the average student can learn most quickly (166). In his later article he speaks of space and time in mechanics as primitive, indefinable concepts (459), which would seem to indicate very slight effect upon his thought as yet from the Einstein relativity. After having built his main arguments on the "purely mental," he proceeds to set forth all physical theory as "but an attempt to describe" (459), while in the very next sentence he describes description itself as beginning "with certain intuitive and logically indefinable concepts" and advancing to the building of "more elaborate concepts by purely postulational methods." If this be `description,' then Robin Goodfellow is a molecule.
VII. BRIDGMAN AGAIN
We return now to Bridgman in order to inspect the later stages of his development especially as we find it in "The Nature of Physical Theory" (1936).26 His direct criticism of physics remains as fine as ever; the reviewers give it all the good words: matter of fact, common sense, simple, direct, pertinent, hardheaded. Asserting the importance of the "physicist as critic" alongside the "physicist as theorist" he is in position to make sound progress on lines that recall Karl Pearson's use of Cousin's "La critique est la vie de la science" on the title page of the Grammar of Science.
But there is another side to his work. In place of the "naïve" viewpoint he formerly took, he now seeks to insert `foundations' of a kind that require him "to map out the possibilities and limita-
(161) -tions of the human mind in dealing with the problems presented it" (2). The world's long delay in getting to close quarters with this type of inquiry is probable evidence how much more difficult it is than the problems physics itself has solved. But Bridgman is not timorous. `Operationally' his indicated course would seem to be increasing caution and precision in the use of the words he draws from the surrounding psychological vocabulary in the general region he describes as that of `concept'; but this does not appeal to him at all. He simply adopts `mind' the way he has heard about it somewhere, and seeks results as mighty as Margenau's out of materials as frothy as Líndsay's.
The moment he starts his examination he finds himself involved with `thought' and `language,' and with their status with respect to a something known as `experience' (15). He is in the world's worst bog, but he goes merrily ahead. He gives us a chapter on thought and language, another on logic, and two on mathematics. Our complaint is not that he makes this inquiry, but that in it he employs all the bad devices he had ejected from physics, exploring, thus, "the properties of our mental processes" (13) by the aid of `essentially,' `vitally,' `absolutely,' and `intuitively.' The outcome for thought, language, and experience is as follows;
First Language must be differentiated from Experience. This is the way it is done (24) :
"Activity is the basal property of all our experience."
"Language as language is divorced from activity."
"Language must be language used."
"Language used is obviously an activity."
The physicist, when he goes outside of physics, and whether he be concept-adorer or operation-priest, seems wholly without sense of linguistic shame. The comment here must be the same as
(162) in the similar case for Margenau. If one must write contradictions such as these, why write at all? But this is not the worst. Bridgman next finds it necessary to differentiate Language from Thought, and this he does as follows:
"The primary tool of self-conscious rational thought" appears to be "the tying up of experience into bundles which are capable of recognition" (26).
"Language separates out from the living matrix little bundles and freezes them" (24).
If Bridgman's exhibit of "the living matrix" is different from his exhibit of "experience," or if his "tying up" is different from his "freezing," then I am criticising him unfairly. But I find no difference in his account. `Operationally' he shows us Language and Thought as `the same,' as far as he goes. If they are in any sense `the same,' then he ought to treat them so. But he does not. Quite the contrary. He thrusts them very far apart, even though he has nothing but conventionalized emotion to support him. Consider this:
"The two are not identical; thought is infinitely the richer, for it may contain awareness of the continually shifting background of connotation that is incapable of expression in language.... Thought is thus closer to experience than language" (26).
These words are all muddy; and the implication that a thing " `is infinitely' this because it `may contain' that" is certainly queer for a realist to give us. But observe also how easily the assertion can be turned upside down with equally plausible results, as thus: "Language is infinitely richer and closer to experience than thought because it joins issues with precision, sweeps the cobwebs away, and pockets its gains," these motley nouns and verbs being just as safe and sane as any Bridgman uses.
All depends on what one thinks is `rich' or `close.' Some like the gravy and some like the meat; but you can't build much muscle out of casual, personal preference.
Bridgman does, indeed, seek more definite statement than this, but never, so far as I have noted, without a hesitating qualí-
(163) -fication. Consider the words I have permitted myself to italicise in the following:
"Modes of thought ... are possible from which the yerbal element is almost entirely absent"; also some which go on "without consciously getting onto the verbal level" (25).
"The use of language is an activity" but "the fundamental device of practically all thought" is "analyzing experience into static bits with static meanings" (58).
Minor illustrations of the outcome of such procedures as the above abound. One will suffice. Bridgman repeatedly examines certain questions about pi (41, 43, 47),especially as to whether men had a right to say that it was either transcendental or not transcendental in 1 88 1, the year before a proof was offered that it was. Somewhere in his discussion Bridgman applies his word `meaningless,' but we can go a bit further than he does, and apply it even to his discussions of such issues, in which nothing can be found that is either appetizing or edifying. So vague is his wording that I would not even attempt to state precisely what the issue is. In front of me lie comments by four men, all no doubt impressionistic: one says Bridgman thought the question meaningless in 1881, another that it was meaningless to ask the question in that year, a third that Bridgman held the transcendental pi did not exist in that year, and a fourth that if he did not hold it non-existent, he should have, in order to be consistent. Bridgman is not that vague, of course; but his background of discussion is. He is far remote from operational procedure; and his recent shift in the type of his analysis bears most of the responsibility.
VIII. FAINT HINT
A physicist cranking an ancient car with worn gears and leaky valves would never say: "What a wonderful machine. Its `spirit' is right. I will use no other." Why, then, when he needs a behavioral carriage for his science, should he hold to a broken-down psychology of antiquated model?
What difference can it make to the physicist whether `ideas,' `concepts,' `minds' really `exist' or not, or whether anybody else thinks they exist or not? He has long since overcome his old imagined dependence on the `reality' of physical objects as a necessary presupposition for scientific work; he did not overcome this dependence because he wanted to, but because he had to; because the only way he could acquire sound physical descriptions was by abandoning some of his older rigidities.
The sole issue of scientific importance with regard to the `mental' is whether the mentalist vocabulary offers a sound technique for description or whether it does not. We know it does not. No one can put it to work properly. The more earnestly one tries, the better one understands its radical deficiencies. Modern logic offers a horrible example. We have examined what certain physicists have tried to do with it. We may feel assured that their failures are not those of personal incompetence, but instead of the tools they have attempted to use, and of their almost hypnotic belief in the efficacy of such tools.
The `mental' cannot help other sciences because it cannot help its own. It is a breeding place of `schools,' on the side of theory as well as on that of practice. Psychoanalysis is in illustration with its messes of Cs, Ucs, and Pcs, remote from possibility of scientific usage. Faculties and associations of ideas, reflexes and brain cells have had sounder scientific purpose, but no greater constructive success.
The strength of the `mental' in the past has rested in the certainty—as great a certainty as we can say we possess anywhere
(165) —that we confront actual phenomena, namely the behaviors of men, which do not attain adequate description in terms of spatial coordinates, and which thus, in a properly technical sense, do not exist "in space" at all.
The physicist may remind himself, however, that the `space' out of which `mental' phenomena have been ejected was the old absolute space-form of Newton, which was postulated as if something over and above all the events which happen within it. Despite the value this space-form retains, it can now no longer pretend to such great dominion. The new spaces that are succeeding it are much more tolerant to behavioral description. But they are more than this: they bring a new freedom to the enquirer into behavioral phenomena to construct and postulate whatever spaces he himself may need in which to examine his behavioral events; they come with the assurance that the sole criterion of their own validity and worth will be the success of the descriptions made by their aid.
Since the `mental' as we have known it in the past was a squeeze-out from Newtonian space, the physicist may be asked to ponder how it can still remain a squeeze-out when the space out of which it was squeezed is no longer there to squeeze it out.
If this faint hint aids the physicist it will only be as he learns to distrust the reports of the pre-scientific psychology and do some of his spade-work himself.