A Night of Serious Drinking and operationalism

A few weeks ago, I read René Daumal’s A Night of Serious Drinking (published as La grande beuverie 1938; translated by David Coward and E.A. Lovatt 1979). I recommend it; it’s a fun and erudite satire — sort of a less political Gulliver’s Travels or a less bitter Jurgen. At times it made me think, “This is clearly an allegory… but of what?” and at other times “Is he satirizing bad scientists, bad writers, bad artists? or all scientists, all writers, all artists?”

Our narrator is being escorted, like Dante, through a series of nested realms in which he encounters various types of preoccupied persons:

[The orderly and I were] now in the midst of the canvas-colorers […] My companion called up a large man dressed like a Spaniard and asked him why he painted.

“Me?” he said. “I’ll tell you: I paint a pear, say. When you have a desire to eat the pear, I’ll be happy.”

The orderly summarized: “To give his fellow man a desire without giving him the means to satisfy it.” And then he questioned another, a portly red-faced man with a blond beard who declared:

“The way I see it, it’s very simple. I stand in front of my canvas [which he was], I look at my apple or cloud, pick up my brush, I select a scarlet [which he did], fling some just there [he almost poked a hole through the canvas], and I exult [he exulted visibly]. I look at my scarlet and then at my courgette or sea-perch; I select a green, bung it just there [he laid about him for all he was worth], and I exult [here he exulted again]…”

We moved on to a third man, who was small and squat with ginger hair, who gave this reply:

“To claim to imitate nature is first vulgar and second sacrilegious; but most of all it is to attempt the impossible. […] To my mind, painting means pressing form and color directly into the service of a freely constructive thought. It means making geometry sing, abstracting the abstract from its own abstraction […]”

“It’s this,” the orderly explained, and showed me shapes traced out with ruler and compass and shaded in with flat colors.

“And it’s very dull,” he added.

Finally our narrator makes his way to Olympus, where a cleverly designed aperture in the floor lets in the smoke of sacrifices from the world below “as in Lucian’s description.” The gods of Olympus are occupied in designing the latest intellectual fashions:

The god of language inhaled the vapors of a punch that was being prepared below in his honor, and familiarly thumped the Primescienter on the shoulder.

“Well now, my dear fellow,” he said. “Ouroborism is henceforth in fashion. What are you doing about it in your area?”

“We have already put it into practice,” said the other. “For instance, we explain that the cow is herbivorous because otherwise it would not be a cow; that the Earth revolves around the Sun because the latter occupies one of the foci of the ellipse annually described by the former; that man seeks happiness because he is endowed with positive eudaemonotropism; that ice floats on water because of its lower density.”

(My thoughts as I read this: Ha, good one. Ha, good one. Ha, good one. How dare you.) The Primescienter continues:

“Quite recently, one of our Scienters has promoted the ‘operational concept,’ which is, he says, a concept identical with the operation one must carry out in conceiving it; in the same way, the concept of a measure is identical with the operation of measuring. Nobody is more ouroboristic than we are, you see.”

I was not so surprised to find out that “operationalism” was in fact a real thing, stemming from the work of P.W. Bridgman circa 1927. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes:

[Bridgman] was both fascinated and troubled by the fact that “essential physical limitations” forced scientists to use different measurement operations for the same concept in different domains of phenomena.

We take it for granted these days that the operation of “holding up a ruler against an object in the same room” measures the same kind of length or distance as “measuring the parallax of a nearby star against the stellar background.” But there’s no particular reason we should take that for granted a priori, is there? Bridgman, 1927:

To say that a certain star is 105 light years distant is actually and conceptually an entire different kind of thing from saying that a certain goal post is 100 meters distant. […] If we have more than one set of operations, we have more than one concept, and strictly there should be a separate name to correspond to each different set of operations.

Besides distance and velocity, consider temperature. The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on operationalism happens to have been written by Hasok Chang, who literally wrote the book on the history of temperature measurement. (Inventing Temperature, 2004. I haven’t read more than the preface, but it sounds fascinating.) Chang invites us to consider

the efforts of the English potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) to extend the temperature scale to cover the very high temperatures in his kilns, at which mercury vaporized and glass melted. All previously known thermometers failed in that pyrometric range, so Wedgwood felt obliged to invent a whole new measurement standard. Wedgwood noticed that very high temperatures made pieces of clay shrink, and created a temperature scale by assuming that the amount of contraction was proportional to temperature beyond “red heat” (defined as 0). As the start of his scale was already beyond the boiling point of mercury, Wedgwood’s scale was wholly disconnected from the temperature scale defined by mercury thermometers. Later, in response to widespread demand to clarify the meaning of his scale in more usual terms, Wedgwood made a translation of his scale into Fahrenheit degrees, by means of an intermediate scale which overlapped with the high end of the mercury scale and the low end of the clay scale. This procedure produced some unlikely numbers — for example, 21,877°F for the temperature of his air-furnace.

It seems that Wedgwood initially did exactly what operationalist conscience would dictate: as the new instrument did not operate in the range of any trustworthy previous thermometers, he made a fresh scale. […] Why did everyone, including Wedgwood himself, feel compelled to interpret the Wedgwood clay scale in terms of the Fahrenheit mercury scale?

At one point, as sometimes happens, I almost forgot I was reading about science and not about C++. Chang writes:

So far I have noted that an operational definition is not sufficient to express a concept’s meaning fully. Going further than that, many critics of operationalism have argued that not every good scientific concept needs to have an operational definition. If operationalism means demanding that every concept and every inferential step should have an immediate operational significance, it constitutes an overly restrictive empiricism. […]

It is often said that operationalism cannot be right because each scientific concept can be measured in various ways. This criticism is based on the presumption that the concept in question has unity, which means that its definition must also be unified. […]

Bridgman’s ambivalence about conceptual unity elicited a serious worry about the systematic import of scientific concepts and theories, most astutely expressed by Hempel. Bridgman’s skeptical caution would result in an intolerable fragmentation of science, Hempel argued. It would result in “a proliferation of concepts of length, of temperature, and of all other scientific concepts that would not only be practically unmanageable, but theoretically endless.” Hempel’s worry was that Bridgman’s quest for safety was blinding him to one of the ultimate aims of science, “namely the attainment of a simple, systematically unified account of empirical phenomena” (Hempel 1966, 94). […] Hempel argued that it was essential to keep this thickening conceptual network systematic and simple; to that end, “concept formation and theory formation must go hand in hand” (Hempel 1966, 97). That, in turn, often necessitated “a modification of the operational criteria originally adopted for some of the central concepts” (Hempel 1966, 95). Operationalism would stand in the way of such flexibility.

Previously on this blog: Auftragstaktik (2021-02-13).

Posted 2021-06-04