Spinney: Why I wrote “Evolutionary Epistemology”

A reader asked about the reference to “Campbell” on slide 38, “Basic Assumptions of Different Orientations,” of Evolutionary Epistemology, whether this was Joseph Campbell, the late American author and scholar of myths. Chuck’s reply:

The Campbell I am referring to is Donald T Campbell. Curiously, I came up with the term “evolutionary epistemology” as a title by myself, when I was asked to brief Boyd’s D&C paper shortly after he died in 1997. This was to a strategy class at the Naval War College. Boyd never heard the term from my lips and I do not recall him ever using it. We often referred to his paper as his learning theory. I remember telling someone that this is really a paper about epistemology.

I added some things to the briefing that Boyd did not talk about in his lecture (especially, the evolution of cosmology) and while working on that part, it came to me that that Boyd’s paper was really about the evolution of epistemology. I am using the term “evolution” in a strict biological sense. So, I coined the the name of the briefing to distinguish it from John’s and to make clear that it was my interpretation of John’s work.

Later someone told me I was discussing things very similar to the work of Donald T. Campbell. And it turns out that Campbell, a social scientist, coined the term in the 1960s. I never heard of him, although he taught at my university (Lehigh), albeit after I had graduated!!!! I did a library search and came up with an article he wrote in 1974 with the same title, which you will find in Chapter II of a book of essays: Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge edited by Radnitzky and Barley (Open Court 1987). This book comes at the evolutionary nature from an entirely different perspective and there is no mention of Heisenberg, Gödel, or the 2nd Law. But many of the ideas overlap and are compatible with each other.

I do not think Boyd was familiar with Donald Campbell’s work, and I only came across it by accident after I prepared the briefing. So, since I evolved the title independently, I decided to keep it. But Campbell’s work (which I have not reviewed in many years) seemed consistent with Boyd’s.

By the way, lots of people were working on the ideas Boyd was exploring. My own favorite remains Jacob Bronowski — he was almost there — making two-way linkages between Heisenberg, Gödel, and the 2nd law, but he never synthesized all three. I think if Bronowski had seen Boyd’s paper, he would have slapped his forehead and said “ah hah!” By the way, Boyd showed the paper to the physicist Freeman Dyson (the three of us were in my office) and Boyd asked Dyson if he saw anything wrong in the argument. Dyson said he did not see any problems with the argument and from what I could tell, seemed to like the paper.

One final point: I do not recall Boyd saying anything about Joseph Campbell’s work or that it influenced his thinking — but that does not mean it did not.

Jacob Bronowski doesn’t appear in the sources for “Destruction and Creation.” There are two listings in the sources for Patterns, for The Identity of Man (1971) and A Sense of the Future (1977). I know that he was also a fan of The Ascent of Man (1973)Those three, plus two copies of The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, are included in his collection at Quantico.  All heavily annotated. 

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