David Stove

David Stove
David Stove
Full name David Stove
Born September 15, 1927(1927-09-15)
Died June 2, 1994(1994-06-02) (aged 66)
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Australian Realism
Main interests Philosophy of Science, metaphysics
Notable ideas "The Gem"

David Charles Stove (15 September 1927 - 2 June 1994), was an Australian philosopher of science.

His work in philosophy of science included detailed criticisms of David Hume's inductive skepticism, as well as what he regarded as the irrationalism of his disciplinary contemporaries Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend. Also, he marshalled a positive response to the problem of induction in his 1986 work, The Rationality of Induction.

Stove was also a staunch critic of sociobiology, going as far as describing the field as a new religion in which genes play the role of gods.[1]



Born in Moree (a small country town in northern New South Wales), David Stove was the youngest of five children; his parents were Robert Stove, a schoolteacher (d. 1971), and Ida Stove, née Hill (d. 1946). Later, David lived (with his family) in Newcastle, New South Wales before moving south and studying philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1945 to 1948. During his childhood he had been associated with Presbyterianism, but in his teens he became an atheist and, as far as is known, never again espoused any religious belief whatsoever (although, curiously, he retained a lifelong interest in patristic theology, in which he was well read).

At university, like many Sydney intellectuals of his generation, Stove came under the influence of the famously anti-Christian Professor John Anderson. Whilst he did absorb Anderson's realism and impatience with metaphysics, he was later to shake off other elements of Anderson's teaching.

Early on in his undergraduate career Stove was part of a political/bohemian set at Sydney University (some of whom later became part of the "Sydney Push"). Stove flirted with Marxism at this stage, but, on his own admission, abandoned it when he discovered "what real intellectual work was". He eventually became a political conservative, and was later to clash with some of his former comrades.

In 1952 he obtained a lectureship at the University of New South Wales (in the Sydney suburb of Kensington), and in 1960 became lecturer at the University of Sydney, where he eventually became Associate Professor. During the 1970s, his department became infamous for its battles between Marxists and conservatives, these struggles receiving national press coverage. Stove and David Armstrong both resisted what they regarded as attempts by Marxists to take over the department; and the result was that the department had to be split into two new departments. After this split, Stove continued to speak out (notably in the magazine Quadrant) about what he felt were abuses by Marxists and feminists in the University, and was warned that disciplinary proceedings against him would be taken by the University if he did not keep quiet. Former Senator and Cabinet Minister Susan Ryan spoke similarly in Parliament against him. Disenchanted with what was happening in University life and in academic culture at large, he took early retirement in 1987.

Stove had moved out of the city centre to the edge of the Sydney basin at Mulgoa. He was devoted to gardening and preserving the wilderness, although he was sometimes critical of environmentalists. His other great loves in life were his family, Handel, Henry Purcell, old books, and cricket.

In 1959 he had married Jessie Leahy (1926–2001), who had grown up in Queensland before working in Sydney as a pathologist (and who resembled him on religious matters, being an unbeliever from a Presbyterian background). The couple had two children, Robert and Judith.

A lifelong, enthusiastic smoker, David Stove developed debilitating esophageal cancer in 1993. His wife suffered, also in 1993, a massive stroke (although she outlived him by seven years). After a painful struggle with the disease he took his own life on 2 June 1994, aged 66;[1] he hanged himself at his home.


Stove is best known for scathing attacks, especially on Popperian falsificationism, Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism. Some regard him as a witty defender of common sense, who defeated inductive skepticism.[who?] Others, however, reject his arguments for induction and his criticisms of the philosophies of contemporaries Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend.[who?] Some detractors have attempted to portray Stove as a reactionary controversialist.[who?]

Stove also wrote articles on a variety of topics for non-philosophical magazines. He achieved increased prominence in North America in the early 2000s when art critic and conservative pundit Roger Kimball published a collection of his essays. Since his death in 1994 four collections of his writings have been published.

Philosophy of science, induction and probability

Stove's starting point in philosophy of science was the Humean argument for inductive skepticism. Stove was a great admirer of David Hume but thought that this argument (which some contemporary Hume scholars would hesitate to attribute to Hume[who?]) was not only fallacious but harmful in its effects, and was one of the causes (though not the only one) of the "modern nervousness". Stove took it as his main task to refute Hume's inductive skepticism. There were two aspects to this task. The first was negative - to show that Hume's argument failed. The second was positive - to provide a justification of induction.

Stove's argument for the negative task was this. Consider a claim such as "All ravens are black". Hume argued that we don't know this a priori and that it cannot be entailed from necessary truths. Nor can it be deduced from our observations of ravens. We can only derive it from these observations if we add a premise to the effect that the unobserved is like the observed. But we have no a priori justification of this premise, and any attempt to derive it by empirical means would be circular. So Hume concluded that induction is unjustified.

Stove argued that Hume was presuming "deductivism" (Stove's best-known expression of this point was in a paper titled 'Hume, Probability and Induction'). This is the view, explicitly or implicitly accepted by many modern philosophers, that the only valid and sound arguments are ones that entail their conclusions. But if we accept that premises can support a conclusion to a greater (or lesser) degree without entailing it, then we have no need to add a premise to the effect that the unobserved will be like the observed - the observational premises themselves can provide strong support for the conclusion, and make it likely to be true. Stove argued that nothing in Hume's argument shows that this cannot be the case and so Hume's argument does not go through, unless one can defend deductivism. This argument wasn't entirely original with Stove but it had never been articulated so well before. Since Stove put it forward some philosophers have come to accept that it defeats Hume's argument.

The positive task was attempted by Stove in Probability and Hume's Inductive Scepticism (1973) and later in The Rationality of Induction (1986). Stove's principal positive argument for induction was presented in the latter book and was developed from an argument put forward by one of Stove's heroes, the late Donald Cary Williams (formerly Professor at Harvard University) in his book The Ground of Induction. Stove argued that it is a statistical truth that the great majority of the possible subsets of specified size (as long as this size is not too small) are similar to the larger population to which they belong. For example, the majority of the subsets which contain 3000 ravens which you can form from the raven population are similar to the population itself (and this applies no matter how large the raven population is, as long as it is not infinite). Consequently, Stove argued that if you find yourself with such a subset then the chances are that this subset is one of the ones that are similar to the population, and so you are justified in concluding that it is likely that this subset 'matches' the population reasonably closely. The situation would be analogous to drawing a ball out of a barrel of balls, 99% of which are red. In such a case you have a 99% chance of drawing a red ball. Similarly, when getting a sample of ravens the probability is very high that the sample is one of the matching or 'representative' ones. So as long as you have no reason to think that your sample is not unrepresentative you are justified in thinking that probably (although not certainly) that it is representative.

Stove also worked on falsificationism, the raven paradox, grue (color) and inductive logic.

Polemics against Popper and other 'irrationalists'

Stove became best known to the wider intellectual community for his attacks on Karl Popper and his falsificationist philosophy of science, as well as the influential philosophies of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. His book Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists (1982) has been reprinted in two new editions in recent years (under the titles Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult and Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism). In it Stove claimed to expose the methods by which Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend managed to make their purportedly untenable philosophies seem respectable.

One such method, Stove claimed, was the "neutralizing of success words". Stove argued that in the philosophies of these authors such things as progress, discovery, evidence and knowledge do not exist and that if this position were stated openly and consistently maintained then few would ever have taken these philosophies seriously. Stove contended that these authors got around this problem by using these success words, but in scare quotes, e.g., "knowledge". The fact that these words were used regularly, even if in scare quotes, gave the impression that the view being put forward was somehow not rejecting these concepts.

Another method Stove attributed to Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend was what he called the "sabotaging of logical expressions". This was the practise of robbing logical statements of their logical force by placing them in epistemic contexts; for example, instead of saying "P is a proof for Q" one would say "It is generally believed by scientists that P is a proof for Q". This produces what Stove calls a "ghost logical statement": it gives the impression that serious statements of logic are being made when they are not - all that is really being made are sociological or historical claims which are immune to criticism on logical grounds.

Stove charged Popper with enfant terriblisme, claiming that his work was motivated by levity - the failure to take the truth about the topics under discussion seriously. That Feyerabend is guilty of this sin is obvious even to his supporters (nor does he deny it) - but the accusation against the apparently ultra-serious Popper seems at first glance surprising. Stove nevertheless argued that Popper was a product of the "jazz age", where, in the words of Cole Porter, "day's night today" and vice versa - only that Popper's "jazz age" was played out in the intellectual world rather than at bohemian parties.

Kuhn's writings on the other hand are free of levity. Stove said that this is because Kuhn

"is in earnest with irrationalist philosophy of science, while the others are not. He actually believes, what the others only imply and pretend to believe... and he even bids fair, by the immense influence of his writings on 'the rabble without doors', to make irrationalism the majority opinion."

The Plato Cult

The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (1991) was even more controversial than Popper and After, not least for the fact that its analyses were often as sociological or satirical as they were philosophical. Among the topics that Stove attacked were Nelson Goodman's "worldmaking", external world skepticism and solipsism, Popper again, and Robert Nozick's idea that explanation should replace argument (Stove argued that the distinction was vacuous, and a product of the desire to appear non-coercive).

Stove also harshly criticised philosophical idealism. Stove claimed that what George Berkeley did was to try to derive a non-tautological conclusion from tautological reasoning. He argued that in Berkeley's case the fallacy is not obvious and this is because one premise is ambiguous between one meaning which is tautological and one which is not (but which is logically equivalent to the conclusion). Stove concluded that it was hard to avoid the view that idealism is just a religious substitute.

About Immanuel Kant he had this to say:

"Kant's questions are so strange and arresting that no one who has once heard them ever forgets them. It is just the reverse with his answers to them: no one can ever remember what these are! And there is a simple reason for this: the questions never get answered at all. Once they have served as an excuse for the darkening of sufficient area of wood-pulp, they just get lost."[2]

The book ends with Stove claiming to show (in "What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts?") just how easily abstract thought can go wrong, the seemingly endless ways in which it can, and how little we know about these ways. To this end he gave a list of forty propositions about the number 3, all of which he argued demonstrate thought going wrong, and yet we can only say of a few of these what particular "disease of thought" is occurring.

For example:

  • Three lies between two and four only by a convention which mathematicians have adopted.
  • There is an integer between two and four, but it is not three, and its true name and nature are not to be revealed.
  • Three is an incomplete object, only now coming into existence.
  • The tie which unites the number three to its properties (such as primeness) is inexplicable.

In the book Stove also coined the phrase Horror Victorianorum ("a horror of the Victorians") to satirise what he perceived as an irrational modernist distaste for Victorian culture. This concept has been taken up within design and art history in order to characterise unthinkingly visceral dislike of Victorian architecture, art and design.

Political philosophy

After a brief flirtation with Marxism, Stove abandoned the left. His views were summed-up well in his paper, "Why You Should be A Conservative" (reprinted in part as "The Columbus Argument"). His main argument in this paper was that just as there are many more ways to make a television set worse than those which will make it better, so there are many more ways to make society worse than to make it better. If we think otherwise that is only because we have been fed "a one-sided diet of examples", such as Christopher Columbus, Nicolaus Copernicus and Abraham Lincoln rather than Pol Pot, Maximilien Robespierre, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. So the odds are that change will make things worse, not better. Hence it is rational to be cautious and conservative about proposed changes. Stove concluded that there is more reason to discourage innovation than encourage it.

Stove believed that proposed changes should not be radical, that they should be very carefully considered, and should have very good supporting evidence on their side before they are implemented. However, according to Stove, current opinion believed the opposite: the very fact that an idea is an innovation is an argument in its favour, and that we even have an obligation to take innovations seriously simply because they are innovations.

Stove also regularly derided the Enlightenment view of progress. This is the view which John Maynard Keynes attributed to Bertrand Russell: that

"human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally."

There were many people in modern times, Stove thought, who hold such beliefs - that in the past the world was a dark place run according to foolish principles, but that from now on things will be run properly and the world will be vastly improved as a result. But, he asked, what reason do we have to think that darkness is about to suddenly give way to light? Why is it that we will be so much better at running things than past generations? "Education" is the answer that is often given in reply to this question, but Stove was deeply skeptical about the effectiveness of education in making the world a better place. Stove felt that learning has great value in itself, but unlike Plato did not think that the more educated a ruler is the better he will be at ruling.


In his final years Stove began to examine and criticize Evolutionary biology. This surprised and dismayed many of his supporters. However, Stove's attack on biological evolution was not as radical as it appeared - he accepted evolution was true of all living things, and said he had no objection to natural selection being true of more primitive organisms. What he wanted to attack was the allegedly distorted view of human beings proposed by some "Ultra-Darwinists". For example, he misattributed JBS Haldane's famous quip that he would "lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins" to the Oxford biologist W. D. Hamilton, who had recently developed ideas of Kin selection, and suggested that such ideas are probably false, and certainly unverified. Stove argued that these sorts of strong claims are often made by hard-line sociobiologists, yet they are seldom pointed out even by many of their opponents.

Stove also argued that leading evolutionary biologists were confused about altruism, often talking as though altruism didn't really exist and was some sort of sham. What they should have said, Stove contended, was that they had explained the origins of altruism. But the damage has been done, according to Stove: many people now share this suspicion about altruism and this has, at least to some degree contributed to the growth of cynicism and selfishness.

Furthermore, Stove argued that evolutionary theorists have always had difficulties in trying to reconcile their theory with the fact that there appears to be no Darwinian fight for survival in modern times, and Stove harshly criticized what he saw as attempts to patch these perceived holes up by what he calls the 'Cave Men' theory - a view that T. H. Huxley often resorted to - which says that while the "Darwinian struggle" no longer occurs in existing human populations it did so amongst cave-men. The 'Hard Man' says that there is still a evolutionary struggle for survival going on all around us, only we are blind to it (Stove claimed that Herbert Spencer was a Hard Man). The 'Soft Man' however never notices the inconsistency.

Stove also claimed that the simple Malthusian view of population that many evolutionary scientists accept is not true of humans - humans do not continue expanding in population until they have eaten up all of their food supplies which then results in massive deaths from starvation. In fact, the population growth of richer nations is typically slower than that of poorer nations. (This sort of view has been defended in more recent years by population economists such as Julian Lincoln Simon.)

His essays on Darwinism were collected in the book Darwinian Fairytales.

Stove's views on race and gender

Stove made bigoted and sexist arguments in some of his works,[3] most notably in "The Intellectual Capacity of Women" and "Racial and Other Antagonisms" (both of which appear in Cricket versus Republicanism and Against the Idols of the Age). In the former he argued that women are "on the whole" intellectually inferior to men, while in "Racial and Other Antagonisms" Stove asserted that racism is not a form of prejudice but common sense:

"Almost everyone unites in declaring "racism" false and detestable. Yet absolutely everyone knows it is true."

He argued that, while these differences were likely caused by cultural rather than genetic factors, where statistical associations existed it was rational to make decisions based on them. His views led to his being threatened with disciplinary action by Sydney University.

A selected bibliography

  • Probability and Hume's Inductive Scepticism, Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.
  • Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, Oxford: Pergamon, 1982. (Reprinted as Scientific Irrationalism, New Brunswick: Transaction, 2001; and as Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism, Macleay Press, Sydney, 1998.)
  • The Rationality of Induction, Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.
  • The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
  • Cricket versus Republicanism, ed. James Franklin & R. J. Stove, Sydney: Quakers Hill Press, 1995.
  • Darwinian Fairytales, Aldershot: Avebury Press, 1995, repr. New York: Encounter Books, 2006.
  • Against the Idols of the Age, ed. Roger Kimball, New Brunswick (US) and London (UK): Transaction, 1999.
  • On Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Irvine, New Brunswick (US) and London (UK): Transaction, 2002.
  • What's Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Irvine, New York: Encounter Books, 2011.


  1. ^ Against the Idols of the Age (essays by David Stove, editor Roger Kimball), Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, USA, 1999; ISBN 0765800004. page x (lower-case Latin numeral) of Roger Kimball's prefatory essay.
  2. ^ The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies, (Blackwell) Oxford 1991, p. 53
  3. ^ Who was David Stove?, New Criterion, March 1997. http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Who-was-David-Stove--3368

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