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2 The New Philosophy of Science

The new philosophy of science is a point of view with a strong historical and social orientation that has been largely influential in the period going from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is mainly related to the science historian Thomas Kuhn (1970) and the philosopher Paul Feyerabend (1975). Earlier authors who prepared the way are Willard Quine (1953), with his criticism of the possibility of distinguishing between theoretical and observational languages, and Norwood Hanson (1958), who strongly underlined that observations are always theory laden.

A common point of all these authors, even though they could put a different emphasis on it, was the rejection of the theoretical/observational sentence dichotomy on the basis of the claim that observational sentences are always seriously infected by theory, and therefore a pure observational language cannot exist. In fact, they privileged theory over observation, making explicit the view that scientific theorizing is always prior to good experimental practice whereas the standard view, although it is not the case with Popper, privileged observation over theory. As a consequence of the difficulty of tracing a border between theory and observation, they criticized the idea that there is meaning invariance of the observational sentences across theoretical change, thus putting at stake the cumulative view of scientific development. Together with meaning invariance, the objective basis of theory evaluation and theories choice was lost: logic plus implementation of cognitive virtues were no more sufficient to choose the best theory at the bar of evidence, and non epistemic factors, like social and psychological factors, entered the picture beyond the idealized logic of justification. A privileged, intersubjective access to the plane of observation, to what there is, providing one true description of the physical world, was negated.

According to Kuhn's famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution,

scientists always look at the world wearing the glasses of a paradigm. His concept of paradigm has two meanings: in the first meaning, a paradigm is the entire constellation of beliefs, values, commitments, theories, techniques shared by the members of a scientific community; in the second, it is a particular item of this constellation, that is, the models and the exemplars of good scientific practice that exemplify the explicit and implicit rules that guide the problem-solving activities of scientists working within a paradigm. Theories are not superseded by their successors because of an accumulation of evidence against them, or because they are falsified, but because they are less good, in comparison to those theories that supersede them, for solving outstanding scientific problems, and at choosing new relevant scientific problems. Kuhn rejected the idea that knowledge is growing just in case our theories are succeeding in producing better representations of reality. For him a scientific theory is better than its predecessors only in the sense that it is a better instrument for formulating and solving puzzles, and not because it is a better representation of what the physical world is really like.

But Kuhn's theory of paradigms could not provide an unproblematic account of scientific change: if paradigms are incommensurable because there is no meaning invariance across them, so too are the problems they define and the criteria of their solutions. Thus, the way was left open for people who claimed that, in the end, non-epistemic factors are decisive for theory choice. This step was taken by Paul Feyerabend and a new generation of sociologists of science, following in the 1970s the path opened by the The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Feyerabend claimed that the notion that progress in science is made through a paradigm is an illusion, as it is the idea that science is a problem-solving activity. He called himself a 'dadaist' and argued for theoretical pluralism, attacking what he considered the two fundamental claims of empiricism: that new theories must contain or be consistent with the results and the content of the theories they replace, and meaning invariance across theory change. If there is no meaning invariance and if theories can be logically inconsistent with one another, then there is no basis for a unique scientific method which overall guides scientific practice.

The new philosophy of science must be understood in the context of the 1960s: it had a feedback relationship with radical political movements, as for example Science for the People in USA, and in general with the social crisis of science at that time that called into question the faith in science and technology and their beneficial effect on society: Carson (1962), De Solla Price (1963), Rose and Rose (1976). The crisis of the standard view in the field of philosophy went hand in hand with the crisis of the linear R&D model and its view that science and technology, managed by experts, are capable of solving any kind of problem that can arise in connection with economic growth and its impact on society and the natural environment.

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