Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence

Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence

Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence

Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence


With the decline of logical positivism after 1950, much work in the philosophy of science has careened toward an uncritical relativistic approach. Many scholars, faced with a choice between a narrowly restrictive positivism and an "anything goes" relativism, have sought to find a middle path in the debate. In this collection of papers, several of which appear here for the first time, Larry Laudan argues that resolving this dilemma involves not some centrist compromise position but rather a conception of scientific knowledge that goes beyond both positivism and relativism. This conception must begin with the rejection of assumptions about knowledge that these apparently opposed positions hold in common. Relativism, for Laudan, is a particularly self-defeating form of neopositivism. In showing the connections between these two approaches and clarifying the positions of such influential philosophers as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, Laudan does the great service of laying the foundation for an account of science that rejects the errors of positivism without providing aid and comfort to the enemies of reason. He also takes a fresh look at many other central issues of scientific philosophy, including the science/non-science demarcation, the underdetermination of theory by evidence, and the contested role of social factors in the legitimation of scientific knowledge. Beyond Positivism and Relativism is a major statement about the nature of science and evidence that will command the interest of philosophers of science, epistemologists, sociologists of knowledge, and all who are seriously concerned about science, scientific progress, and the implications for knowledge in many other fields.


This books consists of thirteen essays. A few have appeared elsewhere and are reproduced largely intact; some are vastly changed from their original form; still others are entirely new. What all have in common is that they take on one or another cherished dogma of one or the other of the two influential epistemologies of science in our time--positivism or relativism. Collectively, they are designed to show that those familiar titans do not begin to exhaust the epistemological options open to us as investigators trying to understand how science works.

As with any book of this sort, the author owes numerous debts. Some are relatively easy to acknowledge, since they involve colleagues who have agonized through drafts of the material published here. Coming in that category are the late Joseph Ben-David, Al Goldman, Adolf Grünbaum, Rachel Laudan, Jarrett Leplin, Andrew Lugg, William Lycan, Peter Machamer, James Maffie, Deborah Mayo, Alan Musgrave, Tom Nickles, Phil Quinn, and Bas van Fraassen. All have saved me from numerous egregious mistakes. I owe a debt of a more fundamental but more intangible sort to Adolf Grünbaum, who has unstintingly served over the past three decades as my philosophical mentor and (though he will be appalled at the term) as my philosophical confessor. I wish him well in his ongoing battle against the forces of unreason.

Several of the chapters here derive from work previously published. I would thus like to acknowledge permission to draw on that material from the following sources: American Philosophical Quarterly, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, The Journal of Philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Oxford University Press, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, the University of Minnesota Press, and the University of Notre Dame Press.

Larry Laudan
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico . . .

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