Academic journal article Nebula

Conflicting Values, Priority Disputes, and Scientific Discovery: A Cognitive-Historical Approach

Academic journal article Nebula

Conflicting Values, Priority Disputes, and Scientific Discovery: A Cognitive-Historical Approach

Article excerpt

1.1 Background Analysis: Challenges to the Rationalist Tradition in the Philosophy of Science

One of the leitmotifs in scientific literature, especially standard textbooks recommended for the teaching and learning of science, is the claim that a law of nature or natural phenomenon was discovered by so-and-so scientist at a particular point in time. Logical positivists and falsificationist philosophers of science (the self-styled rationalists) in general, distanced themselves from analysing the "context of discovery" to determine whether epistemologically germane insights or conclusions can be drawn from actual discovery accounts in the history of science. Indeed, the rationalists insist that the process of scientific discovery does not fall within the domain of the philosophy of science proper, on the ground that it involves intuition or insight which is not amenable to logical analysis. Now, although logical positivism and falsificationism disagree on key methodological and foundational issues such as demarcation between science and non-science, the meaning of scientific terms, induction and probability, their leading proponents tended to see the philosophy of science as a discipline in which the quest to elucidate the relatively stable and formalisable logical cum epistemological principles of scientific research is preeminent. (Ayer, 1959; Popper, 1959; Shapere, 1992) However, after the historical turn in the philosophy of science had gained traction from the 1960s onwards, critics of rationalism trenchantly challenged not only the specific theories of the two schools of thought in the philosophy of science concerning demarcation, scientific explanation, the nature of scientific revolution, objectivity and theory choice etc, but also faulted the strategy of approaching the issues and problems of the subject as if they were problems of logic simpliciter. This development was inspired by the works of R. Palter, (1956), M. Polanyi (1958), N. R. Hanson (1958), S. Toulmin (1961), P. Feyerabend (1962), and most importantly T. S. Kuhn (1962, enlarged ed, 1970). Over the years, positivists and falsificationists have considerably elaborated some of their doctrines to meet these criticisms. But many philosophers felt, correctly in our view, that a different approach to the problems of the philosophy of science is a desideratum.

Aside from these developments in philosophy, research findings generated by the history of science revealed important facts which were incompatible with the rationalist conception of science and its historical development. (Wightman, 1950; Butterfield, 1957; Kuhn, 1957; Gillispie, 1960; Dijksterhuis, 1961) For example, as Kuhn realised while grappling with Aristotle's physics in the late 1940s, available historical data refuted the positivist belief that the history of science is mainly a record of systematic abandonment of ignorance, superstition, prejudice and other obstacles to science on the basis of increasing accumulation and expansion of verifiable knowledge--a belief described by Kuhn as "the concept of development-by-accumulation." (Kuhn, 1970:2) Consequently, several older theories that were supposedly overthrown and superseded--Aristotelian and medieval mechanics, geocentric, phlogiston and caloric theories, and so on--were discovered to contain far more than the simple-minded error and superstition usually attributed to them by earlier, less scholarly and more positivistic historians of science. (Shapere, 1992: 33) In a paper entitled "The History and the Philosophy of Science," Kuhn recommended active discourse between historians and philosophers of science. His fundamental work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is an important contribution to the increasing tendency towards historical approach in the philosophical investigation of science, an orientation that has yielded fascinating results which further exposed the loopholes in rationalist research programmes. It also justifies extension of the boundaries of the philosophy of science to accommodate some topics occluded from it in the heydays of positivism. …

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