The Revolution in Philosophy of Science

1. The Situation in Philosophy of Science circa 1960: The empiricist consensus had been challenged on a variety of issues:

a) Problems with the HD attempt to justify the acceptance of scientific laws in terms of
"confirmation" by particular observable instances, distilled into the "gruesome raven paradoxes,"
and the morass into which they led, bred a distrust of the E.C.'s assumption that scientific
knowledge owed its authority to a comfirmationist "logic" founded upon an empirical bedrock
foundation. The raven paradox told philosophers that what counts as "empirical evidence" cannot be
expressed just in terms of a logical relation between observational and theoretical statements; too
much counts as evidence. The grue paradox pointed to the fact that far too many theories -in fact
an infinite number- count as "confirmed" on the basis of a HD view of justification. This unhappy
conclusion was named the "empirical underdetermination" of theory choice by evidence.
b) Problems with the attempt to "reduce" the theoretical vocabulary to the observational
vocabulary enhanced this distrust and reinforced the slide away from foundationalism towards a
conventionalism. But not only were the EC philosophers unsuccessful in the hoped-for reduction,
they were not even successful in drawing the line between the two! Nevertheless, the whole
empiricist tradition from which these philosophers had sprung demanded just this distinction for it
was essential to the basic idea of justification in terms of a logical relation between statements
reporting empirical evidence and statements expressing general laws and principles essential for
scientific explanation.
c) Furthermore, problems with the alleged empirical "foundation" had already begun back in
the 1930's with the general failure of the sense data theory of observation and its replacement by a
physicalism which invited a conventionalist, anti-foundationalist, understanding of "observation
statements." The fact that many observable properties turned out to be unobservable "dispositions"
was unacceptable to most empiricists. But by the 1960's the attack on the foundations came to a
head under the banners of "theory-ladeness" and "holism". Advocates of opposed theories will, in
some sense, "see" different "worlds." Thus empirical evidence cannot dictate which theory to
choose. Furthermore, that choice is not a question over the acceptance or rejection of individual
statements on the basis of particular pieces of evidence, but is over total "global" sciences on the
basis of "the whole field of experience."
 
2. The Revolutionary Changes: As a result of this weakened condition of the EC, externalist worries over the cavalier dismissal of "real" science in favor of elaborating a "rational reconstruction" of an ideal science -what a science ought to be, caused many scholars of science to begin to question the entire EC approach to the philosophy of science. In the "revolution" in philosophy of science which ensued, not only were philosophers changing their image of science, they were also changing their image of the philosophy of science. Understanding this upheaval requires understanding change at both levels, and how they interacted.
 
a) With respect to science itself, philosophical attention now turned towards "real" science
which was presumed to be described by the historical record. Getting at that history proved to be
somewhat more controversial than originally imagined, no doubt, but rather than dampening the
enthusiasm for history-based philosophies of science, that fact only intensified the enthusiasm for
doing more historical research, which increased hugely in the volume of its output and its role in
academe. Obviously the new focus on the historical record brought into relief the fact that what
counts as science is not static, but changing. Thus in the new image there is a focus on
development over time as the essential feature that an adequate philosophy of science must account
for, replacing the foundationalists' concern with "justification by empirical evidence." Insofar as the
term "progress" is often used to characterize such historical changes, this new interest change of
belief made an examination of the nature of scientific progress a central task of the philosophy of
science.

b) If the character of real science is not really captured by the empiricist image of
justification, what is it that science is involved in? One might say that the answer which came was,
"a variety of things." Perhaps the main thing was something like "solving problems"; but another
important concern was described as "unification" of disparate phenomena by "constructing" a
consistent and comprehensive world-picture. Such a construction is based on more than empirical
evidence, as the empirical underdetermination of theory choice dictated, and advocates of rival
theories will of course appeal to different claims that each presents as "empirical evidence."
Thus conventionalist constructivism pushed out empiricistic foundationalism.

c) The move to conventionalism away from foundationalism brought other consequences.
The former fixation on the unity of science which held that all sciences shared a common "method"
for justifying their claims now was replaced by an emphasis on the claim that methods are not
either fixed in time or common to all sciences. In major episodes of change in science, scientific
revolutions bring about not only changes in methods, but even changes in the aims or goals of
scientific inquiry. Thus the new philosophies of science fixed their gaze on revolutionary changes.

d) A concern with such changes naturally gave rise to the question of what reasoning
process(es) scientists employed in their decisions to embrace such revolutionary changes in their
theories, methods, and goals, i.e. what "rationality," if any, governs the historical
evolution/revolution of scientific change. For many it seemed that the abandonment of
foundationalism could only lead to the answer, none at all; for others this answer was held to be
premature, unsupported by the evidence, and little short of scandalous. This led to a major
philosophical debate which came to be called "the rationality crisis."

e) With these changes in the image of science which philosophers dealt with, there came
about a correlative transformation in the image of philosophy of science. The old ideal of a
normative philosophy of science which prescribed what good scientists ought to do, was replaced
by an historicist or descriptivist philosophy of science that claimed to present a faithful image of
the historical reality. This meant that the older concern with logical questions of justification was
replaced with an attempt to draw lessons for scientific methodology from the historical record. In
stark contrast to their former aloofness from history, philosophers of science now had to become
historians of science, too.

f) Furthermore, one could not provide an accurate image of real science and still ignore the
social setting in which scientific research takes place and the actual biographies of the persons
involved. So not only history, but also the sociology of science became of essential concern to the
philosophy of science. Social institutions obviously involve commitments to a wide variety of
"social values"; thus the philosophy of science could no longer presume the hallowed empiricist
dichotomy between factual and normative claims, which allowed the usual image of science as a
value neutral, purely factual enterprise.
 

3. In this situation, so ripe for revolution, one particular new image of science, that presented by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which first appeared in 1962, and was revised in 1970, came to be at the center of attention of much of the discussion. Although Kuhn explicitly talks about precipitating a revolution in philosophy of science, Kuhn's work did not "create" that revolution, and indeed he stresses that it is already underway. Ironically, although Kuhn began as very much an advocate of such a revolution, the course of the transformation in philosophy of science soon left Kuhn himself in its wake, and he spent most of his subsequent career attempting to defend a more conservative position that his more revolutionary advocates wanted to attribute to him. Nevertheless, as the idol of the new philosophy of science, a position Kuhn himself never wanted to hold, his vocabulary and his agenda of problems became the staples of philosophy of science for more than a decade.