What is science?

10 Mar, 2015 at 21:07 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments

The primary aim of this study is the development of a systematic realist account of science. In this way I hope to provide a comprehensive alternative to the positivism that has usurped the title of science. I think that only the position developed here can do full justice to the rationality of scientific practice or sustain the intelligibility of such scientific activities as theoryconstruction and experimentation. And that while recent developments in the philosophy of science mark a great advance on positivism they must eventually prove vulnerable to positivist counter-attack, unless carried to the limit worked out here.

My subsidiary aim is thus to show once-and-for-all why no return to positivism is possible. This of course depends upon my primary aim.9781844672042-frontcoverFor any adequate answer to the critical metaquestion ‘what are the conditions of the plausibility of an account of science ?’ presupposes an account which is capable of thinking of those conditions as special cases. That is to say, to adapt an image of Wittgenstein’s, one can only see the fly in the fly-bottle if one’s perspective is different from that of the fly. And the sting is only removed from a system of thought when the particular conditions under which it makes sense are described. In practice this task is simplified for us by the fact that the conditions under which positivism is plausible as an account of science are largely co-extensive with the conditions under which experience is significant in science. This is of course an important and substantive question which we could say, echoing Kant, no account of science can decline, but positivism cannot ask, because (it will be seen) the idea of insignificant experiences transcends the very bounds of its thought.

This book is written in the context of vigorous critical activity in the philosophy of science. In the course of this the twin templates of the positivist view of science, viz. the ideas that science has a certain base and a deductive structure, have been subjected to damaging attack. With a degree of arbitrariness one can separate this critical activity into two strands. The first, represented by writers such as Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Toulmin, Polanyi and Ravetz, emphasises the social character of science and focusses particularly on the phenomena of scientific change and development. It is generally critical of any monistic interpretation of scientific development, of the kind characteristic of empiricist historiography and implicit in any doctrine of the foundations of knowledge. The second strand, represented by the work of Scriven, Hanson, Hesse and Harré among others, calls attention to the stratification of science. It stresses the difference between explanation and prediction and emphasises the role played by models in scientific thought. It is highly critical of the deductivist view of the structure of scientific theories, and more generally of any exclusively formal account of science. This study attempts to synthesise these two critical strands; and to show in particular why and how the realism presupposed by the first strand must be extended to cover the objects of scientific thought postulated by the second strand. In this way I will be describing the nature and the development of what has been hailed as the ‘Copernican Revolution’ in the philosophy of science.

To see science as a social activity, and as structured and discriminating in its thought, constitutes a significant step in our understanding of science. But, I shall argue, without the support of a revised ontology, and in particular a conception of the world as stratified and differentiated too, it is impossible to steer clear of the Scylla of holding the structure dispensable in the long run (back to empiricism) without being pulled into the Charybdis of justifying it exlusively in terms of the fixed or changing needs of the scientific community (a form of neoKantian pragmatism exemplified by e.g. Toulmin and Kuhn). In this study I attempt to show how such a revised ontology is in fact presupposed by the social activity of science. The basic principle of realist philosophy of science, viz. that perception gives us access to things and experimental activity access to structures that exist independently of us, is very simple. Yet the full working out of this principle implies a radical account of the nature of causal laws, viz. as expressing tendencies of things, not conjunctions of events. And it implies that a constant conjunction of events is no more a necessary than a sufficient condition for a causal law.


  1. Thanks for bringing up Bhaskar, be sure to read his main critic Margaret Archer among others. Very dense packaging of your blurb here, though.

    • What text of Archer do you have in mind?

      • M.Archer’s “Realist Social Theory.”

  2. From proto-science to science
    Comment on ‘What is science?’
    “Research is in fact a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant, 1994, p. 31)
    Neither orthodox nor heterodox economics satisfies the scientific criteria of material and formal consistency. Economists cannot explain how the economy works. The profit theory is false since Adam Smith, that is, economists do not understand the two most important phenomena in their universe: profit and income. Economics still stands where physics stood in the Middle-ages before the concepts of force and mass were properly defined and clearly understood.
    Orthodox economics is founded on behavioral assumptions. This has been the wrong starting point because no way leads from there to an understanding of how the economic system works. Critical Heterodoxy is one step ahead insofar as it does not accept the green cheese assumptionism of optimization and supply-demand-equilibrium, yet this is not sufficient to establish a superior paradigm. What we have at the moment is a plurality of debunked theories. This is not a tenable situation. Consequently, Constructive Heterodoxy is focused on the formally consistent reconstruction of the central economic phenomena market, money, profit, employment, etcetera.
    “Economics today is a discipline that must either die or undergo a paradigm shift …” (Kaletsky, 2009, p. 156)
    This is a critical juncture. From the fact that the behavioral axioms of Orthodoxy are forever beyond acceptability does not follow that axiomatization is inapplicable or dispensable. Formal consistency is as important as material consistency. It follows therefore that the axioms of Orthodoxy have to be replaced by the axioms of Heterodoxy (2014). That is in technical terms what a paradigm shift is all about.
    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke
    Kakarot-Handtke, E. (2014). Economics for Economists. SSRN Working Paper
    Series, 2517242: 1–29. URL http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=
    Kaletsky, A. (2009). Goodbye, Homo Economicus. real-world economics review,
    50: 151–156. URL http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue50/Kaletsky50.pdf.
    Klant, J. J. (1994). The Nature of Economic Thought. Aldershot, Brookfield, VT:
    Edward Elgar.
    For the systematic clarifying of foundational concepts see also the references

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