‘Observation is theory-laden’ — fashionable philosophical rubbish

15 February, 2016 at 20:14 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 13 Comments

Now our slogan is that observation is theory-laden …

The slogan cannot be literally true. If anything is ‘theory- laden’ it cannot be observation but rather statements made on the basis of observation. Observation is simply an act that humans and other creatures perform, a special kind of event or process occurring in the nervous systems of humans and other creatures. How can an act or event or process be ‘theory-laden’?

It is not seeing (or perceiving or observing) which might be theory-laden, but rather seeing (or perceiving or observing) that something is the case. The cat may see the TV set, as shown by his avoiding it while chasing the mouse. What the cat presumably does not do is see that it is a TV set, because to do that the cat must know what a TV set is or possess the concept of a TV set …

postmodernism2Neglect of this point has produced a lot of bad philosophy. It has led philosophers to claim that observers with different concepts or theories see different things. The Westerner sees the TV set but the Kalahari bushman does not. And this in turn has led to the idea that what is in the world for us to see depends upon what concepts or theories we possess. Thus metaphorical talk about how the ‘world of the Westerner’ differs from the ‘world of the Kalahari bushman’, talk which does no harm when it is merely metaphorical, comes to be taken literally and to do a great deal of harm. It leads to conceptual idealism, in which the real world disappears and is supplanted by a series of different worlds whose varying contents are a function of the concepts and theories of those who live in them. This can entertain : as well as familiar worlds with TV sets in them, there are exciting worlds contaIning spooks and spirits, ghosts. and witches, not to mention stationary earths, substances contain- ing phlogiston, and whatever else can be ‘observed’ by people with false beliefs. But all this, though entertaining, is just philosophical rubbish.

Alan Musgrave



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  1. Kant denied that the ‘thing-in-itself’ could be known. He also made the important statement, ‘percepts without concepts are empty, concepts without percepts are blind.’ Our conceptual frameworks determines our object knowledge and therefore our actions. Concepts however are connected to language and distinct from thought or notions. The dilemma we often face is that our thinking tries to recognize objects but misrecognizes them: labels them incorrectly or does not integrate them with one’s acquired knowledge. There is also the problem of intersubjectivity: getting others to see what we see and accepting possible disagreements.

    • .”Our conceptual frameworks determines our object knowledge and therefore our actions.”

      That is a **different** proposition from the one Musgrave is making, since he is talking about out raw perceptual experience of the world, and you haven’t refuted him on this point.

      Yes, the way we interpret our perceptual experience of the world is determined by our prior assumptions, but this is actually and ultimately quite a trivial point: what matters is: are our assumptions correct?

      It doesn’t undermine the case for a mind-independent objective reality and objective truths about the world.

      See my post here:


  2. Let us not conflate the philosophical with the psychological. We have known for at least 100 years that memory is reconstructed. We also know that perception is constructed. It is not simply making a physical record. Our observations tend to be consistent with our beliefs, whether you want to call that theory-laden or not.

    What is observation is not always obvious. For instance, in the twins paradox in physics one twin stays put while the other goes away and comes back. We know which is which because, while motion is relative, acceleration is not. Now, according to the theory of relativity, each twin observes the other’s clock ticking more slowly than his own. Yet when the wayfaring twin returns, his clock has ticked less than the stay at home twin’s. What does that mean? How do the twins observe each other’s clock? Suppose that at each tick the clocks send out a radio signal to the other twin. At the end of the trip the wayfaring twin has sent out, let us say, 100,000,000 clicks while he has received 108,000,000 clicks. In what sense has he observed his twin’s clock ticking more slowly than his own? Plainly he has a theory about the ticking of his twin’s clock that does not simply depend upon how often the radio signals come in. Observation is theory laden.

    • Does it makes sense to say, “each twin observes the other’s clock ticking more slowly than his own”? If the comparisons are there for anyone to see, then some explanation is required to make this assertion? It other words, it cannot actually be true.

  3. I think your headline is misleading. Musgrave ends his essay, “Observation is theory-laden all right, and we do not need an unacceptable theory of meaning to show that it is. ” He is not calling the notion that observation is theory-laden, rubbish. His scorn is aimed, with questionable accuracy, at a theory of meaning that may confuse names with things, or concepts with existence. Theory-laden observation is something Musgrave ends accepting.
    The part you quote seems to essay a distinction between observation as a act of perception and observation as an act of description, which as far as I can tell, he never quite sorts out. It probably cannot be sorted out. If we studied perceptions as a neuro-psychologist might, we would soon confront how even what philosophers once naively called sense experience is shaped and filtered by unconscious “theories” organizing processes of the neuro-cortex. It would not justify flights of poesy celebrating multiple realities. But, it does leave epistemology without a Chinese wall to separate speculation from experience. Observation is conjectural — something Musgrave seems to accept.

    • Thanks for your comment Bruce.
      I think we agree here. The headline may — if you don’t read the quote, or preferably, the whole article — be misleading. But it’s obvious from actually reading the post, and not only the headline, that Musgrave’s ‘rubbish’ complaint is mainly directed against the ‘claim that observers with different concepts or theories see different things’.

    • “The part you quote seems to essay a distinction between observation as a act of perception and observation as an act of description, which as far as I can tell, he never quite sorts out. It probably cannot be sorted out.”

      This is rubbish: on the contrary, Bruce Wilder, our **sciences of the brain and the mind** can sort out these differences in cognitive perception between individuals.

      E.g., colour blindness: we know some people perceive colours in different ways than others, but science shows us why this happens and the differences in perception. None of this changes the fact that when two people — one with normal colour perception and one with colour blindness — look at an object they are STILL looking at the same basic object with a high degree of consistency. What Locke called the primary qualities (such as size, motion and shape) of the object in our minds are to a very great extent causally determined by the outside world.

      • So, if you describe “the red box” and I lack the capacity to distinguish green from red, how am I to understand your description? I appreciate that some object may exist in the world apart from our description or use of it, but the subject, “the red box”, exists as described only in your relationship with the world. It is only “red” and only a “box” because of your experience and expectations of it. If I take it from you and place it open-side down next to my chair, it becomes for me, the grey-green side table.
        I have no patience for subjectivists, who pretend to doubt the existence of objects or the singular nature of reality. But, there is no use pretending that there is no problem here. Nor in pretending that solutions simple and universal enable to us to disregard these problems of discourse.
        Moreover, these should be profoundly interesting problems for would-be social scientists, whose chosen “objects” of study may well be socially constructed “subjects” such as a fiat currency.

  4. Economics, too, has been ruined by the bigots of common sense
    Comment on ‘”Observation is theory-laden” — fashionable philosophical rubbish’
    It is helpful to distinguish first between naive empiricism/ spontaneous perception and observation. Ultimately, the naive empiricists are the worst nuisance in science. To recall, Galileo argued that the earth moves with high speed. Now, this was big fun for the half-witted empiricists and they told Galileo that they could feel nothing of a motion and asked him mockingly why their hats did not fly away.
    Of course, Galileo could explain the optical illusion of the empiricists with the theory of relative motion but this was complicated/anti-intuitive and spontaneous experience was brain-dead simple. So, Galileo was unconvincing in the court of public opinion. Naive empiricism plays always in the hands of the stupid majority or the bigots of common sense as J. S. Mill called them.
    “People fancied they saw the sun rise and set, the stars revolve in circles round the pole. We now know that they saw no such thing; what they really saw was a set of appearances, equally reconcileable with the theory they held and with a totally different one. It seems strange that such an instance as this, … , should not have opened the eyes of the bigots of common sense, and inspired them with a more modest distrust of the competency of mere ignorance to judge the conclusions of cultivated thought.” (2006, p. 783)
    Naive empiricism relies on the five senses. But the phenomenon of optical illusion shows that perception does not yield a one-to-one correspondence with reality. We know that the railway track never converges but we can clearly see it.
    Theory can therefore be taken as a kind of third eye which helps to see the ‘real’ reality. Observation, then, is theory-laden perception which overrides spontaneous perception.
    “I shall never be able to express strongly enough my admiration for the greatness of mind of these men who conceived this [heliocentric] hypothesis and held it to be true. In violent opposition to the evidence of their own senses and by sheer force of intellect, they preferred what reason told them to that which sense experience plainly showed them … I repeat, there is no limit to my astonishment when I reflect how Aristarchus and Copernicus were able to let conquer sense, and in defiance of sense make reason the mistress of their belief.” (Galileo, quoted in Popper, 1994, p. 84)
    Just because science is anti-intuitive the main problem is how to prove propositions that are directly against the personal experience of any dull bigot of common sense. Theory is a product of imagination and NOT of the five senses.
    “If then it is the case that the axiomatic basis of theoretical physics cannot be an inference from experience, but must be free invention, have we any right to hope that we shall find the correct way?” (Einstein, 1934, p. 167)
    We find the correct way by contionous theory-laden observation. Alan Musgrave, of course, has never found anything of scientific value because he is fully occupied with spreading methodological rubbish.
    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke
    Einstein, A. (1934). On the Method of Theoretical Physics. Philosophy of Science,
    1(2): 163–169. URL http://www.jstor.org/stable/184387.
    Mill, J. S. (2006). A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive. Being a Connected
    View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, volume 8 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
    Popper, K. R. (1994). The Myth of the Framework. In Defence of Science and
    Rationality., chapter Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities, pages 82–111.
    London, New York, NY: Routledge.

    • Sorry Egmont, but quite honestly I do not understand what you are heading at. Did you really READ Musgrave’s article?

  5. A nice quote from Musgrave. He is very much underrated philosopher, and I think Popper has also been much underrated by mainstream analytic philosophy.

    Regarding this issue, my own musings are here:


    • I certainly agree. To me Musgrave is playing in the same division as people like Rom Harré, Roy Bhaskar, N. R. Hanson and Nancy Cartwright. Immensely rewarding to read!

  6. Lars P. Syll
    You say “I do not understand what you are heading at.” I think this is pretty obvious.
    Economics is a failed science. Part of the problem is that economists violate well-defined scientific standards on a daily basis: “If one takes seriously what Popper says about falsifiability and the critical attitude, then the methodological practice of economics is not only mistaken, it is stupid and intellectually reprehensible.” (Hausman, 1992, p. 275)
    The incompetence of economists is only surpassed by the incompetence of economic methodologists. A methodologist who does not immediately see that equilibrium is a petitio principii and that microeconomics is one big fallacy of composition and therefore methodologically forever unacceptable is either blind, stupid, or gutless.
    Instinctively, in order to secure their ecological niche, economic methodologists have pulled out their own teeth, watered down methodological standards, advocated eclecticism/pluralism, and applauded to ‘tennis with the net down’ (Blaug): “The current state of mainstream economic methodology in general, therefore, reflects a polarisation of positions on the role of methodology: the ‘old guard’ traditionalists continue to see methodology’s role as being prescriptive of good scientific practice; the ‘new guard’ deny that role and concentrate on using the methodological perspective as a means of describing the methodology implicit in economic theorising.” (Dow, 1997, p. 80)
    Instead of enforcing the well-defined rules of logical and empirical consistency methodologists turned to description and storytelling: “Much of the work in methodology over the last ten years has thus consisted of methodological analysis of what economists do and how they argue.” (Dow, 1997, p. 78)
    This is how the policemen of science evaded the hard part of their job and made a peep-show of methodology. The ‘new guard’ of methodologists deserves only contempt for bringing down methodology to senseless wish-wash about induction, deduction, and abduction. Alan Musgrave’s piece is substandard in the already substandard discipline of economic methodology.
    What I am heading at is that heterodox economists get the ‘new guard’ of methodologists off their back.
    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke
    Dow, S. C. (1997). Mainstream Economic Methodology. Cambridge Journal of
    Economics, 21: 73–93.
    Hausman, D. M. (1992). The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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