International Studies in Phenomenology and Philosophy

Series | Book | Chapter


Scientific revolutions

the view from inside and the view from outside

Emiliano Trizio(UWE Bristol)

pp. 381-384


Thomas Nickles' central thesis, namely that "there is a double asymmetry in the importance of incommensurability as it concerns philosophers and scientists' (p. 352) invites us to reflect on the status of the philosophical and historical accounts of science. Traditional philosophers of science, along with philosophically minded historians, are criticized on the grounds that they surreptitiously identify scientists' problems and concerns with their own. According to Thomas Nickles, Kuhn himself, who has contributed probably more than anyone else to the rise of historical philosophy of science, is not exempt from this criticism: his effort to cast light on the true nature of science, by looking at historical records and by reconstructing the invisible revolutionary structure they seem to reveal, has been partly vitiated, if I understand correctly, by two kinds of "professional biases." Given that Kuhn and his followers were philosophically minded historians, it is not surprising that their biases should derive partly from their philosophical interests and partly from the requirements, and even the constraints, that characterize historical researches as such. As far as philosophy is concerned, the so-called historical turn has been mainly motivated by the intent to overthrow the "received view" about science developed by the logical empiricists. Scientific revolutions and incommensurability have thus become the watchwords of those who aimed at showing that the Wissenschaftslogik was unable to give a satisfactory account of scientific knowledge. Indeed the shift from the lofty realm of formal logic and semantics to the more down-to-earth vicissitudes of the history of science was still motivated by philosophical worries exogenous to the actual preoccupations of working scientists. The main consequence of this dialectical faithfulness to the agenda set by the logical empiricists has been an undue insistence on the representational character of both continuity and discontinuity in the evolution of science. Let us now turn to the second set of biases, namely those deriving from the historical research. As Nickles says, historians write narratives and the very structure of narratives encourages them to emphasize whatever allows the arrangement of huge amounts of little events and details in a coherent, well-structured and readable form. Sharp breaks, rapid upheavals followed by Orwellian occultation of the loser's good reasons provide the narrative frameworks needed by historians. Now, Nickles' central thesis can be summarized by saying that scientists do not really experience these kinds of representational breakdowns, they adapt rather easily to representational change and disagreement at the verbal level while, instead, they find it difficult to cope with "disruptive change" at the level of the practices characterizing a certain research field. This is, in turn, a consequence of the fact that researchers are less interested in the representational content of science, than in the heuristic and potential dimension of the available ideas, procedures and technical means, which have to constitute viable and promising tools in the open and project-laden horizon of research. We could say that for a today's researcher scientific work is successful mainly insofar it leads to more scientific work. A double shift of the focus of philosophical analysis is thus needed, on the one hand from the context of justification to the context of discovery and, on the other hand, from representational contents to practices. I will now try to make a few related remarks.

Publication details

Published in:

Soler Léna, Sankey Howard, Hoyningen-Huene Paul (2008) Rethinking scientific change and theory comparison: stabilities, ruptures, incommensurabilities?. Dordrecht, Springer.

Pages: 381-384

DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-6279-7_25

Full citation:

Trizio Emiliano (2008) „Scientific revolutions: the view from inside and the view from outside“, In: L. Soler, H. Sankey & P. Hoyningen-Huene (eds.), Rethinking scientific change and theory comparison, Dordrecht, Springer, 381–384.