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The Orthodox Story

In bartley, kuhn, wittgenstein on 03/07/2011 at 12:31 pm

The orthodox story runs as follows: Kuhn is the philosopher that undermined the philosophical tradition of Logical Positivism. I think this is wrong; Kuhn did not manage to break from the preceding philosophical tradition. His work is laden with principles belonging to the philosophy he was determined to reject. In fact, incommensurability, non-directed progress, rejection of the concept of truth as a regulatory principle, and the very thesis of “world change” are all consequences of the positivist elements Kuhn’s philosophy retains.

From Hume onwards it’s been asserted that there are two types of inference: deductive inference of logic, and inductive inference of the natural sciences. The two apply to different fields and must never be confused. The problem of justifying each discipline is dissolved once we learn not to apply the standards of deductive logic to inductive inference. Induction works in practice, the Logical Positivists said, and its usefulness justifies its use, not any principle of logic. Wittgenstein extended this approach: each field, “language game” or “form of life” has its own standards, principles or “logic”. These need not be reducible to any other standards.

Kuhn – following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps – understands error only in terms of pre-established rules of behavior. After he rejected the correspondence theory of truth, Kuhn saw that the concept of truth can exist only within the context of a linguistic framework. The idea that lexicons or paradigms are not and cannot be true or false per se is but a variant of justificationism: a statement is justified only by accepting certain axioms as true. [1]

In the closing pages of the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn writes,

The developmental process described in this essay has been a process of evolution from primitive beginnings – a process whose successive stages are characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature. But nothing that has been or will be said makes it a process of evolution toward anything. (pp. 170-171) [2]

The correspondence theory of truth is replaced with something much weaker, internal to the paradigm (or lexicon) itself. If a statement can be said to be true or false only within the context of a lexicon, the statement cannot be really true or false. Wittgenstein puts it as follows: “If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false”; and “why should the language-game rest on some kind of knowledge?” [3] Kuhn too says “there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community” (Structure…, p. 94). Truth claims in one lexicon are not relevant to those made in another, nor can truth be applied to a lexicon itself. We must then reject the idea that a theory might reflect the world in some way; their use is to serve a particular function.

Kuhn’s philosophy then, far from the official demise of Logical Positivism, is a natural culmination. This would explain why Carnap welcomed his book so favorably [4]. Stemming directly from Logical Positivism’s dismissal of metaphysics, the task of the philosopher is to clarify and describe the grammar or first principles of of the various kinds of discourse. Wittgenstein again: “we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take place. [5] As Kuhn says, “it is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science.” [6] Her task is to dissolve the “puzzles” or describe the “games” or “rules”. Her task is not to judge, defend, or criticize the content.

When dealing with these forms of foundationalism that branch off from Logical Positivism, there exists only the procedure to discovering justifications. Kuhn’s idea that it is grounded in the acceptance of a paradigm or lexicon; Wittgeinstein’s idea that science is grounded in a form of life; Carnap’s idea that that is grounded in a lingustic framework; Rorty’s idea that it is grounded in the solidarity of a community: each is a return to Hume, for the fundamental idea of each of them is that our knowledge must be grounded if we are to regard it as rational.

This kind of philosophy drastically impoverishes the aim and scope of science by confusing criticism and justification. It busies itself with the act of accepting, rather than evaluating the content; it does away with the growth of knowledge; it breeds incommensurable and distinct areas of knowledge that do not touch on reality, even on peripheral observations; it can only describe the state of affairs within a paradigm or framework, not assess the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of life.


(1) As an aside, modern Christian apologists would say that everyone practices a form of “presuppositionism,” so their belief in a deity is just as irrational as all other beliefs. W.W. Bartley called this the tu quoque defense: if justificationism is accepted as the basis of a theory of rationality, then the foundations will always remain unjustified. Thus, Logical Positivists accept induction on faith much the same as the Christian accepts Christ. All frameworks are on equal footing.

(2) Furthermore, Kuhn says that in history there is

no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like “really there”; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature […] seems to me illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausibility of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. (p. 206)

(3) Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), § 205.

(4) Carnap’s letters to Kuhn, in Goerge Reisch,  “Did Kuhn Kill Logical Empiricism?” Philosphy of Sciecne 58 (1991): 264-277.; some historians dispute this view: Carnap, Kuhn and Revisionism: On the Publication of Structure in Encyclopedia, but I find their arguments unconvincing.

(5) Wittgeinstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 109.

(6) Kuhn ” Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research?“, p. 6 in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.

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