Being Charitable to Scientific Controversies: On the Demonstrativity of Newton's Experimentum crucis

The Monist 93 (4):640-656 (2010)
Abstract
Current philosophical reflections on science have departed from mainstream history of science with respect to both methodology and conclusions. The article investigates how different approaches to reconstructing commitments can explain these differences and facilitate a mutual understanding and communication of these two perspectives on science. Translating the differences into problems pertaining to principles of charity, the paper offers a platform for clarification and resolution of the differences between the two perspectives. The outlined contextual approach occupies a middle ground between mainstream history and sociology of science, bracketing questions of rationality, and individual coherence-maximizing, rationality-centered approaches. It can satisfy those, who believe that science is an epistemically privileged endeavor, and its epistemic content should not be neglected when reconstructing the scientists’ positions. It can also satisfy those who hold that it is naive to believe that the immediate context, e.g. the challenges to a theory, the expectations of the author about his audience, etc., does not affect the position a scientist takes. Its theoretical considerations are exemplified with a close study of the debate following the 1672 publication of Newton's theory of light and colours, also offering a novel reading of the development of his methodological views concerning the demonstrativity of the famous crucial experiment. Although we only show the capacity of the framework to analyze a direct controversy, given that it is hard to think about any scientific text as detached from an argumentative context, this approach has the potential to be a general guide for interpretation.
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