Reconsidering Kant, Friedman, logical positivism, and the exact sciences

Philosophy of Science 69 (2):191-211 (2002)
Abstract
This essay considers the nature of conceptual frameworks in science, and suggests a reconsideration of the role played by philosophy in radical conceptual change. On Kuhn's view of conceptual conflict, the scientist's appeal to philosophical principles is an obvious symptom of incommensurability; philosophical preferences are merely “subjective factors” that play a part in the “necessarily circular” arguments that scientists offer for their own conceptual commitments. Recent work by Friedman has persuasively challenged this view, revealing the roles that philosophical concerns have played in preparing the way for conceptual change, creating an enlarged conceptual space in which alternatives to the prevailing framework become intelligible and can be rationally discussed. If we shift our focus from philosophical themes or preferences to the process of philosophical analysis, however, we can see philosophy in a different and much more significant historic role: not merely as an external source of general heuristic principles and new conceptual possibilities, but, at least in the most important revolutionary developments, as an objective tool of scientific inquiry. I suggest that this approach offers some insight into the philosophical significance of Newton's and Einstein's revolutionary work in physics, and of the interpretation of their work by (respectively) Kant and the logical positivists. It also offers insight into the connections between modern philosophy of science and some traditional philosophical concerns about the nature of a priori knowledge.
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