Review of Kitcher: "The advancement of science: Science without legend, objectivity without illusions" [Book Review]
Philosophical Explorations (1995)
Philip Kitcher's book begins with a familiar historical overview. In the 1940s and 50s a confident, optimistic vision of science was widely shared by philosophers and historians of science. The goal of science was to discover the truth about nature, and over the centuries science had advanced steadily towards that goal; science discerned the real kinds of things of which the world was composed and the causal relations between them; the methods of science were rational and its deliverances objective; and so on. Only where science failed in some of these respects was there any need to provide external, that is social, political, or individual, explanations of scientific belief. In the late 50s, and especially subsequent to Kuhn's classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all this started to change. Historians increasingly insisted that the development of science must be treated just like any other cultural process, which meant embedding the narrative of the growth of scientific knowledge fully in the social and political context in which it occurred. This suggested that the view of science as deriving from a uniquely rational process could no longer be sustained. And, notoriously, Kuhn argued that science could not be seen as cumulative across the most dramatic changes in scientific theory. Though philosophers have never given up entirely on the old optimistic picture ("Legend" as Kitcher refers to it), its influence has steadily waned. For various reasons philosophers have become increasingly concerned over whether one could believe scientific claims to be literally true. And influenced by Duhem's thesis, revived by Quine, that scientific theory must always be underdetermined by empirical evidence, they became more sympathetic to the possibility that scientific belief must be explained, at least in substantial part, by much more than the rational objective processes envisioned by Legend. These philosophical doubts existed in uneasy tension with more extreme tendencies toward thoroughgoing relativism or skepticism, and with the movement in the sociology of science to see the whole concern with truth and falsity as an irrelevant diversion.
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