On the historical origins of the contemporary notion of incommensurability: Paul Feyerabend's assault on conceptual conservatism

This paper investigates the historical origins of the notion of incommensurability in contemporary philosophy of science. The aim is not to establish claims of priority, but to enhance our understanding of the notion by illuminating the various issues that contributed to its development. Kuhn developed his notion of incommensurability primarily under the influence of Fleck, Polanyi, and Köhler. Feyerabend, who had developed his notion more than a decade earlier, drew directly from Duhem, who had developed a notion of incommensurability in 1906. The idea is that in the course of scientific advance, when fundamental theories change, meanings change, which can result in a new conception of the nature of reality. Feyerabend repeatedly used this notion of incommensurability to attack various forms of conceptual conservativism. These include the logical positivists’ foundational use of protocol statements, Heisenberg’s methodological principle that established results must be presupposed by all further research, attempts to separate philosophical accounts of ontology from physics, Bohr’s principle of complementarity, and logical empiricist accounts of reduction and explanation. Focusing on the function of the notion of incommensurability common to Feyerabend’s various critiques explicates Feyerabend’s early philosophy as a series of challenges to forms of conceptual conservativism.Keywords: Incommensurability ; Paul Feyerabend; Thomas Kuhn; Pierre Duhem; Wolfgang Köhler; Ludwik Fleck
Keywords incommensurability Kuhn Feyerabend
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsa.2005.04.003
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Thomas S. Kuhn (1991). The Road Since Structure. In A. Fine, M. Forbes & L. Wessels (eds.), Philosophical Quarterly. Philosophy of Science Association 2-13.

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