Peirce and the Incommensurability of Theories

The Monist 63 (3):316-328 (1980)
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Once upon a time a version of positivism prevailed in the philosophy of science. A key assumption made in positivism is that there is a class of observations - I will call them ‘basic observations’ - that are independent of theory. Basic observations are expressed in a non-theoretical or purely descriptive language: they refer to no postulated entities and presuppose no explanatory hypotheses or other logically contingent propositions. Theories, according to this philosophy, are admissible in science only if they are capable of yielding some implications about the basic observations that would be made under various conditions. Theories that provide entirely different accounts of the physical world can be compared by comparing their implications for basic observation. And they are tested by comparing these implications to the basic observations that are actually made. As a general rule, if one theory is replaced by another, then all basic observations that confirmed the first must also confirm the second, but not conversely. Thus, despite revolutions even in our most fundamental theoretical conceptions, there is or can be a cumulative growth of our strictly empirical knowledge.



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