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Practice, Reason, Context: The Dialogue Between Theory and Experiment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Timothy Lenoir
Department of HistoryProgram in History of Science, Stanford University


Experiment, instrumentation, and procedures of measurement, the body of practices and technologies forming the technical culture of science, have received at most a cameo appearance in most histories. For the history of science is almost always written as the history of theory. Of course, the interpretation of science as dominated by theory was the main pillar of the critique, launched by Kuhn, Quine, Hanson, Feyerabend, and others, of the positivist and logical empiricist traditions in the philosophy of science. Against Carnap, Hempel, Nagel, and Popper, who accorded observation reports an independent status either as a source of inductive support or as a basis for the falsification of scientific theories, Hanson and Kuhn emphasized the theory-ladenness of observation. They made this central point – that all observation is shaped by reference to theory – the cornerstone of a full-blown philosophy of science by buttressing it with two additional lines of argument: First, theories are always underdetermined by the data, several theories being compatible with the same set of data. Hence, choice between theories is never a matter of empirical support, but always turns around conceptual issues. Second, statements derived from theory never confront nature alone; they are always clothed in a web of interrelated beliefs. Thus, theories, their associated observation languages, and the entire technical culture they support must be accepted or rejected as wholes.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1988

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