Article

Incommensurability in Science

Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online June 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0022
Incommensurability in Science

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In 1962 in independent, influential publications, Thomas S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend suggested the provocative idea that some scientific theories (concepts, paradigms, worldviews) separated by a scientific revolution are incommensurable. They have “no common measure.” The idea of incommensurability became central to both Kuhn’s historical philosophy and Feyerabend’s philosophical pluralism. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn 1996, cited in Thomas S. Kuhn on Incommensurability dramatically claims that the history of science reveals proponents of competing paradigms failing to make complete contact with each other’s views, so that they are always talking at least slightly at cross-purposes. Kuhn calls the collective causes of such miscommunication the incommensurability between pre- and postrevolutionary scientific traditions, claiming that the Newtonian paradigm is incommensurable with its Cartesian and Aristotelian predecessors in physics, just as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s paradigm is incommensurable with that of Joseph Priestley’s in chemistry. These competing paradigms lack a common measure, because they use different concepts and methods to address different problems, limiting communication across the revolutionary divide. Incommensurability is also central to the aims and methods of Kuhn’s hermeneutic “new historiography of science,” which attempts to transform our image of science. Instead of the traditional image of continuous progress toward truth, Kuhn argues that scientific development is an evolutionary process away from anomalies. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is unprecedentedly popular across the human and social sciences, widely touted as among the most influential academic books of the 20th century. Feyerabend first used the term “incommensurable” in 1962 to characterize the relationship between the concepts of universal scientific theories interpreted realistically, claiming that they have no common measure. The idea of incommensurability remained central to his pluralistic approach to philosophy from his early work to his infamous Against Method (1975; Feyerabend 2010, cited in Paul Feyerabend on Incommensurability) through to his late, postmodern phase. For example, two main themes of The Tyranny of Science (Feyerabend 2011, cited in Feyerabend, Reality, and Incommensurability) are the disunity of science and the abundance of nature, which are lessons he learned directly through his experience with incommensurability. With incommensurability, Kuhn and Feyerabend appeared to be challenging the idea that science is rational, and they were called the “worst enemies of science” in the journal Nature. By now incommensurability has become a well-worn catchphrase of 20th-century philosophy, used across a range of interrelated disciplines to mean many different things in any number of controversial discussions.

Article.  14118 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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