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Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts, SToulmin (1972)

July 22, 2012

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“Long-term large-scale changes, in science as elsewhere, result not from sudden ‘saltations’, but from the accumulation of smaller modifications, each of which has been selectively perpetuated in some local and immediate problem-situation. In attempts to understand conceptual change in science, therefore, we must be on the lookout for the local and immediate demands of each intellectual situation, and for the advantages attaching to different conceptual novelties. These demands are rarely simple, and always highly specific. So the precise succession of problems facing a science reflects not the external timeless dictates of logic, but the transitory historical facts about each particular problem-situation. Necessarily, then, a ‘rational method’ in science is responsive to the specificity of every intellectual situation; and the quality of a scientist’s judgement is shown less in his commitment to a general ‘method’ than in his sensitivity to differences in the requirements of his problem. The source of scientific problems lies, therefore, in a delicate historical relationship between the attitudes of professional scientists and the world of Nature which they study. Problems arise (I say) where our ideas about the world are at variance either with Nature, or with one another: i.e., where our current ideas fall short, in some remediable respects, of our intellectual ideals. This way of formulating the scientific task brings back to the surface an element in scientific inquiry which formal treatises of inductive logic frequently submerge. Conceptual problems in science emerge from the comparison, not of ‘propositions’ with ‘observations’, but of ‘ideas’ with ‘experience’. Our present explanatory capacities must be judged in the light of the relevant intellectual ambitions and ideals. And the nature of scientific ‘problems’ cannot be properly defined, without considering also the character of those ideals.”

[pp. 150-151]

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