Three Approaches to Scientific Change and Progress | Jean-Christophe Terrillon

Much research in philosophy of science over the last century has been devoted to the crucial topic of scientific change and progress. The famous American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) focused on scientific theories as the crux of scientific endeavor, and argued that persistent anomalies observed in science episodically lead to “paradigm shifts” and to “scientific revolutions,” thus revealing the discontinuity of scientific change—without necessarily implying scientific progress. The study of anomalous phenomena, or more simply expressed, of anomalies in science, which are key elements of Kuhn’s approach, has received increasing attention in the last twenty years, in particular by researchers who question the paradigmatic nature of scientific endeavor.

Other less well-known philosophers of science adopted a different approach to scientific change and progress: in France, Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) addressed the issue from an epistemological viewpoint, involving concepts instead of theories and paradigms. Bachelard notably invoked scientific progress as coincidental with scientific change—which is not necessarily the case in Kuhn’s work, owing to so-called “Kuhn loss”—with at its heart the notions of epistemological: “obstacle,” “break” or “rupture,” and “reforging.” In Japan, Mitsuo Taketani (1911–2000) characterized scientific change, by analogy with Hegelian dialectics, as a process involving three distinct stages of scientific development: the phenomenal, substantial, and essential stages, with the last stage unifying the previous two stages. The process is cyclic and proceeds in a hierarchical spiral.

To our knowledge, in modern philosophy of science, no in-depth comparative analysis of scientific change and progress has been attempted that contrasts differing approaches, such as that of Kuhn in the United States, with the work of less well-known philosophers of science such as Bachelard in France and Taketani in Japan.

The goal of a new research project which we are initiating at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is thus to address the three following research questions (RQ):

RQ1: Can different approaches to scientific change and progress adopted so far in modern philosophy of science be integrated into a more general model, and if so, how?

RQ2: How can anomalies in science be characterized, and how can anomalies, as a key element of scientific change and progress, be incorporated into the more general model considered in RQ1?

RQ3: How can the results of this research project be applied as a useful intellectual tool by researchers and graduate students in their daily research activities, to contribute to increasing their critical approach to and improving the originality of their research (whether individually or in teams), in particular in terms of how to formulate research problems—which are by definition ill-structured—of the research methodology that is used, and of the interpretation of experimental results, while keeping in mind the possibility of the appearance of genuine anomalies?

Recorded at the 31st annual SSE Conference in 2012 at the Millennium Hotel in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

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Published on November 14, 2018