According to the description of language and norms in Analytic Philosophy (and especially in the way Rorty talks about it in Contingency Irony and Solidarity) we cannot judge one vocabulary using our own vocabulary for the simple reason that we have different norms. This description's origin is the understanding that Kant's a-priori space and time are not a-priori anymore after Einstein's new theory of gravity. If so, the normative notion is correct for every system of concepts (vocabulary) including science itself. And yet, I can't see a reason to say that it's impossible to judge between Einstein's and Newton's theories. There are empirical evidences that prove Einstein's.
The only claims I can think of for the normative impossible judgement argument could be: 1. evidences are also language depended - which I can't see how it's correct. 2. Even though we have evidence we still go with our old theory because it uses our norms and to them we are committed - which betrays the way science works.

Is one of these claims incorrect? (an example is needed, I assume) or rather it's possible to choose a better normative vocabulary, and then give up the whole Kuhnian idea of gestalt switch?

2 Answers 2


Both of your reasons are true:

Option 1 happens:

Evidence is definitely language-dependent. If I want to do statistical analysis on the genome of rabbits, I need to know what is and what is not a rabbit, so I can go to my taxonomy and get the definition of a rabbit, and then go find some. Twenty years ago I could also do that for dinosaurs, and find that they were all extinct. But now, if I do the same, I find that birds fit the definition given for dinosaurs.

So whether or not all dinosaurs are extinct depends upon a definition that is subject to change. This is not the way we ordinarily think of science working, but it is not so exceptional.

For a worse case, consider the definitions of mental disorders, these have been rewritten five times since the 30's. If I am running experiments on psychiatric drugs, that means that there are people who might not have met the diagnosis in DSM IV, but will in DSM VI. Whether or not my drug 'works', in the sense of reducing the symptoms of a given described disease, might depend on when I tested it.

Theory moves around not just facts, and statistics, but definitions, as it evolves.

Option 2 also happens.

From a Kuhnian point of view, a group of definitions, statistics, and laws holds together into an organized whole, that he calls a paradigm. Paradigms shift, when the paradigm starts failing to cover known data, or begins to have odd limitations on its explanations.

The transition from Newtonian to Relativistic notions of space in Astronomy is such a paradigm shift. Newtonian physics did not accommodate our measures of light's speed. So various things had to be shifted to accommodate this. This happened pretty cleanly, but other such transitions were not as quick.

A slower example is the atomic theory of matter. Various alternative explanations fought it out for consideration, and each way of covering the facts turned out to be inconsistent with other accepted parts of the paradigm they were trying to expand. These dead theories are sometimes recounted in courses on the subject. Boltzmann, for instance, was so disparaged for promoting atoms as an alternative that he was forced out of physics and into philosophy. Ernst Mach, otherwise known as being as brilliant in physics as philosophy, is famous for holding out to the bitter end in his opposition to these theories.

People who were advocates for the paradigms that eventually failed to explain heat and other effects without atoms, did exactly what you indicate. They kept doing what they thought was justified, and the overall paradigm shift was not complete until they were hegemonized out, backed into irrelevance by the incoming data, and the way it affected opinion and understanding.

To a lesser degree, every science always has smaller versions of this kind of paradigm shift going on. For instance genetics has a gap between continuity in evolution that makes statistical tracking of mutations a way of measuring past populations, and the notion of punctuated equilibrium: that change, especially extinction, tends to happen suddenly, so that measuring this kind of thing over time, presuming it has some kind of smooth rate of accumulation, is misleading -- big die-offs are going to skew your distributions too much. This is an ongoing tiny little paradigm dispute.

(An example of where they conflict: By the continuous standard you can estimate seventeen women from the neolithic era reproduced for every man, from a more 'punctuated' point of view, it is more likely three, with mass eradications of whole nations of men at regular intervals that left the corresponding women with heirs. This is the downside of patrilineality...)

And people on either side are just going on doing what they think is right. Eventually some new data will make one or the other position better, but how much better it has to look, before you buy in, depends on who you are, and how you are positioned in the 'politics' of this issue.

  • Insightful take on the scientific endeavor!
    – Cicero
    Jun 15, 2015 at 23:32

I'm not sure that judging between Newtons and Einsteins theory in the way you suggest is useful; it's generally accepted that Newtons theory is a good approximation at the right energy scale - at large scales and low speeds.

It isn't quite correct I think to say that Kants a priori notions of space and time have been completely ruled out - though it's fair to say it isn't mainstream; for example it is implicit in the thinking of Physicists of the stature of Bohm & Rovelli.

  • Well, even though they might be used as basic assumptions in other theories, they have been ruled out from relativity theory, for example. It's enough for saying that they are not a priori.
    – Amit Hagin
    Apr 27, 2015 at 21:37
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    Have a look at this answer where it's discussed; it's definitely not a mainstream opinion; relativity like Newtonian mechanics takes a background metaphysics of naive realism; but this doesn't mean that other positions aren't available. Apr 27, 2015 at 23:43
  • The concept that Einstein and Poincare retained after putting the notion of Apr 27, 2015 at 23:46

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