Popper tried to distinguish a scientific framework from a non-scientific framework ( like Marxism or Psychoanalysis, according to him) by suggesting the criterion of falsification. Kuhn suggested that also science, like other fields, changes according to social rules of the community, and doesn't advance - as Popper believed - by mere refutation of old theories. Doing so he erased the clear line between science and other social practices.

Thinkers like Rorty used Kuhn (among others) to show that language constructs all our knowledge and that all knowledge is fundamentally normative. Their conclusion was that there is no method for choosing one theory over the other, or one "truth" over another.

My problem with this line of thought is this: Kuhn clearly speaks about problems in the old science that originate the need to establish a new science. He calls them anomalies and they take an important role in his story. According to him, the community tends to adopt a new science when too many (the exact number is undefined of course) anomalies are discovered in the old science. Therefore, there is a reason - although not rigidly defined - to change a scientific framework.

If this is true then one of two has to be true as well:

  1. There is a way to distinguish science from non-science. Science can admit the existence of anomalies in the current framework, while other practices can't.
  2. Science is a social practice that is not categorically different from any other social practice. Hence, in each framework we can find anomalies and they help us to advance.

If (1) is correct then we have a reason to believe that science can get us closer to some kind of truth, and that science is somehow "stronger" than other practices.

If (2) is correct then we can make a progress in every field the same way we advance in science. In other words we have a reason (although not rigidly defined) to prefer in each field one framework over the other (for the sake of the example: liberalism over conservatism).

in both cases it seems like Rorty's conclusion fails. We can always (or at least sometimes) find some kind of reasons to prefer one truth over another.

Which is correct then, (1) or (2)? and What would Rorty answer if he only could?

2 Answers 2


To your final question: Rorty was happy to emphasize Kuhn's influence without needing to follow Kuhn. Search "forward to people who want to out-Kuhn Kuhn" to find a passage from Neil Gross's book Richard Rorty: the Making of an American Philosopher (p. 208) on this.

As to the body of your post: Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is very nice reading and very clear. It is about distinguishing science from other kinds of endeavor. He finds you can do that. So he goes with your 1). But he does not go with your conclusion from it.

His chapter "progress through revolutions" says history shows successive paradigms in a single science like cosmology do not get closer and closer to each other at all -- and so cannot be getting closer and closer to some one truth.

He finds science not exactly "stronger" than other kinds of inquiry, but suited to a distinctive kind of success in that normal science allows more focus than other inquiries, and the insistence on a paradigm means revolutions occur only when practitioners (virtually) all agree the previous paradigm became insupportable in light of some specific crisis and the new one resolves that crisis.

He says, for example, some schools of philosophy show this kind of progress such as Aristotelians from Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas to today. That school historically has done this and is still thriving today notably at Catholic universities. The most famous Aristotelian today is Alasdair MacIntyre who is very conscious of this historic change-through-continuity.

But Kuhn notes Philosophy as a whole does not follow this course, since there are today still Aristotelians, and Cartesians and Positivists, and....


Option (2) is Rorty's unequivocal choice, and he pre-empts objections by declaring that truth and progress are themselves cultural artifacts without any overarching significance. There are only cultural practices undergoing metamorphoses for pragmatic/cultural reasons, and science is one among many. Interpreting texts (literary criticism) is on equal footing and continuous with interpreting lumps (science). For the post-modernistic context of Rorty's views see Have any philosophers applied the concept of "underdetermination" to non-scientific contexts? Here is from his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

"To say that something is better 'understood' in one vocabulary than another is always an ellipsis for the claim that a description in the preferred vocabulary is more useful for a certain purpose... we shall say that all inquiry is interpretation, that all thought is recontextualization... thinking of the entire culture, from physics to poetry, as a single, continuous, seamless activity in which the divisions are merely institutional and pedagogical."

In contrast, Kuhn still acknowledges the possibility of comparison across "incommensurable" paradigms, which is what makes resolving anomalies and making progress meaningful:

"Most readers of my text have supposed that when I spoke of theories as incommensurable, I meant that they could not be compared. But 'incommensurability' is a term borrowed from mathematics, and it there has no such implication... What is lacking is not comparability but a unit of length in terms of which both can be measured directly and exactly."

Zammito gives an astute critique of Rorty's cultural relativism in The Nice Derangement of Epistemes:"What is left is language and the arbitrary "poetics" of conversation. Rorty dissolves too many distinctions; his new "pragmatism" entails a cavalier disdain for rational adjudication of dispute". To Rorty, Quine's "old" pragmatism did not go far enough because it privileged science over the rest of culture. And in Truth and Progress he responds to the classical objections to scepticism by culturalizing epistemology, which radicalizes Quine's naturalization of it:

"...strategy for escaping the self-referential difficulties into which “the Relativist” keeps getting himself is to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics into cultural politics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidence to suggestions about what we should try".


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