by Bas C. Van Fraassen
Yale University Press, 2002
Review by James Sage on Jan 16th 2003
In this collection of five
lectures, Bas van Fraassen attempts to answer a number of questions regarding
the nature of empiricism, scientific inquiry, and theoretical revolution.
Central among his claims is that empiricism is a STANCE. Empiricism is not a
proposition, not a doctrine, not something to be falsified or confirmed; it is
not a bearer of truth-value.
As an analytic philosopher, van
Fraassen offers a unique perspective on these issues. His lectures are a
pleasure to read and are accessible by the non-philosopher. Throughout the
lectures, he is careful to incorporate extensive analogies with religion,
Scripture, rationality, science, and various other topics in the history of
philosophy. In addition to a comprehensive set of bibliographic Notes, van
Fraassen has also included is an extensive set of Appendices that offer
additional insights and clarifications. These supplemental materials are a
delight for the reader who wishes to get more details and to pursue further
In what follows, I provide a
summary of some of van Fraassen’s main points. Throughout this discussion, I
will also try to apply these philosophical insights to the realm of
philosophical psychology and psychopathology.
Lecture One begins by providing a
mostly critical, historical overview of some (failed) attempts to do
metaphysics in the analytic tradition. These historical prospects, however, are
bleak and van Fraassen suggests that analytic philosophy can do better. In
particular, he suggests that we can do better than speculative metaphysics or
counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. In fact, we must
do better – analytic philosophy requires of us to display the ingenuity to
better understand the world. This is not so innocent as many philosophers might
have you believe. What each of us means
by the world is itself shaped by our current theories and metaphysical
commitments. So, how does one start metaphysical inquiry from nowhere? Well, we
can’t and it’s a farce to think that we can.
Now, what if part of the world you
aim to study is mental disease or cognitive disorder? Already, your approach is
influenced by your general concepts of disease and proper functioning. For
someone investigating psychopathology, van Fraassen’s first lecture is a call
for change and to avoid making the same mistakes made by those who came before.
But how can we break from tradition, when such breaks seem to require radical
change in inquiry? When such change is not condoned by current methodology, how
does the successor inquiry get any hold? Do conceptual revolutions occur in
empirical science? If so, how? Are such revolutions rationally justified? These
are questions I’ll return to below.
In Lecture Two, we find van
Fraassen addressing the question: What Is Empiricism and What Could It Be?
Fundamental to van Fraassen’s thesis is the claim that empiricism is a STANCE. After a careful historical overview of the
term “empiricism”, van Fraassen goes on to assert that, properly understood,
empiricism is not a doctrine concerning only ontology and methodology (though,
as a stance, empiricism is not exactly silent about either ontology or
methodology). An important point van
Fraassen makes is that empiricism is different than materialism (which,
according to van Fraassen, is also a stance).
So, in this lecture, we find that the main point is to develop the
notion of a stance, and to understand empiricism’s relation to science.
“So here is the proposal: a philosophical position
can consist in something other than a belief in what the world is like… A
philosophical position can consist in a stance (attitude, commitment, approach,
a cluster of such—possibly including some propositional attitudes such as
beliefs as well). Such a stance can of course be expressed, and may involve or
presuppose some beliefs as well, but cannot be simply equated with having
beliefs or making assertions about what there is” (47-48)
“Since the differing stances also
involve value judgments and attitudes toward life, love, and laughter, their
basis may be thought to be purely subjective, merely subjective, and not
susceptible to rational debate” (62)
“Stances do seem to involve beliefs
and are indeed inconceivable in separation from beliefs and opinion. The
important point is imply that a stance will involve a good deal more, will not
be identifiable through the beliefs involved, and can persist through changes
of belief.” (62)
Thus, we are encouraged to
understand empiricism’s relation to science in terms of an epistemology, but
this epistemology is not value-free and consists in much more than
propositional content. Moreover, stances are not governed by rationality, even
though science itself is the “paradigm of rationality” (195). Jumping ahead slightly, van Fraassen
“As an empiricist, I see the empirical sciences as a
paradigm of rationality in a largely irrational and often anti-rational world.
I see objectifying inquiry as the sine qua non of the development of modern
science and its incredible, breathtaking achievements in our increasing
knowledge of nature. (195)
Thus we see that adopting the empirical stance is one way to
do science, but in so doing, one has not exhausted all of science’s
approaches. The trick, of course, is
how to understand radical shifts in stances, conceptual schemes, and
theories. According to typical
empirical science methodology, we should not abandon our current theories at
the first hind of evidential disparity. There’s a stability (stubbornness)
about scientific theories and empirical stances. So how is radical conceptual /
theoretical change possible?
In Lecture Three, van Fraassen
addresses scientific revolutions as a philosophical problem. One of the central
difficulties plaguing empirical science is the notion of conceptual
“How are we to understand scientific and conceptual
revolutions? Are there really such radical, deep-going changes as philosophers
such as Norwood Russell Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn described?”
Yes, there are such changes, and
something unique about them is that there is an asymmetry between the prior
position and the posterior position. We learn that from the prior position, the
posterior view is absurd or preposterous – the new position so utterly at odds
with “current” understanding that only the mentally deranged would consider it
plausible. But, from the posterior
view, the prior view can be made intelligible by preserving a portion of the
new vocabulary to reconstruct the past.
So, how do we manage our cognitive
affairs as a participant who is entrenched in the prior view, given this
asymmetry? How do such revolutions
occur? It seems as though the
conceptual change that occurs requires a radical break with accepted norms of
inquiry – after all, the new, revolutionary views are utterly irrational (on
current grounds). Thus, there is a kind
of epistemic trauma that cognizing subjects experience: Do we look to reason
and rationality or do we get lucky because of some epistemic mutation?
These themes are regularly visited
within the philosophy of science, and particularly germane within philosophical
approaches to psychology and psychopathology.
Classifications based on a particular model of disease will yield
radically different results than classification based on other models. What reason could we have for accepting
utterly new approaches to classification of mental disorders?
For example, what counts as
psychotic behavior on one theory may be considered within acceptable norms for
other theories. At one point in recent
history, homosexuality was diagnosed as a disease – complete with its own
symptomology and classification. It
took a fairly radical break from tradition to re-classify homosexuality (to rid
homosexuality of the connotation associated with other diseases). From our
posteriori perspective, however, it is all to easy to see the errors of the
past (I assume that it makes perfect sense to us now why homosexuality is not
classified as a disease in the DSM).
But from the prior theory (at least, at some more distant past), it was
probably unimaginable (and irrational) to classify it any other way. And if this particular example doesn’t
convince you, there are plenty of other examples (whether they include the
notion of mass, force, space, time, disease, evolution, microscopic matter,
germs, etc.). In some cases,
postulating the existence of a thing or attribute seemed utterly wrong-headed,
until we were firmly entrenched by the new paradigm.
The virtue of viewing empiricism as
a stance is that science is not expected to be guided by purely rational
standards (values and other a-rational factors will play a legitimate role in
concept formation and theory choice). Thus, the idea of science being governed
by the empirical stance relieves us of the expectation that all changes will be
rational and calculated. This is an
incredibly liberating move within the philosophy of science. It will surely get the attention of
philosophers and scientists alike. Will
everyone be convinced? Surely not. That, of course, is the virtue of
empiricism: disagreements are the fuel that drives change.
Finally, in Lectures Four and Five,
we find van Fraassen providing extensive detail on a variety of topics. Among
these issues is the notion of “Sola Experientia: any claim to knowledge,
any support for opinion, must come from experience; experience trumps all”
(120). But can we rationally follow this rule? Does experience tell us that we
should trust only experience? The answer to this dilemma, van Fraassen tells
us, is that such a rule can only survive by adopting non- or
anti-foundationalist epistemologies. Such is the path of the empiricist.
Following the rule of Sola
Experientia can take two forms.
First, it can place emphasis on stability – it tells scientists to
remain on course:
“The empirical sciences do live by
the rule of Sola Experientia: nothing trumps experience. The bottom line
is agreement from experimental and observational fact. But in the rule there is
a true and redeeming ambiguity. For the main part, it plays the role of maintaining
the hegemony of the ruling paradigm, the accepted theories in the scientific
community. Thus normal science’s steady progress is not allowed to be derailed
by every new [theorist] to come along.” (152)
Second, such a rule can provide a means for reflective
critique. Sola Experientia,
“is a tool or weapon in the critique of accepted
opinion. Indeed, it is a rule that… seems precisely designed to allow the
exploitation of ambiguities and vaguenesses in past understanding, of openings
to change that a perceptive mind can grasp. Should the need arrive to revise
our understanding, the means are then at hand.” (141)
So what we find is that the empirical stance, equipped with
the rule of Sola Experientia, can stabilize and preserve itself in the
face of initial counter-examples, and it can provide the means for overturning
its most cherished theories. The lesson
to take from this is that the empirical stance is self-corrective: according to
experience, the empirical stance possesses the tools required to remain stable,
and to offer new theories and endorse radical change.
2003 James Sage
James Sage is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at the
University of Utah. His interests are philosophy of science and epistemology.
He is also interested in Darwinian approaches to psychology and