Scientific Progress, Relativism, and Self-Refutation

Tim McGrew

Washington State University


[1] Since the publication of the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, many critics have argued that his attack on objectivity lands Kuhn in a self-refuting epistemological relativism (See Scheffler 1982; Siegel 1976, 1980). Yet in the Postscript to the second edition Kuhn denies the charge, asserting that he is a confirmed believer in scientific progress. Critics eager to catch Kuhn in a recursive trap have tended to overlook or downplay these later remarks as inconsistent with his earlier and allegedly more robust relativism; defenders of Kuhn, on the other hand, have used them as grounds for charging the critics with misinterpretation.

[2] In section I, below, I distinguish global and local epistemological relativism and indicate the conditions under which the charge of self-refutation has force. This distinction, though rarely made by Kuhn's critics, is important since some sympathetic readers have urged that while his view is relativistic it is only locally relativistic and hence innocuous. In section II of the paper I examine Kuhn's text, particularly the Postscript to the second edition, and argue that his defense of progress in the Postscript still leaves him vulnerable to the charge of self-refuting relativism. Section III returns to the question of self-refutation: I argue that Kuhn's relativism is indeed self-referentially incoherent in the manner outlined in section I, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.


[3] In its broadest and most characteristic use, 'relativism' denotes the thesis that disagreements over the truth -- whatever that might be -- cannot be resolved in a non-question begging fashion. Opposed to relativism is what Scheffler calls the "commitment to fair controls over assertion," (Scheffler 1982: 2) the idea that disputants can hold each other to standards of evidence and argument which transcend their areas of disagreement and which will often (though not necessarily always) show one position to be more reasonable than its rivals. It is this idea which is commonly referred to by the term 'objectivity.' In this sense, relativism and objectivism are correlative terms: one or the other is true, but both cannot be.{1}

[4] This definition, however, still requires qualification. For one might hold that relativism is true only within some limited field (say, aesthetics), or one might embrace relativism as true in every field of inquiry and judgment. To mark this distinction in a more precise way, we might define relativism with regard to a given field X as the thesis:

R: Any knowledge-claim P about field X can be evaluated only according to a particular set of background principles and standards; but there are rival sets of standards, and there is no way of choosing between incompatible sets of background principles and standards in evaluating P which does not beg the question in favor of the standards of evaluation chosen and against the ones rejected.{2}
We can now define global relativism as adherence to thesis R when X is the whole range of human inquiry, and local relativism as adherence to R only with regard to some particular field. Field restrictions in local relativism may cut across those which are most familiar to us, e.g. someone might hold that aesthetic judgments about works of visual art are objective while those about music are not, or that questions of classical physics can be resolved in an objective fashion whereas certain problems in quantum theory cannot.

[5] Taken globally, thesis R exhibits a kind of self-referential incoherence. For if R were true with respect to all human inquiry, then in particular it would be true with regard to the investigation into the reasonableness of R; but in that case, there would be no non-arbitrary way to justify belief in R. Any attempt to evaluate the thesis or to argue for it would depend on the selection of standards which would bias the outcome, and (according to R itself) there would be no neutral court of appeal in this selection of standards. Hence, if R is true then we can never have any good reason for believing it to be true. Conversely, to maintain that there are good, non-question-begging reasons for adopting R in a global sense is to maintain that R, taken globally, is false.{3}


[6] Such incoherence, however, is only guaranteed to occur in the global version of R. Any local relativism which does not include claims like R within its scope evades the self-reference objection. One might, for example, consistently argue for the view that science is an objective enterprise whereas history is not, or vice versa.{4} One of the questions we must try to resolve in reading Kuhn is whether he is a relativist and, if so, to what extent the incoherence of global relativism applies to his position.

[7] The situation is not made easier by the fact that even Kuhn's defenders seem unable to agree on this point. Meiland, for example, maintains that Scheffler's criticisms are misguided and that Kuhn is not a relativist but rather someone with an alternate conception of truth (Meiland 1974), a claim to which we will later return. With equal vigor Gerald Doppelt argues that Kuhn is a relativist, but only a local one and therefore not subject to self-refutation arguments (Doppelt 1978, 1980). Judging from the enthusiastic reception accorded to his work in certain philosophical circles, it appears that Kuhn is also frequently read as an advocate of global relativism, one of the fathers (?) of feminist epistemology and liaison with the continental left{5} -- an image with which he might understandably feel ill at ease. But we must attempt to unravel this tangled skein if we are to evaluate the force of Kuhn's objections to more traditional philosophy of science.

[8] Prima facie, Kuhn's attack on objectivity does seem to leave us in some kind of relativistic predicament. Kuhn makes it plain that we have, in science at least, no recourse to justifying reasons which might be publically shared for the resolution of high-level disagreements; if two observers do not share the same "paradigm," the same overarching theoretical commitments and the same set of research goals structured by those commitments, then they cannot have an objective discussion of their disagreements in which each appeals to a common body of evidence. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case...they are bound partly to talk through each other. Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing his science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs. (Kuhn 1978a: 148) Before they can communicate fully, one group or the other must experience the conversion that we have been calling a paradigm shift. Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience... In these matters neither proof nor error is at issue. The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience which cannot be forced. (1978a: 150, 151)

[9] Rhetorically, Kuhn's striking use of religious metaphors and his deprecation of proof, logic and neutral experience create a powerful impression that he is endorsing relativism with respect to high-level scientific disputes. As we might expect from R, the non-empirical assumptions provide the point at which the disputants are unable to come to terms; it is not hard to envisage a dispute wherein, because of irresolvable disagreements regarding standards and criteria, rational debate breaks down entirely.

[10] In the Postscript to the second edition of his book, however, Kuhn vehemently denies the charge that he is a relativist. To illustrate the non-relativistic nature of his concept of science, he asks his readers to consider two theories which pertain to the same subject:

[I]t should be easy to design a list of criteria that would enable an uncommitted observer to distinguish the earlier from the more recent theory time after time...scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress. (1978a: 205-06)

[11] In fairness to Kuhn, we should note that he immediately qualifies this "before-and-after" model of progress as being only partially adequate. We must, he adds, recognize a uniquely competent professional group, the members of which share standards and agree on the satisfactory nature of a wide number of solutions, as the final arbiters of scientific progress. But this appeal does not enable Kuhn to avoid the criticism; it merely pushes the problem further away. For inevitably we must ask why authority should be invested in this group rather than some other, a question Kuhn raises rather belatedly in his later Postscript but does not discuss (1978a: 209).

[12] There is a tempting way of trying to shift the burden of proof here. The existence and nature of such a group, Kuhn argues,

provides a virtual guarantee that both the list of problems solved by science and the precision of individual problem-solutions will grow and grow. At least, the nature of the community provides such a guarantee if there is any way at all in which it can be provided. What better criterion than the decision of the scientific group could there be? (1978a: 170)

[13] The plausibility of this response lies in the fact that we often do appeal to the scientific community as authoritative in matters scientific. What could be more natural? But this is really a specious defense, for two reasons. First, Kuhn has a tendency to trivialize scientific progress, claiming that in some sense science progresses by definition since the history of science is written by the winners -- the partisans of the theory or paradigm which attracts the majority of scientists in a scientific revolution.

There is much to be learned by asking what else the result of a revolution could be. Revolutions close with a total victory for one of the two opposing camps. Will that group ever say that the result of its victory has been something less than progress? That would be rather like admitting that they had been wrong and their opponents right. To them, at least, the outcome of revolution must be progress, and they are in an excellent position to make certain that future members of their community will see past history in the same way. (1978a: 166)

[14] As Kuhn himself points out, "a group of this sort must see a paradigm change as progress. Now we may recognize that the perception is, in important respects, self-fulfilling" (1978a: 169).{6}

[15] Second, history shows that when whole communities of self-styled scientists disagree it is often (though not always) possible to ascertain that one group is proceeding in a scientific spirit while another is not. Lysenko's regressive biological theories, which set back the study of genetics in the Soviet Union by two decades, flew in the teeth of evidence then available; yet a politically powerful group of scientists backed the program. It is true that the most effective criticisms of Lysenkoism came from the wider scientific community, but "effective" here refers to their impact rather than their complexity. One did not have to be a biologist to see that Russian genetics was proceeding irrationally.

[16] The point is simply that we trust scientists because we are convinced that they are acting in a scientific fashion, and this is not defined as whatever large numbers of people who call themselves scientists decide to do. When we discover that this assumption has played us false -- that the scientists are being unscientific -- even well-informed laymen can make the relevant discriminations. Kuhn's use of the term "scientific group" is perfectly ambiguous between these two readings; if we take it to refer merely to self-styled scientists, then the obvious response is that we must discriminate between self-nominated prophets of science; if we take it to refer to those who are truly scientific, then it presupposes what Kuhn is apparently trying to deny: that it is possible to identify the truly scientific community in a way that is independent of appeal to that community.

[17] Kuhn tries to rescue the authority of his scientific group by suggesting an independent constraint on the adoption of new paradigms: "The new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability that has accrued to science through its predecessors." (1970a: 169). This criterion, however, creates an incoherence within Kuhn's own position. Even Meiland, who is concerned to defend Kuhn against the charge of relativism, notes that theories which are in Kuhn's sense conceptually incommensurable cannot be compared in such a way as to map the "puzzles" of the old paradigm into those of the new. "Obviously," notes Meiland, "if the old puzzles cannot be formulated within the new paradigm, then we cannot talk about the new paradigm solving the puzzles solved by the old paradigm" (Meiland 1974: 183).

[18] Meiland's own proposal is that we evaluate all theories by the number or proportion of self-generated puzzles they solve. In one sense, this would amount to evaluating every theory according to the "same" standard. But Meiland's suggestion is a long way from resolving the question of theory choice. We still do not have -- and Meiland does not offer us -- a means of identifying and individuating puzzles, even within a given "paradigm"; we do not have a criterion for determining the relative significance or triviality of puzzles; and we have no way of comparing the leniency or stringency of the standards which govern their satisfactory resolution.{7} Comparing the "puzzle solutions" of two incommensurable paradigms would seem at least as difficult as deciding whether a particular motif in chess, such as the minority attack in the Exchange Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined, is a more effective solution to the strategic puzzle of the initial position in chess than the shicho tesuji is to the interlocking strategic and tactical problems presented by a particular joseki in the game of Go. It is simply not clear what such a comparison would mean, or whether it could without an enormous (and epistemically vitiating) amount of arbitrariness be employed as a quantitatively workable standard of evaluation.

[19] A second problem for the before-and-after model is the matter of evaluating standards. Doppelt, in attempting to give a sympathetic account of Kuhn, maintains that the best two disputants in a scientific revolution can do is to convince each other that each is reasonable to maintain his theory given his antecedent standards, but that there is no way for either party to convince the other that one set of standards is preferable to the other (Doppelt 1980: 121).{8} Doppelt confuses matters somewhat by maintaining that he can allow and account for

rational debate between rival paradigms, including debate over standards, while denying that any paradigm-neutral external standards are available to resolve such debates (non-relativistically) in favor of one side. (1980: 120)
But Doppelt's concept of 'rational debate,' it emerges, is itself a relativistic one: he denies that
reasons in favor of a new paradigm can ever be rationally 'compelling' to those scientists who continue to adhere to the standards internal to the old paradigm. For, on those 'old-paradigm' standards, the good reasons in favor of the old paradigm (e.g. its problem-solving successes) count as more important (or 'compelling') than those in favor of the new paradigm, and of course vice versa. (1980: 120-21)
What can Doppelt possibly mean here by "good reasons"? Surely the term cannot apply to arguments which are blatantly questionbegging. Or does he mean the term to apply only to reasons which seem good to partisans of the most advanced paradigm in a given field? Such "reasons" would be useless in a debate between paradigms, since the superiority of one paradigm over the other is precisely what is at issue. And reasons which can never "compel" us to change our minds, since they will seem convincing only to the already converted, hardly deserve the name.{9}

[20] If this is a correct interpretation of Kuhn, then drawing up a list of standards which enabled us to put earlier and later theories in chronological order would once again push the problem further away: we have, as yet, no good reason to adopt this set of criteria rather than another. Kuhn's own list would emerge as the platform of a victorious paradigm, and the sense in which it enabled us to evaluate later theories as "better" than earlier ones would be purely Pickwickian.

[21] A third idiosyncrasy of Kuhn's model of scientific progress is his avoidance of the idea of truth. This is more than a trivial difference in phrasing; Kuhn admits in the Postscript that his denial of relativism involves a redefinition of 'progress.'

Compared with the notion of progress most prevalent among both philosophers of science and laymen, however, this position lacks an essential element. A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently generalizations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is "really there." (Kuhn 1970a: 206)
We should note at the outset that Kuhn offers his opponents a loaded disjunction: either progress is to be equated with (in some sense left undefined) a 'better' ontological fit, or it consists in 'puzzle-solutions,' that is, in successful performance of an activity the existence and significance of which is a pivotal component of Kuhn's own view of science.{10} Even if we disentangle the notion of empirical success (increased quantitative accuracy, increased scope of theories, consilience, and so forth) from the specifically Kuhnian pursuit of puzzles, it is not clear why a series of laws should not be said to "approximate more and more closely to" the truth on the basis of successively wider and more accurate predictions. At the least, Kuhn does not explain why a scientific realist could not take such predictive success as an indication of greater likelihood that a theory is true, or why increases in the likelihood of successive theories should not be definitive of progress -- regardless of whether their respective ontologies could be plotted along a continuous and asymptotic curve.{11}

[22] Kuhn does, however, make it clear that he has real qualms about the meaningfulness of the claim that a scientific theory is true, at least in the sense in which that claim involves a representation of the way the natural world "really is." Responding to his critics he writes,

There is another step, or kind of step, which many philosophers of science wish to take and which I refuse. They wish, that is, to compare theories as representations of nature, as statements about 'what is really out there'. Granting that neither theory of a historical pair is true, they nonetheless seek a sense in which the latter is a better approximation to the truth. I believe nothing of that sort can be found. On the other hand, I no longer feel that anything is lost, least of all the ability to explain scientific progress, by taking this position. (1970b: 265)
And in the Postscript to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he reiterates this with an indication of the historical impetus behind his refusal.
There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like 'really there'; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its "real" counterpart in nature now strikes me as illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausibility of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton's mechanics improves on Aristotle's and that Einstein's improves on Newton's as instruments for puzzle solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development... If [this] position be relativism, I cannot see that the relativist loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences. (1970a: 206-7)

[23] It is important to realize that part of the confusion over whether Kuhn is a relativist comes from the fact that, at least some of the time, he employs the term in the sense indicated above: he equates relativism with the attempt to account for scientific progress and rationality without appealing to some kind of correspondence theory of truth. Kuhn expresses his willingness to endorse such "relativism." At other times, he equates relativism with the idea that "in some sense" the members of different language-culture communities "may both be right" (1970a: 205). Though he concedes that this idea is relativistic when applied to culture and its development, Kuhn denies that it need be relativistic when applied to science. Unfortunately, neither this rather muddled analogy nor his further discussion clarifies this notion of relativism or its relation to the more common one with which we are here concerned.

[24] But it is the question of independent controls on assertion, not the correspondence theory of truth or the difficulties of anthropology, which has raised the most serious problems for Kuhn's theory of scientific progress. This is not in itself an independent criticism of his notion of progress, but it gives us additional reason to attend to the details of what he actually says about science and tends to undermine the credibility of his philosophical disclaimers. Once we realize that Kuhn is using the whole set of terms in a systematically atypical fashion, it is clear that his denials of relativism cannot be taken at face value.

[25] In any event it is not clear what Kuhn wants to attack here. On the face of it his target seems to be the metaphysical claim that the better a theory is, the more nearly its ontology will match that of the real natural world. This claim, which we may call the metaphysical thesis, will do no epistemological work: it is really a definition of what it means for one theory to be "better" than another, and it captures only one sense in which we might ordinarily want to use that comparative term.

[26] Alternatively, we can read Kuhn as attacking the claim that the convergence of theoretical and actual ontologies may serve as a criterion according to which we could assess the value of proposed theories. We may call this the epistemological thesis. As it stands, the epistemological thesis is practically useless. If we had this kind of access to the ontology of the natural world -- if we could determine in some foolproof fashion and independent of our scientific experiments whether atoms or quarks or super-strings constituted the ultimate building blocks of the universe -- then we would hardly need scientific experimentation to help us.

[27] There is also third possibility: Kuhn may be attacking the historical claim that, given an appropriate cross-section of time, the ontologies of successive theories in a given field will seem to converge toward a single ontology. We may call this the historical thesis.

[28] Kuhn's initial remarks indicate his doubts about the intelligibility of the metaphysical thesis. Though he does not elaborate the philosophical grounds of his malaise, his position closely resembles the anti-realism generated by a strong principle of verification: the claim that a theory matches the world, since it is not verifiable by direct comparison of the world and the theory, is rejected as meaningless. Indeed, this metaphysical skepticism echoes his dismissive remarks earlier in the book about a "hypothetically fixed nature" that a scientist might "'see differently'" (1970a: 118).

[29] But he changes the topic in mid-paragraph; the "view" which strikes him qua historian as implausible is not the metaphysical claim that the ontology of a theory might have a real counterpart but rather the historical claim that the sequence of theories in a given field will converge toward some single (theoretical) ontology. One might doubt whether Kuhn's historical skepticism in this regard is well-founded; there does, after all, seem to be a remarkable line of development from Dalton to the general outlines of modern atomic theory, or from the germ theory of disease to contemporary work on viral mechanisms and recombinant DNA. And Kuhn cannot simply dismiss these examples as operations within a single paradigm without apparently trivializing his claim that historical examples do not exhibit ontological convergence: to say that successive theories which exhibit ontological continuity are by definition not instances of paradigm shift would evacuate his historical claim of all empirical content. But such criticisms aside, this question is clearly historical and as such it has nothing to do with the metaphysical problem of approaching the truth in science.


[30] It appears that Kuhn's redefinition of 'progress' will not enable him to avoid the charge of relativism. But so far we have only explored the evidence for relativism of the local variety, with the field restricted to the development of high-level scientific theories and their attendant research programs. What evidence is there that Kuhn's relativism is global, or at least global enough to engender self-reference problems?

[31] Significantly, Kuhn himself extends his language of paradigms and revolutions to other fields, particularly to philosophy. The initial refusal of scientists to abandon their theories in the face of anomalous data constitutes, according to Kuhn, a set of "counterinstances to a prevalent epistemological theory." And he goes on to draw an extended parallel between scientific and philosophical revolutions and paradigm shift.

By themselves they [instances of anomalous scientific recalcitrance] cannot and will not falsify that philosophical theory, for its defenders will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. Many of the relevant modifications and qualifications are, in fact, already in the literature. If, therefore, these epistemological counter-instances are to constitute more than a minor irritant, that will be because they help to permit the emergence of a new and different analysis of science within which they are no longer a source of trouble. Furthermore, if a typical pattern, which we shall later observe in scientific revolutions, is applicable here, these anomalies will then no longer seem to be simply facts. From within a new theory of scientific knowledge, they may instead seem very much like tautologies, statements of situations that could not conceivably have been otherwise. (1970a: 78)
It is scarcely possible to read this passage as anything other than a deliberate assimilation of processes of change in philosophy -- particularly the transition between traditional philosophy of science and Kuhn's own -- to those which, Kuhn holds, obtain in science. For our current purposes it is of secondary importance that Kuhn is misrepresenting his fellow philosophers of science in this passage{12}; the most urgent issue is the extent to which his use of the language of paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions indicates Kuhn's own evaluation of the possibilities of rational debate in the philosophy of science.

[32] Kuhn's willingness thus to extend the scope of his ideas is also indicated by the nature of his reply to critics at the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science in 1965.{13} Reacting to what he felt to be misrepresentations of his views, he described the dispute as

an extended example of what I have elsewhere called partial or incomplete communication -- the talking-through-each-other that regularly characterizes discourse between participants in incommensurable points of view. (Lakatos and Musgrave 1970: 231-32)
This willingness to apply the terms of paradigm shift to his own endeavors in philosophy creates a serious self-reference, since now the thesis R apparently obtains with regard to the discussion of whether science progresses in an objective or relative fashion. In other words, the debate itself is also not a matter to be decided by appeal to "logic and neutral evidence"; and whether Kuhn likes it or not, that debate is in part about the truth of a local version of R.

[33] Is Kuhn, then, more than a local scientific relativist? His language and his practice indicate clearly that he intends the rubric of paradigms and revolutions, of incommensurability and the breakdown of rational dialogue, to apply to considerably more than the structure of scientific theories. In particular, he has been willing to speak of epistemological disagreements and of his own work in these terms. I think we must conclude that his relativism, if not clearly global, certainly comprehends more than the field of scientific theorizing. And according to our analysis of Kuhn's local scientific relativism, the self-application of paradigm language to disputes in the philosophy of science does generate incoherence since it entails that Kuhn's own view of science cannot be defended in an objective fashion. It is immaterial whether Kuhn can be pinned down as a global relativist; his extension of relativism is at least broad enough to entangle his own theory.

[34] Nevertheless, a large number of philosophers will continue to find the self-refutation argument unconvincing. The problem here lies not in any formal flaw in the argument but rather in the elusive nature of Kuhn's prose. Throughout The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he introduces and recapitulates theses in a manner which falls short of direct assertion, though he elsewhere relies on them in an unqualified form. For example, in a much-disputed passage Kuhn writes:

To the extent, as significant as it is incomplete, that two scientific schools disagree about what is a problem and what a solution, they will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent.{14} (1970a: 109-10)
Scheffler takes these and similar statements to indicate that "evaluative arguments over the merits of paradigms are vastly minimized, such arguments being circular" (Scheffler 1982: 78). Gutting, criticizing Scheffler, counters that this passage
is not saying that all arguments in paradigm disputes are circular, only that some of them are. Circularity will be a problem to the extent that there is disagreement among the disputants about 'what is a problem and what a solution.' Though Kuhn says that such disagreement will be significant he at the same time emphasizes that it is not complete. So the obvious interpretation of this passage is not that circularity excludes an important role for arguments but that it limits the extent to which they can be effective. (1980: 5-6)
Gutting has a point: there is a qualification at the beginning of Kuhn's statement, and Scheffler does not explicitly acknowledge it. But the whole passage is so vague as to render Gutting's rescue problematic. Does the term 'regularly' indicate that some arguments across paradigms are not partially circular, or that such arguments, all of which are circular, arise with some regularity? And to press Gutting's interpretation, how much can even partial circularity (whatever that means) be permitted to limit the effectiveness of arguments without denying them an important role?

[35] The difficulty, here and elsewhere, is that Kuhn hardly ever indicates the scope and limits of his provisos. Despite occasional limitative statements, his book does not assign any clear normative role to arguments across paradigms. And in the face of his multiple assertions that such arguments are "partially circular," that just because of such circularity neither side "may hope to prove his case," and that ultimately "neither proof nor error is at issue," Scheffler seems amply justified in his conclusion that Kuhn is minimizing their importance.

[36] Still, the curious combination of suggestiveness and elusiveness which enables Kuhn's text to provide at least some encouragement for defenders like Gutting leaves him room to reconstruct his malleable position in a more explicit and defensible form. If he is really concerned to avoid the charge of self-referentially incoherent relativism, it would be a great service for him to indicate how he intends to do so and how much of his original essay will survive this process intact. His appeal to "progress" in the Postscript, though well-motivated, does not advance this aim.


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{1} The exhaustive nature of this disjunction is frequently denied by critics seeking to plot a middle course between the two, e.g. Richard Bernstein's erudite and earnest work, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983). Generally such would-be moderates redefine relativism and/or objectivism, moving the terms away from their common usage so as to leave a middle ground. It is an interesting sociological fact that those who attempt to cut between these exhaustive options invariably end up falling into some version of relativism -- no one ever seems to "fall" into objectivism. Return

{2} I am adopting, here and throughout, the common practice of dropping use-mention quotes where there is no risk of misunderstanding. A thesis similar to R, but without the field variable, is outlined and criticized in (Siegel 1980).

The absence of the field variable leaves him open to the charge, pressed by Doppelt (1980), that he is ignoring local relativism. (But see n. 23, below.) I do not claim that R constitutes the minimal thesis of relativism, but it does provide a typical formulation which is both more plausible and currently more popular than any other variety of epistemological relativism. Return

{3} The self-refuting nature of global relativism is explored at greater length in Siegel (1987). For an elegant explication of the varieties of self-refutation, which embrace much more than simple inconsistency, see J. L. Mackie (1964). Return

{4} This point is apparently overlooked by Scheffler, who seems to consider only global relativism (see Scheffler 1982: 21, 53, 74, 126). Return

{5} Kuhn himself expresses a certain amount of unease at the radical defense of his position offered by Paul Feyerabend (1970); see Kuhn's remarks immediately following Feyerabend's essay, especially p. 234. For adoption of Kuhn (and Rorty) by feminist epistemologists, see e.g. the APA Newsletter (1989: 21, 29, 39, 62). Return

{6} The point is stressed with approval by Ian Hacking (1986: 56). Return

{7} These criticisms apply to Laudan's similar suggestion in (1976). Return

{8} Doppelt's analysis is praised by Bernstein (1983: 85, 245 n. 78). Return

{9} This explains, I think, the misunderstanding between Doppelt and Siegel cited in n. 4; Doppelt's rejoinder is only verbally convincing, since he has changed the meanings of 'rational debate' and 'good reasons' to localize his relativism. Siegel's own response to Doppelt is more charitable, since he takes at face value Doppelt's claim to be a local relativist (see Siegl 1987: 88-92). Return

{10} For disagreement on this issue, see Stephen Toulmin (1970), and particularly Jack Carloye (1985). Toulmin denies that there is such a thing as normal science; Carloye argues that the distinction between normal and revolutionary science is a matter of degree rather than one of kind. Return

{11} This point is also noted in Alan Musgrave (1980: 49). Return

{12} See Karl Popper's remarks on falsification and dogmatism in (1965: 312 n. 1). Return

{13} See the proceedings in (Lakatos and Musgrave 1970). Return

{14} Also compare (Kuhn 1970a: 160, 207-8). Other examples of this indirect hedging involve the use of terms like "suggests" in place of an outright "therefore," or the coy assertion that an opposing position "is neither all wrong nor a mere mistake" without adequate clarification of the sense (or senses) in which it is being criticized and those in which it is not (121 ff). Return

Tim McGrew
Washington State University

The Electronic Journal of Analytic Pilosophy 2:2 (1994)
ISSN 1071-5800
Copyright 1994