The Pragmatic and Problem-Solving Approach

Progress and Its Problems, Laudan opened with the claim that providing an adequate model of rationality is the primary business of the philosopher of science but that no existing methodology fits real science. His idea was a good fit with a selection of intuitively strong historical instances for which any adequate theory must account. His response to the rationality question was to propose a comprehensive, explicitly pragmatic, problem-solving account of science. Problem-solving had been an important element in earlier accounts, notably Kuhn and Popper. Still, Laudan inverted the usual account of scientific progress as a temporal

succession of timeless rational decisions. Instead of defining progress in terms of rationality, one should define rationality in terms of progress. One cannot measure progress regarding approximation to a final, unknowable metaphysical truth. Still, one has reliable progress markers regarding numbers and the relative importance of empirical and conceptual problems solved by long-term “research traditions.” Just as Lakatos’ research programs were a compromise between Popper and Kuhn, Laudan’s “research traditions” incorporate elements of his major historicist predecessors while departing sharply from other work tenets.

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Be that as it may, since progress is a historical concept (charged with history), so is rationality in Laudan’s conception. The temporality of his account led Laudan to introduce an important distinction between the acceptance of a theory and the quest that would explain how rational transitions to a new research tradition are possible. Scientists should accept the theory with the greatest overall success in solving problems but follow the tradition that now enjoys a higher success rate.

Laudanagreed with Kuhn that the goals, standards, and methods of science change historically to make theoretical and observational claims, but his “reticulations model” rejected as historically inaccurate Kuhn’s claim that sometimes they all change together to constitute a (Kuhnian) revolution.

A dramatic change in one place must avoid seriously disrupting fixation in another place and rarely if ever, does. Moreover, Laudan argued that his reticulations model overcomes the hierarchical problem that has led thinkers like PoincarĂ© and Popper to make the goals of science arbitrary (the top of the hierarchy and thus the unjustified justifier of what comes below), e.g., mere conventions. These authors have no way of rationally evaluating the goals themselves, leaving their positions trapped with an account of merely instrumental reason: efficiency concerning a given, arbitrary goal. By contrast, in Laudan’s model, the elements constrain each other and adjust each other. None has absolute priority over the others. Thus, some goals are irrational because present, foreseeable knowledge and methods cannot achieve them or measure progress toward them. Advances in substantive or methodological expertise may rationalize adopting new standards and objectives.