Metaphysics as Heuristic for Science

  • Marx Wartofsky
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 3)


Now that the anti-metaphysical crusade of classical positivism has spent its force, and has been fragmented into the qualified and revisionist versions of logical empiricism, there is evidence of a cautious rediscovery of the relevance of metaphysics to science, within some recent discussion in philosophy and history of science. I say ‘rediscovery’ because the thesis is certainly not new, and some hardy souls within philosophy and history of science have held it all along in one or another version, even in the heyday of verificationism and reductionism. But what appears in present discussion is not radical enough. Rather, I would characterize it not simply as cautious, but as an attempt at piecemeal reconstruction within the framework of logical empiricism; or else simply as an emasculated descriptivist thesis about the history of science (simply repeating what every serious student of the subject knows: namely that metaphysics has always been relevant to science in paradigmatic historical instances).


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  1. 1.
    In Popper’s case, ‘recent’ needs qualification, since much of what I will discuss is in the 1934 Logic of Scientific Discovery. Nevertheless, it is a component of recent discussion, both in the sense that its theses are elaborated and expanded in Popper’s more recent essays, and in the sense that the earlier work came under full consideration only with its translation and publication (in revised form) in English, in 1959.Google Scholar
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    Carl Hempel, ‘Carnap and the Philosophy of Science’, in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (ed. P. A. Schilpp), LaSalle, 111., 1963, p. 707.Google Scholar
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    Y. Bar-Hillel, ‘Carnap’s Logical Syntax of Language’, Op. Cit., p. 537.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 536.Google Scholar
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    Willard V. O. Quine, ‘Carnap and Logical Truth’, in Op. Cit., p. 405.Google Scholar
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    Carl Hempel, Op. Cit., p. 699. See also Scheffier’s discussion on Craigean and Ramseyan elimination, Anatomy of Inquiry, New York 1963, pp. 193–222.Google Scholar
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    Macquorn Rankine, ‘Outlines of the Science of Energetics’, Miscellaneous Scientific Papers, 1855, p. 209; cited in P. Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Princeton, N. J., 1954 (Athenaeum, 1962), p. 53.Google Scholar
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    William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, Lectures on Molecular Dynamics and the Wave Theory of Light, Baltimore 1884, pp. 131–2.Google Scholar
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    Karl Popper, ‘The Demarcation Between Science and Metaphysics’, in Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, p. 198; see also Conjectures and Refutations, New York 1962, pp. 267ff.Google Scholar
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    Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London 1959, p. 43.Google Scholar
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    Karl Popper, ‘On the Status of Science and of Metaphysics’, in Conjectures and Refutations, p. 196.Google Scholar
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    Popper, ‘Demarcation…’, Op. Cit., pp. 278-279; in Carnap, pp. 211–212.Google Scholar
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    Joseph Agassi, Op. Cit., pp. 191–193. Imre Lakatos also addresses himself to this thesis in ‘Demarcation Criterion and Scientific Research Programs’, in Problems in the Philosophy of Science (ed. by I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave), Amsterdam 1967.Google Scholar
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    In the quasi-Popperian sense of ‘part of science’ which Agassi holds to in this paper.Google Scholar
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    J. Agassi, ‘The Nature of Scientific Problems…’, Op. Cit., p. 198.Google Scholar
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    George Berry has suggested to me, on this point, that since from ‘(MT) • (TP)’, it follows that ‘(MP)’, by the transitivity of implication, then, if the scientific status of ‘T’ lies in its making a logically true conditional out of ‘(TP)’, then, if ‘(MT)’ is logically true, ‘M’ must also enjoy this same status. Agassi’s point, however, is that in the case of ‘M’ such that ‘(MT)’ is true, then ‘M’ is still empirically refutable. (All this assumes that on even a qualified interpretation of’ →’ in ‘(MT)’ or ‘(MP)’, Modus Ponens remains our rule of inference.)Google Scholar
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    Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. II, No. 2), Chicago 1962, p. 41.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 4.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 23–24.Google Scholar
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    C. S. Peirce, ‘Notes on Scientific Philosophy’.Google Scholar
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    It is clear that there is understanding in science which is ad hoc, or which falls short of theoretical understanding of the ‘grand system’ sort. Of course, there are degrees of understanding, from, e.g., understanding some simple apparatus, or some delimited experimental result, to understanding a ‘grand theory’. I would argue that all of these require some kind of theoretical context, if what we are talking about is scientific understanding, and not simply some technical skill.Google Scholar
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    Mary Hesse, ‘Models and Matter’, in Quanta and Reality, Cleveland 1964, p. 56.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 56.Google Scholar
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    P. Duhem, Op. Cit., p. 27; Cf. also pp. 24ff., 293ff.Google Scholar
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    Norman Rudich, ‘The Dialectics of Poesis: Literature as a Mode of Cognition’, in Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. II (ed. R. S. Cohen and M. W. Wartofsky ), New York 1965, pp. 343–400.Google Scholar
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    Philipp Frank, The Place of Logic and Metaphysics in the Advancement of Modern Science’, Philosophy of Science 40 (1948) 275–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The reference is, of course, to Whitehead. For a recent treatment of Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary physics, see Abner Shimony, ‘Quantum Physics and the Philosophy of Whitehead’, in Boston Studies, Op. Cit., pp. 307ff. and the comments by J. M. Burgers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company / Dordrecht-Holland 1967

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marx Wartofsky
    • 1
  1. 1.Boston UniversityUSA

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