Metaphysics, Methodology and the Pragmatic Unity of the Sciences

  • Robert E. Butts
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 155)


It seems quite obvious that we must not speak of ‘science’, but of ‘the sciences’. The word ‘science’ means ‘what scientists do’, and what scientists do is to engage in work in the various sciences. There is no science an sich lying out there waiting to be discovered, just as there is no world an sich lying out there waiting to be discovered.1 Sciences, like worlds, are human artifacts. Science in the making is scientists at work. There must be, however, some way of identifying the kind of work that is to be called ‘scientific’, especially if we are to be able to conceptualize what it means for the sciences to possess a unity. Perhaps there are many ways in which we can formulate such a conceptualization. I propose to investigate only three; I will call them the metaphysical, the teleological, and the pragmatic.


Successful Prediction Explanatory Framework Scientific Attitude Unify Force Human Artifact 
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  1. 1.
    Perhaps my allegiance to Goodman’s ‘many worlds, if any’ relativism should not intrude at this point. The first part of my claim about an sich science is accepted by Otto Neurath, and is part of his platform for encyclopedism as providing a unification, but not a unity (a system) for science. He writes: “For, since one cannot compare the historically given science with ‘the real science’, the most one can achieve in integration of scientific work seems to be an encyclopedia, constructed by scientists in co-operation.” See Neurath (1938, pp. 1-78).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Whewell, 1837, Vol. 1, p. 109. Compare Herschel (1841, p. 193): “There can be no doubt that the origin of all induction is referable to that plastic faculty of the mind, which assigns an unity to an assemblage of independent particulars.”.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Whewell, 1830.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Herschel (1841, p. 198) also refers to an “inductive propensity”, an “irresistible impulse of the mind to generalize ad infinitum, when nothing in the nature of limitation or opposition offers itself to the imagination,” and an “involuntary application of the law of continuity to fill up, by the same ideal substance of truth, every interval which uncontradicted experience may have left blank in our inductive conclusions.”.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For details of Whewell’s theory of induction see Butts (1989a) and the selections in Butts (1989b). Additional discussion will be found in Butts (1973b, 1977, 1987).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Whewell, Unpublished, pp. 207-208.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Whewell, 1853, p. 282.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Leibniz’s work abounds in references to the ultimate systematicity of the universe. See his two brief attempts at stating his position, Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics. Kant’s celebrated treatment of the idea of system as a regulative principle of pure reason occurs in “Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic” of the first Critique. See Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The full treatment of the teleology of science is to be found in Part II of Critique of Judgment. For recent discussion of the views of Kant and Leibniz see Butts (1984, 1990).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    It should be emphasized that one’s views on the unity of the sciences are inevitably deeply influenced by the way in which one conceptualizes nature. For Aristotle and Leibniz essences — the ‘natures’ of things — constrain what we can know of nature. For Kant nature, at one level, is mind-imposed lawfulness; at another, it is discovered contingency. As we will see below, there are even concepts of nature the acceptance of which would lead us to discard science.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    The work of Nelson Goodman — see especially his Ways of Worldmaking (1978) — has provided new impetus to efforts to conceptualize both science and art as cognitive systems leading to understanding of our various environments.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Mill, 1961, Bk. II, Ch. IV, 1.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Kemeny, 1959, p. 44.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    A position much like this one has been argued for by Rescher (1970, pp. 140-45), and is the dominant theme in Rescher (1977). My own views have been developed along lines different from the ones I will follow here in Butts (1981). Much that follows in Section 3 of this paper is deeply indebted to Rescher (1970). For discussion of related issues, see Rescher (1979) and Butts (1979).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Krüger, 1989.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See Carnap (1938). There are even those who are prepared to relativize the languages of the sciences. See Goodman (1978, p. 3).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Leibniz 1969, p. 364 [emphasis supplied].Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Dewey 1938, p. 33.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Dewey, 1938, p. 31.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Whewell would have found it exceedingly odd for anyone to take his metaphor of nature as a language to be interpreted to be literally true. But then, unlike today’s dark presences who would replace science by an adventitious urge to speak in many tongues, Whewell was attempting to convince the Victorians that “Man is the Interpreter of Nature, and Science is the right Interpretation” [emphasis supplied].Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Nicholas Rescher (1970, pp. 135-45) argues that what he calls ‘explanatory frameworks’, including the frameworks of the sciences as well as, for example, numerology, astrology, and black magic, can each be criticized as a whole, but only a posteriori. The sciences win in this competition because of their pragmatic success in matters of prediction and control. I think this view is only half correct. Metaphysics provides no a priori grounds for accepting what sciences say is the case, and the failed effort to locate a demarcation criterion that would single out science as the sole dispenser of cognitively significant sentences further confirms the absence of a priori grounds that would allow a decision between explanatory frameworks. I think it unlikely, however, that one can dismiss astrology, or deconstructionism, or fundamentalist creationism, or psychoanalysis, solely because these explanatory frameworks fail as accurate systems of prediction leading to at least partial control of aspects of the environment. It all depends on what is at stake. Explanatory frameworks operate to further chosen objectives. If we know what these objectives are, we can show, by admittedly a posteriori means, that those ends cannot be realized in the ways promised by the given explanatory framework. Pseudo-sciences are shown to be defective by discovering that they possess impoverished means for realizing aims they themselves articulate. The arguments of pseudo-scientists are riddled with common fallacies of logic; many of those arguments possess the twists and turns we often observe as symptoms of mental illness. There is no substitute for a thorough analysis of the cognitive credentials of given explanatory frameworks. In this regard, the extraordinary work of Adolf Grünbaum in his attempt to come to grips with the credentials of psychoanalysis is an exemplar worthy of the prix d’or. See, among many of his writings, Grünbaum (1983).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    J.-P. Sartre, 1949, pp. 211-12. As readers of this novel will remember, Sartre continues by suggesting a variety of bizarre surreal events that might occur in this ‘nature’. The text is deliberately ambiguous. If laws are only reactions to habituated regularities, then of course we can be surprised by any novelty that experience introduces: anything is logically possible, on the other hand, because nature is also in us, creatures of habit though we are, there can be no guarantee that we ourselves as individuals may not from time to time ‘break the habit’: any atrocious human behavior is possible. Science, humanism and human dignity are powerless before aberrations of habituated human existence.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Here again, Nicholas Rescher is leading the way. Especially important in this regard are Rescher (1978 and 1989).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert E. Butts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe University of Western OntarioCanada

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