Saturday, July 09, 2005

Whewell on Theory Change

...when a prevalent theory is found to be untenable, and consequently, is succeeded by a different, or even by an opposite one, the change is not made suddenly, or completed at once, at least in the minds of the most tenacious adherents of the earlier doctrine; but is effected by a transformation, or series of transformations, of the earlier hypothesis, by means of which it is gradually brought nearer and nearer to the second; and thus, the defenders of the ancient doctrine are able to go on as if still asserting their first opinions, and to continue to press their points of advantage, if they have any, against the new theory. They borrow, or imitate, an din some way accommodate to their original hypothesis, the new explanations which the new theory gives, of the observed facts; and thus they maintain a sort of verbal consistency; till the original hypothesis becomes inextricably confused, or breaks down under the weight of the auxiliary hypotheses thus fastened upon it, in order to make it consistent with the facts.

William Whewell, "Of the Transformation of Hypotheses in the History of Science" in Selected Writings on the History of Science, Yehuda Elkana, ed. U Chicago P (Chicago: 1984) p. 385.

This essay was read May 19, 1851; he gives a detailed and brilliant case study of "the battle of the Cartesian and Newtonian systems" to make his argument. Yet again, Whewell, in his philosophy of science, was ahead of his time by more than a generation; and yet again, he was largely ignored and the point he had already made had to be independently rediscovered. A bit sad, really.

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