Critical Comments on Laudan's Theory of Scientific Aims
Cíntora (Armando)
Source: Sorites 10, May 1999: 19-38
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

Laudan’s proposed constraints on cognitive aims are criticized. It is argued that:

  1. Laudan does not distinguish impossible goals from impossible but approachable goals; and owing to that imprecision Laudan recommends conservatism and mediocrity.
  2. Impossible but approachable goals can be rational objectives, if we understand means/ends rationality as the attitude of someone who tries to reach the warranted optimum means to the attainment of or approximation to his desired aims.
  3. Ideals cannot be dispensed with, because in advance there is no satisfactory way of specifying how close to the ideal, or how far from it, is good enough.
  4. Laudan’s recommendation is too restrictive and counter-intuitive because it characterizes idealist conduct (such as that of saints, heroes, and martyrs) as irrational.
  5. A life’s struggle for a utopian and a very valuable aim can cause lasting emotions of self-respect or self-esteem — at least for certain temperaments, and in some social settings — and those emotions are necessary for a good life; therefore, the search for impossible but approachable valuable goals, and their accompanying positive emotions, may be a rational goal.
  6. Laudan’s banning of ‘semantically utopian’ and ‘epistemically utopian’ aims is also too restrictive, because we often pursue an end that is obscure for the conscious mind; in such cases, we still try to approach the obscure aim, by the via negativa, that is, by eliminating what it is not.
  7. Laudan needs to invoke some ‘prephilosophical’ cognitive canons of scientific success, and those ‘pre-philosophical’ canons cannot be justified empirically as valuable without invoking some intuitions about genuine examples of successful science — even though Laudan has told us that his meta-methodology does not require intuitions.
  8. Furthermore Laudan does not justify his priorization of his pragmatic canons of scientific success; Laudan’s priorization has a dogmatic character.


Filed electronically with the full edition of Sorites 10

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