The dynamics of scientific concepts: The relevance of epistemic aims and values

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  • Introduction: The philosophy of science that grew out of logical positivism tended to construe scientific knowledge in terms of a set of interconnected beliefs about the world, such as theories and observation statements. Confirmation was understood as a logical relation between observation statements and theoretical statements. This was dubbed the ‘context of justification’, to be contrasted with the ‘context of discovery’, where discovery was not generally deemed to be a rational process and thus not a concern for philosophy. During the last few decades this vision of philosophy of science has changed (Brigandt 2011d; Hacking 1983). Nowadays discovery (e. g., in experimental biology) is seen as intimately tied to confirmation and explanation (Bechtel 2006; Craver 2007; Darden 2006; Weber 2005). Science is conceived not merely as a set of axiomatic systems, but as a dynamic process based on the various practices of individual scientists and the institutional settings of science (Hull 1988; Longino 2002; Brigandt 2011a, sect. 4). Two features particularly influence the dynamics of scientific knowledge: epistemic standards and aims. An existing standard (be it a methodological standard, an evidential standard, or a standard of explanatory adequacy) accounts for why old beliefs had to be abandoned and new beliefs came to be accepted. At the same time, standards are subject to change. Epistemic aims (assumptions about what issues are currently in need of scientific study and explanation) likewise influence the practice and dynamic workings of science (Brigandt 2013; Love 2008). Notice that epistemic standards and aims operate on a different dimension than scientific beliefs. Whereas scientific beliefs are representations of the world, scientific standards and aims are epistemic values. Epistemic aims (e. g., explanatory problems deemed to be important) are not descriptions of the objects of science, but values held by scientists as the actors of science. Taking such epistemic aims and values into account is, in my view, key to an epistemological understanding of the dynamics of science, and past philosophical accounts that focused exclusively on various beliefs (theoretical and observational) missed a whole aspect of scientific knowledge formation.

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    © 2012 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original author(s) and source must be cited.
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    • Brigandt, I. (2012). The dynamics of scientific concepts: The relevance of epistemic aims and values. In U. Feest & F. Steinle (Eds.), Scientific Concepts and Investigative Practice (pp. 75-103). Berlin, Germany: de Gruyter.
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