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The Discussion of the Character of Empirical Observations according to Quine-Duhem Essay


Thesis: In spite of the fact that the discussion of this controversial issue can be considered as open, it is possible to refer to the analysis of Quine-Duhem Thesis and to the conclusions made by the other scholars such as Thomas Kuhn and state that there are no theory-neutral observations because any observations should be based on definite theories or theoretical systems according to which framework they are developed.

  1. Pierre Duhem’s conception.
  2. Willard Quine’s discussion of the issue.
  3. The discussion of theory-neutral and theory-laden observations.
  4. Thomas Kuhn’s development of the question.

Today the problem of the definition of the character and main principles for observations is still discussed in the field of philosophy of science. There are a lot of points of view presented by scholars which support or reject the theoretical or neutral character of empirical observations as the means to verify or falsify a definite hypothesis.

In spite of the fact that the discussion of this controversial issue can be considered as open, it is possible to refer to the analysis of Quine-Duhem Thesis and to the conclusions made by the other scholars such as Thomas Kuhn and state that there are no theory-neutral observations because any observations should be based on definite theories or theoretical systems according to which framework they are developed.

Quine-Duhem Thesis is the statement which depends on two rather different approaches to the problem of verifying hypotheses provided by Pierre Duhem and Willard Van Orman Quine.

Their theses were declared during different periods of time, and the scholars used rather contradictory approaches to the solution of the question. Nevertheless, the connection of their concepts and ideas has realized in working out Quine-Duhem Thesis.

The problem of verifying hypotheses with the help of such means as the observations, experiences, and experiments arouse as the result of the necessity to prove various physical and mathematical theories (Martin, 1999).

In his works Pierre Duhem has stated that it is impossible to test only one hypothesis given from the used theoretical system and prove it separately from the other hypotheses because it is necessary to test all the hypotheses which can appear during the observations or experiences in order to receive the correct and truthful results (Martin, 1999).

It was the first step to declaring the principle according to which the hypothesis cannot be verified with the help of observations or experiments separately from the other elements of the complex theory or theoretical system (Duhem & Barker, 1996). Thus, any hypothesis suggested by a scholar or a scientist can be wrong. That is why it necessary to determine this hypothesis among the other ones which were not checked.

However, it is impossible without testing all of them (Martin, 1999). Moreover, experiments or observations which are used by scientists are not only empirical. They can be also considered as the theoretical interpretation of the certain phenomenon which is studied (Duhem & Barker, 1996).

Willard Quine discussed the question which was analyzed by Pierre Duhem and developed his own vision of this problem. In his works Quine accentuated that it is possible to support and verify any hypothesis which can be worked out during its theoretical development with the help of changing definite elements within that theoretical system in which it was discussed (Ben-Menahem, 2006).

Thus, when our hypotheses are not proved during the experiments or observations we can change the criteria or elements of the theoretical system which we use and support our hypothesis according to the results of the experiments (Borradori, 1994).

That is why the visions of Duhem and Quine of the problem with hypotheses can be considered as rather contradictory because Duhem rejected the possibility of determining the wrong hypothesis when Quine offered the variants to support any hypothesis (Ben-Menahem, 2006).

While developing the thesis provided by Pierre Duhem, Quine supported the idea that it is also impossible to falsify any scientific theories. This statement was based on the opinion that experiments and observations which test this or that hypotheses are theory-laden. Thus, they are developed in the field of a definite theoretical system and depend on its peculiarities (Rosenberg, 2011).

It is impossible to verify or falsify a definite empirical phenomenon without using theoretically based observations because it belongs to this or that theoretical system (Okasha, 2002).

Scientists and scholars cannot discuss the observations as theory-neutral factors which can help to compare some contradictory theories (Rosenberg, 2011). The peculiarities of the development and the results of observations depend on those theoretical fields within which they are worked out.

The discussion of the problem of theory-neutral or theory-laden observations was also developed from such point as the personal scientist’s perception of the reality or the results of the observation. Thus, it is impossible to speak about any objective results which can be affected by definite observations, if we reject the dependence of observations on the aspects of certain theoretical systems or visions (Rosenberg, 2011).

When scientists test their hypotheses they should refer to definite theoretical knowledge which influences the field of their investigations. Moreover, it is impossible to develop any observations which can support or reject the hypotheses with references to the theory on which they are based (Okasha, 2002).

That is why many scientists and scholars agree those observations as theory-neutral means cannot test the correctness of this or that theory or compare their features because different theoretical systems which are used can prevent the process of observation from the exact results. Any effects of such observations should be supported with the peculiarities of definite theories (Okasha, 2002).

Thomas Kuhn has developed Quine-Duhem Thesis and offered his vision of the issue connected with the problem of observations. He has stated that “what we observe depends to some extent on our theoretical commitments” (Philosophy of science, n.d.).

Because of the fact that the observations should be worked out in the framework of a definite theory, this theoretical system provides “the categories in terms of which we classify our observations” (Philosophy of science, n.d.).

Moreover, in spite of the fact that the theoretical principles and aspects according to which the observation is developed are objective for the field, it is also necessary to pay attention to the question of their interpretation by the scientists (Okasha, 2002). That is why it is always necessary to concentrate on the all the details of definite theoretical systems and use only the most objective and relevant elements of them.

We can conclude that Duhem and Quine suggested two rather different approaches to the solution of the problem associated with testing hypotheses with the help of experiments, experiences, and observations.

Nevertheless, the peculiarities of their thesis allowed working out the statement that observations cannot be theory-neutral and function as the arbiters for discussing two or more contradictory theories because any observations always depend on the features and principles of this or that theoretical system within which they are developed.

The question can also be related to such aspects as the peculiarities of the interpretation. It is impossible to develop and interpret observations without references to the theory. Moreover, having analyzed the elements of the thesis, such scholars as Thomas Kuhn stated that any observations should be considered as theory-laden rather than theory-neutral.

Reference List

Ben-Menahem, Y. (2006). Conventionalism: From Poincare to Quine. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Borradori, G. (1994). The American philosopher: Conversations with Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Nozick, Danto, Rorty, Cavell, Maclntyre, Kuhn. USA: University of Chicago Press.

Duhem, P. M. M., & Barker, P. (1996). Essays in the history and philosophy of science. USA: Hackett Publishing Company.

Martin, B. (1999). Pierre Duhem: Philosophy and history in the work of a believing physicist. USA: Open Court.

Okasha, S. (2002). Philosophy of science. USA: Oxford University Press.

Philosophy of science: Some notes on Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Rosenberg, A. (2011). Philosophy of science: A contemporary introduction. USA: Routledge.

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IvyPanda. (2019, June 3). The Discussion of the Character of Empirical Observations according to Quine-Duhem. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-discussion-of-the-character-of-empirical-observations-according-to-quine-duhem/

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IvyPanda. "The Discussion of the Character of Empirical Observations according to Quine-Duhem." June 3, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-discussion-of-the-character-of-empirical-observations-according-to-quine-duhem/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The Discussion of the Character of Empirical Observations according to Quine-Duhem." June 3, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-discussion-of-the-character-of-empirical-observations-according-to-quine-duhem/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Discussion of the Character of Empirical Observations according to Quine-Duhem'. 3 June.

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