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Poppers Theory Of Falsifiability And Kuhns Theory Of Paradigms Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3723 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Compare and contrast Popper’s Theory of Falsifiability and Kuhn’s Theory of Paradigms. What are the implications of each for the conduct of Social Science?

Popper’s theory of falsifiability and Kuhn’s theory of paradigms have some significant differences, although they both argue for falsification as the general research method for all scientific disciplines. Accordingly, the consequences for the approach in the Social Sciences differ as well. The overall statement of this essay will be that Popper’s theory allows a more aim-oriented research, which means that one has (theoretically) the chance to solve social problems intentionally. The scientist has the opportunity to gather objective knowledge about the equally objective social reality. In Kuhn’s view this is not possible, since any research and knowledge is subjective, it is influenced by the scientist’s paradigm. But here, a scientist can interpret social behaviour on a large scale and from within a specific world view, a way that is not open for Popper. The opportunity to find the truth about social reality comes at the expense of explanatory power.

In order to show these implications it is necessary to point out the aspects of both theories relevant for this analysis, contrasting their common starting point and highlighting the differences that are substantial for the analysis of their application in the Social Sciences.

Possibilities and Limits for Scientists in Kuhn’s and Popper’s Theories

The relevant aspects for this comparison of Popper’s and Kuhn’s theories are best displayed if they are contrasted within the categories of ontology, epistemology and methodology. Since both of the theories are highly comprehensive, a more detailed division would probably not do them justice. But these broad categories allow a sufficient contrast for the proposed argument and lead up to the necessary insights about the notions of scientific progress that the theorists have respectively.

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For Popper, an objective reality exists that can be observed (Popper 1963: 226). As a scientist with the proper understanding of science though it is never possible to be absolutely certain that one has definitely found this reality, this absolute truth (Popper 2002 : 24). Most of the scientific statements are relative; they constitute hypotheses, and are therefore by their very form not expressions of absolute truth (Popper 1962: 221). Likewise, Kuhn is convinced of the existence of an objective reality, a truth, but unlike Popper he does not believe in the possibility to describe it, to discover it at all. Any knowledge about this reality is subjective, is shaped by the social context, by the individual socialisation of the scientist (Kuhn 1963: 120). It is already at this point that Kuhn’s idea of paradigms has to be introduced, which emphasizes the centrality of this notion for the entire theory. Kuhn’s paradigm is a vague concept; it can best be described as covering “a range of factors in scientific development including or somehow involving laws and theories, models, standards, and methods (both theoretical and instrumental), vague intuitions, explicit or implicit metaphysical beliefs (or prejudices). In short, anything that allows science to accomplish anything can be a part of (or somehow involved in) a paradigm.” (Shapere 1980: 29) It is a deeply psychological concept with a highly unconscious nature – which explains the difficulty defining it, let alone in analyzing its impact on science. For Kuhn, these paradigms are the beginning of what he calls “normal science” (Kuhn 1963: 42f.). It is only with such a paradigm that a scientist has enough fundamental orientation in his discipline to begin real scientific work (Kuhn 1963: 79). It cannot be emphasized enough that the scientists are unaware of having these paradigms. It is not something that they deliberately chose, rather it is something they acquired through a process of socialization (Kuhn 1963: 47f.). This clearly describes the “communal nature of a paradigm” (original italics, Eckberg and Hill 1980: 122). Therefore, a scientist will always see the objective reality through the subjective glasses of his paradigm.

As to the epistemology, the pure method of falsification faces the problem of an infinite regress; if falsification is applied to every scientific statement, the research would not lead anywhere. Popper and Kuhn both carry on the tradition of science as it has been established by Positivism. Nevertheless, they are also aware of the question about theory-neutrality in research and the said problem of infinite regress, but they give different answers to this dilemma. Popper introduces the notion of background knowledge (Popper 2002: 25), which is such basic knowledge without which the scientist would not be able to conduct research in his discipline. Nevertheless, it is as provisional as any knowledge, and is potentially falsifiable just as any scientific statement that deserves the name (Popper 2002: 65). The basic knowledge is therefore an individual, subjective choice made by the scientist, but it is a deliberate and conscious one (Lakatos 1970: 105; Popper 2002: 85; Popper 1963: 245) – which cannot be said about the paradigm. This does equally provide a useful solution to the problem of an infinite falsification, but one that is adopted unconsciously, since it is linked so closely to the actual conception of reality shared by the scientific community. A deliberate commitment to basic knowledge contrasts an involuntary commitment to a paradigm (Kuhn 1963: 97). In this regard, the incommensurability of paradigms has to be mentioned (Smith 1998: 195; Lakatos 1970: 93). Paradigms can be compared to a religious belief held by scientists, and its psychological nature does not allow holding two paradigms simultaneously (Keat and Urry 1982: 62; Kuhn 1963: 93; 151). It is no exaggeration that the process of a paradigm change is described as revolutionary (Kuhn 1963: 91ff.). We therefore have the result of a socialization process against an individual, conscious choice. Kuhn as well as „emphasize […] the intimate and inevitable entanglement of scientific observation with scientific theory” (Kuhn 1970: 2). But whereas in Popper’s belief this entanglement can be influenced by the scientist, it is determined and beyond any deliberate change intended by an individual in Kuhn’s world.

With regard to the methodology, Popper emphasizes the logic of science, that science and specifically social science is defined by the chosen method, and not by its results (Popper 1962: 218). Falsification is applied to the theory or rather the hypotheses to be tested, not to the background knowledge (for the time being). The choice is subjective (and is therefore reflecting values), but it is deliberate and rational and therefore acceptable. In Kuhn’s theory however, paradigms provide the research frame, and falsification works within it but is never applied to this frame (Kuhn 1963: 80). Successful falsification provides problems to be solved within the paradigm; they are like pieces to a puzzle which is in its entirety unknown (Wolin 1980: 170). According to Kuhn, there is no logic of science (Shapere1980: 30), only interpretation within a given paradigm is possible. If there is no paradigm, the scientists work on establishing one, so as to start with “normal” science. During a crisis that leads to a paradigm change, contradicting facts and the new paradigm are developed simultaneously (Kuhn 1963: 96, 140; Kuhn 1970: 10). The results of such a falsification process within the paradigm therefore is exactly what Popper calls the “sociology of knowledge” (Popper 1962: 220), a socially constructed and determined knowledge, precisely what he tries to evade.

These aspects of ontology, epistemology and methodology lead to the notions about the possible progress that science can achieve. For Popper, knowledge is cumulative, since falsification is also a method that helps to refine theories (Popper 2002: 24). Whether it is the adjustment or reformulation of a theory after a successful falsification, or the resistance of a theory to the tests, both results are considered to be an improvement (Popper 1963: 245). Although the theory in the latter case might not be true, it is scientifically superior to those already falsified. The continuous formulation and rejection of theories as well as the work on new problems with reformulated theories is all considered to be a (cumulative) development of knowledge (Popper 1963: 215, 222; Popper 1962: 221). For Kuhn on the other hand, there is no general progress of cumulative knowledge, only a change of paradigms over time (Kuhn 1963: 156). New paradigms are adopted because the scientific community considers it to have greater potential for the new (albeit only vague, in their entirety unknown) problems to be solved. They have an essentially rational factor, and seem to be more useful for future research (Keat and Urry 1982: 169). But paradigms are exclusive, not derived from one another (Smith 1998: 195). Since knowledge is so closely connected to them, any growth of knowledge cannot objectively be ascertained (Kuhn 1970: 20f.). At the most, a form of progress can be observed within the workings of normal science, during the process of puzzle-solving (Dogan 2001: 11025). But there is no progress in the sense of coming closer to the truth (Keat and Urry 1982: 169).

Different Connections between Theory and Observation: Consequences for the Social Sciences

This contrast highlights the most important aspects of Kuhn’s and Popper’s theories that are relevant to analyze the consequences that both approaches have for the Social Sciences respectively. Both imply individual restrictions as well as possibilities for them and in Popper’s case the theory imposes even a normative duty on the scientist.

He argues for a unity of science concerning the methods, which means that the procedure of formulating hypotheses and subjecting them to tests of falsification should be applied in the Social Sciences just as in any other (Stokes 1997: 58). It is a method that best supports the aim of objective research, trying to prevent the scientist from adopting a narrow, selective perception that only discerns proofs for the own theory but not its failures. All Science is fundamentally characterized by the method applied (Popper 2002: 29). But for Popper, Social Science specifically should be characterized by something else; by the ethical awareness every research project ought to have (Stokes 1997: 69). Before this is explained in greater detail however, it must be emphasized that such a normative component is of course not derivable from the objective facts describing Popper’s theory. No normative responsibility can be derived from an actual condition. But Popper’s theory allows it, and the consequences from his falsificationist approach for the Social Sciences are largely dominated by this obligation. Apart from the question whether one agrees with him, his argument also points out the consequences for the Social Sciences and his theory in general, and it is an essential part of his approach.

Popper demands a fundamentally practical orientation in the Social Sciences, any research project should contribute to the solution of social problems of their time. He also argues for more ethical awareness in the Social Sciences; in this case he is a child of his time. This attitude comes from experiences with totalitarianism and fascism (Stokes 1997: 57). But what is important in this context is that Popper therefore agues for the individual influence of scientific as well as extra-scientific values: His argument is that the individual choice of the scientist does not only expand on values such as scientific precision or intersubjectivity of research findings, as it is reflected by the choice for falsification as a method and by the choice for falsifiable, but for now untested background knowledge. It also applies to the scientists’ aims, to the problems he chooses to investigate. Broadly speaking, any research should eventually try to reduce human suffering (Stokes 1997: 60).

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Even if one does not agree with Popper’s demand here, it highlights the opportunities open to a scientists according to his theory. Knowledge is cumulative, so the scientist has the possibility to take a conscious part in this accumulation of knowledge about the (objective) social reality (Popper 1962: 221). This objective reality can be the focus of research since it is possible to gather knowledge about it. Even the most fundamental assumptions or convictions, the background knowledge, can be questioned and altered. Any social influence on our knowledge can eventually be evaded, indirectly, by the choice of falsification as a method and by unconventional or for its time unusual choice of research topics. The scientist has not only the opportunity to discover the objective social reality, he can (and in Popper’s view must) also endeavour to define the social problems of his time and propose solutions for it.

This emphasis on the objective social reality as the focus and the denial of any socially constructed limits of the research has even further implications. There are abstract as well as tangible objects in Social Science. Its scientists are engaged in analyzing social problems, general phenomenons or dynamics, things that have an undeniably abstract nature. On the other hand though it is the individual who is identified as the causal unity of these phenomenons, it is the objective, observable reality which has to be the center for any hypotheses or theory that fulfills the criteria of falsifiability. A theory that has a holistic character and applies to the abstract objects of social reality itself cannot meet the standards for intersubjective testing, for an experiment to be repeated and tested over and over again (Popper 1962: 218). So while the eventual aim is of course to understand the dynamics and causes of abstract constructs in social reality, its research is restricted to the individual. On the one hand, Popper’s scientist can therefore consciously choose his object of research, can be specifically aim-oriented, and is therefore not limited to a purely explanatory role. On the other hand, it is impossible for him to consciously work within a specific, personal belief about the social reality that he never questions during his research (Popper 1962: 212). Explanations within the belief systems like Marxism or elitism that intend to explain social reality within this frame are therefore not possible, since these beliefs do not fulfill the standards of permissible background knowledge.

A last remark has to be made on Popper’s view about the Social Sciences. It is exactly against the perceived dangers of such social frames that he argues for the publicity of Science (Stokes 1997: 74; Popper 1962: 217f.). To complete the standards of critical research, to guarantee that intersubjectivity and falsifiability are adhered to the results (and the method) of research have to be published. The critical appraisal by other scientists is needed to establish the highest possible objectivity.

The strength of Popper’s approach lies therefore in the fact that the scientist has more free will in choosing his objectives, and that this choice also implies a normative choice. This is the consequence of Popper’s particular connection between theory and observation, that science is not value-free, neither on the level of aims nor when it comes to its method, but these values are acceptable as long as they are a conscious choice. For a scientist in Kuhn’s approach though this choice is made for him by the paradigm. In the case that there is no paradigm yet, scientists have not even entered the stage of real scientific progress of their discipline; they have not yet started with normal science (Kuhn 1963: 79). According to Kuhn, this is exactly the case for the Social Sciences (Kuhn 1970: 6; Wolin 1980: 169). But even if the Social Sciences had already acquired a paradigm in Kuhn’s definition, such aim-oriented research like Popper proposes it would not be possible. The scientist would of course have an objective for his research, but he cannot claim to have chosen it objectively, let alone having done so out of the normative conviction to ultimately discover and evade any social aspect to his research and knowledge. This social influence that the scientist is unaware of is but the starting point for real research, also in the Social Sciences.

Some consider the different schools within Social Sciences as paradigms, although this contradicts the unconscious character of a paradigm according to Kuhn’s interpretation. It is argued that overarching concepts such as paradigms “built on more solid ground in the natural sciences than in the social sciences, because in the former truth is universal, in the latter, contextual.” (Dogan 2001: 11026) If paradigms are going to appear in the Social Sciences, they will only be realized in the narrow form of different schools that are not characterized by incommensurability, but by mutual avoidance (Dogan 2001: 11024). Even though this idea does not realize all characteristics of a paradigm, its example is most useful here. The Scientist does of course not enjoy the “freedom” that he has in Popper’s view. He is exposed to the norms of his school and he has to realize that even an approach that he considers to be most revolutionary and unconventional is probably still within the boundaries of this school. For the rare case that such deviant behavior should happen despite the deep socialization of the individual scientist, then the paradigmatic community will not tolerate it and most likely simply ignore his findings (Wolin 1980: 167f.). It is not possible for an individual to deliberately convince all the members of this specific attitude to change it radically. Such change is incremental and therefore happens only gradually (Wolin 1980: 175).

But then he can explain the social reality from this particular point or belief system. He has possibilities for explanation that are unavailable for a scientist in Popper’s theory. It is not without coincidence that Marxism is considered to be such a powerful school in Social Science that it comes close to what Kuhn describes as a paradigm (Dogan 2001: 11026), a school that is given as one of the typical examples (Popper 1962: 212) of the social bias and subjectivity that has to be avoided according to Popper. Intersubjectivity is a therefore an important value for Kuhn as well as for Popper, but whereas this scientific value only applies within the paradigmatic community for Kuhn, for Popper it is precisely the means to evade such influence.

The social reality that is always perceived subjectively can therefore be thoroughly explained and described from within these world views, and the progress scientists make with this kind of research is relatively substantial, since they can accept more easily the findings of their colleagues. They can interpret behavior, specific social rules, and are not restricted to describe individual behavior like Popper. But this advantage in explaining social phenomena therefore comes at the price of aim-oriented research such as it is possible in Popper’s view. The puzzle-solving process during normal science is after all defined by the fact that the bigger picture of the puzzle is unknown (Wolin 1980: 170). Accepting a paradigm and work within its boundaries is compared to a “kind of religious change” (Lakatos 1970: 93). The scientist cannot make its structures visible, not on purpose at least. He has to rely on the intangible dynamic that characterizes normal science. He has only the possibility to choose scientific values, and even that only to a limited extent (Kuhn 1963: 17). He also has to accept that there are possibly some social problems or facts of the objective social reality – that does, after all, exist – that he does not perceive at all due to his paradigm. And if the Social Science is truly without a paradigm so far, the stage of normal research where a form of progress is finally possible has not even begun.


Both Popper’s theory of falsification and Kuhn’s theory of paradigms assume the existence of an objective social reality and are convinced of the merits of falsification as the acceptable method for its research. They are equally considering the problem of theory neutrality in the Social Sciences as well as continuing the tradition of Positivism that does not see a fundamental difference for science within its different disciplines. Nevertheless, Kuhn and Popper differ in their opinions about the acceptable solution to this question about theory-neutrality, about the relation between theory and observation. Popper’s ontology and epistemology demand potential falsifiability for all scientific statements in order to discover this objective truth and evade the pitfalls of the subjective bias. What he considers to be the absolute fall of science is only its beginning in Kuhn’s view. Only paradigms, unconscious social frameworks, allow progressive research, and any knowledge about reality must be subjective. The consequences of Popper’s view for Social Sciences in particular consist in the possibility to deliberately work on the social problems of the time, and in the conviction that the any social fact can eventually be discovered. It comes at a reduced ability to explain social phenomena holistically and from within a specific worldview that cannot be operationalised into falsifiable hypotheses. This is exactly what a researcher in Kuhn’s world can do, albeit at the expense of the said advantages Popper’s scientist has.


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