Reflective Equilibrium - A Method for Philosophy of Science?

Beisbart, Claus (10 March 2016). Reflective Equilibrium - A Method for Philosophy of Science? (Unpublished). In: GWP.2016 "Philosophy of Science Between the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities". Düsseldorf. 08.-11.03.2016.

Philosophy of science has intensely debated the question of what methods of science there are. But what method is most appropriate for philosophy of science? What method can it use to advance our understanding of science?
One proposal that is occasionally mentioned in the literature is reflective equilibrium (RE). Whereas Ladyman (2002, p. 54) suggests that philosophers of science construct a reflective equilibrium, Schurz (2014, p. 22) prefers a different method, viz., rational reconstruction to the RE (cf. also Thagard 1982, Sec. 2). The aim of this talk is to discuss whether the RE is an appro-priate method for philosophy of science. For this purpose, we have to clarify what the method is and how it may be applied to philosophy of science.
There is a lot of motivation, both historic and systematic, to consider the application of the RE within philosophy of science. For one thing, Goodman (1955, Sec. 3.2) has suggested to justify rules of induction, and thus of sci-entific inference, in terms of the RE. It is thus natural to apply the method to other aspects of scientific practice. For another thing, the central task of philosophy of science is to understand science, and it has been suggested by Elgin (1996) that we obtain understanding of a range of phenomena by con-structing an RE. The RE may also provide a useful framework in which his-toric case studies can be brought to bear on general philosophical questions.
How then may we apply the RE to philosophy of science? In this talk, I will rely on a recent characterization of the RE that Brun (2014, Sec. 2) has given. If we apply this conception to philosophy of science, we start with considered judgements or initial commitments about scientific work. They may either consist in assessments of particular examples of scientific work or general ideas about science. I assume that the initial commitments are at least partly evaluative or normative in character, because e.g. some scien-tific results are judged to credible or reliable. As a next step, principles are identified that explain the initial commitments; the principles are not only supposed to cohere with the commitments, but also to fit background the-ories and epistemic goals that guide the application of the RE. Subsequently, the commitments are re-examined in view of the principles and the back-ground theories. The process continues as long as a fixed point is reached.
To make a case for the application of the RE in philosophy of science, I argue for a two-fold claim: 1. A lot of work in philosophy of science can be understood as applying the RE to some approximation. 2. Adopting the RE as a method in philosophy of science provides a helpful perspective on some methodological questions in philosophy of science. Admittedly, though, the RE cannot answer all questions of this kind because central aspects of the RE await further elaboration.

Brun, G. 2014. Reflective Equilibrium without Intuitions? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17: 237–252.
Elgin, C.Z. 1996. Considered Judgment . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Goodman, N. 1955. Fact, Fiction, and Forecast . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Ladyman, J., 2002 Understanding Philosophy of Science , London: Routledge Schurz, G. 2014, Philosophy of Science . A Unified Approach , New York: Routledge.
Thagard, P. 1982, From the Descriptive to the Normative in Psychology and Logic, Philosophy of Science 49: 24–42

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy > Theoretical Philosophy

UniBE Contributor:

Beisbart, Claus


100 Philosophy
100 Philosophy > 120 Epistemology




Claus Beisbart

Date Deposited:

19 Jul 2017 11:45

Last Modified:

19 Jul 2017 11:45


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