Scientific styles, plain truth, and truthfulness

Published in: South African Journal of Philosophy
Volume 37, issue 3, 2018 , pages: 361–378
DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2018.1514245
Author(s): Robert KowalenkoDepartment of Philosophy, South Africa


Ian Hacking loosely defines a “style of scientific thinking” as a “way to find things out about the world” characterised by five hallmark features of a number of scientific template styles. Most prominently, these are autonomy and “self-authentication”: a scientific style of thinking, according to Hacking, is not good because it helps us find out the truth in some domain, it itself defines the criteria for truth-telling in its domain. I argue that Renaissance medicine, Mediaeval “demonology”, and magical thinking pass muster as scientific according to Hacking’s criteria. However, application of these thought styles to the entities they introduce generates statements that logically imply a set of “ordinary” statements – or what Bernard Williams calls “plain truths” – which, contra the claims of autonomy and self-authentication, allows styles to be assessed from a style-independent perspective. Using Williams’ notion of plain truth, I show that Renaissance medicine, demonology, and magical thinking, in reality issue in many plain falsehoods. This confronts us with what I call Hacking’s dilemma: either define stricter necessary conditions on being a style of scientific thinking, or concede that some styles albeit scientific are not as good at finding things out about the world as others. I make three suggestions to deal with the dilemma.

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