Discovery and Justification

Discovery and Justification: Revisiting a Precarious Distinction

Friedrich Steinle (Bergische Universität Wuppertal); Jutta Schickore (Indiana University, Bloomington)

Originally, the distinction between the contexts of discovery and justification was introduced to mark the difference between empirical studies of scientific research and the assessment of knowledge claims. Philosophers such as Duhem and Popper based their work on such a distinction, but only with the prominent formulation by Hans Reichenbach (1938), it has turned to be “a major focal point for any fundamental discussion between history of science and philosophy of science” (Salmon 1970). Even today, the distinction serves as a means to exclude insights of empirical studies of (past) science from epistemological discussions. It is still effective in impeding a fruitful collaboration between historians and philosophers.

As to the subject matter of the distinction, however, as well as its significance, the controversy remains confused. Some believe that none of the characterizations and implications of the distinction is defensible, some argue that the original distinction actually contains several distinctions. Others claim that a philosophical account of justification should also include aspects of discovery, yet others, following Hanson (1958), maintain that it is possible to develop a logic of scientific discovery. Again others hold that instead of demarcating philosophy of science from history, sociology and cognitive psychology, the distinction marks the various steps in the development of scientific knowledge.

To prepare the ground for a productive exchange between historians and philosophers, this project aimed at reopening the debate about the context distinction both historically and systematically. We proposed to approach this problem from three different, though related angles.

Contextualizing of the context distinctions is needed. Following the attempts of Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Thomas Nickles, and Larry Laudan, the project members analyzed past versions of the distinction and looked to place the original renderings of the distinction in their historical contexts. As Don Howard has shown, Reichenbach formulated the distinction in the context of specific controversies and drew the distinction differently in each of the cases. The distinction was transformed again during the historical turn of philosophy of science in the 1970s, when Kuhn, Lakatos, and others examined the boundaries between the "internal" and the "external" history of science. It is only through the analysis of these contexts, the scholars of this project argued, that it is possible to understand and assess the original intentions behind the various distinctions.

What is the significance of the distinction? Recent studies of scientific practice and experiment suggest that a distinction between the two activities of discovering and justifying might be pointless. In contrast, however, scientists themselves generally maintain the distinction. In both scientific publications and science education, scientific knowledge is decontextualized and deliberately cut off from its history. Thus, the distinction seems to be useful in some respects but misleading in others. Do we need, as has been suggested, a three- or even four-fold distinction, rather than a twofold one, to study scientific activity? Is it possible to identify the “contexts of discovery and justification” with respect to a specific historical case? What kinds of difficulties could emerge if we attempt to reconstruct the processes of justification? And what kinds of epistemological insights might we expect from these attempts?

Beyond the Distinction?: Reichenbach’s context distinction implies a fundamental difference between empirical and philosophical approaches to science. However, studies of scientific practice have proven fruitful in eliciting our intuitions not only about the generation of scientific ideas, appropriate testing procedures and theory change, but also about the epistemic significance of instruments, skills and social settings. They have revealed, moreover, the temporal dimension of the epistemological concepts themselves, such as justification, proof, explanation, method, objectivity, error, and experience. But if philosophy engages in studies of past or present science, what, then, is specific to the epistemological enterprise? And to what extent could the empirical analysis of scientific practice claim relevance to philosophical studies of science?

In the project, we hoped to stimulate alternative ways of doing philosophy of science, a kind of philosophy prepared to meet the challenges of recent historical studies of experiments, instruments, and the emergence of epistemological terms.

  • Schickore, Jutta & Friedrich Steinle (eds.). Revisiting Discovery and Justification. Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Context Distinction, New York: Springer, 2006.