Theory & Science (2008)

ISSN: 1527-5558


Andrea Amato
University of Bari - Italy
e-mail address:

a) Introduction

Starting from Popper and Lakatos, modern epistemology has somehow contradicted itself, given that it has asserted its faith in cognitive success, without explaining the reasons of that.

Therefore, there is the need for a survey on the foundation of knowledge and on the faculties that ensure its success.

In particular, what needs to be explored is the role played by reason in relation with other human dispositions. Likewise, cognitive processes linked to thought need to be reconsidered.

These assumptions will enable us to deal more adequately with a number of particular aspects of knowledge, such as: the definition of ‘truth; the relationships between knowledge and conscience; the relationship between theories and facts.

Under these conditions, there is also scope for discussion over the problem of the possibility of comparing different theories, as pointed out by Kuhn, Feyerabend and Laudan.

b) The reasons of the cognitive success

The modern epistemology is in the peculiar position of retaining its trust in man’s ability to acquire knowledge without being capable of specifying what role reason plays with reference to the other faculties, that is without fully explaining the reasons for our gnosis success.

Popper was the first to state that any conclusion concerning the possibility or impossibility of knowing is “a transcendental statement” and, echoing Kant, he states that man reaches knowledge while trying to guess.

That does not prevent Popper (1972) from trusting man’s rationality, though with a peculiar view which allows him to have “irrational faith in the reasonable attitude” 1.

Henceforth, the provision whereby “the phenomenon of knowledge is doubtless the greatest miracle in the universe” does not stop Popper (1975) from retaining faith in it, though such faith is supported by rational methodology 2.

Lakatos (1996) goes even further prompting Popper into using “conjectural metaphysics linking corroboration to likelihood” in order to include “an inductive conjectural principle” “within rationality”. However, also in this case, the problem of distinguishing between what is rational and what is irrational is still crucial, regardless of the specific assessment criteria one wishes to use. The issue needs to be addressed if we want to explain why our cognitive activity is successful. Lakatos does not wish to elude the issue, nonetheless he finds Popper’s “positive solution” inadequate. Popper states that “we can justify the choice of certain theories in light of their corroboration, namely in light of the present state of the rational discussion over rival theories in terms of their likelihood”. In Lakatos’s opinion this analytic principle should be coupled by a synthetic one “providing estimates of likelihood” 3.

Also Kuhn (1995) considers “impenetrable” the manner in which the individual manages to produce a paradigm and a method to “organize the collected data”, whilst not doubting that it does happen 4.

On the other hand, Feyerabend (1973) urges to consider the play between the sources of knowledge and advises us “to be rational without making the mistake of believing that man could and should improve himself only through rational planning” 5.

Consequently, it is no surprise that when Popper (1995) rightly points to the need to dismantle “the idol of certainty” on the grounds that “it hinders not only the boldness of our issues, but also the rigour of our check-up tests” 6, in the eyes of later epistemologists such need seems to contradict its recurrent trust in man’s reasonableness and in scientific progress, as it does not clarify the limitations and the role of reason, leaving knowledge short of valid foundations.

Lakatos’s methodological perplexities thus turn into a clear request for a new type of anthropology on part of Feyerabend (1973), who, like Kierkegard, believes the rational-critical approach is debilitating, given that “theory appears to suffocate imagination and to drain all sources of speculation”. It is essential to counter this unilaterally rational conception of man with alternative activities such as playing, summoning the whole of man, including his feelings 7.

Owing to such diverse positions there is the need for an analysis of the foundations of knowledge; namely of the reasons why we are so successful in our cognitive activity, in light of the fact that none of the mentioned authors has cast doubts that science does reach some form of success. If success is reached, then it should be possible to identify and appraise that very success.

Popper (1995) wonders why we use “transcendental universal laws” and answers it is due to two reasons: a) “because we need to”, as there is no “pure experience”; b) because “a theoretician is a man who wishes to explain experiences” 8.

In line with Popper’s words, we too can say that we are successful because we need to and that we find explanations because we wish to and we can explain.

This issue is linked to the relation between man and novelty.

In my opinion, novelty can exists for the man, because we trust our ability to understand what is new, hence it is really new only when it is accepted and it is considered , at some stage, controllable by man, that is when we link it to a problem man can handle. Of course, such trust would be faith or free will if during the history of each one and of mankind it had not proven itself effective. Being and cohabiting with the world is a need we have, it is necessary for our survival, hence we need success.

The same trust underpinning success exists in relation to knowledge, to our ability to know.

Once again, we can say that we know things, because we assume to have always been aware of them, in the sense that some form of immediate awareness has promptly enabled us to perceive them, identify them, use them. Moreover, that assumption is not totally unsound, given that man possesses faculties, such as: intuition, immediate understanding and processual logic, which identify with things and take possession of them. Basically, man improves and distinguishes the faculties he possesses, partly and wholly for genetic reasons, through constant practice involving his surroundings.

As a consequence, man did not wonder from the outset (nor do it children) whether he would succeed or not in knowing the world; he operates in the world and knows it (or thinks he knows it).

From man’s point of view, rationality is something a priori, which finds an explanation in the need to establish relations with the world. The logical and conceptual tools man's gradually acquired will allow our world knowledge to reach increasingly deeper insights, yet this is not a totally mechanical and automatic process; the degree of insight also depends on man’s level of decisiveness and perseverance. Beyond subsistence, knowledge is an extravagance and man decides he can afford it. However, also in the case of theoretical knowledge, trust in itself, assumed in an a priori manner, persists and is strengthened only because it proves effective, actual, checkable.

In addition, man goes from the need for stability and that for innovation; such dialectic is at the base of any cognitive development.

c) The role of the reason and the cognitive processes of the thought.

At this point, one needs to ascertain whether reason is the most suitable faculty to ensure the positive development of knowledge and, should that be the case, one needs to understand what role and what place we assign to reason.

Feyerabend advises us to consider man in his wholeness and to recognize what contribution the other faculties can offer, even from the point of view of knowledge. In principle, such advice is appropriate and fair and should be welcomed (although I disagree with his conception of man’s wholeness). However, one should dispel the prejudice whereby reason is itself self-sufficient, or even worse, it deliberately excludes the intervention of other faculties. In fact, in order to relate to the world, at least initially reason must necessarily rely on the other human faculties. For example, it may persistently and accurately repeat an action only if it is supported by will; yet again,it may establish a wider range of relations with the world only if it is supported by an exploratory inclination, that will soon turn into desire; or it engages in tasks that are not urgent and not promptly useful, because potential success procures it delight and self-complacency. The suffocating of all these psychological relationships is, thus, a decision on man’s part, that in no way complies with the ordinary course of reason. Reason has a partial position within the whole of human actions, as not everything is performed reasonably or consciously and, indeed, many actions are a consequence of pre-conscious, unconscious and subconscious aptitudes. Nevertheless, in Lakatos’s words (1996) “the man who demarcates is willing to recognize that expressed knowledge is only the tip of an iceberg, yet it is precisely in this small, emerging tip of human activity that rationality lies” 9.

Along side J. S. Mill (1979) we may agree that knowledge must not aim at completeness 10. However, it does follows such approach, thus, it must be consciously corrected. Given such aporia, then what is man’s basic task?

It seems to be reaching the truth, and, indeed, man always aims at universal knowledge. Even when he does not aim at it deliberately, he inevitably gives his knowledge such universal meaning. However, man soon finds out the illusory nature of his ambition and the failure (which is more or less partial) directs all attention on to man, posing crucial questions on his fallibility, the motivations of such fallibility, the nature and conditions that determine mistakes, the possible psychological and cognitive remedies, man’s real abilities. Truth, taken as a conscious scope, then turns into an ideal or a transcendent entity, that may have both a metaphysical and scientific foundation.

In fact, truth is but an outcome suiting man’s convictions and his level of world knowledge. In general, we aim at acquiring a sufficient and plausible explanation of phenomena in such a way that they are controllable and culturally objective. Cognitive methods (with reference to which Popper (1995) introduces the “principle of parsimony in the use of hypotheses” 11 ) and logic account for the adequacy of knowledge so far reached.

Henceforth, if these are overall the place and the role of reason, then one must establish what is meant by adequate, plausible and suitable knowledge.

The basic problem with knowledge, in terms of the correspondence between a theory or a notion and experience, is that put forward by Kant, namely whether it is possible to reach some form of knowledge or notion capable of including in itself all the countless, potential instances offered by experience. Having assumed that the task cannot be fulfilled, we must explore under which conditions knowledge may be considered rational, that is linked to known and foreseeable experiences and linked to them in a non-arbitrary fashion.

Man is endowed with theoretical thinking, namely of thought that, to some extent, is abstract and unrelated to the world. As Lakatos and Kuhn state by means of theoretical thinking, facts are given an interpretation, that prevails over the observation of the facts. Nevertheless, it is also true that the basic feature of human thought is that of endowing itself with twofold methods and principles; in that case, theoretical thinking is coupled by intuitive and empirical thinking. Any unilateral approach is excessive and, sooner or later, it either prompts or reactivates the opposing principle, which acts as a balancing element. This make possible the objective knowledge. The best thing is to establish an accurate dialectic method between opposing principles. This attempt pertains to self-awareness.

It is a fact that man is capable of both theoretical and intuitive-empirical thinking, and deductive and inductive logic, and so on. Therefore, it is impossible to ascertain absolutely whether theory comes before facts or vice versa, or whether thought must necessarily be prompted by experience or it may give it a meaning, that, somehow, brings it to life. The two processes are both possible and are alternatively activated; it is crucial establish a contact between them.

It follows that a theory, generally, encounters facts. Nevertheless, a real and full revisiting of those facts is accomplished when theoretical thinking clashes with the problems linked to experience or to the experiment (or to another theory), namely when the reality opposes some form of resistance to the its theoretical interpretation. Moreover, man may radically change the experiment beyond the actually observed data by means of laboratory techniques or resorting to virtual devices. In that case, the scientific law is more precise, because it has to confront itself with a wider range of instances, obtaining an advantageous proliferation of experiences in order to reach the favourable outcome, which Feyerabend looks for within the proliferation of theories.

The impossibility of establishing the sequence of events and theories has been mentioned, yet one must point out that it does not mean doing without the differences between “observational terms” and “theoretical terms”, or between a “discovery context” and “justifying context”, as Feyerabend (1973) maintains 12. My statement, whereby the outcome of research is a synthesis of these two elements, does not imply that the outcome does not follow a dialectic relation between the two elements. Agreement stating the synthesis is, indeed, preceded by a detached reflection of the thought on facts and on ourselves, on our actions and on our results, first distinctly and then in correlation on everything.

Moreover, thinking in itself tends towards infinity and consequently tends to universalise the extent of its outcomes, yet this very process of extending results, which in some cases is arbitrary, compels it to confront itself with the many observable or supposable instances. Infinity being an inclination, it involves speculary both the theorizing and the testing it undergoes, hence, as Popper (1995) states, the utmost exercise of man’s will concerns the decision over what should be the end-point of logical-experimental testing 13. It is with reference to this aspect that man prevails over facts and controls himself.

If a dialectic relation between thinking and facts is necessary, how can it really come into being, how does it come into being in temporal terms?

It is a shared view that a feature of science would be its ability to disentangle itself from the immediacy of a prompt answer.

For example, Popper (1975) underlines the difference between the scientist and “the practical action man”, pointing out that the latter ”must always choose between more or less defined options”, instance that never occurs with the theoretical man. Starting from this assumption he comes to a conclusion (a rather unacceptable one, in my opinion) that, among the many practical possibilities linked to a theory, “it is not worth worrying because we cannot do anything about it: they are beyond our reach” 14.

Kuhn (1995) shares this position concerning the difference between theory and practice, when he states that “the scientist does not have to choose problems because they require urgent solution….” 15.

The distinction does not only concern science and "praxis", but also, in broader terms, theoretical thinking, practical thinking and their relation with "praxis".

The positions so far described are true in part, because they inform us on the different relations that man’s several activities establish with life and man’s history, a relation that may be more or less immediate.

Furthermore, they, suitably, identify different temporal dimensions of thinking.

Nevertheless, what does a similar description of the relation with the reality entail?

It is now clear that the relation between thought and the reality requires a twofold approach on man’s part. On the one hand, man places himself before the world, with his bundle of ideas and logical forms, so that he interprets reality rather than describe it. On the other hand, man encounters novelty and problems and with them he initially establishes identifying relations, through intuition, immediate understanding, processual logic. The relation with the reality is real and checkable precisely because it starts on that double basis, which allows man both to find his place in the world and to recognize the world as such, without losing himself in it. Thus, the detaching of theoretical thinking, which may be either preliminary or subsequent, is not a separation, yet it requires a relation, that either follows a previous relation with the reality, or, in any case, involves revisiting the reality. A long temporal process that should not aim at a synthetic frame, would be a purely mental and arbitrary exercise.

d) Knowledge and conscience.

As Popper (1975) points out, the detaching of theoretical thinking is, thus, linked to the possibility of carrying out a “critical debate of rival theories” in a more profound way than we do in practical life 16.

Laudan (1979), on the subject, requires this critical practice to extend on the scientist’s part to include the “philosophy of science” whence theory comes from 17. However, that does not always occur.

That is precisely the point: both Popper’s and Laudan’s requests somehow refer to man having to take a decision. As mentioned, Popper underlines that checking comes to an end depends upon man’s choice. There is no doubt that science itself cannot do without cross-theory testing, consequently it cannot avoid critical practice, but its intensity relies on ourselves. Moreover, critical practice concerning one’s own theoretical framework, and/or that of others, does not necessarily entail a similar critical activity with regards to our cultural and metaphysical framework. In other words, theoretical critique distinguishes itself from the self-awareness of our psychological and philosophical substratum and that entails taking a further decision.

At this point, let us tackle another problem raised by Popper, namely that of how theories and ideas in turn affect our conscience.

An original conscience, relating to the world, does not (originally we only have a genetic framework and the inclination to explore), in fact, it is generated in the close contact with the outer world. Nonetheless, it is also true that we constantly face the universe with a unifying conscience and we constantly rejoin. At the same time, our psychological products (which are also affected by our conscience) operate upon an unified conscience and, to varying degrees, affect it, establishing a dialectic relation. By contrast, one may say that precisely such distinction between ideas or concepts and unified conscience, bilaterally, requires a mutual relation, almost between two objective entities, the objective self and objectified thought. The twofold objectifying process turns into a subjective one, exactly because it has to be unified through an acknowledging process, which in turn settles as an objective result, that is now unified and turned into a synthesis.

In order for theoretical thinking to be such, namely to be something we acquire and we can be aware of constantly and freely, as well as for theoretical thinking to play the role of critical device, it must necessarily undergo the process whereby its activities are made objective and subjective. Yet, the free recollection aimed at critical practice is an opportunity we have and it entails our decision and our determination.

In a nutshell, one can say that our mental and psychological activity reaches an objectifying process, though it is not unaffected by whether it is coupled and somehow corroborated by critical and self-critical practice, that is necessarily linked to our willingness and decision-making ability.

e) The possibility of comparing different theories and the scientific progress.

Furthermore, as such approach makes our ideas and thoughts comparable and it makes linkable also our ideas with our thoughts, it opens the way to the solution of the problem of comparing different scientific research traditions.

Instead, some epistemologists deny that is possible.

Let’s take Kuhn (1995) as an example, according to whom the impossibility of comparing different theories has several causes: the “arbitrary element consisting of historical and personal incidents” underpinning knowledge; the impossibility of ascertaining “whether or to what extent a specific theory suits facts”, so that between two theories one may only find which one “better suits facts” (yet how?); the fact that choosing among different theories is based on a set of values and this entails lack of communication among “those who purport immeasurable theories” 18.

Also Feyerabend (1973) mentions “several deviations from the right and rather boring path of rationality” in real science. However, regardless from that, given the limiting nature of the notion of “conceptual continuity”, one has to renounce the comparison between differing theories, as it is only possible to discover the “inner inconsistencies” of a theory (yet, would such inner comparison not refer to a conceptual continuity or rather a dialectic?) 19.

On the contrary, Laudan (1979) maintains that “research traditions existing at a given time” may be organized “according to the progress they achieve”, “although … they are utterly immeasurable in terms of what they purport with reference to reality” 20.

In my opinion, the possibility of comparing different theories may be established in terms of complexity, namely in terms of accountable facts or number of features of a single explained fact and, above all, owing to the inner and outer consistency of such complex accounts.

A complex theory is capable of including in its framework parts of contrasting theories, acknowledging their partial validity and contributing to better explaining some of their intuitions, does not exclude or preclude prejudicially rival theories. Though, as Feyerabend (1973) himself points out, a complex theory must also exclude and reject some theories or parts of them 21. When, at one point, there occurs a shift in the very notions underpinning the different scientific theories, at some stage we become aware of the shift, consequently also their stated immeasurability, be it wholly or partially, still derives from some type of measurement and of comparison between different theories. The same decision concerning their immeasurability and our statement on it, ensue from their initial assessment, rather than from a prejudicial rejection of the rival theory. Only when we experience and unconsciously identify with a belief, a viewpoint, a theory, we never submit it to a preliminary analysis and a subsequent critique. By contrast, the conscious and critical immeasurability is already a form of comparison.

At the basis of the notion of the immeasurability of rival theories, there is, however, the assumption whereby every theoretical framework includes metaphysical element, which cannot be compared.

Then Lakatos is right when he states that more time is needed to decide which theory is the best one and the most progressive one. From my point of view, more time is needed to sieve the ideological elements mixed within a theory. With reference to the notion of immeasurability, as Lakatos holds, history is the best judge to assess Popper’s method of falsifiability.

Indeed, history lets different ideologies flow over time, each one establishing a link both with its direct rivals and with previous ones, be it even just the immediately preceding ones, so that every ideology strives to justify itself and disrepute the others and, in order to do so, it compares itself to the others and estimates them. In other words, there comes into being a unique historiography (not a single historiography) which, though acknowledging gaps between cultures, methods and contents throughout the different historical periods or between plans of between researches, seeks to introduce some form of meta-language, on the basis of which man’s whole history may be unified. In that way, the historiography synthesises within a framework the philosophical debate, whether it has been completed or it is under way. Moreover, the passing of time tests the assumptions underlining different ideologies, hence it naturally purifies theories of their ideological element.

Likewise, a further complex theory involves a revision of ideologies and challenges them into being more complex, that is more apt at establishing a greater number of relations with facts and convictions.

f) Conclusion.

After all, faith in man’s ability to acquire knowledge may be re-established only if we reconsider its anthropological foundation s.

In particular, the supremacy of the reason may be confirmed, yet without declaring its self-sufficiency, given that it determines continuous and closer relations with the other faculties and the with other dispositions of the man, as, for example, will and desire.

That involves a redefinition of cognitive processes linked to thought, which becomes reliable in so far as it sets twofold methods (theoretical and empiricist thought, inductive and deductive logic) and temporal dimensions (immediacy and detached abstraction). It lends reliability to what is a rather ‘true’ knowledge of things and it favours a dialectic relationship between theories and facts.

Therefore, complex anthropology supports complex knowledge. Moreover, the degree of complexity of theories can be both a factor of their comparability and the criterion by which scientific progress is appraised.



1. On these issues see Popper (1972: p. 605). Conjectures and confutations. Bologna: Il Mulino. Popper (1995: Pp. 412-413) adds that “empirical knowledge”, including “scientific knowledge”, “consists in guessing attempts, and that many such attempts are unlikely (that is their likelihood in succeeding equals zero), though they may be well corroborated”. For this quotation see: The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Turin: Einaudi.

2. K. R. Popper (1975: p. 17): Objective knowledge. Rome: Armando.

3. I. Lakatos (1996: Pp. 204, 218, 216): Methodology of the programs of scientific research. Milan: Il Saggiatore.

4. T. Kuhn (1995: p. 117). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Turin: Einaudi.

5. P.K. Feyerabend (1973; p. 142). Against the the Method. Milan: Lampugnano Nigri.

6. K.R. Popper (1995: p. 311). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

7. P.K. Feyerabend (1973: Pp. 93-94). Against the Method.

8. K.R. Popper (1995: p. 481). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

9. I. Lakatos (1996: p. 290). Methodology of the programs of scientific research.

10. Reference to J.S. Mill is taken from L. Laudan (1979: p. 244). The scientific development. Rome: Armando.

11. K.R. Popper (1995: p. 148). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

12. P. K. Feyerabend (1973: Pp. 85-86). Against the Method.

13. K.R. Popper (1995: p. 99). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

14. K. R. Popper (1975: Pp. 42-43). Objective knowledge.

15. T. Kuhn (1995: p. 198). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

16. K. R. Popper (1975: Pp. 110-111). Objective knowledge.

17. In relation to the history of science Laudan (1979: p. 196) says that “it is unavoidable that every description on part of a scientific historian be coloured by the way he perceives how science operates. Such “colour” is dangerous only when the philosophical theories deriving from it are used implicitly and non-critically, or when its existence is denied by the historian…” . See: The scientific development.

18. T. Kuhn (1995: Pp. 23, 179, 238, 239). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

19. P.K. Feyerabend (1973: Pp. 99, 112, 113). Against the Method.

20. L. Laudan (1979: p 174) The scientific development.

21. With reference to classical theory on physics and relativism, Feyerabend (1973: p. 189) maintains they may be correlated, but “the elements of the correlation, once having been interpreted, cannot both be meaningful or true: if relativism is true, then classical descriptions are always false or meaningless”. See: Against the Method.


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