Larry Laudan
Born (1941-10-16) 16 October 1941 (age 79)
NationalityUnited States
EducationUniversity of Kansas (B.A. Physics, 1962)
Princeton University (Ph.D. Philosophy, 1965)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, University of Hawaii, University of Texas Law School, UNAM
Main interests
Philosophy of science, epistemology
Notable ideas
Reticulationist model of scientific rationality centered around the concept of research traditions[1]
Pessimistic induction
Criticism of positivism, realism, and relativism

Larry Laudan (/ˈldən/;[5] born 1941) is an American philosopher of science and epistemologist. He has strongly criticized the traditions of positivism, realism, and relativism, and he has defended a view of science as a privileged and progressive institution against popular challenges. Laudan's philosophical view of "research traditions" is seen as an important alternative to Imre Lakatos's "research programs."[6]

Life and career

Laudan took his PhD in Philosophy at Princeton University, and then taught at University College London and, for many years, at the University of Pittsburgh. Subsequently, he taught at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, University of Hawaii and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Laudan is retired, though in recent years has lectured at the University of Texas, Austin.[7] His more recent work has been on legal epistemology. He is the husband of food historian Rachel Laudan.

In 1990, while Chair of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Laudan was critical of fellow professor Haunani-Kay Trask, over a debate in the local newspapers about white supremacy and the colonisation of Hawaii.[8] Laudan "demanded" to a Vice President of the University that Trask be reprimanded for their published comments.[9] Later on, the Philosophy Department that Laudan chaired issued a public "Statement on Racism in Academe" condemning Trask's anti-colonial comments as racist.[10]

Philosophical work

Laudan's most influential book is Progress and Its Problems (1977), in which he charges philosophers of science with paying lip service to the view that "science is fundamentally a problem-solving activity" without taking seriously the view's implications for the history of science and its philosophy, and without questioning certain issues in the historiography and methodology of science. Against empiricism, which is represented by Karl Popper, and "revolutionism," represented by Thomas Kuhn, Laudan maintained in Progress and Its Problems that science is an evolving process that accumulates more empirically validated evidence while solving conceptual anomalies at the same time. Mere evidence collecting or empirical confirmation does not constitute the true mechanism of scientific advancement; conceptual resolution and comparison of the solutions of anomalies provided by various theories form an indispensable part of the evolution of science.

Laudan is particularly well known for his pessimistic induction argument against the claim that the cumulative success of science shows that science must truly describe reality. Laudan famously argued in his 1981 article "A Confutation of Convergent Realism"[11] that "the history of science furnishes vast evidence of empirically successful theories that were later rejected; from subsequent perspectives, their unobservable terms were judged not to refer and thus, they cannot be regarded as true or even approximately true."[12]

In Beyond Positivism and Relativism, Laudan wrote that "the aim of science is to secure theories with a high problem-solving effectiveness" and that scientific progress is possible when empirical data is diminished. "Indeed, on this model, it is possible that a change from an empirically well-supported theory to a less well-supported one could be progressive, provided that the latter resolved significant conceptual difficulties confronting the former."[13] Finally, the better theory solves more conceptual problems while minimizing empirical anomalies.

Laudan has also written on risk management and the subject of terrorism. He has argued that "moral outrage and compassion are the proper responses to terrorism, but fear for oneself and one's life is not. The risk that the average American will be a victim of terrorism is extremely remote."[14] He wrote The Book of Risks in 1996 which details the relative risks of various accidents.

Selected writings


  1. ^ Historicist Theories of Scientific Rationality (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ Laudan 1977, p. 125.
  3. ^ Laudan 1984, p. 83.
  4. ^ James T. Cushing, Philosophical Concepts in Physics: The Historical Relation between Philosophy and Scientific Theories, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 377.
  5. ^ Laudan on Convergent Epistemic Realism
  6. ^ Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality, 2003, University of Chicago, ISBN 0-226-30062-5, pp.102-121.
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-06-03. Retrieved 2015-06-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ 2005643. "Carter Trask Files". Issuu. Retrieved 2021-03-15.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ 60- Haunani-Kay Trask Delivers Powerful Speech at the University of Hawaii, retrieved 2021-03-15
  10. ^ Series 5: Box 4A1(2):71, Jon Van Dyke Collection, The Archival Collections at the University of Hawaiʻi School of Law Library
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Laudan, Beyond Positivism and Relativism, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1996, pp.77-87.
  14. ^ Laudan, "Should We Be Afraid?", in The Challenge of Terrorism: A Historical Reader.
  15. ^ Gutting, Gary (March 1980). "Review of Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan". Erkenntnis. 15 (1): 91–103. JSTOR 20010687.
  16. ^ Bonk, Thomas (1997). "Review of Beyond Positivism and Relativism by Larry Laudan". Erkenntnis. 47 (3): 415–417. doi:10.1023/A:1005393922419. JSTOR 20012815. S2CID 169809938.