|Education||University of Kansas (B.A. Physics, 1962)|
Princeton University (Ph.D. Philosophy, 1965)
|Institutions||University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, University of Hawaii, University of Texas Law School, UNAM|
|Philosophy of science, epistemology|
|Reticulationist model of scientific rationality centered around the concept of research traditions|
Criticism of positivism, realism, and relativism
Larry Laudan (//; 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."
Laudan earned 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. His more recent work has been on legal epistemology. He is the husband of food historian Rachel Laudan.
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" 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."
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." 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." He wrote The Book of Risks in 1996 which details the relative risks of various accidents.
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 regarding her claims about white supremacy and the colonisation of Hawaii. Laudan "demanded" to a Vice President of the University that Trask be reprimanded for her published comments. Later on, the Philosophy Department that Laudan chaired issued a public "Statement on Racism in Academe" condemning Dr. Trask's remarks.
In September 2021, following Dr. Trask’s death, the University of Mānoa philosophy department recognized that the accusations of racism that Laudan (among others) made against Haunani-Kay Trask were entirely baseless, and “apologize[d] sincerely for the attacks [Dr. Trask] suffered from philosophers at Mānoa in the past.” The University of Mānoa philosophy department addressed its apology not only to Dr. Trask but also the “wider community of Kānaka ʻŌiwi faculty and students” because Laudan’s accusations against Dr. Trask “left lasting wounds among Native Hawaiian faculty and students.” The philosophy department recognized that its members “had a moral obligation to reach out” and apologize for the actions of its past members, such as Laudan.
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