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Theory-ladenness

Summary:
It is now widely recognised that observation is not theory-neutral but theory-laden, and that theory does not merely ‘order facts’ but makes claims about the nature of its object. So, in evaluating observations we are also assessing particular theoretical concepts and existential claims. A common response to this shattering of innocent beliefs in the certainty and neutrality of observation has been the development of idealist (especially conventionalist and rationalist) philosophies which assume that if observation is theory-laden, it must necessarily be theory-determined, such that it is no longer possible to speak of criteria of ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’ which are not entirely internal to ‘theoretical discourse’. However, this is a non-sequitur for at least two reasons.

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Theory-ladennessIt is now widely recognised that observation is not theory-neutral but theory-laden, and that theory does not merely ‘order facts’ but makes claims about the nature of its object. So, in evaluating observations we are also assessing particular theoretical concepts and existential claims. A common response to this shattering of innocent beliefs in the certainty and neutrality of observation has been the development of idealist (especially conventionalist and rationalist) philosophies which assume that if observation is theory-laden, it must necessarily be theory-determined, such that it is no longer possible to speak of criteria of ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’ which are not entirely internal to ‘theoretical discourse’. However, this is a non-sequitur for at least two reasons. First, theory-laden observation need not be theory-determined. Even the arch-conventionalist Feyerabend (1970) acknowledges that ‘it is possible to refute a theory by an experience that is entirely interpreted within its own terms’. If I ask how many leaves there are on a tree, my empirical observation will be controlled by concepts regarding the nature of trees, leaves and the operation of counting, but to give an answer I’d still have to go and look! In arguing that there are no extra-discursive criteria of truth, recent idealists such as Hindess and Hirst echo Wittgenstein’s identification of the limits of our world with the limits of language, and share the confusion of questions of What exists? with What can be known to exist? The truism that extra-discursive controls on knowledge can only be referred to in discourse does not mean that what is referred to is purely internal to discourse. Secondly, and more simply, it does not follow from the fact that all knowledge is fallible, that it is all equally fallible.

Andrew Sayer

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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