Harold I. Brown


It must be emphasized at the outset that the notion of dialectic I will be using here is taken from Plato, not from Hegel. We will be concerned with the process by which problems arise in the context of accepted presuppositions, successive attempts are made to solve these problems, and, in some cases, changes in one or more of the presuppositions are proposed thereby altering the range of acceptable solutions. There are two central Hegelian themes that will not appear in our nation of dialectic: that each new proposal is somehow necessitated by the preceding development, and that each new proposal stands in “opposition” to preceding proposals. Before attempting a detailed analysis of specific cases of scientific discovery, it will be useful to illustrate our notion of dialectic by considering the initial attempts to define “justice” in Plato’s Republic.

The first definition proposed by Cephalus is, “telling the truth and paying back anything we may have received .” [14] Socrates criticizes this proposal by pointing out a case which fits the definition without being a case of right conduct: Suppose a friend has left a weapon with me and has since gone mad. It would not be right to return the weapon if it were asked for and the proposed definition is thus unacceptable. [15] But if Cephalus believes his proposed definition to be adequate, why should he accept Socrates’ example as a counter-instance? Why not adhere to his definition and insist that it is just to return the weapon? Cephalus’ decision to abandon his definition shows that the attempt to define “justice” is taking place in the context of a set of presuppositions which provide criteria for determining what constitutes an acceptable answer. The participants may not be able to state these presuppositions, but they are able to recognize instances in which they have been violated, and the thrust of Socrates’ objections is to point out inconsistencies between a proposed solution and an accepted presupposition.

Once an objection has been accepted there are two ways to proceed: we can offer a new definition which will be more nearly adequate given the accepted presuppositions, or we can attempt to alter those presuppositions. Both of these alternatives are illustrated early in the Republic. Polemarchus’ definition of justice as helping one’s friends and injuring one’s enemies [16] is offered as an improvement on Cephalus’ definition and criticized by Socrates on the grounds that a just man will not harm anyone and that qua just he can do little to help his friends. [17] Thus far the controlling presupposition of the dialogue is that justice is concerned with how we treat others, and the effect of Thrasymachus’ proposal that justice is the advantage of the stronger [18] is to reject this presupposition.

We have followed enough of Plato’s argument to illustrate some key features of dialectic. Dialectical logic applies to attempts to answer a question, but questions, as we have already seen, only arise in the context of presuppositions. [19] In the context of a particular set of presuppositions many answers to a question are possible; there is no effective procedure for determining which answer ought to be put forth at a given point, although the detailed structure of the argument will often be highly suggestive, and many self-consistent proposals will be ruled out by the presuppositions. (No numerical comparison of the relative sizes of the permissible and impermissible sets is, in general, possible since both sets may be denumerably infinite.) Thus, in the Republic, not only is Polemarchus’ proposal a further development of Cephalus’ line of argument, but within the confines of the presuppositions accepted by them, such proposals as that justice is evading one’s duties or harming one’s friends or the advantage of the stronger are not acceptable.

At any point in the course of an argument, however, it is also possible to question a previously accepted presupposition and thus attempt to turn the argument in a new direction. Thrasymachus does this, but even then there is no total break in the development. Thrasymachus does not change the subject; he rejects a specific presupposition while accepting others, e.g., that an acceptable definition of “justice” must apply to all cases, and the argument continues on this modified foundation. Were he to hold no presuppositions at all in common with the others, rational debate would become impossible; it is the presuppositions the protagonists hold in common that provide the touchstone for debate.

Perhaps the most important feature of dialectical logic is that it does not deal with relations between isolated or relatively isolated propositions, but with the role of propositions and questions in so far as they are parts of structured systems of presuppositions and problems. It does not provide a set of formal rules for analyzing the (relationships between statements, as does deductive logic, but let us recall that the reason why formal rules are of central importance for deductive logic is that deduction is concerned only with formal relations, not content. A dialectical logic, however, is a content logic, not a formal logic. Efforts to construct a formal logic of discovery are highly implausible (and thus all attempts at constructing a logic of discovery are implausible for those who identify logic with formal logic) exactly because it is impossible to understand the structure of scientific research without understanding its content in its historical setting. What the concept of a dialectical logic provides, then, is a tool for examining the structure of research in terms of the historical context.

Another crucial difference between dialectical logic and deductive logic can now be elucidated. A deductive logic offers only an instrument for the rational reconstruction of completed research programs. The concept of dialectic, however, can provide an instrument for analyzing both the relations between successive theories and the actual research process because it is concerned with analyzing scientific thought in terms of the intellectual tools used by the scientist. Thus we can distinguish two ways of looking at the development of science: the study of scientific discovery examines scientific research from the point of view of the practicing researcher; the study of scientific development looks back over the history of science and examines the relations between successive theories. Both these forms of analysis are necessary for an adequate understanding of science.

SOURCE: Brown, Harold I. Perception, Theory, and Commitment: The New Philosophy of Science (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1977; The University of Chicago Press, 1979), Chapter 9: Discovery: Dialectic , pp. 132-134. Boldface added. Endnotes to Plato and discussion of Collingwood omitted.

9: Discovery:
      The Context of Discovery and the Context of Justification 129
      Dialectic 132
      Scientific Discovery 134
      Scientific Change 139-144

NOTE: I read Brown’s book most likely in the first half of the 1980s. I know that the general concept of scientific progress and revolutions influenced me and that I adopted the basic concept. I doubt that many of the book’s details influenced me even subconsciously, but now I see that even more of it accords with my thinking than I realized.

Brown transcends the Humean heritage and its culmination in logical empiricism, but also Popper, who inverts the premise of logical certainty, still accepting the fundamental formalist (my term) underpinnings of this philosophical trajectory. Brown also rejects the notion that the context of discovery is rationally unaccountable, rejecting the absolutism of skepticism in the process. Reasoning is not algorithmic, only formal logical deduction is. While there can be no formal logic of discovery, theoretical discontinuities are not arbitrary, but are based on challenging the inherited content of working theories, as is shown by several examples. I may have picked up on this in my formulation decades later that critical thinking is essentially content-based and cannot be conceived according to formalistic criteria alone. While Brown restricts himself to the natural sciences and the Platonic dialectic, his notion nevertheless hits on the essence of dialectical thinking in that it criticizes structured conceptual systems—which when their covert presuppositions are exposed and challenged—are shown to be ideological. — RD, 5 August 2023

In the book I found a sheet of handwritten notes from my first reading:

131-4: logic of scientific discovery: inductive logic, dialectical logic, content logic
140-1: against abstract, eternal standard for evaluating theories
145-8: knowledge as infallible? 2 types of proofs; also in terms of choosing between theories
148-51: consensus. Science only practical wisdom (social, not just individual)
151-5: new theory of knowledge. The problem of relativism
151: intersubjective testability
152: the 3 alternatives
153: non-absolutist relativism
165-7: 4 presuppositions of the new philosophy of science

Part 1 - Logical Empiricist Philosophy of Science
1. The Origins of Logical Empiricism
      Humean Empiricism
      Logical Positivism, the Vienna Circle
      Logical Empiricism
2. Confirmation
      The Paradoxes of Confirmation
      Confirmation and Extensional Logic
      Goodman’s Attack on Syntactical Analyses of Confirmation
3. Theoretical Terms
      Explicit Definition
      Reduction Sentences
      Craig’s Theorem
      Correspondence Rules
4. Explanation
      Deductive Explanation
      Statistical Explanation
      Explanation and Truth
5. Falsification
      Strict Falsificationism
      Basic Statements
      Conclusion: Toward a New Understanding
Part II - The New Image of Science
6. Perception and Theory 
      Significant Perception
      Three Problems
7. Presuppositions
      Normal Science
      Paradigmatic Propositions
      The Scientist’s World
8. Scientific Revolutions
      The Copernican Revolution
      Conceptual Change
      Scientific Revolutions
9. Discovery
      The Context of Discovery and the Context of Justification
      Scientific Discovery
      Scientific Change
10. Toward a New Epistemology
      Scientific Knowledge and Scientific Truth
      Descriptions and Norms
      Presuppositions and Problems

Other books by Harold I. Brown:

Conceptual Systems. London; New York: Routledge, 2007.

Observation and Objectivity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Rationality. London; New York: Routledge, 1988.

For articles see Harold I. Brown @ academia.edu.

Dialectics in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought
Roy Edgley  ·  Roy Bhaskar  ·  Robert M. Young

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy:
Selected Bibliography

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: A Guide

American Philosophy Study Guide

Philosophy for the 21st Century: A Provincial Bibliography

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