The Empirical Stance by Bas C. Van Fraassen

by Bas C. Van Fraassen
Yale University Press, 2002
Review by James Sage on Jan 16th 2003
Volume: 7, Number: 3

In this collection of five lectures, Bas van Fraassen attempts to answer a number of questions regarding the nature of empiricism, scientific inquiry, and theoretical revolution. Central among his claims is that empiricism is a STANCE. Empiricism is not a proposition, not a doctrine, not something to be falsified or confirmed; it is not a bearer of truth-value.


As an analytic philosopher, van Fraassen offers a unique perspective on these issues. His lectures are a pleasure to read and are accessible by the non-philosopher. Throughout the lectures, he is careful to incorporate extensive analogies with religion, Scripture, rationality, science, and various other topics in the history of philosophy. In addition to a comprehensive set of bibliographic Notes, van Fraassen has also included is an extensive set of Appendices that offer additional insights and clarifications. These supplemental materials are a delight for the reader who wishes to get more details and to pursue further study.

In what follows, I provide a summary of some of van Fraassen’s main points. Throughout this discussion, I will also try to apply these philosophical insights to the realm of philosophical psychology and psychopathology.

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Lecture One begins by providing a mostly critical, historical overview of some (failed) attempts to do metaphysics in the analytic tradition. These historical prospects, however, are bleak and van Fraassen suggests that analytic philosophy can do better. In particular, he suggests that we can do better than speculative metaphysics or counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. In fact, we must do better – analytic philosophy requires of us to display the ingenuity to better understand the world. This is not so innocent as many philosophers might have you believe.  What each of us means by the world is itself shaped by our current theories and metaphysical commitments. So, how does one start metaphysical inquiry from nowhere? Well, we can’t and it’s a farce to think that we can.

Now, what if part of the world you aim to study is mental disease or cognitive disorder? Already, your approach is influenced by your general concepts of disease and proper functioning. For someone investigating psychopathology, van Fraassen’s first lecture is a call for change and to avoid making the same mistakes made by those who came before. But how can we break from tradition, when such breaks seem to require radical change in inquiry? When such change is not condoned by current methodology, how does the successor inquiry get any hold? Do conceptual revolutions occur in empirical science? If so, how? Are such revolutions rationally justified? These are questions I’ll return to below.

In Lecture Two, we find van Fraassen addressing the question: What Is Empiricism and What Could It Be? Fundamental to van Fraassen’s thesis is the claim that empiricism is a STANCE.  After a careful historical overview of the term “empiricism”, van Fraassen goes on to assert that, properly understood, empiricism is not a doctrine concerning only ontology and methodology (though, as a stance, empiricism is not exactly silent about either ontology or methodology).  An important point van Fraassen makes is that empiricism is different than materialism (which, according to van Fraassen, is also a stance).  So, in this lecture, we find that the main point is to develop the notion of a stance, and to understand empiricism’s relation to science.

“So here is the proposal: a philosophical position can consist in something other than a belief in what the world is like… A philosophical position can consist in a stance (attitude, commitment, approach, a cluster of such—possibly including some propositional attitudes such as beliefs as well). Such a stance can of course be expressed, and may involve or presuppose some beliefs as well, but cannot be simply equated with having beliefs or making assertions about what there is” (47-48)

And further:

“Since the differing stances also involve value judgments and attitudes toward life, love, and laughter, their basis may be thought to be purely subjective, merely subjective, and not susceptible to rational debate” (62)

“Stances do seem to involve beliefs and are indeed inconceivable in separation from beliefs and opinion. The important point is imply that a stance will involve a good deal more, will not be identifiable through the beliefs involved, and can persist through changes of belief.” (62)

Thus, we are encouraged to understand empiricism’s relation to science in terms of an epistemology, but this epistemology is not value-free and consists in much more than propositional content. Moreover, stances are not governed by rationality, even though science itself is the “paradigm of rationality” (195).  Jumping ahead slightly, van Fraassen explains:

“As an empiricist, I see the empirical sciences as a paradigm of rationality in a largely irrational and often anti-rational world. I see objectifying inquiry as the sine qua non of the development of modern science and its incredible, breathtaking achievements in our increasing knowledge of nature. (195)

Thus we see that adopting the empirical stance is one way to do science, but in so doing, one has not exhausted all of science’s approaches.  The trick, of course, is how to understand radical shifts in stances, conceptual schemes, and theories.  According to typical empirical science methodology, we should not abandon our current theories at the first hind of evidential disparity. There’s a stability (stubbornness) about scientific theories and empirical stances. So how is radical conceptual / theoretical change possible?

In Lecture Three, van Fraassen addresses scientific revolutions as a philosophical problem. One of the central difficulties plaguing empirical science is the notion of conceptual revolutions.

“How are we to understand scientific and conceptual revolutions? Are there really such radical, deep-going changes as philosophers such as Norwood Russell Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn described?” (64-65)

Yes, there are such changes, and something unique about them is that there is an asymmetry between the prior position and the posterior position. We learn that from the prior position, the posterior view is absurd or preposterous – the new position so utterly at odds with “current” understanding that only the mentally deranged would consider it plausible.  But, from the posterior view, the prior view can be made intelligible by preserving a portion of the new vocabulary to reconstruct the past.

So, how do we manage our cognitive affairs as a participant who is entrenched in the prior view, given this asymmetry?  How do such revolutions occur?  It seems as though the conceptual change that occurs requires a radical break with accepted norms of inquiry – after all, the new, revolutionary views are utterly irrational (on current grounds).  Thus, there is a kind of epistemic trauma that cognizing subjects experience: Do we look to reason and rationality or do we get lucky because of some epistemic mutation?

These themes are regularly visited within the philosophy of science, and particularly germane within philosophical approaches to psychology and psychopathology.  Classifications based on a particular model of disease will yield radically different results than classification based on other models.  What reason could we have for accepting utterly new approaches to classification of mental disorders?

For example, what counts as psychotic behavior on one theory may be considered within acceptable norms for other theories.  At one point in recent history, homosexuality was diagnosed as a disease – complete with its own symptomology and classification.  It took a fairly radical break from tradition to re-classify homosexuality (to rid homosexuality of the connotation associated with other diseases). From our posteriori perspective, however, it is all to easy to see the errors of the past (I assume that it makes perfect sense to us now why homosexuality is not classified as a disease in the DSM).  But from the prior theory (at least, at some more distant past), it was probably unimaginable (and irrational) to classify it any other way.  And if this particular example doesn’t convince you, there are plenty of other examples (whether they include the notion of mass, force, space, time, disease, evolution, microscopic matter, germs, etc.).  In some cases, postulating the existence of a thing or attribute seemed utterly wrong-headed, until we were firmly entrenched by the new paradigm.

The virtue of viewing empiricism as a stance is that science is not expected to be guided by purely rational standards (values and other a-rational factors will play a legitimate role in concept formation and theory choice). Thus, the idea of science being governed by the empirical stance relieves us of the expectation that all changes will be rational and calculated.  This is an incredibly liberating move within the philosophy of science.  It will surely get the attention of philosophers and scientists alike.  Will everyone be convinced? Surely not. That, of course, is the virtue of empiricism: disagreements are the fuel that drives change.

Finally, in Lectures Four and Five, we find van Fraassen providing extensive detail on a variety of topics. Among these issues is the notion of “Sola Experientia: any claim to knowledge, any support for opinion, must come from experience; experience trumps all” (120). But can we rationally follow this rule? Does experience tell us that we should trust only experience? The answer to this dilemma, van Fraassen tells us, is that such a rule can only survive by adopting non- or anti-foundationalist epistemologies. Such is the path of the empiricist.

Following the rule of Sola Experientia can take two forms.  First, it can place emphasis on stability – it tells scientists to remain on course:

“The empirical sciences do live by the rule of Sola Experientia: nothing trumps experience. The bottom line is agreement from experimental and observational fact. But in the rule there is a true and redeeming ambiguity. For the main part, it plays the role of maintaining the hegemony of the ruling paradigm, the accepted theories in the scientific community. Thus normal science’s steady progress is not allowed to be derailed by every new [theorist] to come along.” (152)

Second, such a rule can provide a means for reflective critique. Sola Experientia,

“is a tool or weapon in the critique of accepted opinion. Indeed, it is a rule that… seems precisely designed to allow the exploitation of ambiguities and vaguenesses in past understanding, of openings to change that a perceptive mind can grasp. Should the need arrive to revise our understanding, the means are then at hand.” (141)

So what we find is that the empirical stance, equipped with the rule of Sola Experientia, can stabilize and preserve itself in the face of initial counter-examples, and it can provide the means for overturning its most cherished theories.  The lesson to take from this is that the empirical stance is self-corrective: according to experience, the empirical stance possesses the tools required to remain stable, and to offer new theories and endorse radical change.

© 2003 James Sage

James Sage is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at the University of Utah. His interests are philosophy of science and epistemology. He is also interested in Darwinian approaches to psychology and psychopathology.