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Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives

  • The hardcover of this book broke new ground in the discussion of scientific realism
  • Stanford's articles on the history and philosophy of science have been published in journals such as The Journal of Philosophy and Philosophy of Science

By: P Kyle Stanford(Author)

248 pages, black & white illustrations

Oxford University Press USA

Paperback | Apr 2010 | #215889 | ISBN-13: 9780199751532
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £21.49 $28/€23 approx
Hardback | May 2006 | #215928 | ISBN: 0195174089
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £47.49 $61/€52 approx

About this book

The historical record of scientific inquiry, Stanford suggests, is characterized by what he calls the problem of unconceived alternatives. Past scientists have routinely failed even to conceive of alternatives to their own theories and lines of theoretical investigation, alternatives that were both well-confirmed by the evidence available at the time and sufficiently serious as to be ultimately accepted by later scientific communities. Stanford supports this claim with a detailed investigation of the mid-to-late 19th century theories of inheritance and generation proposed in turn by Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and August Weismann.

He goes on to argue that this historical pattern strongly suggests that there are equally well-confirmed and scientifically serious alternatives to our own best theories that remain currently unconceived. Moreover, this challenge is more serious than those rooted in either the so-called pessimistic induction or the underdetermination of theories by evidence, in part because existing realist responses to these latter challenges offer no relief from the problem of unconceived alternatives itself. Stanford concludes by investigating what positive account of the spectacularly successful edifice of modern theoretical science remains open to us if we accept that our best scientific theories are powerful conceptual tools for accomplishing our practical goals, but abandon the view that the descriptions of the world around us that they offer are therefore even probably or approximately true.

 "Stanford has genuinely advanced the philosophical discussion about scientific realism with his careful articulation of the problem of unconceived alternatives."
- The Review of Metaphysics

"Stanford's book deserves to be widely read. Its central argument is clearly stated, its conclusion is radical, it engages in a productive fashion with detailed case studies, and it lays down several substantial challenges to scientific realism. Lastly, it is consistently thought-provoking."
- Science


1. Realism, Pessimism, and Underdetermination
1.1 Scientific Realism: What's at Stake?
1.2 Problems for Pessimism and Underdetermination
1.3 Recurrent, Transient Underdetermination, and a New Induction over the History of Science

2. Chasing Duhem: The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives
2.1 Duhem's Worry: Eliminative Inferences and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives
2.2 Confirmation: Holism, Eliminative Induction, and Bayesianism
2.3 Pessimism Revisited

3. Darwin and Pangenesis: The Search for the Material Basis of Generation and Heredity
3.1 Preliminary Worries
3.2 Pangenesis: Darwin's "Mad Dream" and "Beloved Child"
3.3 Darwin's Failure to Grasp Galton's Common Cause Mechanism for Inheritance

4. Galton and the Strip Theory
4.1 The Transfusion Experiments: "A Dreadful Disappointment to Them Both"
4.2 Galton's Strip Theory and Its Maturational, Invariant Conception of Inheritance
4.3 Galton's Understanding of "Correlation" and "Variable Influences" in Development

5. August Weismann's Theory of the Germ-Plasm
5.1 German Biology at the End of the Nineteenth Century and Weismann's Theory of the Germ-Plasm
5.2 Germinal Specificity, the Search for a Mechanism of Cellular Differentiation and the Reservation of the Germ-Plasm
5.4 Productive and Expendable Germinal Resources
5.5 Conclusion: Lessons from History

6. History Revisited: Pyrrhic Victories for Scientific Realism
6.1 Realist Responses to the Historical Record
6.2 Once More into the Breach: The Pessimistic Induction
6.3 Reference without Descriptive Accuracy
6.4 Diluting Approximate Truth

7. Selective Confirmation and the Historical Record: "Another Such Victory over the Romans"?
7.1 Realism, Selective Confirmation, and Retrospective Judgments of Idleness
7.2 Theoretical Posits: They Work Hard for the Money
7.3 Trust and Betrayal
7.4 Structural Realism and Retention
7.5 Selective Confirmation: No Refuge for Realism

8. Science without Realism?


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Kyle Stanford is at the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine.

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