Larry Laudan

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Larry Laudan (born 16 October 1941) is an American philosopher of science who greatly shaped the debates in the field from the late 1970s till the mid 1990s. Laudan wrote many works, notably, Progress and its Problems (1977), Science and Hypothesis (1981), and importantly Science and Values (1984) and Beyond Positivism and Relativism (1996).1234 Laudan’s most notable contribution to the study of scientific change is his reticulated model of scientific change where methods of theory evaluation change together with scientific theories and goals of scientific inquiry in a piecemeal rational fashion. He later defended his view from the criticisms made by notable colleagues like John Worrall.

Historical Context

Prior to Laudan’s contribution to the discourse on scientific change, the Kuhnian tradition was the prevailing approach to the topic. In this preceding tradition, methods were seen as fixed to the paradigm in which they were utilized. Theories were also seemingly fixed to the paradigm in which they were discovered.

Major Contributions

Early Views

Laudan’s early views are best seen through his Progress and its Problems (1977) where he essentially attempted to explicate the one universal and unchangeable method of science, akin to the previous attempts by Popper, Lakatos, and others. The central tenet of the early-Laudan is the pragmatist idea that scientists prefer theories that solve more problems - empirical or conceptual. Similar to Lakatos, he accepts that scientific theories live and die in an ocean of anomalies and that there is no such thing as a decisive refutation of a theory by a counterexample. However, he disagrees with Popper and Lakatos on the question of novel predictions. While both Popper and Lakatos argued that a new theory is better than the old theory only if it has confirmed novel predictions (the so-called "excess corroborated empirical content"), Laudan holds that novel predictions are not given any epistemic advantage in the process of theory choice. According to Laudan, it is not a theory's ability to predict novel phenomena per se that gets the theory accepted, but its ability to solve more empirical or conceptual problems (one of which can be its ability to predict novel phenomena).1

Later Views

In the early 1980s, Laudan comes to realize that there is no such thing as a universal and unchangeable method of science. One early indication of this transition is found in the discussion of Dudley Shapere's The Character of Scientific Change (1980). In that paper, Shapere defended the idea that methods of science change as a result of changes in our theories about the world. In his comment on Shapere's paper, Laudan seems to appreciate that methods of science are changeable while still arguing that there must exist "persistent metacriteria for the choice of criteria".5p. 247 However, in his Science and Values (1984), Laudan presents his reticulated model which is an attempt to explain how methods of science change in a rational fashion. At the time, this view was against the commonly held belief that some core methods of science remain unchangeable. This lead to an important debate with John Worrall (see section Criticism).

In Laudan's reticulated model of scientific change, theories, methods, and aims of science are all changeable. One aspect of having changeable theories, methods, and aims is that many different cognitive goals will satisfy the model. Laudan believes this is possible because there are many different reasons or purposes for why someone would want to engage in scientific inquiry and because of this there must be many different goals for studying science. Another aspect of having multiple goals is that the goals which meet the requirements of the model may be mutually incompatible. For instance, consider two scientists possessing different goals, Goal 1 and Goal 2. Goal 1 states that science is done to understand nature. Goal 2 states that science is done to prove nature doesn’t exist. Now Goal 2 is obviously rather extreme but Goal 2 suggests that nature is not real, where Goal 1 assumes natures existence. These two views are incompatible as they both strive to prove opposite claims. One cannot prove nature doesn’t exist if it is assumed nature does exist.

The model does not specify any way to determine which goal is the “right” one. Laudan suggests that “There is no single “right” goal for inquiry because it is evidently legitimate to engage in inquiry for a wide range of reasons and with a wide variety of purpose.” Furthermore the reticulated model allows for progress in science. Progress being, “a certain sequence of theories [that] move scientists closer to realizing or achieving a certain goal states.” As long as progress, relative to goals, occurs then it can be said to progressing. However, science does not have to progress. Laudan writes, “[…] there is nothing that compels us to make our judgments of the progressiveness of a theory choice depends upon our acquiescence in the aims of science held by those who forged that choice in the first place.” Laudan believed methods were changeable because they were dictated by the individual goals of those who were actually doing science, which are various. Implications that can be drawn from the ever changing goals of science are the apparent progressiveness of science is dependent on the value metric of the given scientific community in question.

This model has three levels of disagreement: factual, methodological and axiological. Disagreements in the scientific community range from differences in why two scientists are studying a given scientific phenomena to what constitutes evidence of a theory. An example of a disagreement of the factual level can be found in 17th century Newtonian physics, in where Newton believed in the possible existence of a vacuum in contradiction to the prevailing view of plenism. There are also levels of resolution: Methodological for factual, axiological for methodological, and none for axiological. The axiological level is fixed. Resolution is the act of discovering which side of a disagreement is deemed correct by the scientific community. To resolve the disputes the community must look to the next level to see if the disputed claim can work in the higher level. Laudan posits that this is the structure for how scientists resolve disputes prior to his reticulated method.

Laudan’s first distinct reason for refuting a goal is that the goal is seen as being utopian and unrealizable. He gives three types of utopianism: demonstrable utopianism, semantic utopianism, and epistemic utopianism.

  • Demonstrable: The Demonstrable utopianism amounts to when the cognitive goals are not possible to achieve due to the laws of nature or our understanding of logic.
  • Semantic: Semantic Utopianism is exemplified when scientists state goals that cannot be characterized in “succinct and cogent way”; that is to say the goals they state can be imprecise and ambiguous.
  • Epistemic: Epistemic Utopianism is adhered to when those who are seeking the goal can give a clear definition of their goal but they cannot show it is not utopian.

Laudan’s second reason for refuting a goal is when it is not congruent with its implicit and explicit components. This discontinuity can result when a person creating a theory fails to recognize certain consequences of the theory. As such, what is assumed to be his goal is actually an unrecognized consequence. Laudan elaborates, “Since virtually any action has indefinitely many consequences…[t]here is always some doubt about which, if any, of these consequences were the one the agent intended to bring about and which were in effect, just incidental or inadvertent side effects of his actions.” The fact that an agent can be unaware of unseen goals is further compounded by the fact that in some cases the agent is simply unaware of what their goals are, or they may seek to hide their goals from the community.

Laudan in the VPI project

Paradoxically, in the famous VPI project that resulted in Scrutinizing Science (1988), Laudan appears to be tacitly subscribing to the idea that there is after all a universal and unchangeable method of science. While not openly articulated, this tacit premise underlies the whole exercise of trying to test different methodological dicta suggested by the likes of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Laudan himself against the historical record. If not restricted to any particular community, time period, or discipline, such a testing would only make sense if the criteria of theory assessment were the same in all communities, all time periods, and all disciplines.6p. 18 Since Laudan and other members of the VPI project didn't restrict themselves to a specific community, time period, or discipline, they tacitly assumed that the same method would be employed in all communities/time periods/disciplines. Clearly, this goes against Laudan's own views stated a few years prior in his Science and Values (1984). Interestingly, in his famous debate with John Worrall in 1988-89, he returned to his 1984 position that methods of science change through time (see section Criticism). This mysterious inconsistency in Laudan's position remains to be explained.


In 1988, John Worrall responded to Laudan’s Science and Values in a paper titled The Value of a Fixed Methodology. Worrall seeks to demonstrate how the reticulated model is incorrect by stating that there is after all a core unchangeable method of theory evaluation. According to Worrall, Laudan's alleged historical examples of changes in methods are all examples of changes in explicitly stated methodologies. Implicit criteria that scientists actually employ in theory assessment, according to Worrall, remain static. Thus, according to Worrall Laudan's reticulated fails as it tries to explain something that doesn't really exist, i.e. changes in the implicit method of science.7

Laudan replied to Worrall’s criticism in 1989 in his If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it. Laudan points out that Worrall has conceded to the possibility of changes occurring in “implicit methods” and that these changeable methods are all subject to bigger principles of science which are unchangeable.8

Worrall's final reply came in his Fix it be Damned: A Reply to Laudan. Worrall claims that he and Laudan do not have a disagreement on the level of methods changing but they do at the methodological level. Worrall believes that even if some of these beliefs can be changeable there are also ones that are unrevisable. It is under the purview of this fixed element that scientists can do science.9

The changeability of methods is one of the lasting components of Laudan’s approach to scientific change.


Here are the works of Laudan included in the bibliographic records of this encyclopedia:

  • Laudan (1999): Laudan, Larry. (1999) Is Epistemology Adequate to the Task of Rational Theory Evaluation? In Nola and Sankey (Eds.) (2000), 165-176.
  • Laudan (1997b): Laudan, Larry. (1997) How About Bust? Philosophy of Science 64 (2), 306-316.
  • Laudan (1997a): Laudan, Larry. (1997) Danger Ahead: The Risks You Really Face on Life's Highwa. John Wiley.
  • Laudan (1996): Laudan, Larry. (1996) Beyond Positivism and Relativism. Theory, Method, and Evidence. Westview Press.
  • Laudan (1995): Laudan, Larry. (1995) The Book of Risks: Fascinating Facts About the Chances We Take Every Day. John Wiley.
  • Laudan (1993): Laudan, Larry. (1993) Waves, Particles, Independent Tests and the Limits of Inductivism. Philosophy of Science 1992 (2), 212-223.
  • Laudan and Leplin (1992): Laudan, Larry and Leplin, Jarrett. (1992) Determination Underdeterred: reply to Kukla. Analysis 53 (1), 8-16.
  • Laudan (1992): Laudan, Larry. (1992) Why Do Scientists Agree? In Shea and Spadafora (Eds.) (1992), 89-102.
  • Laudan and Leplin (1991): Laudan, Larry and Leplin, Jarrett. (1991) Empirical Equivalence and Underdetermination. Journal of Philosophy 88 (9), 449-472.
  • Laudan (1991): Laudan, Larry. (1991) Scientific Progress and Content Loss. In Deutsch (Ed.) (1991), 561-569.
  • Laudan (1990e): Laudan, Larry. (1990) Aim-less Epistemology? Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part A 21 (2), 315-322.
  • Laudan (1990a): Laudan, Larry. (1990) De-Mystifying Underdetermination. In Savage (Ed.) (1990), 267-297.
  • Laudan (1990b): Laudan, Larry. (1990) History of Science and the Philosophy of Science. In Olby et al. (Eds.) (1990), 47-59.
  • Laudan (1990c): Laudan, Larry. (1990) Normative Naturalism. Philosophy of Science 57 (1), 44-59.
  • Laudan (1990d): Laudan, Larry. (1990) Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science. University of Chicago Press.
  • Laudan (1989a): Laudan, Larry. (1989) If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 40, 369-375.
  • Laudan (1989d): Laudan, Larry. (1989) For Method: Or, Against Feyerabend. In Brown and Mittelstrass (Eds.) (1989), 299-317.
  • Laudan (1989b): Laudan, Larry. (1989) Thoughts on HPS: 20 years later. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part A 20 (1), 9-13.
  • Laudan and Laudan (1989): Laudan, Larry and Laudan, Rachel. (1989) Dominance and the Disunity-of-Method: Solving the Problems of Innovation and Consensus. Philosophy of Science 56 (2), 221-237.
  • Laudan (1989c): Laudan, Larry. (1989) The Rational Weight of the Scientific Past: Forging Fundamental Change in a Conservative Discipline. In Ruse (Ed.) (1989), 209-220.
  • Laudan, Laudan, and Donovan (1988): Laudan, Rachel; Laudan, Larry and Donovan, Arthur. (1988) Testing Theories of Scientific Change. In Donovan, Laudan, and Laudan (Eds.) (1988), 3-44.
  • Donovan, Laudan, and Laudan (Eds.) (1988): Donovan, Arthur; Laudan, Larry and Laudan, Rachel. (Eds.). (1988) Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Laudan (1988b): Laudan, Larry. (1988) Are All Theories Equally Good? A Dialogue. In Nola (Ed.) (1988), 117-139.
  • Laudan (1988a): Laudan, Larry. (1988) Introduction. In Donovan, Laudan, and Laudan (Eds.) (1988), 3-44.
  • Laudan (1988c): Laudan, Larry. (1988) Conceptual Problems Re-Visited. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 19 (4), 531-534.
  • Laudan (1987b): Laudan, Larry. (1987) Relativism, Naturalism and Reticulation. Synthese 71 (3), 221-234.
  • Laudan (1987a): Laudan, Larry. (1987) Progress or Rationality? The Prospects for Normative Naturalism. American Philosophical Inquiry 24, 19-31.
  • Donovan, Laudan, and Laudan (1986): Laudan, Larry; Laudan, Rachel and Donovan, Arthur. (1986) Testing Theories of Scientific Change. Synthese 193, 3-44.
  • Laudan (1986b): Laudan, Larry. (1986) Dissecting the Holist Picture of Scientific Change. In Kourany (Ed.) (1986), 276-295.
  • Laudan (1986a): Laudan, Larry. (1986) Some Problems Facing Intuitionist Meta-Methodologies. Synthese 67 (1), 115-129.
  • Laudan (1985): Laudan, Larry. (1985) Kuhn's Critique on Methodology. In Pitt (Ed.) (1985), 283-300.
  • Laudan (1984a): Laudan, Larry. (1984) Science and Values. University of California Press.
  • Laudan (1984b): Laudan, Larry. (1984) Realism without the Real. Philosophy of Science 51 (1), 156-162.
  • Laudan (1984c): Laudan, Larry. (1984) Explaining the Success of Science: Beyond Epistemic Realism and Relativism. In Cushing, Delaney, and Gutting (Eds.) (1984), 83-105.
  • Laudan (1983b): Laudan, Larry. (1983) Invention and Justification. Philosophy of Science 50 (2), 320-322.
  • Laudan (1983d): Laudan, Larry. (1983) More on Creationism. Science, Technology, & Human Values 8, 36-38.
  • Laudan (Ed.) (1983): Laudan, Larry. (Ed.). (1983) Mind and Medicine. University of California Press.
  • Laudan (1983a): Laudan, Larry. (1983) The Demise of the Demarcation Problem. In Cohen and Laudan (Eds.) (1983), 111-127.
  • Laudan (1982c): Laudan, Larry. (1982) Two Puzzles about Science: Reflections on Some Crises in the Philosophy and Sociology of Science. Minerva 20 (3/4), 252-268.
  • Laudan (1982d): Laudan, Larry. (1982) Commentary: Science at the Bar—Causes for Concern. Science, Technology, & Human Values 7 (4), 16-19.
  • Laudan (1982e): Laudan, Larry. (1982) Problems, truth, and consistency. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part A 13 (1), 73-80.
  • Laudan (1982a): Laudan, Larry. (1982) More on Bloor. Philosophy of Social Sciences 12 (1), 71-74.
  • Laudan (1982b): Laudan, Larry. (1982) A Note on Collins's Blend of Relativism and Empiricism. Social Studies of Science 12 (1), 131-133.
  • Laudan (1981g): Laudan, Larry. (1981) The Unfinished Einsteinean Revolution in Philosophy. In Barker and Shugart (Eds.) (1981), 133-146.
  • Laudan (1981c): Laudan, Larry. (1981) The Medium and Its Message: A Study of Some Philosophical Controversies about Ether. In Cantor and Hodge (Eds.) (1981), 157-186.
  • Laudan (1981h): Laudan, Larry. (1981) Epilog. In Barker and Shugart (Eds.) (1981), 237-240.
  • Laudan (1981j): Laudan, Larry. (1981) The Philosophy of Progress. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1978 (2), 530-547.
  • Laudan (1981d): Laudan, Larry. (1981) A Problem-Solving Approach to Scientific Progress. In Hacking (Ed.) (1981), 144-155.
  • Laudan (1981i): Laudan, Larry. (1981) Anomalous Anomalies. Philosophy of Science 48 (4), 618-619.
  • Laudan (1981b): Laudan, Larry. (1981) Views of Progress: Separating the Pilgrims from the Rakes. Philosophy of Social Sciences 10 (3), 273-286.
  • Laudan (1981e): Laudan, Larry. (1981) A Confutation of Convergent Realism. Philosophy of Science 48 (1).
  • Laudan (1981a): Laudan, Larry. (1981) Science and Hypothesis. Historical Essays on Scientific Methodology. D. Reidel Publishing Company.
  • Laudan (1981f): Laudan, Larry. (1981) The Pseudo-Science of Science? Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11 (2), 173-198.
  • Laudan (1980): Laudan, Larry. (1980) Why Was the Logic of Scientific Discovery Abandoned? In Nickles (Ed.) (1980), 173-183.
  • Laudan (1979): Laudan, Larry. (1979) Historical Methodologies. In Asquith and Kyburg (Eds.) (1979).
  • Laudan (1978): Laudan, Larry. (1978) Ex-Huming Hacking. Erkenntnis 13 (1), 417-435.
  • Laudan (1977a): Laudan, Larry. (1977) Progress and Its Problems. University of California Press.
  • Laudan (1977b): Laudan, Larry. (1977) The Sources of Modern Methodology. In Butts and Hintikka (Eds.) (1977), 3-19.
  • Laudan (1976a): Laudan, Larry. (1976) The Methodological Foundations of Mach's Anti-Atomism and their Historical Roots. In Turnbull and Machamer (Eds.) (1976), 390-417.
  • Laudan (1976b): Laudan, Larry. (1976) Two Dogmas of Methodology. Philosophy of Science 43 (4), 585-597.
  • Laudan (1974a): Laudan, Larry. (1974) Induction and Probability in the 19th Century. Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics 74, 429-438.
  • Laudan (1973): Laudan, Larry. (1973) Peirce and the Trivialization of the Self-Correcting Thesis. In Giere and Westfall (Eds.) (1973), 275-306.
  • Laudan (1971c): Laudan, Larry. (1971) Towards a Reassessment of Comte's 'Méthode Positive'. Philosophy of Science 38 (1), 35-53.
  • Laudan (1971a): Laudan, Larry. (1971) William Whewell and the Consilience of Inductions. The Monist 55 (3), 368-391.
  • Laudan (1971b): Laudan, Larry. (1971) Reply to Mary Hesse. The Monist 55 (3), 525.
  • Laudan (1970a): Laudan, Larry. (1970) Commentary. In Stuewer (Ed.) (1970), 127-132; 230-238.
  • Laudan (1970b): Laudan, Larry. (1970) Thomas Reid and the Newtonian Turn of British Methodological Thought. In Butts and Davis (Eds.) (1970), 103-131.
  • Laudan (1969): Laudan, Larry. (1969) Introduction. In Rohault (1969), ix-xxiv.
  • Laudan (1968b): Laudan, Larry. (1968) Introduction. In Maclaurin (1968), ix-xxv.
  • Laudan (1968c): Laudan, Larry. (1968) The Vis viva Controversy, a Post-Morte. Isis 59 (2), 130-143.
  • Laudan (1968a): Laudan, Larry. (1968) Theories of Scientific Method from Plato to Mach: A Bibliographical Review. History of Science 7, 1-63.
  • Laudan (1967): Laudan, Larry. (1967) The Nature and Sources of Locke's Views on Hypotheses. Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (2), 211-223.
  • Laudan (1966a): Laudan, Larry. (1966) The clock metaphor and probabilism: The impact of Descartes on English methodological thought, 1650–65. Annals of Science 22 (2), 73-104.
  • Laudan (1966b): Laudan, Larry. (1966) Method and the Mechanical Philosophy. History of Science 5, 117-124.
  • Laudan (1965): Laudan, Larry. (1965) Grünbaum on "The Duhemian Argument". Philosophy of Science 32 (3/4), 295-299.

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Related Topics

Mechanism of Method Employment
Mechanism of Theory Acceptance
Mechanism of Scientific Change


  1. a b  Laudan, Larry. (1977) Progress and Its Problems. University of California Press.
  2. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1981) Science and Hypothesis. Historical Essays on Scientific Methodology. D. Reidel Publishing Company.
  3. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1984) Science and Values. University of California Press.
  4. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1996) Beyond Positivism and Relativism. Theory, Method, and Evidence. Westview Press.
  5. ^  Shapere, Dudley. (1980) The Character of Scientific Change. In Nickles (Ed.) (1980), 61-116.
  6. ^  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
  7. ^  Worrall, John. (1988) Review: The Value of a Fixed Methodology. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 39, 263-275.
  8. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1989) If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 40, 369-375.
  9. ^  Worrall, John. (1989) Fix It and Be Damned: A Reply to Laudan. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 40, 376-388.