Possible Limits on a Science of Social Behavior

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Abstract

About a quarter of a century ago Edmund Whittaker (1949) wrote a fascinating series of lectures on the history and implications of recent developments in theoretical physics. Almost parenthetically, he outlined therein a means of viewing scientific progress which is at once both unorthodox and profound. It is a means founded on what Whittaker terms “postulates of impotence,” which he defines as assertions of “… the impossibility of achieving something, even though there may be an infinite number of ways of trying to achieve it.” He continues:

A postulate of impotence is not the direct result of an experiment or of any finite number of experiments; it does not mention any measurement, or any numerical relation or analytical equation; it is the assertion of a conviction that all attempts to do a certain thing, however made, are bound to fail. (p. 59)