Kuhn and the Question of Pursuit Worthiness


The aim of this paper is, on the one hand, to critically investigate Kuhn’s stance on the assessment of the pursuit worthiness of scientific theories, and, on the other hand, to show the actuality of some of Kuhn’s points on this issue, in view of their critical analysis. To this end we show that Kuhn presents certain tools, which may help scientists to overcome communication breakdowns when engaging in the process of rational deliberation regarding the question whether a theory is worthy of further pursuit. These tools are persuasion, translation and interpretation. However, we argue that the perspective of epistemic semantic monism present in Kuhn’s work obstructs the full applicability of these tools. We show that dropping this perspective makes the notions of persuasion and interpretation more fruitful, and moreover, allows for a pluralism of scientific theories and practices that complements the pluralism based on disagreement among scientists, emphasized by Kuhn.

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  1. 1.

    It is important to notice that the relationship between paradigms and theories is ambiguous in Kuhn’s work already due to the ambiguous nature of the former notion. For a detailed discussion on this ambiguity we refer the reader to (Hoyningen-Huene 1993, Chapter 4). For the purposes of this paper it will suffice to use these two terms loosely, allowing for the assessment of pursuit worthiness to be applicable to both terms (paradigms and theories). Where a given paradigm is a unit of appraisal that encompasses one or more theories, the assessment of its pursuit worthiness is also essentially informed by the pursuit worthiness of these respective theories.

  2. 2.

    Different authors (e.g. those just mentioned) have emphasized different values as indices of pursuit worthiness, but explanatory and heuristic virtues of the given theory have often been considered as some of the crucial ones. For instance, the capability of the theory to offer explanations that its rivals have not managed to offer so far can be seen as such an indicator. This explanatory virtue is different from the one usually required for theory acceptance, where we are not only interested in what the theory can explain, but also in what it cannot explain, that is, in its explanatory anomalies. In contrast, when we evaluate whether a theory is worthy of pursuit, instead of focusing on its explanatory anomalies, we are rather interested in its programmatic character which indicates that the investigation can proceed in spite of the current anomalies and towards their resolution. Hence, we are interested in the prospective values, which allow for a prospective assessment, rather than a retrospective one, which is typical for the context of acceptance.

  3. 3.

    The third and final phase is acceptance.

  4. 4.

    It is important to notice that the above distinction is not exhaustive when it comes to different claims of pursuit worthiness. For an elaborate discussion on this topic see [Šešelja et al. (2012)]. Moreover, since cognitive issues were of primary interest in Kuhn’s work, we speak here only of cognitive pursuit worthiness. It is important to keep in mind though that the assessment of pursuit worthiness may usually include a broader set of both cognitive and non-cognitive values, in which case we can speak of practical pursuit worthiness. The latter should not be confused with cognitive pursuit worthiness as a research directive, since practical pursuit worthiness also appears in the form of an evaluative stance and (a decision making form of) a research directive.

  5. 5.

    See (Šešelja and Straßer 2009, p. 323).

  6. 6.

    See also (Kuhn 2000, p. 96).

  7. 7.

    Kuhn also points out that

    … despite the incompleteness of their communication, proponents of different theories can exhibit to each other, not always easily, the concrete technical results achievable by those who practice within each theory. Little or no translation is required to apply at least some value criteria to those results. (Accuracy and fruitfulness are most immediately applicable, perhaps followed by scope. Consistency and simplicity are far more problematic). (Kuhn 1977, p. 339, italics added)

    Moreover, for some scientists these considerations may be decisive to change their research directive:

    … each language community can usually produce from the start a few concrete research results that, though describable in sentences understood in the same way by both groups, cannot yet be accounted for by the other community in its own terms. If the new viewpoint endures for a time and continues to be fruitful, the research results verbalizable in this way are likely to grow in number. For some men such results alone will be decisive. They can say I don’t know how the proponents of the new view succeed, but I must learn, whatever they are doing, it is clearly right. (p. 203, italics added)

    Kuhn here suggests that some initial results of a theory can only be described by the scientists working in a rivaling paradigm, but they cannot be accounted for, explained in their own terminology. In order for that to be possible, scientists need to learn the new theory.

  8. 8.

    “The claim that two theories are incommensurable is then the claim that there is no language, neutral or otherwise, into which both theories, conceived as sets of sentences, can be translated without residue or loss”. (Kuhn 2000, p. 36).

  9. 9.

    However, this is not the whole truth since there is also a pluralist side to Kuhn as we discuss below.

  10. 10.

    Also, in Hoyningen-Huene’s reading of Kuhn, such a disagreement is considered as vital for the development of science (Hoyningen-Huene 2006, p. 128).


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The research for this paper has been supported by grants of Bijzonder Onderzoeksfonds (BOF) of Ghent University.

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Correspondence to Dunja Šešelja.

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Šešelja, D., Straßer, C. Kuhn and the Question of Pursuit Worthiness. Topoi 32, 9–19 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-012-9144-9

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  • Thomas Kuhn
  • Pursuit worthiness
  • Theory choice
  • Epistemic monism
  • Methodological pluralism