Larry Laudan

Larry Laudan (/ˈldən/;[5] born 1941), the husband of Rachel Laudan, is a contemporary American philosopher of science and epistemologist. He has strongly criticized the traditions of positivism, realism, and relativism, and he has defended a view of science as a privileged and progressive institution against popular challenges. Laudan's philosophical view of "research traditions" is seen as an important alternative to Imre Lakatos's "research programs."[6]

Larry Laudan
Born (1941-10-16) 16 October 1941
NationalityUnited States
EducationUniversity of Kansas (B.A. Physics, 1962)
Princeton University (Ph.D. Philosophy, 1965)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, University of Hawaii, University of Texas Law School, UNAM
Main interests
Philosophy of science, epistemology
Notable ideas
Historicist theory of scientific rationality centered around the concept of research traditions[1]
Pessimistic induction
Criticism of positivism, realism, and relativism

Life and career

Laudan took his PhD in Philosophy at Princeton University, and then taught at University College London and, for many years, at the University of Pittsburgh. Subsequently, he taught at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, University of Hawaii and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He presently teaches at the University of Texas, Austin.[7] His more recent work has been on legal epistemology.

Philosophical work

Laudan's most influential book is Progress and Its Problems (1977), in which he charges philosophers of science with paying lip service to the view that "science is fundamentally a problem-solving activity" without taking seriously the view's implications for the history of science and its philosophy, and without questioning certain issues in the historiography and methodology of science. Against empiricism, which is represented by Karl Popper, and "revolutionism," represented by Thomas Kuhn, Laudan maintained in Progress and Its Problems that science is an evolving process that accumulates more empirically validated evidence while solving conceptual anomalies at the same time. Mere evidence collecting or empirical confirmation does not constitute the true mechanism of scientific advancement; conceptual resolution and comparison of the solutions of anomalies provided by various theories form an indispensable part of the evolution of science.

Laudan is particularly well known for his pessimistic induction argument against the claim that the cumulative success of science shows that science must truly describe reality. Laudan famously argued in his 1981 article "A Confutation of Convergent Realism"[8] that "the history of science furnishes vast evidence of empirically successful theories that were later rejected; from subsequent perspectives, their unobservable terms were judged not to refer and thus, they cannot be regarded as true or even approximately true."[9]

In Beyond Positivism and Relativism, Laudan wrote that "the aim of science is to secure theories with a high problem-solving effectiveness" and that scientific progress is possible when empirical data is diminished. "Indeed, on this model, it is possible that a change from an empirically well-supported theory to a less well-supported one could be progressive, provided that the latter resolved significant conceptual difficulties confronting the former."[10] Finally, the better theory solves more conceptual problems while minimizing empirical anomalies.

Laudan has also written on risk management and the subject of terrorism. He has argued that "moral outrage and compassion are the proper responses to terrorism, but fear for oneself and one's life is not. The risk that the average American will be a victim of terrorism is extremely remote."[11] He wrote The Book of Risks in 1996 which details the relative risks of various accidents.

Selected writings

  • 1977. Progress and Its Problems: Towards a Theory of Scientific Growth,[12] ISBN 978-0-520-03721-2
  • 1981. Science and Hypothesis
  • 1984. Science and Values: The Aims of Science and Their Role in Scientific Debate, ISBN 978-0-520-05743-2
  • 1990. Science and Relativism: Dialogues on the Philosophy of Science, ISBN 978-0-226-46949-2
  • 1995. The Book of Risks
  • 1996. Beyond Positivism and Relativism, ISBN 978-0-8133-2469-2[13]
  • 1997. Danger Ahead
  • 2006. Truth, Error and Criminal Law: An Essay in Legal Epistemology
  • 2016. The Law's Flaws: Rethinking Trials and Errors?


  1. Historicist Theories of Scientific Rationality (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. Laudan 1977, p. 125.
  3. Laudan 1984, p. 83.
  4. James T. Cushing, Philosophical Concepts in Physics: The Historical Relation between Philosophy and Scientific Theories, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 377.
  5. Laudan on Convergent Epistemic Realism
  6. Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality, 2003, University of Chicago, ISBN 0-226-30062-5, pp.102-121.
  10. Laudan, Beyond Positivism and Relativism, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1996, pp.77-87.
  11. Laudan, "Should We Be Afraid?", in The Challenge of Terrorism: A Historical Reader.
  12. Gutting, Gary (March 1980). "Review of Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan". Erkenntnis. 15 (1): 91–103. JSTOR 20010687.
  13. Bonk, Thomas (1997). "Review of Beyond Positivism and Relativism by Larry Laudan". Erkenntnis. 47 (3): 415–417. JSTOR 20012815.
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