Helpful Scientific Rationality
: Thomas Kuhn's Theory Choice Meets Kenneth Arrow's Social Choice

  • Nick Cosstick

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


When Samir Okasha applied Kenneth Arrow's infamous 'impossibility theorem' — from social-choice theory — to Thomas Kuhn's celebrated account of theory choice — within the philosophy of science — a new research programme was born. When applied in this way, the impossibility theorem seems to tell us that there exists no reasonable way of choosing between competing theories. This programme's focus has been on finding 'escape routes' to this result. This rekindling of interest in Kuhnian theory choice provides an opportunity to re-examine Kuhn's historically focused philosophy from an innovative formal perspective. Moreover, it is argued that this formal brand of Kuhnianism has lessons to learn from its empirical forebear. This project's organising principle is that, in bringing these separate programmes closer together, both benefit. The proposed escape routes to Arrow's impossibility result benefit from a historical analysis. Furthermore, application of Arrow's formalism may help solve a serious problem with Kuhn's philosophy: the unhelpfulness of his account of scientific rationality. It is argued that this application yields a complete framework of the stages of the theory-choice process, which is a promising resource for resolving disagreements regarding which theory to choose. Not only can it help identify the ultimate source of a theory-choice disagreement, it can also facilitate the resolution of that disagreement by helping with the targeting of prescriptions for persuading scientists to change their minds. Thus, it can help to turn Kuhn's unhelpful scientific rationality into a helpful one — of use to deadlocked scientists.
Date of Award23 Mar 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorSamir Okasha (Supervisor) & John Preston (Supervisor)

Cite this