Historical views of the nature of science Two competing philosophical perspectives used in science are rationalism and empiricism. Each is a type of episte

Historical views of the nature of science Two competing philosophical perspectives used in science are rationalism and empiricism. Each is a type of epistemology that is a theory of knowledge for understanding how to uncover the answer to a question. Gale (1979) labeled these alternative epistemologies as centrally concerned with the power of reason and the power of sensory experience. Gale noted similarity in the divergent views of science in the time of the classical Greeks. For example, Aristotle believed that advances in biological science would develop through systematic observation of objects and events in the natural world, whereas Pythagoras believed that knowledge of the natural world would develop from mathematical reasoning (Brown, 1977; Gale, 1979).

Nursing science has been characterized by two branching philosophies of knowledge as the discipline developed. Various terms are used to describe these two stances:

(1) empiricist, mechanistic, quantitative, and deductive or

(2) interpretive, holistic, qualitative, and inductive forms of science.

Understanding the nature of these different philosophical stances facilitates an appreciation for what each form contributes to nursing knowledge.

Early 20th century views of science and theory

During the first half of the 20th century, philosophers focused on the analysis of theory structure, whereas scientists focused on empirical research (Brown, 1977). There was minimal interest in the history of science, the nature of scientific discovery, or the similarities between the philosophical view of science and the scientific methods (Brown, 1977). Positivism, a term first used by Comte, emerged as the dominant view of modern science (Gale, 1979). Modern logical positivists believed that empirical research and logical analysis (deductive and inductive) were two approaches that would produce scientific knowledge (Brown, 1977).

The logical empiricists offered a more lenient view of logical positivism and argued that theoretical propositions (propositions that affirm or deny something) must be tested through observation and experimentation (Brown, 1977). This perspective is rooted in the idea that empirical facts exist independently of theories and offer the only basis for objectivity in science (Brown, 1977). In this view, objective truth exists independently of the researcher, and the task of science is to discover it, which is an inductive method (Gale, 1979). This view of science is often presented in research method courses as: “The scientist first sets up an experiment; observes what occurs . . . reaches a preliminary hypothesis to describe the occurrence; runs further experiments to test the hypothesis [and] finally corrects or modifies the hypothesis in light of the results” (Gale, 1979, p. 13).

The increasing use of computers, which permit the analysis of large data sets, may have contributed to the acceptance of the positivist approach to modern science (Snelbecker, 1974). However, in the 1950s, the literature began to reflect an increasing challenge to the positivist view, thereby ushering in a new view of science in the late 20th century (Brown, 1977).

Emergent views of science and theory in the late 20th century

In the latter years of the 20th century, several authors presented analyses challenging the positivist position, thus offering the basis for a new perspective of science (Brown, 1977; Foucault, 1973; Hanson, 1958; Kuhn, 1962; Toulmin, 1961). Foucault (1973) published his analysis of the epistemology (knowledge) of human sciences from the 17th to the 19th centuries. His major thesis stated that empirical knowledge was arranged in different patterns at a given time and in a given culture and that humans were emerging as objects of study.

In 1977, Brown argued for an intellectual revolution in philosophy that emphasized the history of science was replacing formal logic as the major analytical tool in the philosophy of science. One of the major perspectives in the new philosophy emphasized that science was a process of continuously building research rather than a product of findings. In this emergent epistemology, emphasis shifted to understanding scientific discovery and process as theories change over time.

Empiricists view phenomena objectively, collect data, and analyze it to inductively propose theory (Brown, 1977). This position is based upon objective truth existing in the world, waiting to be discovered. Brown (1977) set forth a new epistemology challenging the empiricist view, proposing that theories play a significant role in determining what the scientist observes and how it is interpreted. The following story (created by the author) illustrates Brown’s premise that observations are concept laden; that is, an observation is influenced by the values and ideas in the mind of the observer:

“An elderly patient has been in a trauma and appears to be crying. The nurse on admission observes that the patient has marks on her body and believes that she has been abused; the orthopedist has viewed an x-ray and believes that the crying patient is in pain due to a fractured femur that will not require surgery only a closed reduction; the chaplain observes the patient crying and believes the patient needs spiritual support. Each observation is concept laden.”

Review: • Edmund Husserl: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/husserl/ (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/ (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/ (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/ (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


I-Can you define the following terms?:

1-Rationalism vs Empiricism



II-How do you interpret the philosophical perspectives used in science?

III-Would you support the Aristotle’s or Pitagoras theories relative to rationalism and empiricism?

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