Meaning Change in the Context of Thomas S. Kuhn's Philosophy
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Thomas S. Kuhn claimed that the meanings of scientific terms change in theory changes or in scientific revolutions. In philosophy, meaning change has been taken as the source of a group of problems, such as untranslatability, incommensurability, and referential variance. For this reason, the majority of analytic philosophers have sought to deny that there can be meaning change by focusing on developing a theory of reference that would guarantee referential stability. A number of philosophers have also claimed that Kuhn’s view can be explained by the fact that he accepted and further developed many central tenets of logical empiricism. I maintain that the genesis of Kuhn’s meaning theorising lies in his historical approach and that his view of meaning change is justified. Later in his career he attempted to advance a theory of meaning and can be said to have had limited success in it. What is more, recent cognitive science has unexpectedly managed to shed light on Kuhn’s insights on the organisation of information in the mind, concept learning, and concept definition. Furthermore, although Kuhn’s critique of Putnam’s causal theory of reference has often been dismissed as irrelevant, he has a serious point to address. Kuhn thought that the causal theory that works so well with proper names cannot work with scientific terms. He held that conceptual categories are formed by similarity and dissimilarity relations; therefore, several features and not only one single property are needed for determination of extension. In addition, the causal theory requires universal substances as points of reference of scientific terms. Kuhn was a conceptualist, who held that universals do not exist as mind-independent entities and that mind-dependent family resemblance concepts serve the role of universals. Further, at the beginning of his career, Kuhn was interested in the question of what concepts or ideas are and how they change in their historical context. Although he did not develop his theorising on this issue, I demonstrate that this is a genuine problem in the philosophy of history. Finally, Kuhn argued that scientists cannot have access to truth in history because we cannot transcend our historical niche, and as a consequence, the truth of a belief cannot be a reason for theory choice. Instead of truth, we can rely on justification. I also discuss Kuhn’s idea that problem-solving is the main aim of science and show that this view can be incorporated into coherentist epistemology.