Theory and Observation in the Philosophy of Science

Jacquette, Dale
This essay seeks to rehabilitate the distinction between theory and observation in philosophy of science. Historical background to the distinction in the early development of empiricism is highlighted for clues to its later rejection as overly simplistic, and for an indication of its useful purpose in scientific thinking. The post-positivistic objection that all observation is theory-laden is considered, and key arguments against the theory-observation distinction are evaluated and criticized as inconclusive. At most such attempts to undermine the theory-observation distinction show that it may be hopeless to establish the division by treating observation as non-theoretical. As an alternative to these failed efforts, another approach is essayed, according to which theoretical terms are defined as non-observational. A defense of the theory-observation distinction along these lines is developed and illustrated with examples involving Ramsey sentence reductions of theoretical to observational terms as a way of restoring objectivity to science in light of skepticism arising from the claim that all observation is subjectively tainted by prior commitments to theoretical presuppositions.