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Heidegger, Kuhn, and the Myth of the Disinterested Observer

Sydney Green, Advisor: Nancy Holland

The common conception of the natural sciences is that of disinterested inquiry. The scientist is purported to be a neutral agent, free of any epistemological bias. While generally regarded as true, this image has no basis in reality. In this paper I argue that, in light of the epistemological theories of Martin Heidegger and Thomas Kuhn, absolutely disinterested inquiry can play no role in science. In Heidegger’s epistemology, questions can only be asked from within a preexisting framework. A questioner necessarily begins her/his inquiry with preconceptions and prejudices. These preconceptions are required for the questioner to be able to formulate a question at all. Similarly, Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science holds that scientists can ask questions only from within a preexisting paradigm. That paradigm determines which questions can and cannot be asked, and which questions are worthwhile. In both theories, there is no neutral, unbiased perspective from which a question can be asked. In order to make this argument, I examine Martin Heidegger’s epistemology, as laid out in Being and Time (1927) and his theory of science, as laid out in The Age of the World Picture (1938). I then compare this to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of science, as laid out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). I conduct a close textual analysis in order to draw a comparison between the two theoretical positions, and examine the two theories in light of the larger topic of disinterested inquiry.