Polanyi points out ( Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy , 5) that the Copernican system had implications that Copernicus himself never knew, but adds that Copernicus and everyone who committed himself to Copernican theory expected “an indefinite range of possible future confirmations of the theory,” an expectation that was “essential to their belief in the superior rationality and objective validity of the system” (5).

He doesn’t hesitate to call this a prophetic quality: “One may say . . . that a theory which we acclaim as rational in itself is thereby accredited with prophetic powers. We accept it in the hope of making contact with reality; so that, being really true, our theory may yet show forth its truth through future centuries in ways undreamed of by its authors. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our age have been rightly described as the amazing confirmations of accepted scientific theories. In this wholly indeterminate scope of its true implications lies the deepest sense in which objectivity is attributed to a scientific theory” (5).

Theory, in short, doesn’t totalize, it is not an act of closure. Theories set a trajectory toward an open future.

More on: Philosophy, Science

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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