Professor Van Fraassen's book is a recent addition to the Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy which Mr Jonathan Cohen is editing for the Oxford University Press. Its aim, as expressed in the blurb, is 'to develop an empiricist alternative to both logical positivism and scientific realism'. In fact, Van Fraassen has very little to say about logical positivism, which he regards as philosophically outmoded, and devotes nearly all his energy to confronting scientific realism with what he calls a constructive alternative. This consists of three interlocking theories, one of them concerning the relation of scientific theories to the world, which Van Fraassen identifies with their 'empirical import', the second a theory of scientific explanation, and the third an account of probability as 'it occurs within scientific theories'. Van Fraassen claims to have avoided technicalities throughout, but he presumes that his readers have a fair command of logic and mathematics, and I doubt if his treatment of probability, in particular, would mean very much to anyone who was not already well versed in quantum physics. Van Fraassen's own command both of the history of physics and of the contemporary literature bearing on its philosophy is not in doubt.
LRB 19 March 1981 | PDF Download