Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

On the Origin of Ideas

An Abductivist Approach to Discovery

Sami Paavola

Doctoral dissertation, November 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts, Department of Philosophy.

The purpose of this study is to analyze and develop various forms of abduction as a means of conceptualizing processes of discovery. Abduction was originally presented by Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) as a "weak", third main mode of inference -- besides deduction and induction -- one which, he proposed, is closely related to many kinds of cognitive processes, such as instincts, perception, practices and mediated activity in general. Both abduction and discovery are controversial issues in philosophy of science. It is often claimed that discovery cannot be a proper subject area for conceptual analysis and, accordingly, abduction cannot serve as a "logic of discovery". I argue, however, that abduction gives essential means for understanding processes of discovery although it cannot give rise to a manual or algorithm for making discoveries.

In the first part of the study, I briefly present how the main trend in philosophy of science has, for a long time, been critical towards a systematic account of discovery. Various models have, however, been suggested. I outline a short history of abduction; first Peirce's evolving forms of his theory, and then later developments. Although abduction has not been a major area of research until quite recently, I review some critiques of it and look at the ways it has been analyzed, developed and used in various fields of research. Peirce's own writings and later developments, I argue, leave room for various subsequent interpretations of abduction.

The second part of the study consists of six research articles. First I treat "classical" arguments against abduction as a logic of discovery. I show that by developing strategic aspects of abductive inference these arguments can be countered. Nowadays the term 'abduction' is often used as a synonym for the Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) model. I argue, however, that it is useful to distinguish between IBE ("Harmanian abduction") and "Hansonian abduction"; the latter concentrating on analyzing processes of discovery. The distinctions between loveliness and likeliness, and between potential and actual explanations are more fruitful within Hansonian abduction. I clarify the nature of abduction by using Peirce's distinction between three areas of "semeiotic": grammar, critic, and methodeutic. Grammar (emphasizing "Firstnesses" and iconicity) and methodeutic (i.e., a processual approach) especially, give new means for understanding abduction. Peirce himself held a controversial view that new abductive ideas are products of an instinct and an inference at the same time. I maintain that it is beneficial to make a clear distinction between abductive inference and abductive instinct, on the basis of which both can be developed further. Besides these, I analyze abduction as a part of distributed cognition which emphasizes a long-term interaction with the material, social and cultural environment as a source for abductive ideas. This approach suggests a "trialogical" model in which inquirers are fundamentally connected both to other inquirers and to the objects of inquiry. As for the classical Meno paradox about discovery, I show that abduction provides more than one answer. As my main example of abductive methodology, I analyze the process of Ignaz Semmelweis' research on childbed fever.

A central basis for abduction is the claim that discovery is not a sequence of events governed only by processes of chance. Abduction treats those processes which both constrain and instigate the search for new ideas; starting from the use of clues as a starting point for discovery, but continuing in considerations like elegance and 'loveliness'. The study then continues a Peircean-Hansonian research programme by developing abduction as a way of analyzing processes of discovery.

The title page of the publication

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Last updated 01.11.2006

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