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Putting pragmatism to work in the Cold War: Science, technology, and politics in the writings of James B. Conant

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsa.2011.07.002
  • Pragmatism
  • Cold War And Philosophy Of Science
  • Science And Values
  • Social Epistemology
  • Science Court
  • James B. Conant
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science


Abstract This paper examines James Conant’s pragmatic theory of science—a theory that has been neglected by most commentators on the history of 20 th-century philosophy of science—and it argues that this theory occupied an important place in Conant’s strategic thinking about the Cold War. Conant drew upon his wartime science policy work, the history of science, and Quine’s epistemological holism to argue that there is no strict distinction between science and technology, that there is no such thing as “ the scientific method,” and that theories are better interpreted as policies rather than creeds. An important consequence that he drew from these arguments is that science is both a thoroughly value-laden, and an intrinsically social, enterprise. These results led him to develop novel proposals for reorganizing scientific and technological research—proposals that he believed could help to win the Cold War. Interestingly, the Cold War had a different impact upon Conant’s thinking than it did upon many other theorists of science in postwar America. Instead of leading him to “the icy slopes of logic,” it led him to develop a socially- and politically-engaged theory that was explicitly in the service of the American Cold War effort.

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