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Epistemology and methodology: main trends and ends

Inference.

This is the process of forming judgements or opinions on the ground of other judgements or on the evidence of observation. The evidence may be merely supposed for the sake of argument, or with a view to the further consideration of the con-sequences, which follow from it. It is not always easy to draw the line between direct observation and inference. People, eventrained people, do not always realise, e.g., when they pass from the observation of a number of facts to a generalisation which, at best, can only be regarded as an inference from them. But the difficulty need not be exaggerated. There are two principal types of inference, namely deductive and inductive. Inductive inference is the process of inferring some kind of order among phenomena from observations made. Deductive inference is the process of applying general truths or concepts to suitable instances. In science inductive inference plays the most important role, and the methods of sciences are mainly instruments of induction or auxiliaries thereto. But deductive inference is also necessary to science, and is, in fact, a part of nearly all complete inductive investigations. Still, marked inductive ability is very rare. There are thousands who can more or less correctly apply a discovery for one who can make it.

Comparison and Analogy.

Reference has already been made to the importance of the process of comparison in the mental analysis of observed phenomena. The observation of similarities and differences, aided by the processes of analysis and synthesis, is one of the first steps to knowledge of every kind, and continues to be indispensable to the pursuit of science throughout its progress. But there are degrees of similarity. Things may be so alike that they are at once treated as instances of the same kind or class. And the formulation and application of generalisations of all kinds are based upon this possibility of apprehending such class resemblances. On the other hand, there is a likeness, which stops short of such close class likeness. Such similarity is usually called analogy. The term is applied to similarity of structure or of function or of relationship, in fact, to similarity of almost every kind except that which characterises members of the same class, in the strict sense of the term. And analogy plays very important part in the work of science, especially in suggesting those suppositions or hypotheses which, as already explained, are so essential to scientific research and discovery.

After this brief survey of various mental activities which are more or less involved in the pursuit of every kind of knowledge, and consequently from no suitable bases for the differentiation of the various methods of science, we may now proceed to the consideration of the several scientific methods properly so called.

Classification.

This may be described as the oldest and simplest of scientific methods. The observation of similarities be​tween certain things, and classing them together, marks the earliest attempt to discover some kind of order in the apparently chaotic jumble of things that confront the human mind. Language bears witness to the vast number of classifications made spontaneously by pre-scientific man. For every common noun expresses the recognition of a class; and language is much older than science. The first classifications subserved strictly practical purposes, and had reference mainly to the uses which man could make of the things classified. They were frequently also based on superficial resemblances, which veiled deeper differences, or were influenced by superficial differences, which diverted attention from deeper similarities. But with the growth of the scientific spirit classifica​tions became more objective or more natural, attention being paid to the objective nature of the things themselves rather than to their human uses. Even now scientific classification rarely begins at the beginning, but sets out from current classifications embodied in language. It has frequent occasion to correct popular classifica​tions. At the same time it has difficulties of its own, and more than one science has been held up for centuries for want of a really satisfactory scheme or classification of the phenomena constituting its field of investigation. To recognise a class is to recognise the unity of essential attributes in a multiplicity of instances; it is a recognition of the one in the many. To that extent it is a dis​covery of order in things. And although it is the simplest method of science, and can be applied before any other method, it is also the fundamental method, inasmuch as its results are usually as​sumed when the other methods are applied. For science is not, as a rule, concerned with individuals as such, but with kinds or classes. This means that the investigator usually assumes the accuracy of the classification of the phenomena, which he is study​ing. Of course, this does not always turn out to be the case. And the final outcome of the application of other methods of science to certain kinds of phenomena may be a new classification of them.