Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Inductivism is a view that argues that scientific knowledge is derived inductively from observation.

explanatory context


Inductivism is a view that argues that scientific knowledge is derived via induction.


Inductivism, arguably, emerged in the work of Francis Bacon in the 17th century. Bacon's novel method of enquiry (his novum organum) was essentially the introduction of a method of inductive generalisation whereby systematic enumeration of all the instances of a particular event, or phenomenon, would lead to the achievement of a generalisation that would encompass all examples. This has been described as 'the empty bucket theory of the mind'.


The appeal of inductivist accounts is that it provides a clear indication of the superiority of scientific knowledge through its emphasis on the objective nature of perceptual experience. That it can account for the explanatory and predictive power of science in this way has sustained it as the essence of scientific method through most of the history of science.


Inductivism can be interpreted liberally or conservatively. The liberal view suggests that the inductive method justifies claims to truth and knowledge for statements about a mind-independent reality. The conservative approach argues that inductivism justifies only statements about the immediate data of experience. In this latter sense, empiricism leads to radical scepticism of many common sense knowledge claims. This view predominates amongst logical positivists.


Inductivism is a justificationist theory of science and as such it has problems of establishing proof and does not confront the problem of (the theory-laden nature of) observation. (see Researching the Real World Section 1.4.2)


Inductivism can be seen as having a naive and a sophisticated version.


Naive inductivism

Naive inductivism is the classic empiricist approach. It grounds knowledge in 'hard factual propositions' and constitutes an empirical basis for science. Scientific propositions are 'proven' solely from the basis of observable phenomena.


Naive inductivism presupposes that scientific knowledge is based on observational experience, is embodied in universal statements and aims to predict outcomes (thus facilitating control).


Naive inductivism bases science on the taken-for-granted objectivity of perceptual experience


Inductivism generates universal statements simply on the basis of singular statements that have been confirmed in a large number of instances, including (as far as possible) a large number of different conditions under which the confirming instances hold. Such an approach relies heavily on the methodology of the experiment.


Inductivism predicts by resorting to deductive argument, having inductively established the general truth of the component premises.


Naive inductivism has been at the centre of the 'scientific method' through most of the history of science and is laid out consicely by Newton in his Opticks.


Problems with naive inductivism

There are fundamental problems associated with the presuppositions of naive inductivism. How does the objective nature of observation assert itself, and given that it does, how does one proceed to construct universal statements on the basis of singular ones?


These problems are totally intractable within a justificationist framework. The inductivist answer to generalisation is to proffer a large number of confirming instances, with no negative cases, illustrating as far as is possible, a large number of different conditions under which the confirming instances hold. Clearly, from a methodic perspective, the experiment is a fundamental tool in asserting the credibility of inductivist knowledge. The inductivist then predicts by resort to deductive argument, having inductively established the general truth of the component premises.


The problem of the objectivity of observation is not faced by the inductivist, except obliquely. Sense perception is phlegmatically assumed to be the basis of objective knowledge.


The inductivist assumption of the superiority of scientificknowledge through its emphasis on the objective nature of perceptual experience is unjustifiable both empirically and logically. To argue that inductivist principles have worked well in the past, besides being an obvious post hoc legitimation, is itself an inductivist argument. It is not permissible to justify inductivism inductively. Similarly, to argue that if all observed X have characteristic C then all X must have a characteristic C is deductively unproven, as non-observed X are not necessarily constrained to exhibit characteristic C.


Consequently it is not possible either, to argue the 'success' of inductivism in science deductively. The inability of inductivism to provide non-inductive arguments to substantiate its superiority is of less importance than the more fundamental objection raised against it.


This objection is embodied in the theory-laden nature of observation. Observation does not precede theory nor is it independent of theory. Observation statements pertaining to qualifications are theory based and are only as precise as the theory permits them. In no way are observations determined exclusively from experience on an inductive basis. The development of scientific knowledge, then, is not one that can, in any way, be explained as a process of coming to see 'the objective reality', because that 'reality' is always determined by theory. Quite clearly, inductivism, which assumes that knowledge proceeds from observation and that observation is a secure basis for constructing knowledge, is an unsatisfactory model of the production of scientific knowledge, in as much as it ignores the theory-laden nature of observation.


In summary: the objections to inductivism are basically of two kinds. First, and most important, inductivism ignores the theory laden nature of observation. Second, inductivism substantiates itself through inductive arguments.



Sophisticated inductivism

The primacy attached to observation by naive inductivist accounts, led to a development of a sophistication of inductivism that 'permitted' the discovery of theory prior to observation (unlike naive inductivism which attaches primacy to observation).


Such 'discovery' is unexplained by the sophisticated inductivist and, in a crude way, dispensed to the external history of science.


Nontheless, the inductivist principle is retained in the 'testing' of the theory. While the claim that science must commence from observation is discarded in the context of the process of discovery, the justification of a theory is still an inductive pursuit. Such a justification can only be made through a large number of observations under a variety of conditions. Such a justification does, of course, stem from an assumption that legtimate knowledge is knowledge which has some observable verification. This fails to confront the theory laden nature of observation.


Logical empiricism is the fullest exposition of sophisticated inductivism.


Problems with sophisticated inductivism

Despite attempts to sophisticate inductivism, its major stumbling block, the failure to confront the theoretical context of observation, provides an insurmountable obstacle. As Chalmers writes:

'The inductivist wishes to make a fairly sharp distinction between direct observation, which he hopes will form a secure foundation for scientific knowledge, and theories, which are to be justified by the extent to which they receive inductive support from the secure observational foundation. These extreme inductivists, the logical positivists, went so far as to say that theories only have meaning insofar as they can be verified by direct observation. This position is undermined by the fact that the sharp distinction between observation and theory cannot be maintained because observation, or rather the statements resulting from observation, are permeated by theory.' (Chalmers, 1978, p 33).

analytical review

Philosophy of Science.Info (undated) states:

According to inductivism, scientific research proceeds from observations to theories. Scientists begin with experiments, finding out what happens in specific cases. They then use the results of these experiments to develop general theories about what happens in all cases.

Inductivism gets its name from the type of reasoning that it takes to constitute the scientific method: induction. Inductive arguments are arguments that project observed regularities to unobserved cases. If, for example, we observe many objects falling towards the ground when unsupported, and reason from this that other unsupported objects will also fall, then we are using induction.

Induction is an important part of common-sense logic; we all rely on it every day. It is, however, notoriously difficult to justify. The infamous problem of induction criticises induction as a method for forming beliefs, suggesting that we are never rationally justified in forming expectations about what will happen based on what has happened in the past.

Inductivism, sensible though it seems, has fallen out of favour as an account of scientific methodology.

associated issues

Newton on inductivism

In his Opticks, Isaac Newton provided a concise account of scientific practice, an account which persisted for centuries and, arguably, is still central to the practice of many scientists, at least as far as they reconstruct what they do. At the core of the account is inductive logic. Newton wrote:

'As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult Things by the Method of Analysis ought ever to precede the Method of Composition. This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths.

For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy. And although the arguing from Experiments, and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things admits of, and may be looked upon as so much the stronger, by how much the Induction is more general. And if no Exception occur from Phaenomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur. By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument ends in the most general. This is the Method of Analysis: And the Synthesis consists in assuming the Causes discover'd, and establish'd as Principles, and by them explaining the Phaenomena proceeding from them, and proving the Explanations.' (Quoted in Chalmers, 1978)

related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section


Chalmers, A.F., 1978, What Is This Thing Called Science? Third edition (Buckingham, Open University Press).

Philosophy of Science.Info. undated, Inductivism available at , accessed 25 January 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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