Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Themata are conceptual elements that are seen to be integral to (physical) science and underpin the development and growth of science.

explanatory context

Typical themata are: conservation; infinity and finiteness; models; integers; discreteness and continuum; unification, complexity and complementarity; synthesis, variety and resolution.

Themata survive for long periods and new ones appear infrequently.

Themata are proposed as an alternative to the inductivist, falsificationist and paradigmatic theories of scientific growth. Essentially thematic analysis draws attention to the features essential to knowledge production and emphasises both the process of discovery and the context of discovery. The thematic approach argues that theoretical thought is based on empirical data, analysis, and a thematic dimension. Without the latter there is no way of accounting for the principles underpinning the implicit as well as explicit decision criteria in science; such criteria being at the root of explanatory schemes.

The thematic dimension both initiates research and acts as the final recourse of explanation. It provides a fixed base upon which an understanding of the relationships, in the explanatory theory, may be erected. Themata illuminate the source of inspiration for the scientist, thus taking into account the process of discovery, and provide an authoritive final resort underwriting theoretical explanation. In this, thematic analysis, extends the investigation of the metaphysical aspect of the methodology of scientific research programmes as in Lakatos' positive heuristic. It is through themata that the distinction between public and private science can be reconciled.

Three different uses of themata have been distinguished; the thematic concept (e.g. the 'concepts of 'symmetry' and 'continuum'), the methodological thema (e.g. expressing laws of science as constancies, extrema or impotency), and the thematic proposition or hypothesis (e.g. Newton's hypothesis concerning the immobility of the centre of the world, or the principles of special relativity theory).

Themata are not to be confused with archetypes, metaphysics, paradigms or world views. While paradigms and world views have elements of themata contained within them, the differences between thematic analysis and paradigms of knowledge or world views are substantial. Thematic oppositions persist during "normal science", and themata persist through revolutionary periods. To a much larger degree than either paradigms or world views, thematic decisions are more individual than social.

analytical review

associated issues

The Thematic Model of the Production of Scientific Knowledge


Gerald Holton in a series of lectures between 1962 and 1964, [1] proceeded to destroy the (then still prevalent) simple inductivist model of theory construction in science. He developed an account of the production of scientific knowledge based on thematic principles. His work in the early 1960’s extended ideas he had mooted as early as 1952 concerning the inappropriateness of inductivist accounts, and the absence of the creative reflective element in the production of scientific knowledge (Holton, 1952, [1953] 1973). Holton does not offer a mechanistic model in the same way that Lakatos and Kuhn do, but prefers to draw attention to the features essential to knowledge production. In so doing, Holton is at pains to emphasise both the process of discovery and the context of discovery.


The following examination of Holton’s perspective will illustrate what he regards as central to the development of (physical) science. The elements that emerge from this analysis of physics, and which, to a large extent, Holton suggests are applicable to scientific [2] work in general will be assessed.


Holton’s early ‘models’ and the groundwork for the Introduction of Thematic Analysis

Holton’s ([1953] 1973) contains a ‘model’ of scientific growth that is analogous to biological evolution. [3] There is no mention of themata in the (1953) paper. Holton’s dissatisfaction with the ‘conventional’ theories of the growth of science (at that time) was predominantly due to the ‘essential incongruities’ he saw in science. These included:

the element of irrationality and contradiction in scientific discovery, the discrepancy between the precision of physical concepts and the flexibility of language, the conflict between the motivating drive and the rules of objectivity—in short the whole complexity in the relations between the individual creative scientist on one hand and science as an institution on the other. (Holton, [1953] 1973, p. 383) [4].

His avowed aim in his ([1953] 1973) is, if possible, ‘to contstruct a model-mechanism for the growth of science which accounts for the presence, and, indeed, the necessity of these incongruities.’ Herein lie some indicators pointing to subsequent development of thematic analysis. Essentially, he abandons the mechanistic part of his ‘model’ of the growth of science and his subsequent work does not develop the biological analogy. However through his assessment of complementarity as a theme he expands upon the ‘necessity of incongruities’. The whole idea of thematic analysis is just beneath the surface of the evoluntionary model offered by Holton. Throughout he uses major themata in the exposition and, in the discussion of the survival of scientific concepts, he spells out the core of the more general heuristic device of thematic development. [5] Furthermore, in conclusion, Holton recalls Whitehead’s reminder that

all truly great ideas seemed somewhat absurd when first proposed. Indeed they may be called great ideas precisely because it took the unusual mind to break through the pattern of contemporary thought to discern the truth behind its mask of a grotesque or trite disguise, to dare propose the unbelievable or question the obvious. (Holton, [1953] 1973, p. 393).

However, in saying this, Holton is not suggesting discontinuities of thought in science. [6] Rather, he is implying continuity by reflection on persistent themes. He takes this up directly in subsequent papers.


In his (1962) paper Holton suggests a quite different approach to the understanding of the development of science. In this paper, (it is unique in his work,) he offers a first approximation to a mathematical mechanical model of the growth of scientific research. A model, that potentially has application to all fields of natural science, but one he offers only tentatively in its quantitative context because he is acutely aware of the limitations of a quantitative appraisal. Such limitations, he considers, precludes the extension of this model outside the confines of science, (by which, in this context, he means natural science). Furthermore, he is dissatisfied with its potential within science, as his concluding sentences indicate.

But even in science, the quantitative aspects of growth are merely indices of deepening understanding. Therefore, the question must now be: allowing for differences between the needs of special fields of scholarship, what can we do to help each of the particular fields realise its full measure of excellence. (Holton, [1962] 1973, p. 426)

In essence, Holton’s model of the growth of scientific research is rather simple, it suggests that explanation in a new area is very rapid but that the increase in knowledge in that area drops off. However, new areas of research evolve from the initial research in an escalatory manner, with, in each case, most of the original researchers switching to the new area and rapidly developing it. Some researchers stay on in the old research area.


There are certain relevant questions that need to be raised about this approximation. How do the new directions get started and how do the scientists know at what point to abandon the old direction? (These problems are identical to those questions Lakatos’ research programme fails adequately to answer). Holton offers no answers in his (1962) but it is his (1964) that provides the essential clues (for here he introduces the themetic element). Although, after 1962, Holton does not go back to refine this first approximation. (He seems to realise the inadequacies of mechanistic accounts. Possibly through the examination of the debate raging in the philosophy of science, following the publication of Kuhn’s (1962). Indeed, thirteen years later he wrote

the rewards of doing more specific work on real cases seems to me far more evident than those to be had from engaging in comparisons among different historiographic schools, or in psychological or rational “reconstruct ions”, or in the preparation of researching, general treatises. (Holton, 1975, p. 334).

The inadequacies of Inductivism and the Need for a Thematic Dimension

Holton first introduced the idea of a thematic element in his (1964) and his dissatisfaction with the inductivist principle in science is outlined and reflects the failure of history to corroborate the theory (as has been discussed, above, in this paper). However, Holton is not simply prepared to discuss inductivism on ‘logical’ philosophical grounds. Indeed, in assessing an account of inductive construction of hypotheses provided by the physicist Dessauer, [8] Holton says:

This account of scientific procedure is not wrong; it has its use, for example, in broadly characterising certain features of science as a public institution. But if we try to understand the actions and decisions of an actual contributor to science, the categories and steps listed by Dessauer are deficient because they leave out an essential point: to a smaller or larger degree, the process of building up an actual scientific theory requires explicit or implicit decisions, such as the adoption of certain hypotheses and criteria of pre-selection that are not at all scientifically “valid” in the sense usually accepted. (Holton, [1964] 1973, pp 48–49)

What Holton is concerned about, therefore, is not so much the logical deficiencies of inductivism but its inadequacies in providing an account of theory construction. He stylises theoretical thought using the analogy of three dimensional space. The inductivist account provides a reconstruction within a mechanistic XY plane (the axis being the empirical and analytic elements respectively; where such elements are not absolute but heuristically determined). The third, and essential element for Holton, is the thematic dimension. Without which, there is no way of accounting for the principles underpinning the implicit as well as explicit decision criteria in science; such criteria being at the root of explanatory schemes


The thematic dimension, for Holton, provides the element that both ‘initiates’ research and acts as the final recourse of explanation. It provides a fixed base (at any time) upon which an understanding of the relationships, in the explanatory theory, may be erected. Themata illuminate the source of inspiration for the scientist, thus taking into account the process of discovery, and provide an authoritative final resort underwriting theoretical explanation. In this, thematic analysis, extends the investigation of the metaphysical aspect of Lakatos’ positive heuristic. It is through themata that the distinction between public and private science can be reconciled.


The Nature of Themata

In an address before a meeting of the History of Science Society in 1974, Holton presented a review of his thematic perspective. [9] He explicitly stated that thematic analysis is in danger of being confused with something else:’with Jungian archetypes, with metaphysics, with paradigms and world views.’ (Holton, 1975, p. 334).


Themata are not congruent with any of these. Holton argues that while there are elements of themata contained within paradigms and world views, the differences between thematic analysis and paradigms of knowledge or world views are ‘overwhelming’.

For example, thematic oppositions persist during “normal science”, and themata persist through revolutionary periods. To a much larger degree than either paradigms or world views, thematic decisions seem to come more from the individual than from the social surrounding. (Holton, 1975, p. 334)

Nowhere does Holton bring out the explicit differences between themata and archetypes (although these are implicitly obvious [10]) nor between themata and metaphysics (indeed these terms tend to be somewhat interchangeable. [11]).


According to Holton themata acts as guides, constraints or motivators in the development of the concepts, methods and propositions or hypotheses of a science. He distinguishes three different uses of themata: the thematic concept (e.g. the ‘concepts of ‘symmetry’ and ‘continuum’); the methodological themata (e.g. expressing laws of science as constancies, extrema or impotency); and the thematic proposition or hypothesis (e.g. Newton’s hypothesis concerning the immobility of the centre of the world, or the principles of special relativity theory).


Holton considers that the number of such themata in the physical sciences are few. He estimates that, including ‘doublets’ and ‘triplets’ the number will be less than one hundred. Consequently it is only to be expected that themata survive for long periods (Holton suggests some reappear cyclically) and that new ones appear infrequently.

The persistence in time ... of these relatively few themata may be what endows science, despite all its growth and change, with what constant identity it has. The inter-disciplinary sharing of themes among various fields in sciences tells us something both about the meaning of the enterprise as a whole and the commonality of the ground of imagination that must be at work. (Holton, 1975, p. 331).

Some important themata investigated by Holton (besides those mentioned above) include conservation; infinity and finiteness; models; integers; discreteness and continuum; unification, complexity and complementarity; synthesis, variety and resolution. Of these, an investigation of complementarity provides some clues to a philosophic underpinning for a new ‘Thematic Model’. Furthermore, complementarity, more than any other thema, appears to be the bridge Holton uses to extend his thematic analysis beyond the limiting sphere of physics.


Themata and The Process of Discovery

Holton is perturbed by the historical failure of the philosophy of science to confront the ‘realities’ of the history of science. An idealised view of the production of scientific theory, based on inductivism, had persisted for centuries and only the rapid growth of physics in the twentieth century has led to re-appraisals of the way in which science grows.

And yet, on looking into history of science, one is overwhelmed by evidences that all too often there is no regular procedure, no logical system of discovery, no simple, continuous development.The process of discovery has been as varied as the temperament of the scientists.... Even the work of the great heroes, viewed in retrospect, sometimes seem to jump from error to error until the right answer is reached; indeed, this gift must be one of the deepest sources of greatness. (Holton, [1953] 1973, pp. 384–85).

However, with rare exceptions (e.g. Watson, 1968), scientific discovery has been and continues to be, written up in an idealistic way, emphasising the analytic empirical plane at the expense of the thematic dimension. Holton finds this peculiar, it leads to a paradoxical situation in science and he quotes Smyth who points out the absurdity

The researcher may often think and work like an artist, but he has to talk like a book-keeper, in terms of facts, figures, and logical sequences of thought. (Quoted in Holton, 1973, p. 387)

Holton proceeds to draw attention to the ‘illogical’ factors in the process of discovery [13], referring to research in the psychology of invention that suggests that theoretical developments are independent of the mediation of communicable symbols or language. With evident relief he writes, ‘At least it has become clear in our day that the pursuit of science is itself not necessarily a science' (Holton, [1953] 1973, p. 386).


Holton sees the distillation out of science of the thematic element as a feature of public science as opposed to private science. Public science, science as an institution, science of textbooks and of well worked clear concepts, is indifferent to the creativity of the scientist. It is the dispassionate residue of the work of the private scientist, of science-in-the-making. Public science demands the formalising of research contributions for publication. Scientists are required to play the game of disguising the creative process; they are themselves responsible for compounding private and public science and of covering up the transition from one to the other. What motivates the scientist, Holton suggests, is not the dispassionate lure of public science but the enjoyment of the creative process of discovery that may be little effected by scientific rationality.


The scientist’s

dedication may spring from some non-rational, mystical or religious conviction which was often acknowledged in other years when scientists were freer with their personal secrets. For example, Galileo, a pious man, looked upon the laws of nature as proofs of the Deity equal to that of the Scriptures, and Newton revealed in a letter: “when I wrote my treatise (Principia) about our system, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.” (Holton [l953] (1973, p. 389).

Such ‘metaphysical’ elements, are the thematic element that Holton regards as essential in understanding the growth of science. Themes in science have not always been deistic and the supernatural aspect of them has progressively dwindled over time. There have always been secular themes, according to Holton, such as the pre-occupation with integral numbers, still current in nuclear theory, which dates from Galileo, in physics. There are still other themes that have shifted from a deistic to a secular base, notably the idea of ‘conservation’, (in physics) which initially, was attributed (by Descartes) to God’s desire for ‘stability in motion’ and which subsequently has been reconstituted as a ‘natural’ phenomenon (Holton, 1964).

Yet other themata are based on rationalism. The search for absolutes and the notion of a holistic world picture, (with the resultant concentration on unitary and simple theoretical structures), are two major cases in point. However, public science wants none of this. Whatever the driving force of the private scientist, he or she must present conclusions not as ‘metaphysical’ convictions but in the cold language and reasoning of public scientific theoretical explanations, firmly grounded in an analytic-empirical plane. To fail to do so invites ridicule and disaster. Only in the last resort are explanations connected to ‘metaphysical’ principles; those held as incontrovertible by the scientific community.

Themata as Incontrovertible Principles

Holton sees thematic principles as having always played a significant role in underwriting scientific explanations. He notes that, ‘we see the thematic component at work from the very beginning, in the source of cosmogonic ideas later found in Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ and in Genesis’ (Holton, [1964] 1973, p. 60).


Such themata have constituted the final stage in the casual chain of explanation. They have been taken-for-granted as self-evident and unchallenable prescriptions of the discipline at any given time. Holton refers to Newton’s attribution of the ‘cause of gravity’ to the ‘sensory of God’ as his ‘cut-off point beyond which it was innappropriate and unnecessary to ask further questions’ (Holton 1973, p. 53) and that such cut-off points, such thematic principles, are not within the sphere of hypotheses-to-be-tested but are ‘built as a bridge over the gap of ignorance’. The role of the themata as providing inviolable principles upon which to base explanations is reflected in the consideration that scientists must include in their work. Such consideration works in two ways. On the one hand, it explains the ‘irrational’ commitment of scientists to points of view that run ‘counter to all accepted doctrine’ and ‘the clear evidence of the senses’. [14] On the other hand, it delimits the theoretical development as science. As Holton says, in arguing for a thematic dimension in science, despite the hostility expressed by scientists towards metaphysical speculation

The need for going beyond the X-Y plane in understanding and, indeed, in doing science, had been consistently voiced long before Copernicus who said that the ultimate restriction on the choice of scientific hypotheses is not only that they must agree with observation but also “that they must be consistent with certain preconceptions called ‘axioms of physics’, such as that every celestial motion is circular, every celestial motion is uniform, and so forth.” (Rosen, 1959, p. 29 [Reference missing]). And if we look carefully we can find even among the most hard-headed modern philosophers and scientists a tendency to admit the necessity and existence of a non-contingent element in scentific work. (Holton, [1964] 1973, pp. 56–57).

The Limits of Thematatic Analysis as a Vehicle for Understanding Knowledge Production

Thematic Analysis is, for Holton, a method of searching beneath the ostensive empirical analytic development of science to see what motivates individual scientists and what, in consequence, are the factors effecting the way science evolves. Themata, he suggests, rise and fall in prominence, reflecting external social conditions to some greater or lesser degree. It is through thematic analysis that controversies in science may be viewed from an alternative perspective.

For example, the awareness of themata which are sometimes held with obstinate loyalty helps to explain the character of the discussion between antagonists far better than do scientific and social content alone. (Holton, 1975, p. 331).

Themata are, then, mediating devices, between the social and scientific worlds; vehicles to facilitate understanding of scientific developments and relate them, non-deterministically to social factors. Yet Holton is not prepared to present a theoretical model in which thematic analysis is an absolutely necessary tool. In fact he makes it clear that thematic thinking is not always useful. Holton states that:‘there exist important parts of the history of science and of current work where themata do not seem to enter prominently’ (Holton, 1975, p. 331).


Thus, in one stroke, Holton discounts themata as a necessary epistemological bridge between scientific knowledge and the social context. Despite his (1964), in which a three dimensional analysis of the production of knowledge was posited as necessary for an understanding of such production, his later address (1975) seems to be more conservative in respect of the philosophical implications. Themata are reduced to tools to be used as the occasion demands rather than the optimistic integral analytic dimension of earlier work. The promise of the development of this thematic dimension seems to have been buried.


In 1964 he wrote:

While developing the position that themata have as legitimate and necessary a place in the pursuit and understanding of science as have observational experience and logical construction, I should make clear that we need not decide now also on the source of themata. Our first aim is simply to see their role in science and to describe some of them, as a folklorist might when he catalogues the traditions and practices of a people. It is not necessary to go further and to make an association of themata with any of the following conceptions: Platonic, Keplerian, or Jungian archetypes or images; myths (in the nonderogatory sense, so rarely used in the English language); synthetic a priori knowledge; intuitive apprehension or Galileo’s “reason”; a realistic or absolutistic or, for that matter, any other philosophy of science. To show whether any such associations do or do not exist is a task for another time.

Holton goes on to add that even if thematic analysis does always have a role to play, he does not think it is the major role.

I would not like to think that the themata in a scientific work are its chief reality. Otherwise, work in the history of science would degenerate into descriptivism. (Holton, 1975, p. 333).

The progress in scientific explanations of the world (which Holton clearly sees to have taken place would not be understandable through thematic analysis alone. But he has nowhere suggested that themata be used as tools of understanding alone. Thematic analysis is, admittedly deficient in his exposition to date, failing to tackle a host of questions he is aware of, and which are examined below. However, the understanding of the progress of science is not possible through the empirical-analytic, X-Y plane, and he offers no other medium of explanation. Indeed, it is through a ‘fourth dimension’ that themata could be analysed dynamically and that could provide a means of confronting those aspects of thematic development that Holton recognises as unanswered questions.

How themata transcend the discipline in which they have been developed? Why some themata are abandoned, some rise from oblivion and some have only emerged very recently? What factors affect the timing of these vacillations? What role imagination, in general, plays in providing themata? Why there are so few themata?

How the choice of a thematic hypothesis governs what we are to look for in the X-Y Plane and what we do with the findings. (Holton, [1964], 1973, p. 65).

Holton’s retreat from epistemological reflection is characterised by his call for studies at an individual level. He cites Medawar (1969) as providing the kind of research needed, for it stresses the connection between cognitive psychology and individual scientific work. Holton, while providing the potential for a model reflecting both the social context and individual process of discovery, prefers to emphasise the latter at the expense of the former. Ultimately, it would seem, one of the main functions of thematic analysis is that of self-awareness. In laying bare one’s own thematic principles, the scientist may become aware of another’s antithetical themata.

In a series of articles published between 1967 and the appearance of his collected essays in 1973, Holton suggests, then develops, then utlises the thema of complementarity. [15]

The gulf between classical and quantum description in physics in the early part of 20th Century led to the hope that the two antithetical views could be made compatible by incorporating one into the other. (As Galileo and Newton had shown celestial physics to be no different from terrestrial physics) [16]. The alternative would be two radically different physics. The problem had become acute, because, in the atomic domain there is no way of separating observers and their equipment from the observation being made.

Observation in atomic physics is recognised as a combination of observer and object, not only in the sense that the observer has a set of prior expectations, theories, values etc., in the light of which he or she makes the observation, but in an ‘objective’ sense too. The very act of observation affects the outcome. [17] For Bohr, who developed the concept of complementarity in view of the void between the two physics, the ‘object’, the observer and his equipment formed an inseparable whole. [18]

In thematic terms, the situation in the latter half of the 1920’s was one in which

physics had inherited contrary themata from the classical period (before 1900) and from the quantum period (after 1900). A chief theme of the earlier period was continuity, although it existed side by side with the atomistic view of matter. A chief thema of the more recent period was discontinuity, although it existed side by side with the wave theory of eletromagnetic propogation.... (Holton, [1970], 1973, p. 118).

Bohr’s ‘solution’ in 1927 was essentially that ‘we should attempt not to reconcile the dichotomies but to realise the complementarity of representations of events in these two quite different languages.’ (Holton, [1970], 1973, p. 118, emphasis added).

Complementarity, in Bohr’s sense, means that alternative conceptualisations of perceived phenomena complement one another and are mutually exclusive. For example, an atomic entity could not exhibit its particle properties and its wave properties simultaneously. They could both be ‘observed’ as complements but no theoretical scheme could incorporate both sets of properties and hence no ‘observation’ mechanism could provide for simultaneous display of both sets of properties. [19]

Bohr’s proposal leads to an inevitable question of ultimate resolution. Does complementarity simply imply that alternative conceptualisations have to be admitted but also permitted to happily co-exist? Or does it offer a method of framing incompatible points of view with a view to a future synthesis?

Bohr, according to Holton, maintains that :

it is possible to express the wholeness of nature only through a complementary mode of descriptions. The apparently paradoxical, contradictory accounts should not divert our attention from the essential wholeness ...... Unlike the situation in earlier periods, clarity does not reside in simplification and reduction to a single, directly comprehensible model, but in the exhaustive overlay of different descriptions that incorporate apparently contradictory notions. (Holton, [1970], 1973, p. 118)

While this provides no definite answer, it infers that a synthetic reduction is possible. However, such synthesis must involve a qualitatively different perspective. It implies something more than mere resolution. (The resolution of Galileo and Newton, mentioned above, was not synthetic in the sense of a qualitative shift. It was a resolution through the principle of unification, it subsumed one thesis under another in order to unify science). Through a multi-faceted view of the whole, different perspectives being complementary, a synthesis may be affected.

This analysis of complementarity as a theme is crucial in the development of Holton’s thematic analysis into a more potent model. The whole idea of complementarity is inextricably linked to the reflective process, to qualitative shifts, to the imaginative development of scientific ideas. It is the key to the process of concept juggling that takes place in the third dimension of the understanding of scientific knowledge production. It is this third dimension that provides the clues for the manipulation in the empirical-analytic XY plane. As Holton wrote in 1967:

If at every turn we had to construct science anew out of science alone, without the guidance of style and knowledge in their widest sense, how could we hope to catch this complex and infinitely fascinating world with our minds at all. (Holton, [1967] 1973, p. 112)

Concept juggling is central to the process of thinking. For Einstein, thinking was free play with concepts. Such conceptualisations were visual pictures, unencumbered by words or other signs.

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought.... Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will. (Quoted in Hadamard, 1945, pp. 142–43)

Einstein’s reflection on his thought processes suggest a reduction of concepts to essential elements through the shedding of language. The play with such concepts in then free of syntactical and conventional constraints. The potential is there for easy transformation of concepts and peculiar juxtapositions. Einstein played this ‘game’ with resounding consequences.

Complementarity involves concept juggling of just this sort. The ability to view the whole through its complementary perspectives and then to effect a synthesis requires divesting phenomena of constraining concepts; it involves, in Einstein’s terms, playing with visual pictures.

This assessment supports Holton’s earlier analysis of stylistic and thematic interdependence in which he projects ‘revolutions’ not as ‘iconoclastic’ acts of destruction of the base of science followed by radical rebuilding, but as reconceputalisations born out of a reflection provoked by the ‘mystical’ simplicity of primitive and childlike states of reality depicted in idealised, passified, past constructions of scientific knowledge. Such a projection back provides an aid to uncluttering concepts, of divesting them of obscuring, particular details. [20]

What, in fact Holton goes on to suggest in this paper is an unsophisticated approximation to Husserlian epoché. The role of epochal thought needs to be examined more closely but the following comment by Holton about Einstein is symptomatic of Husserlian reductionism.

Einstein’s attempt to restructure science, then, seems to me in several senses to be a return—first, to the childhood state of innocence by a secularisation of the religious childhood paradise; second, to the early dream of a state or social environment greatly at variance with the harsh reality that he saw all around him—to a dream of a social environment which, in a word, characterises the social childhood paradise; third to an early state of science in which the purity of a few hypotheses supposedly was a primary characteristic. (Holton, [1967] 1973, p. 110).


[1] George Garton Memorial Lecture (28 December 1962), Lecture to American Philosophical Society (l4 November 1963) and lecture at John Hopkins University entitled “Presuppositions in the Construction of Theories” (1964) published in Woolf, H. (Ed.) (1964). See also his article Holton (1963).

[2] Holton has no reticence in referring to fields outside natural science as scientific.

[3] ‘I find it helpful to regard science as a growing organism analogous to a biological species, for the growth in both cases depends to a large extent on the operation of four quite analogous mechanisms. First, there is a mechanism of continuity; both a species and a science can persist only if there is some stable method for transmitting the structure in a definite way from generation to generation. In biology the principle of continuity is found in the process of heredity based on the highly specific nature of the genes. and in science continuity is identifiable with the specific operational and quantitative nature of important concepts. Without the measure of unambiguous continuity, scientists could not communicate their work to one another and to their pupils...... Modifying the first mechanism is a second, the mechanism of mutation, the constant opportunity for individual variations. In the case of biological species, of course, the process of mutation is made possible by various chemical and physical influences on the genes, and on chromosome partition and recombination; in science, mutations are assured by its essesntial freedom and by the boundless curiosity of the human mind. Scientists have always vigorously defended the right to pursue any promising lead, to publish and to exchange scientific information freely. A third mechanism in the growth of science is multiplicity of effort. To assure continuity and growth despite the low rate of occurence of really great modifications, and in the absence of some obvious single master plan by which to proceed, science and the species alike must rely on a large number of individual attempts, from which may ultimately emerge those few types that are indeed useful. The uncountable fossils of bygone members of the species, like the uncountable pages of the individual scientific researches of the past, are mute testimonies of the wastefulness of the process of evolution...... Finally, a selection mechanism is at work in the growth of science whereby certain of the seemingly innumerable contributions and unpredictable mutations are incorporated into the continuous stream of science - a conflict among ideas not greatly different from the fight for existence in living nature which permits a species to adapt itself to a changing environment.....’ (Holton, [1953] 1973, p. 392–93)

[4] Most of the quotes from Holton that follow are taken from the 1973 reprint. They will be referenced in the following manner; (Holton, [1964]1973, pp. 48–49) to show date of the quote and where it is located in the reprint.

[5] He writes:‘The survival of a variant under the most diverse and adverse conditions is mirrored in science by the survival of these discoveries and concepts that find usefulness in the greatest variety of further applications - of those conceptual schemes that withstand the constant cheek against experience.’ (Holton, [1953] 1973, p. 393).

[6] In his ([1953] 1973) Holton pre-empts some important elements of Kuhn’s (1962) thesis. The disavowal of discontinuities as such (which he later develops) in the ([1953] 1973) paper is linked with a view of science developing within traditional (or “normal”) settings. ‘The more urgent fact is that “revolutionary” ideas arise only very rarely compared with the large number of workable or even great ideas conceived within the traditional setting, so that the individual scientists wisely predisposed to favour the type of advance which he knows and believes in from personal experience. He ... must defend his fundamental concepts of nature against large scale destruction, particularly at the earlier stages when the innovators cannot present very many results and confirmations of their new ideas.’ (Holton, [1953], 1973, p. 394). In later papers, Holton undermines Kuhn, whose thesis has, by then, become widely debated. He comments that themata survive the transitions of revolutionary moments, in contrast to Kuhn’s view of gestalt switch. (Although the incommensurability of paradigms does not preclude persistent themata (albeit, presumably, reconceptualised). Holton also refers to the ability of scientists operating with complementary thema, in different spheres, tending to reflect Lakatos’ view rather than the incommensurability of paradigms. (However, again, it would not be inconceivable for scientists to hold entirely incompatible ‘world views’ when operating within different sub-disicplines. What is impossible from a Kuhnian perspective is holding, simultaneously, the point of view embodied in pre- and post-revolutionary paradigms (within the same sphere). The ‘Gestalt Switch’ is another aspect that Holton essentially denied, (even before Kuhn has proposed it). Holton writes ‘In order to change the direction of development in a field of learning, people’s minds must be changed. Even in science this is a slow process, sometimes an impossible one. Max Planck said, with perhaps only a little too much bitterness about his own early struggles: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning.” and as if to prove his point, it was Planck himself who, five years after Einstein’s first publication on the photon theory of light, angrily commented that all the fruits of Maxwell’s great work would be lost by accepting a quantisation of energy in the wavefront “for the sake of a few still rather dubious speculations.”‘ (Holton,[1953] 1973, p. 394) It is interesting that Holton emphasises the importance of pedagogy in propagating the new view (‘paradigm’) and suggesting an overlap of views. The Planck quote is instructive here. Indeed, Kuhn cites the latter part of the quote, excluding the emphasised section, to make the point of the overlap of paradigms, but ignoring Planck’s clear indication that revolutionary changes of ideas are unusual. Kuhn’s ‘gestalt switch’ is applied not only to the ‘inventor’ of the new paradigm but to at least some of the relevant scientific community as well.

[7] There is, of course, no reason for him to refer to Lakatosian terminology in this paper.

[8] Holton reports Dessauer (1946) [Reference missing] as seeing theory construction in terms of five steps (i) tentative proposition of a hypothesis obtained by induction from experience and established knowledge; (ii) refine and structure the hypothesis; (iii) draw logical conclusions or predictions which have a potential experimental check; (iv) check predicted consequences against experience, by free observation or experimental arrangement; (v) proclaims the result ‘universally valid’ if deduced consequences correspond to ‘observed facts’ within expected limits, as well as with all different ones that can be drawn. It is interesting that Lakatos still retains much of this scheme as the process, at each stage, in the development of a research programme. Holton remarks that such a scheme says nothing about the source of the original induction or about the criteria of pre-selection in scientific decisions. Lakatos is similarly mute on such points.

[9] The address was on 26th October 1974 in Norwalk, Connecticut. Holton (1975) is adapted from this address. The quotations that follow are from the adapted article.

[10] There is no typicality in the notion of themata. A thema is a dynamic guiding motive.

[11] This point is discussed more fully below.

[12] He notes, however, that no single new dominant theory of scientific knowledge production can, as yet, be expected.

[13] Holton was not alone in thinking the history of science at variance with the ideal of the production of scientific knowledge. He cites Leonard Nash, The Atomic Molecular Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press); 1950) as providing detailed account of Dalton’s ‘illogical’ progress as well as “other Case Studies which the Harvard University Press has been publishing under the editorship of Mr Conant” (Footnote 1 to page 386) of his (1973). He further cites, W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1950) as a contributor to the “growing recognition of the importance of the illogical and unexpected” (p. 386).

[14] Galileo for example, praised the intellect of those who saw in the apparent involvement of the sun, the ‘reality’ of the rotation of the Earth.

[15] See in particular Holton (1970) (1971-72) and (1967) (all in Holton 1973). There are several allusions to complementarity as a thematic principle underpinning the very nature of reflective thought. Thus Holton writes: ‘it may be that the current attention to the theme of derangement in science as well as in art is at bottom an indication of the return of its antitheme of order in a new, more sophisticated guise. The simple harmonies, the simple symmetries, have been found out. How much more satisfying it will be if we can discern harmonies and simplicities directly, through a more highly trained vision, in complex, apparently broken, and deranged configurations!’ (Holton’ [1967] 1973, p. 98). The qualitatively different synthesis of complementary perspectives is in evidence here.

[16] This ‘hope’ reflects scientists awareness of the necessity to resolve crises, in a sense close to Kuhn’s model.

[17] For example; Heisenberg’s gamma ray microscopic “watches” by scattering gamma rays from an electron, thus deflecting the electron from its original path. Observation in the social world is frequently of this ‘objective’ kind: witness the infamous Hawthorne Studies.

[18] The challenging of the subject-object separation taken-for-granted in classical physics was only one such aspect previously regarded as sacred in physics. The classical concept of causality was also challenged by the concept indeterminancy. Ironically, it was at this point in time that sociology (in U.S.A.) reaffirmed its scientific endeavour by the operationalising of concepts (and the “objectifying” of them) with a view to producing ‘casual laws’ as in the natural sciences.

[19] There are certain affinities here with a ‘gestalt’ switch. The ‘duck-rabbit’ drawing can be seen as one or the other at any point but not as both simultaneously. Kuhn’s analysis, therefore, has something in common with this concept of complementarity (although Kuhn, of course, does not permit revolutionary’ scientist to revert to prior conceptualisation).

[20] This ‘projecting back’ in order ‘to go forward’ is frequently encountered in philosophy and social science. The reformulation and relocation of earlier ‘naive’ theories can be seen in sociology, for example; functionalism and phenomenological sociology in the U.S. (also in Park’s evolutionary aspect of his interactionism). ).

related areas

See also

invisible college

methodology of scientific research programmes



Beveridge, W.I.B., 1950, The Art of Scientific Investigation, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Hadamard, J., 1945, An Essay On The Psychology Of Invention In The Mathematical Field, Dover Publications.

Holton, G., 1952, Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science. Reading Mass, Addison-Wesley.

Holton, G., 1962, 'Scientific Research and Scholarship: Notes toward the Design of Proper Scales', Daedalus, 91, pp 362–99.

Holton, G., 1964, 'Presuppositions in the Construction of Theories', George Garton Memorial Lecture (28 December 1962), Lecture to American Philosophical Society (l4 November 1963) and lecture at John Hopkins University entitled (1964) published in Woolf, H. (Ed.) (1964)Holton, G., 1965, 'The Thematic Imagination in Science', in Holton, G., (Ed.) 1965, Science and Culture. Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, pp 88-108.

Holton, G., (Ed.) 1965, Science and Culture. Boston, Houghton-Mifflin.

Holton, G., 1973, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holton, G., 1975, 'On the role of themata in scientific though', Science, New Series, 188 (4186) 25 April, pp. 328–34.

Holton, G., 1978, The Scientific Imagination: Case Studies. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Kuhn, T. S., 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Medawar, P.B., 1969, Induction and Intuition, Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society.

Leonard Nash, The Atomic Molecular Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press); 1950)

Woolf, H. (Ed.), 1964, Science as a cultural force. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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