Reichenbach, Russell and the Metaphysics of Induction

Argumenta 8:161-181 (2019)
  Copy   BIBTEX


Hans Reichenbach’s pragmatic treatment of the problem of induction in his later works on inductive inference was, and still is, of great interest. However, it has been dismissed as a pseudo-solution and it has been regarded as problematically obscure. This is, in large part, due to the difficulty in understanding exactly what Reichenbach’s solution is supposed to amount to, especially as it appears to offer no response to the inductive skeptic. For entirely different reasons, the significance of Bertrand Russell’s classic attempt to solve Hume’s problem is also both obscure and controversial. Russell accepted that Hume’s reasoning about induction was basically correct, but he argued that given the centrality of induction in our cognitive endeavors something must be wrong with Hume’s basic assumptions. What Russell effectively identified as Hume’s (and Reichenbach’s) failure was the commitment to a purely extensional empiricism. So, Russell’s solution to the problem of induction was to concede extensional empiricism and to accept that induction is grounded by accepting both a robust essentialism and a form of rationalism that allowed for a priori knowledge of universals. So, neither of those doctrines is without its critics. On the one hand, Reichenbach’s solution faces the charges of obscurity and of offering no response to the inductive skeptic. On the other hand, Russell’s solution looks to be objectionably ad hoc absent some non-controversial and independent argument that the universals that are necessary to ground the uniformity of nature actually exist and are knowable. This particular charge is especially likely to arise from those inclined towards purely extensional forms of empiricism. In this paper the significance of Reichenbach’s solution to the problem of induction will be made clearer via the comparison of these two historically important views about the problem of induction. The modest but important contention that will be made here is that the comparison of Reichenbach’s and Russell’s solutions calls attention to the opposition between extensional and intensional metaphysical presuppositions in the context of attempts to solve the problem of induction. It will be show that, in effect, what Reichenbach does is to establish an important epistemic limitation of extensional empiricism. So, it will be argued here that there is nothing really obscure about Reichenbach’s thoughts on induction at all. He was simply working out the limits of extensional empiricism with respect to inductive inference in opposition to the sort of metaphysics favored by Russell and like-minded thinkers.

Author's Profile

Michael Shaffer
Gustavus Adolphus College


Added to PP

637 (#25,347)

6 months
174 (#17,683)

Historical graph of downloads since first upload
This graph includes both downloads from PhilArchive and clicks on external links on PhilPapers.
How can I increase my downloads?