An auxiliary motive for Buridan's ass. Otto Neurath on choice without preference in science and society


In a famous paper of 1913, Otto Neurath argues that both in science and society there occur situations in which two or more alternatives are equally rational. On pain of pseudorationalism (or even spiritism) and an uneconomical loss of resources, the rationalist has to admit that the only rational strategy is to resolve the matter by an auxiliary motive, that is, ultimately by tossing a coin. The present contribution first discusses the auxiliary motive as a contribution to the philosophical theme of 'choice without preference' the heraldic animal of which is Buridan's Ass. Neurath departed from this classical tradition by extending the need for 'choice without preference' to the sciences and by investigating the societal implementation of the auxiliary motive. Neurath's firmly pragmatic stance makes it also possible to understand the auxiliary motive as the limit case of inductive or abductive modes of reasoning, a view which makes possible a certain continuity in the application of pragmatic criteria of theory choice.

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Michael Stoeltzner
University of South Carolina

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