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Norwood Russell Hanson (19241967) was a philosopher of science. Hanson was a pioneer in advancing the argument that observation is theory laden – that observation language and theory language are deeply interwoven – and that historical and contemporary comprehension are similarly deeply interwoven. His single most central intellectual concern was the comprehension and development of a logic of discovery.


Hanson's best-known work is Patterns of Discovery (1958), in which he argues that what we see and perceive is not what our senses receive, but is instead filtered sensory information, where the filter is our existing preconceptions – a concept later called a 'thematic framework.' He cited illusions such as the famous old Parisienne woman (Patterns of Discovery, p. 11), which can be seen in different ways. Hanson drew the distinction between 'seeing as' and 'seeing that' which became a key idea in evolving theories of perception and meaning. He wanted to formulate a logic explaining how scientific discoveries take place. He used Charles Peirce's notion of abduction for this [1].

Thomas Samuel Kuhn followed up Hanson's work when creating the revolutionary The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) which challenged the existing empirical methods of scientific theory development. Both the work of Kuhn and Hanson were in criticism of empiricism. In the same period, Hanson championed another departure from tradition: He rejected the traditional distinction between History of Science and Philosophy of Science, two divergent fields at the time. Hanson insisted that proper study of one demanded a deep understanding of the other – an interdisciplinary view that has since won general acceptance.

Hanson's other books include The Concept of the Positron (1963). Hanson was a staunch defender of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which regards questions such as "Where was the particle before I measured its position?" as meaningless. The philosophical issues involved were important elements in Hanson's views of perception and epistemology. He was intrigued by paradoxes, and with the related concepts of uncertainty, unprovability, and incompleteness; he sought cognition models that could embrace these elements, rather than simply explain them away.

Posthumous works include What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays (1971) and Constellations and Conjectures (1973). He is also known for the essays What I Do Not Believe and The Agnostic's Dilemma, among other writings on belief systems.

From Michael Scriven's preface to Hanson's posthumous Perception and Discovery:

In a general sense Hanson continues the application of the Wittgensteinian approach to the philosophy of science, as Waissman and Toumin have also done. But he goes much further than they, exploring questions about perception and discovery in more detail, and...tying in the history of science for exemplification and for its own benefit. Hanson was one of the rare thinkers in the tradition of Whewell – a man he much admired – who could really benefit from and yield benefits for both the history and philosophy of science.


The story of Hanson's short life is colorful. He studied trumpet with the legendary William Vacchiano and played at Carnegie Hall; but his musical career was interrupted by WWII. He enlisted in the Coast Guard, later transferring to the Marine Corps where he trained as a fighter pilot, developing a reputation as a 'hot pilot' (famously looping the Golden Gate Bridge) and later serving on the ill-fated USS Franklin in the VF-452 squadron; his was the last plane off 'Big Ben.' After flying over 2,000 hours, he returned to civilian life, but decided to seek an education via the G.I. Bill rather than continuing a life in music. He took degrees from the University of Chicago and Columbia University, and then proceeded with his new wife Fay to the UK in 1949, under a Fulbright Scholarship. He completed multiple degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge, and then stayed on in the remarkable world of post-war Britain to continue teaching and writing.

Hanson left the life of a Cambridge Don to return to the U.S. in 1957, founding the Indiana University Department of History and Philosophy of Science, the first of its kind, and receiving a Fellowship at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. In 1963, Hanson moved to Yale University. He also continued to fly – an AT-6 Texan trainer, and later a Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat. His unusual style and personal history, including his aerobatics over the Yale Bowl and at airshows as "The Flying Professor," were noted by a generation of students – including John Kerry (who nearly emulated Hanson's legendary Golden Gate stunt). His time at Yale was strained by campus politics, where he was caught in the midst of an infamous tenure fight over Yale's 'Publish or Perish' doctrine. Hanson died in 1967, when his Bearcat crashed in dense fog en route to Ithaca, New York. He was survived by wife Fay and children Trevor (b. 1955) and Leslie (b. 1958).

His rich, complex life – ranging from Golden Gloves boxing to drawing illustrations for Homer's Iliad; from camping on a Harley-Davidson to testifying before the U.S. Senate; from tough city youth to distinguished scholarship – was cut short at the age of 42, with ten books in progress, including a history of aerodynamic theory.


  • Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1958. ISBN 0-521-05197-5.
  • The Concept of the Positron. Cambridge University Press, 1963. ISBN 0-521-05198-3.
  • Perception and Discovery: An Introduction to Scientific Inquiry. Freeman, Cooper & Co., 1969 [Wadsworth, 1970]. ISBN 0-87735-509-6.
  • Observation and Explanation: a guide to philosophy of science (Harper essays in philosophy) Harper & Row, 1971. ISBN 0-06-131575-3.
  • What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays (Synthese Library) ( Toulmin/Woolf, eds.). D. Reidel, 1971. ISBN 90-277-0191-1.
  • Constellations and Conjectures [Humphries, ed.]. D. Reidel, 1973. ISBN 90-277-0192-X.


  1. Schwendtner, Tibor and Ropolyi, László and Kiss, Olga (eds): Hermeneutika és a természettudományok. Áron Kiadó, Budapest, 2001. It is written in Hungarian. Meaning of the title: Hermeneutics and the natural sciences.


Thomas J. Hickey, History of Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Science. Brief biography of Hanson – The semantics of discovery

Weiland, Charles Patrick, Above & Beyond. I Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7434-7982-3 [prior: Pacifica Press, 1997. ISBN 0-935553-22-3]. Recent memoir, by Hanson's WWII commanding officer, of his squadron's fate on USS Franklin. Many anecdotes about Hanson – e.g. a reprimand for 'flathatting' a military airfield scant feet over the runway...while flying inverted – but also factual errors on Hanson's military and subsequent career.

Michael Kranish et al., John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By The Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best. PublicAffairs, 2004. ISBN 1-58648-273-4. Remarks about connection between Hanson and John Kerry

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