Cumulativism (from Latin cumulatio – increase, perfection) is the fundamental principle of classical epistemology, according to which the progress of science consists in adding new unchanging truths to an array of previously acquired knowledge. In this case, the new one does not represent a change in previously acquired knowledge but is only an increment and addition to it.
Thus, the truths discovered in the past form an integral part of modern science. The discovery of new truths and the proof of their absolute truth (irrefutability) was guaranteed by the correct application of the scientific method – the logic of discovery and the logic of the justification. The epistemological basis of cumulativism was descriptive natural science (mineralogy, botany, etc.) and mathematics. In the history of philosophy and science, cumulativism is represented by two main branches, originating in the teachings of Descartes and Bacon. Both these directions (rationalism and empiricism) for all their differences have two common features:
- denial of the previous tradition; and
- replacing it with a new tradition based on a genuine method.
The Carthusians depicted the growth of science as a consequence of the development of certain truths underlying scientific knowledge. The inductive model of cumulativism, presented by Bacon and his followers, boiled down to the discovery of indisputable facts and the correct generalizations based on them. Since cumulativism identified science with proven knowledge, the errors were not considered as a necessary part of its progress. This circumstance had a negative impact on the historiography of science, which until recently did not take into account the complex dialectic of truth and error, assigning to it the role of a secondary psychological factor.
Cumulativism was questioned at the beginning of the 20th century in connection with the emergence of non-cumulative concepts based on the denial of the classical concept of truth (instrumentalism, conventionalism, verificationism, confirmationism). An important role in the displacement of cumulativism was played by the concepts of scientific revolutions, developed by philosophers and historians of science. Cumulativism should be distinguished from the evolutionary approach that goes back to Leibniz, who does not break with tradition coming from antiquity but draws the modern state of science as the historical completion of its previous states. At the same time, the evolutionary model is not limited to the continuous building up of only true knowledge, but also includes probable (plausible) knowledge and errors, which are gradually overcome by the method of historical criticism. Unlike cumulativism, evolutionism represents the progress of science as a historical process.