History and Philosophy of Science


Historians and philosophers of science use many different tools to understand howscience works, that is, how scientific claims are formulated, tested, and adopted within a community. By definition, it is an interdisciplinary field, in which historical and philosophical methods complement and reinforce each other, to answer many basic questions about the scientific enterprise: How are scientific claims made and adopted? What is “scientific knowledge”? What counted as “scientific knowledge” in the past? How has science been practiced in the past, and how does past scientific practice differ from today? Is there really a “Scientific Method”? Are there limits to scientific knowledge?

Historians of science can focus on many different areas, including the history of ideas and theory, the development of experimental techniques and apparatus, the broader social and institutional setting of scientific work. Topics range in time from ancient Babylonia to twentieth century particle physics. Historians of science are interested diverse questions about the nature of past scientifice enquiry: What constituted “science” in ancient Greece? During the Middle Ages? The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? The twentieth century? Was there a Scientific Revolution? More recently, historians of science have begun to use the tools of sociology to look at the social interactions among groups of scientists. Historical analysis reveals the various theoretical, social and cultural factors that go into the “construction” of theories, and show that the existence of scientific theories is usually transient and fleeting. The history of science is literally the history of false theories about nature. These “false” theories have been replaced with our own, and our own theories in turn will be replaced with “better” ones. One of the aims of historians of science is to understand how scientists decide why one theory is “better” than another.

Philosophers of science are concerned primarily with the structure of scientific theories themselves, independent of historical content. They are interested in dissecting theories into component parts and showing how these parts work together to make remarkable claims about the world. They look at ontological issues (questions about the nature of existence) and epistemological issues (questions about the foundations of knowledge), the nature of evidence (how and why do experiments support theory, or what is an experiment?), and the manner in which a theory as body of knowledge is constructed. Philosophical analysis allows us to see how claims in science are constructed, tested, altered, or adapted to particular uses, and reveals striking commonalities in the claims of theories as diverse as biological evolution and particle physics.

As this short description would suggest, history and philosophy of science are not necessarily separate enterprises but closely related disciplines. Historians emphasize the science of the past and are interested in understanding the process of constructing and adopting scientific claims in their intellectual, institutional and cultural context. Philosophers usually focus on the construction of the final theory, putting less emphasis on the historical process of construction, but use examples from the past or present to illustrate their claims. Historians and philosophers (and increasingly, sociologists) of science freely borrow methods and techniques from each other, and in some cases, individual studies are difficult to place in one category or another.