Science, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q120-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 07, 2020, from

1. Historical background and introduction

Science grew out of philosophy; and, even after recognizable, if flexible, interdisciplinary boundaries developed, the most fruitful philosophical investigations have often been made in close connection with science and scientific advance. The major modern innovators – Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz and Locke among them – were all centrally influenced by, and in some cases significantly contributed to, the science of their day. Kant’s fundamental epistemological problem was generated by the success of science: we have obtained certain knowledge, both in mathematics and – principally due to Newton – in science, how was this possible? Unsurprisingly, many thinkers who are principally regarded as great scientists, had exciting and insightful views on the aims of science and the methods of obtaining scientific knowledge. One can only wonder why the epistemological views of Galileo and of Newton, for example, are not taught along with those of Bacon and Locke, say, in courses on the history of modern philosophy. Certainly it can be argued very convincingly that the former two had at least as much insight into the aims and methods of science, and into how scientific knowledge is gained and accredited as the latter two (see Galilei, G. §3; Newton, I. §§2–3; also see Boyle, R.; Copernicus, N.; Kepler, J.).

In the nineteenth century, Maxwell, Hertz and Helmholz all had interesting views about explanation and the foundations of science, while Poincaré who was undoubtedly one of the greatest mathematicians and mathematical physicists, was arguably also one of the greatest philosophers of science – developing important and influential views about, amongst other things, the nature of theories and hypotheses, explanation, and the role of probability theory both within science and as an account of scientific reasoning (also see Duhem, P.M.M.; French philosophy of science; Le Roy, É.; Meyerson, É.; Science, 19th century philosophy of).

The period from the 1920s to 1950s is sometimes seen as involving a movement towards more formal issues to the exclusion of detailed concern with the scientific process itself (see Logical positivism). While this has been over-exaggerated – Carnap, Hempel, Popper and especially Reichenbach for example all show sophisticated awareness of a range of issues from contemporary science (also see Bridgman, P.W.; Operationalism) – there is no doubt that general attention in philosophy of science has been redirected back to the details of science, and in particular of its historical development, by ‘post-positivist’ philosophers such as Hanson, Feyerabend, Kuhn, Lakatos and others.

Current philosophy of science has developed this great tradition, addressing many of the now standard philosophical issues – about knowledge, the nature of reality, determinism and indeterminism and so on – but by paying very close attention to science both as an exemplar of knowledge and as a source of (likely) information about the world. This means that there is inevitably much overlap with other areas of philosophy – notably epistemology (the theory of scientific knowledge is of course a central concern of philosophy of science) and metaphysics (which philosophers of science often shun as an attempted a priori discipline but welcome when it is approached as an investigation of what current scientific theories and practices seem to be telling us about the likely structure of the universe). Indeed one way of usefully dividing up the subject would see scientific epistemology and what might be called scientific metaphysics as two of the main branches of the subject (these two together in turn forming what might be called general philosophy of science), with the third branch consisting of more detailed, specific investigations into foundational issues concerned with particular scientific fields or particular scientific theories (especial, though by no means exclusive, attention having been paid of late to foundational and interpretative issues in quantum theory and the Darwinian theory of evolution). Again not surprisingly, important contributions have been made in this third sub-field by scientists themselves who have reflected carefully and challengingly on their own work and its foundations (see Bohr, N.; Darwin, C.R.; Einstein, A.; Heisenberg, W.; Planck, M.), as well as by those who are more usually considered philosophers.

Citing this article:
Worrall, John. Historical background and introduction. Science, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q120-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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