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French philosophy of science

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 30, 2023, from

Article Summary

A distinctively French tradition in the philosophy of science began with Descartes, continued through the Enlightenment in works such as D’Alembert’s Discours préliminaire and the Encyclopédie, and flowered in the ninteenth and the early twentieth century with the work of Comte, Duhem, Meyerson and Poincaré. Throughout the twentieth century, the dominant fashions in French philosophy derived more and more from German influences, especially idealism and phenomenology (Hegel to Heidegger). But amidst these developments, there persisted an essentially autonomous tradition of French philosophy of science that offered an indigenous alternative to the Germanic imports. Here the key figure was Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962), for many years professor at the Sorbonne and director of the Institut d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques. His work was continued and modified by Georges Canguilhem (1904–95), his successor at the Institute, who himself was an important influence on philosophers such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and Michel Serres. Jean Cavaillès’ critique of Husserl’s philosophy of mathematics and his effort to develop a neo-Hegelian alternative to it had deep affinities with Bachelard’s work and was also an important influence on Canguilhem.

The most important general features of twentieth-century French philosophy of science appear if we contrast it with its two major rivals: existential phenomenology and logical positivism. Existential phenomenology is a ‘philosophy of the subject’, maintaining that ultimate truth resides in the immediacy of lived experience. Bachelard and his followers, by contrast, proposed a ‘philosophy of the concept’, for which experiential immediacy is subordinate to and corrected by concepts produced by rational reflection. This process of rational reflection is, moreover, embodied in science, which is not, as existential phenomenology maintains, a derivative and incomplete form of knowing, but the very paradigm of knowledge. In giving science a privileged epistemic position, the French philosophers of science are like the logical positivists. But, unlike the positivists, they treat science as essentially historical, irreducible in either method or content to the rigour of a formal system. They also opposed the positivists’ effort to find the foundations of scientific knowledge in sense experience, maintaining that there are no simply given data and that all experience is informed by conceptual interpretation.

Citing this article:
Gutting, Gary. French philosophy of science, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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