“History of science without philosophy of science is blind, philosophy of science without history of science is empty”

I agree with the above thesis statement. In modern academia, however, there is unfortunately stubborn opposition from historians and philosophers alike to learn from each other.

Consider first the second half of the title statement. This ought to be a truism at least concerning questions of methodology and theory choice. Surely the authority of philosophy of science to issue normative prescriptions must stem from its ability to explain the past success of science. Indeed, what grounds could there possibly be for calling something philosophy of science if it did not in fact agree with actual science?

But even this assumption has been challenged. Giere (1973) argues passionately that the history of science is irrelevant. Philosophy of science, he claims, need only agree with current science, not its history (e.g., pp. 286–287). I disagree for two reasons. First, virtually all philosophers trace their interest in the philosophy of science to the epistemologically unique status of science, and this status is conferred upon it precisely by its past success. Were it not for this past success, the methodology of contemporary scientists would be of no more interest than that of astrologers. Second, Giere’s dichotomy between past and present science is absurd. Without, e.g., Newtonian mechanics, modern science would collapse like a house of cards. Thus, if a philosophical model of methodology and theory choice cannot explain past science then it cannot explain modern science either, no matter how well it may fit the choices made by contemporary scientists.

History is naturally less important beyond questions of methodology and theory choice. I think Kuhn (2000) makes a compelling point when he says of the historical trend in philosophy of science that “one can reach many of the central conclusions we drew with scarcely a glance at the historical record itself” (p. 111). What is needed is not actual history, but the realisation that science is in its essence evolutionary. A scientific theory is not a static set of propositions that can be understood absolutely and atemporally. Theories are judged only comparatively. A number of well-known implications follow (difficulties for truth and realism, possibility of incommensurability, etc.) which are usually attributed to a historical approach.

Giere, however, rejects even this modest glance at history. Since textbooks are ahistorical, he argues, it is clearly possible to understand science atemporally (p. 293). History still has much to teach to philosophers who are this narrow-minded, for textbooks severely misrepresent not only history but also the very nature of scientific knowledge. Countless examples could be given but two must suffice for lack of space.

(a) Textbooks tell us that scientific theories are confirmed by measurement, but this naive view is untenable since there is no a priori standard for what constitutes reasonable fit with data: history shows that one person’s confirmation is another’s refutation (Kuhn (1961), e.g., pp. 185, 193-194), in agreement with Kuhn’s point above.

(b) Textbooks tell us that scientific theories are constructed to fit data, whereas history shows on the contrary that often “nature itself needs to be forced to yield the appropriate [data]” by “the quantitative implications of a qualitative theory [leading] the way” (Kuhn (1961), pp. 197–198).

*     *     *

The question of what philosophy can do for history of science may profitably be thought of by means of an analogy with science itself. This analogy has been employed by historians and scientists alike. Richards (1992), speaking for the historians, quotes with approval the saying that a historian “must possess sufficient self-command to abstain from casting his facts in the mould of his hypothesis” (p. 484). Philosophy must be avoided, for its dangerous “moulds” disfigure the facts.

The irony of such statements coming from historians of science is obvious, especially in light of (b). As Laudan (1990) puts it:

“If the study of science has taught the rest of the world any lessons, it is that the most interesting research emerges from the interplay of theory and observation and that any effort sharply to separate the two is doomed. Yet, when it comes to their own craft, historians of science seem to exhibit the same suspicious resistance to engaging in theoretical issues which was once associated in the natural sciences with narrow-minded Baconian inductivists.” (p. 54)

Indeed, the potential fruitfulness of philosophical theories for historical research is widely emphasised by philosophers such as Laudan, Lakatos (1970), Worrall (1976), pp. 169, 173–174, etc.

One person conspicuously absent from this list is Kuhn. Kuhn (1980) partly agrees (p. 184) but has reservations:

“The historian’s problem is not simply that the facts do not speak for themselves but that, unlike the scientist’s data, they speak exceedingly softly. Quiet is required if they are to be heard at all.” (p. 183)

For this reason “the historian can usually make a case” no matter what his thesis (p. 183). This invincibility of philosophy is also emphasised by Richards: “you can never quite tell when a philosophical theory has died; it seems embalmed from the beginning so as to prevent rot” (p. 485).

But where are these mummified theories that cheat death by remoulding the facts? No examples are provided, so we must guess. Lakatos, perhaps? Does he fudge the facts? No, he admits openly that the facts do not fit, and makes no attempt to remould them in the mighty forge of the philosophical underworld. Is the problem, then, that history speaks too softly, her gentle whispers being drowned out by this bombastic philosopher? Hardly. I have yet to meet anyone who denies hearing history’s piercing shrieks of horror at the sight of Lakatos’ rational reconstructions. It seems clear that Lakatos could not make a case, and that his theory has died. What, then, are the historians so afraid of?

I suspect that the real reason for the aversion to philosophy among historians is that they are simply uninterested in the questions philosophers ask. Philosophers will be interested to know, for example, why first-rate scientists pursued alchemy, and how this squares with our understanding of science. But when we read the leading historian on the matter we are told that it would be “inappropriate” to ask such questions. On the contrary, it is “judicious,” we read, to “guard against such unnecessary explanatory exuberance.” (Principe (2000), p. 181.) Our judicious guardian does not explicate what infernal scenarios would ensue should we fall pray to exuberance, that vice of vices.


GIERE, R. N. (1973). History and Philosophy of Science: Intimate Relationship or Marriage of Convenience? The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 24(3), 282–297.

KUHN, T. S. (1961). The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science. Isis, 52(2), 161–193. Page references are to the reprint in Kuhn (1979).

KUHN, T. S. (1979). The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. University Of Chicago Press.

KUHN, T. S. (1980). The Halt and the Blind: Philosophy and History of Science. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 31(2), 181–192.

KUHN, T. S. (2000). The Road Since Structure. University of Chicago Press.

LAKATOS, I. (1970). History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 91–136.

LAUDAN, L. (1990). The History of Science and the Philosophy of Science. In J. R. R. C. R. C. Olby, G. N. Cantor & M. J. S. Hodge, eds., Companion to the History of Modern Science, ch. 4, 47–59. Routledge.

PRINCIPE, L. (2000). The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest. Princeton University Press.

RICHARDS, R. J. (1992). Arguments in a Sartorial Mode, or the Asymmetries of History and Philosophy of Science. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 2, 482–489.

WORRALL, J. (1976). Thomas Young and the ‘refutation’ of Newtonian optics: a case study in the interaction of philosophy of science and history of science. In C. Howson, ed., Method and Appraisal in the Physical Sciences, 107–179. Cambridge University Press.