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    History and Philosophy of Science - Recommended Reading

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    • 06/30/2005

    By Paul Newall (2005)

    There are plenty of works in the history and philosophy of science worth studying, but perhaps too many to know where to start. This introduction gives an historical overview, explaining the relevance of some of the better-known tomes.

    Philosophy of Science:

    There are several excellent textbooks at undergraduate or higher level in the philosophy of science. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, edited by Curd and Cover, Philosophy of Science, edited by Boyd, Gaspar and Trout, and A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, edited by W.H. Newton-Smith, are standard works and well worth investing in.

    What is this Thing called Science?, by Alan Chalmers, is a nice introductory level work suitable for beginners. In a lively and easily understood style, he covers problems in the philosophy of science in their historical development and some of the more recent controversies. Another excellent introduction for laymen is John Ziman's Real Science.

    The Philosophy of Physics, edited by Roberto Torretti, is a thorough textbook on the philosophical issues of importance within Physics, while The Philosophy of Biology, edited by David L. Hull and Michael Ruse, does likewise for Biology.

    Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery has been called one of the most important philosophical works of the twentieth century. Popper discussed the problem of induction (how to justify inductive inferences) and the demarcation problem; that is, the question of how we decide which theories are scientific and which are not. In the early chapters he considers and criticises the idea that science proceeds by using the experimental results of particular tests to make general conclusions about laws (induction), moving on later in the book to propose his alternative (and solution to the demarcation problem); falsification. According to Popper, what makes a theory scientific is that it can be wrong: we can specify an experiment that, if unsuccessful, would lead us to reject the theory.

    In Conjectures and Refutations, a more accessible work for a general audience, several essays by Popper expand upon his thinking. By making bold conjectures - "sticking our necks out" - and in turn trying to refute - "falsify" - them, our knowledge of the world grows. Although these and his other ideas were subject to vigorous criticism from other philosophers of science for years to come, reading Popper can put the issues into context and help gain an appreciation of where he fell short.

    Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is perhaps the best-known work in HPS. One of the first to apply a study of history to problems within the philosophy of science, Kuhn looked at the possibility of giving a rational account of theory change; that is, why have some theories replaced others over time? Some philosophers thought (and think) that we can explain theory change in a progressive way by saying that theories are supplanted by better ones (whether that means more parsimonious, truthlike, instrumentally successful, or any of the other proposed ways to demarcate between theories). Kuhn demonstrated that social factors have an important role to play in analysing the history and philosophy of science, using the term paradigm to refer to the way in which commonly held concepts, theories and practices can become entrenched, such that a theory being "better" than the alternatives is not enough to immediately overturn the investment of time, effort, conviction, and so on, that has been put into the orthodoxy.

    Kuhn's work led to the development of the field of SSK (the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge) and a general broadening of the philosophy of science to include all those factors (aesthetic, social, thematic, political, rhetorical) that had traditionally been ignored or had their importance minimised. It helped that he was already known as the author of The Copernican Revolution, acknowledged as a masterpiece within the history of science. This account of the rise and development of Heliocentrism forever replaced the mythical tale of reason against dogmatism with a sophisticated appreciation of how theory, experiment, theology, society and politics interacted. The significance of Kuhn remains this legacy of the sheer complexity of scientific practice.

    Long recognised as having an importance belied by the comparatively small number of works he produced, Imre Lakatos' The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes was his contribution to problems of theory change and demarcation criteria considered by Kuhn, Feyerabend and others. A veritable masterpiece of historical scholarship and philosophical theory, he suggested that theories should not be considered via dichotomies like confirmed or refuted, scientific or non-scientific, but instead as part of research programmes that could be thought of as degenerating or advancing as a whole. In this way, he hoped to account for the history of theories like atomism that had been proposed and rejected repeatedly over time. An overview of one aspect of his thought is here.

    One of the least understood and most frequently maligned books in the philosophy of science is Paul Feyerabend's Against Method. Again employing the historical method, Feyerabend showed that all forms of the so-called "scientific method" had been violated - usually on several occasions - by scientists in the past when coming up with and developing their theories. This meant that a rigid insistence on the methods suggested by scientists and philosophers of science alike would have resulted in the early death of many theories we now consider important. He asked the inevitable question: should scientists get rid of the restrictive ideas on scientific method or should the scientists of old have abandoned their theories? The only "method" that could take account of the history of science would be "anything goes", which is no method at all. By means of this reductio ad absurdum, he arrived at the now-standard conclusion that there is no such thing as scientific method. His Philosophical Papers (volumes 1, 2 and 3) expanded on this and other issues within the philosophy of science.

    In Progress and Its Problems, Larry Laudan attempted to build a model of scientific progress while being critical of the relativism he saw in those who he considered to have given up too quickly while trying to account for theory change. In Science and Relativism he offered more objections to "relativists" like Quine, Kuhn and Feyerabend. It is interesting to read these philosophers and compare their actual words to Laudan's readings of them. In particular, the works are useful insofar as they show how widespread the charge of relativism has become in the philosophy of science and how easily is it misapplied.

    The Disunity of Science, edited by Perter Galison and David J. Stump, is concerned with its subtitle: boundaries, contexts and power. Taking as a starting point the idea that science is not a unified enterprise, the contributors explore the consequences in a series of papers covering the philosophy and sociology of science.

    How Experiments End, also by Peter Galison, is the classic study of research and how it is done. Through three different case studies, in which he examines sources previously unavailable to historians and philosophers of science such as notebooks and the minutes of meetings, he develops a fascinating study of the institutional, philosophical and other factors that influence scientists. Galilson also contributed to Buchwald's Scientific Practice, a collection of essays on the subject that again considers boundary conditions and the limitations of researchers and their ostensive objectivity. An illustrative example of the work going on into the sociological influences in science is Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: Sociological History of Particle Physics. For the political dimension of science, The Politics of Pure Science, by Daniel Greenberg, is a famous monograph discussing the myriad political influences exerted by and on science.

    Critical Scientific Realism, by Illka Niiniluoto, explains the problem of realism and critiques many strands of anti-realism while proposing his own solution. He looks at the use of the concept of truth within science and how we can measure the verisimilitude or truthlikeness of a theory. This is a work of great philosophical sophistication.

    Bas van Fraassen's Laws and Symmetry and Nancy Cartwight's The Dappled World are two of the most trenchant and impressive philosophical critiques of the idea of natural laws in science. From differing perspectives they ask whether it is possible or meaningful to speak of laws and if we are ever justified in so doing. Another work by van Frassen is his Images of Science, a collection of responses to his ideas along with his rejoinders which covers many areas of the current debate between realists and anti-realists.

    Arranged by Matteo Motterlini, For and Against Method is a collection of letters and short papers by Lakatos and Feyerabend which gives an introduction to the historical approach. More importantly, perhaps, it grants a valuable insight into the personalities involved in the philosophy of science from roughly the turn of the twentieth century - few of which escape the pair's acid wit or withering critique. An evolutionary perspective is taken in David L. Hull's Science as a Process, which is an interesting blend of philosophy, biology, sociology and psychology. A good introduction to the philosophy of social science is Benton and Craib's.

    History of Science:

    According to Imre Lakatos:

    Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

    With that in mind, the following are some general works in the history of science that also involve the philosophy of science and make clear the interdependence of the two.

    The Companion to the History of Modern Science, with various editors, is a massive tome covering many different issues in the history of science. It includes interesting essays also on historiography and the philosophy of science, and how all three relate. Although expensive, its scope is unrivalled.

    The Enterprise of Science in Islam is a volume edited by A.I. Sabra and Jan P. Hogendijk. The former is the leading expert on Islamic science and this collection provides a valuable insight into the development of science within the Islamic Empire and subsequently.

    If any work can suffice on its own to explain the history and development of Chinese science, Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, of which this is the shorter version, edited by Ronan (volume 2) is it. There is no way to characterise it other than as a masterpiece, the fruit of a lifetime of dedication. The encyclopaedic scope makes the clear the sheer depth of science in China and the magnitude of Chinese achievements.

    Herbert Butterfield's The Origins of Modern Science was a standard textbook for many years and he was keen to emphasise the dangers of anachronism and a Whig interpretation of history. It is useful as a general history or just to see where the history of science has changed in its interpretations of science past.

    David C. Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science surveys both ancient and medieval science. He covers strands within the history of science, such as astronomy, mechanics, optics (on which he has written several other works) and medicine, amongst others, as well as looking at the importance of religion and institutions.

    The Construction of Modern Science is Richard S. Westfall's study of the development of science via the consideration of two prevailing themes: the understanding of the universe in geometric terms that began in Ancient Greece, and the Mechanical Philosophy that came and went with the fortunes of atomism until its reinvigoration with Descartes and others. In Westfall's account, the interplay between these two opposing ontologies created a problem that needed to be solved by the Scientific Revolution.

    Like Westfall and Lindberg, Edward Grant is also a highly respected historian of science. His The Foundations of Modern Science covers similar ground but he lays emphasis on the transmission (through translation) of Ancient Greek ideas through Islamic civilisation, as well as the role of the universities. It is interesting to use compare the (discontinuity) thesis that the Scientific Revolution was precisely that - a revolution in the history of ideas´┐Żwith the (continuity) alternative found in this work (and others) that sees the eventual revolution as the result of a continuous development over the years.

    The Rise of Scientific Europe, edited by Goodman and Russell, is out of print but a good work to search for. It is used as a textbook for undergraduate courses in the UK and covers the development of science from the Ancient Greeks to the Chemical Revolution. It stresses the importance of Islamic and Chinese science, as well as science "on the fringes of Europoe" in places like Sweden and Scotland´┐Żareas underrepresented generally within the history of science.

    Stillman Drake is acknowledged as an expert on Galileo, with an encyclopaedic knowledge. His Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo remains the best one-volume consideration of the old master, setting his achievements into their philosophical and historical context. Anyone wishing to understand the role of Galileo in the history and philosophy of science has to work their way through Drake's oeuvre.

    I. Bernard Cohen's The Birth of a New Physics explained the historical development of physics, focusing in particular on Newton and his mechanics. In doing so, he assumed no knowledge of physics in the reader and set out the principles and problems involved in plain language with plenty of figures, illustrations and descriptions in everyday terms. The result was a highly enjoyable study that proved popular with readers at all levels. Another of his works was Revolution in Science, a monumental study of the many revolutions in science, well and less well known, asking and answering the question of whether we are justified in so calling them.

    John Henry's The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science is used as an undergraduate university set text and gives a nice overview of current scholarship within the history of science. In particular, he provides a bibliography of literally hundreds of works that are referred to by number in the earlier chapter, giving students a huge resource to work through to expand on any areas of interest.

    Alexandre Koyre's From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe interpreted the Scientific Revolution as a conceptual revolution, the geometer's closed world of concentric circles and fixed stars centred on the Earth giving way to an infinite universe. This is the history of science recast as the history of ideas and benefiting from it.

    The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics is Max Jammer's magnum opus, covering the quantum theory from an historical perspective. All of Jammer's works are excellent resources, particularly his studies of the development - philosophical and otherwise - of important concepts within physics, such as mass, space and force.

    Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, by Gerald Holton, is a masterpiece of history and philosophy of science that ushered in a new way of looking at the development of science. Holton was concerned with the role of themata, examples of which include pairs like continuous/discontinuous, simple/complex, uniform/non-uniform - those fundamental presuppositions that scientists (and others) use, both now and in the past, to guide their work. According to Holton, the commitment to these can and does outweigh any allegiance to philosophical theories or experiment. By analysing case studies throughout the history of science, he demonstrated that scientists ignored, wilfully or otherwise, both theoretical and empirical objections to their theories because of an unwavering conviction that the universe just is one way (simple, for example) rather than another. An experiment that shows otherwise, then, could be assumed to be not as important as it would otherwise seem because eventually a mistake would be discovered as the ultimate character of the universe would stand unbowed. The power of this way of looking at the history of science became still clearer over his many subsequent works.

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