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Brief Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science

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Essay title: Brief Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science



Writing a historical account of the development of Philosophy of science is quite a task to fulfill. It confronts at least two problems. First, the philosophy of science as an academic discipline is fairly new. Few historians attempt to write about its history yet. Secondly, these few historians do not agree on the nature and scope of philosophy of science. A coherent understanding of the scope of the philosophy of science is a precondition for writing about its history. Consequently, the writers differ in their historical accounts. R. Harre, for example, in his article History of Philosophy Science in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, begins his account the controversies that took place between Whewell and Mill in the second quarter of the nineteenth century .

J. Losee, however, in his book A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (1993) finds the need to include the works of Euclid, Archimedes, and the classical atomists, among others . Other writers would simply fulfill the task by selecting from significant scientists of the nineteenth century like P. Duhem, E. Mach and H. Poincare . Several authors, however, agree to limit the understanding of the philosophy of science as a twentieth century event that owes its beginnings to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle . This chapter adopts the limited and strict concept of philosophy of science, but, in tracing its history, includes the precursors in the nineteenth century.


Epistemology refers to that philosophical investigation on the nature of human Understanding. It is also called the general theory of knowledge. Questions such as: 'can we know? ', 'Can we know for certain? ', 'How do we know? ', Are asked in epistemology. Philosophy of science is an offshoot of epistemology. Current bibliographies and indices classify this new philosophical field as a special branch of epistemology. Its investigation is focused strictly and specifically on scientific knowledge, according to the modern understanding of science, formalized into scientific laws and theories. It takes for its subject-matter all empirical sciences, their methods and language. Its growth as another field of philosophical investigation comes from the realization that there are logical, epistemological and metaphysical problems peculiar to empirical sciences.

One may say that the distinction between epistemology and philosophy of science is that the former is broad in scope while the latter is not. Epistemology includes all kinds of knowledge, both ordinary and laboratory experience, while philosophy of science refers only to empirical knowledge. It might create the impression, therefore, that philosophy of science is less complicated than epistemology. On the contrary, the very source of the difficulty in defining philosophy of science is that its problems are both too general and too special. Problems, for example, on methodology, facts and theories can either be metaphysical or epistemological, ontological or logical. A. Danto acknowledges the difficulty of drawing boundaries to strictly separate philosophy of science from philosophy, science and history of science .

Current discussions and debate between relativists and positivists bring different notions of the nature of philosophy of science . The understanding of its nature will continue to develop as discussions and debates continue. For the moment, this study understands philosophy of science as an attempt to reconstruct the principles by means of which the pursuit of science might be possible as an activity whose methods are suitable to attain its goals, whatever they might be. Otherwise, science cannot properly be regarded as a rational activity . It seeks to show in which this rationality lies, what marks it off from guesswork and pseudo-science and makes its predictions and technologies worthy of confidence, and whether its theories can be taken to reveal the truth about a hidden objective reality . More discussion will be undertaken when this study deals with its history.


1.2.1 The Precursors

What is the nature of scientific knowledge? Does it consist in observation or in theories? Before discussing logical positivism, a short examination will be made on the way in which the nineteenth century philosophers and scientists dealt with the problem. J.S. Mill (1806-73), following the Humean tradition, holds the empiricist view that the material of all knowledge is provided by experience. The aim of science, therefore, is

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