Historical Turn in the Philosophy of Science

Various scientists, philosophers, and laypeople have regarded science as the only human enterprise that successfully escapes the contingencies of history to establish eternal truths about the universe through a special and rational method of investigation. Historians oppose this view. In the 1960s, several historically informed philosophers of science challenged the then-dominant accounts of the scientific method advanced by Popperians and positivists (the positivists and logical empiricists) as not conforming to historical, scientific practice and failing to take account of significant scientific change.

The “Battle of the Great Systems” of the 1960s and 1970s, involving historicists such as Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Larry Laudan, finally gave way to a realist reaction, as many philosophers rejected the perceived skepticism and potential relativism of the historicist movement, now reinforced by the new wave sociology of science. The 1990s featured the so-called Science Wars, as philosophers attempted to defend truth, rationality, objectivity, and scientific progress from the perceived threats of science and technology studies inspired by rapidly developing sociology and postmodern influences.

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was the original manifesto of the historicist philosophy of science and remained the main reference point. Kuhn believed that “history is seen as a repository of something more than anecdote or chronology, which could produce a decisive transformation in the science picture we possess.” Thus, his work provides the most helpful platform for recounting early historicist efforts and their difficulties.

Kuhn modeled the history of science as a succession of dogmatic periods of “normal science” under one “paradigm,” separated by “revolutionary” transitions to the next paradigm. A new paradigm introduces changes at all levels, from the established databases and instrumentation to the conceptual framework, objectives, standards, institutional organization, and research culture. Some older professionals need help to recognize the new paradigm in their field. According to Kuhn, such a break with the past rejuvenates an area that had stagnated under the weight of anomalies that it no longer seemed to have the resources to resolve.

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