Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science

This NWO-funded research programme focuses on the assumptions and methodology of the writing of history of science. History of science is in many respects a flourishing discipline: it currently yields an impressive volume of studies. Systematic reflection about the ways in which history of science may and ought to be written, however, has not kept pace with this growth.

James McAllister

Conceptual Problems

This programme will formulate three conceptual problems of historiography of science and propose new solutions to them. First, how should the resistance of the world to scientists’ theories be conceptualized in historical accounts of science? Second, is it possible to provide a basis for assessments of past science in terms of adequacy and validity, without relinquishing the sensitivity of the best historiography of science? Third, how is it possible to reconcile the intuition that scientific knowledge can transcend the conditions of its production with the acknowledgement of the contingent and contextual nature of scientific work?


Historiography of science is the practice of writing history of science. The historiography of science has undergone profound development since the 1950s. Some milestones are the following.

First, the realization of the heuristic utility of assuming that the present state of science shows a degree of historical arbitrariness, so that teleological elements are removed from the narrative.

Second, and relatedly, the realization of the importance of attending not only to "winners" but also to "losers", without assuming at the outset that the "losers" lost because of mistakes, lack of rationality, or bad faith.

Third, the anti-Whiggish emphasis on the use of "actors’ categories" in historical interpretation, more recently coupled with an— extremely welcome—acknowledgement that history of science is always written for present-day readers and must be intelligible to them.

Fourth, the overcoming of the schema in which science is distinct from and is influenced by a social context, and the exploration of new accounts that portray solutions to technical-scientific problems as simultaneously solutions to political-social problems.

Fifth, the establishment of university departments of history of science and of science studies, which helped to distance the discipline from the sciences whose history was studied.

Sixth, the rise, alongside the traditional histories of ideas, instruments, and institutions, of histories of new entities, especially of material objects, of practices, and of cultures.

Seventh, the use of categories and insights from other disciplines, including anthropology, cultural studies, rhetoric, aesthetics, and psychology.

Eighth, the appreciation of locality and diversity in science—along various dimensions: geographical, institutional, stylistic, gender, disciplinary, cultural—in the attempt to reconstruct how the claims of science to placelessness and timelessness are grounded.

These developments have transformed the practice of historians of science and the output of the discipline. History of science now produces a large volume of highly diverse studies. The growth and diversification, however, have been accompanied by a degree of perplexity and unclarity in the philosophical scrutiny of presuppositions and methods. Many historians of science would agree that there is need of renewed systematic discussion of the foundations of historiography of science at this juncture.

Research Questions

The major current foundational problems in historiography of science, which are also the problems at the focus of this research programme, are the following.

Evaluations of past science

The comprehensive rejection of Whiggish approaches has yielded more sensitive and genuine pictures of past science. However, the emphasis on the reconstruction of the actors’ world has meant that questions about the adequacy or validity of past contributions to science have been removed from the scope of history of science. Some recent accounts of seventeenth-century natural philosophy, for example, convey the impression that no-one ever commits an error: all actors work to solve problems in good faith and according to their own valid standards of rationality, and furthermore give fully justifiable interpretations of one another’s work, even when they accuse one another bitterly of misinterpreting it.

The question strikes the reader why we should extend to seventeenth-century natural philosophers a charity that we would not countenance for our own contemporaries. One possibility is that exclusive use of actors’ categories fundamentally necessitates this nonjudgemental attitude. An alternative response, however, is that a degree of evaluativeness can be maintained even when Whiggish approaches have been superseded. If so, how can a basis be provided for evaluations of past science within modern historiography? This debate has not yet been systematically tackled in historiography of science.

Causal agents

Contrary to tendentious portrayals by some physicists, even the most constructivist historian of science working today acknowledges that the world plays a part in determining scientists’ conclusions. What is not clear, however, is how historians of science conceptualize the role of the world in their accounts. How does the world come to influence the trajectory of science? How is this influence mediated, partly overridden or otherwise affected by what are known as "social factors"? Does the world always prevail in the long term, or can social factors prevent this?

Modern historiography of science has not yet developed systematic answers to these questions. As a result, much current scholarship in history of science counts as conceptually incomplete: whereas all writers would agree that both the world and social factors are important causal agents in their accounts, no-one seems to advance a systematic and coherent view of how these agents act and interact. Notwithstanding the sound anti-idealist orientations of most present-day history of science, the mechanics of many episodes remains disappointingly vague.

Contextual origins and universal validity

Much present-day historiography of science is devoted to uncovering the contingent and contextual origins of scientific knowledge. Many scientists themselves, however, claim that their findings have universal and objective validity. Whereas some claims in this direction are implausible—such as the expectation that the laws of nature that we have formulated would be acknowledged by any other advanced life in the universe—the intuition that scientific knowledge has a capacity to transcend the circumstances of its production cannot be dismissed easily. It falls within the scope of history of science to account for this capacity and to explain how it relates to the contingency and contextuality of scientific practice. Some attempts have been made by historians of science, involving for example the concepts of replication, circulation, and standardisation. No-one can say, however, that a stable and satisfactory solution has yet been reached.

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