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Indiana University Bloomington

What is History and Philosophy of Science?

History and philosophy of science is perhaps best described as a discipline devoted to using a wide variety of historical and philosophical approaches to understand one of the most important conceptual and cultural enterprises of the modern world—science.

Studies in HPSC take many different forms, all with the common aim of understanding how science works. Some seek this understanding by looking at the history of science, others by analyzing the abstract structure of scientific theory and practice, still others by examining detailed foundational issues in specific sciences; and some employ a combination of these and other approaches. The particular focus of these studies also varies widely: some concentrate on abstract ideas and theory, others on experimental technique and apparatus, while others examine the institutional setting of science—universities, laboratories, government agencies—or the interaction between science and technology, religion, or social movements. The historical topics can range from the science and technology of ancient Greece to the development of quantum field theory. Philosophical issues include the epistemology and metaphysics of science, the logic of theory testing and theory evaluation, the role of experiment and heuristic in scientific growth, and the foundational questions that arise in specific sciences.

History of science examines the origins and evolution of scientific ideas and practices within a cultural context. It deals with questions such as the following: Where do new scientific ideas, tools, and practices come from? How is the development of science influenced by metaphysics, religion, technology, and social institutions? How does the advancement of science, in turn, shape human society and culture?

General Philosophy of science analyzes the structure of scientific theories, methods, and practices. It deals with problems such as the following: How are scientific explanations different from mythological or commonsense accounts of what goes on in the world around us? Can scientists prove their theories? If not, why does science work so well? Are the theories and methods used in biology, psychology, or the social sciences fundamentally different from those found in the physical sciences? If so, how? How can one distinguish between statistical correlations and causal connections? How can we characterize the roles of instruments and experiments in the generation of scientific knowledge? What do experiments prove, and what kind of knowledge do they yield?

Philosophy of specific sciences (such as physics, biology, or psychology) examines the foundations and fundamental questions of the specific sciences. It deals with questions such as the following: What is the nature of space and time in relativity theory? How are we to understand the process of evolution? Should psychology attempt to distinguish intentional actions from mere behavior?

Integrated history and philosophy of science combines philosophical and historical approaches to identify the epistemically significant features of scientific activity and to trace their historical development. It deals with questions such as: How does the notion of scientific justification change over time? How has the nature of experimentation changed, and what roles did experiments play for the establishment of knowledge claims in different periods of time? How did the development of statistical tools shape the nature of scientific proofs?