Beyond Kuhnian paradigms


Beyond Kuhnian paradigms: philosophy of science within historical context


Prof. Ilie Pârvu, University of Bucharest

Conf. Dr. Dana Jalobeanu, Western University „Vasile Goldis”, and University of Bucharest

Drd. Mihnea Dobre, University of Bucharest

General description of the course

In the last couple of years there have been many attempts towards developing the academic field of history and philosophy of science in Romanian universities. However, little success has been registered so far. Despite the immense popularity of the field in Western Universities, heated debates in the literature and an increasing number of individual researchers taking up subjects connected with the history and philosophy of science, at the level of the academic curriculum the subject is still undervalued. One reason for this is the way the subject tends to be presented, in a dry and scholarly manner, so that the students often fail to grasp the relevance of the issues discussed. Our course will try a different approach. We will combine the standard introductory approach to philosophy of science centred upon the formation, demarcation and evolution of the discipline with a new and daring way of teaching it, using examples from actual “scientific” texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We will exemplify contemporary debates about what science should be with historical and contextual reconstruction of cases showing how science often was.

The team

Our course will put together the expertise of two researchers of the subject, one in favour of a more analytical, the other in favour of a more historical approach, illustrating in this way, from the very beginning, the two contemporary strands leading to debates in respected academic communities. Prof. Ilie Parvu will focus on the contemporary debates within philosophy and methodology of science, especially on debates around the Kuhnian account of science and scientific change. Dr. Dana Jalobeanu will select the historical example and place the question within a reconstructed historical context. The PhD student, Mihnea Dobre, who is finishing a PhD thesis on the “Scientific Revolution” at Radbound University, Nijmegen, will work with the selection of texts, preparing them for being discussed in the seminar. We will translate most of the texts so that the students will be able to follow the arguments without the impediment of seventeenth century English. However, the whole team will take part in the lectures and seminar, trying to recreate the context of a lively debate, so characteristic for the subject taught.

Aims and objectives

Our main goal is to put contemporary debates in a historical context, trying to illustrate them with carefully chosen examples of “scientific” practices or philosophical discussions about the nature, goals and characteristic features of the “scientific culture” (Gaukroger, 2007), as seen from the perspective of its practitioners. We will especially look at the very formation and foundations of science, the period of the early modernity. Instead of using secondary sources and their examples (Kuhn’s examples of mathematical science, the case of the astronomical revolution, Shaffer contextualization of the gentlemanly culture in the second part of the seventeenth century or Feyerabend account of Aristotle versus Galileo’s explanations etc.), our course will encourage the reading of primary materials themselves, with the explicit purpose of testing the explanatory model proposed by Kuhn or by others. We will also pick lesser known seventeenth century texts illustrating wide interest and focused preoccupation with the history, methodology, conceptual structure and philosophy of the new discipline (i.e. natural philosophy, or “early modern science”). In this way we hope to address a number of interesting, relevant and actual issues concerning the historiography of the Scientific Revolution and place them within the debate of contemporary philosophy of science. In a more general way, we see this course as a first step in bridging the wide gap separating the historians of science from the philosophers of science with an interest in the history of their discipline.

The place of the course within the curriculum

The Faculty of Philosophy is developing a new MA programme in history and philosophy of science, on offer for the Fall. However, among the regular courses in the curricula there are very few preparing the students for taking such an MA as their option. The history of science is especially insufficiently present within the BA curricula. Also, the students have little practice in reading primary texts, whether in history of science or the history of philosophy. Even when reading seminars focus on primary texts, they tend to present the examples as detached from the context, interesting in themselves and not as parts of larger debates, and completely irrelevant for today’s issues in philosophy. As a result, the students not only tend to rely too much on secondary sources, but they don’t develop critical thinking skills or the ability to see the questions and problems as they have developed, to judge their actuality etc. What our course proposes is to remediate a number of the above deficiencies, through a combination of approaches, issues and perspectives that will lead to both enliven the discussions and increase the depth of readings. We aim at developing reading and interpretative skills, together with argumentative and critical thinking skills among the students. We will focus on questions and debates, offering examples for further discussion and investigation, points for further research.

Course materials

The course is built upon two kinds of texts: on one hand, students will be required to read Kuhn’s Structure of the scientific revolution and a number of critical reactions that have built, during the last 20 years, a substantial corpus of literature and have established a number of important questions within the field of philosophy of science. On the other, they will be given a number of selected readings from the history of science, focusing either on the actual “scientific” practice, or upon the opinions, reflections and questions of the actors that have made the “scientific revolution” of the early modernity. We will tend to use texts that are little known today outside the circle of historians of science and historians of philosophy. They belong mostly to the two kinds of writings: on one hand they are attempts to define and demarcate the “new” science of the seventeenth century written by scientists themselves, together with more punctual approaches towards discussing the nature of facts, explanations, laws or scientific theories. Secondly, they are writings reflecting on the history of the „new” intellectual product named science before its institutional phase, namely before the 1660s. We will use them in the seminar as our starting point in discussing the historiographic conceptual and philosophical issues involved in reflecting upon the nature of science, the scientific revolution, the problem of demarcation, theories or research programmes, facts, observations or laws etc.


Optional course designed for the 2nd year but open to any student, no mandatory requirements, intermediate level (good knowledge of English required, however). 2 hours of course every week plus 2 hours of reading seminar.

Course organisation

Course objectives

  • Introducing students to current debates in philosophy of science as well as contemporary debates concerning the historiography of the scientific revolution in a less scholarly and dry manner, asking them to look and think for themselves, starting from the actual problems “science” and “scientists” have encountered
  • To promote critical and creative thinking, formulation of arguments and discussions around heated, sometimes highly controversial problems
  • to encourage the skills and attitudes necessary for individual research

Course outline

Lectures structured in 2 parts: 1 hour of discussing contemporary interpretations, 1 hour introducing the historical examples. The lectures will be complemented by a 2 hours reading group on chosen texts, that will take place on the subsequent day.

  1. Revolution, reformation and beyond: the battle of ancients and moderns

    1. The Scientific Revolution revisited: Kuhn and beyond
    2. Looking back into the texts: The battle of the Ancients with the Moderns in seventeenth century

    Reading seminar: The apologetics of Early Royal Society. Joseph Glanvill, Plus Ultra. (2 hours)

  1. Scientific theories and the practice of scientists

    1. Normal science, science in crisis, revolutionary science: conceptual and methodological problems
    2. Early modern classifications of scientia and the conceptual problems of the „scientific revolution”

    Reading seminar:

        1. Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, book II, the classification of sciences

  1. Clashing theories, scientific “sects” and the value of crisis

    1. “Scientific theories” and the community of practitioners. The road to normal science
    2. Is there a crisis in astronomy in sixteenth century? Astronomy, natural philosophy and other “sciences”

  1. Theories and observations: the nature of scientific experiments

  1. Explanations in science
  2. The emergence of the experimental practices and the value(s) of experiments. The problem of constructing “facts” in seventeenth century

    Reading seminar: “scientific” and experimental reports on facts from the Philosophical transactions and Oldenburg’s correspondence

  1. Communities and values

          1. Constituting paradigms and the problem of communitarian values: Is science value-free?
          2. Bacon’s Brotherhood of learning and its seventeenth century sequels: shaping the new profession of natural science

    Reading seminar:

Bacon, New Atlantis

Glanvill, Essays in science and religion (the continuation of New Atlantis)

  1. Values and communities: objectivity, impartiality, consensus - building scientific methodology or the ideology of science?

  1. The community of researchers and its associated values: internalism or externalism?
  2. Shaping the community: from the Baconian ideal to the Early Royal Socity

    Reading seminar:

Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society, III

The charter and regulations of the Early Royal Society, Oldenburg correspondence regarding the Early Royal Society

  1. Paradigms and problems

  1. What is a Kuhnian paradigm? A number of contemporary interpretations.
  2. Mechanism and beyond: what is mechanical philosophy?

    Reading seminar:

    Descartes, Le monde, chap. 1-7

    Boyle, The Origin of forms and qualities, the theoretical part

  1. Incomensurability versus dialogue: belief changes and conceptual changes (1)

  1. The incomensurability thesis and its challenges. Explaining conceptual changes
  2. How Mersenne learned to love Galileo and other converts: dialogue in the „scientific revolution”

    Reading Seminar:

Mersenne, L’impiete de deistes, fragments from the correspondence

Charleton, Physiologia, ch. 1

  1. Incomensurability versus dialogue (2)

    1. The incommensurability thesis and its outcomes: the social history of science
    2. „The God of the philosophers”: Koyre’s story and its long term consequences

    Reading seminar: Leibniz Clarke’s correspondence – do philosophers really talk to each other?

  1. The problem of demarcation

          1. What is this thing called “science”?
            1. Falsification
            2. Consensus among the practitioners
          2. The experimental philosophy: an exercise on carving the identity of a new science

    Reading seminar: Robert Boyle, The Origin of Forms and Qualities

  1. Is there such a thing as scientific progress?

    1. The status of the questions: Popper, Feyerabend, Kuhn and beyond
    2. Ancient, moderns, philosophical sects and the history of science of the seventeenth century

    Reading seminar:

    Collin McLaurin, An account of Mr. Newton’s philosophy, part I

  1. Is there anything wrong with the historiography of science? Directions for future research

Selected bibliography

Alexander Bird, “Kuhn, naturalism and the positivist legacy”, Studies in history and philosophy of science, Part A, 2004, 337-356

I.B. Cohen, Revolutions in Science, Chicago, 1985

I.F. Cohen, The Scientific revolution: a historiographic inquiry, Chicago, 1994

I.F. Cohen, “Reconceptualizing the Scientific Revolution”, European Review, 15, 2007, 491-502

Peter Dear, “What is the History of Science the History Of? Early Modern Roots of the Ideology of Modern Science”, ISIS, 2005, 390-406

Stephen Gaukroger, The birth of a scientific culture, CUP, 2006

Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the transformation of Early Modern Philosophy, Cambridge, 2001

Daniel Garber, “Experiment, community and the constitution of nature in seventeenth century”, Perspectives on Science, 1995, 173.

Garber, Daniel (2006), “Physics and Foundations”, Park, Katharine & Daston, Lorraine (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science. Vol. III: Early Modern Science, Cambridge University Press, pp. 21-69

Peter Harrison, “Was there a scientific revolution?” European Review, 2007, 445-457

Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge, 2007

John L. Heilbron, “Coming to terms with the Scientific Revolution”, European Review, 15, 2007, 473-489

Michael Hunter, “Robert Boyle and the Early Royal Society: a reciprocal exchange in the making of Baconian science”, British Society for the History of Science, 40, 2007, 1-23

Thomas Kuhn, The structure of the scientific revolutions, 1967

Demir Ipek, “Incomensurabilities in the work of Thomas Kuhn”, Studies in history and philosophy of science, Part A, 2008, 133-142

Paula Findlen, “The two cultures of scholarship”, ISIS, 2005, 235-237

Kyle Forinash, William D. Rumsey, “A first course in the history and philosophy of science”, Eur.J.Phys., 21, 2000, 1-7

W.R. Shea, “The Scientific Revolution really occurred”, European Review, 15, 2007, 459-471

S.Shaffer, S. Shapin, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Cambridge, 1986

M. Osler, Rethinking the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge, 2000

Theodore K. Rabb, “The Scientific Revolution and the problem of periodization”, European Review, 15, 2007, 503-512

Paul Thagard, “Coherence, Truth and the Development of Scientific Knowledge”, Philosophy of Science, 74, 2007, 28-47

Paul Thagard, “Mind, Society and the Growth of Knowledge”, Philosophy of Science, 61, 1994, 624-645

Brian Vickers, “Francis Bacon, the feminist historiography and the dominion over nature”, JHI, 2008, 117-141

John Ziman, “Are debatable scientific question truly debatable”, Social Epistemology, 2000, 187-199

Further reading:

  1. R. Giere, Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach, Chicago, 1988
  2. R. Giere, Cognitive Models of Science, Menneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992
  3. Martin Kusch, Knowledge by Agreement: The Programme of Communitarian Epistemology, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2002
  4. Paul Thagard, “The conceptual structure of the chemical revolution”, Philosophy of Science, 1990, 183-209
  5. Paul Thagard, Conceptual Revolutions, Princeton University Press, 1992
  6. Paul Thagard, “Societies of Minds: Science as Distributed Computing”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 24, 1993, 49-67


The students will be asked to construct the plan and gather the materials for a research project that will be publicly defended at the end of the course. There will be three written assignments:

      1. a two pages exposition of the major points of a theoretical debate
      2. a four pages historical illustration of that debate, using the materials discussed during the seminar
      3. a written summary of their research project explaining what is needed to clarify the points stated and discussed, including bibliography for further reading and a broad outline of the case to be explored in the future

The final evaluation will have two stages: at the first stage, students will be required to present their projects in 20 minutes, using additional visual materials (ppt, handouts, posters). Then we will organise an open discussion, and the students and teachers will be required to give feed back to each of the projects.


  1. a 1 day workshop with 2 invited speakers, the course proponents and the students, around relevant texts and questions issued from the reading seminars
  2. the exam will be organised as a colloquium, the students will be required to take part in the organisation, give talks, take part in the discussions, prepare a poster etc.

Invited speakers:

    Daniel Garber, Princeton University

    Roger Ariew, University of South Florida