Brief History of Metasciences

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Philosophy of Science


Although philosophy of knowledge (that is, epistemology) was a central theme in ancient Greek philosophy, the field of the philosophy of science is a much more recent development. Its origins are seen in three trends: classification of the sciences, methodology, and the philosophy of nature. The intellectual leaders, in the sense of writing the first books on the topic, were William Whewell in England and Auguste Comte in France.

 Whewell actually wrote two books on the philosophy of science and coined the terms “scientist” and “physicist” in the process.

He took a modified Kantian view that there are laws of nature independent of our understanding and that by our inductive intuitions, rather than raw empiricism, we can come to understand the laws of nature. John Stuart Mill developed his own positivist position in reaction to Whewell’s inductivist position. Indeed, the two major proponents of positivism were Comte and J. S. Mill.

Positivism holds that nature has no ultimate purpose and there is no “essence” to be discovered a priori. All scientific knowledge must be based in observable and positive facts. Positivists, at their core, are refuting the purely reflective method of acquiring knowledge, believing that only what comes through the senses is valid, scientific knowledge.

Comte, in particular, put a historical spin to the positivist argument and claimed that the history of ideas passes through three phases—theological, metaphysical, and positivist (scientific)—with positivism being the penultimate stage of knowledge. In so doing, Comte was taking a classic empiricist stance by arguing that human nature was modifiable and capable of progress. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the publication of books in the philosophy of science went from a trickle to a fast drip, with some major works, including William Jevons, Ernst Mach, and Karl Pearson.

At the turn of the century scholars began to organize more formally and establish the philosophy of science as an independent field of study. For instance, the first congresses on the philosophy of science were held in Paris (as sections of the First International Congress of Philosophy).

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