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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Kuhn’s book

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

presented scientific change as revolutionary: later theoretical

developments do not always build upon the achievements of

earlier ones. Sometimes they present a new picture of the world

that must replace the old. Prominent scientists have taken a

different line. Henri Poincaré acknowledged that new theories in

mathematical physics can be highly revisionary:

The ephemeral nature of scientific theories takes by

surprise the man of the world. Their brief period of

prosperity ended, he sees them abandoned one after

another; he sees ruins piled upon ruins; he predicts that

the theories in fashion to-day will in a short time succumb

in their turn, and he concludes that they are absolutely

in vain. This is what he calls the bankruptcy of science.

(Poincaré 1905, 178)

However, argued Poincaré, important connections between

earlier and later theories might nevertheless exist. In his 1936

Presidential Address to the Chemical Society (later to become

the Royal Society of Chemistry), Nevil Sidgwick more forthrightly

rejected the view that ‘when a new discovery is made, it shows

the previous conceptions upon the subject to be untrue’ (1936,

533). Interestingly, Sidgwick took as his main subject the body

of structural theory which had been developed in organic

chemistry during the nineteenth century, and which some

chemists and physicists would later come to regard as having

been swept away by quantum mechanics.

The issue remains an important one for science, for the

philosophy of science, and for public policy that aims to be

grounded in science. As Sidgwick noted, if ‘to-day’s scientific

ideas show those of yesterday to be wrong, we need not trouble

about them, because they themselves may be shown to be

wrong to-morrow.’ (1936, 533)

The trustworthiness of scientific ideas is a particular issue where

they bear on public policy, as in the fields of health and climate

science. Trustworthiness must also be a consideration when

we think about the role of science in the broader project of

understanding the world and our place in it.

Organised by Professor Robin Hendry and Professor Peter

Vickers from the department of Philosophy this workshop

aims to bring together historians, philosophers and scientists

to examine some key cases of theory change in the history

of science, determining (i) the extent to which they are as

revolutionary as is sometimes claimed; and (ii) how far this

supports or undermines the trustworthiness of the relevant

scientific ideas.

Confirmed external participants include: Professor Mathias

Frisch, Institut für Philosophie, Leibniz Universität Hannover;

Professor Helge Kragh, Department of Mathematics, Centre

for Science Studies, Aarhus University; and Professor Alan J.

Rocke, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.

The workshop will take place on Monday 30 October and

Tuesday 31 October 2017 in Kenworthy Hall, St. Mary’s College

(Durham University). Attendance at the workshop is open, but

places are limited and registration is required. For details please

contact Yafeng Shan .

This workshop is also supported by the Department of

Philosophy and the AHRC research project


Realism and the Challenge from the History of Science




Poincaré, Henri 1905.

Science and Hypothesis


London: Walter Scott

Sidgwick, N.V. 1936. Structural Chemistry.

Journal of the Chemical Society

149: 533-538

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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