, Volume 75, Issue 3, pp 413–429 | Cite as

The Persistence of Epistemic Objects Through Scientific Change

  • Hasok ChangEmail author


Why do some epistemic objects persist despite undergoing serious changes, while others go extinct in similar situations? Scientists have often been careless in deciding which epistemic objects to retain and which ones to eliminate; historians and philosophers of science have been on the whole much too unreflective in accepting the scientists’ decisions in this regard. Through a re-examination of the history of oxygen and phlogiston, I will illustrate the benefits to be gained from challenging and disturbing the commonly accepted continuities and discontinuities in the lives of epistemic objects. I will also outline two key consequences of such re-thinking. First, a fresh view on the (dis)continuities in key epistemic objects is apt to lead to informative revisions in recognized periods and trends in the history of science. Second, recognizing sources of continuity leads to a sympathetic view on extinct objects, which in turn problematizes the common monistic tendency in science and philosophy; this epistemological reorientation allows room for more pluralism in scientific practice itself.


Oxygen Base Late Eighteenth Century Natural Kind Term Epistemic Activity Phlogiston Theory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank Uljana Feest and Thomas Sturm for inviting me to the workshop on historical epistemology at the Max Planck Institute where this paper was originally presented, and also for their effective guidance through the publication process. I also thank many other participants and hosts of the workshop for their helpful comments and kind encouragement, especially Philip Kitcher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, and Lorraine Daston.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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