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Historical Case Studies: The “Model Organisms” of Philosophy of Science


Philosophers use historical case studies to support wide-ranging claims about science. This practice is often criticized as problematic. In this paper we suggest that the function of case studies can be understood and justified by analogy to a well-established practice in biology: the investigation of model organisms. We argue that inferences based on case studies are no more (or less) problematic than inferences from model organisms to larger classes of organisms in biology. We demonstrate our view in detail by reference to a case study with a long history: Semmelweis’s discovery of the cause of childbed fever.

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  1. 1.

    See Worrall (1989). For lists of historical cases that have been discussed in the realism debate see Laudan (1981) and Vickers (2013).

  2. 2.

    See Weber (2008), Craver (2008) and Levy (2013).

  3. 3.

    Like Lennox (2001), we refer to our proposal as a “phylogenetic approach”, but we take the analogy to phylogenetic reasoning in biology in a different direction.

  4. 4.

    This is not to say, however, that complicated cases can never be used for extrapolatory inferences. On the contrary, sometimes it may be worth-while for the philosophical community to pick very complex cases and to direct all efforts on those. That would be advisable when methodological complexity is called for by the historical cases which the case study under consideration is supposed to elucidate.

  5. 5.

    For an in-depth discussion of this sometimes overlooked aspect of Lakatos’s work see Schindler (2018).

  6. 6.

    Whether Laudan’s account in fact accommodates progress is debated. See Worrall (1988), Laudan (1989), and Worrall (1989).

  7. 7.

    Notably, Kuhn made an explicit analogy between evolution by natural selection and the growth of scientific ideas in Chapter XIII of Structure.


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We received helpful comments from several referees and the audiences at the Eighth Quadrennial Fellows Conference organized by the Pittsburgh Centre for Philosophy of Science in Lund in 2016 and the Twenty-Fifth Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association in Atlanta in 2016. In particular we thank Dana Tulodziecki, Kareem Khalifa, Lilia Gurova, Mike Stuart, Sara Green, Caterina Schürch, and Tim Lewens’s group at the Department of HPS in Cambridge. Raphael Scholl was supported in part by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant number P300P1_154590).

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Correspondence to Samuel Schindler.

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Samuel Schindler and Raphael Scholl have contributed to this paper equally and appear alphabetically.

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Schindler, S., Scholl, R. Historical Case Studies: The “Model Organisms” of Philosophy of Science. Erkenn (2020).

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