Scientific Discoveries as Historical Artifacts

  • John Stachel
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 151)


In his recent book Wonderful Life (Gould 1989, pp. 277–291), Steven Jay Gould notes that Harvard now organizes the sciences “according to procedural style rather than conventional discipline [into] the experimental-predictive and the historical” (ibid.,p. 279). While the former, such as physics and chemistry, have often been taken as prototypes for all sciences, Gould emphasizes that:

Historical explanations are distinct from conventional experimental results in many ways. The issue of verification by repetition does not arise because we are trying to account for the uniqueness of detail that cannot, both by the laws of probability and time’s arrow of irreversibility, occur together again. We do not attempt to interpret the complex events of narrative by reducing them to simple consequences of natural law; historical events do not, of course, violate any general principles of matter and motion, but their occurrence lies in a realm of contingent detail. (The law of gravity tells us how an apple falls, but not why the apple fell at that moment, and why Newton happened to be sitting there, ripe for inspiration.) And the issue of prediction, a central ingredient in the stereotype, does not enter into a historical narrative. We can explain the event after it occurs, but contingency precludes its repetition, even from an identical starting point (ibid., p. 278).


Scientific Discovery Historical Explanation Cultural Domain Congruent Goal Burgess Shale 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Stachel
    • 1
  1. 1.Boston UniversityUSA

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