Skip to main content

History of Science as History of Our Best Errors: Joseph Agassi’s Critical Historiography of Science

  • 20 Accesses

Part of the Historiographies of Science book series (HISTSC)


In his classic Towards an Historiography of Science (1963) – and in other related works spanning over his entire career (including Faraday as a Natural Philosopher, 1971; Science and Its History, 2008; and The Very Idea of Modern Science, 2013) – Joseph Agassi presents his wide-ranging and original understanding of the history of science. It emerges from the criticism of two distinctive approaches, each informed by the uncritical acceptance, on the part of historians, of two philosophies of science: inductivism (scientific theories emerge from facts) and conventionalism (scientific theories are mathematical frameworks for classifying facts). Both produce unsatisfactory historical reconstructions, in which errors are either concealed or condemned. Karl Popper’s philosophy, by contrast, allows for a picture in which science grows from the recognition and criticism of our best and wisest errors. The chapter presents and discusses Agassi’s proposal for a critical historiography of science, setting it against the background of Popper’s groundbreaking works in the philosophy of science. And it calls attention to what is possibly Agassi’s most relevant contribution to the historiography of science: regarding the history of metaphysics as integral to the history of scientific research, Agassi celebrates the wedding of the history of science with the history of ideas – a wedding that, unfortunately, is still widely contrasted by contemporary historians of science.


in memoriam

Joseph Agassi (1927–2023)

dear teacher and friend

The past is, by definition, a datum which nothing in the future will change. But the knowledge of the past is something progressive which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself.

Marc Bloch (1949/1953), p. 58.

There is nothing more necessary to the man of science than its history, and the logic of discovery […]: the way error is detected, the use of hypothesis, of imagination, the mode of testing.

John E. E. Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton)

Cambridge University Library, Add. MSS 5011:266

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution.


  • Agassi J (1963) Towards an historiography of science, History and theory, Beiheft 2; reprinted, with corrections, in Agassi (2008), pp 119–242

    Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1964a) The nature of scientific problems and their roots in metaphysics. In: Bunge M (ed) The critical approach to science and philosophy: in honor of Karl Popper. The Free Press/Collier-Macmillan, New York/London, pp 189–211; reprinted in Agassi (1975), pp 208–239

    Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1964b) The Confusion Between Physics and Metaphysics in Standard Histories of Science. In: Guerlac H (ed) Actes du dixième Congrès international d’histoire des sciences/Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of the History of Science: Ithaca, 26 VIII 1962–2 IX 1962. Hermann, Paris, pp 231–250; reprinted in Agassi (1975), pp 270–281

    Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1971) Faraday as a natural philosopher. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago-London

    Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1973) Continuity and discontinuity in the history of science. Journal for the History of Ideas 34:609–626; reprinted in Agassi (1983), pp 283–299

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1974) The logic of science and metaphysics. In: Philosophical Forum, 5, pp 406–416; reprinted as “questions of science and metaphysics”, in Agassi (1975), pp. 240–269

    Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1975) Science in Flux. D. Reidel, Dordrecht-Boston

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1981) Science and society: studies in the sociology of science. D. Reidel, Dordrecht-Boston-London

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (1996) The place of metaphysics in the historiography of science. Foundations of Physics 26(4):483–499; reprinted in Agassi (2008), pp 254–265

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (2007) Rationalizing the historiography of science. Nuova Civiltà delle Macchine 25(2):87–102

    Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (2008) Science and its history: a reassessment of the historiography of science. Springer, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Agassi J (2013) The very idea of modern science: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Springer, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Bloch M (1949) Apologie pour l’histoire ou Metier d’historien, Paris: Librairie Armand Colin; English translation by Peter Putnam, The Historian’s craft, introduction by Joseph R. Strayer. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1953

    Google Scholar 

  • Gattei S (2004) Karl Popper’s philosophical breakthrough. Philos Sci 71(4):448–466

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gattei S (2009) Why and to what extent may a false hypothesis yield the truth? In: Parusnikova Z, Cohen RS (eds) Rethinking Popper. Springer, New York, pp 47–61

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Hacohen MH (2000) Karl Popper – the formative years, 1902–1945: politics and philosophy in interwar Vienna. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Herschel JFW (1830) A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Taylor, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Jarvie IC, Laor N (1995) The Philosopher as All-Rounder. In two parts: Jarvie IC, Laor N (eds) Critical rationalism, metaphysics and sciences: essays for Joseph Agassi, vol I, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht-Boston-London, pp xixxii; and Jarvie IC, Laor N (eds) Critical rationalism, the social sciences and the humanities: essays for Joseph Agassi, vol II, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht-Boston-London, pp ixxvii

    Google Scholar 

  • Kepler J (1609) Astronomia nova ΑΙΤΙΟΛΟΓΗΤΟΣ, sev physica coelestis, tradita commentariis de motibvs stellæ Martis, ex observationibus G. V. Tychonis Brahe, Heidelberg: Gotthard Vögelin; reprinted in Johannes Kepler gesammelte Werke, vol III: Astronomia Nova, edited by Max Caspar, Munich: C. H. Beck, 1937, pp 5–424; English translation by William H. Donahue, Astronomia Nova, new revised edition, Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion Press, 2015

    Google Scholar 

  • Kepler J (1611) Strena Seu De Niue Sexangula, Frankfurt: Gottfried Tampach; reprinted in Johannes Kepler gesammelte Werke, vol IV: Kleinere Schriften 1602–1611. Dioptrice, edited by Max Caspar and Franz Hammer, Munich: C. H. Beck, 1941, pp 259–280; English translation by Colin G. Hardie, The Six-Cornered Snowflake, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966

    Google Scholar 

  • Popper KR (1935) Logik der Forschung: Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft, Springer, Vienna; then Tübingen: Mohr JCB (Paul Siebeck), 199410; English translation, The logic of scientific discovery, Hutchinson, London, 1959; Routledge, London-New York, 19804

    Google Scholar 

  • Popper, Karl R. 1957. The poverty of historicism, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 19613

    Google Scholar 

  • Popper KR (2006) Hansen TE (ed) Frühe Schriften. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen

    Google Scholar 

  • Stephenson B (1987) Kepler’s physical astronomy. Springer, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Voelkel JR (2001) The composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova. Princeton University Press, Princeton-Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Wettersten JR (2005) New insights on young Popper. J Hist Ideas 66(4):603–631

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stefano Gattei .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2023 Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this entry

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this entry

Gattei, S. (2023). History of Science as History of Our Best Errors: Joseph Agassi’s Critical Historiography of Science. In: Condé, M.L., Salomon, M. (eds) Handbook for the Historiography of Science. Historiographies of Science. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-030-99498-3

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-030-99498-3

  • eBook Packages: Springer Reference Humanities, Soc. Sciences and Law

Publish with us

Policies and ethics

Chapter History

  1. Latest

    History of Science as History of Our Best Errors: Joseph Agassi’s Critical Historiography of Science
    13 July 2023


  2. Original

    History of Science as History of Our Best Errors: Joseph Agassi’s Critical Historiography of Science
    20 June 2023