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

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Part of the Historiographies of Science book series (HISTSC)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

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

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Correspondence to Stefano Gattei .

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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. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99498-3_8-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99498-3_8-2

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Chapter History

  1. Latest

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

    DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99498-3_8-2

  2. Original

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

    DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99498-3_8-1