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  Roger Smith, Lecture 1, ‘Science’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 1, ‘Science’

Roger Smith, Some Key Philosophical Words in English

Lecture 1, ‘Science’

OED [Oxford English Dictionary] definitions: a) knowledge in general, as opposed to belief and opinion; b) acquired skill (e.g. horsemanship); c) a particular discipline of study (e.g. in ‘Is psychology a science?’); d) scientia –(logically or empirically) demonstrated knowledge – ‘truth’. Cf. Wissenschaft.

Science is ‘a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought together under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain’. (J. S. Mill, Logic, 1843 on ‘colligation’.)


History: Medieval period, all branches of knowledge, ‘science’, and theology ‘the Queen of the sciences’. From late Renaissance, greater separation of ‘sciences’ and theology, as in Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637), Vico, La scienza nuova (1725/1744). Divergent conceptions of what makes a ‘science’. In English, division in secular knowledge between ‘natural philosophy’ (e.g. Newton, 1687) and ‘moral philosophy’ (most read, Joseph (Bishop) Butler, Sermons (e.g. ‘On human nature’ in mid-18th century)).


Related terms: ‘natural history’ (F. Bacon); ‘conscience’ (moral knowledge); ‘scientific’ – a statement fulfils conditions needed for it to be considered demonstrated.


Modern usage: from about 1870, ‘science’ narrowed to ‘natural science’ (and knowledge modelled on natural science, e.g. economic science). A controversial change which does not occur in Continental European languages. It reflects transfer of status from knowledge in general to the special natural sciences, and it sharpens the need to separate real science from non-science/pseudo-science.

The major problem of the social and psychological sciences: are they sciences (natural sciences) or not natural sciences (hence not sciences)? I therefore find the term ‘human sciences’ useful: what sort of science/knowledge is appropriate for humans becomes central to debate.

Why does the change in English occur?

Context: discipline formation (‘the second scientific revolution’); end of reference to natural and moral philosophy; shift to professional occupations (new word, ‘scientist’, slowly replacing ‘man of science’, coined by William Whewell, 1834); achievement of explanation by general laws in natural sciences (conservation of energy, evolution); progressive nature of science in comparison with philosophy (and logical positivists try to make philosophy a science). Failure of non-natural science disciplines to achieve general laws (Marxian historical materialism, history generally).

Explanation: I suggest the British empiricist tradition in thought and as a cultural ethos, articulated by Locke (1690). Only what can be demonstrated as corresponding to the external world accepted as knowledge – English ‘common sense’! Tied to the liberal political settlement.


Modern English usage has consequences:

1)      Philosophy of science becomes concerned with demarcating science/non-science; Pure/applied science.

2)      Science versus religion debate (impossible if theology is a ‘science’!).

3)      ‘Scientism’.

4)      Concern with pragmatic methods not formal ones (‘anything goes’ – Feyerabend).


Conclusion – the practical problem: what terms to use to describe different Russian academic occupations?