Scientific Revolutions: Philosophical and Historical Issues

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof John Worrall


This course is available on the MSc in Economics and Philosophy, MSc in European Studies: Ideas, Ideologies and Identities, MSc in Philosophy of Science and MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is not available as an outside option.



Course content

The course examines a number of fundamental issues in philosophy of science, as they arise from instances of important theory-changes (so-called 'scientific revolutions') in the history of science. It is therefore by no means a ‘straight’ course in history of science: it looks at historical episodes to test and/or illustrate philosophical theses about science and its development.

1. The Copernican revolution: the switch from the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the world to the Copernican heliocentric one was probably the greatest revolution in human thought ever: What justified the switch? Was Ptolemaic theory definitively refuted by the data? Was Copernican theory simpler? Was the Church's view that Copernican theory should only be thought of as an instrument for calculating astronomical data purely theologically motivated or does it have some scientific rationale? What role was played in the eventual acceptance of the Copernican view by predictive success? Do we need to invoke social or other non-intellectual factors to explain why this 'revolution' occurred?

2. Galileo: Galileo and the telescope: are all observations 'theory-laden' and does this mean that there is a subjective element to all theory-choices? Galileo and the argument for his law of free fall: can theories be 'deduced from the phenomena'?

3. The Newtonian revolution: What was the relationship between Newton's theory and Kepler's and Galileo's laws? What does this tell us about theory-change in general?

4. The chemical revolution: What were Priestley and Lavoisier's experiments, and what exactly lead scientists to supplant phlogiston by oxygen? What does this tell us about theory change in general? In particular, in what sense was the replacement of phlogiston by oxygen rational?


5.19th Century revolutions in Optics: the switches from the corpuscular theory to the wave theory of light and from the wave theory to the electromagnetic  theory. What do these cases of theory-change tell us about the twin theses of scientific rationality and scientific realism?

6. The Darwinian Revolution: This revolution certainly ranks alongside the Copernican one in terms of its impact on man's view of herself. But debates about the scientific credentials of Darwin's theory began immediately on the publication of Darwin's work and continue to this day. Is Darwinian theory unfalsifiable (or even just one big tautology)? Can 'scientific' creationists explain everything that Darwin can?; What objections were raised by Darwin's critics to particular aspects of Darwinian theory? Were these valid objections and, in so far as they were, have they now been resolved?


10 hours of lectures and 13 hours and 30 minutes of seminars in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT. 1 hour and 30 minutes of seminars in the ST.

Formative coursework

Formative coursework: 2 x 1500 word essays per term.

Indicative reading

Background reading:

T S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions;

I Lakatos 'Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes' in his The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Philosophical Papers 1;

G Holton (revised by S Brush): Theories and Concepts in Physical Science;

P Duhem The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory;

P Kitcher Abusing Science: The Case against Creationism, K R Popper, Conjectures and Refutations;

P Feyerabend Against Method.

Recommended reading: The central text for the first part of the course is T S Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, Harvard University Press. The central text on the Darwinian revolution will be P Kitcher, Abusing Science, the Case Against Creationism. MIT Press.

There will be lecture slides on each topic including (i) a list of essential reading and suggestions for further reading and (ii) 'study questions' to guide your thought. Aside from the above reading for the section of the course on the Copernican revolution and the Darwinian revolution, reading for particular topics will be in the form of articles and selections from books. These will be made available electronically on Moodle.


Exam (67%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (33%, 2000 words) in the ST.

Student performance results

(2011/12 - 2013/14 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 5
Merit 65
Pass 25
Fail 5

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2014/15: 5

Average class size 2014/15: 5

Controlled access 2014/15: No

Lecture capture used 2014/15: Yes (LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills