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Historiography of science and the scientific revolution Essay

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Updated: Jan 2nd, 2020


Historiography of science and scientific revolution is a broad area to which development different historians have contributed their works and studies. These historiographers examine different themes, philosophies and ideas on different subjects and context which assist them in understanding the concepts behind them. These people, therefore, explore different areas by various methods which help them to provide an insight into issues of scientific revolutions.

Historiography of science and scientific revolution represents an area where many philosophers generate and air out their own point of view. These philosophers include Boris Hessen, Ludwik Fleck, Vannevar Bush, and Thomas Kuhn among many others.

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Samuel Kuhn is one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. His contribution to the field of philosophy of science resulted in a paradigm shift on various aspects of positivists’ doctrine and insights into the history of science1.

On his contribution or account of the development of science, he held the view that science enjoyed periods of stable growth encompassed by instances of revisionary revolutions. He further added on this thesis that theories developed in different periods suffered some impairment in terms of comparability.

Kuhn’s scientific paradigm or patterns originate from the great works of Copernicus revolution and Newton principles. He criticizes these works for being open-ended and leaving unanswered questions in the domain of other people. These views and ideas are reflected in his great books and called “normal science”. According to Kuhn, normal science is not aimed at novelty, a position that contravenes that of Popper.

He postulates that discoveries in science are always accompanied by or associated with changes in the paradigm as novelty signals the end of normal science2. In summary, he argues that theories of facts or discoveries demonstrate the end of normal science and that normal science is not focused on its own end or demise.

Furthermore, in his studies, Kuhn points out that discovery is rare because people expectations hinder or obscure their visions of achieving them. The psychology of people is directed in making themselves what they expect to see, and this clouds their perception of the world.

If people did not have this psychological mindset, then the rate of new discoveries could have been high3. Therefore, there should be a paradigm change coupled with a crisis to trigger scientist to recognize or discover anomalous contrary to their expectations. In normal science, theories are not questioned as they try to bring facts and theory into closer agreement without criticizing the background of theories postulated.

Kuhn also observes that new paradigms are responsible for placing new relations in a given data. In case the normal actions or puzzles are applied to solve certain problems or crisis fails, this alters the scientific activity in a gradual manner leading to change of goals and its methods and any other attributes associated with the first one.

Kuhn also argues that science is non-cumulative as terms change their meanings over time. He argues this through historical examples where Aristotle argued that stone fell as a result of nature force that drove it towards the center of the universe; this position was refuted by the 17th century scientists4.

Therefore, Kuhn asserts that science revolution may be incommensurable as new paradigm may lead to some incompatible predictions. Hence science revolution is a transition which is independent from other normal sciences.

Hessen and Grossman

Boris Hessen is yet another contributor to the science and evolution debate. His arguments are based on the correlation between problems in economic, technology and science during the times of Newton. The works of Hessen and Grossmann display or take on the Marxists approach whereby they conceptualize science as an entity of wholesome of labour within a system of social production5.

Therefore, they base their arguments and analysis on both cognitive and social dimensions in reference to labor processes. In the social and economic roots of Newton principia, Hessen formulates three theses; the first and second ones are proposed by Grossman while the second is created by Hessen.

The first thesis is concerned about technological and economic developments in the early modern periods and relations of these two aspects in their contribution or part in the emergence of modern science. Second thesis bases its conclusions on converse, specifically on areas which the scientist o that time would not relate or draw on the existing technology, such as heat, electric motors, engines and generators.

In this thesis, there is development of physics disciplines like thermodynamics and electrodynamics. The third and final thesis concerns the ideological constraints that are associated or placed on science and specifically in England at the time of “class compromise” of “glorious revolution” back in 1688. Basing on this compromise, Newton was able to endorse the mechanization of pictures as adapted to his concept of matter to be able to introduce God in his material world.

In his view, he argues that economics always presents demands that need to be met; these demands cause technical problems which may generate scientific problems. For instance, in his arguments, Hessen notes that further development of trade of a given nature is solely depended on improvement in transport. There are various forms of transportation, and he notes that the most efficient and effective form of transport is by water.

To ensure that the goods are transported, it requires application of technology, which is a problem that should be dealt with. The problem includes increasing tonnage of capacity and speed of the ship, improvement of its floating qualities, development of means that are to ensure better navigation and construction of docks and canals.

Thesis on the emergence of modern technology is twofold. The first one takes technology as a goal of science putting in mind the motives of pursuing science in the first place. The second is the one that sees technology as a pre-condition of science and does not consider motives.

For instance, if technology is developed for fostering or facilitating the process of economic development, then science is used to investigate or study a specific problem in order to make improvement on it. The development of technology is to facilitate or speed up the process of economic development, thus the science appeared through means of technology, which were developed or applied.

The first expression about technology is attributed to the Marxist historiography of science while the second expression is a formulation or expression of Hessen-Grossmann thesis. The first view inclining to the Marxist historiography of science involves four categories of arguments, which further develop into less or more strong form of economic determinism. These four steps of arguments include the casual connection that is established between technical projects and economic interests6.

It also shows that technical projects require or involve technological problems. It further demonstrates that technological problems that are experienced correspond to specific fields in science. The last is that scientists in the early times were motivated by technical or economic interests to solve their technological issues or problems to study the respective fields of science.

In reference to the first thesis, which Hessen and Grossman suggested, the technology opens horizons for science. They argued that science developed as a result or means of studying the existing technology. In other words, the current state of technology that was in place helped in development of science.

This assertion, therefore, means that the aspect of concept of nature has changed. For instance, this is explained in the way things changes like the change of feudal mode of production to capitalist one when towns became important in various countries, and the country reduced, manufacturing and artisan became more important than the traditional forms of economics like agriculture. Furthermore, traditional labor forms were supported and replaced with natural processes.

Therefore, nature through the support of human labor transformed the way things were carried out. Machines, although not products of nature, are manmade and made to obey human laws as human beings control them. This also led to conceive of the world as an ideal machine and its operations as natural phenomena, which came to be known as “mechanization of the world picture”

Second, they argued that the rise in social prestige of technology made it possible to merge two traditions that had been segregated earlier because of its increased economic significance. The mechanical and liberal arts and the knowledge of the craftsman and knowledge of the learned merged together and were related; they shared their experience and skills leading to new experimental traditions.

Both Hessen and Grossman built the main thesis by stating that the science of mechanics “theoretical“ mechanics was developed as a result of the study of contemporary technology of “practical mechanics”

The second thesis represented by Hessen is on the limited horizon of science; it is a converse of the first, which argues that if theoretical mechanics could make it possible by mechanical technology, it could be presumed that other fields like physics which did not feature prominently in the 17th century may not have developed since the required technology to develop them was not yet developed.

Both Hessen and Grossmann had similar views that in the early modern times, scientific occupations were pursed in order to improve the already available technology. they also agreed about the ways it functioned, but the focus was not in improving it further to become more efficient and effective.

Ludwik Fleck

Fleck is yet another psychologist who contributed to the debate of scientific revolution. He concentrated on the issues to do with why ideas were resistant to change. Human beings have good ideas, but these ideas are not affected by changes that are occurring in the universe7. Therefore, he sought to study this area in relation to scientific revolutions. Fleck asserted that no fact could be rendered completely free from a certain point of view.

He, therefore, proposed that scientific facts could not be understood without necessarily considering the current modes of thinking an individual went through or other societal mode as it was an influence of analysis8. For instance, in a society where everything in their life is controlled by the will of Gods, it will be right and natural when these particular events are analyzed in nature like illness as being related to the will of gods.

Therefore, understanding of nature, as it is exhibited through the scientific study, is that it is deeply related to the overall thought structure of a certain society in which a certain analysis takes place.

On the tenacity of systems of opinion, Fleck did not only look to the maxim that commonly accepted ideas were stable and resistant to alteration or criticism, but moved a step further and proposed why such ideas were stable and resistant to change. He saw development of contradictions and ideas that were raised against the consensus not only repelled by the current viewpoint, employed in supporting of an incorrect idea.

Therefore, instead of doing away with ideas when faced with a contradictory situation or evidence, there is a possibility of reinforcing the idea in the light or face of the contradictions. To this point, Fleck explained why there was resistance to change among people and scientists9.

He pointed out that this resistant to change was not a sign of laziness or passivity, or mistrust of new ideas as scientists often told about new ideas. Therefore, he pointed out that this resistant to change emanated from an active process, which reacted to criticism hence halting adaptation to new ideas and new way of doing things.

Fleck other major contribution on the scientific revolution is the thought collectives and the tenacity of scientific opinion. Thought collectives is a descriptive term, which describes the common beliefs, held voluntarily by certain groups of scientists in respect to fundamental beliefs of the group.

Though Fleck collective concept is conservative in that, it agitates that keeping ideas relatively invariant between people or scientist is the only way that communication can be facilitated10. He asserted that there would be no clear understanding and communication in groups that had various ideas as every member would defend his/her own point of view.

Kuhn also supported these claims in his paradigm, which was also conservative in the sense that it conserved the foundational and fundamental belief systems of any given scientific group.

He went on to argue that conservative aspect in groups prevented critical ideas, which undermined the current belief systems from being given an ear11. Scientists do not engage in meaningful discussion on issues that seem to contravene the spirit and opinions of majority in the groups, therefore, these ideas that appear to undermine the belief, and presumptions of majority are ignored.

He further goes to say that restriction point is an idea which shows in a clearway, the dominance of collective belief of groups over experimental evidence. When a group accepts ideas of a particular belief system easily, it paves way for new works to be readily described, assimilated and applauded by the collective group of people or scientists who share the core beliefs of that group.

Vannevar Bush

In his documents science, the endless frontier, Vannevar Bush, demonstrated his optimism in technology as a science was to lead the people into the right path by citing the role played during World War II. During the war, it was evident that scientific research was vital in ensuring national security, and therefore, technology was to be adapted in maintaining of peace.

As a result of research in science, medicines like penicillin saved many people lives and prevented incalculable suffering; radar was also essential in ensuring that the battle of scientific techniques was won against the Nazi Germany12. This technology helped in reaching peace as well as quality of life among the people increased. Furthermore, he noted that millions of people got jobs in industries because of the scientific research.

Bush characterized science as an abstract field or terminology that was independent of human intervention. In reference to this assertion, he drew or referenced to the jobs that science managed to create regardless of it (science) being not a self supporting solution and providing no panacea for individuals, economic and social ills. He noted that science was an essential part of human survival as without progress in science, there would be no achievement in any way that could safeguard or insure our property, health and security as a nation in this modern world.

Therefore, Bush by stating this, he meant that science was not to make a human’s ingenuity but rather give an opportunity that was independent and waited to be exploited. The facts show that Bush viewed technology as a creation of humans. He also thought thaty by creating and developing it, it could be used in productive activities and in support of the lives of human beings.

Bush also noted that taking advantage of science required an individual to have an understanding of nature and its laws, which could be applied to practical applications. He further noted that primary goals and objectives of industry was to create or develop new products but not knew knowledge13.

Therefore, Bush was implying that human beings should have passion and positive attitude towards these technologies and understand how they want to live in the future and engage in research as part to scientific revolution. For instance, the development of a radio was due to the knowledge in electromagnetic radiation that was discovered by earlier groups, which had unrelated uncommon intentions.

Therefore, as long as people have the motivation of achieving a certain activities, regardless of their intentions, they can be able to attain a common goal when they demonstrate zeal and passion.

Therefore, Bush was optimistic in the development of technology as it could solve many problems that people experienced ranging from creation of more jobs, increase in wages, shortening of working hours, increasing of abundant crops, leisure and recreational facilities, bringing about high living standards, preventing of diseases and promote conservation of environment and limited national resources among many other positive effects to the world14. Therefore, this demonstrated Bush ambitions and the urge to see a changed world where science could be used in making people’s lives easier.

In conclusion, it is apparent that historiography and scientific revolutions’ debate is an area that have received divergent views from different psychologists about various perspectives or views about nature and how things and discoveries happened and originated. One common thing that unites these psychologists is the urge to find more persuasive and realistic explanation about the states of the scientific revolutions.

Their insights and views are important in the current times as they form the basis of the studies in science and help in understanding various aspects of science. Their views, although contradicts in some occasions, are of great importance to understanding of the history and the future of scientific revolution


Bird, Alexander, ““, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web.

Cooper, Stephen. “A unifying model for the G1 period in prokaryotes and eukaryotes”. Nature 280, (1979): 17-19.

Cooper, Stephen. in Cell Growth. ed. Nicolini, C. Plenum Press: New York, 1981: 315-336.

Cooper, Stephen. “Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Michigan Medical School Ann Arbor Michigan. Web.

Fleck, Ludwik. The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. trans. F. BRADLEY & T.J.TRENN. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Forster, Malcolm. “Guide to Thomas Kuhn’s.” The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Web.

Freeman, Chris “The Greening of Technology and models of innovation”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 53 (1996): 27.

Hall, Philip. “Purely Practical Revolutionaries: A History of Stalinist Theoretical Physics.” Dissertation, Harvard University, 1999.

Hessen, Boris, and Henryk Grossmann. The social and economic roots of the scientific revolution. London: Springer, 1979.

Josephson, Paul R. Physics and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Layton, Edwin. “Conditions of Technological Development” in Science, Technology and Society: A cross disciplinary perspective. Ina Spiegel-Roesing and Derek de Solla Price, eds. London: Sage, 1977.

McCudden, Sean, Smith, McKenzie, Dominguez, Melissa and Christopher Kelty. . Vannevar Bush and the National Science Foundation. Price, William J. and Lawrence. Web.

Price, William J. and Lawrence W. Bass. “Scientific research and the innovative process: The dialogue between science and technology plays an important, but usually nonlinear role in innovation.” Science. 164 (1969): 802–803.

Rosenberg, Nathan Perspectives on Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.


1. Malcolm Forster, “Guide to Thomas Kuhn’s.” The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, March 19, 1998.

2. Philip Hall. Purely Practical Revolutionaries: A History of Stalinist Theoretical Physics. (Diss. Harvard University, 1999).

3. Edwin Layton. “Conditions of Technological Development“. Science, Technology and Society: A cross-disciplinary perspective. Ina Spiegel-Roesing and Derek de Solla Price, eds. (London: Sage, 1977), 204.

4. Alexander Bird. “Thomas Kuhn”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), accessed from

5. Boris Hessen and Henryk Grossmann. The social and economic roots of the scientific revolution. (London: Springer, 1979).

6. Chris Freeman. “The Greening of Technology and models of innovation”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 53 (1996): 27.

7. Ludwik Fleck. The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, F. BRADLEY & T.J. TRENN (Trans.) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

8. Stephen Cooper. “The ideas of Ludwik Fleck and their application to the Eukaryotic cell cycle, the restriction point, and G1-phase control.” Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Michigan Medical School Ann Arbor Michigan.

9. Cooper Stephen. In Cell Growth (ed. Nicolini, C.) 315-336 (Plenum Press, New York, 1981).

10. Stephen Cooper. “A unifying model for the G1 period in prokaryotes and eukaryotes.” Nature 280, (1979): 17-19.

11. Paul R. Josephson. Physics and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

12. Nathan Rosenberg. Perspectives on Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

13. Price J. William and Bass W. Lawrence, “Scientific research and the innovative process: The dialogue between science and technology plays an important, but usually nonlinear role in innovation,” Science, 164 (1969): 802–3.

14. Sean McCudden, McKenzie Smith, Melissa Dominguez and Christopher Kelty. Government-Funded Science: Vannevar Bush and the National Science Foundation.

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