A Historical Introduction to the
Philosophy of Science

Book Review

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2022. A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Losee, John, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, 4th edn, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. viii+314, (paperback).

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I picked up John Losee's book, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (fourth edition), with a view to using it in a series of sessions on the philosophy of science. I was looking for a book that cast a wide net over thinking about the nature and limits of science going back to the schools in Ancient Greece. I wanted a book that was reasonably thorough, yet understandable by readers who were not well-versed in academic philosophy. This book tries to steer that middle ground.

As Losee mentions in his Preface, his book is written for students of the history of science and the philosophy of science. Understandably, then, the book is a bit of a challenge for those not initiated into formal studies in philosophy. Losee assumes the reader is familiar with the history of the physical and biological sciences and has a working knowledge of formal logic and probability theory. My hope for the series was that with some guidance through the book with a more experienced tutor, some of the more difficult sections would be comprehensible.

Losee's book is an excellent overview of the key strands in the philosophy of science over the last two and a half millennia. For this book, Losee focuses on the key characters, moving fluidly from Aristotle, progressing through the scholastic period in Europe, the positivist period in the middle of the last century and ending with contemporary thinkers, such as Feyerabend, Kuhn, Laudan and Lakatos.

Book cover: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee

As Losee discusses the core arguments from each of the thinkers he addresses, he helpfully illustrates some of the main problems with the view he is explaining. Losee takes pains to not present a caricature of the philosopher he is critiquing. He paints a picture of each philosopher he discusses as a deep thinker with complex and nuanced views.

In each chapter, Losee centres his discussion about particular philosophers on one or two themes. Progressing through the chapters, he shows how each problem in the philosophy of science recurs again and again throughout the history of thinking about science, skilfully weaving it into his treatment of the various historical periods. These recurring themes include:

  • the status of the central attributes of entities such as humans
    (Do entities have essences independent of the meanings we attach to terms?)(essentialism versus nominalism)
  • the nature of causation
    (Are causes and their effects connected necessarily or only contingently?)(causal necessity versus contingent constant conjunction)
  • the form of inductive inference
    (Are theories built piecemeal by observing instances or via axiomatic systems?)(induction by simple enumeration versus hypothetico-deductive reasoning)
  • the logical relationship between a theory and supporting evidence
    (Are observational facts independent of the theories they support?)(theory-independence versus theory-ladenness)
  • the importance of the time of discovery of evidence
    (Is a theory better confirmed if the evidence in its favour was previously unknown?)(historical versus logical theories of confirmation)
  • the ontological status of theoretical entities such as quarks
    (Do such entities really exist or are theories merely instruments of prediction?)(realism versus instrumentalism)

On the down side, this fourth edition contains some distracting typographical errors. In addition, the reader would have benefited from Losee introducing some of the technical terms and formal notation before using them in his text. This book is ambitious in its scope, covering as it does over two millennia of thought on this subject. I would have liked some more context around each of the discussions to make it easier for the philosophically and scientifically uninitiated to understand the technical topic being discussed. However, I appreciate that this would have at least doubled the size of what is already a voluminous text.

In the following sections of this review, I summarize each chapter in Losee's book and add some clarifying comments. Where I add a comment to Losee's text, it is indicated thus in square brackets:

[LA: text of Leslie Allan's comment]

At the end of each chapter's notes, I also include a number of questions for readers to consider. It is hoped that these questions will prompt further reflection and enquiry.

These notes were used in a series of Philosophy Matters seminars on Losee's book. Register your interest in attending a future seminar series by visiting Philosophy Matters.

Copyright © 2022–3

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