Boundaries Between Territories of Knowledge

Colonization or Independence?
  • Jaume Navarro
Part of the Technikzukünfte, Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft / Futures of Technology, Science and Society book series (TEWG)


In this paper, I argue that scientific disciplines are not natural kinds; rather their boundaries and limits are the result of contingent, historical processes. In his inductive philosophy, the Cambridge-based, influential polymath William Whewell depicted scientific fields as each referring to one definite object, based on one particular principle and largely independent from the rest of disciplines. This static portrait of the division of science contrasts with the history of the configuration of disciplines in the old English university during the second half of the nineteenth century. Taking the career of the physicist Joseph John Thomson as a case study, I describe the process by which physics became institutionally distinct from chemistry, in spite of his constant attempts to create a large department for what he called the “physical sciences”, which would include physics, chemistry and engineering. Moreover, his interest in spiritualism strengthened his views on the unity of all science and the continuity between different “provinces of knowledge”. Interestingly, this unity was instrumental in his work on electrical discharge in gases and the eventual discovery of the electron. Thus, I argue that the boundaries between disciplines should be readily transgressed, following the circulation of knowledge, methods and principles before such boundaries actually crystallized.


William Whewell Joseph John Thomson Scientific disciplines Spiritualism Pluralism Wave-particle duality 


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Donostia-San SebastiánSpain

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