The Confusion between Physics and Metaphysics in the Standard Histories of Sciences

  • Joseph Agassi
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 28)


Let us compare histories of science to a series of portraits. You have throughout the history of art beautified portraits, whether painted or photographed and then retouched. The wrinkles are ironed out and the person’s expression in the portrait is friendlier than in real life. The person has in common with his portrait only the outline, the general contour, and even that not very accurately. Some people like portraits of their idols beautified in this way. I am not one of them. I like to see the wrinkles as signs of the hardships of life; of the sweat and the sleepless nights. This is my personal predilection. I therefore dislike much history of science that is being written today because it is a beautified portrait. Indeed, it is worse: it is, to shift the metaphor, a success story. Its theme is: Mr. So- and-So had this bright discovery and Mr. So-and-So this brilliant idea; and this is how we have arrived at the peak of this wonderful mountain called contemporary science. This is not to my liking. I like to see the wrinkles in a portrait; the setbacks or the road to success; in the history of science I want to see the discrepancies, I want to see the quarrels, personal quarrels as well as, and even more so, intellectual quarrels. I want to know, for instance, why Yolta and Galvani quarrelled so that Galvan lost his job, but I want more particularly to know about their disagreement about animal electricity, and to understand it. I need not tell you that most histories of science are entirely reticent about this matter. On the other hand, I also love the general or broad outline of the history of science, or what E. A. Burtt calls the metaphysical foundations of science. In my view science is to be valued not because it gives us utility, but because it helps us to develop our metaphysical theories of the universe. So I am in a quandary. I want to see the contour alone and I want not to lose sight of the wrinkles, of the detailed discrepancies and difficulties, of the hardship.


Gravitational Potential Metaphysical Theory Standard History Metaphysical Foundation General Contour 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1975

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph Agassi

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