On Novelty

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


There is a saying that was attributed to Louis Agassiz (no relation of mine) to the effect that every new idea is first declared contrary to reason, and then contrary to religion, and when it overcomes these two obstacles it is declared to be old hat. Popper’s philosophy is just now passing from the second to the third stage — the stage of being old hat. Be that as it may, allow me to record, as an observation, that a number of distinguished philosophers, particularly of science, now seem to be preparing the grounds for this transition: they are playing amongst themselves a game that I both witnessed and heard reported in private conversations any number of times — the game of showing that every new idea that you can quote from Popper has been previously published by others. Various writings of various thinkers, whether scientists or philosophers, of the last three centuries, avail themselves of this game. It is not hard to find in them passages with striking resemblance to important remarks of Popper. His refutability criterion for the scientific character of theories, which is perhaps the best known idea of his, can be found in previous writings in one version or another. Even what I consider his most important idea, his idea that scientific theories are series or stages of approximations to the truth, is not new. I have found expressions of it in the works of Priestley in the eighteenth century, Laplace in the early nineteenth century, Ludwig Boltzmann at the turn of the century, in an appendix to Duhem’s Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, and even in rather obscure and almost entirely unknown passages, in a few books, and in an article by Bertrand Russell where he contrasts Newton’s theory with Einstein’s.


Scientific Theory Abstract Painting Negro Problem Jewish Problem Novum Organum 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1975

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph Agassi

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