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Epistemology and science

Field of application of epistemology

For a long time, epistemology has focused exclusively on the content of science, the history of this content, and the genealogy of the advances of this content. Science as a human institution was left to other disciplines, in particular to sociology. The question of the nature of science was then confounded with that of the nature of scientific knowledge. But Hervé Barreau points out that this content of science did not care about the difference between common knowledge and scientific knowledge. It was not until the eighteenth century that philosophy and epistemology “manifest the weakness of common beliefs and opinions” so that epistemology really focuses on scientific knowledge.

On the other hand, the first epistemologies did not pose the question of the capacities of the sensibility and the understanding of the human being allowing the knowledge, any more than of the origin of these capacities. Hervé Barreau believes that it is Kant who initiates this question; “[Kant shows] that scientific knowledge was only possible from the a priori forms of sensibility and understanding”.

Then came the question of the passage from common knowledge, more or less empirical, to scientific knowledge. Hervé Barreau evokes David Hume, but especially holds the psychology of the nineteenth century as the only capable of explaining this passage with “acceptable results”. “Husserl who is the founder of the phenomenological movement […] has denounced [the idealistic foundation] of scientific knowledge by psychology [that is, by the subjectivity of the learner]”. It is the cognitive sciences that are currently at the forefront of these explanations.

Epistemology then married a “historical” stream with the advent of the historico-critical method as the guiding method. “Scientists are beginning to produce works in history [of science] and philosophy of science [= epistemology]”. It is this historico-critical method that can be perpetually revised and perfected that has been used by Bachelard and Canguilhem.

In recent decades, some sociological trends (notably science studies) have called for a “right of scrutiny” over this content by analyzing the context of scientific production by the scientific community, while some epistemologists consider it necessary to pay attention to concrete dimensions of scientific activity to better understand the advancement of scientific knowledge.

As the progress of knowledge has helped, the number of studied sciences and the volume of specific responses relating to certain sciences have steadily increased. A classification has been set up around a “flagship” discipline called the special science that deals with specific issues in relation to science in general.


In the 21st century, a double movement is emerging:

  • philosophers (ontologists, epistemologists) [of science] must know the sciences on which and from which they express themselves,
  • “scientists who do not update their philosophy [and the history of their subject] contaminate their science with moribund philosophies”.

Guillaume Lecointre considers it necessary today to remind researchers of the terms of the tacit contract which conditions the possibility of reproducibility of scientific experiments:

  1. initial skepticism about the facts;
  2. realism of principle;
  3. methodological materialism;
  4. rationality [and logic].

Epistemological decomposition of science: the special sciences

Depending on the historical period, science is broken down into different disciplines and the authors group them together:

  • in two parts: sciences and human sciences,
  • in 3 parts: physical sciences, life sciences and human sciences,
  • in four parts: formal sciences, physico-chemical sciences, life sciences and human sciences.

These epistemological pillars are represented by one or more “special sciences”.

In recent epistemology, there are often two sections, one is related to the epistemology of science in general (recurrent and transversal issues) and the other is concerned with “regional” epistemologies. a specific discipline with regional issues. The most cited special sciences are:

  • Logic: see epistemology of logic, philosophy of logic,
  • Mathematics: see also the philosophy of mathematics,
  • Physics,
  • Medicine: see epistemology of medicine,
  • Biology,
  • Linguistics,
  • Social sciences,
  • History,
  • Economics,
  • Cognitive science,
  • Psychology.

Each special science is the subject of a particular epistemology. The latter brought to the epistemology of science in general new questions with more or less happiness.

Themes of the epistemology of science

The five classic themes are:

  1. the explanation;
  2. the confirmation ;
  3. the causality;
  4. the scientific realism and ontology of the objects of science, thus free from all metaphysics.

Then there are other themes: the change in science (called “paradigmatology” by Edgar Morin), the impact of the concept of emergence on the notion of reduction in science, syntactic and semantic approaches in analysis scientific theories.

Themes of the epistemologies of the special sciences

The regional epistemology of science (the case of biology, for example) has led to the declension into epistemologies of the special sciences. It could be :

  • of a general theme which has been particularized by special science;
  • the emergence on the front of the stage of a new theme related specifically to the special science and which does not become generalized to other disciplines.

For example, the theme of ethics that is posed to the economy of which we can not accept that the science that takes it as its object does not worry about the fate of fragile populations.

Some authors have wanted to “impose” on the epistemology processes of a special science: for example the evolutionist epistemology “tracing” on epistemology the evolutionist theory of species described in biology.

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