Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: a two-day workshop

Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions presented scientific change as revolutionary: later theoretical developments do not always build upon the achievements of earlier ones. Sometimes they present a new picture of the world that must replace the old. Prominent scientists have taken a different line. Henri Poincaré acknowledged that new theories in mathematical physics can be highly revisionary:

The ephemeral nature of scientific theories takes by surprise the man of the world. Their brief period of prosperity ended, he sees them abandoned one after another; he sees ruins piled upon ruins; he predicts that the theories in fashion to-day will in a short time succumb in their turn, and he concludes that they are absolutely in vain. This is what he calls the bankruptcy of science. (Poincaré 1905, 178).

However, argued Poincaré, important connections between earlier and later theories might nevertheless exist. In his 1936 Presidential Address to the Chemical Society (later to become the Royal Society of Chemistry), Nevil Sidgwick more forthrightly rejected the view that ‘when a new discovery is made, it shows the previous conceptions upon the subject to be untrue’ (1936, 533). Interestingly, Sidgwick took as his main subject the body of structural theory which had been developed in organic chemistry during the nineteenth century, and which some chemists and physicists would later come to regard as having been swept away by quantum mechanics.

The issue remains an important one for science, for the philosophy of science, and for public policy that aims to be grounded in science. As Sidgwick noted, if ‘to-day’s scientific ideas show those of yesterday to be wrong, we need not trouble about them, because they themselves may be shown to be wrong to-morrow.’ (1936, 533)

The trustworthiness of scientific ideas is a particular issue where they bear on public policy, as in the fields of health and climate science. Trustworthiness must also be a consideration when we think about the role of science in the broader project of understanding the world and our place in it.

Organised by Professor Robin Hendry and Professor Peter Vickers from the department of Philosophy this workshop aims to bring together historians, philosophers and scientists to examine some key cases of theory change in the history of science, determining (i) the extent to which they are as revolutionary as is sometimes claimed; and (ii) how far this supports or undermines the trustworthiness of the relevant scientific ideas.

Confirmed external participants include: Professor Mathias Frisch, Institut für Philosophie, Leibniz Universität Hannover; Professor Helge Kragh, Department of Mathematics - Centre for Science Studies, Aarhus University; and Professor Alan J. Rocke, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.


Poincaré, Henri 1905. Science and Hypothesis. London: Walter Scott

Sidgwick, N.V. 1936. Structural Chemistry. Journal of the Chemical Society 149: 533-538

The workshop will take place on Monday 30 October and Tuesday 31 October 2017 in Kenworthy Hall, St. Mary’s College (Durham University). Attendance at the workshop is open, but places are limited and registration is required. For details please contact Yafeng Shan yafeng.shan@durham.ac.uk.

This workshop is also supported by the Department of Philosophy and the AHRC research project Scientific Realism and the Challenge from the History of Science (http://community.dur.ac.uk/evaluating.realism/).