Directors of the Notre Dame History and Philosophy of Science program:

1997-2007: Don Howard

2007-2008: Vaughn McKim

2008-2011: Don Howard

2011- 2016: Katherine Brading

The University of Notre Dame was one of the first universities in the United States to offer a graduate degree in the joint field of history and philosophy of science. In 1970, an M.A. program was established, and over the years attracted students from a variety of backgrounds. Many took the M.A. in history and philosophy of science concurrently with doctoral degrees in philosophy, history or theology at Notre Dame.

In 1989, it was decided to establish a new doctoral degree program in history and philosophy of science. By then, the HPS faculty had grown to sixteen, making it one of the largest in the nation. And the field itself had expanded enormously in the twenty years since the first HPS M.A. students enrolled at Notre Dame. One of the reasons why a doctoral program in HPS was not established earlier at Notre Dame was the conviction that graduates in HPS ought to have a “regular” Ph.D. in philosophy or history in order to compete effectively for positions in the corresponding academic departments. The new program, however, was designed to address this concern. The degree granted is in history and philosophy of science, but students are expected to follow one of three “tracks” for their doctoral work, specializing either in the history of science, the philosophy of science, or theology and science. In turn, each track requires a student to incorporate into his or her program of studies a number of the requirements for the doctoral degree as awarded by the departments of history, philosophy, or theology.

The establishment of graduate programs and journals in the joint field of history and philosophy of science reflects a growing realization that history of science and philosophy of science are interdependent, and that they have together achieved critical mass as a doctoral field of study. Thirty years ago, philosophy of science was a specialty taught in some (by no means all) philosophy departments. Its main affinity was with logic. There were a few graduate programs in history of science, but history of science rarely made an appearance in undergraduate course offerings from departments of history.

In the course of the 1960s, philosophy of science was transformed, as logical positivism lost its hold and a new, more naturalistic, approach took its place. The relevance to the philosopher of science of case-studies drawn from the history of science was strongly urged, and a profusion of such studies began to appear in print. These were seen by many not just as illustrations of philosophical theses about science but as, in some sense, furnishing grounds for the theses themselves. Those of us at Notre Dame are proud of the fact that the philosophy of science as cultivated here has long had a pronouncedly historical character, this thanks primarily to the example set by Ernan McMullin. In the 1970s, matters became even more complicated, as the social dimensions of science came to be discussed in ever-finer detail. When science was viewed as the characteristic activity of a highly specific historical community, many diverse challenges to the traditional philosophical understanding of science were quick to appear.

Something similar has happened to the historiography of science in recent decades. Traditionally, historians of science have emphasized the interplay of theory and evidence; they have set out to construct lineages for the sciences of today in terms that are largely cognitive. In the last few decades, however, the focus of historical inquiry has significantly broadened as science itself has come to be viewed as the complex product of a community that bears the marks of its own place and time. There is, in consequence, a far greater diversity of approaches to the writing of history of science, a much keener debate about what exactly the historian of science ought to be looking out for, and a sharper awareness of the difficulties involved in “explaining” a social activity as causally complex as the construction of scientific knowledge. In short, the philosophy of science (certain aspects of it, at least) has become as relevant to the writing of informed history of science as history of science has to the writing of philosophy of science.

This is the premise upon which joint graduate programs in the history and philosophy of science are based. As the influence of the sciences and the technologies built on them continues to increase in our society, historians have given more and more weight to studies of the phenomena of science generally. History of science, from being a fairly abstruse specialty, has become an important component in the historical literacy expected of the educated person.

The agenda of the philosopher has been dominated by the challenge of the “new science” for a much longer time, since the time of Galileo and Descartes, in fact. But there can be no doubt that issues raised by the theories and methods of the natural and social sciences continue to be fertile topics for philosophical reflection and inquiry.