Looking at science and philosophy courses online there is a striking difference in the style of teaching. In philosophy courses, it is very common - if not systematic - to refer to who first phrased a concept when teaching about this particular concept while in science, it is much less common to refer to the first author of a discovery.

My question is why?

  1. Is it just a cultural thing?
  2. Is it because philosophy evolves through big jumps brought about by a few key authors while science evolves through a much smoother process where tons of authors are contributing?
  3. Some other reason?
  • 3
    Because the meaning of scientific concepts is much less dependent on context and point of view, i.e. much less subjective, whereas in philosophy individual context is everything. So it is presumed that current science reflects the most up to date "approximation" of the "true" concept, regardless of how it developed, whereas in philosophy learning the history of a concept is the only way to understand what it means and how it functions. This oversimplifies things, and the difference is not as crisp, but...
    – Conifold
    Jun 1, 2017 at 3:53
  • I'm not sure if this question will be answerable in the SE format, but my two cents are that science is (except at the edges of new discovery) a generally consensus-based task where it doesn't matter if Bob or Issa came up with the theory first whereas philosophy is about ways to represent conflicting interpretations and values -- where there's a lot less resolution and consensus.
    – virmaior
    Jun 1, 2017 at 3:54
  • hmmm. Planck's constant? Newtonian physics? Hubble constant? Kepler's laws? In science, for the most part, scientists are known for the theories that they discover, not the books that they wrote. There have been a few exceptions. Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' is an example. Jun 2, 2017 at 7:04

2 Answers 2


A fairly uncontroversial definition of science is:

Knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

In other words, science is part of an organized, systematic and consistent body of knowledge, practiced in a consistent manner. Therefore, while individual innovators are of historical importance, you don't need to be familiar with their work to have a meaningful context for where the field is now.

On the other hand, here are a few of the definitions the same source provides for philosophy:

Pursuit of wisdom; a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means; an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs; the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group.

Philosophy is much more idiosyncratic, it is less consistently systematic between one thinker and another. In fact, since most philosophers are systemic innovators, it is arguably the least consistently systematic discipline, considered as a whole (while science, arguably by definition, is the most). For that reason, and because even the closest students and disciples of a given philosopher may diverge significantly in their thinking from the source, the study of philosophy is largely the study of ideas as attached to the individuals who formulated them.

  • "Science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives." "This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes." "For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counter-inductively." -- is there really a scientific method :-) ? Jun 1, 2017 at 18:00
  • @AlexanderSKing Where are you sourcing your quotes? What makes them relevant? Jun 1, 2017 at 18:20
  • Paul Feyerabend's "Against Method" - I thought the quotes were famous enough that I didn't need to mention the source. It is a semi-humorous attempt at pointing out that not everyone agrees on there being a single scientific method and that the unity and consistency of science is in fact cultural not epistemic. Jun 1, 2017 at 18:31
  • @AlexanderSKing I've never heard of either the author or the work, but it looks to be a deliberately contrarian viewpoint rather than a widely accepted contention. Jun 1, 2017 at 19:57
  • The point was taken by many to be deliberately contrarian, Feyerabend is Kuhn's nasty hippy-Dadaist cousin. But Feyerabend is kind of like the Berkeley of philosophy of science, too radical to be accepted, and yet impossible to refute. Jun 1, 2017 at 21:09

I don't think you can avoid the cultural influence simply because of the fact that philosophy is highly contextual. That does not in any sense imply a necessity to use the name of the author as a defining term, nor does it lead to a conclusion that this is a helpful or productive thing to do. The fact alone that science and philosophy proceed by different methods, means only that they may be taught using different taxonomies, not that one such taxonomy must therefore be by author.

I think that the use of author names in philosophy could also be influenced by the fact that, unlike modern sciences, pretty much anyone can do philosophy, all you need is a brain. It is far more reasonable that any person living now could arrive at, say Plato's theory of Forms (or something like it) without having studied any philosophy than it is that someone would spontaneously arrive a Einstein's Theory of relativity without having studies Maxwell's experiments. Thus, there evolves a need to specify that one is talking about "Plato's" Theory of Forms as opposed to one's own theory of forms, which might legitimately be very similar without plagiarism.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .