Course description (Christian Wüthrich)

This course provides an introduction to the history and philosophy of science. It presents the main philosophical problems and positions in the study of the natural sciences and examines key episodes in the history of astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology.

While addressing classical positions and authors in philosophy of science, such as logical empiricism, Popper, and Kuhn, we will focus on the central systematic problems of philosophy of science: the problem of induction and underdetermination of theories by empirical data, empirical evidence and confirmation of theories, Bayesian epistemology, scientific explanation and the role of laws of nature, reduction of theories, and scientific realism.

In addition, we will study the Copernican revolution, the chemical revolution, the biological revolution, the revolutions in physics in the early 20th century, as well as the philosophical issues arising from these historical developments in the natural sciences.

This course will be held in English.

Literature and course materials

The main textbook I will rely on is:

  • Peter Godfrey-Smith (2021). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. University of Chicago Press.

The following are useful books in French:

  • Barberousse, A., Kistler, M. et Ludwig, P.: La philosophie des sciences au XXe siècle. Flammarion 2000.
  • Barberousse, A., Bonnay, D. et Cozic, M.: Précis de philosophie des sciences. Vuibert 2011.
  • Esfeld, M.: Philosophie des sciences: Une introduction. Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes 2006.

Most texts are available on this course's moodle page at Moodle.

Slides (in PDF format) are available under the links in the schedule below.

Here is a video of 6 minutes which explains the problem of induction, even though without discussing the possibility of an a priori justification at the level of relations of ideas:

Here is the study guide for the written exam:

Course requirements

For this course, the following criteria will be applied for obtaining credit

  • Presence and participation in the course: I expect participants to attend the course and to actively participate. Failure to do so may result in a grade deduction, or even in not passing the course at all.
  • Written exam of 2 hours: There will be a written exam of 2 hours (anonymised) during the exam sessions of June or August. e will discuss the format of the exam in due course.

Course schedule

Here is the course schedule for the spring semester 2024, which is subject to change.

Date Topic Reading
22.02. Scientific explanation Godfrey-Smith, §§11.1-11.2
*BKL, ch. 5, pp. 100-110
29.02. Laws of nature Godfrey-Smith, §§11.3-11.4
*BKL, ch. 4; *Esfeld, ch. 22
07.03. Natural kinds and topics in the philosophy of chemistry Hendry, Natural kinds in chemistry
*Weisberg, Needham, Hendry, SEP entry on the philosophy of chemistry
14.03. The biological revolution: from Darwin and Mendel to the discovery of the DNA Morange, ch. 7, pp. 169-188, 204-205
*Morange, ch. 7, pp. 183-200, 216-218
21.03. Topics in philosophy of biology: species Sterelny and Griffiths, ch. 9
*Godfrey-Smith (2014), ch. 7
28.03. Spacetime Huggett, ch. 9
*Esfeld, ch. 14
04.04. Spring break
11.04. Spacetime (continued), catching up Huggett, chs. 14, 15
*Esfeld, ch. 12
18.04. Quantum physics Maudlin, ch. 1
*Ismael, SEP entry on the quantum mechanics
*Esfeld, ch. 18
25.04. Quantum physics (continued) Mermin
*Esfeld (2012), ch. 9
02.05. Catching up
09.05. Ascension Day
16.05. Gravitational waves and black holes Penrose, §§19.8, 27.8-27.9
23.05. Special program: conference
30.05. The revolution in the foundations of mathematics Handout on set theory

Here is the course schedule for the fall semester 2023, which is subject to change.

Date Topic Reading
21.09. Organisation
28.09. History of philosophy of science Godfrey-Smith, ch. 1
*BKL ch. 1, pp. 9-13
05.10. Science vs pseudoscience Ruse, Creation-science is not science
Laudan, Commentary
Ruse, Response to the commentary
*Hotez, Anti-science kills
12.10. Arguments, deduction, induction Godfrey-Smith, §§ 3.1-3.2, and glossary, pp. 337-348 (excerpts, as you see fit)
*BKL ch. 2, pp. 32-42; *BKL pp. 269-297 (extraits)
19.10. Logical empiricism Godfrey-Smith, ch. 2
*Esfeld §§2.1-2.3
26.10. Popper and falsificationism Godfrey-Smith, ch. 4
*Esfeld §§2.4-2.5
02.11. Scientific Revolution Henry, The scientific revolution
09.11. Catching up
16.11. Kuhn and scientific revolutions Godfrey-Smith, ch. 5
*Esfeld, ch. 5
23.11. Holism and underdetermination Godfrey-Smith, §§9.1-9.2
*Esfeld §§3.1-3.3
30.11. Chemical revolution Best, What was revolutionary about the chemical revolution?
07.12. Induction and confirmation Godfrey-Smith, §§ 3.3-3.4
*BKL ch. 2, pp. 42-54
14.12. Scientific realism Godfrey-Smith, ch. 10
*Esfeld ch. 1
21.12. Catching up


  • Readings with an astérisk (*) are optional.
  • Readings in English are in red, readings in French are in blue.
  • Godfrey-Smith: Peter Godfrey-Smith (2021). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. University of Chicago Press.
  • BKL: Barberousse, A., Kistler, M. et Ludwig, P.: La philosophie des sciences au XXe siècle. Flammarion 2000.
Sellars, Empirisime et philosophie de l'esprit, Ch. 3 Goodman, §§III.3-III.4, pp. 81-93 Hempel, §§5.2-5.3 BBC Ch. 2, pp. 77-87 (§3-§4.2) Nagel, The logic of reduction in sciences