Extracts from: “The teaching of philosophy of science”

Dominique Lecourt.[1] 

(Translated by Judith Sanitt and Julia Sanitt).




For half a century feelings of ambivalence towards science have not diminished in our society.  Today, the idea that science could solve all humanity’s problems is not seriously defended.  We have finished with the “true idolatry” of a few great minds of the nineteenth century who called for science to be substituted for religion for the greater good of mankind.


Nevertheless the idea of a “scientific conception of the world” is still very much alive.  In particular, the idea that there is a unity to all scientific knowledge which would eventually lead to a rational mastery of human relations, still holds sway.  During the past fifty years the lightning progress of biological science, the springing-up and expansion of biotechnology, the extraordinary success of new techniques of information and communication, arouses the admiration of our contemporaries.


However, it must be stated that this great social debate about science is hardly echoed in science teaching.  Thus students feel a wide gap between the science that they learn and the society in which they will be called upon to implement acquired skills following lengthy studies.


In any case, the way in which science is taught today, will not equip them with the necessary intellectual tools to deal with questions they will have to face (of which there will be no shortage).


Worse still: the bonds which unite scientific research and technical inventions to other forms of human culture seem to have been ruptured, or their existence resolutely denied in the first place.  There are a number of students, who, in these circumstances, perceive science as “anti-cultural”, whether this is because they delight or take satisfaction from this view, or because it gives them grounds for disappointment with or rejection of science.


Philosophy plays a critical and constructive role in our country; the public understanding of science is one of the more powerful organising forces of society.  If one writes down the objective of the present report in a comparable context and historical perspective, its significance is not only a question of a profound overhaul of science education, but also the redefinition of the role of philosophy teaching.  Moreover, it entails a reactivation of the concept of the modern university, which would have universal validity.



One group of questions addressed applies to colleagues in the scientific and medical disciplines: Do they think it desirable to set up and develop philosophy of science teaching in DEUG[2] and or bachelors and masters degrees, and if so, why?  To what extent do they consider their colleagues would adhere to or reject this project and what would be their objections?  Where would their opposition come from and how would one respond?  What do the students think?  Have they formed any views or expressed reservations or even shown rejection of the idea?  What about the particular case of medicine?


A second group of questions addressed to the same colleagues is aimed at drawing up a shortlist of what already exists.  How much teaching of this type have they done and with what success or failure?  What lessons do they learn from their failure (if they are even known)?


A third group of questions is addressed to philosophers:  How many of them have the required ability to take on such teaching?  And how many would be willing to undertake it?  Would they envisage being attached to a university department of science or medicine?  Do they already – and for how long – take part in initiatives of this kind?  What assessment can they make from their experience with students, and from the point of view of their research?


Now we come to the questions that are more precisely focussed on the content of such teaching:  In the eventuality that the whole degree course is covered, would it be necessary to plan for a progressive specialization?  A progression going from more general questions in DEUG to those precise concrete examples borrowed from different disciplines and chosen accordingly for each course.  Is it necessary, on the other hand, to differentiate the teaching at all levels and treat it on a case-by-case basis?


Another question: should the teaching be optional or compulsory?  Optional in DEUG, compulsory at higher levels - or the other way round?  And finally, how in the setting up of such courses are they to be timetabled?  How do we ensure the necessary training of philosophers and scientists qualified to teach them, and who could guarantee the quality of this teaching?


On the first rung of objections to be mentioned is that of the burden on courses.  At the conference held on the 28th May, 1999 at the University of Nice-Sophia – Antipolis, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond particularly insisted on the necessity of confronting this question at the outset.


Faculty staff are victims of the “cumulative conception” of teaching which is a fallacy.    This misunderstanding is all the more dangerous because it already exists in the main in the senior classes and even more in the preparatory classes of the secondary schools. 


Let us suppose that syllabuses could be lightened.  Would the training of students profit as much from this as from introducing philosophy of science courses?  The strongest objection which a number of our colleagues have echoed (to deplore it) is that such teaching would be useless.  Thus what use would philosophy of science be?


For the scientists themselves, this teaching would seem to be a cultural luxury.  Does their own task not consist of pushing forward knowledge in their field of research?  Thus one could easily leave the responsibility of this thought to specialised philosophers, the epistemologists in charge of the development of models of scientific logic by rational reconstruction as formalised as possible from the actual steps of the researchers.  Obviously, these specialists are responsible to keep their knowledge of this logic for researchers in social sciences, always eager for firm guarantees to authenticate the uncertain scientific nature of their own theories.


But this practice rests on a myth: that of the supposed divorce of modern science from philosophy.  A great fiction rehashed by modern thinkers who would have liked it that from Galileo to Einstein, this divorce would have been, if one dare say it, consummated in the physical sciences before the biologists start up along the same path.


Many speakers have noticed how this myth has shown itself to be harmful to research itself, socially dangerous for the scientific community and disastrous for education.


Philosophy of science teaching, adequately planned, would allow these researchers not to leave themselves open to false ideas.  Suitably prepared by such an exercise in critical thought, they would more easily identify the parts of those debates that refer to ideological motives.


Several of our colleagues who teach in engineering schools put forward quite a different argument in favour of the teaching of philosophy of science: they emphasise that today the success of students in the labour market, depends not only on their technical ability, but on their capacity to use their knowledge and their know-how in the field of practical experience.


If there is a finding on which all my speakers agree, it is on the question of the use of time: a real and great demand on the part of science students. One part of teaching should be dedicated to presenting science under another aspect than purely technical. 


Another wish all are agreed on is: that such teaching must be organised in conditions which will guarantee quality by means of strict procedures of validation, control and evaluation.


It would be regrettable to see teaching becoming makeshift and spread by colleagues trying to improvise as philosophers or science historians.


In several cases, it is at the level of research that an exemplary co-operation has been established between philosophers and scientists on subjects of mutual interest.


I agree with those who consider that only research that is active and well structured in philosophy of science and medicine can eventually ensure the desired extension of teaching in this area.



The objective of the following proposals is to create conditions for a profound overhaul of scientific and medical education by a genuine integration of the teaching of philosophy of science in all degree courses.



The first step would be to ask universities to introduce into their course plans the teaching of general philosophy of science to the second year level of DEUG.


For bachelors and masters degrees it would be advisable, as far as possible, to organise a more specialised tuition, which would take into account the student’s degree subject (philosophy of mathematics, physics or biology etc.)


But to give strength to this flexible optional system, it would be necessary for those students taking a masters degree in science to have obtained at least one optional module in philosophy of science during the course of their degree.


Following a suggestion made to me by several universities, I propose that it would be an advantage to doctoral schools if from now on they all included a course on the philosophy of science.


The validation of modules should be made through a normal exam of a regular type consisting of a written test in the form of an essay.


A certain number of lectureships should be created.


In order to maintain on a national level the coordination of these changes, which would have to combine an expansion in research in philosophy of science, the introduction of new courses as well as the initial and continued training of a number of instructors, I propose the creation of a National Institute for Philosophy of Science.


As well as the tasks of coordination such an Institute would:

From now on, it is important to encourage science and philosophy teachers to work together in the increasing number of philosophy and science lessons in secondary schools.


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[1] L’enseignement de la philosophie des sciences; Rapport au minister de l’Éducation nationale, de la Recherche et de la Technologie, Dominique Lecourt, professeur à l’université Denis Diderot – Paris VII, 1999 – available at http://www.education.gouv.fr/rapport/lecourt/ .

[2]Diplôme d'études universitaires générales – Non-specialised studies preliminary degree awarded after a two-year general foundation course.