In This Article Scientific Progress

  • Introduction
  • Historical Interpretations
  • Early Philosophical Interpretations
  • Quantitative Growth of Science
  • Methodological Progress
  • Post-positivist Models of Scientific Change
  • Paradigms and Problem Solving
  • Progress and Research Programs
  • Evolutionary Models of Progress
  • Formal Approaches
  • Progress and the Aims of Science
  • Progress as Increasing Truthlikeness
  • Other Realist Views of Progress
  • Debates on Scientific Realism
  • Intertheory Relations
  • Idealization and Concretization
  • Progress or Not?

Philosophy Scientific Progress
Ilkka Niiniluoto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0055


Science is the systematic pursuit of new knowledge by using critical methods of inquiry. Scientists constitute a community of investigators jointly engaged in research to produce knowledge about nature, humanity, culture, and society. The notion of science may thus refer to a social institution, the researchers, the research process, the methods of inquiry, and scientific knowledge. Developments and changes in all of these aspects of science are studied by the history of science. Sociologists of science are especially interested in the professional status of the scientists and their academic institutions, the internal norms of the scientific community, forms of scientific communication, and the economics and funding systems of scientific research. Multidisciplinary science studies illuminate the interaction between science and society, especially the ways scientific advances have brought about social progress by improved technologies, economic prosperity, quality of life, and justice in society. Science education is concerned with the increased skill and expertise of the scientists. Methodology looks at the development of new methods and tools of research, such as the refinement of scientific instruments, techniques of experimentation, and statistical and computational methods. Philosophy of science analyzes science from a cognitive perspective as an attempt to improve and increase scientific knowledge. In particular, axiological studies discuss the aims of scientific inquiry. Logic and epistemology study the proper ways of scientific thinking, argumentation, and inference. The language of science and its relations to reality, observation, and theory; explanation and prediction; and patterns of scientific change belong to the main themes of general philosophy of science. Philosophical studies may also focus on key issues about special scientific disciplines, such as physics, biology, psychology, and economics. While the notion of scientific progress in the broad sense could cover improvements in all of these aspects of science, it is customary to restrict this title to advances of science in terms of its success in knowledge seeking. In this sense, scientific progress is a fundamental issue that has been actively debated within the philosophy of science since the 1960s. The task of philosophical analysis is to consider alternative answers to the conceptual or normative question: What is meant by improvement or progress in science? The definition of progress leads to the methodological question about indicators of progress: How can we recognize progressive developments in science? With these tools one can then study the factual question: To what extent and in which respects has science been progressive?

Historical Interpretations

Science was born around 600 BCE with Greek philosophers of nature who wished to reveal the basic elements of the physical world by independent human reason without myths or religions. Ancient thinkers made significant contributions in mathematics (Euclid), astronomy (Ptolemy), physics (Archimedes), and medicine (Hippocrates, Galen). Plato defined the concept of knowledge (Gr. episteme) as justified true belief, and Aristotle outlined the logical grounds of scientific reasoning. The Greek tradition was transmitted to medieval Latin scholars by the Arabs, who themselves made discoveries in chemistry and optics. The ruling synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity encouraged conservatism in the new universities, but new revolutionary trends broke out in astronomy with Copernicus in the 15th century and Johannes Kepler and Galileo in the early 17th century. As emphasized in Bury 1932, in the modern age, science was strongly promoted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. A broader and historically more extensive picture, with interactions between scientific and social progress, is painted in Nisbet 1980. But when precisely was it realized that science is a collective enterprise that can accumulate new established results? The self-understanding of the Renaissance period is ambiguous, because this notion refers to the rebirth of ancient wisdom, not to novelties and discoveries. Crombie 1975 and Molland 1978 argue that the roots of the idea of progress can be found in the Middle Ages, while Zilsel 1945 locates them in the 16th century. Cohen 1976 shows that the concept of “scientific revolution” was not used by great scientists of the early modern period but rather was borrowed from the sphere of French politics in the 18th century. Sarton 1936 concludes that science is the paradigm of progress because progress has no definite and unquestionable meaning in other fields than science. Bernal 1969 sees the cultural value of science in its ability to give rational means for social planning.

  • Bernal, J. D. Science in History. 4 vols. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969.

    E-mail Citation »

    The British historian of science, with pragmatist and Marxist influences, opposes the reactionary ideal of pure science, the pursuit of truth for its own sake, which has done much to hinder the development of science. The progressive growth of science comes from its interconnection with industry.

  • Bury, J. B. The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth. New York: Macmillan, 1932.

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    Classic study of the idea of progress. Bury argues that, despite some anticipations by medieval and Renaissance thinkers, the conception of progress in human history was established only in the 17th and 18th centuries by the optimist thinkers of the Enlightenment. The progress of science had a strong impact in this historical process.

  • Cohen, I. Bernard. “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 37.2 (1976): 257–288.

    DOI: 10.2307/2708824E-mail Citation »

    We are accustomed to describing the work of Galileo and Isaac Newton as “the scientific revolution.” A leading expert on Newton’s physics shows that the notion of “revolution” was applied to science for the first time during the heyday of the political revolution in France in the late 18th century. Available online by subscription.

  • Crombie, A. C. “Some Attitudes to Scientific Progress: Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern.” History of Science 13 (1975): 213–230.

    DOI: 10.1177/007327537501300303E-mail Citation »

    A leading expert on medieval science shows how the idea of scientific progress gradually started to emerge already in the ancient and medieval world.

  • Molland, A. G. “Medieval Ideas of Scientific Progress.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39.4 (1978): 561–578.

    DOI: 10.2307/2709442E-mail Citation »

    “We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.” This famous expression of the idea that science is a cumulative effort of successive generations is often attributed to Isaac Newton. Molland shows that this image was originally used by Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century. Available online by subscription.

  • Nisbet, Robert. History of the Idea of Progress. London: Heinemann, 1980.

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    The early history of the idea of progress includes Judeo-Christian eschatology with its linear conception of time and the new economic activities in the 13th century with trade and voyages around the world.

  • Sarton, George. The Study of the History of Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

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    The first professor of history of science at Harvard University understood that the development of science may be at any time disrupted by conceptual and theoretical revolutions. Yet Sarton claimed that only the history of science can “illustrate the progress of mankind” because “the acquisition and systematization of positive knowledge are the only human activities which are truly cumulative and progressive” (p. 5).

  • Zilsel, Edgar. “The Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Progress.” Journal of the History of Ideas 6.3 (1945): 325–349.

    DOI: 10.2307/2707296E-mail Citation »

    A Viennese philosopher interested in the origins of science claims that the idea of scientific progress was created in the 16th century by artisans working outside the academic institutions. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was at the same time a painter, architect, engineer, and anatomist. The conceptual distinction among science, art, and technology was established only in the late 18th century by Immanuel Kant’s critical treatises. Available online by subscription. Reprinted in The Social Origins of Modern Science, edited by Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen, 96–122 (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2000).

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