The Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education

To better understand the reasons for contemporary advocacy of history and
philosophy in science teaching, or for teaching the nature of science (NOS)
as this is sometimes called, it is informative to go back to the origins of these
concerns in the European Enlightenment. Although not co-extensive with
the Enlightenment tradition in education, the HPS&ST programme shares
many of that tradition’s concerns for educational engagement by scientists,
philosophers and historians in order to enlarge the domain of our knowledge
of the natural and social worlds and to promote the betterment of culture and
social life.
The European Enlightenment
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers – John Locke (1632–
1704), Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean D’Alembert
(1717–1783), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Nicolas de Condorcet (1743–
1794), Julien de la Mettrie (1709–1751), David Hume (1711–1776) and, a little
later, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), Thomas
Jefferson (1743–1826) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) – were inspired by
the dramatic achievements of the new science of the seventeenth century. The
eighteenth-century Enlightenment was the fruit of the seventeenth-century
scientific revolution. In Isaiah Berlin’s estimation:
The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the
truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day
without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the
life of mankind.
(Berlin 1956, p. 29)
With good reason, it was dubbed ‘The Age of Reason’. Early-modern and
Enlightenment philosophers believed in progress; they thought that, by the
use of reason and following the methods of the outstandingly successful
natural scientists (Galileo, Huygens, Newton), social life and structures could
be made better, and that people could lead a happier and more fulfilling life.
They varied in their enthusiasm for social reform (Newton famously opposed
Chapter 2
the admission of Roman Catholics into Cambridge University), and they
varied a great deal in their conceptions of a good state; nevertheless, they did
all share core commitments to free speech, free association, education, and
the separation of church and state, including separation in law (blasphemy
should not be a crime; other separations were harder won), education (the
Church should not monopolise or control schooling) and state service (there
should not be a religious test for state employment or promotion).
There was a wide spectrum of Enlightenment philosophers, and they
held a diverse set of philosophical, religious and political views,1 with there
being a loose distinction between more moderate and more radical groupings.2
Nevertheless, the following might be regarded as the central commitments of
Enlightenment ideology:3
1 Universalism: All normal human beings share a similar nature and,
consequently, are capable of acquiring knowledge and are equally subject
to ethical considerations; universalism about law and human rights was
a natural outgrowth of universalism about laws of nature and of scientific
2 Objectivity: On matters of fact, whether particular or general, there is
objective truth or falsity.
3 Rationality: Individuals are capable, in principle, of determining the truth
or falsity of propositions concerning matters of fact.
4 Empiricism: Sensory evidence is required for the determination of matters
of fact.
5 Scientism: The method of the new physical sciences needs to be followed
in social, political, moral and religious investigations, in order to obtain
knowledge in these fields.
6 Anti-Revelationism: The only sound method in theology is that of natural
theology; knowledge of God is constrained to what can be reasoned from
experience and the natural world. Reason thus judges putative revelations.
7 Naturalism: The only entities existing in the world, and hence capable of
explaining events, are those revealed by science. This may or may not
entail materialism. Myths and superstitions need to be rejected.
8 Utilitarianism: Ethical norms are to be formulated on the basis of their
personal and social utility, not on the basis of revealed religion or their
impact on one’s afterlife, nor on any putative deontological grounds.
9 Optimism: Human beings and society can and should be improved, and
this by the application of sound reasoning and right conduct.
10 Independence: Secular or religious authorities have no special means to
determine truths about the world, ethics, politics or even religion; the
claim of individual reason following right method is paramount over
mere authoritarian pronouncements.
The historian Margaret Jacob has well expressed the contribution of the
new science to the formation of early Enlightenment society in Europe:
24 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
The creation of civil society – the zone of relatively free exchange that lies both
between and outside the state and the domestic sphere – owes a debt to science.
Experimental science requires voluntary associations and practices intended for
verification by an independent audience, however gentlemanly or oligarchic its
original composition.
(Jacob 1998, p. 242)
The Enlightenment philosophers (and natural philosophers) believed that
the method of the new science should be applied to the seemingly intractable
social, political, religious, philosophical and cultural problems of the times,
with hopefully something of the same success that was evident in its
application to questions about the natural world. Jean Lerond d’Alembert’s
belief in the power of ‘right thinking’ was such that he thought that, if
mathematicians were smuggled into Spain, the influence of their clear, rational
thinking would spread until it undermined the Inquisition (Hankins 1985,
p. 2). Here, the heart is clearly ruling the head. D’Alembert well captured the
thought and enthusiasm of many eighteenth-century intellectuals when he
wrote, in 1759:
Our century is called . . . the century of philosophy par excellence. . . . The
discovery and application of a new method of philosophizing, the kind of
enthusiasm which accompanies discoveries, a certain exaltation of ideas which
the spectacle of the universe produces in us – all these causes have brought about
a lively fermentation of minds, spreading through nature in all directions like a
river which has burst its dams.
(Cassirer 1932/1951, pp. 3–4)
And there was much for clear thinkers to think about: seventeenth-century
European society fell considerably short of the Garden of Eden. Among the
horrific ills besetting society, at least the following warrant mention.5 During
the period of Galileo’s most productive work, the terrible Thirty Years War
(1618–1648) raged all over Europe – in German states, France, Italy, Spain,
Portugal and The Netherlands; and was also fought out in the West Indies
and in South America. It is widely accepted that between 15 and 20 per cent
of the German population, Catholic and Protestant alike, were killed. The
torture, burning and hanging of heretics by both Catholic and Protestant
churches went on for centuries after the end of the overt religious wars; the
Spanish Inquisition hanged its last heretic, a Deist schoolteacher, in 1834
(Burman 1984, p. 207). Along with religious wars and zealous inquisitions,
witch crazes also engulfed Europe, with the worst bloodletting occurring in
France, Switzerland, Germany and Scotland. In the Swiss canton of Vaud,
in the 90 years between 1591 and 1680, 3,371 women were tried for
witchcraft, and all were executed (Koenigsberger 1987, p. 136). The Salem
witch trials took place in Massachusetts in 1692, 5 years after publication of
Newton’s Principia. As late as 1773, nearly 100 years after publication
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 25
of Newton’s Principia, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland reaffirmed its
belief in witchcraft, but Catholic Spain has the distinction of being the last
European country to burn a witch at the stake, this being in the early
nineteenth century. And, as will be mentioned in Chapter 10, the unspeakable
practice still goes on in Papua New Guinea, in Africa and doubtless many
other traditional societies untouched by science and enlightened thinking.
Pleasingly, if some anachronism is allowed, there was a wide spectrum of
people, including religious social reformers, who thought society might be
better organised. Even the Spanish Inquisitor Alonzo Salazer de Frias had
doubts about the prevalence, and even existence, of witches. In 1612 (2 years
after Galileo’s telescope observations), he wrote a report presciently saying:
I also feel certain that, under present conditions, there is no need for fresh edicts
or the prolongation of those existing, but rather that, in the diseased state of the
public mind, every agitation of the matter is harmful and increases the evil.
I deduce the importance of silence and reserve from the experience that there
were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked or written about.
(Burman 1984, p. 182)6
However, it was the Enlightenment philosophers who consciously tried to
understand the causes of, and then ameliorate, ‘the diseased state of the public
mind’ – to use the Inquisitor’s words.
In the last half-century there has been constant combat within education
over the merits of the Enlightenment and of associated enlightened thinking.
Numerous researchers – especially feminists, constructivists, postmodernists
and multiculturalists – decry the Enlightenment, along with its values and
philosophical assumptions. Michael Peters, the editor of an influential journal
and book series, is a representative such voice. Peters, influenced by Foucault
and other postmodernists, argues for a new philosophy of education that:
will involve, most importantly, a reassessment of the ‘philosophy of the subject’
[person, not discipline], of subject-centred reason, as part of the project of
modernity underpinning modern educational theory and the project of liberal mass
schooling. . . . This line of philosophical investigation might question the way the
modern ‘subject of education’ has been grounded in a European universalism and
rationalism heavily buttressed by highly individualistic assumptions inherited
from the Enlightenment grand narratives. Informed by a new awareness of the
dangers of Western ethnocentrism and a critical understanding of difference and
‘otherness’ it would provide approaches to the constitution of subjectivity which
recognise and redefine the relationship between representation and power at the
levels of discourse and practice.
(Peters 1995, pp. 327–328)
Whatever one makes of this claim, it is clear that HPS is germane to its
appraisal. Such is the thesis of this book, as illustrated in a host of comparable
26 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
debates. Without HPS, these educational claims simply produce heat, without
much light.
The Enlightenment Tradition
Seventeenth-century England had witnessed the scientific triumphs of Boyle,
Hooke, Newton and many lesser figures, along with the establishment of
the Royal Society.7 This new science spawned ideas and attitudes that were
the foundation of the soon-to-flower European Enlightenment. In the early
eighteenth century, England was the teacher of Europe. As one historian has
written: ‘in the 1730s and 1740s . . . virtually everything English was in
demand in Europe. . . . Above all, Newton and Locke were almost everywhere
eulogized and lionized’ (Israel 2001, p. 515). The seventeenth-century scientific
revolution was the seed that produced the eighteenth-century Enlightenment
plant, with its philosophical, theological, political and educational fruit. The
scientific accomplishments in mechanics, astronomy, horology, medicine and
other fields are well known. These ‘natural philosophy’ endeavours were
institutionalised with the establishment of the German Academy Leopoldina
(1652), the Royal Society in England (1660) and the Académie Royal des
Sciences in France (1666). Seeds do require, of course, nutrients and environs
to grow; no one believes that Galileo’s telescope or Newton’s law of attraction
produced by themselves the European Enlightenment, but, without the former,
the latter would not have occurred when and where it did.
David Hume, in his History of England, wrote that Newton was ‘the
greatest and rarest genius that ever rose for the ornament and instruction of
the species’ (Hume 1754–1762/1828, Vol.IV, p. 434). This was, of course,
one Englishman writing about another Englishman, but, nevertheless, Hume
well expressed the general view of Newton’s pre-eminence in seventeenthcentury science. Newton famously said, in a letter to Robert Hooke (5
February 1676), ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders
of Giants’. And there were many giants on whom to stand, including Galileo,
Kepler and Huygens. His Principia (Newton 1713/1934) and Opticks
(Newton 1730/1979) provided the foundation of modern science and the
inspiration for the Enlightenment. Newton’s self-styled ‘under-labourer’, John
Locke, wrote five major Enlightenment texts in the decade after the publication
of the Principia (Locke 1689/1924, 1689/1983, 1690/1960, 1693/1996) and
Concerning Education (Locke 1693/1968).
Newton believed that there would be beneficial flow-on effects if the
methods of the new science were applied to other fields. As he stated it: ‘If
natural philosophy in all its Parts, by pursuing this Method, shall at length
be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will be also enlarged’ (Newton,
1730/1979, p. 405). He applied his scientific methods to historical questions,
most notably in his persistent and detailed biblical studies and their extension
to his massive, posthumously published 1728 study of The Chronology of
Ancient Kingdoms. He studied the Bible assiduously in multiple translations,
seeking evidence for authorship and for appraising different interpretations
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 27
of texts; he had what he regarded as a scientific and critical approach to
Biblical studies, church history and theology. These studies led him to believe
that the doctrine of the Trinity was a Hellenistic corruption of early Church
thought, but he was astute enough to keep this and other blasphemous beliefs
private and unpublished. Newton wrote far more on biblical interpretation
and theology than he ever did on natural philosophy. Unfortunately in those
fields there were far fewer giants on whose shoulders he could stand.8
As will be mentioned in Chapter 7, within 50 years of Newton’s heretical
writing, Joseph Priestley applied the same methods to the same materials with
the same results, but, unlike Newton, Priestley’s philosophical and social
convictions led him to make very public his unorthodox opinions. Fifty years
before Mill’s On Liberty, Priestley argued for the basic liberal position that
free expression and public dispute were preconditions for the growth of all
knowledge – scientific, religious, historical, political and everything else.
Priestley’s arguments for an ‘Open Society’ predated Karl Popper’s by 150
David Hume echoed Newton’s expectation with the subtitle of his famous
Treatise of Human Nature, which reads, Being an Attempt to Introduce the
Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (Hume 1739/1888).
The Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), a leading philosopher of the French
Enlightenment, said in his 1782 acceptance speech at the French Academy
that, ‘the moral [social] sciences’ would eventually ‘follow the same methods,
acquire an equally exact and precise language, attain the same degree of
certainty’ as the natural sciences (Condorcet 1976, p. 6).
In the circumstances of seventeenth-century Europe, it was not surprising
that many with a reformist bent thought that Newton’s scientific achievements
might be replicated in fields outside natural philosophy if his approach and
‘method’ were applied more broadly. It was the hope of many that lessons from
the new science might have flow-on effects for culture, society and personal
life. It was the duty of education to promote this flow-on from academies
to citizens.
All of the Enlightenment philosophers had a concern with education: they
wanted enlightened ideas to fructify among citizens.9 It is this educational or
pedagogical commitment that underlies their writing and lecturing in the
vernacular language, publishing books and pamphlets for wide readerships,
engaging in very public debate in newspapers and periodicals, editing English
and French encyclopedias, and so on. They also wrote explicitly on education,
with works by Locke (1693/1996), Kant (1803/1899) and Rousseau (1762/
1991) having great impact at the time and subsequently. The opening words
of Locke’s education treatise capture the Enlightenment’s zeitgeist with its
commitment to humanism, liberty, progress, the perfectability of individuals
and society, and denial of all versions of pessimistic predestinationism:10
I think I may say, that of all the Men we meet with, Nine Parts of Ten are what
they are, Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education. ‘Tis that which makes
the great difference in Mankind.
(Locke 1693/1968, p. 114)
28 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
Joseph Priestley as Educator
The best and most striking Enlightenment precursor to modern ‘Science for
All’ movements, and in particular a forerunner of the contemporary HPS&ST
programme, is Joseph Priestley. He was born in Yorkshire in 1733 and died
in Pennsylvania in 1804; his life spanned the core years of the European
Enlightenment, in which he played a significant role. He was an enormously
gifted person, a polymath, who made original and lasting contributions across
a wide range of subjects. He wrote more than 200 books, pamphlets and
articles, in history of science (specifically of electricity and optics), political
theory, theology, biblical criticism, theory of language, philosophy of education and rhetoric, as well as authoring books and pamphlets on chemistry,
for which he is now best known.11 He was not just knowledgeable in many
fields: there was an explicit interconnectedness to all his intellectual activity.
For Priestley, knowledge was not compartmentalised: his epistemology (sensationalism) related to his ontology (materialism), and both related to his
theology (Unitarianism) and to his psychology (Associationism), and these all
bore upon his political and social theory (Liberalism). He was a consciously
synoptic or systematic thinker: all components of knowledge (and life as a
whole) had to relate consistently.
Priestley shared the Enlightenment conviction that a good education would
benefit individuals and their societies. As he wrote in ‘The Proper Objects of
Education’ (Priestley 1791):
All great improvements in the state of society ever have been, and ever must be
. . . the result of the most peaceable but assiduous endeavours in pursuing the
slowest of all processes – that of enlightening the minds of men.
Although many advocated and wrote about better and more widespread
education, Priestley was of the minority who practised what the Enlightenment
preached: he had a lifelong engagement in schooling, teaching and learning.
Priestley’s educational views were part of his overall systematic position: his
theology, philosophy, epistemology, psychology, social theory and science
were all parts of a coherent whole. He was under-impressed with the state of
English education, in particular education in science:
I am sorry to have occasion to observe, that natural science is very little, if at all,
the object of education in this country, in which many individuals have
distinguished themselves so much by their application to it. And I would observe
that, if we wish to lay a good foundation for a philosophical taste, and
philosophical pursuits, persons should be accustomed to the sight of experiments,
and processes, in early life. They should, more especially, be early initiated in the
theory and practice of investigation, by which many of the old discoveries may
be made to be really their own; on which account they will be much more valued
by them.
(Priestley 1790, p. xxix)
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 29
This is one of the first endorsements of enquiry teaching, and more
specifically of historical-investigative teaching – following in the experimental
footsteps of those who have gone before. This is, in part, why he wrote the
first histories of optics (Priestley 1772)12 and of electricity (Priestley, 1767/
1775).13 His assumption was that the habits and skills acquired in investigating
nature – observing, hypothesising, seeking evidence for and against, experiments with controls – would flow on to the investigation of other matters:
religion, revelation, politics, church history and so on. For Priestley, and a
good many of the Enlightenment philosophers, science would be ‘the means,
under God, of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to
all undue and usurped authority in the business of religion, as well as of
science’ (Priestley 1775–1777, Vol.I, p. xiv).
Priestley had a good critical education at the Dissenting Academy at
Daventry, where he was exposed to lively debate and argument on all subjects.
The dissenting academies were a response by non-conformist clergy and laity
to the Anglican Church’s monopoly on English school and university
education. Robert Merton has been one of many to draw attention to the role
of these dissenting academies in fostering and promoting science in England
(Merton 1938/1970, p. 119). One commentator has said:
It is in Non-conformist England, the England excluded from the national
universities, in industrial England with its new centres of population and
civilisation that we must seek the institutions which gave birth to the utilitarian
and scientific culture of the new era.
(Halevy, quoted in Brooke 1987, p. 11)
Newton, at Cambridge, inspired them, but the Dissenters (and Catholics,
Jews and atheists) were forbidden to enrol there. In contrast, ‘Free Inquiry’
was the entrenched motto of the dissenting academies.
In 1758, at age 25 years, Priestley took a pastor’s position at Nantwich in
Cheshire and, while there, he established a school with thirty boys and, in a
separate room, six girls. He taught in the school for 3 years, 6 days a week,
from 7a.m. to 4p.m., teaching Latin, Greek, English grammar and geography.
In addition, he taught some natural philosophy and purchased an air pump
and an electrical machine and instructed his pupils in their use. Thus,
Priestley may well have been the first person to teach laboratory science to
As well as some three decades of direct engagement in teaching, Priestley
wrote a number of influential works on the theory and practice of education.
His most famous work – An Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil
and Active Life (Priestley 1765/1965) – was written and published while he
was teaching at Warrington Academy. It originally appeared as a pamphlet
and then it became a twenty-five-page Prefix to his Lectures on History and
General Policy (Priestley 1788). In this incarnation, it had sixteen printings
and was translated into Dutch (1793) and French (1798). In the American
edition of 1803, Priestley adds a note to the above text:
30 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
Since this was written, which is near forty years ago, few persons have had more
to do in the business of education than myself; and what I then planned in theory
has been carried into execution by myself and others, with, I believe, universal
(Passmore 1965, p. 289)
This theme of connecting theory to practice runs through all Priestley’s
work, including his opposition to Lavoisier’s new oxygen theory. Although
he is neither a harbinger of Marxism nor a premature Positivist, Priestley was
always suspicious of theory that ran too far in front of practice, or removed
itself too far from the facts of the matter; for him, to coin a later phrase, ‘theory
had to be proved in practice’.
As is common with the contemporary HPS&ST programme, Priestley
advocated a coordinated curriculum, saying that: ‘When subjects which have
a connection are explained in a regular system, every article is placed where
most light is reflected upon it from the neighbouring subjects’ (ibid. p. 293),
and also a structured and guided curriculum, saying that:
The plainest things are discussed in the first place, and are made to serve as axioms,
and the foundation of those which are treated of afterwards. Without this regular
method of studying the elements of any science, it seems impossible ever to gain
a clear and comprehensive view of it.
(Ibid. p. 293)
Priestley contrasts favourably the learning and competence of a student
instructed in this way with one who
should only have considered the subject in a random manner, reading any treatise
that might happen to fall in his way, or adopting his maxims from the company
he might accidentally keep.
(Ibid. p. 293)
One danger of unstructured instruction that he identifies is,
being imposed upon by the interested views with which men very often both write
and speak. For these are subjects on which almost every writer or speaker is to
be suspected; so much has party and interest to do with everything relating
to them.
(Ibid. p. 293)
He advocates student discussion as part of the learning process, saying that:
It is no wonder that many young gentlemen give but little attention to their
present studies when they find that the subjects of them are never discussed in
any sensible conversation to which they are ever admitted.
(Ibid. p. 294)
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 31
Again connecting to themes in the current HPS&ST programme, Priestley
reinforces his view that liberal education for civil and active life needs to
promote the understanding of principles of subject matter, by saying:
A man who has been used to go only in one beaten track and who has had no
idea given him of any other. . . . Will be wholly at a loss when it happens that
that track can no longer be used; while a person who has a general idea of the
whole course of the country may be able to strike out another and perhaps a better
road than the former.
(Ibid. p. 295)
As a teacher at the Dissenting Academy at Warrington, Priestley insisted
on students asking and answering questions; he promoted free engagement
with all subjects, including Divinity; and he ensured that authorities on both
sides of controversial issues be read and quoted. One of his Warrington
students recalled that:
At the conclusion of his lecture, he always encouraged his students to express
their sentiments relative to the subject of it, and to urge any objections to what
he had delivered, without reserve. It pleased him when anyone commenced such
a conversation. . . . His object . . . was to encourage the students to examine and
decide for themselves, uninfluenced by the sentiments of any other persons.
(Rutt 1831–1832, Vol.1, p. 50. In Lindsay 1970, p. 15)
Priestley had some confidence that an educational regime such as he
proposed and enacted would result in the betterment of society. He said:
I cannot help flattering myself that were the studies I have here recommended
generally introduced into places of liberal education, the consequences might be
happy for this country in some future period.
(Passmore 1965, p. 301)
This was the reformist Priestley. But, with reason, he was also regarded as a
revolutionary. His understanding of the flow-on effects of scientific investigation and acquisition of its associated mental and character dispositions led
him to proclaim from his Birmingham pulpit, in a sermon on ‘The Importance
and Extent of Free Inquiry’:
We are as it were, laying gunpowder, grain by grain, under the old building of
error and superstition, which a single spark may hereafter inflame, so as to
produce an instantaneous explosion; in consequence of which that edifice, the
erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment and
so effectually as that same foundation can never be built again.
(Priestley 1785)
32 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
With Britain having just been defeated in the American Revolution
(1775–1783), and with the first stirrings of the French Revolution (1787–
1789) being felt in all European states and kingdoms, such words were not
judicious; they led to his sobriquet ‘Gunpowder Joe’ and, in 1791, to an
enraged ‘King and Church’ mob ransacking his home, library and laboratory
and his flight from Yorkshire to America.14
Through Priestley’s personal friendships with Benjamin Franklin, George
Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the admiration they all
had for him, there was a direct impact of Enlightenment ideas in late-colonial
and early-independent US public life and education. Daniel Boorstin writes:
‘Next to Paine, Priestley was the most vivid symbol of the cosmopolitan
republican spirit; and while still abroad he had become a close collaborator
of the Jeffersonians’ (Boorstin 1948, p. 17).
The history of Enlightenment ideas and educational practice in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is complex and can here be passed over.
Suffice to mention Ernst Mach, the Vienna Circle positivists and John Dewey,
who are links in an educational chain connecting the present-day HPS&ST
programme with its Enlightenment forbears.
Ernst Mach: Philosopher, Scientist, Educator
The first person to deal systematically with the contribution that HPS can
make to science education was Ernst Mach (1838–1916), a major midnineteenth-century contributor to the Enlightenment tradition. Unfortunately,
his contribution to science education has been almost entirely ignored in the
English-speaking world.15 This is a pity, because current trends in the practice
and theory of science education are in many respects repeating Mach’s centuryold arguments concerning the purposes and aims of science teaching, the
nature of understanding and the best ways to promote learning. Hopefully,
this section will to some degree redo what was done 100 years ago in an
It is Mach the educationalist whom we must here bring to the attention of our
readers, particularly the younger ones, and not as someone who has passed on,
but as a man whose seed is destined to put down ever further roots in physics
teaching, and, with that, in all teaching about real things, and to fructify the whole
spirit of this teaching.
(Höfler 1916; trans. W.A. Suchting)
Mach was one of the great philosopher–scientists in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. He was fluent in most European languages, an
enthusiast of Greek and Latin classics, a physicist who made significant
contributions to such diverse fields as electricity, gas dynamics, thermodynamics, optics, energy theory and mechanics, a historian and philosopher
of science, a psychologist, Rector of Prague German University, a member of
the Upper House in the Austrian Parliament and a writer of lucid prose.
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 33
He was a person of strong character and convictions, a socialist and outspoken
liberal-humanist in the centre of the archconservative, Catholic AustroHungarian Empire. Einstein said of him that, ‘he peered into the world with
the inquisitive eyes of a carefree child taking delight in the understanding of
relationships’ (Hiebert 1976, p. xxi). Mach made scientific and philosophical
contributions across the whole temporal span, from Darwin to Einstein. The
first of Mach’s 500 publications appeared in 1859, the year of Darwin’s The
Origin of Species; his last work was published 5 years after his death in 1921,
the year of Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory.
Mach’s Educational Contributions
Mach’s understanding of science and philosophy bore upon his educational
ideas. Mach was influenced by the ideas of the German philosopher–
psychologist–educationalist Johann Friedrich Herbart. He applied Herbart’s
ideas in his first teaching assignment, ‘Physics for Medical Students’, and in
the text he wrote arising from this course (Compendium of Physics for Medical
Students 1863). Mach’s concern here was with ‘economy of thought’, with
getting across the general outline of the conceptual modes of physics, and
with overcoming the compartmentalism of physics.
Psychology was a long-standing interest of Mach’s. At 15 years of age, Mach
had read Kant’s Prologomena and signalled his subsequent positivist
commitments – ‘The superfluity of the role of the “thing-in-itself” suddenly
dawned upon me’ (Blackmore 1972, p. 11). His teaching was the occasion to
unite pedagogical, psychological and scientific concerns. The first of his many
science textbooks for school students, published in 1886, was widely used
and went through several editions. Indeed, most of the major figures in
European physics at the beginning of this century learned science from Mach’s
school texts. These texts provided a logical and historical introduction to
science; they sought to present students with the ‘most naive, simple, and
classical observations and thoughts from which great scientists have built
physics’ (Pyenson 1993, p. 34). While at Prague German University, he taught
courses on ‘School Physics Teaching’. In 1887, Mach founded and co-edited
the world’s second-published science-education journal – Zeitschrift für den
Physikalischen und Chemischen Unterricht (Journal of Instruction in Physics
and Chemistry).17 He contributed regularly to this journal until a stroke
forced his retirement in 1898.
Mach did not write any systematic work on educational theory or practice;
his ideas are scattered throughout his texts and journal articles. However, there
are three lectures where he addressed pedagogical issues. One of these is
perhaps his most systematic treatment of education in general and science
education in particular – ‘On Instruction in the Classics and the MathematicoPhysical Sciences’ (Mach 1886/1986), translated in his Popular Scientific
Lectures. His other chief pedagogical papers are ‘On Instruction in Heat
Theory’ (1887) and ‘On the Psychological and Logical Moment in Scientific
Instruction’ (1890), in Volumes 1 and 4, respectively, of his Zeitschrift.
34 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
As well as intellectual and practical interests in education, Mach had a
notable Enlightenment-inspired political involvement in educational reform.
The best of the Enlightenment thinkers connected thought to action. As Marx
said, the point of philosophising was to change the world, not just think
about the world. Mach addressed teacher organisations, spoke in the Austrian parliament on the need for school curricular change and was active
in the struggles to transform the entrenched German gymnasium pattern of
separating language and classics studies into separate schools from those for
science and mathematics. Mach championed the creation of the new
Einheitsschule, where integrated education in the humanities and the sciences
could occur. There have been few scientists who have displayed such a wideranging interest in both formal (school) and informal (the reading public)
education. Mach’s relative neglect by English-speaking science educators is
Well-founded curricular and pedagogical proposals in school science are
based upon two foundations: views about the nature and scope of science,
and views about the nature and practice of education. There are, of course,
other matters to be considered in drawing up curricula – political, social and
psychological, to name just the obvious ones. But what one thinks, explicitly
or implicitly, about the philosophy of science and about the philosophy of
education will largely determine the form of the science curriculum promoted.
Mach’s suggestions for the conduct of science education stem, in part, from
his theory of science and his Herbartian theory of education. Some of the
major themes of Mach’s philosophy of science (his view of the NOS) are the
• Scientific theory is an intellectual construction for economising thought
and thereby conjoining experiences.
• Science is fallible; it does not provide absolute truths.
• Science is a historically conditioned intellectual activity.
• Scientific theory can only be understood if its historical development is
Mach’s educational ideas are fairly simple and uncontroversial; the
HPS&ST programme can easily embrace them:
• Begin instruction with concrete materials and thoroughly familiarise
students with the phenomena discussed.
• Aim for understanding and comprehension of the subject matter.
• Teach a little, but teach it well.
• Follow the historical order of development of a subject.
• Tailor teaching to the intellectual level and capacity of students.
• Address the philosophical questions that science entails and that gave rise
to science.
• Show that, just as individual ideas can be improved, so also scientific ideas
have constantly been, and will continue to be, overhauled and improved.
• Engage the mind of the learner.
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 35
Although a pre-eminent theorist and concerned with economy of thought
in education, Mach firmly believed that abstractions in the science classroom
should, as Hegel said of philosophy, take flight only at dusk:
Young students should not be spoiled by premature abstraction, but should be
made acquainted with their material from living pictures of it before they are made
to work with it by purely ratiocinative methods.
(Mach 1886/1986, p. 4)
A simple point, usually observed in its breach, as Arnold Arons has lamented:
As physics teaching now stands, there is a serious imbalance in which there is an
overabundance of numerical problems using formulae in canned and inflexible
examples and a very great lack of phenomenological thinking and reasoning.
(Arons 1988, p. 18)
Another of Mach’s concerns was the tendency to overfill the curriculum.
For him, the principal aims of education were to develop understanding,
strengthen reason and promote imagination. A bloated curriculum counteracted these aims:
I know nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much.
What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure
supports, but complicated enough to produce confusion.
(Mach 1886/1986, p. 367)
One hundred years later, this lament is still being voiced about the US ‘one
mile wide and one inch deep’ curriculum.
Mach believed in presenting science historically, or, as he put it, teaching
should follow the genetic approach:
every young student could come into living contact with and pursue to their
ultimate logical consequences merely a few mathematical or scientific discoveries.
Such selections would be mainly and naturally associated with selections from
the great scientific classics. A few powerful and lucid ideas could thus be made
to take root in the mind and receive thorough elaboration.
(Mach 1886/1986, p. 368)
Mach’s major textbooks on Mechanics (1883/1960), Heat (1869) and
Optics (1922) all follow the genetic method of exposition. Mach realised that
the logic of a subject was not necessarily the logic of its presentation – a point
known to most schoolteachers, if not to administrators. The logic of a
discipline and the logic of its pedagogy are not identical, as Mach’s
contemporary and fellow positivist Pierre Duhem also maintained:
The legitimate, sure, and fruitful method of preparing a student to receive a
physical hypothesis is the historical method . . . that is the best way, surely even
36 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
the only way, to give those studying physics a correct and clear view of the very
complex and living organisation of this science.
(Duhem 1906/1954, p. 268)
The HPS&ST programme is not necessarily committed to such a historically
structured pedagogy, but that is its first option: to walk in the footsteps, and
appreciate the work, of the masters. The issue is discussed at some length in
Chapter 4 (history in the curriculum), and Chapters 6 (the pendulum) and 7
(photosynthesis) outline such an approach.
The Positivist Tradition
The positivist Vienna Circle met initially as the Ernst Mach Circle; it saw itself
as elaborating and advancing the Enlightenment programme of using scientific
knowledge and thinking to improve society and culture. It was a social,
cultural and philosophical movement, whose origins were with Comte,
Spencer and Mach in the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe. As
one commentator says: ‘logical empiricism was stepped in the tradition of
enlightenment thought and engaged in its continuation. Most importantly it
was engaged in its renewal’ (Uebel 1998, p. 418).18 In slightly different guises
(logical positivism, logical empiricism), it dominated Western philosophy
through to the middle of the twentieth century.
For the past 50 years, positivism has been criticised from many sides, and
it has been especially criticised and shunned in education, where being labelled
‘a positivist’ is akin to being labelled ‘a terrorist’ elsewhere. One prominent
science educator writes that: ‘as ideology [positivism] has led to the domination
of class, race, gender and nature’ (Tobin 1998, p. 196). Further, this pernicious
influence has been operative for a very long time: ‘The roots of positivism
permeate science and science education and have done so since the birth of
modern science and the time of Leonardo Da Vinci’ (Tobin 1998, p. 209).
Other educators have even less-kind things to say of positivism.
However, these criticisms are unfounded; as will be shown below, they trade
on and perpetuate an image of ‘village positivism’. Michael Friedman, with
good reason, suggests that:
As scholarly investigations of the past fifteen or twenty years into the origins of
logical empiricism have increasingly revealed, such a simple-minded radically
empiricist picture of this movement is seriously distorted. Our understanding of
logical positivism and its intellectual significance must be fundamentally revised
when we reinsert the positivists into their original intellectual context, that of the
revolutionary scientific developments, together with the equally revolutionary
philosophical developments, of their time. As a result, our understanding of the
significance of the rise and fall of logical positivism for our own time also must
be fundamentally revised.
(Friedman 1999, p. xv)
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 37
It must certainly be revised for educational purposes, but, as will be a constant
refrain in this book, educators are typically too busy with other things to keep
abreast of philosophy. But if this is so, then one lesson is to be more modest
and circumspect about philosophical (or historical, psychological, sociological
or political) claims.
Positivists and the early logical empiricists belonged to the Enlightenment
tradition. They believed in the possibility of progress across the board – in
human life, medicine, social institutions and cultural components such as art,
music, literature.19 Many contributed to the brief Socialist Spring of 1920s
Vienna. They recognised that this progress was entirely dependent on edu –
cation, both formal (schools, universities, institutes) and informal (writing,
newspapers, periodicals, radio and soapboxes in public parks and street
corners). They all suffered with the rise of Nazism, and all fled or emigrated
to Turkey, the UK, the US and other places.
The positivist philosophical programme took its canonical form when the
term ‘logical positivism’ was used to designate the 1920s work of the Ernst
Mach-inspired Vienna Circle of Moritz Schlick (1882–1936), Rudolf Carnap
(1891–1970), Otto Neurath (1882–1945), Philipp Frank (1884–1966) and
the circle’s English populariser Alfred J. Ayer (1910–1989). The educational
writings of two foundational positivists – Philipp Frank and Herbert Feigl –
demonstrate that the populist and educationalist account of positivism is
completely at odds with reality, and this raises the question of how such
an enormous miscarriage could occur.
Philipp Frank
Philipp Frank was born in Vienna in 1884 and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1966. In 1907, he received his doctorate in theoretical physics at the
University of Vienna, where he studied under Ludwig Boltzmann. Frank’s first
paper, published in 1907 at the age of 23 years – ‘Experience and the Law of
Causality’ (Frank 1907/1949) – characterised his subsequent philosophical
concern: namely prolonged and informed philosophical reflection on the
structures, methodology and history of science. The meetings of the Vienna
Circle that he instigated set the style of his subsequent intellectual career: there
was a seriousness of purpose, coupled with a genuine open-mindedness
towards different opinions and traditions:
This apparent internal discrepancy [in the group] provided us, however, with a
certain breadth of approach by which we were able to have helpful discussions
with followers of various philosophical opinions. Among the participants in our
discussions were, for instance, several advocates of Catholic philosophy. Some of
them were Thomists, some were rather adherents of a romantic mysticism.
Discussions about the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish Talmud, St. Augustine,
and the medieval schoolmen were frequent in our group. Otto Neurath even
enrolled for one year in the Divinity School . . . and won an award for the best
38 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
paper on moral theology. This shows the high degree of our interest in the cultural
background of philosophic theories and our belief in the necessity of an open mind
which would enable us to discuss our problems with people of divergent opinions.
(Frank 1949, pp. 1–2)
As for all Enlightenment figures, education was the crux of social reform.
Peter Bergmann, the physicist, who in 1933 was an 18-year-old Berlin refugee
from Nazism, recalled:
In this overheated and jittery atmosphere there was one fatherly figure who
represented all that was best at the University [of Prague], Philipp Frank. . . . He
would encourage all of us students, and he gave us the feeling of a wide-open
intellectual window, open to things that happened in and out of physics, and open
to things that happened outside of the country as well. Philipp Frank saw to it
that there was close contact with philosophy of science . . . with experimental
physics . . . and with pure mathematics.
(Blackmore et al. 2001, p. 69)
E.C. Kemble, a Harvard physicist, wrote of his colleague that:
His was a gentle, unassuming spirit combined with a luminous mind and gifts of
simplicity and humor that endeared him to all. He understood the nature of truth
and the criteria that must be used to separate truth from mythology. He was a
humanist as well as a scientist and philosopher . . . he had the patience, the
perception and the wit to make profound truths intelligible to a wide public.
(Frank 1931/1998, p. x)
It barely needs stating that these accounts of Frank’s pedagogy are at odds
with the popular educational view of positivists as dogmatic, overbearing,
pupil-ignoring adherents of the ‘banking’ view of education. That these
completely false claims are made is evidence for the thesis of this book, namely
that knowledge of HPS can improve, to say the least, science-education debate
and research.
Frank published two explicitly educational papers: ‘Science Teaching and
the Humanities’ (Frank 1946/1949) and ‘The Place of Philosophy of Science
in the Curriculum of the Physics Student’ (Frank 1947/1949). He regretted
that the ‘result of conventional science teaching has not been a critically
minded type of scientist, but just the opposite’ (Frank 1947/1949, p. 230). In
part, this regret is because,
the science student who has received the traditional purely, technical instruction
in his field is extremely gullible when he is faced with pseudophilosophic and
pseudoreligious interpretations that fill somehow the gap left by his science
(Frank 1947/1949, p. 230)
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 39
As a consequence:
This failure prevents the science graduate playing in our cultural and public life
the great part that is assigned to him by the ever-mounting technical importance
of science to human society.
(Frank 1947/1949, p. 231)
It is, of course, HPS that makes good these shortfalls, or rather, for Frank,
just philosophy of science, because this indeed consists of two inseparable
components, ‘logico-empirical analysis’ and ‘socio-psychologic’ analysis
(Frank 1947/1949, p. 248). The first is conceptual or semantic analysis; the
second is careful historical analysis. He says that, ‘This analysis is the chief
subject that we have to teach to science students in order to fill the gaps left
by traditional science teaching’ (Frank 1947/1949, p. 245).
Logico-empirical analysis of scientific theories consists primarily in, first,
identifying purely logical statements; second, identifying observational
statements; and third, specifying operational definitions whereby principles can
be connected to observations (Frank 1947/1949, p. 243). The paper gives
examples of such analyses of the Copernican controversy, Euclidean and nonEuclidean geometric systems, Newton’s laws, relativity theory and quantum
theory. Frank wants students to be able to decouple observational statements
and statements that are deduced from these: ‘For in all these fields the central
problem is the relationship between sensory experience (often called fact
finding), and the logical conclusions that can be drawn from it’ (Frank 1947/
1949, p. 234). He uses the Copernican controversy to illustrate his point:
If we look, for example, at the treatment of the Copernican conflict in an average
textbook of science, we notice immediately that the presentation is far from
satisfactory. In almost every case, we are told that according to the testimony of
our senses the sun seems to move around the earth. Then we are instructed that
Copernicus has taught us to distrust this testimony and to look for truth in our
reasoning rather than in our immediate sense experience.
(Frank 1947/1949, p. 231)
Frank says that this account is mistaken and can be shown to be such by
logico-empirical analysis:
Actually our sense observation shows only that in the morning the distance
between horizon and sun is increasing, but it does not tell us whether the sun is
ascending or the horizon is descending.
The statement that ‘the sun is moving’ is an elaboration of sensory evidence,
not the sensory evidence; it is what Paul Feyerabend would later call a ‘natural
interpretation’ of the sensory experience (Feyerabend 1975, Chapters 6–7).
Frank is saying clearly that theory affects observation; the engaging philosophical task, and one empiricists are committed to, is to ascertain whether
40 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
there is a level of observation statements that are not so affected. The
conclusion Frank draws from the Copernican case is the same as he draws
from most of the other examples he discusses, namely:
By its failure to give an adequate presentation of this historic dispute our
traditional physics teaching misses an opportunity to foster in the student an
understanding of the relations between science, religion and government which
is so helpful for his adjustment in our modern social life. With a good understanding of the Copernican and similar conflicts, the student of science would have
even an inside track in the understanding of social and political problems. He
would be put at least on an equal level with the student of the humanities.
(Frank 1947/1949, p. 234)
Frank is an advocate of liberal education, affirming that a variety of subject
matters should be mastered, and that, as much as possible, relations between
the subjects should be brought out. He believes that humanities can be taught
from within science, saying that:
The student of science will get the habit of looking at social and religious problems
from the interior of his own field and entering the domain of the humanities by
a wide-open door . . . there is no better way to understand the philosophic basis
of political and religious creeds than by their connection with science.
(Frank 1946/1949, p. 281)
Frank’s final claim in the foregoing will be examined further in Chapter 10.
Herbert Feigl
Herbert Feigl is the second classic positivist whose educational theory and
practice are discordant with the popular image of positivism projected in
educational writing. He was born in 1902 in Reichenberg, then in Austria–
Hungary, a part of the Sudetenland that subsequently was incorporated into
Czechoslovakia. He died in Minneapolis in 1988.20 At age 16, he read an
article on the theory of special relativity and set about trying, without
success, to refute it. He said that the attempt resulted in him learning a lot
of mathematics and physics. At age 20, he went to the University of Vienna
to study philosophy with Moritz Schlick (and, additionally, to study
mathematics, physics and psychology). He was a foundation member of the
Vienna Circle, established by Schlick in 1924 as a weekly evening discussion
group, and he remained a member of the Circle until his emigration to the
US in 1930. In 1927, Feigl presented his doctoral thesis on ‘Chance and Law:
An Epistemological Investigation of Induction and Probability in the Natural
Sciences’. In the US, he worked with Percy Bridgman at Harvard on the
foundations of physics, including the theory of operational definitions of
theoretical terms. In 1940, he was appointed professor of philosophy at the
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 41
University of Minnesota; in 1953, he established the Minnesota Center for
the Philosophy of Science, a centre that would make a significant contribution
to the articulation and spread of logical empiricist philosophy in the US
and worldwide, especially through contributions to the many volumes of
Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science.
Feigl published one explicitly educational paper: ‘Aims of Education for Our
Age of Science: Reflections of a Logical Empiricist’ (Feigl 1955). The paper
was a contribution to The Fifty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society
for the Study of Education, which dealt with ‘Modern Philosophies and
Education’. It included contributions from Thomists (Jacques Maritain),
Liberal Christians (Theodore Greene), Marxists (Robert Cohen) and others.
Against fatalistic or mechanically deterministic views of human freedom, Feigl
regards promotion of individual autonomy as the prime educational
As long as education promotes the formation of intelligence and character in a
manner that allows for free learning, rational choices, and critical reflection,
human beings so educated will have an excellent opportunity for being masters
of their own activities and achievements.
(Feigl 1955, p. 322)
This is almost, and not accidently, a verbatim repetition of the opening
sentences of Kant’s 1784 ‘What is Enlightenment?’:
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s
inability to make use of this understanding without direction from another. Selfincurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in a lack of reason but in lack of
resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. ‘Have courage
to use your own reason!’ – that is the motto of the enlightenment.
(Kant 1784/2003, p. 54)
Not surprisingly, Feigl advocates teaching science in a historically and
philosophically informed manner, saying:
It is my impression that the teaching of science could be made ever so much more
attractive, enjoyable, and generally profitable by the sort of approach that is more
frequently practised in the arts and the humanities. The dull and dry-as-dust
science courses can be replaced by an exciting intellectual adventure if the students
are permitted to see the scientific enterprise in broader perspective. Preoccupation
with the purely practical values of applied science has overshadowed the
intellectual and cultural values of the quest for knowledge.
(Feigl 1955, p. 337)
And, further, he embraces the orthodox liberal education position wherein:
‘training in the sciences and in the scientific attitude should, of course, be
42 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
combined with studies in history, literature, and the arts’ (Feigl 1955, p. 338).
As important as science is, it is not the only thing that Feigl treasures:
I consider truly great music the supreme achievement of the human spirit . . . I
am inclined to think that music expresses (even more than poetry) what is
inexpressible in cognitive and especially in scientific language.
(Cohen 1981, p. 5)
Feigl has a robust account of values and recognises that they are an intrinsic
part of education; that they mould and direct educational processes and are
crucial to the establishment of educational aims. Feigl has an even more
robust account of rationality and its place in education. He believes that the
classical Aristotelian conception of man as rational animal ‘may still be a good
beginning’ (Feigl 1955, p. 335), and then explicates the idea for education,
stressing that rationality covers at least six virtues of thought and conduct:
• clarity of thought (the meaningful use of language and avoidance of
gratuitous perplexities);
• consistency of reasoning (conformity with the principles of formal logic);
• reliability of knowledge claims (wherever the evidence is too weak, belief
should be withheld);
• objectivity of knowledge claims (knowledge claims should be testable by
anyone sufficiently equipped with intelligence and competence);
• rationality of purposive behaviour (maximum positive outcomes are to
be gained at the cost of minimum negative outcomes); and
• moral rationality (adherence to principles of justice, equity or impartiality,
and abstention from coercion and violence in the settlement of conflicts
of interest (Feigl 1955, pp. 335–336ff.). Rationality is not just an
intellectual virtue, it is connected intimately with conduct, or at least with
dispositions towards rational conduct.22
The Myth and the Reality of Positivism
There is a disjunction between the faults of positivism as commonly
adumbrated by science educators and the principles and practice of science
education advocated by at least two foundational positivists – Philipp Frank
and Herbert Feigl. A source of confusion in educational writing on positivism
is that, among educators, positivism is routinely taken to mean materialism
or realism. These were metaphysical positions that were explicitly rejected by
Postitivism; their rejection defined Machian positivism and the philosophy of
the later logical positivists. Eventually, with good reasons, as enunciated by
Karl Popper (1902–1994), the phenomenal metaphysics of positivism was
abandoned on account of its being inconsistent with the pursuit of science.
However, the educational theory of Frank and Feigl can survive the demise
of their metaphysics.
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 43
The following table summarises the disjunction:
44 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
Educational Myths About Positivism Frank and Feigl’s Position
Positivism regards scientific knowledge They are committed to the fallibility of
as secure and privileged science. Science is not privileged by
anything (revelation, metaphysics, intuition)
outside its own methodology and
established knowledge
Positivism does not recognise the They recognise the theory dependence of
theoretical dependence of observation observation but try to identify and isolate
the dependence
Positivism regards scientific knowledge They would consider the reduction of
as a codification of sense data science to the codification of sense data
to be a completely bizarre idea
Positivism promotes unquestioning They reject unquestioning and
textbook learning unreflective teaching and learning
Positivism is tied to a behaviourist They reject behaviourist reduction of
psychology mind to behaviour, and also reject treating
mind as a theoretical ‘fiction’. They support
the scientific study of mind, while rejecting
dualist views
Positivism regards knowledge as a They would be appalled at the image
Positivism believes scientific knowledge They maintain the opposite
can easily be transmitted
Positivism is blind to the effect of They explicitly say that effects of culture
culture on the generation of scientific need to be recognised, but maintain that
knowledge such recognition does not in itself
compromise the truth of knowledge
Positivism regards scientific knowledge They devoted most of their intellectual life
as devoid of history and removed from to showing the exact opposite
Positivism ignores the value dimension They explicitly and in detail address the
of science value dimensions of science
Positivism is divorced from, or They supported progressive, left-wing social
indifferent to, action for the justice causes, as did Ernst Mach and most
improvement of society and culture of the Vienna Circle members
Positivism is the dominant ideology They could only wish that science was the
of Western society dominant ideology for understanding nature
and society
Positivism adheres to the They agree
Enlightenment tradition
In summary, the educational views of Frank and Feigl (and the canonical
positivists) are the same as those of the HPS&ST programme and the same
as held in the Anglo-American liberal education and European Bildung
traditions. The stark disjunction between myth and reality above is partly
explained by the common generalisation to all positivism and logical
empiricism of its ‘mature’ variant. George Reisch writes:
Logical empiricism was originally a project that self-consciously sought
engagement not only with science but with progressive social and cultural
developments (both in Europe of the 1920s and in North America of the 1930s
and ’40s). In the space of about ten years, however, from roughly 1949 to 1959,
it became the scrupulously non-political project in applied logic and semantics
that most philosophers today associate with the name ‘logical empiricism’ or
‘logical positivism’.
(Reisch 2005, p. xi)
Undoubtedly, the mature variant of positivism, with its insistence on a
phenomenal epistemology and its rejection as ‘metaphysical’ of all attempts
to seek an underlying, non-visible, mechanism for phenomena, did give
rise to and sustain behaviourism in psychology, and the extension of this
ideology to education. All of this is another instance where psychologists,
social scientists and educators became uncritical enthusiasts for an unsound
philosophy of science.23
John Dewey
Two centuries after Priestley, John Dewey (1859–1952) repeated the core
position of the Enlightenment education tradition when, in 1910, he wrote:
Scientific method is not just a method which it has been found profitable to
pursue in this or that abstruse subject for purely technical reasons. It represents
the only method of thinking that has proved fruitful in any subject.
(Dewey 1910, p. 127)
He elaborated this conviction in his justly famous 1916 Democracy and
Our predilection for premature acceptance and assertion, our aversion to
suspended judgment, are signs that we tend naturally to cut short the process of
testing. We are satisfied with superficial and immediate short-visioned applications.
. . . Science represents the safeguard of the race against these natural propensities
and the evils which flow from them. . . . It is artificial (an acquired art), not
spontaneous; learned, not native. To this fact is due the unique, the invaluable
place of science in education.
(Dewey 1916/1966, p. 189)
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 45
And, in 1938, in his contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Unified
Science, he further elaborated, saying:
In short, the scientific attitude as here conceived is a quality that is manifested in
any walk of life. What, then, is it? On its negative side, it is freedom from control
by routine, prejudice, dogma, unexamined tradition, sheer self-interest. Positively,
it is the will to inquire, to examine, to discriminate, to draw conclusions only on
the basis of evidence after taking pains to gather all available evidence. It is the
intention to reach beliefs, and to test those that are entertained, on the basis of
observed fact, recognizing also that facts are without meaning save as they point
to ideas.
(Dewey 1938, p. 31)
As an applied and engaged philosopher, Dewey laments ‘the spirit in which
the sciences are often taught’ (Dewey 1938, p. 36) and despairs that ‘scientific
subjects are taught very largely as bodies of subject matter rather than a
method of universal attack and approach’ (ibid.).24 Concerning the educational
and cultural isolation of science, he warns that, ‘There are powerful special
interests which strive in any case to keep science isolated so that the common
life may be immune from its influence’ (Dewey 1938, p. 37). The latter is
developed to a pitch in all authoritarian regimes.
Dewey here lays out a number of themes that will recur through this book:
• that science involves some modicum of sophisticated testing, not just
‘look and see’ appraisals; science is experimental;
• that scientific thinking and procedures are not natural, they do not
spontaneously unfold as maturation proceeds: science needs to be taught;
• that scientific thinking – ‘habits of mind’ or ‘scientific temper’ – needs to
be applied outside the laboratory and is the way to analyse and address
social and cultural problems, as well as natural and environmental
As will be seen, there is debate on each of these claims, and many educators
reject some or all of them.
Spread of Science Education and Enlightenment
From the eighteenth century, modern science moved beyond Western Europe,
becoming in the next two centuries the orthodox, universal science of the
present day.25 Hundreds of thousands of men and women from almost every
nation, creed, caste and class contribute to science, and millions of students
study the subject.
The early spread of science was connected to voyages of discovery and the
imperialist programmes of various European powers. This brought the science
46 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
of Galileo, Huygens, Newton, Leibniz and others to all parts of the globe.26
Enlightenment ideas unevenly accompanied modern science and the European
merchants, colonisers and missionaries who spread over the globe. Although
the technological power of science was generally desired by people with whom
European powers came into contact, Enlightenment values were often
unwelcome. Enlightenment ideas of freedom of speech and association, the
rule of law, open questioning of authority and the legitimacy of hereditary
powers, the separation of church and state, along with the decriminalising of
heretical beliefs and immoral behaviours, the provision of universal access
to education, human rights and so on, were by no means widely welcomed
in Europe, even though there were public champions of enlightenment and
liberalism, and they were generally even less welcome in the European colonies.
In Europe, there have been two centuries of struggle over the ‘enlightenment
of education’. This struggle was largely between the Churches (Roman
Catholic and Protestant) and Enlightenment advocates who were seeking to
fashion more liberal, secular, democratic and educated societies. In the mid
nineteenth century, Robert Owen founded a secular school at his New Lanark
socialist–industrial complex; this was a lonely bloom and opposed by both
government and church. The first UK government grant for education
(£20,000) was in 1833, and all of the money went for church schools. In Spain,
Portugal, Italy, Poland and elsewhere, the Roman Catholic Church directly
controlled education and, in a number of these countries, did so up to the end
of the twentieth century. Pope Pius IX, in his anti-Modernist 1864 Syllabus
of Errors, condemned all those who affirmed that:
The best theory of civil society requires that popular schools open to children of
every class of the people, and, generally, all public institutes intended for
instruction in letters and philosophical sciences and for carrying on the education
of youth, should be freed from all ecclesiastical authority, control and interference,
and should be fully subjected to the civil and political power at the pleasure of
the rulers, and according to the standard of the prevalent opinions of the age.
This core Enlightenment belief was listed as Error 47 out of the identified 80
errors of ‘Modernism’.27 In Europe, Latin America and the European colonies,
the Church’s influence in education (hiring of teachers, setting curricula,
denying the application of Darwinism to human origins, compulsory religious
instruction, etc.) continued into the late twentieth century. Of course, the
Churches and missionaries were usually the only groups interested in education
in the colonies. Without their devotion and effort, there would have been little,
if any, education of girls, and nearly all leaders of liberation struggles in Africa
and Asia acknowledge a debt to their education in missionary schools.
Nevertheless, modern science and Enlightenment-influenced education did
spread from Europe. The example of Turkey and the education reforms
initiated by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) in the 1920s is especially interesting,
but too complex to elaborate here. Also complex, but more possible to describe
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 47
briefly, is the case of Nehru’s education reforms in India in the 1950s. This
will be elaborated a little, as it brings into sharp relief some of the themes of
this book.
India is a clear case where the introduction of Enlightenment-informed science
education to a country and its subsequent contested history provides material
for philosophical, political and educational analysis. In the nineteenth century,
Britain, with the energetic championing of Charles Trevelyan (1807–1886),
brought English education, including science classes (and cricket), to India for
the Indian elite, but it assuredly did not have an Enlightenment purpose or
agenda.28 One century later, with independence, there was a huge change, at
least in ideology. The constitution of the newly independent India has many
claims to international attention, but one is unique. Article 51A(h) of the
Constitution of India states as a Fundamental Duty of the state: ‘To develop
the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform.’
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestley, Ernst Mach, John
Dewey, the positivists, most national Associations for the Advancement of
Science and national Science Teachers Associations could only dream of the
inclusion of a duty to develop the ‘scientific outlook’ or ‘scientific habit of
mind’ or ‘scientific sensibility’ in a national constitution! How did the
provision get there, what has it achieved, and what intellectual, educational
and political controversy has it occasioned? These are all illuminating
The term ‘scientific temper’ and the Indian Scientific Temper programme
have their origins in the convictions of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964)
who, in 1947, was installed as the first president of independent India. Nehru’s
convictions were articulated in his The Discovery of India (Nehru 1946/1981).
The convictions owe a good deal to the science degree he completed at
Cambridge (1907–1910) at a time when Enlightenment, liberal and socialist
currents coursed through the university corridors and wider English society.29
Nehru praised, in distinctly Enlightenment terms:
The adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new
knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity
to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on
observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind.
(Nehru 1946/1981, p. 36)
Importantly, and often overlooked, Nehru’s convictions were supported and
strengthened by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), who was his political
collaborator, independent India’s first Law Minister, writer-in-chief of the
Constitution and forceful and relentless opponent of the Indian caste system
and the associated Hindu beliefs that underwrite it.30 John Dewey had an
enormous influence on him while
University; everything about Dewey’s philosophy and social programme
resonated with his own views and experiences (Mukherjee 2009). Ambedkar
and Nehru saw that the deeply entrenched ills, backwardness, irrationality
and inequities of Indian society and culture could not be legislated away:
education, specifically science education, was needed to change outlooks and
orientations. The Congress government reaffirmed its commitment to modern
science, technology and scientific temper in its 1958 Science Policy Resolution.
Predictably, this change did not happen on a large scale. India embraced,
as did China and many other newly modernised societies, technical and
industrial science education and science policies – nuclear energy, massive
dams, the Green Revolution, agribusiness, manufacturing industries, worldleading institutes of technology, scientific research centres and much more were
created – but day-to-day life in villages, towns, cities and even in the elite
universities did not much change. In July 1981, the Nehru Centre in Delhi
published another Scientific Temper Statement, signed by many prominent
scientists and intellectuals (Haksar et al. 1981), that it hoped would reposition
scientific temper as a national educational and cultural priority. The statement
was brief, affirming:
Scientific temper . . . leads to the realization that events occur as a result of the
interplay of understandable and describable natural and social forces and not
because someone, however great, so ordained them.
(in Nanda 2003, p. 210)
As will be seen in Chapter 10, this is a statement of both methodological and
ontological naturalism.
No sooner had this restatement of Enlightenment-sourced conviction been
published than it was swamped by a tsunami of post-Kuhnian, post-colonial,
postmodern, multicultural, and traditional-knowledge-affirming critics. Proponents of scientific temper were, as might be expected, labelled Positivists. The
critics of the scientific temper declarations appealed to the supposed findings
of current science studies, with the names of Kuhn, Feyerabend, Marcuse and
Latour recurring in publications. Ashis Nandy published a widely discussed
‘Counter-statement on Humanistic Temper’ in 1981 that decried the ‘obscene
and amoral logic of science’, and that informed readers that, ‘science is no
less informed by culture and society than any other human effort’ (Nandy
1981, in Nanda 2003, p. 212).
All of this was expanded in a book, The Intimate Enemy, that drew on
‘support from seventy-five years of work in history, philosophy and sociology
of science’ (Nandy 1983). Nandy and fellow critics wanted to ‘decolonise the
Indian mind’. Countless other books, anthologies, articles and seminars all
proclaimed and defended the same counter-Enlightenment theses: The
supposed truths and universality of Western science are an illusion; there is
no scientific method or privileged outlook; orthodox science is just a tool of
the colonial oppressors; native Vedic science and Indian technologies are on
an intellectual and practical par with modern science; Hindu culture should
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 49
be valued over alien and oppressive culture; and so on. All, or some, of these
theses are propounded by senior figures in numerous international scienceeducation journals.
In India, the ‘Science Wars’ had real and serious social consequences.
Tragically, Dr Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in the street in August 2013
because of his campaign for passage of an anti-superstition bill in the
Maharashtra state parliament. When the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata
Party first came to national power in Delhi (1998) and to the governing
benches in many states. Notoriously, astrology was welcomed into many
universities to take its place (and money) alongside astronomy departments;
likewise for various traditional medical practices. Scientific temper as a
curriculum aim disappeared from numerous school programmes.31
Thirty years after the Nehru Centre’s Scientific Temper Statement and
consequent debate, the matter was reactivated by scientists and intellectuals
in 2011 in The Palampur Declaration, which recounted the original Nehruvian
hopes, repeated the core arguments of the 1981 declaration and went on to
During the past 30 years there has been a marked increase in public display of
religious and sectarian identities, ascendance of irrational cults, glorification of
obscurantist practices, religiosity and wielding of religious symbols. This has
provided the ideological basis for, at times, brutal unscientific actions in both
public and personal domains. Discrimination based on caste, gender and ethnic
identities, perpetuated on the basis of irrational beliefs and superstitions are still
widely prevalent, and are a blot on our society.
(Various 2011, p. 2)
It identifies the distinction between knowledge and information, saying that
India has lots of the latter, but education should aspire to the former.
Modern education is the strongest determinant of scientific information,
knowledge and attitude. It is true that over the years the scientific information
base in the country has enlarged, but it will be far from reality to assume that
this information is getting transformed into knowledge and thereby bringing a
change in attitude. Unfortunately, our education system is still not sufficiently
evolved to inculcate Scientific Temper in young minds.
(Various 2011, p. 5)
These Indian scientists, politicans and educators must be dismayed when
they read of the more prosaic aspirations for science education held by some
intellectuals in the ‘advanced’ world: namely, that such education enables
citizens to know ‘where in the oven to put a soufflé, [and] lower one’s energy
bills’ (Collins & Pinch, 1992, p. 150). It would be nice if it did this, but the
serious cultural and educational issue is whether it should do more, whether
a ‘flow-on’ effect should be the test of a competent science education?
50 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
These debates in India and elsewhere clearly demonstrate the ways in which
education is embedded in philosophy, politics, economics and religion. The
Enlightenment tradition in science education has always recognised this and
has advocated the acquisition of historical and philosophical knowledge, so
as to enable teachers and administrators to better understand their own
scientific tradition and and to more fruitfully engage with their wider social,
cultural and historic traditions. The HPS&ST programme is a broad church
of which the Enlightenment tradition is one congregation. Some proponents
of technical education appeal to HPS for its betterment, all proponents of
liberal education are clear about the necessity of HPS (indeed, of the history
and philosophy of any subject being taught), but the Enlightenment tradition
puts HPS on centre stage, because of the value it places on science and on the
scientific outlook and mentality required by science. From Locke and Priestley
to Mach, Dewey and the positivists, the Enlightenment tradition has provided
a developing body of method, argument and analysis that can illuminate
contemporary social, cultural and educational disputes.
Neil Postman, co-author of the educational classic Teaching as a Subversive
Activity (Postman & Weingartner 1969) recently published a book with the
engaging title Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past
Can Improve Our Future (Postman 1999). After laying out a familiar litany
of modern social and cultural ills, he writes:
With this in mind, I suggest that we turn our attention to the eighteenth century.
It is there, I think, that we may find ideas that offer a humane direction to the
future, ideas that we can carry with confidence and dignity across the bridge to
the twenty-first century.
(Postman 1999, p. 17)
Echoing Kant and all intelligent commentators, Postman recognises that it is
the spirit, outlook and methods that define the historic Enlightenment. Many
would endorse his view:
Let us not turn to the eighteenth century in order to copy the institutions she
fashioned for herself but in order that we may better understand what suits us.
Let us look there for instruction rather than models. Let us adopt the principles
rather than the details.
(Postman 1999, p. 17)
1 There is a huge literature on the Enlightenment and its history. See at least: Dupré
(2004), Gay (1970), Grayling (2007, 2009), Himmelfarb (2004), Israel (2001), Pagden
(2013) and Porter (2000).
2 On this distinction, see especially Israel (2001).
3 For the delineation of these characteristics, see Shimony (1997).
4 A complex matter, but see at least Hunt (2007).
Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education 51
5 See Munck (1990) for a brief introduction to seventeenth-century life and accounts of
its serfdom, slavery, feudalism, despotism, ignorance, kingly and ecclesiastical control
of publication and speech, epidemics of smallpox and plague, enforced religion,
witchcrazes, entrenched superstitions, and much more.
6 Four hundred years later, as will be documented in Chapter 12, some sociologists of
scientific knowledge will openly affirm that ‘talking about’ creates and brings into
existence the entity talked about. De Frias appears to have common-sense doubt about
this idealist and confused ontological manœuvre.
7 The classic discussion of the scientific revolution in England is Merton’s 1938 Science,
Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England (Merton 1938/1970).
8 On Newton’s application of scientific method to biblical questions, see Buchwald and
Feingold (2012).
9 For discussion of the main figures and guides to literature on ‘Education and the
Enlightenment’, see Parry (2007) and Schmitter et al. (2003).
10 For the Enlightenment context of Locke’s educational theory, see Tarcov (1989).
11 More will be written of Priestley in Chapter 7. The most definitive studies of Priestley
are the two biographical volumes of Robert Schofield (1997, 2004), with the latter
containing a full bibliographic listing of Priestley’s many books, pamphlets and articles.
12 For the next 150 years, this was the only English-language history of optics.
13 This authoritative work led to productive correspondence with Franklin, Volta and
many others at the birth of electrical science.
14 For background and more general treatment of the anti-Jacobin riots of the 1790s, see
Thompson (1963/1980, pp. 111–130).
15 John Bradley, the English chemist and educator, organised his chemistry instruction on
Machian principles (Bradley 1963–1968) and wrote a useful book on Mach’s
philosophy of science (Bradley 1971). Mach the educator is discussed in Matthews
(1990). The most comprehensive and best-documented discussion of the subject is
Siemsen (2014).
16 An excellent documentary source of Mach’s staggering influence in science, philosophy
and beyond is Blackmore et al. (2001).
17 The first such journal was Zeitschrift für mathematischen und naturwissenschaflichen
Unterricht, which began publication in 1870. It was edited by J.C.V. Hoffmann, a
secondary schoolteacher in the Saxony mining town of Freiberg (thanks to Kathryn
Olesko for this information).
18 A standard history is von Mises (1951); some classic texts are in Ayer (1959); informed
contemporary appraisals are in Parrini et al. (2003). See also Thomas Uebel’s
informative overview of the ‘Vienna Circle’in the web-based Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Uebel 2012).
19 The positivist hoped-for connection of science and philosophy with other disciplines
and with educational, political and cultural endeavours can be seen in chapters of the
International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol.1, edited by Neurath et al. (1938).
Bertrand Russell and John Dewey were both invited to contribute explicitly educational
pieces to this volume. See Reisch (2005, Chapters 1, 2) and Uebel (1998).
20 Sources of biographical information are Feigl’s own informal life story (Feigl 1974/1981)
and Paul Feyerabend’s Introduction to the Festschrift for Feigl (Feyerabend 1966).
21 For further elaboration of autonomy as an educational goal, see Dearden (1975).
22 The topic of rationality and education is much written upon; a good starting point for
the arguments and literature is Siegel (1997).
23 B.F. Skinner is explicit in his intellectual debt to logical empiricism. The whole complex
of behaviourism, positivism and philosophy is examined by many, but see: Mackenzie
(1977), Scriven (1956) and Smith (1986).
24 For a review of literature on Dewey and science education, particularly his conception
of historical and philosophical elements in science education, see Johnston (2014).
25 See contributions to Porter and Teich (1992).
52 Enlightenment Tradition in Science Education
26 The expansion of European science, its connection to imperialism and its reception in
the colonies is a separate study, but see, at least, Pyenson (1993).
27 The eightieth and final error was belief that: ‘The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to,
reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.’
The entire Syllabus is now on the web at
28 Trevelyan returned to England and oversaw the British occupation of Ireland.
Notoriously, commenting on the starvation and epidemic deaths of 1 million people
in 1846–1851, he said that it was ‘the will of God’. This is a sad comment on the
common failure of science education to have ‘flow-on’ effects for general intelligence
or social understanding. For some, however, science education is not meant to have
such ‘flow-on’ effects.
29 The Fabian Society had been founded in 1884, and the British Labour Party was
founded in 1900; the writings and speeches of Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell
and, a little later, Cambridge chemist J.D. Bernal had wide audiences.
30 Ambedkar deserves to be much better known. Among the first ‘untouchables’ to have
a college education, he earned doctorates in economics (Columbia University) and law
(University of London). Despite being India’s Chief Law Minister, while travelling,
Ambedkar could not sleep in hotels, as this would ‘pollute’ them, and guests would
leave and new ones never enter. Although the hallowed Ghandi tried to ameliorate some
of the worst features of the iniquitous Hindu caste system, he never rejected the concept.
Ambedkar campaigned against it all of his life. On this, see Jaffrelot (2005).
31 On these themes, see Mahanti (2013), Nanda (2003, Chapter 8), Sarukkai (2014) and
contributions to Bhargava and Chakrabarti (2010).
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