This page contains a list of the five best books on the philosophy of science. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on science” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on the philosophy of science. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on science. Here are the best books on the philosophy of science in no particular order:
Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction – Samir Okasha
Publisher’s Description: How much faith should we place in what scientists tell us? Is it possible for scientific knowledge to be fully “objective?” What, really, can be defined as science? In the second edition of this Very Short Introduction, Samir Okasha explores the main themes and theories of contemporary philosophy of science, and investigates fascinating, challenging questions such as these.
Starting at the very beginning, with a concise overview of the history of science, Okasha examines the nature of fundamental practices such as reasoning, causation, and explanation. Looking at scientific revolutions and the issue of scientific change, he asks whether there is a discernible pattern to the way scientific ideas change over time, and discusses realist versus anti-realist attitudes towards science. He finishes by considering science today, and the social and ethical philosophical questions surrounding modern science.
Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science – Peter Godfrey-Smith
Publisher’s Description: How does science work? Does it tell us what the world is “really” like? What makes it different from other ways of understanding the universe? In Theory and Reality, Peter Godfrey-Smith addresses these questions by taking the reader on a grand tour of one hundred years of debate about science. The result is a completely accessible introduction to the main themes of the philosophy of science.
Intended for undergraduates and general readers with no prior background in philosophy, Theory and Reality covers logical positivism; the problems of induction and confirmation; Karl Popper’s theory of science; Thomas Kuhn and “scientific revolutions”; the views of Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan, and Paul Feyerabend; and challenges to the field from sociology of science, feminism, and science studies. The book then looks in more detail at some specific problems and theories, including scientific realism, the theory-ladeness of observation, scientific explanation, and Bayesianism. Finally, Godfrey-Smith defends a form of philosophical naturalism as the best way to solve the main problems in the field.
Throughout the text he points out connections between philosophical debates and wider discussions about science in recent decades, such as the infamous “science wars.” Examples and asides engage the beginning student; a glossary of terms explains key concepts; and suggestions for further reading are included at the end of each chapter. However, this is a textbook that doesn’t feel like a textbook because it captures the historical drama of changes in how science has been conceived over the last one hundred years.
Like no other text in this field, Theory and Reality combines a survey of recent history of the philosophy of science with current key debates in language that any beginning scholar or critical reader can follow.
Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings – Yuri Balashov & Alex Rosenberg
Publisher’s Description: This comprehensive anthology draws together writings by leading philosophers on the philosophy of science. Each section is prefaced by an introductory essay from the editors, guiding students gently into the topic. Accessible and wide-ranging, the text draws on both contemporary and twentieth century sources.
The readings are designed to complement Alex Rosenberg’s textbook, Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge 2000), but can also serve as a stand-alone volume in any philosophy of science course.
Includes readings from the following leading philosophers: Achinstein, Anderson, Bloor, Earman, Feyerabend, Gutting, Hanson, Hempel, Kitcher, Kuhn, Laudan, Leplin, Mackie, McMullin, Nagel, Popper, Quine, Rosenberg, Russell, Salmon, Schlick, Shapere, Van Fraassen.
The Logic of Scientific Discovery – Karl Popper
Publisher’s Description: Described by the philosopher A.J. Ayer as a work of ‘great originality and power’, this book revolutionized contemporary thinking on science and knowledge. Ideas such as the now legendary doctrine of ‘falsificationism’ electrified the scientific community, influencing even working scientists, as well as post-war philosophy. This astonishing work ranks alongside The Open Society and Its Enemies as one of Popper’s most enduring books and contains insights and arguments that demand to be read to this day.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas S. Kuhn
Publisher’s Description: A good book may have the power to change the way we see the world, but a great book actually becomes part of our daily consciousness, pervading our thinking to the point that we take it for granted, and we forget how provocative and challenging its ideas once were—and still are. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that kind of book. When it was first published in 1962, it was a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science. Fifty years later, it still has many lessons to teach.
With The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn challenged long-standing linear notions of scientific progress, arguing that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of “normal science,” as he called it. Though Kuhn was writing when physics ruled the sciences, his ideas on how scientific revolutions bring order to the anomalies that amass over time in research experiments are still instructive in our biotech age.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi: