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Negotiating History: Contingency, Canonicity, and Case Studies

Bolinska, Agnes; Martin, Joseph D.

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Agnes Bolinska


Objections to the use of historical case studies for philosophical ends fall into two categories. Methodological objections claim that historical accounts and their uses by philosophers are subject to various biases. We argue that these challenges are not special; they also apply to other epistemic practices. Metaphysical objections, on the other hand, claim that historical case studies are intrinsically unsuited to serve as evidence for philosophical claims, even when carefully constructed and used, and so constitute a distinct class of challenge. We show that attention to what makes for a canonical case can address these problems. A case study is canonical with respect to a particular philosophical aim when the features relevant to that aim provide a reasonably complete causal account of the results of the historical process under investigation. We show how to establish canonicity by evaluating relevant contingencies using two prominent examples from the history of science: Eddington’s confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity using his data from the 1919 eclipse and Watson and Crick’s determination of the structure of DNA.


Bolinska, A., & Martin, J. D. (2020). Negotiating History: Contingency, Canonicity, and Case Studies. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 80, 37-46.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 5, 2019
Online Publication Date May 6, 2019
Publication Date Apr 30, 2020
Deposit Date Sep 17, 2019
Publicly Available Date Oct 6, 2020
Journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Print ISSN 0039-3681
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 80
Pages 37-46
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