History and Philosophy of Science

History and philosophy of science at Utrecht University

A sustained Interest in the history of science in the Netherlands awakened in the second half of the nineteenth century. Statues of ‘heroes’ such as Huygens and Leeuwenhoek were erected, and funds were made available to publish their collected works. This interest, driven by ‘cultural nationalism,’ functioned as the seedbed for a more intrinsically motivated curiosity about the historical development of science. Early results include the books Val en Worp (1924) and De Mechanisering van het Wereldbeeld (1950) by the mathematician Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis, who was appointed special professor of the history of mathematics and science in Utrecht in 1953. Dijksterhuis also published on mathematics education, and his work contributed to the debate in the field that would ultimately result in the establishment of the Freudenthal Institute.

At the VU, the chemist Reijer Hooykaas was appointed professor of the history of science in 1946. He is best known for his Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), and came to Utrecht in 1976 as Dijksterhuis’ successor. His Institute for the History of the Natural Sciences at the Janskerkhof became an important breeding ground for science historians in the Netherlands.

Also in Utrecht, biologist Frans Verdoorn became the first Dutch professor on the history of biology. He founded the Biohistorical Institute in 1959, which was located at the Nieuwegracht. After the retirement of Verdoorn’s successor, the biologist Pieter Smit, the Biohistorical Institute was merged with the Janskerkhof Institute in the late 1980s. After the retirement of Hooijkaas’ successor, the chemist Harry Snelders, this new institute was transferred to the Uithof. By then, the Utrecht Foundations and Philosophy of Physics group, established by the physicist Johan Bernard Ubbink (appointed in 1961), was added to the Institute. Ubbink was succeeded by the physicists Jan Hilgevoord and Dennis Dieks, respectively. This group, led by Dennis Dieks and later by historian of astronomy Albert van Helden, developed into what is now the HPS group. After having been part of the physics department for several years, the group joined the Freudenthal Institute in 2014.

Whereas Dijksterhuis, Hooijkaas, Verdoorn, and Ubbink were pioneers, their successors gave their disciplines a firm foundation in teaching and research at Utrecht University and established international connections and collaborations. The HPS group is now closely connected to the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, a collaborative of all seven Utrecht Faculties. The Centre aims to foster the study of the history and philosophy of all the sciences. Its wider aim is to implement the results of these studies in the educational program of as many Utrecht students as possible and to bring these insights to bear on broader social-scientific l issues, such as climate change, the Anthropocene, science in the digital age, public trust in science, science policy, and scientific integrity.

Within the Freudenthal Institute the HPS staff collaborates with the science education groups, for instance by providing historical and philosophical reflection on current debates on education development.

a student and teacher browsing an old science book