Skip to main content

Creatively Undecided

Toward a History and Philosophy of Scientific Agency

Creatively Undecided

Toward a History and Philosophy of Scientific Agency

Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper are believed by many who study science to be the two key thinkers of the twentieth century. Each addressed the question of how scientific theories change, but they came to different conclusions.
By turning our attention to ambiguity and indecision in science, Menachem Fisch, in Creatively Undecided, offers a new way to look at how scientific understandings change. Following Kuhn, Fisch argues that scientific practice depends on the framework in which it is conducted, but he also shows that those frameworks can be understood as the possible outcomes of the rational deliberation that Popper viewed as central to theory change. How can a scientist subject her standards to rational appraisal if that very act requires the use of those standards? The way out, Fisch argues, is by looking at the incentives scientists have to create alternative frameworks in the first place. Fisch argues that while science can only be transformed from within, by people who have standing in the field, criticism from the outside is essential. We may not be able to be sufficiently self-critical on our own, but trusted criticism from outside, even if resisted, can begin to change our perspective—at which point transformative self-criticism becomes a real option. 

304 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History of Science

Philosophy: General Philosophy

Philosophy of Science


"This volume raises essential epistemological questions in a text poised to make a lasting contribution to the scholarly community. Fisch develops the opposing insights of philosophers Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Fisch probes the question of how scientific theories change to develop a more complete theory of science as a rational endeavor. Ultimately, Fisch follows more in the footsteps of Kuhn, grounding his analysis on the understanding that in philosophy, questioning is the piety of thought. In considering how scienti􀄄c theories evolve, Fisch further asks such questions as these: What is the role of ambiguity and indecision in this change process? How does the praxis of science depend on scientific frameworks? How can one decide when and how to reasonably replace one theory with another? How can a scientist be persuaded to accept a new paradigm? What role does outside criticism play in the process of perspective shifts leading to transformative self-criticism? Overall, this is a remarkable book on critical thinking and the philosophy and history of science. Highly recommended."


"According to Fisch’s argument in this book, scientists are critical and as such require a detached attitude towards their intellectual productions; however, scientists are also attached to their intellectual productions as integral to their self-identity, and hence suspend criticism for commitment. Fisch’s own approach to the historiography and philosophy of science is binocular – seeing the world of science through both poles of the detached-attached spectrum; or bi-cognitive – interpreting the world of science with the two dimensions of detached/attached axes for Fisch’s intellectual coordinate system for the intellectual biographies of scientists in their specific scientific communities."

Transversal: International Journal for the Historiography of Science

"Deeply informed by the history of science and argued with philosophical rigor, this tour de force demonstrates the surprising yet essential role played in scientific revolutions by dithering."

Paul Franks, Yale University

"Scientific thought always takes place in the context of framework assumptions that determine what constitutes rationality. But if reason itself is local to a framework, how can such frameworks evolve and change in a rational way? Drawing on recent work in the theory of action, Menachem Fisch shows how external criticism can lead to an internal destabilization of a scientist’s deepest convictions, and eventually to reasoned change. This book will destabilize the way we have thought about this problem for the last half century and more, and lead us to a new understanding of scientific rationality."

Daniel Garber, Princeton University

"Creatively Undecided, as all great philosophical works, is both theoretically impeccable and meaningful for critically facing present-day ethical and political dilemmas. Fisch answers apparently abstract and cold questions pertaining to the philosophy of science and the history of mathematics, but–as a matter of fact–has something crucially important to say about one of the most pressing issues in our globalized and politically-torn world: how to self-criticize 'from within' our normative frameworks when challenged by competing cultures who confront us 'from without.'  Fisch ends the book by testing his philosophical theses concerning agency and rational deliberation with a historical case: a masterful narrative of the contested reception of George Peacock’s “symbolical algebra” in early ninteeth century England."

Niccolò Guicciardini, University of Bergamo

Table of Contents


Part One: I (Orientations)
1.                     Two Beginnings: An Overture in the First Person

Part Two: We (Philosophers)
2.                     The Philosophical Framework
3.                     The Problem for Science
4.                     Toward a Narratology of Scientific Framework Transitions

Interlude         The Story So Far and That to Come

Part Three: They (a History)
5.                     Peacock, Babbage, and the “Heresy of the Dots”
6.                     Creatively Undecided: The Making of Peacock’s Two Algebras
7.                     Peacock’s Impact


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press