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The beauty of science without the science of beauty

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It is common to praise the beauty of theories, the elegance of proofs, the simplicity of explanations and the unity of theoretical systems. We admire the beauty of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the simplicity of Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection, and the elegance of a geometrical proof of Pythagoras’ theorem. And yet the use of aesthetic criteria in science is as controversial as it is widespread. Difficulties arise on two sides. Philosophers of science have long wondered why apparently subjective concerns for the beauty and elegance of theories should play any role in the search for objective knowledge. Aestheticians have questioned the supposedly aesthetic character of scientists’ judgments of beauty.

My focus in this paper is on the second set of questions, and my aim to spell out an answer the roots of which I trace back to Kant. I argue that, on Kant’s account, the beauty of science cannot be identified with the properties of theories, proofs or explanations. But I reject the popular conception, which portrays Kant as diametrically opposed to the rationalist endorsements of the science of beauty as well as the beauty of science. I argue instead that we can take from Kant the notion of a distinctive aesthetic experience, associated with our contemplating and understanding the results of science. This answer may prove fruitful not only for aesthetics but also for tackling the first set of questions, raised by philosophers of science.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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