The prehistory of serendipity, from Bacon to Walpole

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Abstract

During the past four decades there has developed a burgeoning literature on the concept of serendipity, the name for sudden insights or conceptual breakthroughs that occur by chance or accident. Studies repeatedly note that it was Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century man of letters, who coined the word. None of them, however, notice that Walpole’s term is itself indebted to a much older tradition, invoking a formula developed by Francis Bacon. Recovering the prehistory of the term suggests that “serendipity,” rather than being a name for a special mode of discovery invented by Walpole, has all along accompanied empiricism as the name for an essential gap in its epistemology. Serendipity bears directly on the “induction problem,” or what has more recently been called the “conceptual leap.” Though Walpole gave it its current name, versions of the concept have all along isolated a critical gap in the method of the sciences inaugurated by Bacon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)235-256
Number of pages22
JournalISIS
Volume106
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)

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