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ABSTRACT Looking in particular at the Scientific Revolution, this essay argues that, for all their differences, positivist commentators on science and contextualist historians of science ought to be committed to the view that counterfactual changes in the history of science would have made no significant difference to its historical development. Assumptions about the history of science as an inexorable march toward the truth commit the positivist to the view that, even if things had been different, scientific knowledge would still have ended up where it is. Perhaps surprisingly, the move away from “great man” history and the increasing emphasis among contextualist historians on the broad cultural influences on scientific thought and practice also imply that changes of a restricted or specific nature ought to have no significant effect on general outcomes. Unlike the positivist, however, the contextualist is willing to concede that things might have been different if the entire cultural background had been different. But in such cases the effect of such sweeping changes would be impossible to conceive and so deprive counterfactual history of any useful insights it might be supposed to offer.
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