Article ID: CBB001551429

The Prehistory of Serendipity, from Bacon to Walpole (2015)


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.

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Authors & Contributors
Maclean, Ian
Rossi, Paolo Aldo
Clucas, Stephen
Snyder, Laura J.
Logue, James
Cohen, L. Jonathan
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Journal of the History of Philosophy
History of European Ideas
Filosofia e História da Biologia
Apeiron: Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science
University of Chicago Press
Harvard University Press
Stanford University
Brepols Publishers
Philosophy of science
Natural history
Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam
Ramus, Petrus
Bruno, Giordano
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von
Descartes, René
Time Periods
17th century
16th century
15th century
19th century
Great Britain
Florence (Italy)

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