Style Matters: Scientific Pluralism and its Early-Modern Sources



Mapping a conceptual history of style that provides a genealogy of scientific pluralism and theories of style in the sciences.

The concept of style is central to post-positivist, historically oriented philosophy of science and constitutes a reaction against the monist approach of logical positivism, whose purported lack of “style” has been linked to modernist architecture.

The concept of style, which has emerged as a central term in the epistemological and scientific fields, has received little critical attention. Scholarly discussions of style have been largely disparate, scattered across disciplines, and sustained analysis of its resonance and significance, especially for the sciences, is lacking. Attempting to address this gap, EPISTYLE advances the hypothesis that a specific link between style and knowledge established during the early modern period continues to have relevant conceptual force today.

Vermeer’s Astronomer, 1668. The Louvre, Paris, France/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Flyer for lectures held by the Verein Ernst Mach, 1929. Carnap Papers in the Archives of Scientific Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh, document 029-30-0 (source: P. Galison. “Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”. Critical Inquiry: Vol. 16, No. 4, Summer, 1990: 709-752

Figures built from simple elements in ISOTYPE. From Otto Neurath, International Picture LanguageL The First Rules of ISOTYPE, London, 1936 (source: P. Galison. “Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”. Critical Inquiry: Vol. 16, No. 4, Summer, 1990): 709-752

Stonborough House, exterior, 1929. From Leitner, The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein (source: P. Galison. "Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”. Critical Inquiry: Vol. 16, No. 4 (Summer, 1990): 709-752


  1. provide a systematic analysis of contemporary theories of scientific styles
  2. construct a conceptual history of key modern and
  3. early-modern moments shaping the evolution of the notion of style.

By unearthing overlooked sources and neglected European traditions, this timely project will provide a theoretical foundation and epistemological framework for the growing appeals to style arising in various disciplines.

EPISTYLE is a research project funded under the REA’s fellowships scheme to Dr. Matteo Vagelli, researcher at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy. The first part of the project will be carried out at the Harvard Department of the History of Science, and at the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, while the returning phase will take place at Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage.


What does EPISTYLE deal with?

This project aims to provide a comprehensive theoretical and historical discussion of the concept of style, in order to excavate the notion’s epistemological implications for current debates about scientific pluralism.

A growing number of historians and philosophers of science have touted the concept of style as more flexible than method in conceiving of the historicity and plurality of the ways of thinking, discovering, and experimenting that constitute the sciences. More broadly, style studies currently are located at the cutting-edge of research in fields as diverse as ethics, aesthetics, history of philosophy, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and computational stylometric analyses.

Despite such recent, multidisciplinary interest in style, a comprehensive discussion of the concept’s epistemological implications is still lacking; EPISTYLE aims to fill that gap. The project is motivated by the following key questions: what happened to the traditional concept of style when it was migrated from rhetoric and the arts to the fields of history and philosophy of science? Where does the idea of different ‘styles’ of knowing come from, and how did the idea of an historically evolving plurality of standards of scientific inquiry emerge? To what extent do the objects of the sciences owe their existence to the styles that have enabled them to emerge and rendered them thinkable? These transversal questions – cutting across the human, social, and natural sciences – have bearing on the “boundary questions” situated at the borders of the arts and sciences. While this project moves beyond the idea of a “binary economy,” or demarcation between the arts and the sciences, it also aims to keep sight of the specificity found in both.

Peter Galison & Caroline A. Jones, Picturing Science, Producing Art, 1998

The notion of “scientific styles” should allow us both to account for scientific plurality and historicity and to highlight that which emerges and accumulates specifically in the sciences. Working from this point of view, EPISTYLE will examine how mapping “scientific styles” allows us to identify the historical, practical, and pluralist turns of post-positivist philosophy of science without necessarily falling into the relativism and constructivism often taken to be implied by these turns. The project will reconstruct three salient historical moments, or turning points, with epistemological implications for the evolution of the concept of style.
First, it will focus on style as a tool for representing the world and analyse how contemporary theories of scientific styles engage current debates on realism and pluralism. Second, it will foreground the continued resonance of the entwined forms of visibility and of thinkability that animated German and French debates on perception at the turn of the 20th century. Third, it will trace the link between style and knowledge to the early modern period in order to discuss the emergence of “styles of thinking” as a substitute notion for “scientific method”.

Denis Kambouchner, Le style de Descartes, 2013
Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, 1979 [1935]
Gilles Gaston-Granger, Essai d’une philosophie du style, 1968

What is EPISTYLE’s methodology?

The methodological framework for this project is historical epistemology. Located at the crossroads of the history of concepts and the history of practices, historical epistemology aims to account for the historical nature of knowledge without ipso facto debunking it. This methodology has been successfully applied to the study of the historical emergence of several categories organizing scientific thought and practices, including objectivity, probability, and abnormality. EPISTYLE intends to study style as one such organizing category, by tracing both its historical trajectory across different periods and intellectual fields and its conceptual preconditions.


Epistyle talks

Stylistic Pluralism and its Discontents

20 February 2023 - Egenis Seminar (University of Exeter)

One of the “pluralisms” that proliferated in Anglophone philosophy of science during the second half of the twentieth century involves conceiving of the history of science as a history of “scientific styles”. Conflicting interpretations of “styles” in science mainly concern whether the term implies abandonment of the realism, objectivity, and progressiveness commonly understood to distinguish science from the arts.
Taking stock of these debates, in my presentation I aim to discuss the notion of “stylistic pluralism” in relation to some of the forms of ontological, epistemological and methodological pluralism mentioned above. In the first part of my talk, I will build on Ian Hacking’s theory of “styles of scientific reasoning” (Hacking 1982, 1992, 2012) and analyze some of its shortcomings. As a second step, I aim to improve Hacking’s notion of styles by integrating insights from Hasok Chang’s notion of “systems of practice”, considered in the more general framework of his “active normative epistemic pluralism.” (Chang 2012) The notion of “stylistic pluralism”, thus reworked, should allow us to recognize the advances associated with the pluralist turn without falling into the relativism and constructivism it is often taken to imply.
See  "Stylistic Pluralism and Its Discontents" video.

The philosophy of Ian Hacking

with Matteo Vagelli - presentation of "Anthropologie philosophique et raison scientifique" (Vrin 2023) by Ian Hacking.
See "La philosophie de Ian Hacking, avec Matteo Vagelli" [FRA] video.

Past activities

Styles in the Arts and in the Sciences
Online Seminar – Fall 2022/Winter 2023

This seminar discusses the idea of the plurality and historicity of styles in connection with formalist approaches to perception of German art historians and French philosophers between the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. The aim of the seminar is to assess how such discussions became the backdrop for many subsequent uses of style by 20th historians and philosophers of science.

file pdf Styles in the Arts and in the Sciences
Fall 2022 - Winter 2023 Online Seminar
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Gottfried Semper: Style and the Thickness of Time - Isabelle Kalinowski, ENS Paris

In the 1830s, German architect Gottfried Semper (1803–1879) took part in the historical movement of rediscovery of ancient architectural polychromy. His main interest, however, was not limited to demonstrating the historical existence of polychromy: he wanted to explain the function of color and to find an interpretation of the décor’s necessity. He argued that polychromy has essentially to do with memory: the colored décor is a reminiscence of an origin which is more structural than strictly historical. The elements of décor are always linked to something which is remembered: not only to an event in the people’s history, or to a symbolic value, but to the memory of architecture itself. It refers to another material. From the end of the 1840s onward, Semper identifies this architectural memory as a reminiscence of “textile.” In his major work, Style (1860–1863), he refines his conception of genealogy: according to him, the process of material metamorphosis accounts for the agency of architecture. In this lecture, I will explore Semper’s theory of style as material memory as well as the function of Stoffwechsel (metabolism) or migration from one material technique to another in its discontinuity and nomadic history. 

Beyond formalism: Heinrich Wölfflin’s concept of style - Rémi Mermet, ENS Paris

Swiss-German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) is usually considered, along with Alois Riegl, Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky, to be one of the founding fathers of scientific art history (Kunstwissenschaft) in the early 20th century. His Principles of Art History, published in 1915, has been one of the most influential books in the history of the discipline. Yet, despite the recent celebration of the centenary of its publication, and its retranslation into English by the Getty Research Institute, this work still triggers strong opposition within the art-historical community: for a century, Wölfflin’s book has regularly been criticized for his so-called “formalist” approach to artistic styles—an approach that is generally deemed to be blind to the social, political and ideological context of the creation of the works of art. Against such interpretations, I aim to show that Wölfflin’s formalism is merely “tactical”. In the Principles of Art History, he turns away from the analysis of the content of the works to better grasp the inherent meaning of their form. His definition of style as Sehform (“form of seeing”), which owes much to the legacy of Goethe’s morphology, does not separate form and meaning, but apprehends form as the manifestation of meaning itself.

Style in art and style in perception: a problematic correlation - Andrea Pinotti, Università degli Studi di Milano

The German-speaking “Kunstwissenschaft” around the turn of the century (Riegl, Wölfflin and others) put forward a theory of style which suggested, although in an ambiguous way, a connection between styles of visual representation and styles of perception. Such “aisthesiological” approach found in Walter Benjamin and Erwin Panofsky two opposite interpretations: while the latter strongly opposed that connection, the former welcomed it and further articulated it in the direction of the notion of the historical character of perception. My paper will address this controversial constellation, following its successive developments in contemporary aesthetics (both on the analytic and the continental sides). 

Epistemological existentialism and stylistic of ideation - Frédéric Fruteau de Laclos, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Knowledge is deeply anchored in the existence of subjects - it is, as existentialism has it, “situated”. From this "situation", and from what the subject of knowledge makes of it, follows a specific "style" of producing ideas which is always original. This way of understanding things blurs the lines, traditionally distinguished in France, between the subject and the concept, and attempts at extending existentialism to have it covering questions of knowledge, leading it furthermore to analyse how one forms ideas, while forming his or herself as a subject. Symmetrically, I would like to provide a wider understanding of epistemology, one in which the existential conditions for the production of knowledge are taken into account: the subject of knowledge is a subject in the strong sense of the term, and its subjectivity as well as the concrete conditions of its existence must be accounted for epistemologically. 

This meeting will exceptionally be held in French, however, it will be possible to participate in the conversation and ask questions in English.

Style and Solitude. The History of an Architectural Problem - Mari Hvattum, Oslo School of Architecture and Design

In the late 18th century, style underwent a conceptual transformation from a rhetorical device to a new notion of period style. The German art historian Willibald Sauerländer considered the shift a “fateful moment” in European intellectual history, describing the new notion of style as an “ambivalent hermeneutical construct” corresponding to an “alienated attitude towards the arts of the past.” Taking Sauerländer’s critique as a point of departure, this lecture queries the period style and its effect on 19th century architecture. Yet there is a twist. For, however profound those effects were, the period style was not the only notion of style at work in historicist architectural thinking. Looking particularly at Carl Friedrich von Rumohr and Gottfried Semper, I look at conflicting notions of style at work in architectural discourse and practice of the early 19th century.

Why Style Now? - Eva Geulen, ZfL Berlin

The abstract will be uploaded shortly

“Style” in an Interdisciplinary Perspective - Johannes Endres, ZfL Berlin

Today, “style” is a rubbery word that can mean almost anything in just about any context. That used to be different, from its origin in ancient rhetoric, through its rediscovery in the Italian Renaissance and the concept's advent as a technical term in art history in the eighteenth century, all the way to it reconceptualization in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the fields of literary criticism, philosophy, sociology, the history of science, and beyond. My talk is going to present relevant stages of the history of the concept, offering, at the same time, an overview of major epistemological traits on which its future use as part of an interdisciplinary language for the interpretation of visual and literary works of art could be based.

Conference “Arts and Sciences: Historicizing Boundaries”

Keynotes: Elena Canadelli (Padova); Peter Galison (Harvard); Caroline Jones (MIT); Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari)

file pdf June 9-10, 2022, Ca’ Foscari Palace (Aula Baratto), Dorsoduro 3246, Venice
The 7th International Workshop on Historical Epistemology is dedicated to exploring new ways of approaching the historical, conceptual, methodological, and technical relations between the arts and the sciences. Rather than looking for logical criteria for demarcating these domains, the workshop aims to question the arts/sciences dyad from the vantage point of its history.
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Styles and Method in the Early-Modern and the Modern Period

This seminar explores the hypothesis that a distinctive link between style and ways of thinking was formed between the early modern and the modern periods – one that not only played a specific role in the emergence of philology as a model for knowledge but also in discussions of scientific method.


Reading well, writing well, living well. Friedrich Nietzsche and the question of style - Carlotta Santini, CNRS

The reflection on style in Nietzsche's philosophical work cannot be circumscribed to a specific period. It is in fact one of the most important leitmotifs of his œuvre, whose treatment, almost never systematic, is entrusted to anecdotes, mottos and quick remarks. Starting with his first study of the complex artificiality and conventionality of ancient literatures, Nietzsche lays the foundations for his future reflections on philosophical language and the great style. This "dispersed" form, however, in no way diminishes the theoretical weight of the considerations on style and modes of writing in Nietzsche's work. The aesthetic paradigm of the Greek literary work, its rigid formalism and exaggerated normativity to which the entire expressive potential of the artwork was entrusted, increasingly takes the form of an ethical paradigm in Nietzsche's reflection. The "unnatural naturalness" of the great style, the creative freedom within the closed realm of convention, which Nietzsche borrows from the experience of ancient rhetoric, drives him to conceive, through words and writings, an ethics of self-determination, a character-shaping action of stylistic choices. In contrast to the popular view according to which Nietzsche is the philosopher of irrationality, he concentrates all his efforts on the codification of a theory of education and self-control, self-determination, which affects not only writing, but also thinking and character, and thus aspires to achieve radical transformations in the human form of life. 

Fantasy, Scientific Thought and the End of Baroque Science - Raz Chen-Morris, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Since the early phases of the New Science, natural philosophers and mathematicians embraced fantastical stories and imaginary scenarios in order to undermine the traditional and well-entrenched Aritotelian and Ptolemaic systems of the world. Whether in Kepler's Somnium, or Galileo imaginary experiments, or Descartes' fictitious world-system, the assumption was that, in Shakepeare's words, only by "transfiguring" the audience's mind "so together" can a great constancy  grow. This utopian notion that in traveling to another fantastical place one can learn the truth about one's own world pervaded much of 17th century scientific thought in its aspiration to fashion a new world-picture. Beginning with the 1660's, however, the notion of a fantastic travel became leverage for criticizing and exposing the vain presumptuousness of the "New Science". Margaret Cavendish, in her Blazing World, blatantly attacked the Royal Society, mocking its reliance on such instruments as the telescope and the microscope. The Jesuit Gabriel Daniel, in his Voiage du Monde de Descartes, used the trope of space traveling to ridicule the French philosophers' system of the world. Thus, at the end of the 17th century, leading savants such as Fontenelle or Huygens turned to speculate on planetary worlds, marginalizing the role of fantasy and instead seeking to establish a new astronomical and physical commonsense. 

Du style en philosophie, à partir de Descartes – entretien avec Denis Kambouchner, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

This session focused on the analogies, the shifts and the possible points of contact between the notion of style and that of method. In this framework, what is the role of Descartes’ understanding of method? Is it possible to maintain that style, as a “way of thinking”, finds in Descartes its founding figure? It is Descartes, more than any other modern philosopher before him, to have explicitly linked and bent thought to the need for clarity. Is there a relation between the syntactic architecture of Cartesian language and his thought? To what extent “Descartes’ style” has been taken up and reproduced by others? To what extent is it the mark of a philosophical style which goes well beyond its creator? 

In this session we discussed these questions with Denis Kambouchner, one of the most renowned scholars of Descartes and modern philosophy. Professeur émérite at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, he has edited, for Gallimard, the complete works by Descartes, and he is the author of many works on the history of philosophy (e.g. Descartes et la philosophie morale, Hermann, 2001 et Descartes n’a pas dit, Les Belles-Lettres, 2015). Kambouchner is also the author of Le style de Descartes (Manucius, 2013), book which was the point of departure of our conversation, and which allowed us to reflect upon Descartes, the notion of style, as well as the thought of modernity and philosophy more broadly construed.  

* This meeting was exceptionally be held in French * 

Manner: Connoisseurship and Taxonomy, Individual and Collective Identity - Emilie Passignat, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia

The word "Mannerism" is relatively recent in the vocabulary of art history: it appears in Italy during the first half of the nineteenth century. Though it can be useful to elaborate the periodization of arts, Robert Rosenblum has rightly referred to period markers as “semantic straitjackets”, considering these tools hard to tolerate as well as quite impossible to reject. “Mannerism” has a meaning deeply stigmatized and often pejorative inherited from previous centuries, due to the evolution of the use of the term Maniera in the art theory and criticism. The purpose of this paper is thus to focus on some significant aspects of the history of “Maniera”, by giving some new considerations on this key term of the artistic vocabulary. This will aim to present some reflections on the adoption of the term “Maniera” in the artistic literature of the 16 th Century, to highlight some underlying theoretical problems that have so far been much too neglected. Above all, “Maniera” was intrinsically linked to the notion of imitation and has been particularly involved in the gradual emergence of the concept of school, since its apparent polysemy follows from the declination at different scales of what is specific to the individual and collective artistic identity, in space, in time and in the choice of models.

The unbearable lightness of thinking: theory as "capriccio" in 17th-century medicine - Gianna Pomata, John Hopkins

My contribution will focus on a surprising and hitherto unnoticed aspect of early modern epistemology: the fact that the term “capriccio” was used in 17th-century natural philosophy and medicine to indicate conjecture, hypothesis, or theory - in other words, as an antonym for observation. The term conveyed, in this context, a negative view of theory as mere opinion or “fancy”. Indeed, it carried some of the flavor of arbitrariness and unruliness that the word “caprice” was acquiring, in the same years, in the language of political theorists, particularly with the critics of the absolutist state. Right at the same time, in striking contrast, “capriccio” was acquiring a strongly positive currency in the arts. Starting with music in the 16th century, the term “capriccio” was extended to the visual arts and then to literature, to indicate a fashionable multimedia genre associated with liberty of form - “a genre that combined order and chaos”. It appears then that a “capricious” style became fashionable in the arts right when it was being frowned upon in the sciences. What was the meaning of these parallel and contrasting trends? I will argue that the negative meaning of “capriccio” in the sciences indicated:

  1. the changing relationship of theory and observation in the 17th century, which strongly privileged observation over theory; 
  2. the beginning of a divergence between acceptable styles of thinking in scientific and artistic cultures, which would more fully develop in later periods. 

The 2nd Month of Historical Epistemology

file pdf November 3, 10, 17, 24 2021 - Online workshop
A 4-session webinar on the historical and philosophical approaches to the study of the natural and the social sciences. Both established and early-career researchers will present their work on biology and medicine, economics, the social sciences, ecology and the history of epistemology
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Matteo Vagelli

Marie Curie research fellow

Marco Sgarbi

Project supervisor

Peter Galison

Project supervisor

Hasok Chang

Project supervisor

How can I collaborate to EPISTYLE?

If you have any interest, suggestion, curiosity, opinion on the topics covered by EPISTYLE, please contact the researcher Dr. Matteo Vagelli via e-mail: matteo.vagelli@unive.it.