Food for Nerds (Episode 1: Ludwik Fleck)

Food for Nerds, Posts

I first encountered the writings of the Polish medical microbiologist Ludwik Fleck (1896-1961) during my graduate studies at Bielefeld University. After reading both Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Fleck’s Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache (Genesis and development of a scientific fact), I compared the two books in a course paper. My conclusion was that Fleck not only preluded most of Kuhn’s central themes but arguably was also the “better Kuhn.” Only much later I came to understand that Fleck’s writings contain, in fact, a whole sociology of knowledge (which I should finally start reconstructing for myself…).

A few days ago I started browsing a recent collection of material by Fleck, containing essays, letters, and protocols. Apart from Fleck’s heartbreaking testimonies of his stays at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, I found the 1935 letter exchange between Fleck and Moritz Schlick, then the head of the famous Vienna Circle, particularly interesting. Fleck, intending to redefine epistemology (as a social practice) but cut off from the leading epistemologists of his time (consider that Fleck was a medical microbiologist, not a philosopher), approaches Schlick for comments on Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache (then still a manuscript with a slightly different title), probably also hoping for publication support. Schlick’s answer, however, doesn’t exactly suggest great admiration for Fleck’s ideas. In a way Schlick’s answer thereby ironically exemplifies one of Fleck’s central notions: “Denkstil” (thought style). It must have been rather difficult for Schlick to fully appreciate and make sense of Fleck’s ideas, simply because they originated from a Denkstil so bizarrely different from that cultivated in the Vienna Circle.

Since I am now refilled with admiration for Ludwik Fleck and his ideas, I though I should share this admiration with you – and make “Ludwik Fleck” the first episode of my new series on “Food for Nerds.” Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache is of course Fleck’s most important work (in the area of social epistemology), but I find almost all of his writing fascinating. If you are seriously interested in becoming all nerdy about Fleck, check out the following references:

Fleck, Ludwik. 1980. Entstehung Und Entwicklung Einer Wissenschaftlichen Tatsache. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Fleck, Ludwik. 1981. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. University of Chicago Press.

Fleck, Ludwik. 1983. Erfahrung und Tatsache: gesammelte Aufsätze. Edited by Thomas Schnelle. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Fleck, Ludwik. 2011. Denkstile und Tatsachen: gesammelte Schriften und Zeugnisse. Edited by Sylwia Werner and Claus Zittel. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Babich, Babette. 2003. “Kuhn’s Paradigm as a Parable for the Cold War: Incommensurability and Its Discontents from Fuller’s Tale of Harvard to Fleck’s Unsung Lvov.” Social Epistemology 17(2-3):99–109.

Babich, Babette E. 2003. “From Fleck’s Denkstil to Kuhn’s Paradigm: Conceptual Schemes and Incommensurability.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 17(1):75–92.

Cohen, R. S., and Thomas Schnelle. 1986. Cognition and Fact: Materials on Ludwik Fleck. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Egloff, Rainer (Editor). 2005. Tatsache – Denkstil – Kontroverse: Auseinandersetzungen mit Ludwik Fleck. Zürich: Collegium Helveticum.

Graf, Erich Otto. 2005. “Habent Sua Fata Libelli – Bücher Haben Ihre Schicksale.” Retrieved from

Sady, Wojciech. 2012. “Ludwik Fleck.” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Retrieved from