On serendipity in science: discovery at the intersection of chance and wisdom

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‘Serendipity’ is a category used to describe discoveries in science that occur at the intersection of chance and wisdom. In this paper, I argue for understanding serendipity in science as an emergent property of scientific discovery, describing an oblique relationship between the outcome of a discovery process and the intentions that drove it forward. The recognition of serendipity is correlated with an acknowledgment of the limits of expectations about potential sources of knowledge. I provide an analysis of serendipity in science as a defense of this definition and its implications, drawing from theoretical and empirical research on experiences of serendipity as they occur in science and elsewhere. I focus on three interrelated features of serendipity in science. First, there are variations of serendipity. The process of serendipitous discovery can be complex. Second, a valuable outcome must be obtained before reflection upon the significance of the unexpected observation or event in respect to that outcome can take place. Therefore, serendipity is retrospectively categorized. Third, the primacy of epistemic expectations is elucidated. Finally, I place this analysis within discussions in philosophy of science regarding the impact of interpersonal competition upon the number and significance of scientific discoveries. Thus, the analysis of serendipity offered in this paper contributes to discussions about the social-epistemological aspects of scientific discovery and has normative implications for the structure of epistemically effective scientific communities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2385-2406
Number of pages22
JournalSynthese: an international journal for epistemology, methodology and philosophy of science
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Chance
  • Scientific discovery
  • Serendipity
  • Social-epistemology of science


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