Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On the decline of general philosophy of science

I could have added this to Gabriele's posting ("Are General Philosophers of Science Becoming an Endangered Species?" 11-2-09), but this way I can say hello to the group and thank Gabriele for inviting me to the blog.
First, I agree with Ed Machery (and Mohan Matthen) that much terrific general philosophy of science is conducted within or is an important byproduct from philosophy of a particular science. (My favorite examples are besides Craver, Bill Wimsatt's work.) I would add to this also history of science (see Howard Stein and George Smith, etc) and history of philosophy of science (Michael Friedman, Alan Richardson, etc).
Second, Ed and Mohan are a bit too quick in dismissing Gabriele's general concern. For one cannot deny that general philosophy of science lacks a certain urgency. (For example, see the fate of some of its leading lights: Michael Friedman's turn to history; Bas van Fraassen's turn to existentialism and religion; Kitcher's turn to public policy of science and opera.) This lack of urgency contrasts with three distinct earlier episodes. I) In the half-century aftermath of the publication of Newton's principia, there was a general debate about its metaphysics, methodology, and epistemology. The debate was between those that argued that philosophy could *limit itself* to a mathematical-empirical approach (Galileo, Newton, Cotes, MacLaurin) and those that thought that reason required a more general foundation (in our ideas, in principle of sufficient reason, in some bed-rock certainty, etc--think Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume of the Treatise). II) A second serious debate occured in the wake of Kant's success in forestalling and transforming the crisis within philosophy. This discussion was most intense in Britain where in the wake of the developing professionalization of science, philosophers discussed the methodology of science (Whewell, Jones, Mill, but also Maxwell and Peirce, Mach, Comte, etc). This was still the domain of general philosophy (and science) III) Professional philosophy of science (with its own journals and professionals) was born around the turn of the twentieth century. It arose from debates within neo-Kantianism in which epistemology was the first science. In this climate the philosophy of science had a very crucial purpose: if the results of science are the ideal of rationality then philosophy of science is the core of the first science (epistemology or in its Carnapian guise, the logic of science). This project intensified after the shock of the Einsteinian revolution. (It probably died somewhere early in the cold war.) If my potted history is accurate then Mohan's snap-shot of mid 20th century of science is an example of what happens to a research project that 'forgets' its own animating questions and becomes a problem-solving 'science' (with journals, conferences, fashions) that has a 'history' of circa 20 years (and, given the high barriers of entry to particular philosophy of science, can become, thus, unattractive to newcomers).
Third, this also suggests why Robert Northcott's creative proposal (philosophy of science as a bridge between M&E and particular philosophy of sciences [it reminds one of Neurath's and Carnap's project for unified language of science]) is doomed to fail. 'Our' leading M&E projects (derived from the work of David Lewis) appear designed (despite the language of naturalism, materialism, etc) to avoid 'contact' with science at all cost. Our services are not wanted!
Fourth, if I am correct, then general philosophy of science can only become animated if either contemporary M&E (or ethics, etc) has a need for it or if some general philosopher of science writes such impressive works of philosophy that can attract attention of discipline as a whiole.


  1. Eric,

    I don't understand your reasons for thinking that Robert Northcott's proposal is "doomed to fail".

    (Actually, I am not sure Robert was making a proposal. He seemed to be offering a characterisation that applies to some of his work and to some of the work of others. But set that aside).

    You say that much contemporary metaphysics avoids contact with science, and that "our services are not wanted". Even if this is true, perhaps they are needed, and when the case is made this will be appreciated.

    In the case of causation, which Robert initially mentioned, I agree with him: much of the case has already been made, and metaphysicians now ignore the work of philosophers of science at their peril.

  2. Dear Brad,
    My view is that metaphysicians can 'safely' ignore the work of philosophers of science if the philosophers of science fail to put forward a comprehensive alternative to leading metaphysical project(s) (i.e., David Lewis style naturalism).
    The fate of discussions surrounding causation actually proves my point; lots of scientifically informed folk are unhappy with dominant Lewisian 'paradigm' on counterfactuals, but despite much important recent work on alternative treatments of causation, the Lewisian ship has not slowed down.
    In fact, it is very hard to see how philosophers of science who are increasingly trained in a philosophy of special sub-discipline can even start to build a comprehensive alternative. (Bill Wimsatt is an interesting exception, but his writing style is no match for that of David Lewis.)

  3. Very interesting post.

    One has to distinguish, of course, a principled decline of interest -- lack of interest because there is no longer anything to be interested in -- and a fashion-related decline -- lack of interest because philosophy of opera is all the rage these days.

    I was suggesting that the pause button had been hit because the mid-century problems had been transformed. New problems are coming up through the philosophy of the special sciences, but until they have taken shape, there is not as much for the general philosopher of science to do but wait. After all, how much interest is there any more in mid-century questions such as the theory-ladenness of observation, or the methodology of research programmes?

    However, Eric's "potted history" raises some very interesting questions. All three of his moments seem to have been propelled by interest in the implications of actual scientific questions, whether they be Newtonian action-at-a-distance, the status of dynamics or biology, or the status of causality in a world of indeterminacy. And if you look at philosophy of science in mid-century, there seems to have been a lively interest in questions arising out the special sciences. This interest was particularly alive and well in Popper's London (and his Christchurch, for that matter) -- Popper was enormously influential among social scientists and medical researchers not just because they discovered his work, but because he took a keen and active interest in them.

    Similar things can be said about some philosophers of science today -- but unfortunately professionalization has created barriers to communication on both sides of the fence. Has this acted to the detriment of general philosophy of science? Is it no longer receiving an impetus from pressing questions in the special sciences?

  4. 'Our' leading M&E projects (derived from the work of David Lewis) appear designed (despite the language of naturalism, materialism, etc) to avoid 'contact' with science at all cost.

    Why not say, then, so much the worse for the "leading" M&E projects?

  5. Well, as Matt says, so much the worse for them. But this still leaves it open where general philosophy of science is going.

  6. First, in respons to Matt Brown, "so much the worse for them" is not an inappropriate response, but it does not change the fact that these leading M&E projects seem to have risen in prominence at the expense of general philosophy of science (or even philosophy of special sciences). I do not advocate quietism in the face of Gabriele's diagnosis.
    Second, in response to Mohan's comments above: thank you! But it is worth knowing that important elements of Logical Empiricism/Positivism (that is, unity of science, unity of language of science, the encyclopedia, etc) were, in part, principled response(s) to perceived lacks caused by the division of labor within science. So, (part of) the mission (and urgency) of general philosophy of science when it was created in modern form came from the fact that it was seen as a necessary response to specialization within science. (While not the whole story this is true of Carnap and Neurath; I have bene teaching a course on the rationality of science, and I am struck by the fact that both accept Weber's diagnosis of modern science as a part of the division of labor, and structure their responses to it.) So, while Mohan is right that "professionalization has created barriers to communication on both sides of the fence" general philosophy of science was once seen as the answer to that. In fact, there is an irony here: formal semantics, inductive logic(s), formal epistemology (etc) were once seen as core parts of the 'science of science' (or general philosophy of science). Lewis' program is a development of the technical tools of Carnap for very different ends. (There is further irony in that most of the rhetoric and arguments about the proper philosophical place of the logic of science are unconsciously recycled from an earlier period: when followers of the mathematical-empirical method were trying to convince their fellow natural philosophers that their was the most promising program.)
    Third, I think philosophy of science can only regain a central role if its main spokespeople and its crucial questions urgently speak to scientists and philosophers. But how to do this in a world of specialization is unclear, especially because the barriers to entry in philosophy of science (specialist knowledge of a science and philosophy) are so high. How can one hope to attract ambitious, stellar minds if philosophy of science does not speak to urgent, central questions and its subject matter increasingly esoteric?

  7. Good points Eric. I take it that the Unity of Science project went in two directions. First, logical empiricism was seen as working toward a methodological foundation for all science. (The science of science project.) Secondly, physics was seen as providing the substantive foundation for all science through bridge principles. (The Reduction project, as one might call it.) The Reduction project has collapsed, I take it -- Putnam, Fodor, and Kitcher have all argued powerfully for the autonomy of the special sciences. If this is right, then your historical remarks shed light on Gabriele's initial question in an unexpectedly poignant way: general philosophy of science has lost one of its main pillars of support.

  8. Mohan, yes, exactly what I meant to say in my roundabout way! (I want history of philosophy to shed light on contemporary sense of puzzlement.) I believe that Unity of Science was less about methodological foundation than providing a unified language. (But even if I am right, your point still stands.)
    I have to admit that I sometimes think that if Carnap (et alia) had been genuine neo-Kantians (of the sort that Michael Friedman claims they are), they should have opted for making Biology the substantive foundation for some kind of transcendental project. But that is speculation for another time.
    Perhaps, the key to reviving philosophy of science (if one that wished for) is to tackle the autonomy of special special sciences in light of new philosophical questions. Craver's book on mechanism goes some way in suggesting that a whole class of life-sciences have common normative ethos. Projects like that seem to me exactly of the right form.

  9. First, a response to Eric's 9:08 post. I'm not sure why if the some of the logical positivists were genuine neo-Kantians, biology would have been their science of choice. I'm trying to make an argument in my dissertation that Kant explicitly ties constitutive a priori principles to the determination of objects in space and time. In this sense, the preoccupation with physics makes sense: we have to know how to determine the positions of objects in space and time before we know anything else about them.

    But, that perhaps misses the point of your comment, which seems to be not so much historical, but speculative.

    Secondly, I think an argument needs to be made that doing history and philosophy of science just is doing epistemology (this is something my colleague Scott Edgar helped me realize). By studying, say, the structure of scientific theories, how conceptual change occurs within science, and how data is related to the formulation of theory (or however you want to frame it) we learn something important about how we know things about the world, how we justify those things, et cetera.

    This, I think, is a case that needs to be made more strongly if general philosophers of science want to come into contact with epistemology again. And I think a good case can be made that this conception of epistemology done in positive contact with science (stretching back pretty far; Descartes, maybe, Kant at least) is somehow a more informative research project than pumping intuitions about justified true belief and the like.

  10. Hi Paul,

    Allow me to be the first to object to the notion that 'doing history and philosophy of science _just is_ doing epistemology'.

    For one thing, there's a lot of metaphysics involved.

    For another, I'd completely reject the idea that the study of inquiry -- i.e. how we can and should inquire -- is fundamentally linked to the study of knowledge. As far as I'm concerned, it's even an open question whether the aim of science is knowledge. (See, for example, Bird's _What is Scientific Progress?_ which recently appeared in Nous, and our subsequent exchange in _Studies in History and Philosophy of Science_. Note also that there is considerable contact with what is going on in contemporary epistemology, e.g. reference to the work of Tim Williamson, and the value problem.)

    If you want a simple argument on the second issue, consider that epistemology is itself a form of inquiry. And presumably it is possible to discuss what count as good rules for that form of inquiry in a sensible way without having reached any firm conclusions on 'episteme'...

    I could add that you also seem to be assuming a highly controversial view of 'history of science'.

  11. Thanks, Darrell. I think you make some good points and have put me on a path to do some heavier thinking about my claims (and they're mine; I simply mentioned my colleague because we've had many discussions about this; I don't want to misattribute anything to him). I hope they didn't sound too hopelessly naive (and also hope that the sequel doesn't either)!

    As you remark, neither of my claims are obviously true (maybe they're even obviously false!), and defending both of them is perhaps not best accomplished in a comment on a blog post. But, I want to address your claim that the study of inquiry is not the study of knowledge. I think on some level this is true: if I set out to simply describe the practice of science, its methods, and its findings, such a descriptive theory on its own does not tell us anything useful about knowledge.

    But, I think that even if, descriptively, the aim of science is not just the accumulation of knowledge, a case might be made, speaking now with a normative hat on, that it still makes claims about the world that seem to be very good candidates for knowledge, if there are to be any at all.

    So, for example, I'm not sure anyone would describe the aim of geometry as the accumulation of knowledge or truth, but, would say its aim is to describe the size, shape, and the position of objects in space. Yet, its claims were still taken by many philosophers (especially in the early modern period) to exemplify a certain type of knowledge, or truth, the structure of which would be useful to explain and explore for epistemology's sake (analogously, for example, for the claims of relativity in some of Cassirer's work and Reichenbach's early philosophy of science).

    Science itself does not generate the sort of normative criteria usually associated with epistemology, but that does not mean that we can't conduct our epistemology in positive contact with science and maybe draw normative lessons from it. (Indeed, I think this, in part, is the aim of much of the transcendental project: take our best candidates for knowledge, where that means most useful, most true, most explanatory, or whatever epistemological criteria you want to evoke and try to figure out what makes them so useful, or explanatory, or true.)

    But, perhaps this is invoking the highly controversial view of history and philosophy of science that you note I was appealing to. Maybe what I'm describing is not doing history and philosophy of science at all, but is simply just doing epistemology in contact with science. As I said, I'll have to think through these issues more clearly, but in my gut, I want to believe something like my original post.

  12. Sorry to be a thread hog, but it's also dawned on me that the force of my "just is" in the first post was perhaps just too strong when I said doing history and philosophy of science just is doing epistemology.

    What I was really driving at, as perhaps is clear from my second post, is that a case could be made that doing history and philosophy of science is, in a sense, doing epistemology, not that it in fact is. If there are good arguments to support this claim (and perhaps some could be gleaned from those neo-Kantians who made similar claims in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), then perhaps it's a way of bridging whatever the gap is between epistemology and philosophy of science.

  13. Paul, on your (original) second point, a young Flemish philosopher of science, Maarten Van Dyck (Gent), who works on Galileo and I are both exploring and writing about how doing history and philosophy of science can be a form of epistemology (and even, ahum, metaphysics). For example, I have written on (what I only half-jokingly call) the social conditions of possibility. But you should know that your proposal returns history and philosophy of science to its (French and German?) roots (besides Cassirer, think of Koyre, Duhem, Bachelard, and even Foucault). The arguments for such a strategy are to be found there because of a shared neo-Kantianism (or reactions to it, from Hegel, Marx, Mach, etc).
    Meanwhile, George Smith is writing case studies about how even within the physical sciences many second-order observations and evidence more generally are historical in nature.
    On your original first point. Yes, my suggestion was speculative. But I was thinking that extending Helmholtz's (Kantian) project along Darwinian lines should have been the route for the logical empiricists. You are right, of course, that physics is required to locate bodies in space and time, but biology/physiology (etc) is required for human knowers. (Perhaps this is an unstable mix between epistemology naturalized and neo-Kantianism.)
    Finally, I think sciences do have implicit normative criteria, and philosophers of science could find a role for themselves in articulating these criteria and systematizing them. This would even permit immanent criticism. Carl Craver's book has this as a sub-theme, and I find it a very fruitful combination of philosophy of special sciences informed by more general philosophical sensibilities. (It's a nice example of what Pittsburgh HPS can produce at its best.)

  14. Hi Paul,

    It's interesting how, in your first response above, you use 'knowledge, or truth' in your discussion of geometry. My suspicion is that we can jettison 'knowledge' (when this is understood in its normal subjective sense, rather than something like Popper's 'objective knowledge'). That is, unless one wants to agree with Sartwell that subjective knowledge is simply true belief (which would perhaps have been an attractive proposition for critical rationalists).

    Historically, I think you're quite right. In so far as I'm a pancritical rationalist, though, I think we'd do better to move away from worries about 'justification', and the like. (But this doesn't give us license to ignore what's going on in mainstream epistemology. For one thing, I recognise that I might be utterly wrong! And I want to engage with people who disagree with me!)

    Hardly anyone else agrees with me, of course... so I shouldn't worry! If you ignore me, I might go away.

  15. Hi Darrell, I often distinguish between two aspects of science (echoing more famous distinctions): the religious aspect, which is focused on truth and explanation, and the 'next measurement aspect' which is focused on deploying equipment in fancy ways. Despite the so-called Kuhnian-revolution in philosophy of science, philosophers are obsessed with the first and, if forced to justify themselves
    , defend it with a claim that the second is obviously in service of first aspect. But scientists are rarely interesting on the first aspect, and I have come to believe that when they engage in, it is largely for PR purposes. (Maybe I'll create a re-post this later as a seperate thread.)