Friday, May 1, 2009

Obviously plenty of philosophers use history as a source in philosophy of science

But that does not mean HPS is alive and kicking. Let's distinguish between soft HPS, in which philosophers use history as 'data' or case studies for claims within philosophy of science, e.g. the standard uses of history in realism vs anti-realism debates. [Let's allow, for the sake of argument, that such uses of history are genuinely historical and not pseudo-history.]
Let's contrast this with hard HPS in which there is i) a historical way of knowing (think Lakatos, who was not much concerned with historical accuracy, or George Smith, who is very much concerned with historical accuracy); ii) a trans-historical way of knowing (think Kuhn, who privileged the historian's stance over that of the puzzle-solving scientist, or Foucault, who claimed to detect hidden epistemes unknown to the historical agents); iii) a genuinely historicist stance (sometimes associated with Laudan, but probably better associated with members of the Edinburgh School). Of course, there are/were blended versions of these three.
No doubt there are genuine HPS projects (Hasok Chang comes to mind) that don't fit this too neat division. My claim is that HPS has it source and animating drive in the varieties and debates of hard HPS (Hanson, Polanyi, Bachelard, etc). My claim in my previous post should have been that hard HPS is (almost?) dead.


  1. I don't understand what you mean by (i), (ii), or (iii). Could you be more explicit? I probably just don't understand the terminology: "historical," "trans-historical," and "historicist." Since I can't understand your claim, I can't evaluate it.

  2. Fair enough (it's probably not standard terminology):
    i) to assert that evidence of or claims to knowledge of science are not given at a time but can only be evaluated and constructed/reconstructed (after the fact)
    ii) to claim a privileged stance (as it were outside time) from which one can assert historical facts about the conceptual/material structures (partly invisible to agents themselves) that determine 'knowledge' through the ages
    iii) the view that all norms and facts are historically conditioned (including the claims about these)
    Does that help?

  3. That helps a little, but I'm still not sure what you are up to. Does one do "hard HPS" by having or having and defending a commitment to one of the three positions you describe (they don't look compatible to me)? What is the goal (or what is the product) of a "hard HPS" project? Is it a work of history, a work of philosophy of science, or a work of philosophy of history of science? It looks to me like you mean the last of these, which I wouldn't have thought of as HPS at all.

    In any event, I would have thought that HPS was alive and kicking if (i) history of science is alive and kicking, (ii) philosophy of science is alive and kicking, and (iii) the two communicate in a fruitful way. So, maybe along with clarifying your position you could say either (a) what more you think ought to be demanded of HPS in order to count as being alive and kicking or (b) which of my (i), (ii), and (iii) fails to hold today.

  4. Fair enough (yet again), Jonathan. I am unfamiliar with the category, 'philosophy of history of science'. What kind of work do you have in mind? (I am familiar with History of the Philosophy of Science.)

    In response to your second paragraph, there is (almost) no fruitful communication between history and philosophy of science, if we mean by that communication between historians and philosophers of science. So, your (iii) fails to hold today. Now, it's true there are many philosophers that do genuine work in history of science in order to illuminate or illustrate their philosophy of science (soft HPS). (I count much of my own work as belonging in this group.) These philosophers often are filling a niche created by the historians' focus on social and material context and their recent lack of interest in the content of science. (Of course, many such philosophers would have done their 'historical work' anyway.) Moreover, the historians have embraced a cult of contingency and are extremely resistant to generalizing from their densely understood archival material.

    Before I turn to your first set of remarks in detail, let me answer the thrust behind these in a more general way: 'hard HPS' is a project that challenges our perception of science or philosophy or history and their intersections. That is to say, a) it may try to make philosophy genuinely historical (in a reflexive way); b) it may be willing to see general patterns in history; c) it may be willing to reinterpret the claims of science (when it is asserts itself as the final arbiter on factual matters) or legislate normative claims to science. (Some or all of these things are going on in the works of Kuhn, Lakatos, Polanyi, Hanson, Foucault, Laudan, etc.)
    In isolation 'c' was not so uncommon: once there was plenty of normative philosophy of science (think Popper/Feyerabend); even in the Vienna Circle folks could assert that sometimes philosophy is indispensable to science (there are ways to read Schlick and Neurath this way). I see hard HSP in conversation with these more a-historical normative approaches within philosophy of science. (I think there still are plenty of normative philosophy of science projects around, although often a bit in disguise.)

    To turn to your first set of questions. The three strands I identified within 'hard HPS' have two things in common (while being opposed in many ways): first, they claim that science can/must be evaluated from a historical point of view (either by norms intrinsic to science or not); second, it claims that even though scientific communities legislate and police their own norms, this historical point of view is the more fundamental ground.

  5. Maybe my impression is wrong, here, but it seems to me that your main complaint is about the lack of generalization in contemporary work on the history of science -- what you've called the "cult of contingency." I agree that history of science has trended away from sweeping narratives and generalizations. (I'm not sure that I agree that historians don't care about content anymore, though some historians clearly care more about cultural context and so forth, as you say. Whether -- if true -- this is a bad thing is much less clear, I think.) Nobody writes histories like Whewell or Duhem today. But I don't think the pessimistic conclusions follow. Rather, I think the arguments that moved historians away from that kind of history fit pretty well what you are describing as "Hard HPS": at least insofar as they challenged preconceptions about science, philosophy, and history. And if not, then they fit what I had in mind with "philosophy of history of science." Articulating what history of science ought to be or do. Perhaps it would be better to stick with the term "historiography" instead, but that term is a bit looser.

    Okay, supposing that historians are now much less willing to generalize, what follows? Why is that the death-knell for fruitful exchange between historians and philosophers? Philosophers have nothing to gain from careful, narrowly focused historical research? Historians who have given up on making sweeping generalizations have nothing to gain from philosophy of science about their fields of study (philosophy of physics for Newton scholars, etc.)?

  6. Thanks for sticking with this Jonathan. It is forcing me to articulate my disquiet.
    First, it is a fact that historians have come to act as if they have nothing to gain from philosophy of science. (Of course, there are exceptions, but they really prove the rule.) I think you are right that what I have been calling 'hard HPS' has been contributing to this. (There are also factors pertaining to larger trends in history as a discipline.)
    Second, the contextual, social history of science is making very little impact on philosophy of science, even in its soft HPS version. I am about to publish *Interpreting Newton*, a co-edited volume with Andrew Janiak (CUP 2010), including 17 leading philosophical Newton scholars (Michael Friedman, George Smith, Nick Huggett, Katherine Brading, Chris Smeenk, Zvi Biener, Lisa Downing, etc.); I doubt there is more than one paper that cites a contextual historian; few even cite more traditional Newton historians (except as editors of Newton editions). (I am not saying the stuff is not being read.) So, while you are right to say that there could be fruitful exchange, there is very little. (Even in the responses to my previous posts, folks pointed to philosophers doing (some) history--not to fruitful exchanges.)
    Third, here's what is at stake: 'hard HPS' is tied up with the founding (myths) of HPS and its self-identity. The contemporary soft HPS practices add up to much of a shared identity and sets of exciting debates. (I think this is clear in the field because there are now conferences and volumes that attempt to renew HPS.) This is due to the fact that the rejection of of hard HPS makes HPS and, perhaps philosophy of science more generally, a less ambitious, less engaged, less critical enterprise. So, to be blunt: the death of hard HPS also seems to have made HPS and philosophy of science extremely scientistic.

  7. Congratulations on the book.

    I agree (I think) with respect to contextual/social historians of science. And I'm not too bothered by their lack of impact on philosophy. Do you think the failure of social-construct-type historians to have much impact on philosophy of science is a bad thing?

    I still think some care should be taken with respect to the "cult of contingency" insofar as it feels like two groups are being inappropriately lumped together. That is, one can think that history is radically contingent and place the important contingencies in very different places. And I'm not sure that philosophers haven't taken up some of the problems associated with contingency in this respect (the first example that comes to mind is inference to the best explanation and bad lot arguments, but I'm pretty sure there are others). But maybe this is a response to the historiography rather than the particular histories?

    As to your third point, I think this is where most of my concern/confusion remains. On the one hand, I don't know what you think the greater ambition or goal for philosophy of science should be. I take it (from your last sentence) that whatever ambition or goal you have in mind would move philosophy of science away from scientism. But on this (other) hand, I'm not sure why extreme scientism is bad. Does scientism include an uncritical evaluation of current scientific claims and/or practices? Or is it just a commitment to emulate science? (I thought it was the latter, and so don't see anything especially wrong.)