Wednesday, July 22, 2009

HPS Dead: the numbers and first stab at analysis

A few months ago, I reported that HPS is dead. (See here and here In exchanges, I recanted a bit.
But having just been at BSPS 2009 and looking over EPSA 2009's program, the situation is more dire than I imagined.
The hard numbers: at BSPS 2009, 3 (two on Newton, one on Darwin and Darwinism) out of 45 parallel sessions had a historical orientation. The situation is actually dire because none of these presenters are current or recent PhD students (whereas much of the excitement at BSPS comes from learning about fresh work), and two of these were educated at and influenced by Howard Stein of The University of Chicago in 1990s. Conclusion: British HPS has no discernible influence on British contemporary philosophy of science. Simon Saunders' plenary talk had a bit of a HPSy feel, but it was by no means a historical talk.
At upcoming EPSA, at most 15 out of 107 contributed papers have a historical slant (and several of these are 'meta' talks about the role history of science plays in contemporary debates about scientific realism); if it weren't for an abiding interest in Vienna Circle, the numbers would be much smaller. 2 out of 20 contributed symposia have, perhaps, a historical component (I recognized a few names, including a few papers by folks who appear to be double-dipping in the regular program).
Now, these numbers largely reflects the state of play in British philosophy (a major source of training of many of the best European philosophers of science); it has an alarming lack of interest/competence in pre-Fregean/Wittgensteinian philosophy in the analytic mainstream. This lack of interest carries over in lack of interest in HPS (history of philosophy and history of science overlaps a lot prior to 1900) Given that funding agencies in mainlaind Europe want European philosophers to emulate UK practices I expect this situation to accelerate.
At BSPS 2009 I enjoyed listening in on a conversation among folks from and trained at Leeds, LSE, and Oxbridge. The debates were good-natured and serious. Yet, if we leave aside concerns with so-called meta-induction argument, historical sensibility seems entirely absent. The community-wide narrow focus has many virtues, but the losses are also apparent to an outsider: there is a nearly complete lack of interest in issues concerning normativity of science and the politics of science (despite fact that medicine, psychology, and biology are major focus of case studies); feminist and pragmatist orientations are nowhere to be discerned. (I gave Anjan Chakravartty a hard time over his treatment of Arthur Fine in his keynote at BSPS.)
The worst aspect of the demise of HPS (in conjunction with broader sociological trends) is, I fear, that the 'cult of progress' will get an even tighter grip on philosophers' imagination. Accelerated and more specialized PhDs and specialist faculty in PhD granting programs will remove from the discipline any semblance of historical self-awareness and much needed skeptical self-criticism.
I regret not being able to change this tide by joining the department at Aberdeen, where next to a stellar analytic ML&E program a potentially terrific HPS program is being assembled with recent hires (Gaukroger, Catherine Wilson, Guido BacciaGaluppi, Mogens Laerke, and Ulrich Steegman). But more about that some other time.


  1. Eric Schliessers reports (Wednesday 22 July 2009), with tears in his eyes I believe,
    that currently History of Science (HS) hardly any influence on Philosophy of science (PS).
    Presumably he finds it obvious that HS should exert influence on PS. I do not find it obvious at all and I find it plausible at best when in regard to SOME philosophical problems concerning science. Eric should give us an argument.

  2. I am not sure I can give a convincing argument, especially because these days much HS has little interest in scientific theories and the evidential arguments of the past. But here are some considerations.
    First, the status of scientific theories is hard to discern in real time. So, HS prevents us from being captive to fashion (which is often driven by publicity, novelty, etc).
    Second, in practice much contemporary philosophy of science trails science (so is effectively a branch of history of science--why not acquire some of the skills that HS teaches?).
    Third, much PS involves underspecified toy examples rather than detailed and thickly embedded scientific knowledge.
    Fourth, the nature, scope, of knowledge (and the evidence for it) within science often is sorted out over long periods of time (by means, for example, of review articles). HS is in a much better position to appreciate this than much contemporary PS.
    Fifth, HPS can illuminate which of the concerns we (qua philosophers) bring to the table are enduring and which are driven by parochial concerns.
    Sixth, HS and HPS can help us not repeat same mistakes, or at least learn from thems.