Friday, September 25, 2009

Exciting Trends in General Philosophy of Science

I'd like to resurrect in a way a thread from February, where Gabriele posted about whether general philosophers of science are becoming an endangered species and Eric worried about the decline of general philosophy of science. I want to register a dissenting opinion; it seems to me that exciting discussions in general phil sci are on the rise, and this is one of the more exciting times to be working in general philosophy of science.

In comments, Mohan Matthen suggested that there may have been a progressive problem-shift in the area. If one defines the discipline by way of a specific set of questions, this may make it look like the discipline is in decline. I see a discipline regaining its prominence by taking on a more fruitful set of questions and projects. One direction is the move towards formal analyses. The move to engage with mainstream M&E is another. Work on mechanisms and models, insofar as it can be said to be general, is another. Here are some other new projects that interest me:
  1. History of Philosophy of Science—To me, this is a very exciting development, though perhaps the one least likely to be recognized as a proper part of general philosophy of science. We're now starting to recover the early history of the field, both the various pre-20th century influences and the 20th century movements that led to the shape of the discipline today. The work by folks like Alan Richardson, George Reisch, Thomas Uebel, Don Howard, Heather Douglas, Jordi Cat, Nancy Cartwright, Michael Friedman and others uncovering the original interests and motivations of the members of the Vienna Circle is one of the best examples. This is great for general philosophy not only because it helps us remember why these general projects were important in the first place (no small achievement!), but also because it (a) reminds us of other projects which may have largely been forgotten about and (b) shows us that there are significant differences between the "received view" of what certain projects mean and the original projects themselves.

    An example of (a) is Neurath's project of attempting to identify and help bridge "gaps" between different areas of science, which differs significantly from most familiar discussions of "intertheoretic reduction" and "unity of science" by being a more practical aid to scientists and the consumers of science. There is a related example of (b), since this goal was part and parcel of Neurath's conception of the Unity of Science movement, and these histories have uncovered that members of that movement like Neurath, Frank, and Dewey were up to something very different than what Feyerabend, Dupré, and others were attacking.

    Turning back to history can often be a source of renewal for philosophy. It can shake our assumptions, offer radically different perspectives, and spur a change of approach. Philosophers of science turning back to the history of the discipline promises to be the beginning of a renewal of the field.

  2. Values in Science—This is not exactly a new area, but it is definitely one that is receiving a new life in recent years. Talk of "cognitive values" has been around for quite a while, but in the 1970's, for suggesting that science was susceptible not only to epistemic and metaphysical analysis, but moral and political critique (among other things), Feyerabend was considered to have gone off the rails. In the 1990's, a small but important cadre of feminist philosophers insisted on important relationships between science and values. In recent years, gladly, there has been an explosion of such work. Recent work examines in detail the complex relations between science, ethics, social values, and public policy. Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy is obviously a landmark work, as much as for who produced it as for its contents (though the contents, blending methods from philosophy of science and political philosophy, provides ). Putnam, Longino, Kourany, Douglas, Howard, and Martin Carrier have also made exciting contributions, and there is an exciting group of scholars coming out of Bielefeld (e.g. Justin Biddle) who are exploring such topics. One of the great discoveries of HOPOS in recent years is that many of the original logical positivists, other members of the Unity of Science movement, and the founders of the journal Philosophy of Science were strongly concerned with issues of science, values, and politics.

  3. Evidence—Beyond talking about how evidence confirms hypotheses in a general way, there has been a lot of interesting work recently on the nature of evidence. John Worrall, Nancy Cartwright, and a group of students at LSE have been doing some fantastic work on evidence for use and so-called "evidence-based policy." Work on topics like experimental evidence and robustness is another interesting case. The work of Allan Franklin, Kent Staley, and Jacob Stegenga are also good examples.

  4. Simulation—Though I haven't figured out my own views on the matter, I've been following the recent work on computer simulations with great interest. Simulations are used across a broad variety of sciences, and they may well differ in interesting way from theories, mathematical models, and experimental measurements. The work of Margaret Morrison, Wendy Parker and Eran Tal comes to mind.
So, while many traditional topics like realism, confirmation, explanation, paradigms, &c. seem to be significantly less popular, many areas seem quite vibrant!

[Thanks Gabriele and everybody for inviting me to join the blog!]


  1. Matthew,

    I think it is interesting that two of your first two examples deal with HOPOS-y areas. But I remain to be convinced it is not more than a -- creative and exciting! -- niche area in philosophy of science. (For evidence: just look at the composition of sessions at EPSA and PSA.)

    I would include George Smith and Marcel Boumans among the philosophers who have done very serious work on evidence (Boumans is in certain respects part of the wider LSE circle, but Smith is less so).

    Just a small point: it is unfair to Feyerabend and Dupré to suggest that they are/were attacking the same beast.

  2. Thanks Eric!

    I did oversimplify a bit w.r.t. Feyerabend & Dupré. But insofar as each criticizes ideas of unity, reduction, monism, etc., they're attacking quite a different target than what many of the original Unity of Science folks defended.

    It's no accident that investigations of the intersection of science-values-politics seem HOPOS-y; as many have pointed out, this is essentially the topic around which philosophy of science was born. But it's also got a life beyond those interested in HOPOS.

  3. I think of Feyerabend's positions as largely tactical (in the service of, perhaps, sceptical humanist); Dupre seems to have a substantive metaphysical position (disunity).

    It's possible that science-values-politics may attract serious research funding in Europe and, thus, become more than a niche.

  4. Small point, perhaps, but I think Feyerabend's point is both tactical and epistemological (possibly at different times). Unity isn't the wrong metaphysics so much as it is an epistemic hindrance (for "Millian" reasons). But the sense of "unity" Feyerabend opposes seems anathema to Neurath's encyclopedism, and in that very schematic way I'd ally him w/ Dupré.