Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hasok Chang on the state of Philosophy of Science.

I was asked to provide a blurb to Matthew Lund's indispensable book, *N.R. Hanson: Observation, Discovery, and Scientific Change*. It has a very elegant foreword by Hasok Chang that resonates with some recent discussion on this blog. I quote with permission:

"the discipline of philosophy of science is at a critical juncture today. While research in the fiels has surely continued to grow in its quantity and sophistication, many traditional debates seem to be at a standstill, and captivating new ideas are rare. There is also a palpable sense of frustration on the part of many scholars that somehow there are few debates that can still elicit excitement in more than a small fraction of an already small field, not to mention people outside the field. Where introductory courses in philosophy of science are offered, students still flock to them; however, good teachers will know not to introduce too many current debates, as their highly technical and inward-looking nature tend to turn students off. Somehow, after so much good work done in the intervening period, it is still the debates from the time of Hanson's death that most excite students and the educated public--debates with the names of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend attach to them." Hasok Chang, "Foreword" to Matthew Lund *N.R. Hanson: Observation, Discovery, and Scientific Change* (Amherst: Humanity Books, in press).


  1. Very good issue to raise. Does Chang offer an example of the "good work done in the intervening period" that should, but doesn't, excite students and the public?

    One problem, to my mind, is that philosophers of science are not working on issues that might affect the course of scientific inquiry. They are normally just trying to keep up with developments in particular sciences.

    It just occurred to me that philosophy of science has become an exercise in metaphysics (adjusting our ontologies of particular object spheres) rather than an epistemological enterprise (articulating the norms of good scientific inquiry).

    General PoS has an important role to play in holding science accountable. But in order to do so it has to get back to doing epistemology; that is, it has to ask how science is capable of producing knowledge, not what science implies the world is made of. It can, that is, take an outsiders perspective on any individual claim to scientific knowledge and assess it qua science.

  2. Chang does not provide an example of the "good work" done.

    I do not think it is true "that philosophers of science are not working on issues that might affect the course of scientific inquiry." Many work done in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of economics is done with that intent.

    We should be a bit sceptical, however, about the claimed impact on the sciences. Not so long ago I was on a 'celebrity' panel (you know with Nobel laureates in economics, people who discover mirror-neurons, and folk who claim to have discovered moral molecules--don't ask me how I got on it) with, among other people, the Harvard Biology theoritician, David Haig (a very nice smart guy who became 'fampous' for work on generational genetic 'conflict' in the womb); so I earnestly asked him by which philosophers of biology he had been influenced or thought influential in his discipline. He drew a complete blank. When I started to mention some personal favorites, he found ways to make polite noises. (I know this is not scientific sample; I also know there are counter-examples.)

    On holding science 'accountable'...some other time.

  3. Isn't there a difference between the philosophy of language (a kind of inchoate linguistics) and the philosophy of linguistics (a specialization within the philosophy of science)? Donald Davidson was doing work in 1970s that sort of blurred that distinction, but perhaps the boundary between the philosophy and science of language was just sort of blurrier back then.

    I don't think the philosophy of mind is tantamount to the philosophy of cognitive science. But maybe I've just been away for too long?

    What would be an example of a philosophical insight into the science of biology that would have the potential to influence scientific inquiry? By "influence" (and "affect the course") I mean the way in which logical positivism affected, say, economics; the way the theory of paradigms affected social science more generally; and the way, arguably, post-structuralism (Foucault in particular) affected the humanities and the social sciences.

    Philosophy is able, at least occasionally, to change they way scientists conceive of the work they do, and the things they say in defense of their research programs.

  4. On the issue of influence: many early philosophers of science (especially William Malisoff) would say that part of the problem with our decreasing influence is our increasing professionalization. The field began as a collection of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers of various backgrounds interacting in dynamic ways. Now that philosophers of science have backgrounds in philosophy of science, are trained by, talked to, read and are read by philosophers of science, it is no great surprise that out influence has decreased. This may reverse itself in small ways as hyper-specialization pushes philosophers of science close enough to the empirical details of particular sub-fields as to make them indistinguishable from the scientists themselves, but I think Eric is right to encourage a bit of skepticism, there.

    On accountability: I think the attempt to hold science to account is alive if not well, but it has rarely been a matter of pure epistemology. Feminist philosophy of science in the last couple of decades is one example of a combination of epistemic and value-based critique of science, one that's actually made quite a positive impact in some areas. More recent work on science and values and science and policy (ala Kitcher, Cartwright, etc.) is another avenue for pursuing this.

    Hope this doesn't sound like the broken record of my last post...

  5. But, is there any difference with other areas of philosophy? Now there is probably no Popper, nor Kuhn, nor Feyerabend (not even a Carnap, snif!); but, are there some Foucaults, some Wittgensteins, some Nietzsches, some Heideggers? I don't think so.
    Also in the sciences: are there any Einstein, Maxwell, Darwin, Schrödinger, Watson (ups, Watson is still there)?
    And in music and literature: in two hundred years time, people will still listen to Mozart and read Dickens (and probably Popper), but whom from late 20th century or now?
    I would say that we have experienced something like a big change of 'intellectual regime', one in which there is little space for an individuality's creation, and more for networks created out of bits of small work... but I am speculating, of course

  6. I think that, as this discussion shows, the problem is that even those of us who agree with Hasok's characteristically lucid picture of the current unhealthy state of Gen Phi Sci disagree about what the treatment should be. Should Gen Phi Sci get closer to the sciences or closer to the core philosophy? As you probably know by now, I opt for the latter but I realize I am probably part of a minute minority.

    As far as I know, scientists have never listened to any philosopher of science other than Popper and I'm not sure they should and the line between a philosopher of X that makes contributions to X and a practitioner of X seems to be very blurry to me. As I said a few times here, I think that philosophers of science qua philosophers of science should try to do philosophy not science and this means work closely with other philosophers who work on LEMMing questions.

  7. I largely agree with Matthew's analysis. But I wonder if "professionalization" is the right word. We would not say that professionalization hindered lawyers, doctors and psychoanalysts in their quest for influence. On the contrary. So it is something peculiar about the way philosophers have specialized their questions that has led to the isolation of philosophical work.

  8. I agree with Jesús that the institutional regime has changed; there is far-reaching division of labor within and among the sciences. For the Vienna Circle this was both to be welcomed (scientific model leads to success) and a problem to which they had an answer: the unity of language/encyclopedia movement not to mention the philosopher as semantic/conceptual engineer. What we have lacking now is a sustained, credible philosophic movement that is responding to the problems within/among the sciences. (There are, of course, Bayesians, who believe they are such a movement.)

    Celebrity culture also produces celebrity philosophers (among a certain public): Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, Zizek, Badiou, and within the near future, Jesse Prinz just like there are celebrity scientists, Craig Venter, David Baltimore, Danny Hillis, Richard Dawkins, Damasio, etc. These people certainly have an impact within and outside their disciplines some globally some more locally.

  9. Yes, a "credible philosophic movement that is responding to the problems within/among the sciences" would be great. One (to my mind) promising site for such a response is academic publishing.

    Philosophers might return to a question that Bolzano gave one of the first modern treatments in his Wissensschafslehre (Theory of Science): how to write down what we know so that knowledge is accessible and revisable. The Vienna Circle had similar aims (Wittgenstein's Tractatus as an manual of style?).

    What would a rhetorically sustainable (credible) epistemic "notation" look like? How should scientific journal articles be written?

  10. I'm inclined to agree with the assessment. I think that the philosophy of science is insufficiently willing and ready to challenge science, and the premises that underlie science - in large part, perhaps, because of the work of philosophy to be structured as though it were a science, to recognize and reward academics on the same bases as scientists, and, indeed, to pretend it is a science.

  11. Philosophy of science not exciting anymore for current students? Try discussing Van Fraassen's views, which certainly are from the Post-Hanson Era. My experience is that this always leads to heated discussions. Granted, not every student finds it exciting. Was it all very different when Feyerabend, Kuhn, Lakatos and Popper crossed swords?

  12. I am afraid that I disagree with Hasok Chang’s assessment of the state of the philosophy of science.

    My experience, especially (but not only) as an editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science is that there is a lot of excellent work produced by good philosophers who are genuinely excited by their field. A lot of it is in technical subdomains, for example philosophical questions relating to quantum information theory, or the statistical intricacies surrounding the levels of selection debate. But there is also interesting work in general philosophy of science. What has become known as ‘the metaphysics of science’ has taken off in a big way in recent years, and it is good to see how the discussions in this area relate both to general metaphysics and to the details of the particular sciences. Nor has general epistemology of science entirely stagnated. Stathis Psillos’s book “Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth” gave a real boost to central topics, and their has been a lot of new and exciting work since.

    And if there is a lot of specialization, and the debates are mainly between philosophers of science and other philosophers of science, is that such a bad thing? As others have mentioned, that specialization is itself found in science and may well be a sign of progress. It may make it more difficult to teach introductory philosophy of science while also giving students a flavour of current debates. But that is a problem that physicists also have in teaching first-year physics courses. The best teachers may be able to pull off this trick, but if it isn’t easy, should we lament that physics has advanced so much? (In any case, I cannot help wondering how wide Hasok’s sample is. No doubt his own students will respond best to his own enthusiasms. Here at Bristol we find that students get excited by quite difficult topics in the philosophy of physics, maths, and biology, because that is what their teachers are excited by.)

    Note that there is a danger in worrying too much about whether scientists have been influenced by philosophers. On occasion it may be important that we do have such an influence. But it would be a mistake to think that a central measure of our success as a field is our influence on scientists, just as it is a mistake to think that a key indicator of the worth of the science is their influence on technologists and industrialists.

    Finally: I am not sure that the Popper-Kuhn-Lakatos-Feyerabend era was so great. Exciting perhaps, but I think it generated more heat than light. The engagement between the participants was in many ways poor. Lakatos just did not understand Kuhn that well. Feyerabend’s polemics were based on substandard history and his conclusions over-stated. Popper never accepted that critical rationalism might be directed at his own work. If their ‘traditional debates are at a standstill’, that is because they turned out not to be that fruitful, and we’ve moved on to topics that are. (After all, Feyerabend, Kuhn, and Popper all died in the 1990s---Lakatos died in 1974. It is notable that their debates died many, many years before they did.)