Sunday, April 26, 2009

The cult of contingency and the Future of the history and philosophy of science.

History and philosophy of science (HPS) is dead. On the whole historians have turned their backs on philosophy and celebrate the ideology of contingency. Meanwhile philosophers have become focused on narrow patches of science, especially physics, biology, and (I hope) economics. There are some patches in the history of science that attract healthy philosophic interest (Aristotle, Newton, Kant's reaction to Newton, and Darwin), but they are increasingly as specialized as these other narrow patches as Max Weber has predicted. While there is some general philosophy of science left, it is becoming increasingly formal with technique dominating insight. I am still hoping that philosophers of science reconnect with metaphysics in competition with the Lewis-style program dominating contemporary metaphysics. But that's for another time.
Now when I attacked the cult of contingency among historians at a recent conference, the eminent philosophical historian, Lorraine Daston (Max Planck), reacted forcefully. She thought it was high time that philosophers accept real thick history, and use it as a building block for new kind of philosophy. After we made nice, she sent me a recent paper of hers: "Toward a history of reason," in *Aurora Torealis* Beretta, Marco et al [eds.]. - Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2008, p. 165-180. The paper shares my diagnosis above of the current situation, although it adds to it that from the history of science side its new (historicist and cultural anthropological) approach has caused it to be without a wide audience. (One could say that the 'science wars' of the 80s ended because scientists have told historians of science to drop dead.)
Daston's response to this situation is to promote an agenda to chart the growth and transmutation of reason and the accompanying techniques and epistemic virtues through the ages. (One sees some of this in her book with Gallison on objectivity.) While this (Foucault-lite genealogy) is certainly a philosophic project in so far as philosophy is the science that also reflects on itself and its (historical) presuppositions (one can say that reason is partial without historical self-understanding), the philosophy to be found here is skin-deep. Its results will provide a lot of information, and, perhaps, a healthy skepticism about the nature and sources of science's self-image.
But it lacks philosophic ambition because it has fully embraced the cult of contingency. It can't even bring itself to use this historical knowledge to ask what the necessary conceptual, social, mathematical or technical pre-conditions are or may be for the way (scientific) reason develops in society. That project, first hinted at by David Hume (in his treatment of justice) and widened by Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx, was revived and transformed by the early Foucault in *The Order of Things* (original title: Les Mots et les choses), while Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, and Lakatos were having their epic debates during the 1960s. The problem with Foucault's archeology is that he never appears to have seriously engaged with the citadel of science: physics. Now a half century later there appear to be few ambitious historically informed projects left. In future postings I'll engage and discuss a few of these, but I have gone on long enough now.


  1. I wonder if HPS was ever really alive. One can certainly find sources at almost any time in the past 40 years bemoaning the state of HPS. When precisely was HPS a flourishing and vibrant field of inquiry?

    I also think that HPS was primarily, almost exclusively, the preoccupation of philosophers. While certainly there were some people who did good historical and philosophical work (Ernan McMullin pops to mind) mostly HPS writing was done by philosophers worrying about how to build a historically informed philosophy of science. Historians simply paid little attention to philosophy. No wonder the project never took off.

    One reason for that could be that it was never clear why historians needed philosophy of science. While I can see why they might need philosophy of HISTORY, it isn't clear to me how a philosophy of physics is needed for historical inquiry into physics.

  2. "History and philosophy of science (HPS) is dead." What's the evidence for this?

    It is true that historians have never been that much into HPS, but there is a fair amount of first-rate philosophically informed history of science done by philosophers. Far from being incompatible with an increasing specialization (in philo of biology, psychology, etc.), good history of science typically goes hand in hand with a real understanding of a specific science. Think for example of the work on Fisher by Anya Plutynski, on the history of homology done by Ingo Brigandt, on the history of evo-devo by Alan Love, and on the Vienna Circle by Greg Frost-Arnold (the last three are, not coincidentally, from Pitt HPS).

  3. I probably should have included philosophy of biology as an area where there is genuine fruitful interplay between historical and philosophical researches (and where one might hope to develop innovative philosophies of history).
    But Edouard's comments (indirectly) confirm my points. Let me explain: Of course, plenty of philosophers in the English speaking world do history of science (although even among the best serious archival work, for example, is fairly rare). In recent times this is very much due to the gaps and opportunities created by the loss of interest in old-fashioned 'internal' questions on the part of historians of science. (Of course, this is not the only reason.)
    But even when such history of science is "philosophically informed," it is rather theory-poor and makes little philosophical contribution. It is all rather modest on that score. Even among the very best philosophers of science with philosophically motivated interest in history of science coming out of (say) Pitt, the philosophical ambitions generated by such history of science turns out to be rather thin. (In fairness to them: I am not much better at it!)
    Now at one point or another I have been eager to become a colleague of the four fine philosophers mentioned by Edouard; I am a genuine fan of their work. (I don't think of Greg Frost-Arnold's work as being in history of science, but it is most certainly Hopos-y.) Ingo's work definitely has a very ambitious philosophic arc. Like others from Pitt HPS, who have been (somewhat) influenced by Brandom (Carl Craver, Andrea Woody, Marc Lange, etc.), his historical researches have philosophical pay-off and potential. I am very curious to see how Ingo's projects develops. But so far, even Pitt's fabled HPS program has not produced much philosophical reflection on the nature and aims of history of science.
    Finally, just to avoid confusion: I am not against specialist knowledge of an area of science (and its history).

  4. It is my sense that professional history of science (as something other than the gentle domain of retired scientists) was initiated by folk with definite philosophical interests: Duhem, Sarton, Koyre, Cassirer, I.B. Cohen; in generations thereafter it was also pursued by folk in opposition to reigning Logical Positivist Dogma.
    It is also not true that historians never paid attention to philosophy. Much of the supposedly a-philosophical attitude of (contemporary) historians' attitudes can be understood as a reaction (in opposition) to Marxist and Hegelian programs within history (with its overdose of certain brand of philosophy).

  5. I am not sure if the best response to a culture of contingency is to embrace a project of uncovering "necessary conceptual, social, mathematical or technical pre-conditions" for this or that. Speaking personally, I am focused on the mathematical isues and it is very hard to find evidence that some specific mathematical innovation was essential to a scientific advance or change. There are other ways to overcome bare contingency, though. For example, we can take a given historical episode and try to discern which innovations, mathematical or otherwise, helped produce that episode. This is not just description because we get some normative analysis, but that analysis is consistent with a lack of necessity.

  6. A small, self-indulgent remark:
    I was a little surprised to see Edouard cite me along with Anya, Ingo, and Alan above as examples of philosophers doing history of science. (So I initially had Eric's reaction.) On second thought, though, some of my stuff could be reasonably construed as history of logic -- and formal sciences are sciences, after all.

    Also: Chris -- where is the "normative analysis" in the picture you sketched?

  7. Greg -- I mean that we can find out which parts of the context played a positive or a negative role in helping to make the change possible. This is weaker than a necessary or a sufficient role. For example, it may be that an increase in mathematical knowledge made a scientific advance easier to achieve. Or maybe institutional arrangements made a scientific change harder to carry off.

  8. Chris is correct, of course, that other responses than the one that I highlighted in my post may be more promising in response to cult of contingency. I agree that one can get normative analysis out of the study of an episode--but without a rich prior philosophical theory, the normative analysis is going to be somewhat thin. Case studies don't support much generalization, after all.
    However, as a matter of fact, I learned from George Smith that many advances in celestial mechanics (even when it was a Newtonian research program) would not have been possible without mathematical innovation. If such a claim were to be embedded in a larger philosophical/historical theory, it may well provide evidence for a conceptual/social necessity claim.
    Greg--PS History of logic counts as history of science, so I apologize for my oversight!

  9. I think that history and philosophy of science is alive and kicking. See the soon to appear collection Discourse on a New Method edited by Domski and Dickson responding to Friedman's historiography - a superb collection of essays reassessing the relationship between the history and philosophy of science. See also Stanford's book Exceeding our Grasp which blends history and philosophy of science and not just in one area. As for the claim that general philosophers of science have technique at the expense of insight: I have trouble keeping up with what is going on but as co-editor of BJPS I have read and we publish papers on, for example, confirmation theory that do a good job of putting their technical content to the service of gaining insights into philosophical questions.

  10. It would be a welcome irony, indeed, if the editor of BJPS would claim that his journal failed to publish papers that provide insights into philosophical questions. But let me fight that battle some another time and turn to history and philosophy of science. (Incidentally, Ladyman & Ross do try to offer us a metaphysics based on natural science, so he was not my intended target with this particular post.)
    I am grateful for the mention of Stanford's book. I have not read it yet, and should do so. (That's the nice thing of a blog--one learns thing in opposition to one's wild ideas.) Mea culpa. Maybe HPS is alive and kicking in Stanford's project. (I should also confess at once that I have not read French's and Krause's recent book.)
    I should note, however, that the title and subtitle of the (forthcoming) volume edited by Mary Domski and Michael Dickson reads: "Discourse on a New Method Reinvigorating the Marriage of History and Philosophy of Science." This suggests that Mary and Michael also think that HPS could use some new life. Perhaps, their volume will show me the way?
    Having conceded that, I am very familiar with and take seriously Friedman's project and (in addition to the very lively -- and as of yet unmentioned -- project initiated by Hasok Chang) it was one of the "ambitious" projects that I promised will be the subject of one of my (critical) future postings. The short version of my criticism of Friedman is that his is not really a historical project nor is he offering us a philosophy that really responds to the failure of Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend. But the details will have to wait another time.

  11. A slight digression, but I was recently reading bits and pieces of Morris Kline's epic "Mathematics from Ancient to Modern Times" and was surprised that such an excellent historian of mathematics could be so naive when it came to philosophy. Reading his "Mathematics: the Loss of Certainty" gave me a similar impression, though I dismissed it at the time since Loss of Certainty is fairly polemical anyway.

    But Kline's and Carl Boyer's books are still the main references for history of mathematics, despite both being around 35 years old...

  12. On the digression:  I don't think it's fair to say that Kline and Boyer are still the main references for history of maths.  Two more recent one-volume histories are Grattan-Guinness's History of the Mathematical Sciences (1997) and Katz's A History of Mathematics (third edition 2008/9).  There's also Grattan-Guinness's two-volume Companion Encyclopedia of the History and Philosophy of the Mathematical Sciences (1994).

  13. Thank you, Brunellus. Do you work on Medieval logic?

  14. I don't work directly on mediaeval logic, though I know more about it than the average philosophy student.  Right now I'm working on future contingents, a topic with fingers in many pies, but I'm interested in 14th-century intellectual history quite generally.  If my pseudonym caught your attention, you might like to read this story.

  15. I hesitate to call it an 'entertaining' anecdote by Gadamer--I wonder if it isn't an allegory on the roots of his hermeneutic method. (I also find the last line on the lack of Nazis in Leipzig a bit sinister; I wonder if he was thinking of the controversy surrounding Heisenberg.) But the 14th century is very interesting, indeed!


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