Tags: Imre Lakatos, Karl Popper, Kent Staley, Norwood Russell Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, Rudolf Carnap, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Sturm
Perhaps the greatest barrier to more effective relations between the history and philosophy of science is the notion that the two disciplines should have a lot to say to each other.
In my last post, I posited that historians might regard the philosophy of science not as a theory of science and its development, but as a lexicon that we could use selectively to describe both historical actors’ explicit reasoning and arguments, as well as the implicit reasoning informing patterns by which scientific figures have accepted, entertained, and rejected various sorts of claims. The more developed historians’ lexicon is, the more reliably will we be able to capture important intricacies of history.
Of course, this suggestion is hardly original. In 1962, when Norwood Russell Hanson (1924-1967) famously declared that “history of science without philosophy of science is blind,” and that “philosophy of science without history of science is empty” (580), he was not making a vague feel-good suggestion that the disciplines should get together, have a drink, talk more, and really get on the same page. To the contrary, he, like many philosophers, saw crucial differences between the fields, accepting:”The logical relevance of history of science to philosophy of science is nil” (585).
Tags: Donald Davidson, Joel Isaac
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Update: I’ve just learned that Joel has had to cancel. Alas.
I’ve been extraordinarily busy lately, so I haven’t been able to spare time for a post. Maybe in a week or so I’ll be back up and running. But, for any Londoners out there, I wanted to plug Imperial College London’s CHoSTM seminar for tomorrow, 14 March 2013, since it’s being given by Joel Isaac of the Cambridge History Faculty. If you’ve been reading my recent posts on 20th-century social science, you’ll know I’m a big fan. As usual, it will be in the Seminar and Learning Centre (SALC) on the 5th floor of the Sherfield Building of the South Kensington campus, at 4:00 PM.
Philosophy as a Behavioural Science: Donald Davidson and the Analytic Revolution in Postwar American Philosophy
Abstract below the fold
History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Alfred Nordmann, Allan Franklin, Andrew Pickering, Augustine Brannigan, David Bloor, David Gooding, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Gerald Holton, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Harry Collins, Ian Hacking, Kent Staley, Larry Laudan, Lorraine Daston, Martin Kusch, Michel Foucault, Peter Galison, Simon Schaffer, Steve Woolgar, Thomas Kuhn, Trevor Pinch
The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years. The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable. And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.
That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology. To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers. A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.* My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.
History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, Michael Bycroft, Norwood Russell Hanson, Peter Galison
In his 1962 paper, “The Irrelevance of History of Science to Philosophy of Science,” Norwood Russell Hanson referred to a longstanding concern of philosophers of science that historians of science abided by one or another deficient “Weltphilosophie“. A Weltphilosophy was an explicit or implicit outlook adopted by a historian, which “controls his selection of salient subjects, his alignment of data, his conception of the overall objective of the scientific enterprise, and his evaluations of the heroes and villains within the history of science.” According to Hanson, “Those who stress the silent operation of a Weltphilosophie in the studies of historians of science then suggest that without philosophical awareness and acuity, the reader must remain at the mercy of the historian’s unspoken assumptions.”
Do historians abide by unspoken philosophical assumptions today? Critics have often asserted that historians abide by a social constructionist epistemology, and much time and effort was expended in the 1980s and ’90s contesting its validity. According to Michael Bycroft, it is still useful to analyze and criticize social constructionism precisely because “[m]uch current research in the history of science can be seen either as an affirmation of [social constructionist] claims or as a consequence of them.” But this is one of the few points on which he and I disagree. In the past several years, I have come to believe that “social constructionism” is a rhetorical red herring, which confounds an appreciation of less well articulated changes in historical methodology, including the fact that most historians of science no longer abide by any Weltphilosophie at all.
R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 2 February 9, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Anya Plutynski, David R. Crawford, Ernst Mayr, Francis Galton, Francisco Louçã, Harold Hotelling, J. B. S. Haldane, James Tabery, John R. G. Turner, Karl Pearson, Karl Popper, Lancelot Hogben, M. J. S. Hodge, Margaret Morrison, Mary Bartley, R. A. Fisher, Robert Skipper Jr., Sewall Wright, Sharon Kingsland, Susan Mooney, Tjalling Koopmans, Willem De Winter, William Provine
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In his 1932 lecture, “The Bearing of Genetics on Theories of Evolution,” R. A. Fisher compared the fissures between different scientific techniques to God’s confounding of languages in the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel. If the fissures in scientific method were assumed to hold the construction of an “edifice” of scientific knowledge back, much as the division of language prevented the construction of the Tower of Babel, then the obvious question was how method could be reunited. According to Fisher,
If we were to ask … what universal language could enable men of science to understand each other sufficiently well for effective co-operation, I submit that there can be only one answer. If we could select a group of men of science, completely purge their minds of all knowledge of language, and allow them time to develop the means of conveying to one another their scientific ideas, I have no doubt whatever that the only successful medium they could devise would be that ancient system of logic and deductive reasoning first perfected by the Greeks, and which we know as Mathematics.
As we saw in Part 1, the bulk of Fisher’s statistical theorization was dedicated to the problem of inductive reasoning, that is, the development of defined conclusions from well-structured observations. But it is clear that Fisher also valued deductive uses of mathematics, because it permitted different observational conclusions to be related to each other through a fully coherent language. It is just not clear what he understood the epistemological status or function of deductive knowledge to be.
R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 1 February 2, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Abraham Wald, David Howie, Harold Jeffreys, Harry Marks, Jerzy Neyman, Nancy Hall, R. A. Fisher, Stephen Jay Gould
For a paper Chris Donohue and I have been working on, I have been delving into the historiography on statistician and genetic theorist R. A. Fisher (1890-1962). The main thing I was trying to do was to make sense of the last third of Fisher’s touchstone book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), which is a protracted eugenic explanation for why civilizations decline. When I first got onto this topic, I consulted Greg Radick about it, and he directed me to Stephen Jay Gould’s 1991 essay, “The Smoking Gun of Eugenics” (reprinted in Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack collection), in which Gould takes apart both Fisher’s civilizational theory as well as his 1950s-era arguments against claims that smoking leads to cancer.
If you’re interested in the specifics of Fisher’s arguments, do read Gould’s essay, or, better still, read the original. Suffice it here to say that Gould claims Fisher made bogus arguments on account of his commitment to eugenics (with a similar story for smoking). This is true, as far as it goes, but I wanted to find a “higher-order” explanation for Fisher’s civilizational theory, which would account for why he thought his arguments made sense. Fisher, after all, was a famous proponent of methodological rigor, and even prima facie his arguments about civilizational decline were, shall we say, less than rigorous.
If you’re interested in my take, you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the edited volume our essay will be in to come out (hooray for academic publishing; if you’re really interested, please do contact me for a draft copy). But the general approach I took was to delve into Fisher’s ideas about scientific methodology. Below the fold I take a meandering tour through these ideas, and the scattered historiography on them.
Christopher Donohue at Imperial College London on Thursday January 6, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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University of Maryland PhD student and Ether Wave Propaganda contributor Christopher Donohue has been spending time this academic year in Moscow, at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, which is part of the National Research University Higher School of Economics. This week, he will be passing through London, and on Thursday, 10 January, he will be speaking at Imperial College London’s CHoSTM seminar. The seminar will be held, as usual, from 4 to 6pm at the Seminar and Learning Centre (SALC) on the 5th floor of the Sherfield Building in South Kensington. His talk is titled:
From ‘Natural Selection’ to ‘Social Selection’: The Differentiation and Career of a Concept in Early Twentieth-Century Social Thought.
Abstract below the fold
Five Years in the Blog January 1, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Ether Wave Propaganda opened for business on New Year’s Day 2008, which makes it five years old today. At that time, it was one of a handful of blogs on the history of science. As the links on the right show, that number has increased markedly. Given the limitations in format and turnaround time in humanities publication, this always seemed like a promising format for scholarly communication, and I’m pleased to see that others have picked up on this point.
Still, I think there remains a lot of untapped potential in the format. For one thing, I think many more scholars need to take it up, if only to keep others apprised of what they’re up to: what talks they give, what publications are in process, what archives are being visited. At present, vague faculty web pages (with, horror, incomplete publication lists) and rumor and hearsay seem to be the most prevalent means of keeping up-to-date in our profession.
CHoSTM Moving to King’s College London December 7, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This has been a pretty terribly kept secret, but now that the arrangements have been settled and the press release is out, us folks at Imperial can finally officially say: this summer the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine is moving a couple of miles east to the History Department at King’s College London, where the intention is to expand it into a major center for historical research in our field — the official press release (which you can read below the fold, or at the King’s news site) compares it to Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge.
Louis Ridenour’s “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” (1945) November 20, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Edward Bowles, Louis Ridenour
One of the persistent anxieties of the nuclear age has been the possibility of a catastrophic war starting accidentally. The scale of destruction that can be delivered in a short space of time means that any defense and counter-attack would have to be mounted so quickly that a counter-attack could be triggered by false evidence of attack. In fact, a Soviet colonel has just won an award from Germany for not responding when, in 1983, his early-warning systems indicated the launch of five missiles from United States territory. (The incident first became public in 1998.) That warning had been triggered by a satellite receiving confusing signals from reflected solar light.
There have, of course, been other such incidents in fact and fiction — of the latter, the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe (both 1964) are canonical. When I was researching my dissertation, though, I was surprised to learn that the notion of accidental nuclear war extends all the way back to 1945. While working in the Library of Congress archives, I stumbled on a November 1945 draft of a darkly humorous playlet written by physicist Louis Ridenour called “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse”. The scenario is almost exactly the same as later incidents, real and imagined. In this case, San Francisco is struck by an earthquake, which triggers a false alarm in an operations room buried beneath the city, prompting a “hysterical” colonel to launch a counter-strike against Denmark, who then launches a strike against Sweden, and so on into oblivion.
The playlet was published in Fortune, of all places, in January 1946. It’s not unknown today, but it’s not widely known either. Thanks to Google, you can read a copy of it online from the December 26, 1945 Milwaukee Journal (Merry Christmas, Milwaukee). Discussion below the fold.