Philosophy, Sociology, and History: A Pocket History January 10, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
Tags: Andy Pickering, Bruno Latour, David Bloor, Harry Collins, Herbert Butterfield, Karl Popper, Quentin Skinner, Robert K. Merton, Thomas Kuhn, William Whewell
To understand the history of the history of science profession, it is very important to understand its contentious and evolving relationship with the philosophy and sociology of science, not to mention the history of philosophy. Here I’d like to outline a quick “pocket” history of the relationship between history, philosophy and sociology, and beg the tolerance of connoisseurs for boiling the points down so recklessly.
Traditionally, the history of science has been of interest on account of its ability to reveal and demonstrate ideas about epistemology. William Whewell’s The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840) followed quickly on his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837). Epistemology-oriented philosophers before and since have deployed cases from the history of science as illustrations of their theories about the progression of knowledge, and contain a normative element about how reliable knowledge can best be achieved.
In the 20th century, positivist philosophers and Karl Popper’s anti-positivist theory of the progress of science suggested clear demarcations between proper application of method and straying away from that method. History could illuminate these debates. According to a Popperian history of science, we don’t start from basic truths and build up; we start from a sort of primeval error and confusion (such as with the Aristotelian philosophy, which had been thoroughly trashed by Enlightenment philosophers) and, eliminating false beliefs, proceed toward truth. What is interesting in any progressive history is the origins and acceptance of accepted ideas. So, let’s say we read William Herschel, we easily pick out the discovery of Uranus and infrared radiation, and explain away all that crazy stuff about people living on the sun as vestiges from a prior era of confusion. Similarly, we explain wrong turns and pseudo-science as the intervention of a political program on the inquiries of scientists.
(In acknowledging that inquiry can never take place absent politics, yet acknowledging that politics can have damaging effects, as in obvious cases such as Lysenkoism, scholars of science are challenged to identify the undue presence of politics; see, for example, last year’s Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans.)
Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about paradigms and scientific revolutions came about via a rejection of the idea that we should read Aristotelian philosophy, for example, as a state of confusion, advanced only in comparison to whatever ideas existed before it. These were systems of ideas that were not exactly “wrong”; they allowed those who used them to make sense of the world around them, and you could indeed function intellectually and practically based on those ideas, within the limitations imposed by the paradigm. Every so often, the system would shift radically, but the observed facts would remain stationary between systems. In a Kuhnian history, the historian should seek to understand how these systems of thought worked rather than seek out the nuggets of current wisdom in them.
Kuhn can be read two ways, however. First, his work can be seen as a suggestion for historians, as part of the broader identification and rejection of “Whig” history propounded by Herbert Butterfield (who actually accepted Whig accounts of “science”), Quentin Skinner’s insistence on avoiding “anachronism” in historical explanation, and anthropologists’ new-found interest in understanding how foreign cultures work on their own terms, and not as variations on the anthropologists’ own culture. However, Kuhn can also be read as offering a philosophical “recipe” for scientific development (if not, precisely, “progress”), different from, but in league with Popper.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a rejection of a history of science based on any sort of “recipe” for scientific development, which was led by sociologists and anthropologists of science (who rejected the sociology of science of, particularly, Robert Merton, whose work was commensurate with the philosophers in looking for social habits amenable to progressive epistemology). According to, say, David Bloor’s famous “Strong Programme” establishing the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), if one examined historical instances of how “right” science and “wrong” science developed and was accepted, one could not draw sociological distinctions between the practices. Paul Feyerabend’s “epistemological anarchism” likewise rejected the existence of a consistent recipe for scientific work and suggested that imposing one would be harmful. Bruno Latour’s anthropological study of scientific practices at the laboratory level likewise failed to find evidence of any sort of “recipe” being consciously carried out at the scale of day-to-day practice.
However, these sociological theories that refused to distinguish between scientific and pseudo-scientific genres of practice, while much better at describing historical practices than traditional philosophy-based histories, could not explain why specific historical decisions were made over others, which ultimately required an explanation of the persuasive encounter with the natural world. Unwilling to go back to the philosophy of science, some sociologists developed sociological explanations of epistemology, which included nature in the conversations that produced “knowledge”. Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) allowed nature “agency” to speak to scientists. Less cutesy, but similar in substance, was Andy Pickering who envisioned nature as offering “resistance” to those seeking to impose a theory upon it, asserting that historical decisions relied on a “mangle” of factors, including this resistance, that could play out differently at any given time.
This sociological epistemology is what Harry Collins and Steven Yearley derided in 1992 as “epistemological chicken”—the sociologists were doing nothing but accepting scientists’ word for what nature was doing. Explaining specific historical decisions was, in their view, beyond the purview of the sociologist. Sociologists could only describe the way in which those decisions were made, and in which their validity was accepted by others. But Latour, Pickering, and others believed that historical case example was not a path to sociology as an end-of-itself; rather they had replaced a philosophical historiographical methodology with a more appropriate sociological historiographical methodology, which they put to work in such books as The Pasteurization of France (1988) and Constructing Quarks (1984).
Historians have had an interesting reaction to all this (as well as to social history and the deconstructionist history of ideas), which is a topic we will pursue in more depth in subsequent posts.