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Philosophy, Sociology, and History: A Pocket History January 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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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.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

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.


1. John S. Wilkins - January 12, 2009

I am loving this series. Do please keep it up.

2. Will Thomas - January 12, 2009

Thanks John, will do!

3. Michael Bycroft - April 16, 2012

I just stumbled across this old post, and can’t resist commenting. I admire your attempt to compress the last century of history/philosophy/sociology relations into 1000 words. I learn from your account and think it is mainly correct, but I would make the following amendments/additions. Apologies if you make these points elsewhere on the blog.

–Kuhn made a point of using the history of science as a source of evidence for his philosophy of science, whereas Popper did not. Indeed, Kuhn sometimes seemed to say that empirical evidence was the *only* source of justification for claims in philosophy of science; Popper would never have said that. This seems to me a crucial development for the relationship between sociology, philosophy and history of science. From Kuhn onwards, sociologists and historians of science tended to feel confident about their ability to intervene productively in debates in the philosophy of science (even if philosophers did not listen, and even if historians and sociologists explained this deafness in terms of the prejudices of philosophers).

–Kuhn was less keen on “recipes” than Popper. Indeed, Kuhn accused Popper of explaining theory-choice in terms of “rules” rather than “maxims” and “values.” Kuhn thought that scientists could reasonably adhere to maxims and values that contradicted each-other, in the way that the maxims “too many cooks spoil the broth” and “many hands make light work” contradict each-other. He also thought that different scientists could reasonably differ in the priority they gave to different maxims and values. For this reason Kuhn does not seem so much “in league” with Popper as an intermediary between the rule-governed account of Popper and the “anarchic” or “particularist” accounts given Feyerabend, Latour, etc.

–“[Some sociological theories,] while much better at describing historical practices than traditional philosophy-based histories, could not explain why specific historical decisions were made over others.” As I understand it, the Strong Program was just as interested in explaining specific historical decisions as were philosophy-based histories. Indeed, the whole point of the Strong Program was to apply the explanans of sociology to the explananda of the traditional histories. The main criticism I have seen is not that they described practices rather than explaining specific historical decisions, but that they did not give *full* explanations of specific historical decisions.

–Also, I would distinguish two senses in which people thought that Strong Program explanations were incomplete. One is that those explanations appealed to sociological notions such as “interest”, and that those notions were themselves in need of explanation (this comes up in Pickering’s “Mangle of Practice”, in Latour’s “Pasteurisation of France”, and especially in Latour’s 2004 article “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”). The other is the one you mention, that nature acts “in parallel” to sociological factors like interests. The distinction sometimes matters, eg. I have seen Galison make the latter criticism but not the former.

4. Will Thomas - April 16, 2012

Rooting around in the archives again, eh, Bycroft?

Going back to this post is interesting for me, because I definitely wouldn’t write it today. Basically, I was still trying to come to grips with the particular mythology of our profession that I had inherited, rather than actually following the footnotes, which is more what I’ve been trying to do the past couple of years. So, this post is less of an intellectual history of what these thinkers actually argued (and I reckon I would have been smart enough to realize that even in 2009), and more of a mythology of historical relations between history, philosophy, and sociology of science, masquerading as a genuine history of ideas (albeit a pocket-sized one).

So, in the case of Kuhn, I wasn’t trying so much to articulate what Kuhn’s position actually was, as I was articulating Kuhn’s role in moving beyond a particular view of “how science works” which supposedly would have informed histories prior to Kuhn. So, this portrayal captures Kuhn as both a progressive figure, a destroyer of an old order, but also as someone who himself had to be rejected by the anti-philosophical historians of the 1980s, because his portrait of history as following normal and revolutionary patterns would have been seen as contrary to the actual historical record (thus he followed a “recipe” whether he actually believed in recipes or not). (I think Thony C argued against Kuhn on these grounds somewhere in the comments on this blog, actually.)

Similarly, the portrait of the Strong Programme given here is not so much trying to delineate what was within or beyond the program’s ambitions (versus, say, my discussions of Collins’ methodological relativism from last year, where this issue is crucial), as it is noting the shortcomings that Latour and, of course, many historians (including Galison) attributed to it for its failure to come to grips with the importance of what actually exists in determining the outcomes of scientific investigations. The line against the SP at the time was that it ascribed too much to interests, but I’m actually not totally clear to this day on whether and how the SP (or, at least Bloor’s articulation of it) actually regenerated epistemology from a sociological basis — I’m pretty sure it was’t all about interests, though.

Some people still like to have that particular conversation (*cough* AmericanScience blog *cough*), but I’ve long since abandoned any illusions that fretting over the question of how to reconcile epistemology with social constructivism can have anything other than the most oblique effects on the quality of history-writing.

So, these days, the goal is to try and go back and recover all the lost strands that got buried under this pile of myth-building. So, when I talk about the history of sociology of science (be it Collins, Merton, or whoever), it actually has little to do with the history of history-writing — it’s really just a disciplinary history of sociology. So, for instance, I would now categorically reject the notion that Merton was closely aligned with philosophy of science — Merton had his own thing going, and it needs to be explored in its own right. In the mythology, though, the only thing pertinent about Merton was that he, like the philosophers, held a formulaic view of what science is, and how it should unfold, and so he had to go before epistemology, sociology, and history could, all-combined in a united enterprise, become good.

Will Thomas - April 17, 2012

Michael — just reading over your comments again in the morning, I have a couple more reactions, the first of which is a desire to go reread Kuhn and Bloor, which I must resist.

The other is an interest in your mention of the evolution of ideas about exactly what history has to do with sociology and philosophy, which continues to be a major issue in more recent posts on this blog.

I’m pretty sure I’m full of it in this post, when talking about how a Popperian history of science — if we could even refer to such a thing — worked. I think I had in mind something like histories of atoms that trace the concept back to antiquity, and then note how competing ideas were finally eliminated. But I suspect that’s actually just an older tradition of history that bears some superficial resemblance to Popper’s philosophy.

However, it would very much be worth untangling how the boundaries and projects of history, philosophy, and sociology did, in fact, shift and intermingle through individual authors’ conceptions (not as a general history of ideas). I think, as you indicate, it’s proper to say that Kuhn is a key figure here in establishing a 20th-century sense that philosophy of science could encapsulate science’s detailed history, and that a study of science’s historical progress could yield its philosophy (I’ll not worry about Whewell, Comte, and other 19th-century thinkers here).

I think it’s also proper to say that there was at least a sense with maybe Feyerabend, a few sociological (Bloor?) and, to an even lesser extent, historical authors in the 1970s and ’80s that the boundaries should be eliminated altogether, that you don’t have a valid philosophy/sociology unless it is reflected in science’s history, and that science’s history should be built out of some underlying general theory of knowledge and social action (be it the SP, ANT, mangles…). As I have mentioned more recently, I have yet to find a really satisfactory conversation about the relations between the distinct roles of each discipline that took place after 1983.

However, studying these programmatic authors’ ideas cannot tell us much about changes in actual styles of history-writing. Mainly they seem to have been points of reference that people invoke as inspirations or licenses to write in certain ways, rather than actual methodological templates. This means it’s up to us to retrospectively characterize these “certain ways”.

5. Michael Bycroft - April 19, 2012

Thanks for your fulsome replies. Yes, your summary makes more sense to me as an “inherited mythology” than as an account of “individual authors’ conceptions” or as an account of how history-writing itself has evolved.

–I think you are right that historians see Popper as someone who endorsed or at least encouraged a particular bad kind of history, even if he didn’t do much history himself and even if he railed against “historicists” who saw history as the law-like unfolding of a fixed plan. His distinctions between contexts of discovery and justification and between science and pseudo-science were probably second only to Lakatos’ idea of rational reconstruction as historiographical anathema in the 20thC.

–From memory, Zammito’s “Nice Derangement of Epistemes” is good on the hostility of the early SP to philosophy of science. The idea was not just “philosophy makes for bad history/sociology” but also “the whole enterprise of philosophy of science is wrong-headed.” I think Zammito’s phrase is “Bloor’s animus against philosophy.”

–I wonder whether this idea of the death of philosophy is partly responsible for the “socio-epistemic imperative” you have written about on this blog: after all, if philosophers are wrong-headed or defunct, who better than historians and sociologists to fill their role of saying general things about “how science works”? The “Great Escape” was not just about running from philosophy but also replacing it. Perhaps this is why there have been so many “recipes” since Kuhn–ANT, grid-group theory,
etc.–despite the author’s professed desire to escape from recipes. I think Pickering’s book “the Mangle of Practice” is the best example of this. On the one hand Pickering wants to be a kind of historical anarchist, where everything is “contingent temporal emergence”. On the other hand he gives a simple three-step formula for how scientific inquiry proceeds: resistence between two elements followed by the analogical extension of one of the elements followed by stabilisation. From memory, this may actually be the theme of your post somewhere on the “automaton scientist,” although you don’t say much about Pickering there.

Will Thomas - April 19, 2012

Yes, we seem to be very much on the same page here. The pay-off of this post (hinted at in my “Historians have had an interesting reaction to all this” line at the end) was the “Great Escape” series. You’ve captured the key points, but just for the sake of cross-referencing, here are links to the most important posts:

The Great Escape

The Historiographical Idea of the Automaton-Scientist

I very much agree with you and Zammito that the historical-sociological-anthropological escape from philosophers of science established a need for an alternative, historically-coherent epistemology. Pickering’s mangle, and Galison’s work on “constraints” are remnants of that attempt that we can find in the ’90s literature.

The thing to ultimately come out of this was a series of portraits about “ways of knowing” (to use Pickstone’s phrase). These ways are deemed superior to philosophical accounts (i.e. they are non-formulaic) because they are A) not a unified, externally-defined theory of knowledge, and B) historicized.

However, as you rightly point out, this is where my “automaton scientist” post comes in, because these attempts to replace a philosophical epistemology usually have scientists single-mindedly pursuing a very particular vision of what “truth” must look like. Of course, the “Pickering automaton” is actually somewhat different: it’s more of a primitive obstacle-navigating machine. (Far from not dealing with him, I think Pickering may have been my inspiration for that post!)

The “historical epistemology” of the Max Planck Institute is by far the most coherent and sophisticated surviving remnant of this project. But I have yet to understand how its layers of concept histories and delineation of competing historicized “epistemic virtues” results in an epistemology that can account for past thought in its richness. I think it is supposed to emerge out of some sort of epistemological psycho-drama that plays out as scientists attempt to reconcile competing ideals and virtues. (Actually, I suspect historical epistemology, as worked out at the MPI, is some twisted progeny of “strain” theories of ideology, but I have yet to connect the dots!)

Anyway, all this is way beyond what most historians took away from the “Great Escape” — mostly what we have inherited is indeed what I call the “socio-epistemic imperative” in history-writing. Ironically, it has no epistemology, except for an implicit, negatively-defined one mainly defined by the words “negotiated” “local” and “complex”. However, I have yet to become fully confident in my suspicion that, though relatively unheralded, Karin Knorr Cetina, and her anthropological work on local cultures, may be the greatest influence on historians of science over the past three decades.

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