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Philosophy and the History of Science February 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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In my earlier “pocket history” of the relationship between philosophy, sociology, and history, I noted a few key points:

  1. Philosophers tended to use the history of science as a way to develop the philosophy of science.
  2. Sociologists noticed that there was much in the history of science that did not fit philosophy-based history.
  3. Sociological theories were insufficient to explain the exact path of the history of science, leading some sociologists to develop sociological epistemologies.

What should already be clear is that the history of science cannot work without interrelated philosophical and sociological elements.  You don’t really know you know anything unless you can get someone else to agree with you, but you’ll have a harder time commanding agreement unless you can demonstrate that you really do know something.

What is not, I think, entirely clear is how philosophy and sociology combine to create powerful history.  Historians have responded to the sociological insights by focusing intently on day-to-day practices.  Experimental instrumentation, representation of objects, public lectures all became important parts of the historical examination of the scientific enterprise following the sociological problematization of agreement.

It’s a little difficult to summarize, though, exactly what we’ve found out.  A too-basic summary simply tells us the sociologists were right—lots of important stuff happens in science that are not part of “march of knowledge” narratives, much of it not very “scientific” at all.  But, apart from knowing that all this stuff happens, it’s not always obvious what the consequences are.  Instead, what we have is what I like to call the “gallery of practices”.

The gallery of practices, I think, tends to operate like an orientation guide.  This might be easier to understand for historians than for readers of history.  When historians hit the archive, we find it’s true what they say about the past being a foreign country.  Our mastery of the language isn’t so great, the idioms and references all go over our heads, we don’t really know who any of the people are, and we don’t have a good sense for what people’s concerns were, what institutions they thought were most important, and so forth.  It’s disorienting, and we tend to grasp onto what’s familiar.

Using the old philosophical ideas, historians could grasp onto a very narrow set of things that were deemed “relevant” to a history of science and dismiss everything else as beside the point.  Becoming familiar with the “gallery” though, it’s easier to feel at home.  We might not follow the arguments or know the people real well, but at least we recognize all the things scientists seem to be doing: observing, portraying, communicating, arguing, and so forth.  There is philosophy here, but it’s watered down.  These are “epistemic practices”—they all apparently have to do with creating and communicating knowledge, and we can find some version of them just about anywhere.  Have a good enough gallery at your disposal, and if you got plunked down in some random archive, you’d stand a pretty good chance of having some notion of what is going on.

Mostly, though, this picture is sociological, following the hallowed principle of “symmetry”: the idea that these practices will exist regardless of whether or not the knowledge being created and communicated is true or false.  We could be looking at ancient Chinese soothsayer-kings or particle physicists: the appearances of practice will, obviously, be different, but the basic categories of epistemological practice will still be useful.  The sociological vocabulary helps us bridge the divide between general histories of ideas and the history of science.

A firmer philosophy of science can help us to write better history, though, especially helping us track changes in knowledge through time.  Unlike the sociology of knowledge, the history of science can break symmetry.  To say this does not mean science proceeds in a linear or obvious fashion, but it does mean that if we accept that some historical actors gained knowledge (usually demonstrable via some practical “success”), we will know that that process must have passed certain philosophically-defined mileposts along the way (if our philosophy is valid enough).  The story may deviate from those mileposts for extended periods, but if we know the beginning and the end point of our story, we’ll at least have some expectation of what to look for in between.

Sociology has helped clarify exactly what sorts of things we should be looking for.  For example, previously historians might look for a “crucial experiment” that “proved” a certain theory right.  The sociology of knowledge tells us that experiments can only prove something to us if we are willing to accept the experiment’s validity as an answer to the question at hand, which hinges upon there being a wide variety of shared experiences and knowledge ahead of time.  The process of convincing potential allies might be a longer, more arduous experience if those conditions don’t exist.

Similarly, though, philosophy can tell us what strategies of knowledge-building are available to actors.  Knowledge might be accepted because it creates a logically coherent system, because a theoretical supposition is borne out by statistically robust experimental results, because alternatives are falsified, etc…  Philosophy does not tell us what strategy will ultimately create agreement, and not all strategies were, of course, available to actors at all points in time, but it does provide us with some notion of what methods might have made sense to actors, either intuitively or explicitly.

The philosophy of science, then, creates for the historian a taxonomy of the possible, much as economics creates a taxonomy of possible scenarios for the economic historian, and political science creates a taxonomy of possible scenarios for the political historian, which can be deployed as the historian deems appropriate.  Philosophy can help us explain the stability of scientific ideas over time, though it can never fully explain acceptance.

This leads to one last consequence of using the philosophy of science in history: it demands that we separate the history of science from the history of ideas—not entirely, of course—but to understand a philosophical history, one must identify a constituency that can command knowledge to create certain effects and (thus) agreement that knowledge exists.  (The “third wave” in sociology of science can, I think, help historians in this task.)  Once a constituency has been identified, concepts like progress, stagnation, and ingenuity become arguable by reference to philosophical criteria.

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