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Philosophy of Science, Normativity, and Whig History August 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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Karl Popper, 1902-1994One of the things left behind by the historians of science who undertook the Great Escape from the philosophy of science was a claim to normative judgment.  The philosophy of science could look at scientific arguments and, using the epistemological tools at its disposal, come to a judgment concerning whether or not current or historical claims were worthy of the name “science”.  Through epistemology, science could consolidate and build upon its gains, which was not the case with something more subjective, like art, or (possibly) politics.

If we may say that science is, therefore, progressive, it stands to reason that, with the benefit of philosophy, we can look back on history and identify scientific works that were either progressive or regressive.  This is why Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) did not feel it was appropriate to apply his notion of “whig history” to science.  The notion is also central to the thought of Karl Popper (1902-1994), who thought that it was possible for epistemology to legitimize the assertion of those claims that stood because they had not been falsified, while delegitimizing those claims that were held as certainly true on account of illegitimate (i.e., social or political) prejudice, an action that necessarily falsified other claims prematurely.  The Church’s suppression of Galileo, the suppression of relativity and quantum mechanics to the benefit of deutsche Physik, or the enshrinement of Lysenko’s genetics as the official state policy of the Soviet Union all constituted sure signs of the illegitimacy of the socio-political system that made these events possible in the face of an epistemologically overwhelming challenge.

Setting Popper aside, in this general philosophical point of view, scientific progress is made possible only through proper epistemology.  The interference of society or politics represents an illegitimate interference with proper epistemology.  The philosopher of science therefore is in a position to make normative judgments of current science and upon science’s historical development, as well as upon the political systems that either allowed science its autonomy or that interfered with its freedom.

For much of the 20th century, this point of view was opposed mainly by a Marxist philosophy of science, which held that scientific knowledge and technology were inevitably related to the society that produced them.  Partially because Marxists emphasized technology along with science, they understood the products of inquiry to be related to specific interests.  In capitalist societies, resultant science would be commercially profitable, militaristic, and bourgeois.  Marxists did not deny that knowledge had an objective (meaning universally valid) character, but, viewing science as a form of production,  the specific kinds of knowledge produced reflected their socio-political milieu.  Thus, while acknowledging the potential importance of more basic or general forms of knowledge, basic scientific knowledge (so revered by those epistemologists who saw it as a natural product of inquiry in a free society) was nevertheless a sort of luxury that necessarily drew scientific labor away from more socially beneficial tasks; in societies experiencing grave injustice, that luxury could be seen as bourgeois rather than productive.

Needless to say, Marxists’ understanding of philosophical normativity differed from the first view discussed.  Since science and politics were closely interrelated, the question was not whether politics interfered with epistemology, but whether society and politics were themselves scientific, which was a function of a scientific appraisal of whether its social arrangements were just.  Science could appraise justice, either because the dialectic scientifically indicated that a socialist or communist society was the inevitable product of history, or because social science could assay the matter empirically (or possibly a combination of both, emphasis depending on whom you ask).  Natural and social scientific epistemology, therefore, were equally important in pursuit of better society.  Political “interference” was merely a sign of a failure to abide by a properly scientific politics, just as scientific failure was a failure to abide by a properly scientific method.  In this view, philosophical and political activism went hand-in-hand, again, both in terms of current science and its practice in history.  British communist crystallographer J. D. Bernal (1901-1971) was a major proponent of this view, and was followed by historians such as Jerry Ravetz and Bob Young.

The rise of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) in the 1970s and 1980s supposedly augured an end to normativity.  In the philosophical view, epistemology could be used to distinguish science from “pseudo-science” that simply followed the forms of science without the methodology that granted its claims intellectual legitimacy (for a nice exposition of the view, see physicist Richard Feynman’s 1974 address on “cargo cult science”,  pdf).  Proponents of SSK demanded to know how could knowledge that followed the forms of science but was not “science” be distinguished from “real” knowledge, outside of acquiring the imprimatur of self-appointed epistemologists?  This was the influential assertion of sociological “symmetry”.  Surely in abandoning our previous perfectly functional beliefs we merely accepted the claims of those who espoused “method” and were part of networks of trust bound up with the social and political powers that granted certain producers of evidence and knowledge legitimacy while excluding others.

Rather than offer solutions to these kinds of questions, the SSK’ers insisted that what was necessary was to acknowledge the interdependence of knowledge with the socio-political, and thereby to describe and narrate their present and historical interaction (which, as we have seen, was Latour’s goal as well, though he had his differences with SSK).  As Chris Donohue has pointed out to me, the concomitant decision to combat the “Whig” history of science tended to resolve the pseudo-science problem by lowering science to the level of pseudo-science and charting the sociological circulation of beliefs in society, rather than to raise pseudo-science to the level of science by studying its intellectual content in competition with “science” (though Simon Schaffer, as we have seen, took the opportunity to start untangling the logical structure of natural philosophical cosmologies, and I’m sure there must be other examples….)

In any event, Marxist history and philosophy of science was dealt a huge blow, because SSK stole the Marxist talking point that science and politics were inevitably intertwined, while (claiming to borrow a page from Kuhn) denying any normative ambition concerning the validity or goals of historical science.  Needless to say, this didn’t sit too well with the politically active Marxists, who protested vigorously before waning in influence by the 1990s.  But, as we will see, normativity returned soon enough in another guise.

I am grateful to Gary Werskey for his exposition of the story of Marxist history of science in a talk I saw while visiting Imperial College in 2006.  It is reprinted here.  I am also grateful to Werskey’s former  Edinburgh colleague Steven Shapin for confirming Werskey’s tale from the other side of the fence once I got back home.  These issues don’t seem to come up much in seminars….


1. Thony C. - August 4, 2009

Will; I very much enjoyed reading this. Although it contained nothing that was really new to me having it expressed in a compact coherent form is useful. However the thoughts you discuss here leave me with two thoughts, questions.

Thought one: In one sense, at least historically, the Marxists are right, non utilitarian science or science qua science is actually, in my opinion, a very modern concept and doesn’t really come into being until the 19th century. Before then the development of science was always coupled to social, political, cultural demands, needs or whatever.

Thought two (which is really a question): Despite everything that has been said about the failure to find an epistemological criterion that distinguishes science from non or pseudo science I, and I think almost every other historian or philosopher of science and every working scientist would argue that this distinction does exist and is fairly clear for all to see even if we can’t formally define it. How do we solve this apparent conundrum?

2. Will Thomas - August 4, 2009

Yes! Definitely nothing new to see here, but we’re trying to get our heads around what is going on when all these different programs bash heads. This has been rehearsed many times before, but to the best of our knowledge, its impact on historiography (as opposed to sociology and philosophy) has not been well examined.

One of the questions that seems to be important is the problem of how to be normative at the same time as being descriptive, and this seems to have to do with the rise of a presumption of naivete in the older historiography and in the culture at large. More on this next week, probably.

To your first thought, I wanted to try and be as sympathetic as I could to each of the three programs outlined, because it seems to me they each make important points, and that each’s criticisms of the other, if not totally on target, certainly has something to them. Having worked a lot on British Marxist scientists, I’ve started to get the feel of the nuances of their ideas, and do feel they made some good points, and I miss the influence of their crowd. In particular, economic importance has virtually disappeared as a criterion of historiography, in favor of importance (or illustrative importance) to the history of culture, scientific and popular. This has made entire fields of study in which many people have worked and much money has been spent virtually invisible to most historians.

Thought two is vital. I would emphasize that the word “epistemological” criterion is misleading, since the sociologists do not assert the incapacity of epistemology so much as they assert its lack of relevance to the diffusion of knowledge and its consequences through the scientific community and through society. It may be clear to “every other historian or philosopher of science and every working scientist” but it is not clear to others—so much is based on trust—and that is their point. Their sense of cogency is based on the assumption that others do not appreciate the importance of this point—again, stay tuned.

To me the question is to define to whom epistemology is pertinent and in what circumstances. In particular, I think the sociologists spend so much time looking at controversy that it ignores the importance of advanced epistemology in forging agreement among collaborating groups of experts. In turn, these experts’ ability to do things others can’t, gives them a sort of quasi-epistemological legitimacy in society, but particularly in organizations that depend on experts, because their work allows things to be done that cannot be done through alternative groups of experts. I think Harry Collins’ and Rob Evans’ new work on expertise will be important here, if enough people pay attention.

Also, at some point down the road, I want to look particularly to the “biological exception” to what I’m calling the “great escape”. Historians and philosophers of biology have maintained much closer contact than in other areas, and I suspect it’s because the normative stakes seem higher that it’s in some sense socially dangerous for historians to risk *appearing* to undermine the philosophers of biology.

3. Gary Werskey - November 12, 2015

Thanks, Will, for these thoughts and acknowledgement of my work. (Knowing of my erstwhile colleague Steve Shapin’s concurrence was a very nice bonus!) Is there any way I can get hold of the full text of your article?

Will Thomas - November 12, 2015

Gary, I’m very pleased to hear from you! I’ll be happy to send you along full text of anything I’ve written. I’ll drop you a note privately.

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