jump to navigation

History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , ,
Hanson, NR

Norwood Russell Hanson

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.

My take on social constructionism is that the idea of it shapes historians’ sense of identity and mission.  The belief seems to go that because of its virtuous intervention in the history of our profession, we have attained the ability, and thus the responsibility, to combat certain naive conceptions of scientific method, which inform other naive conceptions of science’s place in society. We can combat these conceptions by recovering and presenting certain kinds of images of science, which the tenets of social constructionism help us to identify.  In this way, social constructionism essentially functions as a corrective program, and has never developed an epistemology of its own,* and historians cannot be said to have adopted social constructionism as a Weltphilosophie.  Thus, while it may be useful to consider its place in the history of our profession, I believe that it is pointless to argue against it as though it were an underlying source of whatever historiographical ills might rankle us.

In general, historians may in their works exhibit fragments of some underlying Weltphilosophie, but I would say that by and large our “selection of salient subjects” and our “alignment of data” proceeds in a way that studiously avoids making strong epistemological commitments.  The methods and criteria governing the generation and modification of scientific arguments and knowledge are systematically marginalized in our work in favor of emphasizing:

1) the institutional and cultural preconditions of various kinds of scientific work and knowledge (e.g., funding, political and social interest in scientific results, the rhetorical construction of an “ideology of science,” etc.),

2) historical invocations of meta-criteria generated by incommensurable world-views, which impinge on the acceptance (rather than the generation and revision) of knowledge claims, or on the perceived legitimacy of their application (e.g., in policy).  These invocations are taken to accentuate the existence of epistemic “boundaries” in history, and offer clues as to the non-rational mechanisms of “trust,” “values,” and, more generally, “culture” that pattern life behind those boundaries,


3) allusions to science, or the generation of science-related imagery, in the public sphere, in literature, in criticism, and so forth.

All of these things are good things to study, and I cannot imagine that anyone would suppose the study of them necessarily comes at the expense of studying the more complex strategies of scientific work.  Nevertheless, in practice, the elevation of their importance does seem to have led to a withering of understanding of scientific work and thought.  In my view there are only two major exceptions to this contemporary rule:

First, there are those who carry on work in certain specialist enclaves, including (but not limited to) the history of relativity and quantum mechanics, population genetics, and some branches of medieval and early-modern natural philosophy, astronomy, and alchemy.  These studies are fairly classical history of science, which boast a strong internalist component.  In some cases these studies are actually conducted by philosophers.  But, in general, they are not overtly concerned with the deployment or development of philosophy per se, though they may well abide by one or another Weltphilosophie.**

Second, there are authors whose work is done under the banner of “historical epistemology,” including Lorraine Daston, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, and Peter Galison.  Daston’s 2009 “philosophy, anyone?” appeal illustrates the concern within that camp, in accord with my argument here, that history is currently lacking a Weltphilosophie.  In Pt. 2, we will discuss the Weltphilosophie advocated by proponents of historical epistemology.

*There have been attempts, particularly Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory and Andrew Pickering’s “mangle”, to establish constructionism as a kind of new socio-epistemic metaphysics, but I would not consider these attempts historiographically influential, although historians sometimes cite them.

**Those interested in what Bycroft defends as “internal” history, and those who seek a closer union between history and philosophy of science, have begun to gather under the banner of “integrated” history and philosophy of science (&HPS).


1. Joachim - February 12, 2013

My hunch is that Weltphilosophie as used by Hanson means Weltanschauung (world-view). In German, Weltphilosophie refers to the idea of Karl Jaspers that what has previously been fragmented into European, Chinese and, say, Indian philosophy will be replaced by a global philosophy or world-philosophy (= Weltphilosophie). Anyway, I’d appreciate getting the PDF of Hanson’s article. :-)

Will Thomas - February 12, 2013

I’m almost sure you’re right that Weltphilosophie derives from Weltanschauung, and that it has nothing to do with the sort of global philosophy associated with Jaspers. Hanson makes clear that it is a term of trade, though I’m not precisely sure when it appeared, or when it (the term) disappeared. I imagine it was concocted (probably by an English-speaker) to connote Weltanschauung, except referring specifically to a philosophy inherent to historians’ portraits of scientific thought, rather than simply a general world-view.

I’ll continue to use the term through this series, as the definition of it offered by Hanson pretty much means what I want to talk about.

I should note that Hanson’s article is not primarily concerned with Weltphilosophie. I’ll be returning to him later on in this series.

I should also note that I would say that historians do have a fairly well-defined Weltanschauung, which makes certain presumptions about how political decisions are made, about the history of ideas about science, and so forth. But that’s not the subject of this particular series, which deals more specifically with historians’ treatment of scientific reasoning and argument.

2. Michael Bycroft - February 12, 2013

Thanks for this post, and I’m looking forward to the next one. Some bits and pieces:

— I’m about to start a series of posts on one set of historiographical commitments (though perhaps not a “Weltphilosophie”) that derive partly from Thomas Kuhn’s more historical research.

— As quoted in your post, Hanson’s “Weltphilosophie” argument strikes me as quite feeble, if it is meant to encourage more integration between history of science and philosophy of science. It doesn’t argue for the utility of history to philosophy. And it scarcely argues for the utility of philosophy to history, except as a way of clearing our historical vision of the fog that philosophy introduced in the first place.

In the article you cite, Hanson went a bit further, advising that historians use philosophy to replace their false presuppositions with true ones (rather than getting rid of presuppositions altogether).

It’s worth pointing out also that, in his article, Hanson’s point about “Weltphilosophie” was not his main argument for the use of philosophy by historians of science. His main argument was that philosophers can provide logical assessments of the arguments put forward by past scientists. He thinks that this sort of a priori appraisal is especially exciting when it shows that the theories that turned out to be true often had less rational warrant, at certain points in the past, than the ones that turned out to be false.

— Regarding your second footnote, which implies that defenders of what I call “internal” history of science are gathering under the banner of integrated HPS. I suspect that you are right about that, as a purely sociological point. However it is not something that I necessarily approve of. I’m keen on integrated HPS. But I’m just as keen to show that internal history of science is defensible *as history,* and that it doesn’t need to snuggle up to philosophy to become a viable intellectual enterprise. At the same time, I suspect that a defense of internal history *as history* is an important part of any defense of integrated HPS (since doing integrated HPS usually involves doing some internal history).

— You are right that I think (as I put it in the comments of the article you link to) that “many widespread preferences among current historians — including the preference for non-internal history — can be traced more or less directly to arguments found in Kuhn or Collins or Latour or related authors.”

You are also right that I think that there are things to “criticize” about “social constructivism.”

But I want to clarify just what I am critical of. Because I’ve got nothing against historians studying the social aspects of science, whether this means looking at professional loyalties in sci communities, or links between social movements and scientific theories, or scientific conversations, or whatever. I do this myself.

What I’m critical of, or at least have reservations about, are two things:

A. particular arguments that pop up in semi-philosophical works by the likes of Kuhn, Collins, Bloor, etc. Example: the “experimenter’s regress” argument that is supposed to show that “all experimental results can in principle be challenged.” Such claims are often vague (what does “in principle” mean here?), and the arguments themselves are often poor.

B. certain historiographical preferences, such as the one for non-internal works over internal ones. This particular preference is roughly an amalgam of the preferences you number 1) and 2) in the above post.

My suspicion is that the preferences in B derive indirectly from the arguments in A. I say “indirectly” because I expect that most historians of science who express the preferences in B would not subscribe to the radical conclusions of those arguments, if asked.

Nevertheless, those preferences are derived (I suspect) either from historical works that *do* draw on those arguments, or from weakened forms of those arguments (eg. “Collins has shown that experiments are often difficult and inconclusive, hence the need to study the social basis for scientist’s belief X or method Y”).

So that’s my position. How does it differ from yours? Do you deny that the historiographical preferences in B owe anything to arguments in A? Or do you deny that those preferences amount to a “Weltphilosophie”?

I had thought that you answered “yes” to the first and “no” to the second, but from this post it looks like the reverse might be closer to the truth. If that is the case, our positions on this point are closer than I thought.

Will Thomas - February 13, 2013

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the reply. I’ll try and go roughly in the order of your points.

If this were a book, the Hanson intro would probably end up in a large pile of rejected introduction ideas, since I’m not even interested in his argument about Weltphilosophie, per se, as I am the concept. I could just reinvent the wheel, but since this was once a topic of discussion, I thought it would be nice to revive the older terminology.

Plus, as I mentioned to Joachim above, I’ll be returning to Hanson in what will probably be Pt. 4 of this series, as I think his notion of philosophy providing a vocabulary for analyzing historical scientific arguments is close to the one I would like to promote. And, I also want to explain precisely what his “history of science without philosophy of science is blind; philosophy of science without history of science is empty” was trying to say, in particular, that it was not simply saying that the two disciplines should be best friends, but that they necessarily play different, but occasionally complementary roles. (This will come up in a discussion of Lakatos in Pt. 3 as well.)

I think this point, by the way, maps onto your attitude toward internal history and &HPS. &HPS’s mission statement seems to want to merge the two fields into a seamless whole, where I would view internal history as benefiting from philosophy, but ultimately, as you prefer, a distinctive enterprise.

I agree with your general stance on internal history, which is that there should be renewed confidence in its legitimacy. Personally, maybe only 1/4 to 1/3 of the work I do is internal history, but I find that sometimes understanding the content of the internal history makes a difference to understanding the larger picture—and is interesting in and of itself—so that is my stake in joining you in championing its reentry into the mainstream.

On social constructionism: I think we are very close.

To answer your questions directly, I affirm that B derives, or at least gained confidence or license from A. And I do deny that B constitutes a Weltphilosophie.

I also agree with your description of the link between A and B as “indirect” and your characterization of the tendencies of B as embodying “preferences” rather than, say, “arguments”.

If we have any disagreement at all, it is whether the tenuousness of these links makes SC worth engaging at all. Personally, I feel that everything that was interesting to be said about the relationship between sociology, epistemology, and history was said by 1983, and that all the subsequent disputes over the epistemological validity of SC were more-or-less a waste of time and good will.

Since today’s historians’ claims, and any objections we might have to them, either in argument or emphasis, do not flow directly from SC, but merely use SC in a symbolic way, or are thematic or stylistic rehearsals of arguments that originally deployed SC, engaging directly with SC—rather than articulating the nature of the issues we are actually worried about—seems to me to be not especially worthwhile. (Yes, you can worry about the quality of the experimenter’s regress argument, but nobody is actually going to care if you make a good point about it.)

I should note that my own feelings on this issue evolved in the early stages of this blog when I got Collins to do an 8-part Q&A about his SEE program. I thought this would go over really well, precisely because everything that happened in the 1970s and ’80s was always taught as being so integral to the way we do history of science today. Thus, the evolution of Collins’s own thinking would be of some interest. But in fact it garnered very little interest. With a more careful analysis of the literature, it became clear to me that historians’ interest in those issues is only apparently intense, but is in fact pretty superficial.

Thus, I became more interested in trying to work out what historians’ methodological commitments actually are. This has included exploring those commitments’ roots, but I have come to believe that if criticism with the intension to persuade has a role to play in establishing a path forward—and that is by no means clearly the case—it does not involve bringing discussions that were current 20-40 years ago to their rightful close.

3. Michael Bycroft - February 14, 2013

Thanks for your reply. I confess that the main reason for my comment about Hanson was that I was prompted by your post to re-read the article, and found it so fresh and interesting (although not necessarily right in all respects) that I couldn’t help commenting on it.

On social constructivism:

I expect you are right that most of the worthwhile things to say about social constructivism, both for and against, have already been said (although I’ld add that 1983 is quite early as a cut-off point, and even in the last few years there have been some interesting contributions from David Bloor, Tim Lewens, and Nick Tosh in Studies in HPS).

You might also be right that professional historians of science are unlikely to change they way they do history of science, even a little bit, by learning of (say) a new argument against extreme forms of the “experimenter’s regress” gambit.

However, I do think that historians of science would practice their trade differently if they read “realist” authors like Allan Franklin, Philip Kitcher, and Larry Laudan as a matter of course during their training (in the way that Collins, Bloor, Kuhn, Shapin and Latour are now read as a matter of course, or at least are supposed to be, at least where I am now).

It might be objected that Franklin, Kitcher, etc. were doing &HPS, so they don’t really belong in the training of a dedicated historian of science. But Collins, Bloor, etc. were also doing &HPS, in the ways that matter (although this tends to be obscured by the rhetoric of “naturalism,” and the general philosophy-bashing, that one sometimes find in social constructivist authors).

It would be defensible, I think, to not read any of these authors while training to be a historian of science. But it doesn’t seem right to read lots of the “social constructivist” ones (or works heavily influenced by them) and read few of the “realist” ones.

To conclude, I’m persuaded that there is not much value in writing articles or blog posts attacking the philosophical claims about science that are put forward by social constructivists, in the hope that these arguments will trickle down to the practice of historians.

However, I still think there is some value in going at it from the opposite direction. That is, to begin with the historiographical preferences of historians (such as their apparent low opinion of internal history of science) and to question those preferences in a way that shows their (occasional, indirect) link to abstract arguments that were once put forward by social constructivists. If that project sounds obscure, I hope it will be clearer once I get around to executing it.

Will Thomas - February 14, 2013

OK, the shift to pedagogy has brought us into agreement. I like the both/neither approach. (I would really love to see what an introductory curriculum looks like that just totally ignores the whole debate.) I also very much like your lumping of Bloor, etc., into the &HPS label; superficially it seems antithetical, but, if you were a foreigner to the disciplines looking at the character of the material, it is actually very logical.

I’m willing to be persuaded on the 1983 cutoff. That has been my impressionistic take based on the subjective “articles that hold my attention” criterion, but your recommendations are usually very good, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any suggestions you might make on this score in the future.

I think that covers the outstanding issues here. Good conversation!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: