History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, Michael Bycroft, Norwood Russell Hanson, Peter Galison
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).