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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 4: History as Text, Philosophy as Lexicon April 1, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Perhaps the greatest barrier to more effective relations between the history and philosophy of science is the notion that the two disciplines should have a lot to say to each other.

In my last post, I posited that historians might regard the philosophy of science not as a theory of science and its development, but as a lexicon that we could use selectively to describe both historical actors’ explicit reasoning and arguments, as well as the implicit reasoning informing patterns by which scientific figures have accepted, entertained, and rejected various sorts of claims.  The more developed historians’ lexicon is, the more reliably will we be able to capture important intricacies of history.

Of course, this suggestion is hardly original. In 1962, when Norwood Russell Hanson (1924-1967) famously declared that “history of science without philosophy of science is blind,” and that “philosophy of science without history of science is empty” (580), he was not making a vague feel-good suggestion that the disciplines should get together, have a drink, talk more, and really get on the same page.  To the contrary, he, like many philosophers, saw crucial differences between the fields, accepting:”The logical relevance of history of science to philosophy of science is nil” (585).

In making this allowance Hanson was arguing against a more extreme idea—the “irrelevance of history of science to philosophy of science” (the title of Hanson’s lecture/paper)—which was predicated, first, on the idea that the philosophy of science was essentially concerned with the development of methods and criteria for evaluating the quality of scientific arguments, and, second, on the need to avoid the “genetic fallacy,” the idea that accounting for how scientific knowledge came to be is the same as accounting for the quality of that knowledge.

Hanson noted that, if philosophers saw history as irrelevant to what they did, they understood their work to be relevant to history in that it could diagnose if historians were abiding by a naive Weltphilosophie (an underlying philosophy informing accounts of the general development of scientific knowledge), or if they were lackadaisically using concepts such as “law”, “cause”, “explain”, “predict”, etc.  

However, Hanson urged that “it is in the detailed analysis of the detailed arguments of scientists and historians where philosophy can most help, and be helped” (576, Hansons’ emphases).  History presented difficult interpretive questions, answers to which required all the tools that philosophers could provide.  But history was also a resource, which could provide philosophers with new examples of scientific problems and the argumentative strategies used to confront them.

Of course, fifty years ago, as today, many historians were apt to regard philosophical theories as pointless abstractions, because they bore little resemblance to the historical record that historians sought to distill and communicate, and that was responsible for whatever scientific knowledge we might have, genetic fallacy be damned.  Thus, according to Hanson (582):

Historians see in the works of such ‘formalistic’ philosophers of science as [Rudolf] Carnap [1891-1970] the ‘fallacy of misplaced abstraction.’ Without some concrete treatment of the de facto development and present state of modern science, philosophy of science strikes many as unilluminating….  To the historian such philosophy of science is often unilluminating because it does not enlighten one about any thing: nothing in the scientific record book is treated in such symbolic studies.

Unfortunately, historians’ treatments of the record simply as they saw it tended to “befog” knowledge of historical science “with clouds of facts,” leaving many questions that could have answers unanswered (585):

Ask about consistency, validity, or redundancy, conceptual connections, or the design of an hypothesis—and your answer comes back studded with quotes and dates.

Interestingly enough, historians have never been systematically challenged on this score.  I would like to surmise that, if there ever was any momentum surrounding Hanson’s conception of a mutually enriching relationship between historical and philosophical enterprises that nevertheless had clearly distinct goals, it was cut short by the great debates of the 1960s and 1970s surrounding the works of Karl Popper (1902-1994), Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), Imre Lakatos (1922-1974), and Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994).

For the purposes of this series of posts, the most important thing about these great debates was that they attempted to bring the history and philosophy of science into a much closer alignment with each other than Hanson had proposed.  Without positing any strict “logic of discovery,” Kuhn’s concept of “scientific revolutions”, and Lakatos’s related concept of “research programmes” created philosophical outlines about how science develops temporally.  These outlines made few burdensome demands on historians, such as by asking them to attend more carefully to the intricacies of conceptual connections and hypothesis design.  This was the kind of philosophy that historians could engage with.

I would propose that historians’ interest in these great debates had a two-stage effect on history-philosophy relations.

First, it recast the philosophy of science as offering not merely a lexicon for describing aspects of scientific thought, but a full theory of science: what it is, what scientific work looks like, how it develops, and so forth.  Where before philosophers could complain about historians’ implicit Weltphilosophie, the new temporal philosophies seemed to be finally grasping seriously toward just such a beast.  Furthermore, the new philosophies’ emphasis on undecidable problems, fading into intellectual relativism, clearly shifted the philosophical focus from evaluation to description of what happens intellectually and sociologically at the boundaries of differing systems of thought (with the attendant danger of turning historiography into a kind of he-said/she-said journalism).

Unquestionably, an enthusiasm for affirming the insights of the Kuhnian framework widely prevailed in the 1970s into the ’80s.  After this enthusiasm waned, there were further sporadic efforts to develop a properly “naturalistic” theory of science, stretching from the sociology of scientific knowledge through actor-network theory, to the present interest in historical epistemology.  

Ultimately, though, perhaps no alignment of the history and philosophy of science in which history could be regarded as a test of philosophy could ever remain stable, as indeed Feyerabend suggested with his critique of method.  Thus, the second stage of post-1960s history-philosophy relations seems to be a re-separation of the disciplines.  But this is not exactly a return to the status quo ante.  Where the history of science of Hanson’s time clearly revolved around scientific reasoning and argument, the residue of the great debates seems to be a prevailing belief that the most theoretically fundamental and historically significant issues relating to scientific knowledge are ones revolving around the clash of differing values, ideals, concepts, and worldviews.  These issues, of course, require no Weltphilosophie, or, for that matter, anything more than a very rudimentary philosophy.

I do not believe there is any fundamental barrier to reintroducing philosophically sophisticated accounts of reasoning and argumentation to the historiography without subscribing to an overarching theory of science.*  It is more a matter of assigning sufficient value to the task to make it worthwhile to invest in the intensive conversations and hard research work necessary to realize that goal.  As I mentioned in Pt. 1, this is something some corners of the historiography already do.  But, perhaps more practically—as both Hanson,** and, more recently, Kent Staley, have argued—assuming a philosophical coherence in science is simply a more effective heuristic strategy for historians to follow than assuming that philosophical accounts of science are simply too abstracted from real science to be of practical historiographical use.

*On the subject of argument and historical epistemology, since writing Pt. 2 in this series I’ve noticed Thomas Sturm’s emphasis on argument in his critique of historical epistemology: “Historical Epistemology or History of Epistemology? The Case of the Relation between Perception and Judgment,” Erkenntnis 75 (2011): 303-324.  It’s an interesting article, and I may write more about it later, but I wanted to mention it here in case I don’t get to it very soon.  That entire issue of Erkenntnis seems to be devoted to historical epistemology.

**”The ‘hard’ way—the only way [of examining science]—is to begin with an accurate description and delineation of some experimental or theoretical perplexity, one with which no historian of science could quarrel.  This then would be subjected to a philosophical analysis characterized by a rigor that any logician might respect.  As an ideal this might be unattainable.  But it does possess a maximum heuristic value.  And in putting the matter thus we can at last demarcate the relationship between history of science and philosophy of science” (585).  A bold claim, but not, I think, safely dismissible.



1. Michael Bycroft - April 9, 2013

I got a lot out of this series of posts. I also find that they chime nicely with my own current research, in which I try to make sense of a past experimenter (the 18thC academician Charles Dufay) in terms of argumentative moves that have since been formalised by people like Fisher. In doing so I have taken heart from something that Fisher wrote in one of his seminal books on experimental design:

“[questions about the statistical interpretation of experiments] can be dissociated from all that is strictly technical in the statistician’s craft, and, when so detached, are questions only of the right use of human reasoning powers, with which all intelligent people, who hope to be intelligible, are equally concerned, and on which the statistician, as such, speaks with no special authority” (“The Design of Experiments” (1960), 1–2).

Here I read Fisher as saying that formalized concepts in modern-day statistics are often inspired by informal, commonplace notions that were available to many people in the past, even if past users did not express them in mathematical terms.

Take the idea of a “stratified sample.” That phrase, and the technical apparatus surrounding it, only came about in the late nineteenth century. But the motivating idea–that one sensible way to construct a sample of a population is to divide the population into non-overlapping groups and pick a small number of items from each group–is a piece of epistemic commonsense that inquirers have been applying for centuries, perhaps for millenia.

However, I would add two caveats.

The first is that I’m not convinced that present-day formalizations of notions like a “stratified sample” are always useful in understanding the informal applications of those notions that we find in the historical record. I find it interesting–and not just as a spare-time philosopher but also as a historian–that Charles Dufay’s sampling procedure resembles present-day sampling procedures. But I’m not sure that I will learn very much about Charles Dufay by studying the latest text-book introduction to the mathematics of stratified sampling.

Moreover, Staley seems to posit unity at the level of informal modes of reasoning rather than at the level of formal codifications of them, eg.:

“I wish to suggest that an argument in which no formal statistical analysis is employed may nevertheless be a statistical argument, and that such arguments are to be found in both the logic and image traditions” (Staley, “Golden Events and Statistics,” Perspectives on Science 7, no. 2 (1999): 196-230, on 208).

My second caveat is that as usual I am anxious to distinguish “internal history of science” from “philosophy of science applied to history.” One does not need such things as “philosophical lexicons” and “transcendental standards” to justify the practice of internal history of science. Or at least, they are no more necessary to internal history of science than a “sociological lexicon” is necessary to the social history of science or that a “transcendental human nature” is necessary to understanding the private motives of past scientists.

Will Thomas - April 9, 2013

Thanks as usual. I agree with your caveats.

I think the value of philosophy as a lexicon is primarily in helping historians conceptually, rather than strictly verbally, so to speak. So, it is not really helpful to go back and label what Dufay was doing “stratified sampling”—in fact, I would discourage it, not least because one might miss important differences, but also because it is annoying. That said, awareness of the concept might help one pick up on that aspect of Dufay’s methodology, where one might otherwise be inclined to gloss over it. This isn’t a huge problem if historical actors don’t write much, or flag certain parts of their work as important, but it can be vital if one is scanning over large volumes of material, and some important point only shows its face very briefly.

On formality vs. informality of reasoning, I think it’s an open question whether informal reasoning, which mimics this or that portion of a large, formalized body of knowledge (e.g., modern statistics and probability) could also be considered unified in the same way the formalized body is, or aspired to be. This is the reason why, as a historian, I don’t really get exercised over the unity question. Rather, I agree with Staley that it is a heuristically useful presumption. Just in case that unity actually exhibits itself in a historical actor’s actions, then one will be mentally prepared to pick up on it (see prev. paragraph).

As to the philosophy vs. internal history question, I admit I may be speaking more idealistically than practically. I often find that I have to “roll my own” philosophy, so to speak, to make sense of historical actors’ ideas. (I actually have a post coming up that’s sort of a Pt. 5 in the series, but sort of a sequel to my “cosmic ray energy spectrum” post where I discuss this.) At the same time, sometimes my on-the-fly philosophy does seem to correspond to professional philosophers’ ideas when I’m lucky enough to locate the proper passage in the proper work. Given the current state of things, we may have to settle for a vision where philosophy can have a vaguely edifying effect on the practice of historical analysis.

Finally, a tangent from some of the work I’ve done on postwar stats, decision theory, and economics: it seems that economists’ and statisticians’ experience in finding that in some cases the formal theory (esp. anti-Fisherian Bayesian theory) had to catch up with practical decision-makers’ informal reasoning seems to have been a major impetus behind confidence in the utility of various conceptions of the rational actor in economic theory. I find this an enormously useful insight, which is not often pointed out, though I think there is a passage buried somewhere in Deidre McCloskey’s work on the rhetoric of economics that gets at it.

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