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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 3: Empirical History, Transcendental Standards, and the Unity of Science March 28, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverIn my previous post in this series, I noted that the program of “historical epistemology” rejects conceptions of science informed by traditional philosophy of science in favor of seeking portraits that are both historicized, and that follow the historical record more directly.  In general, I agree that historicity and fidelity to the historical record are both principles that must inform historians’ work.  At the same time, I am not convinced that it is either necessary or wise to abandon traditional philosophy of science to realize those principles.  To investigate this issue, I would like to turn to what I believe may be its high-water mark: the Kent Staley-Peter Galison dispute,1 which has been summarized by Allan Franklin in his 2002 book Selectivity and Discord.  To conclude the post, I will develop my own opinion on the issue, elaborating on points I made in my recent article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Strategies in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950”.


History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.


Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.


Is it idol-smashing time again already?


Leftovers: Practical Strategy as Fractional Philosophy September 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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After working through my thoughts about the historiographical aims of Objectivity and whether or not the history of science’s turn away from the philosophy of sciences impoverishes its ability to write a history of ideas, I have one leftover question I don’t really know what to think about, and it is expressed nicely in Martin Kusch’s review of Objectivity as he confronts their attempt to construct a “historicist” history without being “relativist” (possibly, I may be misunderstanding).

(Here, by the way, “historicist” means that concepts, such as objectivity, are not transcendental, a meaning to be distinguished from a historical determinism, as in the Marxist dialectic.)

According to Kusch:

Only a century ago, and thus very much in the period at issue in Objectivity, the relationship between historicism and relativism was extensively discussed among the likes of Dilthey, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rickert, Simmel and Windelband.  Whatever emerged from this eventually abandoned debate, it certainly included the insight that the historicist can avoid relativism only by either positing a telos of historical development or treating the views of different periods as components of one overall truth.  Neither option now seems particularly attractive.

Kusch defends relativism here as something not to be equated with skepticism.  I have to admit I haven’t read enough of Kusch to know his opinions on the matter, but, having read enough of Harry Collins to understand how relativism informs his specifically sociological project (and with their jointly-written book still on my to-do list), I think I understand the defense as having to do with generating additional layers of explanation describing why rational actions can only make sense within specified social preconditions.

Rather than try and explain my understanding of what they mean by relativism any further at this point, I want to focus on the unattractiveness of seeing different views as components of an “overall truth”, because this is how I tend to see practice as informed by, or at least conforming to, philosophy, as discussed in my last post.  The basic idea here (more…)

Escape’s End, or: Philosophy and the Art of Historiography Maintenance September 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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This book makes no pretense of giving the world a new theory of the intellectual operations.  Its claim to attention, if it possesses any, is grounded on the fact that it is an attempt not to supersede, but to embody and systematise, the best ideas which have been either promulgated on its subject by speculative writers, or conformed to by accurate thinkers in their scientific inquiries.

—John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, 1843

While he ended up caught in a bloody tangle of barbed wire and killed, I heartily approve of Steve McQueen’s clever orchestration of a mass escape from a Nazi POW camp culminating in a heroic motorcycle chase.  It is, though, perhaps needless to say that academic life is not the film of The Great Escape, historians are not Steve McQueen, and the philosophy of science is not a POW camp (however much it may have felt like one at points in the past).  We do, however, risk a similar outcome in our own Great Escape.

The rationale underlying the Great Escape was the overbearing influence the philosophy of science apparently exercised on historians’ reconstruction of history.  These histories perhaps concentrated too strongly on contributions to a history of ideas and not enough on the actual concerns of the people who made those contributions.  They rendered certain topics of historical importance such as astrology unworthy of historians’ sustained attention, and narrated history in a language of discovery and proof that made the shape of science seem inevitable and the matter of the reception of discoveries a simple question of vision or blindness.

The vision of scientific community offered in philosophy and in philosophy-derived histories was of a sort of hive mind, which assumed that, once demonstrated, scientific ideas should and would spread freely, and that, therefore, it was appropriate to ask (more…)

Methodological Unity, Revisited June 20, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Buchwald and Franklin, eds., Wrong for the Right Reasons.

In my recent look at historiographical language, I discussed Kent Staley’s 1999 critique of Peter Galison’s division of particle detector history pre-1970 into epistemologically discontinuous “image” and “logic” traditions.  I noted that Staley might have made his point less palatable through an appeal to the methodological “unity” of science (rather than contiguousness), which Galison jumped on as contrary to the construction of coherent history.  For Galison, it is the methodological divisions in science that keep it nimble, intellectually diverse, and heuristically powerful, and it is an appreciation of this disunity that allows us to make any sense of its history consistent with a detailed reading of the historical record.  What, then, is the appeal of philosophical “unity”, and do historians have anything to gain by letting philosophers espousing it in the door?

If, indeed, philosophers believed philosophy could be used to reconstruct an algorithmic history of science, then surely they should be kept out at all costs, but this does not appear to be the case.  Staley, for one, appears to seek conceptual clarity rather than to follow Imre Lakatos’ notion of the “rational reconstruction” of history—science may be epistemologically diverse, but underlying epistemological connections may be revealing of the sources of the strength of certain kinds of knowledge-making acts: “We might entertain the following version of the ‘unity of methods’ thesis: there are a small number of forms of argument that are shared among otherwise diverse areas of investigation, or that are employed in common during (more…)