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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.


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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.


Kjeldsen on Rheinberger via Epple April 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Continuing on last week’s discussion about the sufficiency of current methodology, I’d like to take a look at Tinne Hoff Kjeldsen’s piece, “Egg-Forms and Measure-Bodies: Different Mathematical Practices in the Early History of the Modern Theory of Convexity,” from the latest Science in Context (free issue!), and particularly the function of her invocation of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s array of “epistemic things”.

For those not familiar with the modern theory of convexity, fear not.  I’m mainly interested in the topic because it is central to the mathematical theory of linear programming, which is an important part of the canon of operations research techniques, and Kjeldsen, a historian of mathematics, is the top expert on the subject.  She has a long line of papers explaining how the rather discontinuous history of convexity theory can be understood in terms of its development as parts of mathematicians’ varying projects—what she has previously referred to as different “tasks”.  Her work is extremely useful to people like me who need to figure out what any of this has to do with military doctrine-building and radical British scientists—you’d be surprised—and are reluctant to spend too much time on the nitty-gritty details on the history of things like convexity theory.

The history of mathematics is a nice place to address this issue, because this history is relatively coherent from antiquity to the present in comparison to other fields of study.  As a consequence, historians of mathematics have found it to be more legitimate to address transhistorical mathematical problems as addressed across large gaps of time.  In venues such as the Archive for History of Exact Sciences, history maintains a sort of unusual (more…)

A Fluid Taxonomy of 20c. Sciences October 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Collins-Evans Q&A.
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Will (L) and Christopher pretending to work on the project for the AIP newsletter.

Will (L) and Christopher pretending to work on their web project for the benefit of the AIP's weekly newsletter.

One of my ongoing concerns is the problem of writing a coherent history of 20th-century science and technology.  As I’ve been working on assembling names for my web project on notable post-1945 American physicists (on which Christopher is assisting me), I’ve been trolling through the National Academy of Sciences’ database of deceased members.  Living members are helpfully grouped by section, and we’ve simply taken members of the “physics” and “applied physical sciences” sections.  Deceased members, on the other hand, are not so grouped, so I have to look everyone up and sort out the physicists from the psychologists, anthropologists, chemists, geneticists, and so forth.

Predictably, this has resulted in some problematic category issues.  What to do with physical chemists, electrical engineers (especially those who won Nobel Prizes in physics)?; what separates an astronomer from an astrophysicist? when is mathematics physics-y enough to include mathematicians?

Another interesting problem that I’ve run into is that certain fields seem to have stopped being physics.  Ballistics research becomes more statistical than physical.  Thermodynamics, one of the great products of (more…)