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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).


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.


New Article in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences December 5, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverMy new article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Practices in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42 (2012): 389-431, is out.  Click here to download a free pdf copy (15MB—lots of images).  I’ll talk more about the contents of the paper in future posts. For the moment, I’d just like to publicly jot down some thoughts about the origins and thinking behind the paper, which I think is a useful exercise to do for all new publications.

The paper is self-consciously a testing ground for ideas about how to build a more synthetic historiography. First, it’s an attempt to develop a way to find interesting historical “objects” to periodize and interrelate in the history of scientific practice. In doing this, I am trying to build explicitly on the foundations for “mesoscopic” history that were laid by Peter Galison (my PhD advisor) in his big book,Image and Logic (1997). Other attempts to do this sort of thing have tended to look for very large “objects”, such as John Pickstone’s “ways of knowing” or Galison and Lorraine Daston’s attempt to classify and periodize concepts of “objectivity”. I am arguing for the importance of looking at things that are smaller, but which are not simply “local”, and things that are less “epistemic” in nature, but which nevertheless provide us with insight into past scientific arguments. These are the titular “strategies of detection”.

Second, the paper is also an attempt to summarize the already considerable past gains in the historiography of experimentation in particle physics (which is dominated by Image and Logic), and then to go deeper, retaining and extending some gains while challenging and revising others. If we imagine historiographical progress as existing along two axes of “depth” and “breadth”, this paper aims to further progress along the depth axis, while contributing only slightly to the breadth axis. But I started work on this paper while putting together the topic guide on particle physics for my Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource, which looks for new gains mainly along the breadth axis. So, in my mind, ACAP and “Strategies of Detection” are complementary branches of my thinking about the central problem of historiographical synthesis.

A few notes on the paper’s origins below the fold.


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…)

Objectivity, Pt. 2a: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Epistemology September 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History as Anti-Philosophy.
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In his useful essay review of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity in Isis, the philosopher Martin Kusch (formerly of Cambridge HPS, now of Vienna) notes that an important feature of the book’s argument is its twin commitments to combating “relativism” and “localism” (which causes him “unease”; more on this later).  I agree with his emphasis on these motivations as key to understanding the format of Objectivity‘s presentation, and believe the commitments are linked to the historiographical program of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science that began some 30 years ago.

If this story is right, once various forms and specters of epistemological determinism were removed from the history of science, local “contingency” became the watchword.  To understand why any view became established in the history of science, you had to go to the local archive and uncover all the nuanced negotiations that resulted in the “construction” of this or that concept.  This tended to be repellent to scientists and philosophers of science, not because it uncovered their dirty laundry, but because it tended to make the development of whatever concept was at issue appear arbitrary.  Even if constructionism did not imply arbitrariness, per se, it did leave plenty of room for socio-cultural bias, or, to put it another way, for the intellectual overdetermination of scientific knowledge through the “ladening” of observations with theory or values.  This overdetermination could be teased out by examining the archive, or simply by examining the “situatedness” of patronage (following the Marxists) and of the metaphors employed in scientific knowledge-building.

Even since How Experiments End (1987), Galison (not unlike fellow Escapist Latour) has been keen to defuse not only radical skepticist claims that knowledge is socially determined, but also more moderate claims attached to anti-positivist (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…)

Watch your language, Pt. 2: Galison vs. Staley June 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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In Pt. 1, I discussed the historiographical problem of under what circumstances it is useful to criticize someone else’s characterization of history, highlighting Peter Galison’s rebuke in Image and Logic to Andy Pickering’s account of the discovery of the J/ψ particle from Constructing Quarks.  I noted that Galison took exception to Pickering’s idea of “tuning” experiment to theory on the count of its adherence to an antipositivist understanding of the history of experiment as proceeding in some sort of theoretical relationship to theory rather than on its own terms.  This independence of experimental tradition from theoretical concerns is part of a useful view of history Galison calls “intercalation”.  I noted that the issue of theory-dependence can have political overtones, but that the issue is also important to understanding how knowledge-production works, and to constructing coherent and accurately-worded historical accounts.

But just how important is accuracy in wording?  When is one making a point and when is one just nitpicking?  To address this question I want to skip ahead a couple of years to a special issue of Perspectives on Science dedicated to Image and Logic in which philosopher of science Kent Staley disputed Galison’s division of modern particle detection into epistemologically distinct “image” and “logic” traditions.  Galison responded in the same issue entirely confident that he was being visited by some easily vanquished ghost out of the historiographical past.  Yet, to my mind, this is a dispute that Staley won.  I’ll explain why, and then get on to the ultimate question of whether it matters.

First off, I should say that I’m predisposed to Staley’s argument.  When I first thoroughly read Image and Logic in (more…)