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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.


Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).

Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.


The Great Escape July 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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Abandoning philosophy

Abandoning philosophy

This post is meant to be the first in a series concerning the relationship between the history of science and the philosophy of science, paying special attention to the influential notion within the history of science that the philosophy of science has a deleterious influence on historiography.

Philosophy, in this view, injures inquiry by removing from consideration some of science’s most important non-scientific contexts; by causing historians to attempt to investigate incoherent questions rooted in philosophically defined problems (such as those relating to moments of discovery, confirmation, falsification, and proof); and by concentrating narratives on histories of disembodied ideas (vacuum versus plenum, atoms versus continuum, myth/confusion versus reason, determinism versus vitalism/free will, mind-body questions) and on the Whiggish pedigrees of disembodied theories (the theory of natural selection, the periodicity of elements, etc…), instead of on the actions and debates of scientists themselves, which the archives reveal did not turn on these preoccupations.

Sociology played a big role in “the great escape” (as I am calling it) from philosophy.  If philosophy has to do with the interaction between ideas and experience, it then has only a very narrowly defined role in the history of scientific practice.  The sensibility, I think, is captured nicely by sociologist Harry Collins in his recent overview of his career-long research program on the practice of gravitational wave physics, Gravity’s Shadow (2004).  Here he defends a “relativist” versus a “realist” (one might say sociological versus philosophical) perspective: (more…)

History of History April 4, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I’ve noticed lately that my meanderings have been delving a lot into the history of the history of science lately. I think we need to study the history of our profession for the same reason that it’s useful to know about the history of science: because practices have deep roots in argumentative traditions. So, I made the claim that we claim to get a lot out of the sociology of science (like our close focus on practice) that we could have probably also gotten from elsewhere, like mainstream cultural history, without all of sociology’s hangups about understanding actual scientific results.

Could this have happened? It’s an interesting question, because the history of science profession (at least in America) is rooted not in mainstream history, but in a close tie to the philosophy of science, the value of which the sociologists questioned, because what the philosophers (and “Wave One” sociologists) said happened in science was not actually evident “on the ground”–Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life was supposed to be a bit of a bombshell for this reason (if I understand my metahistory right). According to this story, so hung up were we on narratives emphasizing 1) the march of theories, 2) the growth of theories from crucial experiments, or 3) the continual interplay of theory and experiment, that we failed to pay any attention to what actually happens in science.

According to this narrative, we would not have thought to incorporate the insights of cultural history and Skinner, etc., into our work, because of our insistence on the special, algorithmic nature of science, predicated on our roots in philosophy. The ordinary rules of historical investigation would not have been thought to apply without the insights of the strong program. I think this probably mischaracterizes the historical work being done in the late ’70s. But another reason for studying history is so that we can better learn how to escape it. If I am right in saying that we justify case studies, simply because they demonstrate how 1), 2), and 3) above are not how science works (“I choose, D, None of the Above”), then we may have bound ourselves up more than we’ve released ourselves. A further review of the “old” history, like what I was doing with Heilbron, may be in order.