The fundamental argument for an integrated history and philosophy of science

I’ve mentioned before that I am organizing a workshop next November on the integration of history and philosophy of science: The philosophy of historical case studies. As I read authors who have thought about the issue, it occurs to me that an important point does not get as much attention as it deserves. I call this the fundamental argument for an integrated history and philosophy of science.

Science by its nature is in the epistemology business: Its main goal is to give an accurate description of reality. Philosophy of science asks a lot of interesting questions about this epistemological project. Thus, philosophy of science furnishes us with a range of interesting questions to put to the history of science.

Here’s a selection of the kinds of questions I have in mind:

  • Confirmation: By what method or set of methods does science establish truth? Were these always the same? If they are evolving, how so? Are there subtypes? How have different subtypes fared so far? In what circumstances are they useful or not? Why?
  • Realism: Do we have reasons (perhaps independent of the discussion about methods) for thinking that our best current theories are true, or close to true? If not, why not?
  • Theory change: Can we expect current scientific theories to persist, or must we expect upheavals? What about past theories that we no longer accept? Are our current theories as fallible as past ones were? If not, why not?
  • Discovery: How do scientists come up with potential answers to puzzles before putting them to experimental or observational test? In other words, how is science as efficient as it is at populating the hypothesis space?

One of my first introductions to the science of history was a little book by Volker Sellin. He argued that we must approach historical sources with clearly formulated questions. My experience so far backs this up: While there are some historians of science who claim to approach history without conceptual or philosophical baggage, in my view they are just not very explicit about the nature of their work. Sellin made another, related point which I have generally found to be true: Historical scholarship often progresses by asking new questions of old sources.

Given that we must approach history with questions in hand, we should make an effort to choose pertinent questions. I submit that this is what philosophy of science offers to history of science: Questions that are particularly relevant to science’s core epistemological concerns. Asking and answering them is the key mission of an integrated history and philosophy of science.

However, this is not a one-way interaction. It’s not just that philosophy helps us to put pertinent questions to the history of science. History is at the same time an empirical basis which we can use to test, expand and refine our philosophical conceptions. It would be surprising indeed if studying the most successful epistemological enterprise in the history of the universe (so far as we know) had no conceptual upshot.

Now pure-blood historians might object that there are many interesting questions to ask about science that are not related to the epistemological concerns discussed above. I agree with you, and I am looking forward to reading your works – or most of them, anyway.

Some pure-blood philosophers might argue that we can gain insight into science’s epistemological project by philosophical arguments alone, with no or only minimal empirical or historical input. To them I say: good luck with that.

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