The spirit of HPS (a love letter)

Last June I was in Vienna for the fifth conference on Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (&HPS5). It was an immensely enjoyable event. Towards the end of the conference, during the very last talk that I saw before I had to leave for the airport, I rediscovered my love for HPS. Here’s how it happened.

The beginning was inauspicious. The speaker had made slides with LaTeX, so they were heavy on text.1 What is more, she recited those slides word for word, which is usually considered bad presentation technique. But here’s the surprising thing: it worked brilliantly. Because of the exact parallelism between the slides and the spoken word, it was easy to follow the speaker’s arguments and evidence. Many presentations go off the rails because the audience doesn’t know whether to focus on the slides or the spoken word. That wasn’t a problem in this case.

The story started simply enough. There’s a famous biomedical discovery from the 1980s that led to a Nobel prize: the fact that gastric ulcers are caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori. The episode is reasonably well researched in HPS, so we know something about who discovered what, when, and where, and how additional research established the finding beyond reasonable doubt. But the speaker asked an interesting counterfactual question: Why was the discovery not made before the 1980s? The conditions should have been right earlier. On the face of it, there was no good reason for the delay. In terms of concepts and methods, the discovery could have been made in the 1950s. So why wasn’t it?

Here’s where things became interesting. A big part of the problem was a mistaken assumption: that the stomach is sterile because of its high acid content. The speaker began by asking the most obvious questions. Perhaps there was good empirical warrant for believing in a sterile stomach? Perhaps the techniques for detecting certain types of bacteria did not exist prior to the 1980s? Or if they existed, perhaps they were not routinely used? Perhaps an earlier study had made other causes of gastric ulcers very likely? These are good, solid epistemological question that, I think, must always be asked first. In general, scientists are good at science.

But when none of these explanations seemed right, she opened up the list of possibilities. Could it be that we have an instance here of a sociological rather than an epistemological process? Maybe epidemiologists in the 1950s felt that the search for infectious etiologies belonged to an “old paradigm” and was no longer worth pursuing? Or perhaps some gastroenterologists who rejected the infectious etiology of gastric ulcers had undue influence? Could it be that a study claiming that the stomach is sterile was cited more and more but questioned less and less? Or maybe the treatment of gastric ulcers only became big business in the 1980s, which made it more attractive to do research on the disease? Clearly, there are many non-epistemic consideration that may have been in play.

I like this plurality of questions. Historians of science remain (on the whole) captivated by the social conditions of science, while philosophers are (on the whole) enraptured by highly abstract formal problems. It is up to HPS to ask the whole range of pertinent questions about the scientific process: to produce an adequate understanding of how science actually works, from the epistemology of experiments to the social organization of inquiry. To me, this is what HPS is all about. I left Vienna at peace with my discipline.2

If you are interested, the talk was based on a paper by Dunja Šešelja and Christian Straßer which is now published in Acta Biotheoretica. Note: The paper’s focus differs from the talk; it is mostly about whether the bacterial hypothesis of ulcer causation was “worthy of pursuit” from the 1950s to the 1980s, with much less focus on broader questions discussed above.

  1. I think LaTeX is great for writing essays, papers and books — I even force my students to learn the system as a kind of tough love measure. But I don’t think it’s a good tool for presentations: it’s not sufficiently visual to produce interesting results, and it encourages a number of bad presentation habits.
  2. Of course, I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm – and Popper (not yet Sir Karl) telling you how science is really done.

Grand Theories

David Hull:

Although grand theories about the nature of science are currently out of fashion, I think we need to rehabilitate them. We need to construct theories about science the way that scientists construct theories about fluids, gene flow and continental drift. To construct such theories, we need data, and our only source of data is the study of science, past and present.


(Original at JSTOR.)

95 theses on the church door

I’ve uploaded a version of my new talk “Towards a methodology for integrated history and philosophy of science” (with Tim Räz). If it seems rather programmatic, then that’s because it is intended that way.

The talk begins with a version of my “fundamental argument” for an integrated history and philosophy of science. It then proceeds to a discussion of how the methodological problems of the HPS project can be approached in practice.

Hasok Chang: Scientific Pluralism and the Mission of History and Philosophy of Science

Hasok Chang’s Cambridge inaugural lecture is a fascinating and accessible presentation of his views on the mission of history and philosophy of science. He argues that one function of HPS is to provide a pluralistic perspective from which we can study the history of science not only in order to understand it, but also in order to recover forgotten experimental facts and theoretical approaches. The idea is that this “complementary science” will ultimately enrich current science and contribute to its public understanding.

I can’t claim that I have entirely made up my mind about Chang’s ideas. It seems to me that there are a number of different components to the package, and these can be discussed independently.

For example, I am quite ambivalent about Chang’s non-relativist pluralism about scientific knowledge – although I am not sure that I fully understand what it entails. Meanwhile, I largely agree with his conception of the relationship between history and philosophy of science: philosophy is a rich source of questions about the history of science, and historical scholarship allows us to refine our philosophy in a way that is often superior to purely philosophical omphaloskepsis. Chang likes to say that “historical fact is stranger than philosophical fiction”, which I think is spot-on.1 Finally, it is yet another separate question whether “complementary science” can be a productive mode of inquiry. My hunch is that science is too efficient to leave many fruitful avenues unexplored. But a hunch is all it is, and I would not bet much on it. It certainly gives me pause that Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus, which I have long found fascinating, can easily be construed as a sustained exercise in complementary science!

In any case, I highly recommend the talk, which is well worth the hour.

  1. Chang discusses his view of the relationship between the history and the philosophy of science at some length in his contribution to a recent volume of the Boston Studies (S. Mauskopf and T. Schmaltz (eds.), Integrating History and Philosophy of Science). Among other things, he says that we should stop thinking about integrating history and philosophy of science either “top down” or “bottom up”. Instead, we should think about it in terms of how an episode (say, of The Simpsons) relates to the concept of the whole series – perfect!

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.

Workshop: The philosophy of historical case studies

I am co-organizing a workshop on the integration of history and philosophy of science next November. The workshop’s website is now online. Check it out: We already have a nice lineup of speakers, with more to come.

We try to do something unique with the workshop by focusing on a type of underdetermination problem: What happens when different philosophical positions lead to competing accounts of the same historical episode? On the workshop’s website, we give several examples of this problem, which we think is quite virulent.

With this particular approach we hope to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, the topic is broad enough to allow our speakers to engage with any HPS-related issue that they find interesting and worth discussing. But on the other hand our problem is focused enough to avoid, hopefully, a certain kind of abstract lament, where we all agree that of course we want our philosophy to be grounded in history (but it would be wrong to generalize from individual cases!) and that of course our history should be mindful of philosophical concepts (but you must not read the philosophy into the history!).

Espresso for &HPS

I am organizing a workshop on the integration of history and philosophy of science next November. In this context I’m thinking a lot about the wider goals and big ideas of HPS. So it’s refreshing to think that sometimes it all comes down to small gestures:

The department flourished under his skilled and shrewd leadership, bringing together the sometimes competing intellectual frameworks of the history and philosophy of science, fuelled by the espresso coffee machine he was proud of having installed.

(From an obituary of Peter Lipton in the Guardian.)

My Semmelweis paper has appeared in SHPS

My paper on Semmelweis’s discovery of the cause of childbed fever has appeared in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

Semmelweis’s discovery has been used by philosophers of science for many decades as a a case study of scientific method. For example, Carl Hempel used Semmelweis as a “simple illustration” of the hypothetico-deductive method in his Philosophy of Natural Science (1966, p. 3). Peter Lipton used it as an extended case study of Inference to the Best Explanation in his book of the same name (1991). Donald Gillies has argued that the episode needs a Kuhnian (in addition to the Hempelian) reconstruction if we are to make sense of it. And this philosophical work on Semmelweis is merely in addition to the work  of medical historians, who have long been interested in Semmelweis as a pioneer in the modern study of infectious diseases.

So what more is there to say about Semmelweis’s work? I show in the paper that the philosophical debate has neglected much material that is relevant to Semmelweis’s methods – and if we take this material into consideration, then a reconstruction of his methodology in terms of causal inference and mechanisms suggests itself very strongly.

The argument is partly historical. I show that the passages of Semmelweis’s Etiology of Childbed Fever (published in 1861) which relate to causal inference and mechanisms were omitted from the most widely available English-language edition of the book (K. Codell Carter’s otherwise excellent translation from 1983). This concerns mainly Semmelweis’s numerical tables and the description of his animal experiments.

However, the argument has a philosophical component. In the past decade, causal philosophies of science (for example of the mechanistic or interventionist type) have become prominent. One of the promises of these approaches is an accurate description of much work in biology and the biomedical sciences – but it is up to careful historical scholarship to find out how widely and how straightforwardly these new approaches can be used to make sense of actual science. In this context I find it very promising that one of the classical case studies of confirmation follows, on close inspection, such a clear causal and mechanistic logic.

On a meta-level, my paper raises a question which I think should receive more attention from the HPS community: On what grounds do we prefer one philosophical account of the case to another? After all, it would be a mere finger exercise for a philosopher to take my new historical material and incorporate it into an account of Semmelweis’s work in terms of hypothetico-deductivism, inference to the best explanation or what have you. So while it is clear that philosophers have not taken sufficient account of the historical material, historical scholarship on its own also cannot take us all the way to an understanding of the episode.