Historical epistemology and the ‘marriage’ between History and Philosophy of Science


The coming together of history of science and philosophy of science is a far larger and more complex phenomenon than that which, almost exclusively referencing the Anglophone world and the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, goes by the name of the "historical turn in philosophy of science’.1 The term ‘historical epistemology' instead has come to refer to a wider array of programmes for the combination of history and philosophy of science, ranging from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day.2 But the heterogeneity of such programmes as well as the relatively recent proliferation of empirical studies grouped under the umbrella of historical epistemology have given rise to a complex and fragmented panorama constituted by what has been seen as a lack of coherence.3 Indeed, philosophers and historians with very different backgrounds and interests have appealed to ‘historical epistemology’, especially from the 1990s onwards, and their work has been flanked by questions about the nature, objects and methods implied by historical epistemology.4 What is remarkable is that the field of historical epistemology, despite its current proliferation, seems permanently haunted by questions relative to its nature, limits and ultimate tasks. Yves Gingras has critically remarked that the current heated discussion about the meaning and use of the expression ‘historical epistemology’ is a will-o’-the-wisp, a transitory ‘brand into the market of ideas’.5 In his view, ‘historical epistemology’ is the wrong name for an old programme: the sociology of knowledge, a longstanding historicist programme increasingly taken up since the 1970s by social studies of science proposing what Gingras calls a ‘sociological theory of scientific knowledge'.6

1 believe, in contrast to Gingras, that the discussion of historical epistemology in fact revolves around enduring difficulties in conceptualising the correct or most fruitful interaction between history and philosophy of science. In the next section of this chapter, I trace the recent questioning of historical epistemology back to the enduring and prevalently Anglophone debate over the ‘marriage’ between history and philosophy of science. 1 argue in the third section that this renewed interest can in turn be fruitfully situated in a French philosophical context. My main point is that French historical epistemology

(epistemologie historique) provides an example of a fully integrated approach between history and philosophy of science - one which, if carefully studied, could bring light to current Anglophone debates. In the fourth and last section of this chapter, 1 illustrate the distance of epistemologie historique from the contextualism and historicism. which, according to Gingras, characterise social studies of knowledge.

The ‘marriage’ debate: how can History of Science and Philosophy of Science be combined?

The so-called debate over the ‘marriage’ between history and philosophy of science arose in the 1960s, picked up momentum at the beginning of the 1990s, and, thanks to renewed interest, has continued on into the twenty-first century.7 The general problem of whether and how philosophy of science and history of science might be combined contains different sub-problems, ranging from the causes of scientific change and the best way to assess its rationality to the theory-ladenness of historical data and the very nature of philosophical analysis itself. In this section, I limit myself to what I take to be the main difficulty at the core of this debate. In a 2011 article, Jutta Schickore argues that the fatal flaw condemning philosophy and history to be endlessly mismatched is the ‘confrontation model’, in which the two disciplines are not meshed to form a new approach but assembled as pre-given building blocks.8 In my view, Schickore’s assessment illuminates the two main tendencies within this debate: one assigning philosophy a guiding, normative role over history, the other giving predominance to history and fostering a more descriptive, empirical union between the two domains. The combination of history and philosophy of science has mainly taken place in a twofold manner, which, for the sake of brevity I will name respectively the a priori-normative and the empirical approaches.9

In the first case, a normative role is assigned to philosophy, which is understood as an abstract reflection upon the criteria of inference-drawing, theory formation or of rational theory change. Philosophy of science in this sense does not search for an understanding of what science is (even less for what science has been in the past) but for an explanation of what science ought to be in principle.10 Hence, philosophy is a priori normative and therefore aims to develop its own ‘theory of theories’ regardless of actual scientific theories. This position is held by Norwood Russell Hanson (1962) and Roland Giere (1973) among others. Finding no strong conceptual rationale for history and philosophy of science, Hanson concludes that history of science is ‘irrelevant’ to philosophy, whereas Giere believes the relationship between the two disciplines to be a mere 'marriage of convenience’, rather than an 'intimate relationship’.11 Nevertheless, a philosopher can ‘take a look’ outside of philosophy for instructive examples of inferences actually drawn by scientists in order to adjust his or her generalisations.12 According to this view, therefore, it is not a history of science that is needed by philosophers, but a closer look at the actual practices of contemporary science. Accordingly, Giere believes it was not history that made Norwood R. Hanson’s, Thomas Kuhn's or Stephen Toulmin’s criticisms of, and alternative proposals to, logical empiricism effective, but rather their appeals to real science. The fact that they referred to the science of ‘Kepler and Darwin, rather than R. P. Feynman and J. D. Watson may have been incidental.’1' In Giere’s view, the flaw undermining logical empiricists’ attempts at rationally explaining science was self-referenti- ality. This is why he concludes that a philosophy of science that referred to actual scientific practice would be at best ‘convenient’, because it would be less self-referential.

In the second approach to history of science, history is taken as the laboratory where philosophical claims can be tested. Kuhn has for example suggested that the aim of the history of science is to provide examples and evidence for philosophers' generalizations.14 More particularly, Kuhn hints at a conception of philosophy of science aimed at providing a theory of science, one which must be subjected ‘to the same scrutiny regularly applied to theories in other fields’ and whose method of data collection is borrowed from the sciences themselves.15 As a consequence, Kuhn could not propose any fully integrative approach between history and philosophy of science; on the contrary, he urged ‘history and philosophy of science [to] continue as separate disciplines. What is needed is less likely to be produced by marriage than by active discourse’.16 Such dialogue between the two disciplines, he argued, should be inter-disciplinary rather than intra-disciplinary. The differences between the history and the philosophy of science. Kuhn maintained, should not be subverted, since no one can practise history and philosophy of science at the same time, but only alternately.17

A much more prominent advocate of this methodological naturalisation is Larry Laudan, who advanced the idea that the philosopher of science should use historical cases as data to produce an empirical theory of theory choice.18 Through a collective effort carried out at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Laudan promoted a philosophy of science founded upon the scientific practice of constructing and testing empirical theories. In 2011, well into the debate about the nature and meaning of historical epistemology as a new programme for integrating history and philosophy of science, we find a similar proposal by Philip Kitcher. In line with his advocacy for methodological naturalism, Kitcher deployed the metaphor of the laboratory of the history of science to emphasise the need for philosophy to avoid becoming mere armchair reflection.19

Over the years it is the empirical stance that has seemed to prevail, leading to a naturalisation not only of methods but also of its very object of inquiry. Giere, for instance, has recently revised his position by abandoning normativity and adopting a fully naturalised approach. He has come to conceive of philosophy as an empirical and fully naturalised enterprise, advancing theories about science that are liable to be true or false depending on whether they are in accordance or discordance with historical records.20 In particular, Giere claims philosophy should be naturalised: reduced on the one hand to the cognitive sciences and to the sociology of science on the other hand.21 It should be remarked, however, that in both the a priori normative and the empirical, descriptive approaches the aim of philosophy is to produce a ‘theory of science’, a ‘theory of scientific theories’ or a ‘theory of conceptual change'.

One cannot fail to notice that the contemporary use of the term ‘historical epistemology’ has been accompanied by the same kind of questions that characterised the ‘marriage’ debate. Lorenz Kruger, the principle inspiration for the creation of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, was deeply involved in the marriage debate, at least from the end of the 1970s on. In his methodological writings, he fostered a hermeneutic-historicist approach whose main tenet was the idea that the relationship between history and philosophy of science was a ‘marriage for the sake of reason'.22 This continuity between problems and the terms deployed to articulate them is what makes it possible for Gingras to claim that ‘recent discussions of the term “historical epistemology’” provide us with ‘an interesting example of branding in the field of (Anglo-Saxon) history and philosophy of science’.22 Feest and Sturm, puzzled by the term ‘historical epistemology’, moreover have raised the following questions: ‘is history necessary for epistemology? Is it useful? If so, in what ways and with what consequences? ... How should the relation between philosophy of science and history of science be understood? Is it an intimate relationship, or a marriage of either convenience or reason?’.24 The persistence of the terms of the ‘marriage’ debate in the discussion of historical epistemology means that, despite the ‘historical drive’ of the 1960s, there is still need for integration between history and philosophy of science.

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