Empirical Insights for Philosophy

In this book I seek to establish a way in which such philosophical study can be grounded in empirical insight, for example, through first-hand data gained via qualitative empirical research methods, such as observation and interviewing in a comparative case study of two research groups. The reason for collecting first-hand data is the conceptual contribution that a dialog between philosophical abstraction and empirical description can yield.

As research in the social epistemology of group collaboration has begun to show, empirical insight helps to contextualize and differentiate analytic concepts. An example of conceptual contextualization can be found in

Kent Staley’s application of the concept “group belief" to large-scale collaborations in high energy physics (Staley, 2007). Another example is the account of interdisciplinary teams that Hanne Andersen and I have proposed and that emphasizes the diversity of constellations in which scientists can interact (Andersen & Wagenknecht, 2013). Contextualization and differentiation will often limit the abstract scope of philosophical concepts. But while abstraction is certainly one of the strengths that philosophical concepts possess, concepts cannot unfold their reflective force if they elude actual practice.

The philosophical concern for science as it is actually practiced, or, more broadly, knowledge as it actually can be acquired by human beings, is not new and reaches back at least to William v. O. Quine. His essay on “naturalized epistemology" (1969) has inspired many philosophers of science to “naturalize" their way of studying science as an object of philosophical interest.[1] Quine envisions a form of philosophical inquiry that is continuous with natural science, ascribing philosophical claims with the status of empirical hypotheses and treating them as revisable in the light of empirically gained insight. In a strict interpretation, Quine’s program of a naturalized philosophy rules out the attempt to give an a priori (or at least largely non-empirical) justification for knowledge in general, and the progress of scientific knowledge creation in particular (Giere, 1988, p. 11).

Over the last decades, however, the term “naturalized" took on a broader meaning. Especially with the reception of Thomas Kuhn’s work, a much more loosely defined conception of naturalized philosophy has spread (Giere, 1985). Naturalized philosophers want to analyze science “as it really is," not as one may rationally reconstruct it (see, e.g., Callebaut, 1993, p. 72; also Bechtel, 2008; Nelson, 1990). This motivation has led a range of philosophers to draw upon knowledge from other disciplines, such as psychology and the cognitive sciences (e.g., Giere, 1988; Goldman, 1986) as well as history (e.g. Nersessian, 1984; Nickles, 1995), and it has also supported the development of an (integrated) history and philosophy of science (HPS).

This book builds upon naturalist traditions, but it also departs from the way in which a majority of philosophers of science and epistemologists formulate naturalized accounts of science and (scientific) knowledge creation. While it is common for naturalized philosophy to rely upon interpretations ofempirical data provided by research outside philosophy, that is, research in natural sciences, this book presents first-hand empirical data, gathered by qualitative, social-scientific methods. The research process that underlies this book, hence, has little to do with the methods that the natural sciences pursue. It is rather an open-ended, iterative process of interpretation—“hermeneutic" rather than “naturalized" (Schickore, 2011).

Although the crossroads between the methods of the philosophy of science and history have been explored eagerly, combinations of philosophical inquiry and social-scientific methods have been far less popular— a rift between philosophy of science and social studies of science that reaches back to the “Science Wars" (Wagenknecht, Nersessian, & Andersen, 2015). Nonetheless, philosophers of science have begun to make use of social-scientific methods. So-called “experimental philosophers" are using quantitative methods such as standardized interviews to learn about the frequency of people’s intuitions (Griffiths & Stotz, 2008; Knobe & Nichols, 2008; Machery & O’Neill, 2014). Other philosophers have pioneered qualitative empirical inquiries within philosophy of science (Calvert & Fujimura, 2011; Kastenhofer, 2013; Riesch, 2010; Toon, 2012). Leonelli (2007, 2010), for example, has studied scientific practice in the life sciences with the help of ethnographic methods. Nersessian and collaborators (2003, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2015) have made use of a mix of qualitative methods to explore laboratory collaboration and scientific modeling in fields such as bio-informatics. It is this strand of philosophical inquiry—an inquiry into scientific practice grounded in first-hand empirical data—that I seek to continue in this book.

  • [1] For a thorough epistemological analysis of Quine’s position see Haack (2009, ch. 6).
 
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