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Perspectives on Science 10.4 (2002) 398-407

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Comments on the Precarious Relationship between History and Philosophy of Science

Richard M. Burian
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The four papers in this issue illustrate both the extent of mutual entanglement between history of science and philosophy of science and the difficulty of achieving consensus on how the interchange between history of science and philosophy of science should work. They reveal some of the tensions between the aims and interests typical of historians and philosophers, tensions that often make exchanges like these unproductive. To overcome this problem, it is important to set the contexts and perhaps even the ground rules of collaboration so that the legitimate tensions involved are put to creative use. In order to make better sense of this suggestion, I address what was accomplished, and what was not, by the papers in this issue.

To begin, consider the differences in the aims of philosophy and history. A few stereotypical generalities are useful here, though the stereotypes need to be treated skeptically. Philosophical investigation tends to focus on abstract questions, formulated sharply in terms of larger philosophical issues and views. When philosophers turn to particular historical materials or case studies, they often begin with pre-established concepts and sometimes with expected conclusions in mind. The concepts employed often contain presuppositions about the nature of theory, evidence, and explanation, about the relation of experiment to theory, the objectivity and intellectual autonomy of scientific work, and the like. For this reason, philosophers working with historical materials risk overriding or misunderstanding the categories of the scientists whose work they study, especially when that work is historically or conceptually distant.

To avoid the resultant traps, it is crucial to enforce close attention to the context of the work under investigation, to the categories, concepts, and aims of the historical protagonists, and to key features of the contexts [End Page 398] that set their problems. Otherwise, considerations that the protagonists took to be decisive in resolving a dispute will be misclassified and misunderstood. Ignoring context is the path to anachronism, to the pseudo- history found in textbooks, and to the relegation of supposedly "real" history to Lakatosian footnotes—which, in spite of their pretense to capture history "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist," still are often guilty of anachronism and misunderstanding. So, among the many reasons philosophers need help from historians, they need protection from being misled by bad—and seriously misleading—history.

Historians, in turn, sometimes focus so strongly on the local context of the work that they study that they miss the relevance of delicate epistemic or technical issues in the resolution of long-term debates. After all, even rather particular scientific communities, for example the eighteenth century electricians discussed by Friedrich Steinle, live and work across many of the contexts that historians study. Key debates are typically not confined to particular careers, laboratories, experimental systems, disciplines, or countries. A major research problem or program often spans more than a century and draws on multiple disciplines. On this large scale, when a scientific community rejects key arguments, switches dominant theory, reverts to long abandoned views, or abandons findings made with one instrument for those made with another (cf. Jutta Schickore's paper), the main reasons need not be economic, ideological, or practical. Nor need power relations, influential as these undoubtedly are, be decisive. To understand what is involved in settling such debates one must often turn to such trans-contextual concepts as evidential and explanatory relevance. This remains true even though, as Schickore and Ofer Gal nicely argue, the concepts of "historical meta-epistemology" themselves need to be historicized.

Nonetheless, the long-term fate of research programs is often decisively affected by reasonably stable assessments of evidential relevance,explanation, and inference to the best explanation (common origin or otherwise). To make a good case for this claim, one would need to show that, in spite of some key changes in such meta-epistemological concepts, they can and do cross local contexts successfully. Such arguments are feasible. Indeed, Michel Janssen...


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