What (Good) is Historical Epistemology?

What (Good) Is Historical Epistemology?

Reflections on a Conference at the MPIWG, July 2008

By Thomas Sturm

Philosophical epistemology aims to clarify what knowledge is, whether we possess any of it, and how we can justify our knowledge claims, including scientific ones. While epistemology is a strong branch of current philosophy, its universalistic pretensions have often been criticized. In particular, it has been suggested that knowledge is situated in contexts (biological, social, historical, material) and that epistemology cannot afford to ignore these contexts. One such challenge, which has recently attracted many historians of science, has been named “historical epistemology”. Yet there are several different versions of this approach. The conference aimed to clarify and evaluate these in talks and discussions with internationally leading historians of epistemology and philosophers and historians of science. The conference attracted over 120 guests from Europe, America, and Asia, who work in disciplines as diverse as philosophy, history of science, physics, geology, economics, sociology, psychology, art history, and philology.

The guiding task was to clarify what versions of historical epistemology exist and the pros and cons each of them presents. What kind of historical enterprise is historical epistemology? What are its basic assumptions, and what are their rationales? Moreover, in what sense is such a focus on epistemic categories and practices itself a form of epistemology (or philosophy of science)? As papers and discussions were based on studies about specific topics that exemplify or test one or another version of historical epistemology, the conference covered a wide variety of issues. These included the historicity of epistemological categories and standards (such as the replication of experiments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the relation between perception and judgment, or different models of explanation and causal inference); the historicity of epistemic objects, that is, the “birth, life, and death” of real or apparent objects of research (like phlogiston, the electron, memory, or the economy); and models of scientific development, which were either guided by a neo-Kantian framework or tried to deal with alleged cases of incommensurability by means of theories of concepts from recent cognitive science.

The way the program was organized reflected three versions of historical epistemology, as they are practiced by researchers at the MPIWG. Each has its own points of contact to philosophical epistemology and the philosophy of science: (1) According to Lorraine Daston, historical epistemology raises “the Kantian question about the preconditions that make thinking this or that idea possible” (1994, 284), but views these preconditions as thoroughly historical. Thus, not only our knowledge and evidence changes or grows throughout history, but our understanding of what can count as knowledge can be historicized as well. (2) Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s version, again, focuses strongly upon the material – especially experimental and technological – conditions under which scientific knowledge develops, and claims that this goes along with a shift away from studying the cognitive subject’s conceptual grasp of objects towards a “reflection on the relation between object and concept, which starts from the object to be known” (2007, 11f. transl. TS). This touches strongly on the realism/anti-realism debate in the philosophy of science. (3) Jürgen Renn views historical epistemology as an historically founded theory of long-term developments of scientific knowledge. This addresses the philosophical issue of scientific progress, but pursues it in the form of a naturalistic epistemology centered on an empirical explanation – based on models of cognitive science – of how scientists come to know certain things.

These versions of historical epistemology are not strictly competitive, but complementary. They can also overlap. For instance, as became apparent in the debates over epistemic things, their “lives” are often connected with issues of long-term scientific developments. That certain objects become interesting for researchers at some points, and forgotten or completely ignored at others, for reasons that may not look entirely rational, raises the question as to whether scientific developments actually do entail – to use Kuhn’s term – “revolutionary” shifts. Likewise, the question as to whether certain steps in long-term scientific developments are legitimate cannot be answered independently of what one believes, or what the relevant actors believed, to be rational procedures.

This has an important consequence. Historical epistemology is destined to involve second-order considerations: One cannot simply reconstruct the development of scientific knowledge as such. There must also be a parallel program of reconstructing what the agents thought were permissible or recommendable steps, or how they understood such concepts as knowledge, evidence, observation, probability, objectivity, and proof. This understanding of historical epistemology converges also with Michael Friedman's neo-Kantian approach: He argued that in order to solve Kuhnian problems of revolutionary gaps in scientific developments, during, say, the Einsteinian revolution, one should study not merely the history of the relevant research, but also the philosophical frameworks that guided certain important steps in that revolution.

Several philosophers at the conference, however, tried to establish a different connection to the history of science. They were all inclined towards naturalism, the view that epistemology should use the empirical sciences to understand how knowledge grows and can be improved (and should give up attempting to look for a priori presuppositions of knowledge). Peter Barker, Michael Heidelberger, Philip Kitcher, and Sandra Mitchell defended this approach. Kitcher even introduced a new version of historical epistemology, claiming that philosophers abandon a static view of knowledge and its justification, adopting instead a dynamic picture of science, looking to history for reliable methods of revising beliefs. That does not necessarily imply a subordination of historical epistemology to naturalized epistemology. As Mitchell noted, the kind of naturalistic epistemologist who accepts that science changes historically must accept that his or her own naturalistic conceptions of science also can, or even should, continue to change as well: “If epistemology has a history, it also has a future.” That, however, invites a further question: Can this approach explain scientific change without using neokantian assumptions or without losing all substantive naturalistic ingredients?

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