Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

By Ken Perrott 14/10/2011 4

I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

’therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.’

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.

*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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4 Responses to “Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees”

  • Doesn’t Cushing’s quote mean then that Actions are limited to only what we do, and do not at all encompass subconscious motivations, and direct or indirect consequences/side-effects. Ie our actions are only limited to explicitly what we intended to do and consciously did. Pretty limiting definition and ethically untenable even in today’s legalese-fixated society. The action or event of science is always bigger than the singular scientist!

  • Jenny – don’t see how you get that. It’s purely pointing out that often other make up their own (sometimes ideologically driven) stories about wehat scientists “really do.”

    After all philosophers (and historians) too have “subconscious motivations”

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