Thoughts After HOPOS II

Eric Schliesser has kindly replied to my last post. I’m happy that I helped him to clarify his position. It is now obvious that I misrepresented it. Nothing he said implied that, as I alleged, there are historical reasons to suppose that the philosophy of science (as he conceives of it) possess some inherent tendency to animosity towards philosophy (as I conceive of it). More generally, I was mistaken to see conflict between my approach to philosophy and the approach that he associates with HOPOS. There is merely difference.

I think what I meant could be better put in this way. For me, philosophy is primarily about clarifying concepts. Here I defined philosophy as consisting of ‘timely reminders of facts so obvious that specialists have forgotten them’. But for contingent reasons it usually comes to the same thing. The most common way for an excess of specialism to obscure deep, obvious truths is by twisting the concepts used in their expression into jargonized muddles of equivocation. Whatever the processes are by which the special sciences construct technical terms and specialized concepts, it is, I think, the business of philosophy to reverse engineer them: to loosen the conceptual swaddling and unpeel the bare truth.

I did not, however, get the impression that this was the general project of most HOPOS participants. Rather than cutting through the jargon terms and purpose-built concepts employed within the special sciences, many participants were content to leave them in place and even to add some of their own. This may sound like a criticism, but it isn’t. All it shows is that where I aim to clarify and, where possible, to simplify, others aim at something else. I think that for the most part the other papers I saw aimed at working out precisely what scientific figures have said and why they have said it. This is a worthy and difficult enterprise, without which mine would obviously not be possible. I’d characterize it, however, as history rather than philosophy, and since H is the first letter in HOPOS the name seems to fit. Although I don’t see myself as a historian obviously I can’t entirely avoid doing this sort of work myself sometimes. I probably do it very badly. But my excuse for any deficiencies in historical scholarship is that whenever I do it I’m trying to do what I call philosophy at the same time.

I was content with seeing things in this way until I read Schliesser’s statement that HOPOS is not a sub-discipline of history, or not merely such, but rather a way of doing philosophy – specifically philosophy of science. HOPOS-type work doesn’t accord with my conception of philosophy, so I wondered what kind of philosophy Schliesser meant. He defines philosophy of science as ‘a distinct, second order reflection on scientific practice and images of science’. This kind of reflection, as his paper on Newton’s Challenge gracefully explains, involves the presentation of various and often opposing views on the authority that (what we call) empirical science possesses to settle philosophical disputes, on what the correct methods in empirical science are and why they are correct, and so on.

This all sounds at least more like a philosophical enterprise than a historical one. Schliesser argues, however, that the HO in HOPOS arises in response to its being ‘natural, albeit not necessary, [for philosophers of science] to become reflexive … and understand [their] own activity historically’. So HOPOS appears to be a particularly reflexive and historically informed approach to philosophy of science as Schliesser describes it.

Will I allow that philosophy of science, defined in his way – ‘reflection on scientific practice and images of science’ – counts as philosophy as I see it? I think not. This definition might sound like it means roughly the same as ‘reflection on the concepts of science or scientific practice’, in which case it does perhaps sound like the kind of thing I mean by ‘philosophy’. But I wouldn’t want to commit to suggesting that everybody in the past who engaged in the sort of reflection to which Schliesser refers must have possessed distinct concepts of science and scientific practice upon which to reflect. Schliesser points out that words like ‘science’ and ‘scientist’ in our modern sense weren’t coined until the nineteenth century. It’s debatable whether terms like ‘natural philosophy’ pick out quite the same concepts, and it’s outlandish to suppose that a distinct concept could predate its mode of expression by a century (if it can predate it at all, which I doubt).

Moreover, even if the definitions were equivalent, the definiendum still wouldn’t match my characterization of philosophy unless the conceptual reflection it involved were assumed to aim primarily at clarification. I don’t think that assumption is borne out by the facts of practice. Most participants at the conference did not seem keen on clarifying concepts as such, as I said. Least of all were they keen to clarify the concept of science. On the contrary, a remarkable and admirable amount of justice was done to the messy multifariousness of that concept. The same goes, I think, for most of the key concepts under discussion: for instance Dennis des Chene’s keynote paper did not, as I saw it, clarify its key concept of ‘figura’; on the contrary it showed how various and contrasting are the uses of that concept both in early modern and in contemporary science.

I think all this is admirable, although I believe that philosophy is about clarifying concepts, because I don’t believe that philosophy is always called for. Concepts should be clarified when they are confused, but I won’t call a concept confused just because a wide variety of only loosely related things fall under it, nor just because it isn’t always clear what does fall under it. I only call a concept confused when it is used now in one sense and now in another, leading to fallacies of equivocation and other more abominable things (my – hopefully – forthcoming book on the concept of debt will – hopefully – present a parade case of this species of abomination). I don’t think HOPOS is philosophy, but then I don’t think the concepts of particular interest to HOPOS-types call for much philosophy.

Still, if I don’t think it’s philosophy, what do I think it is? If Schliesser’s definition is appropriate, the question essentially boils down to what I think ‘a distinct, second order reflection on scientific practice and images of science’ amounts to. My first answer is that these words ‘distinct’ and ‘second order’ are in some senses misplaced. To a great extent reflection on scientific practice and images of science are part of science, in the same straightforward sense that mathematics is part of (a lot of) science: viz. you can’t do science well without it. On the other hand, there is of course space for reflection above and beyond that undertaken by scientists as a matter of course. But this, I think, is just history. Reflecting on scientific practice is just reflecting on what certain people we call ‘scientists’, involved in an activity we call ‘science’, have done and are doing. That sounds like history to me, albeit sometimes very recent history. And reflecting on ‘images of science’ sounds like reflecting on what the same people, involved in the same activity, thought and think about what they were and are doing. That just sounds like intellectual history.

So really I think that most HOPOS stuff splits nicely between science and history with not much left overhanging into philosophy. Does it matter? Not much. But, while I overstated the case in my last post, there is one way in which it matters a little, at least to me. Many people regard the kind of philosophy I do as a silly waste of time. Perhaps some of them are HOPOS members. By contrast, only real cranks think that history and science, as such, are silly wastes of time. One could readily be a HOPOS supporter and a philosophy denigrater. We are certainly not natural enemies, but we aren’t necessarily natural allies. Hence, perhaps, my not sharing Schliesser’s feeling of having found a home in HOPOS.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts After HOPOS II

  1. Pingback: Thoughts After HOPOS | Origin of Specious

  2. Pingback: Libertarians Don’t Understand Monetary Operations | Origin of Specious

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