Sunday, June 29, 2008

Philosophy Not Blind Without History

History is empty without philosophy, and philosophy is blind without history.

This is the conventional wisdom passed down to us from professional social scientist Imre Lakatos, though the quip has its origins with Immanuel Kant. If you pick up a book like The History of Philosophy and Social Science by Scott Gordon, you are treated with a series of historical vignettes from the annals of philosophy and social science, and then in the last chapter are told that all this needs a bit of philosophy of science to go along with it.

These conventions are sincerely biased. Philosophy does not need history to organize a philosophy of science. History in this regard only teaches us what we (or rather, the scientists) could lose if our 'philosophy of science' is not compatible with contemporary science. It only serves to foster an encouraging attitude toward the scientific project. Why should anyone seriously questioning the conventions of human knowledge (ex.g. a philosopher) care whether there is a history worth losing when discussing a proper philosophy of science?

I don't mean to suggest philosophy of science is a-historical. It should understand these histories, but not in the way that scientific discourse understand them. But philosophers so often propagate the scientific meta-narrative. They have succumbed to a crusader-style message of man's liberation from ignorance to definite knowledge, the meta-narrative of all your science textbooks and what dominates scientific discourse. Scientists themselves rarely understand these things. And philosophers, all too often trying to be like the scientist, end up explaining these histories in the same way the scientist understands them. Scientists and scientific philosophers may doubt the findings in a particular article or study, yet the overall narrative is imbibed to them, and becomes the thing that informs all their work but is hardly understood.

But these are not very profound philosophers. They are more interested in preserving a scientific integrity, an explanation for what science has already got, and wants to keep and ordain this with theoretical commentary.

So often with the maxim, quoted above, scientists and scientific philosophers couple their work with references only to those philosophers who argued for the empirically paradigmatic and dogmatic teachings of the discipline. So many explain the nihilism away with something they call "pragmatism" and this is surely nonsense. Pragmatism can never explain how anything is ever justified for our belief in it, only that it would be appropriate to accept it as true given some social, religious, economic, or other preferential bias. And science, I think it is fair to say of all sciences, was dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist even before the American pragmatist revolution got on its way.

So philosophy is not blind without the history of science. And what about science being "empty" without philosophy? Perhaps science and philosophy are simply incompatible. I say that because, though I am familiar of trends in philosophy which encourage science, the snake of philosophy is ultimately unsatisfied by the scientific epistemology, and will never be. Science will still be empty even after much philosophical treatment because it cannot mitigate the harsh poisons of the snake's bite. This eagerness of philosophers to work around the snake bite, to clean up all the wounds and treat it with oils and bandages, is only a treatment of symptoms.

1 comment:

Muser said...

Nice critique of the "crusader style." I just picked up Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, from Oxford. It's not bad.