Ten Problems in History and Philosophy of Science

By Matthew Paskins, on 3 December 2010

The second meeting of the History of Science reading group discussed Peter Galison’s paper “ten problems in history and philosophy of science.” It was a larger group, of philosophers historians and sociologists: whatever the merits of Galison’s specific proposals, his name and his example certainly bring different disciplinary approaches together.

The ten problems described in the paper are as follows:

Problem 1 – what is context – how does a contextual explanation work?

Problem 2 – purity and fundamentality – what counts, at different times, as a ‘pure’ science?

Problem 3 – historical argumentation – when the foucs is on scientific practices, what are the concepts tools and procedures needed at a given time to construct an acceptable scientific argument?

Problems 4 & 5 Fabricated Fundamentals –

  1. Making things: it is increasingly hard to separate the made from the found

  2. What should we make?

In Galison’s view this seems to be a new change brought about by nanotechnology and genetic-modification. We wondered about what the role of historical analysis would be for understanding fabricated funamentals: would we want to relate genetic modification to earlier examples of animal and plant breeding, or nanotechnology to synthetic chemistry or other techniques of making new natural things? What is the role of the ‘break’, the terrible beauty which is born with new techniques of modification? And what does this have to do with the ethical turn of problem five? Do history and philosophy of science have meaningful things to say about the ethics of artificiality in this sense? Some of us felt it would be hard to base ethical arguments about fabricated fundamentals on an historical basis.

Problem 6 Political Technologies – privacy/ surveillance // what is politics of these new technologies

Problem 7 Locality: what do microhistories towards, or add up to?

We recognised this as ‘bar-talk’ for historians and philosophers of science – that very local studies have proliferated and it is sometimes hard to see how to fit them into broader arguments and patterns. Some of us felt this was less of a problem for historians, who are perhaps more willing to contextualise – than micro-philosophers.

Problem 8 – globality – what aspects of scientific practice simply do not reduce to the local

We wondered what aspects were not captured by local studies: perhaps legal and regulatory aspects, as a broader field of action? And the way in which the claims made about different historical periods fit together, or fail to.

Problem 9 Relentless Historicism – is it possible to write a history and philosophy of science in which the story told truly I historical?

Problem 10: Scientific Doubt.