How can philosophy be done like a science? Again, obviously, I am going to rely on my own experience and I want to tell you about a project I had some 20 or more years ago. For us philosophers of science, the big problem back then was the extent to which science can be said to be a disinterested picture of objective reality and to what extent it is a “social construction,” an epiphenomenon of the culture or society (especially the values) of the day.
Karl Popper, in a felicitous phrase, referred to science as “knowledge without a knower,” meaning not that scientists don’t do the knowing but that science is value free. The anatomy or sexual orientation or religion or race of a scientist or whatever his/her culture is irrelevant to the science. The Nazis were not so much wrong as conceptually confused when they talked of Jewish science. Following Thomas Kuhn, and infused with big dollops of Michel Foucault, many historians of science and virtually all sociologists of science argued to the contrary that science is no more objective than a poem or a sermon or a political speech. It is simply culture distilled – something that reflects the values of the day – although the ideology of science is that it is much more, and hence merits huge financial support from society.
How to throw light on this problem? I think science whatever its nature is our best way of knowing, so I wanted to be like a scientist (or as we say in the trade, I wanted to take a naturalistic approach). You might fear that there are circular problems in using science to understand science, but I am with Otto Neurath on this: philosophical problems often if not always require you to rebuild the boat while afloat – you can rarely get to a dry bank to start the argument. Less metaphorically, you do what you can and then if problems arise you tackle them in turn. In the version of W. V. O. Quine:
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
So how does one set about things? Scientists, biologists for example, don’t just look at the entire world. They take a specimen or a case study and work from there, outwards if one can. And they don’t just look at the world hoping for something to emerge. They go at the world with hypotheses, hoping to confirm or refute them.
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service! (Charles Darwin, Autobiography)
I needed a science or theory of science and I needed an aspect of culture – a social value – that might or might not impregnate that science. Naturally, given my interests I chose evolutionary theory as my science and as naturally, given that this was something much discussed by historians in the field, I chose as my value the concept of progress – the idea that things are getting better and that this is obviously a good thing.
I knew – more precisely I found that every pertinent historian of the 18th century stressed – that the beginnings of speculation about organic evolution were deeply impregnated with thoughts of progress and that often, if not always, justifying progress was why people took up the subject. Like the French philosophes, they believed in social progress, they converted this into biological terms – there is a chain of being from the primitive to the complex, from the monad to the man (as they said) – they found this in the organic world, and then they immediately read this back into the social world!
Listen to Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, in his poem The Temple of Nature:
Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.
Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia’s thunders on the flood;
The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main,
The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain,
The Eagle soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare,
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!
This vision was all bound up with the cultural idea of Progress: “This idea [that the organic world had a natural origin] is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation;… such as in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants.”
So I had my case study and I had my cultural value. What was my hypothesis? Since the stern Blogmeisteren of the Chronicle of Higher Education warn us that, if we write too much, we over-fatigue our readers, I shall take up this question tomorrow. Stay tuned.Return to Top