HPS? History and vs. History of

Last April, the Sixth Annual UK Workshop on Integrated History and Philosophy of Science was held at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. The workshop’s title was “Revisiting the Aims and Methods of Integrated HPS,” and the account of its proceedings (written up by attendees) suggests that the title was an accurate one.

While I wasn’t able to make it to Free School Lane for the big show, I was happy to be able to peruse the e-version. Because I wasn’t there, I can’t say whether the summaries offered on the web are accurate to the actual conversations; still, the blend of nostalgia and optimism that rings through them can’t be far off.

 Hasok Chang’s opening remarks set the tone. Nostalgia for “an earlier heyday of integrated HPS” is central: “These were the days of N. R. Hanson, Imre Lakatos, Gerd Buchdahl and Mary Hesse, the now-forgotten Herbert Dingle, and the up-and-coming Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Larry Laudan.” This was the rise of the rise-and-fall; all was hope.

It wasn’t long for this world, though. By the standard account, what was a happy marriage at midcentury (philosophy framed history; history substantiated philosophy) collapsed under the combined weight of disciplinary fraction and SSK(-epticism): “people began to talk of a marriage of convenience, a looming divorce, or being just friends.”

Whatever you think of the rise-and-fall narrative – and personally, I think the notion of a “rise” and attendant wedding metaphors are particularly misleading – it’s a popular one, though not the focus of the workshop. Rather (and this should be obvious), Chang opened the event with a hint that “the tide seems to be turning again.”

With historians demanding bigger pictures and philosophers getting past “logic-chopping,” a new age of integrated HPS, offering civilization a “critical self-understanding” otherwise unavailable, is said to be in the works. To that end, the workshop was about justification and goal-setting. Its four sessions, *briefly* summarized on the web, constituted a meta-level discussion of means.

The whole write-up isn’t that long, and is probably worth reading in full. I’ll just spell out one reaction I had while reading it:

The opening session (after Chang’s introduction), called “Why Integrated HPS?”, was justificatory in nature. It purported to lay out exemplary problems for which iHPS (their acronym, not mine) was the best methodological approach. An appropriate starting-point, though it’s unclear to me how far it succeeded.

Let’s take the first case (the invention of the category of “classical physics”): it seems like a classic example of a “philosophical” question (“Are revolutions invisible?”) and an “historical” answer (“Not in the case of physics around 1900!”).

Part of me wonders whether this question-answer format would be satisfying to either philosophers or historians; another part, admittedly, recognizes that maybe the desire to “satisfy” either constituency is precisely what iHPS is trying to get beyond.

Reading this and the other two examples in the first session – one, more philosophical, on “the epistemic condition of reference”; the other, more historical, on Charles Bell – I was reminded, in part, of Morton White’s Social Thought in America, first published in 1949.

A philosopher by training who split his active career between Harvard and the IAS in Princeton, White wrote STA as a “history and criticism of liberal social philosophy.” In subsequent editions, he qualified and then defended his critical (later “analytical”) approach, and the series of new prefaces are worth a glance for those interested in the issues facing iHPS.

One such issue, and the one with which I’ll close, is the boundary between what we might call two meanings of HPS: “History AND Philosophy OF Science” (HaPS) vs. “History OF Philosophy AND Science” (HoPS). While April’s workshop focused decidedly on the former, there were (and often are) whispers of the latter, and the two bleed together in exciting if confusing ways.

This divide – raised under a different name in the workshop’s second session on “How Is It Actually Done?” – is an important one, since HaPS implies a methodological rapprochement while HoPS highlights the historical propinquity of philosophical and scientific questions.

Obviously, splitting up the two HPSs as “method” and “content” is too simple, but keeping the distinction in mind might bring some clarity to what’s at stake in discussions of iHPS. In particular, the two seem to justify iHPS in different ways. Ideally, HaPS (“method”) might get us back to the midcentury “heyday” of big questions; HoPS might help us (continue to) break down the boundary between intellectual history and the history of science.

We’ve discussed this question of ends a number of times on this blog, but these seem like two different projects (among many), and each has a number of facets.

Audience is a crucial one: creating a distinct HPS readership is different from enticing philosophers AND historians to read things, which is different in turn from breaking into the larger general readership for history books.

Pedagogy is another: teaching comprised a whole session (“How Do We Teach It?”) at the workshop, and the related issue of the job market was evidently in the air as well. Whether to nurture or suppress the urge to “specialize” in history or philosophy as a method is a live issue for HaPS. HoPS, on the other hand, seems more oriented toward breaking down barriers of content.

Finally, there seem to be two different sets of boundaries under attack by iHPS. On the one hand, Chang seems to be urging a methodological marriage around a shared conceptual content (“science”). On the other, efforts to dissolve the boundary between figures and ideas in the past (scientific, philosophical, and more) might be read as cutting against this solid foundation.

HaPS and HoPS aren’t necessarily at odds (indeed, much of the best work with which I’m familiar today does both), but it does seem there are enough tensions to merit further scrutiny. Whether these tensions prove productive or not will require a shift in the iHPS conversation – Athens, anyone?


5 thoughts on “HPS? History and vs. History of

  1. Dan

    HoPS sounds like it prioritizes historical thinking. I don't mind that, certainly. But I wouldn't think that philosophers would be happy with it. Although I suppose that philosophers are already well accustomed to HOP. In contrast, I understand that economists in research universities have generally kicked out the historians of economic thought (although not the economic historians).


  2. Hank

    HOP is a sub-field within philosophy, but it's unclear to me how well its practitioners get along with philosophy proper. From what I can tell (I sat in on a one-day HOP grad conference recently; here's the program), it's a mixed relationship, maintained by the fervent efforts of practitioners of HOP to demonstrate technical command of philosophical material. Nothing wrong with that, by any means.

    Basically, the relationship between HOP and P seems like the relationship between HOS and S that we've discussed here before. Which is to say, philosophers can be happy with HOP not as P, but in the way that scientists might lap up HOS written in a certain mode. And it's what it takes to write in that mode (how HOS or HOP changes when satisfying “current practitioners” of S or P is a goal) that interests me.


  3. Lukas

    As HANK probably knows, this is a question in which I'm pretty interested. So I'm glad to see you start a discussion about the topic here!

    The main thing I would like to throw in is a question about the role of normativity in our various forms of historical practice. My own (possibly naive) sense is that philosophers are extremely interested in the history of philosophy and they consider it a proper subset of what they do, so long as it is done philosophically. That is to say, so long as the work has a normative dimension. By this I do not mean to say that what historians of philosophy in philosophy dpt.'s do is to go around judging the epistemic worth of old arguments. Usually, their focus is interpretive, in that they try to recover the “right” way to read / understand a particular argument by, say, Hume, and how it fits in with his other views (or perhaps those of his contemporaries). I take it this is quite distinct from what historians who look at the history of philosophy do, in that philosophers are rarely interested in making very broad connections between philosophical arguments and other aspects of a culture (intellectual or otherwise).

    It seems to me that this has something to do with why historians and philosophers of science rarely have much to say to one another. My sense is not that philosophers are offended by historians because they see the latter as overly skeptical. Rather, it's more often that they see our work as boring, because we don't tend to make arguments with a normative bite.

    This is one reason, I suspect, that some people (including those in Cambridge UK it seems) think that the recent trend to naturalized philosophy of science together with our focus on scientific practice might offer a way for the two disciplines to begin talking to one another. That's certainly been my hope!



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