During the last two weeks in preparation for a debate with James Harris at BSHP, I posted about my efforts to think my way toward a philosophical history of philosophy (see on Schlick and Coining Concepts here, and on philosophic prophecy here). During the debate, the Chair, Knud Haakonssen, objected to my criticisms of the cult of contingency among historians by claiming that it was product of skepticism. I responded that it presupposed excessive skepticism in order to rule out alternative approaches to history *in advance* (Marxist, Nationalists, Prophetic, Functional, philosophic, etc). That is, this kind of skepticism should be earned.
I have blogged about the cult of contingency before. I quote myself:
"History and philosophy of science (HPS) is dead. On the whole historians have turned their backs on philosophy and celebrate the ideology of contingency. Meanwhile philosophers have become focused on narrow patches of science, especially physics, biology, and (I hope) economics. There are some patches in the history of science that attract healthy philosophic interest (Aristotle, Newton, Kant's reaction to Newton, and Darwin), but they are increasingly as specialized as these other narrow patches as Max Weber has predicted. While there is some general philosophy of science left, it is becoming increasingly formal with technique dominating insight. I am still hoping that philosophers of science reconnect with metaphysics in competition with the Lewis-style program dominating contemporary metaphysics. But that's for another time.
Now when I attacked the cult of contingency among historians at a recent conference, the eminent philosophical historian, Lorraine Daston (Max Planck), reacted forcefully. She thought it was high time that philosophers accept real thick history, and use it as a building block for new kind of philosophy. After we made nice, she sent me a recent paper of hers: "Toward a history of reason," in *Aurora Torealis* Beretta, Marco et al [eds.]. - Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2008, p. 165-180. The paper shares my diagnosis above of the current situation, although it adds to it that from the history of science side its new (historicist and cultural anthropological) approach has caused it to be without a wide audience. (One could say that the 'science wars' of the 80s ended because scientists have told historians of science to drop dead.)
Daston's response to this situation is to promote an agenda to chart the growth and transmutation of reason and the accompanying techniques and epistemic virtues through the ages. (One sees some of this in her book with Gallison on objectivity.) While this (Foucault-lite genealogy) is certainly a philosophic project in so far as philosophy is the science that also reflects on itself and its (historical) presuppositions (one can say that reason is partial without historical self-understanding), the philosophy to be found here is skin-deep. Its results will provide a lot of information, and, perhaps, a healthy skepticism about the nature and sources of science's self-image.
But it lacks philosophic ambition because it has fully embraced the cult of contingency. It can't even bring itself to use this historical knowledge to ask what the necessary conceptual, social, mathematical or technical pre-conditions are or may be for the way (scientific) reason develops in society. That project, first hinted at by David Hume (in his treatment of justice) and widened by Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx, was revived and transformed by the early Foucault in *The Order of Things* (original title: Les Mots et les choses), while Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, and Lakatos were having their epic debates during the 1960s. The problem with Foucault's archeology is that he never appears to have seriously engaged with the citadel of science: physics. Now a half century later there appear to be few ambitious historically informed projects left. In future postings I'll engage and discuss a few of these, but I have gone on long enough now."