In recent blogging, Mohan Matthen has been challenging folk committed to History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) to articulate a way in which general philosophy of science (GPOS) can be properly philosophical within HPS (see also here and elsewhere). To simplify: he points out that i) much GPOS has been drifting into philosophy of some particular science (PoX) or, ii) in so far as it is interested in epistemic issues, it should become a sub-species of epistemology. I challenged ii here, and found the subsequent exchange with Mohan and David Wallace very illuminating. But I was left admitting that my position lacked resources to prevent the slide into PoX with a focus on internalist conceptual analysis. As a response, I have been developing concepts that allow me to re-conceive philosophy, and its history as well as its complex relationship with the sciences.
Luckily, one of the most exciting young philosophers of physics, Katherine Brading, rides in to the rescue! Below I quote from the concluding, stirring paragraph of a paper she presented at a recent conference on Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science. She offers a program for HPS in which the history of science X can be viewed as a contribution to ongoing philosophy. I have come close to this position when I insist that my approach to the philosophy of economics is a recovery of the shared history of economics and philosophy (recall this blog; or this one) in order to do philosophy, but without Brading's boldness. Brading's position needs to be developed (she needs to stop relying on the deep/superficial distinction), of course, but it offers the start of a viable alternative to Mohan's position. I quote Brading's concluding paragraph, which presents her approach *by way of contrast with a passage by Tim Maudlin (in which he describes the view she is attacking; it is unclear if Maudlin endorses the view) that she quotes*, in full without further comment:
"The official part of my paper ends there, but given the title and stated goals of this conference, I cannot resist a comment on the manner in which philosophers should engage with physics. Very often, philosophers of physics work on “interpretations” of theories in physics, and work their way back from these towards philosophical questions. Here is an example of a philosopher of physics [Maudlin--ES] describing this work:11
"Physics provides theories which typically consist of a mathematical formalism and some procedures for applying that formalism to particular concrete situations. But both the formalism and the procedures may admit of alternative ontological interpretations. It may not be clear, for example, which part of the mathematics corresponds to real physical magnitudes and which is an artefact of arbitrary choices of units of gauges. It may not be clear which mathematical models represent real physical possibilities, and which do not. And it may not be clear which pairs of mathematical models represent the same physical situation. All of these problems confront even the philosopher who tries to take, for example, the Theory of Relativity ‘at face value’." [The accompanying footnote reads: "11Maudlin, in Loux and Zimmerman (eds.), 2003, pp. 461-2. I quote Maudlin here not as an example of a philosopher of physics who endorses this approach, but because of the clear description he gives of the approach, and the fact that his description appears in a metaphysics handbook."--ES]
This is one possible approach, of course, and there is important conceptual work to be done here, but I do not think it is the most profound philosophically. An alternative is to begin with the deepest of our philosophical questions, and to use the development of physics read as a contribution to philosophy to explore how these questions are transformed, re-worked, addressed, and sometimes rendered non-questions. One does not “help oneself” to a philosophically shallow formalism, and then attempt to do
philosophy: one sees physics as a part of the history of philosophy, and engages it on those terms. That is what I have tried to do here."
So much for Brading. Comments open. Mohan?