Looking twice at the history of science

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saving the symmetry principle V: symmetry without skepticism

To save the symmetry principle it is not enough to separate that principle from its false companions, as I have tried to do so far in this series. It is also necessary to show that adherents of the principle are likely to write better histories of science than those who flout it. In the previous post I defined the Symmetry Principle as the view that we should not reason from the truth or falsity of a belief to the goodness or badness of the believer's reasons for holding the belief. The best defense of this principle is simply to observe that sometimes past scientists have been right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons. But there's a problem with this defense: it seems to lead to radical skepticism about present-day science. In this post I want to show how we can accept the Symmetry Principle without abandoning present-day science or erecting artificial barriers between scientists and historians. Expand post.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Critical thoughts on Howard Hotson's Scientiae keynote

What is intellectual history and how can we justify this sub-field to our peers and pay-masters? Those were the questions that Howard Hoston tackled in a rousing keynote address at the Scientiae conference held at the University of Vienna in the last week of April. Hotson's questions were bracing because the Scientiae conferences--this year's event was the third in an ongoing series--are founded on the idea that intellectual history is a coherent and important field of study. Hotson's answers included a provocative argument against managerial meddling in the humanities, namely that past actors (and especially early moderns) achieved great things in the absence of such meddling. I'll summarise Hoston's talk before explaining why I think this argument fails. Expand post.