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What (Good) is Historical Epistemology? Editors’ Introduction

Abstract

We provide an overview of three ways in which the expression “Historical epistemology” (HE) is often understood: (1) HE as a study of the history of higher-order epistemic concepts such as objectivity, observation, experimentation, or probability; (2) HE as a study of the historical trajectories of the objects of research, such as the electron, DNA, or phlogiston; (3) HE as the long-term study of scientific developments. After laying out various ways in which these agendas touch on current debates within both epistemology and philosophy of science (e.g., skepticism, realism, rationality of scientific change), we conclude by highlighting three topics as especially worthy of further philosophical investigation. The first concerns the methods, aims and systematic ambitions of the history of epistemology. The second concerns the ways in versions of HE can be connected to versions of naturalized and social epistemologies. The third concerns the philosophy of history, and in particular the level of analysis at which a historical analysis should aim.

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Notes

  1. The “Lorenz Krüger postdoctoral fellowship” at the MPIWG is explicitly given to young researchers who combine the history of science with the philosophy of science and/or the history of philosophy.

  2. The latter of the three has recently retired from his directorship.

  3. http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/en/institute/index.html, accessed March 15, 2011.

  4. Critics of traditional history of ideas often view it as closely related to a history of concepts, where such concepts are assumed to be consciously represented in the minds of the historical actors. Distancing herself from such a view, Lorraine Daston therefore views the expression “epistemic concept” as an unfortunate choice of words to describe her approach. Instead she prefers to speak of the histories of epistemic categories as covering explicit concepts as well as tacit epistemic practices. Because of the traditional meanings of the term “category”, however, this expression would be misleading, so we avoid it here.

  5. More accurately, we should say that even though Rheinberger’s work was influenced by Hacking’s epistemology of experimentation, we have not been able to find evidence that he was also influenced by Hacking’s writings on historical epistemology.

  6. In this quote, Rheinberger uses the term “object”, but he mostly prefers the term “epistemic thing”. Much of the literature uses “thing” and “object” interchangeably.

  7. This version of historical epistemology is close to what Hacking (2002, pp. 7–12) prefers to call “historical ontology” and Daston (2000, p. 1) “applied metaphysics”.

  8. For example, Jürgen Renn views the works of Marx, Freud, Piaget, Einstein, Fleck und Lakatos as the more immediate inspirations of his approach (personal communication).

  9. We owe this point and phrase to Sandra Mitchell.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the speakers, commentators and other participants of the 2008 conference. In addition to that, the authors are especially grateful to the anonymous referees as well as John Carson, Lorraine Daston, Pierre-Olivier Methot, Jürgen Renn, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger for various comments and suggestions. Thomas Sturm’s work on this article was supported by the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation, Reference number FFI 2008-01559/FISO.

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Correspondence to Uljana Feest.

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Uljana Feest and Thomas Sturm have contributed equally to this article.

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Feest, U., Sturm, T. What (Good) is Historical Epistemology? Editors’ Introduction. Erkenn 75, 285–302 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-011-9345-4

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Keywords

  • Scientific Practice
  • Scientific Change
  • Epistemological Problem
  • Social Epistemology
  • Historical Investigation