Clio meets Minerva: Interrelations between History and Philosophy of Science, Barbara Tuchanska

Barbara Tuchańska

Department of Epistemology & Philosophy of Science

University of Łódź

Kopcińskiego 16/18, 90-242 Łódź, Poland




Clio meets Minerva:

Interrelations between History

and Philosophy of Science[1]




The idea that science is historical is almost a cliché nowadays. The historical dimensions of science have begun to be appreciated by philosophers of science, for some through the work of Kuhn, and for others through Popper and Lakatos. Does this mean that contemporary philosophy of science understands the historical nature of science? Let me begin with a provocative negative answer. My reason is not the obvious one, namely, that there are several competing models that address the historical development of science. Rather, it’s more substantial: philosophers of science have not adequately reflected on the historical nature of science.

There are still at least two barriers blocking a meaningful dialogue between the history of science and the philosophy of science: (1) the normative and evaluative orientation of philosophy of science and (2) its universalist stance toward science, a stance somewhat modified in current literature. No wonder Minerva cannot communicate with Clio; not only do they not speak the same language, but their perspectives and aims differ too. Does this mean that Minerva can’t be replaced with Calliope, that philosophy of science will go on “its own way, paying little attention to the naturalist stories told by historians and sociologists, and, in turn, being widely ignored by them?”. [2] Does this mean that their only possible relation is lack of relation–their “splendid isolation”–entailing abstention from alliances, even from a “marriage of convenience,” or, for that matter, from any other sort of interaction? Does this mean that philosophy of science uses historical episodes simply to find its problems, or appeals to those episodes only to illustrate its claims or to falsify the claims of opposing philosophical views? Well, not necessarily. Interactions and cooperation between the two are possible, but depend, first, on their (in particular, philosophy’s) self-definitions, and, second, on how they both relate to philosophy, and, in particular, to the philosophy of history.



  1. Philosophy of science and history of science



For those philosophers of science who maintain the epistemological or methodological ideal of normative philosophy of science there’s either no need to interact with history of science or the need is limited. For them, philosophy of science is prescriptive and restricted to the context of justification, whereas history is descriptive and concerned with the context of discovery; even when philosophy does describe, it offers reconstructions and searches (ideally) for nomological explanations of reconstructed historical events, whereas history is idiographic and aims at the particular. Philosophy uses historical events as grist for its model making, whereas history aims at contextualized understanding of what scientists did, what they believed, which procedures they applied, which positions they accepted, which traditions they worked within. [3] Particular positions within the normative philosophy of science may be, however, more or less anti-historical.

If philosophy of science is viewed in a justificationist mood–as formulating objective norms of scientific rationality, and standards for evaluating scientific results (theories, explanations, laws) as scientific or progressive (more similar to truth, better confirmed, more adequate etc.), its stance is ahistorical and dogmatic and it has to seek a priori or transcendental justifications for its norms and not simply appeal to relevant empirical support. [4] For a justificationist philosophy of science references to the history of science are useless. Worse yet, any attempt to test norms that can actually and normatively demarcate science from pseudo-science by appeal to historical (empirical) cases is hopelessly circular. [5]

On the other hand, rational reconstructionism (as found, for example, in the conceptions of Popper or Lakatos), whose broad aim is to replace justificationism, regards the history of science as “useful to know” [6] because it can falsify philosophies of science [7]. However, it’s doubtful whether the Popperian and Lakatosian models of the development of science are concerned with the same objective as the history of science, since their objective is the growth of disembodied, objective knowledge, whereas history of science’s concern is to study the beliefs of historical scientists and events as they happen in empirical, sociocultural reality.

Finally, for philosophers who believe that philosophy of science should remain normative, though in a more plausible way, that is, without “fabricating examples,” [8] a need is seen for articulating its interaction with the history of science, and there’s a recognition of legitimate uses that historical facts play. For instance, Kuhn claims that the aim of philosophers who adopt an historical perspective is the same as historians of science: namely, “understanding small incremental changes of belief.” [9]Philosophical understanding of scientific change, for Kuhn, has two specific features lacking in purely historical narratives: it contains a priori principles which refer to the nature of scientific development (indeed to all developmental processes) and it includes evaluation, though not evaluation of beliefs that refers to their truth. Instead, it’s comparative evaluation of changes of belief in terms of accuracy, consistency, the range of applications and simplicity. [10] Kitcher, another advocate of this position, believes reference to historical cases is necessary to avoid considering mythical science and to evade a conclusion perhaps unavoidable for an ahistorical view, namely, that “virtually all scientists virtually all of the time depart from sound practice.” [11] The most radical exponent of a naturalist, yet still normative perspective, is Laudan. He sees no need for appeal to non-empirical principles or to purely epistemic reasoning in order to underwrite objective standards of rationality. Means to preferred ends should be established empirically, and cognitive goals should be settled in accordance with values implicit in communal scientific practice. [12]

Normativity is not, however, constitutive for philosophy of science. Several contemporary philosophers of science, for example, Feyerabend, Quine, Giere, or Hacking, have abandoned normative questions regarding scientific research and its rationality. They don’t believe there’s an objective, non-contextualized, and trans-historical justification for the aims, rules, or standards of science. [13] On the contrary: they accept the idea that standards of scientific pursuit are constituted by the historical and communal activity of scientists, beyond which those standards require no further explanation or justification. Accordingly, for them, the relation between history of science and philosophy of science is, and should be, a close and permanent interaction between two equally descriptive disciplines even though one gives narrative stories and the other generalized description and explanation.

At this point we arrive at the second barrier that blocks interaction between the philosophy and history of science, namely, the universalist stance of philosophy of science. This issue has been less discussed, and it seems it’s not considered to be a serious obstacle on the path toward connecting the history and philosophy of science.

Margolis is one of few writers who addresses it. [14] The main target of his criticism is the canonical view of history (as presented by Hempel, Popper, or Putnam). [15] According to this view, the historical can and should be described in nonhistorical terms. [16] The development of science is an instantiation of an historical process that happens alike in the natural and the social realms; moreover, an historical process is merely a succession of occurrences connected by contiguity, resemblance, and causation. Furthermore, the sole matrix within which historical events occur is physical time and space. Historical time is either indistinguishable from physical time or else it’s completely determined by it. [17] Only if temporal events are subsumed under (a combination of) laws, can they be described, explained, predicted, and–it is hoped–be manipulated. Seen in this light, the temporal localization and idiosyncrasies of historical events are insignificant, and what matters is the search for invariances, for repeatable patterns, stable dependencies, and permanent determinants. [18] In short, there are two assumptions constitutive of the canonical view: (1) history is a passage of events in the objective flow of physical time, and (2) historical episodes are nothing more than independent atoms making up history.

The question to be considered now is whether this objective approach is acceptable as a perspective that allows us to understand the historical nature of science and to write a history as “a history of the present science”. My second provocative answer is again negative. And there are two reasons for it. First, any universalizing description is an attempt to deprive historical events or objects of their unique localization within history, of their singularity; that is, it suppresses their historical character by “subsuming temporal particularity into atemporal generality.” [19] Second, contrary to the objectivist stance taken by the canonical approach, the historical does not speak for itself. To develop these arguments I turn to the philosophy of history.



  1. Philosophy of history as a basis for history and philosophy of science



As Wartofsky notes, it’s not only rational reconstructionism that has no use for “philosophical history of science, that is, history of science construed from the point of view of a philosophy of history.” [20] In fact none of the historically based philosophies of science sees need to refer to the philosophy of history. As a result, they don’t try to problematize the historical nature of science; in short, they fail to deal with its historicity. To problematize the historical nature of science means–in particular–to conceive the difference within a process or an episode between its having a dynamical as opposed to an historical character. The former can be conceptualized in terms of sheer temporal sequences and causal dependencies, the latter cannot.

There’s no commonly accepted philosophy of history. Philosophical reflection on history is predominantly anti-objectivist. At least since the nineteenth century many thinkers have presupposed that “history is concerned with unrepeatable, singular past events not subsumable under universal laws”, that it concentrates on “the contingent rather than necessary doings of specifiable human agents” and that “there is a gap between the event, and any invariant or constructed model.” [21] Philosophical reflection on history stretches from essentialist approaches, through historicism, to ontological-hermeneutic positions, and typically it doesn’t look for nomological description and explanation of singular historical episodes, but seeks understanding of history in the light of historical processes in their entirety or in terms of human experience.

The essentialist approach is represented by St. Augustine’s City of God, in which time and history march forward to their inevitable fulfillment in the city of God, or by the unfolding of the Spirit in Hegel’s phenomenology. What’s crucial to any essentialist approach is interpreting historical events in terms of an unfolding essence taken to exhibit their ultimate aims or invariances. If applied to the history of science, such categories become the foundation “by means of which the history of science is organized, and through which it can come to be understood in its development”. [22] For essentialism, history is “the extrinsic chronicle of local changes relativized (in principle) to some (supposedly) changeless order of things.” [23] Wartofsky claims correctly that the histories of science of Mach, Meyerson, Duhem, and Whewell fit to a greater or lesser degree the essentialist stance. To this list one can add the works of Gillispie, Dijksterhuis, and Crombie, among others. Their works illustrate Big Picture historiography of scientific development: each conception has a unifying narrative structure which allows history to be totalized, thus endowing it with epochal spatio-temporal scope and evaluative significance. Even the titles of their works presume to capture the essence of science revealed (or–rather–presupposed) by historical analysis. They privilege ideas understood as autonomous uncaused causes, posit discrete agencies with histories independent of their instantiations, and articulate a logic of history separable from any grounding in institutions, practices, and social relations. They typically emphasize continuity in scientific development and the historical advance of our understanding of nature.

German historicism, established by Mainecke, Droysen and Dilthey, rejects providential and teleological view of human history, opposes naturalist approach to history and the ahistorical rationalism of Enlightenment. [24] It presupposes a qualitative distinction between the natural and the historical, i.e., between the sphere of determined events, studied by the natural sciences, and the sphere of conscious and free action composed of cultural events, constituted by meanings and values, and studied by the humanities. The second sphere is the realm of history (culture); its elements are individual, unique historical phenomena, relativized to their particular contexts and requiring understanding rather than subsumption under general laws. Knowledge (consciousness) of historical phenomena is itself historical, and is aware of the relative nature of all consciousness. Hence, historicism brings historians into history but gives them enough independence from historical constraints to believe that they can “relive the past”, that they are able imaginatively and interpretatively to re-create in their minds historical events or experiences of past subjects.

As Shapin argues, in the contemporary history of science there’s a program that follows historicism, a program “dedicated to analyzing historical action in historical actors’ terms.” [25] This program is threatened by an “atomizing particularism” that can only be disciplined by the sociologist’s collectivism that allows historians to view actors’ categories as social institutions. [26] The turn toward sociology of science wouldn’t, however, remedy another difficulty of historicism: the more perfect our understanding becomes of historical actors in their terms the more difficult it is “to communicate our understanding to our own academic colleagues and to constituencies outside the academy.” [27]

If the opposition between historicism and essentialist historiosophy is clear, the difference between historicism and the ontological-hermeneutic approach of Heidegger, Gadamer or Ricoeur is not self-evident. Both are hermeneutic and reject all forms of essentialism. The ontological-hermeneutic view of history goes beyond the opposition of the natural and the cultural explicit in historicism, aiming to extend the meaning of hermeneutical understanding. Its primordial aim is not to project historical research “methodologically,” but to undertake an ontological analysis of the concepts of being, understanding and historicity. Hermeneutics is a means of narrating our own self-understanding part of which is “a history of the present.” Given that we cannot transcend our historical horizon, situated as we are within culture and society, our historicity informs our understanding of the historical. It’s therefore an illusion to think we freely interpret history. Before we begin to study history we are already within it, and are involved in a dynamic process of interpreting the past and fusing the horizons of the past and the present to achieve an ultimate goal: our own self-understanding. Since we are always already within history, it’s illusory to think that the historical is transparent to us, that it presents itself objectively, as it were. Hermeneutics teaches us that it must be re-enacted by an interpretive act. On this view, the meanings of things, texts and doings are grasped, not primarily by appraising human intentionality, but by letting meanings come into the open and speak to us. So we grasp textual meaning not by reconstructing authorial intentions but by allowing its “truth” to speak to us directly. However, since our historical situations are unique, we grasp a work always differently, and always other than how the work was intended.

For anyone who accepts the criticism of the nomological models of history, who does not believe in essentialism, and understands the need to go beyond the epistemological and methodological perspective of historicism, articulating an ontological-hermeneutic philosophy of history seems the only plausible choice.



  1. Ontological-hermeneutic conception of historicity and the possibility of uniting history and philosophy of science. A brief outline



My aim in this section is not to give a normative answer to a question of how to do the history and philosophy of science but rather to present briefly some main ideas of Heidegger’s ontology and to outline few modifications that allow me to show a ground for unifying the philosophical and the historical views of science.

There’re two ideas of Heidegger’s ontology crucial here: (1) the idea of an ontic-ontological circle and (2) the view that historicity is an ontological structure of human existence.



3.1. The ontic-ontological circle


Ontic studies refer to phenomena: they take for granted the subject/object dichotomy, and deal with entities and facts or with events and processes understood objectively, i.e., as they present themselves to an external observer. Ontological inquiry problematizes the subject/object dichotomy itself and is concerned primarily with the being of entities. The more fundamental nature of ontological studies doesn’t mean, however, that they’re independent of ontic studies. In fact, both form a circle, within which hermeneutic narrative and ontological analysis of being complement each other.

In Heidegger’s ontology our being is primordially understood as the being of an entity that “is concerned about its very being.” [28] and is constituted as being-in-the-world. There’s nothing mysterious in this concept. On the contrary, it points to the familiar and commonplace, to what is mostly transparent to us. It refers to the fact that we’re never disengaged spectators self-situated “outside” the world, who are forced to get over to that world from a purely subjective starting point. We’re always already situated and can’t step back from worldly involvements; our interest in things, our responses to them, and our abilities to communicate about them are already in play. That we are-in-the-world doesn’t mean, however, that we are objectively present within the world, i.e., that we are countable entities among other beings comprising the totality of the world. To be-in-the-world means to be together with the world and to take up relations to the world: indeed, it is to have a world. We and our world are complementary and equiprimordial.

Being-in-the-world has different modes and knowing the world is one of them, by any means the most primordial or the most immediate kind of being. For Heidegger, the original function of cognition is existentialist rather than epistemic, and knowledge is not taken for granted as a representational structure. Representing the world becomes its secondary and derivative function. [29] Moreover, Heidegger stresses that cognition belongs to the history-of-being and this idea allows him to reveal the fundamentally historical nature of cognition.

There’s an important point, however, where Heidegger’s ontological analysis of cognition and scientific research requires modification, namely, their reduction to the way of being of Da-sein, which he understands individualistically. For many reasons, cognition should be understood as a (derivative) way of the being of communities, a way of sociocultural communal being. And ontically it’s realized in the form of different sub-practices in which groups engage.

Thus, scientific research is a way of our communal being and proceeds through interrelations that connect scientific dialogue, scientific experience (together with reality as experienced by scientists), and the participation of scientific knowledge in technology. These interrelations are performed within social structures and accordingly science can be considered as a sociocultural system.

Ontologically, scientific research, as a way of human being, has the structure of temporality and historicity.



3.2. Historicity as the ontological structure of being


Within the ontic-ontological circle any ontological search for the structures and features of being must be supplemented by the reconstitution of the historical (ontic) dimension of our being because ontological structures and conditions are always situated, in the sense that they always realize themselves within history. Hence, considering entities and episodes within the ontic-ontological circle reveals and establishes their historicity.

The historicity and temporality of our existence cannot be viewed objectively because they are essentially involved in our (self-)experience: they’re the way we experience ourselves and our world. Knowledge that refers to history, that reflects on its temporality, can’t take the form of a generalized explanatory theory leading to prediction; it takes the form of a hermeneutic narrative, since “the historicity of human experience can be brought to language only as narrativity.” [30] Historical narratives are both about the structure of human experience and of that structure.

Narrativity and historicity (together with temporality) are mutually dependent: time becomes a human reality to the extent it is articulated through narrative and any narrative belongs to history in two senses. It’s situated within history and it’s a part of history, it contributes to making history. In narrative the differences between the past, present, and future are not blurred, since past, present, and future events are not subsumed under timeless laws. Narrative is not a structure imposed on events from without; it’s that which intrinsically structures historical events. As Ricoeur emphasizes, an event is historical insofar as it is incorporated within the plot of a story and in this way contributes to the plot’s development. [31] Narrative “constructs meaningful totalities out of scattered events.” [32] As narratively structured, events aren’t simply “beads” on a string ordered diachronically. They are joined together and given meaning. So historical events are not pre-given but constituted in the very acts of constructing a narrative. Understood in this way, narratives aren’t instantiations of realistic description, nor are they imperfect explanations awaiting improvement, i.e., in need of explanatory supplementation by underlying causes or regularities. What differentiates a narrative understanding of history from (causal) nomological approaches is the central role meanings play in historical understanding and in the dynamics of history itself. [33]

For hermeneutic understanding, which operates within historical narrative, historical events aren’t objective occurrences caused by earlier events, but becomings inscribed with meanings. Meanings, unlike causes, move simultaneously in both directions: from the past toward the present and from the present toward the past. This allows us to understand that relations between historical knowledge and past or future events, as well as relations between acts of interpretation and interpreted occurrences or texts, are reciprocal. The interpreter participates in making history and for this reason history cannot be described objectively as a repetitive process, like natural sequences, or a process of sheer accumulation. Hermeneutic understanding sees itself as simultaneously shaped by tradition and by interpretations that will emerge in the future. Such understanding contributes to making history; indeed “it extends, furthers, and carries on history.” [34]

Historical narrative deals with the ontic dimension of history, so it can’t reveal the ontological structure and constitution of the historical nature of our existence. They require an ontological analysis.

Heidegger offers an ontological conception of historicity that contains an idea of crucial importance for any anti-naturalist and historicist view of history: human temporality is a necessary ontological (precisely, existentialist) condition of history. In virtue of this ontological condition history is a succession of generations. However, Heideggerian ontological conception of history has one essential drawback: it is existentialist. Dasein’s historicity and world-history have their ultimate ontological foundation in the temporality of Dasein. [35] The ontological foundation of history cannot be reduced to the ontological structure of Da-sein’s being. Since Da-sein “understands itself in terms of the possibilities of existence that ‘circulate’ in the actual ‘average’ public interpretedness of Da-sein today.” [36], the ontological analysis of human historicity should find the ontological foundation of traditions and heritage, as handed down to us, to be different from the existentialist structures of Da-sein. In order to grasp an adequate ontological sense of the traditions to which we belong and of the heritage handed down to us, it is necessary–in my opinion–to accept that the historicity of our communal being, which turns it into history, constitutes itself within the interrelations between the individual and the social. As the temporality of an individual temporalizes, i.e., constitutes different modes of time and places within them beings and ways of being, so the temporality of our communal being, occurring as the succession of generations, historizes, i.e., occurs as history and places within it ways of being. In other words, because of the temporality of the being of each of us our communal being is temporal, and because of our communal being’s historizing the being of each of us is historical, i.e., it happens in an historical situation.

Accordingly, historicity of being doesn’t mean the passage of objective time, or the fact that something happens in world-history, or that being embodies historical mechanisms; it means, rather, that time and history are constituted in their different modes by our being and within it. To accept this idea of historicity is to abandon both objectivist (nomological) and essentialist views of history, to give up the search for external origins of human history and for invariant principles, patterns, or mechanisms that drive human history; it is to establish the source of the historicity of our being within our practice, which turns out to be our self-making.

      Our self-making, with self-reflecting as its component, is the ontological structure of human being and the ontological condition of history. Therefore, historicity is inseparable from our self-constitution. “Man is what he becomes and has become; and the processes of becoming which makes him distinctively human are historical. But what makes history distinctively historical is human action.” [37] We belong to history not merely as a part and product of the historical process; our being is active historizing, the very activity of making history.

Historizing always proceeds in a situation. “Only a being which is a self-making-in-a-situation can be, in its ontological constitution, historical.” [38] However, contrary to Fackenheim, I think there’s no necessity to presuppose that this situation is a non-historical one. [39] Our self-making and history are linked within an ontic-ontological circle: history situates our self-making ontically, i.e., it creates the various circumstances of our being (including natural ones) that are objective for us, whereas our self-making is an ontological condition of history since it’s our communal activity that produces history.

Science, like all sub-practices, is part of our self-making. The historicity of science means that its being-in-history is self-making, even though science does not make itself up entirely but is also made by other sub-practices. Ontologically, science is the process of constituting itself, and science’s ontological structure manifests itself in its ontic development as described by Nickles: “human knowledge has grown by means of a self-transforming, dialectical or ‘bootstrap’ process, rooted in variation, selective retention, and triangulation of historically available resources.” [40]

Understanding science’s historicity as self-making precludes the need to posit non-historical invariances to account for the internal continuity of science or to assume that there’s something common and essential to all instances of scientific change, no matter how vague or general. [41] In other words, continuance doesn’t need to be identified with cross-historical sameness, and doesn’t need to be attributed to science with the help of a universal model of theory-change or paradigm replacement. The continuity of science may be conceived (and narrated) as a property of science that is created during the historical activity of scientists, if it is created. Different episodes and epochs in the history of science may be called “scientific” if they are placed within a historical narrative: if they are seen as resulting from their predecessors and be linked through them to the beginnings of science, and interpreted as leading to contemporary science and the present mode of our communal being. All these links are established within the history of science that “narrates” itself and present themselves to us in detailed historical studies of particular changes and developments in the sciences, which use interpretative techniques appropriate to historical understanding and not by a rational reconstruction of knowledge-construction. Nor can such historical studies be reduced to pure hermeneutic interpretation of texts, since the self-constituted forms of continuance in the scientific process are not merely discursive and epistemic. They embrace all elements and aspects of science understood as a sociocultural system.



  1. Summary


Clio and Minerva may meet and cooperate if they recognize and respect each other as different. I believe that Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s ontological-hermeneutic perspective, if suitably modified, allows the history and philosophy of science to discourse effectively within an ontological-ontic circle, in which the ontological analysis of scientific research viewed as a communal way of being is connected with ontic studies of the social and historical nature of science. Within this circle none has a privileged position, and none is entitled to dominate or use the other.


This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Conference, History Unveiled Science Unfettered, January 2002.