Cases: History, Philosophy, Science

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I've touched on the relationship between history, philosophy, and science too many times to hyperlink (key posts: here, here, and (hesitatingly) here). It's both an important topic for the discipline and the subject of my own research, and today I'll try to bring those two things together.

My dissertation is about the scientific method. Specifically, it's about meta-scientific arguments between psychologists, philosophers, and scientists in the United States around 1900. I show why these folks felt so much was at stake in debates about methods in the sciences—and why they were right.

Part of what's interesting is that the vocational categories I just listed–psychologists, philosophers, and scientists–were only then coming into their modern forms. The result is a boon and a bother: contexts and terms blinked in and out of existence as these debates about science unfolded.

It turns out that changes in the cultural authority of science a century ago link up with the way we write and teach the history and philosophy of science today. In particular, that period's wide range of views on how science worked reveals a more capacious sense of what science is and what it's for.

This came to mind as I looked over a new textbook in the philosophy of science: Steven Gimbel's Exploring the Scientific Method. The book adopts a case-based approach in which students test philosophical views against episodes in a given "track" of the history of science (e.g. "Astronomy").

For Gimbel, as for many, philosophical ideas transcend their contexts and become part of the arsenal with which we address questions like the one central to his textbook: "What actually is the scientific method?" Answers are philosophical; history provides data against which to try them out.

This is one way to approach the issue–and, I want to emphasize, it's not a wrong one. Still, it's not the only way to use cases to tackle the question of what science is and how it works. Indeed, history reveals an alternative that stitches the history and philosophy of science together far more firmly.

That alternative first emerged in the work of Lawrence Henderson almost a century ago, and its story comprises the second chapter of an excellent book by Joel Isaac on the history of the human sciences at Harvard in the twentieth century, forthcoming next year from Harvard University Press.

Henderson adapted the case method pioneered by C.C. Langdell at Harvard Law School to instruction in the social sciences. Specifically, Henderson hoped to use cases to turn sociologists into scientists. Just as legal cases helped to make lawyers, scientific cases might help to make scientists.

Cases were part and parcel of the hybrid sort of "scientific philosophy" Henderson practiced. They were not only records of science's practices and advances, but also spurs to further practices and further advances. History, philosophy, science–all were knitted together in this approach to cases.

Though true of Henderson's cases, this was less true of a subsequent (and more famous) use of the case method at micentury Harvard: University President James Bryan Conant's Case Histories in Experimental Sciences, for which a young Thomas Kuhn famously served as an instructor.

As Isaac shows, this latter use of the case–now enshrined in the disciplinary history (and hagiography) of integrated history and philosophy of science–was more about explaining scientific progress than about inviting contributions thereto. Conant's cases were, after all, for non-scientists.

So, where does Gimbel fall? Somewhere between the two. Though history is not bound up with philosophy (and science) as it was for Henderson, Gimbel is in the business of making scholars and advancing knowledge–he just happens to be making philosophers of science, not scientific philosophers.

This distinction is important, for both my dissertation and my sense of the discipline. In an academic context still dominated by analytic philosophy, the meaning of "scientific philosophy" is puzzling in ways that it wasn't a hundred years ago. Henderson's hybridity doesn't make as much sense.

Back then, appeals made to "science" were appeals to something more diffuse–and more enlivening–than the "science" which is the object of both supplication and denigration today. In short: before Big Science, "science" was somehow bigger–and studies of it were richer as a result.

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