Princeton Workshop in the History of Science
Historical and Philosophical Perspectives
Organized by Helen Tilley and Dan Garber
In 2003-04 the Princeton workshops in the History of Science hope to explore new ways in which the history of science can articulate with philosophy, including both philosophers of science and those of other persuasions. Two historical problems will underpin our conversations. The first concerns the widespread (and popular) assumption that certain scientific, technological, and medical traditions have become both uniquely global and uniquely powerful simply because they work. The second focuses on the continued existence of other traditions of knowledge, in both literate and non-literate societies, which have historically been fodder for – and a challenge to – disciplinary and professional developments in the sciences. Questions that arise from such an engagement include:
There was a time when history of science and philosophy of science were natural allies. The philosophy of science was more historically oriented then, and the history of science was more centrally concerned with the texts and issues connected with the great European scientists who were the concern of philosophers of science as well. Both fields have changed considerably in the last twenty-five years. The philosophy of science has become more focused on particular technical problems in the special sciences, while the history of science has increasingly concentrated on cross cultural work and on understanding the place of the sciences, medicine and technology in the relations among peoples of the world.
- To what extent has “science” been a specifically European activity? How can it be recognized and comprehended in other cultures? To what extent must one recognize the specific cultural context when trying to understand supposedly scientific work in another culture?
- There is an abiding tendency among those who work with other cultures to adopt relativistic views on the truth of scientific theories or to beg the question entirely; there is an abiding tendency among philosophers to reject relativism for a more absolute standard of truth. Can these differences be resolved?
- To what extent is the thesis of incommensurability in the philosophy of science useful for understanding the differences between science in different cultures?
- Philosophers of language have emphasized the role of assumptions of rationality (for example, Donald Davidson’s “Principle of Charity”) in coming to understand other languages and peoples. Does this raise practical or theoretical problems for the kinds of work that recent historians of science are trying to do?
- Historians and anthropologists make use of a variety of qualifiers when dealing with the issue of non-elite knowledge: traditional, folk, indigenous, popular, and ethno, each having slightly different connotations. Does it make sense to talk of science in these terms? More generally, can one speak of scientific traditions in non-literate societies and populations?