An Exchange on Philosophy of Science

There’s an interesting post at NewApps by Roberta Millstein (UC Davis) on criticisms of philosophy of science that prompted a useful exchange between her and a critic. Professor Millstein writes:

Why is this philosophy? Most philosophers of science have been on the receiving end of this question at one time or another. A friend of mine recently called it a type of hate speech. I think my friend was joking. But maybe not. Philosophers of science struggle to get into grad programs, to obtain jobs, to earn promotion and tenure, to be perceived as “central” and important figures in the field, all because their work is not seen as philosophical. So, while it may not be hate speech, it is speech that does genuine harm.

She goes on to discuss what she takes to be “a lack of awareness about philosophy of science.”
A commenter on the post, “Anonymous Philosopher,” writes in response:

I am a fan of philosophy of science and I agree with much of what you say, but I also find a grain of truth in the criticism you describe. I wonder if you would agree with that grain.

In my experience, a lot of philosophy papers and talks are (to be frank) pretty bad. Philosophy is really hard, and so it’s really hard to do it well! Lord knows none of my work is as good as I wish it were.

When a philosophy of science paper or talk is bad, however, it is often bad in a particular way. The talk or paper consists of a detailed and thoughtful summary of some complicated scientific findings (along with the relevant experimental methodology) followed by a very brief argument for the claim that these findings support a certain philosophical thesis. (In the all-too-common limit case, that the findings support the philosophical thesis is simply asserted and not actually argued for…) The non-philosophers-of-science in the audience, who irresponsibly zoned out during the 90% of the talk that was spent summarizing scientific findings, are then unimpressed with the brief philosophical argument and say: “That wasn’t philosophy! All the speaker did was talk about science!”

The philosophers in the audience should pay better attention. But this kind of talk or paper nonetheless is deeply flawed in a familiar way. It shows exactly the same flaw that many other bad philosophical talks and papers show: the author spent so much time and energy just trying to understand and then explain the (very complicated!) background dialectic that the author had very energy left to put into his or her novel argument. This happens all the time in philosophy! When it happens in, e.g., epistemology, the result is just considered a bad epistemology paper. But when it happens in the philosophy of science, the result is considered “not really philosophy.” After all, 90% of it just summarized scientific findings!

Is this a phenomenon you find familiar, too? Or do you think this criticism is also (unfairly!) levied against really good work in the philosophy of science? It’s also possible that I am being uncharitable in my description of this kind of talk–perhaps summarizing complicated scientific findings in a way accessible to philosophers is a worthwhile use of colloquium time and philosophy journal pages, even if the summary isn’t accompanied by an argument for a philosophical thesis. That doesn’t seem immediately plausible to me, but I am willing to be convinced that I’m wrong about it!

The comment prompted Millstein to further and helpfully elaborate on her defense of the field:

It is a phenomenon that I have seen, yes, and find problematic. But I suspect that I would attribute it to far fewer papers and talks than you would. I think there are many cases where the author is discussing a conceptual or methodological issue that is relevant to a particular science or a particular finding in science, rather than discussing one of the more canonical issues in philosophy. I think sometimes that those outside of the philosophy of science see only that the author is knee deep in the details of the science without appreciating the philosophical points that are being made because they don’t recognize the topic that is under debate. To give two examples from my own work: in some of my research I have discussed the evolutionary process known as random genetic drift — how it ought to be characterized, how it can be distinguished from other evolutionary processes, whether it can be empirically demonstrated, etc. In other research I have explored different types of experiment: lab experiments vs. field experiments vs. natural experiments, using particular cases in science to explore the merits of each. The former is an example of exploring concepts in science, whereas the latter is an example of exploring methodology in science. They are just as philosophical as explorations in, say, the philosophy of mind, but I think they are less recognized as philosophical by people who aren’t familiar with the particular issues under discussion, and all they see is that details of science are being discussed — sometimes complicated by the fact that they are grasping to understand the science itself, making it harder to see the philosophical points.

The post at NewApps is entitled “Why Is This Philosophy?

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9 years ago

Is it really true that philosophers of science are a marginalized group in philosophy? I don’t think I’m in a position to evaluate that claim, but I’ve never heard of anyone talk about philosophy of science or the people who engage in it in the ways described in Millstein’s posts, and in fact I would have thought that philosophers of science have it much easier than a number of other groups (continental philosophers in some places, those who do aesthetics, philosophy of math, for example).

Roberta L Millstein
9 years ago

I don’t know that I would use the word “marginalized,” and notice that I didn’t use the word “marginalized.” Here is what I did say, as Justin quotes above: “Philosophers of science struggle to get into grad programs, to obtain jobs, to earn promotion and tenure, to be perceived as ‘central’ and important figures in the field, all because their work is not seen as philosophical.” That much I have either directly experienced myself, witnessed myself, or have direct reports from others who experienced it. And it is often expressed by the question, “why is this philosophy?”

Roberta L Millstein
9 years ago

I’d also add that I am not claiming that philosophers of science have it worse, than, e.g., continental philosophers. I imagine that we don’t have it worse. But we do have a special sort of problem with respect to our work being perceived as “doing science” or “reporting science” (as in the comment Justin reports above). Graduate students and junior faculty are urged to make special efforts to demonstrate the philosophical nature of their work, which can be distracting from the work itself (and it’s not always successful), and it can also affect the choice of one’s research. I don’t want to exaggerate the problem, but I am describing a real problem.

9 years ago

Apologies if I misrepresented your position – I was looking for a single word to sum up the claims of the conditions, and that was the closest I came.

I still wonder thought whether these things are widespread, or unique (or perhaps not unique, but close enough) to philosophy of science. I’m not a philosopher of science, so again I’m probably not among those with the relevant experience, but I’ve never seen any treatment of philosophers of science along these lines. I have seen it – but only to logicians, philosophers of math, feminist philosophers and some types of continental philosophers. Perhaps this issue then is more widespread than previously thought.