The NSF and the Rise of Value-Free Philosophies of Science (guest post by Joel Katzav & Krist Vaesen)


Why were social, moral and political issues relatively neglected in philosophy of science during the 20th Century? Joel Katzav (Queensland) and Krist Vaesen (Eindhoven) continue their investigation of the institutional and sociological influences on the history and development of analytic philosophy in the following guest post.*


[Ad Reinhardt, Untitled (Red and Gray)]

The National Science Foundation and the Rise of Value-Free Philosophies of Science
by Joel Katzav & Krist Vaesen

In a series of papers that appeared in 2017 and 2018, we have shown that an important part of the explanation for the rise of analytic philosophy in the twentieth century was the takeover by analytic philosophers of generalist, British and American philosophy journals and the subsequent use of these journals in order to marginalize non-analytic approaches to philosophy (see here, here and, for an overview, here (published) or here (preprint)). In our most recent paper, we extend this work on the emergence of analytic philosophy in two ways. We show that at least one important funding body was also used to marginalize non-analytic philosophy and we examine how such marginalization affected the development of one specialization in philosophy, namely the philosophy of science (see here).

G.E. Moore by and large excluded philosophical psychology and work sympathetic to Neo-Hegelian idealism from Mind roughly in 1926, not long after he became the journal’s editor. In roughly 1948, analytic editors took over The Philosophical Review and turned it from a journal that was open to diverse approaches to philosophy into one that was basically only open to analytic philosophy. A similar, though slightly more complex story took place in The Journal of Philosophy just over a decade later. In these three cases, the primary form of philosophy excluded from publication was distinguished from analytic philosophy of the time by being speculative, that is, very roughly, by tending to make substantive claims about the world that are epistemically independent of established belief, including commonsense and science. Marginalized speculative work included Neo-Hegelian idealism, classical pragmatism, speculative phenomenology and existentialism, process philosophy and approaches to philosophy that grew out of these more familiar ones. The story of marginalization also occurred at other journals (e.g., at The Philosophical Quarterly in the late 1950s and at Philosophy and Phenomenological Research in 1980) and was supplemented by the creation of analytic only journals (e.g., Analysis, Philosophical Studies and Noûs). If one looks at which journals were affected by these sectarian practices, one will find a very familiar set of journals; it is roughly the set of the journals that are the most prestigious journals in philosophy today.

In our more recent paper, we provide evidence for thinking that a similar kind of marginalization occurred at the level of one of Anglo-American philosophy’s sub-fields, namely the philosophy of science.

The post-WWII years saw the growth of U.S. government funding of science, including the growth of financial support for the sciences by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The first-half of the 1950s saw political pressure, partly associated with McCarthyism, that meant there was hesitation to extend NSF funding to the social sciences. In the second half of the 1950s, however, these sciences acquired their own NSF program. The program included the sub-program “History and Philosophy of Science” (HPS). Philosophy of science, too, was in the money.

However, decisions about allocating NSF funding for philosophy of science were placed in the hands of logical empiricists. These philosophers, in their function as NSF advisors, allocated virtually all HPS money during the period 1958-1963 to value-free philosophies of science; similar preference for value-free philosophy of science is likely to have continued throughout the 1960s. Moreover, this occurred at a time when there were still many philosophers writing philosophy of science that did deal with social, moral and political concerns (value-laden approaches).

The allocation of NSF funds, together with the contemporaneous exclusion of value-laden approaches from the pages of Philosophy of Science (see here) and of pragmatism from The Journal of Philosophy (see here), contributed considerably to philosophy of science’s withdrawal from social concerns. Interestingly, some of the figures involved in marginalizing non-analytic work at The Philosophical Review and The Journal of Philosophy, namely Max Black and Sydney Morgenbesser, were also involved in what occurred at the NSF.

Our work on the HPS sub-program only allows us to say that value-laden philosophy of science was not funded by the HPS, a claim that is weaker than the claim that it only funded logical empiricist or analytic philosophy of science, though the identity of HPS advisors does suggest that this was also the case. It does seem that philosophy of science was following the same pattern found elsewhere in British and American philosophy.

That said, the pattern of marginalization in the philosophy of science had its own distinct characteristics. For example, NSF funding did not go to philosophy of science that had an historical dimension. While this fits what we find in, say, Mind at the time, it does not fit what we find in The Philosophical Review, which did publish a substantial amount of historical work in the 1950s. At least part of the reason for the difference is plausibly that, on the one hand, the logical empiricists at the NSF, like the then editor of Mind, Gilbert Ryle, had little sympathy for history informed philosophy while, on the other hand, one of those who was an editor at The Philosophical Review when it decided it would no longer publish speculative philosophy, namely Gregory Vlastos, was an historian of philosophy. A deeper explanation for the difference is that what drove the sectarian practices of analytic philosophy was the opposition to speculative philosophy. Beyond this, there was some room for the opinions of influential individuals to decide for themselves what kind of philosophy would be tolerated. Philosophy of science, as it happens, was under the strong influence of individuals with a particularly narrow view of their specialization.

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