In the wake of economic crises and new austerity measures, social institutions are often rethought. For the humanities, this can be quite threatening, as social support for characteristically intellectual activities dwindles when production is at a low and in need of heavy “stimulus,” possibly in the form of tax cuts. Federal funding structures in Britain, for instance, have begun a re-orientation towards funding only those projects with the potential for economic or social “impact,” even within the humanities.1 This was resisted by many eminent academics in Britain, but it was especially resisted by philosopher of science James Ladyman2. Ladyman works on the metaphysics of science, and metaphysicians often find it especially difficult to defend their projects according to criteria like “social impact”.3 Historians of Science working on esoteric topics are no stranger to similar challenges to their funding levels, based on the lack of any straightforward “social relevance” for their research into, for example, Medieval methods of timekeeping.
While I do not want to insinuate that history, science, philosophy, or any other intellectual discipline should be measured according to the standards of Britain’s “impact”-based Research Excellence Framework, I do think that it is important for historians and philosophers of science to be aware of all the different ways their activities could impact society, and not only so that they have ready responses when the people challenge the “impact” of their work. So, for this week’s debatable, we have a very general group of questions to ask: How can history and philosophy of science be applied, used, or employed in socially relevant ways? How have they been applied, used, or employed? What use do people who don’t study history and philosophy of science have for people who do study them?
This is really more of a brainstorming thread than a debatable thread, but the fruitfulness of any proposal is (obviously) up for debate. There are several proposals for “socially relevant” projects on offer at present by historians and philosophers of science. Some of them are primarily intellectual proposals, which would include proposals to critically engage with scientists and their institutions (Harding), to substantially engage with scientists and their theories (Fehr and Plaisance), and to provide an intellectual defense of the rationality and objectivity of science (Kitcher). This type of proposal makes use of knowledge specific to the historian and philosopher of science – e.g. about the broader development behind contemporary scientific issues, about relevant philosophical debates, and about the historically-situated nature of science’s institutions – to do something good for science, i.e. to make science better. Others proposals are more action-based, including working in government to help craft science policy, working as a generalized science consultant, developing science policy alternatives at an NGO, or using one’s tenured position to help draw society’s attention to problematic scientific practices. These “action-based” proposals don’t usually make use of any specific historical or philosophical theses, but rather makes use of the historian and philosopher of science’s general ability to think about science and its social, intellectual, and material structure in non-scientific terms.
While I have found this distinction between intellectual proposals and proposals for action useful in thinking about this issue, I have also found it somewhat spurious at times. So, I’m interested in exploring everyone’s ideas on this in the comments section, including ideas about what is “socially relevant” about history and philosophy of science, about the usefulness of the “intellectual/action” distinction, and about the viability of any proposal for practicing “socially relevant” history and philosophy of science.
- The new Research Excellence Framework, which will affect this reorientation, is set to go into effect in Britain in 2015 ↩
- it was joked that the degree to which one spoke out against the “impact” policies could be appropriately deemed the “Ladyman Index“. ↩
- Much of my own work, which is by no means unique in this respect, has been oriented towards demonstrating that some practical issues depend on our metaphysical commitments, i.e. I have aimed to show that metaphysical issues can, in fact, be socially relevant. ↩