Feyerabend and Latour: Must Philosophy of Science cleanse itself of Them?

I was teaching Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour earlier today in my MA class (Methodology in Political Science MA).

This followed the usual three defining figures in discussing scientific methodology: Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos. Feyerabend and Latour both develop thin gs which can be found in Kuhn. Like Kuhn, Lakatos rejected Popper’s view that all scientific theories are theories which have survived experimental refutation. Lakatos suggested that theories are part of a group of theories, he labelled research programmes. There is no sudden refutation of one theory because the ‘refutation’ can apply to any one of a large number of theories including theories assumed in make observational instruments. However, a research programme goes through a kind of refutation over time when observational anomolies can only be explained by reducing the empirical scope of the programme.

Kuhn emphasised the non-scientific motivations for accepting or rejecting theories tied up with relations inside the scientific community. Lakatos regards this very warily as social psychology to kept apart from Science Itself.

With Feyerabend the supposed logical consistency of science is dismissed along with any claims that science is justified by observation. There are always various theories which satisfy observations, observations themselves are interpreted as parts of theories, different methods can be used and none is better than another. This violates the concern Popper and Lakatos have with finding a logic of science, a way in which all science is beliefs justified by observations, and logical inferences from observations.

With Latour, it’s even worse from the point of view of mainstream philosophy of science. Relativism and contradiction in science? No problem for Latour. Science should be studied anthropologically to grasp the impact of power on scientists. Science can be explained by episodes in cultural history. E.g. 17th Century science is governed by the ideas painters had about the right distance from what is being painted.

Maybe we should try and rescue something from Latour for mainstream epistemology and philosophy of science.

  1. Latour is a direct realist. The objects of observation are real as they appear for us.
  2. Latour is denying the sources of the scepticism which has haunted epistemology since Descartes.
  3. Latour’s anthropological approach turns science into a vital human impulse.

And rescuuing Feyerabend

  1. The scope of science takes precedence over contradiction.
  2. Observations should be maximised.
  3. Possible explanations are miximised.

No need to dismiss this as social psychology, or worse. Surely some stuff here for the justificationist epistemologists and philosophy of science types.

6 thoughts on “Feyerabend and Latour: Must Philosophy of Science cleanse itself of Them?

  1. Hello Bill. Thanks for your comment. Are you accepting the idea that Latour is a hard headed realist? What would you Philosophy of Science friends think?

  2. Well, I think he’s certainly a realist – at least in ‘The Pasteurization of France’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’. To my discredit, I haven’t actually read ‘Laboratory Life’, which is probably the text which is hardest to square with that characterisation.Oddly enough, historians of science at Leeds (who shared institutional space with the philosophers of science) – were quite a well-read bunch. It tended to rub off on philosophers too.

  3. Should I take it that History of Science people are more tolerant of ‘constructivism’? That would make sense to me. Do Leeds Phil of Science people have a different approach to most Phi Sci people? How would it compare with Cambridge, for example, where there is a lot of History of Science?

  4. Well, the main difference between Leeds and Cambridge (at least when I was in Leeds) was that historians of science and philosophers of science talked to and respected one another, and generally interacted in a fairly collegial manner.(That’s not to say that there wasn’t a fair degree of good-natured winding up going on there as well)I get the impression (from friends who did PhDs in the History and Philosophy of Science department)that the same wasn’t true in Cambridge, where there was almost open warfare between the two. Part of this might have had to do with personalities, and part to do with the fact that the community at Leeds was much smaller (though not negligigible in size) – so if you had too many feuds you ended up without anyone to talk to.Of course this is all somewhat old news – things have almost certainly changed to some extent in both places. Martin Kusch at Cambridge seems capable of interacting with philosophers, for example, despite having an appointment as a historian of science (really, he’s a scoiologist though). I quite like some of his stuff (eg his book on psychologism) – though I think his historiography is bonkers. More generally I’m quite drawn to philosophers who take the messy details of history seriously (hence my liking for Hacking, who now, I think has a job in France…) Yes,I think that many historians are inclined to be more sympathetic to constructivism than philosophers are. And many constructivists are historians (eg Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin etc). I suspect its because constructivists like to stress the arbitrariness of how we got to where we are, and that fits more with a historians sensibility than a philosophers (or at least a philosopher in the anglophone world.)

  5. Hacking is now a Professor at the College de France, the ultimate accolade in French academia. Foucault had a chair there himself. I’m not quite sure how Hacking fits into the French scene. What you say doesn’t seem to leave most Phil of Science looking that good.

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