Peter Anstey writes…
It is time to restart the conversation about early modern HPS as we lead up to the Sydney conference which commences in two week’s time.
I am currently in Cambridge and have had a number of talks with philosophers and people working in HPS here and in Paris. A common theme has been that they don’t believe that there is anything particularly unique about HPS in terms of methodology and the sorts of outputs of its practitioners. They are happy to work in HPS departments and hope that the discipline continues, but they are noticing changes in the disciplinary mix with a clear shift towards the social sciences and to sciences studies.
I should like to propose a tentative historical explanation of the current situation of HPS as a disciplinary division with the university sector. I raise it for discussion rather than as my own position statement.
It is very hard to do new, innovative research on a historical period, particularly one as rich as the early modern period, without doing interdisciplinary research. In the 1950s and 1960s and there was little institutional recognition of interdiciplinary research in Anglophone universities. At the same time the philosophy of science was undergoing very exciting developments. There was the hotbed at the LSE in London and Kuhn was nearing his peak in Princeton, to choose just two obvious examples. Now what is striking about these developments in the philosophy of science is that they were inextricably bound to historical episodes in the history of science – Kuhn’s paradigm shifts needed actual examples from the history of science. The combination of these two factors, and perhaps others, led to a new form of interdisciplinary research output – a hybrid if you will – that could not be written without the intersecting of history of science and philosophy. Soon institutional niches opened up to accommodate groups of researchers who were working in this overtly interdisciplinary way. (We could add another paragraph on how sociology of science and the study of technology were soon grafted on, but you get the general picture.)
That was then. It appears that today, by contrast, there is a widespread recognition of the value and the almost ineliminable need for interdisciplinary research in the traditional disciplines themselves: history, philosophy, literature, languages, music, theology. Interdisciplinarity is everywhere and is not merely tolerated but celebrated and funded. At the same time the philosophy of and the history of science have become far more specialized and diffuse. There is no unified set of problems or approaches or dominant players that provide the fulcrum around which HPS is practised. Koyré, Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc. are now part of the history itself.
The result of this higher tolerance of and wider practice of interdisciplinary research, combined with the veritable explosion of and diversification of the history of science and the philosophy of science, is that there is now far less pressure for scholars to find a separate, interdisciplinary, institutional niche within which to work and there is far less of a sense that the methodology of those who do HPS is really all that different from someone studying, say, early modern theology or literature.
A positive consequence of this for HPSers is that we can now celebrate the fact that scholars in other disciplines are working in the way we always have. A negative consequence is that it’s now harder to point out what is unique to HPS either in terms of its methodology or its research outputs. It is, therefore, harder to justify the existence of institutional niches set up for HPS on methodological grounds or in terms of research outputs. The upshot of all of this is that HPS is both in a stronger position and a weaker position. It is now better understood and appreciated because its methods are widely practised by others. Yet it is less unique, less distinctive within the disciplinary matrix in which it is situated.