Scientific thinking, like that in any arts subject, is carried on by human beings seeking to take a small, faltering step into the unknown. … It has natural ancestors, a genesis, a development, a logical structure; it has conceptual consequences; it has practical applications. … The Department of History and Logic of Science will navigate this stream in the hope that our graduate students may yet learn to set sail on their own in these exciting new studies.
―Norwood Russell Hanson
Arts & Sciences: The Review (May 1960)
With these words, Professor Norwood Russell Hanson announced the grand ambitions of his new department—the first of its kind anywhere—at IU Bloomington in 1960. Hanson, a young and wily professor, had ditched the department of philosophy to start one of his own. He shunned the abstraction of speculative philosophy, which he mocked as “metaphysics,” for a more concrete and situated study of what he called “the logic of science.” He joined forces with Professor Edward Grant, a historian who shared his interest in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Their goal was to teach students the cultural importance of the sciences along with their structures of reasoning. With several other faculty additions, they would soon reclaim the title of “philosophy” to become the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS).
Nevertheless, as a graduate student in the HPS department, I find myself having to explain what exactly “HPS” is to friends, family, and strangers. I am met often with blank stares, gaping mouths, and cautious nods. There are very few other departments and programs of History and Philosophy of Science, which is similar to but different from Science and Technology Studies. As an interdisciplinary endeavor, the field itself is full of tensions. For instance, philosophers (who typically publish alone) have been skeptical about the need for collaboration and are less interested in the messy details of history.
What’s worse still is that, after joining the IU department decades ago, Professor Ron Giere (now emeritus) wondered whether there is really an “intimate connection” between the fields of history of science and philosophy of science. He suggested instead that the relationship was just a “marriage of convenience” for securing intuitional space based on a common interest in science. From the other end, social historians have remained concerned about philosophers’ disregard for the context in which scientists work, like during the so-called “Science Wars” of the ‘90s.
Despite these skepticisms and internal tensions, what have emerged are many different ways of “doing HPS.” The diverse approaches of our department’s faculty exemplify the sort of scholarship that I have come to favor. Some philosophical historians focus on the ways that past scientists (including practitioners of the mathematical disciplines, physicians, and surgeons, called “natural philosophers”) reasoned about the natural world, such as Professor Domenico Bertoloni Meli’s work on visual representations and mathematical thinking in the history of mechanics. Other historicist philosophers analyze how the domain of philosophy of science has changed over time, such as Professor Jordi Cat’s studies of physicist James Maxwell and philosopher/sociologist Otto Neurath. A new movement within HPS pushes for full integration of history and philosophy, typified by Professor Jutta Schickore’s new study of how methodology (for writing and doing snake-venom research!) has changed over the past two centuries.
In turn, we’ve developed several modes for joining science past and present to the liberal arts. Philosophers who want to make their work scientifically relevant try to engage practicing scientists, such as Professor Elisabeth Lloyd’s collaborations with climate scientists to explore the foundations and applications of climate models. Applied philosophers even conduct novel experiments, like how Professor Amit Hagar is working to optimize the diagnoses of breast cancer by predicting personalized rates of disease progression with aerobic fitness. Curious historians also run experiments, like how Professor William Newman has recreated Isaac Newton’s alchemical recipes to understand his old lab notes. Other historians track how the translation of scientific theories transforms them, such as with the German reception of Darwinism cataloged by Professor Sander Gliboff. Closer to home, Professor James Capshew has documented how IU itself has a long history of scientific excellence, including the oldest continuing psychology lab in the country.
As this diversity illustrates, our department provides scholars with the freedom to pursue their own way of doing the history and philosophy of science. It is particularly suited to projects that fall outside the traditional bounds of history or philosophy, just as Hanson originally intended. This freedom attracts students whose main interest is neither the subject matter of their field nor the perennial questions of philosophy or history, but rather those of the sciences. Moreover, as the sciences extend and specialize while continuing to shape society, HPS scholars can provide them with the critical reflection needed for understanding and improvement.
To learn more about IU HPS, see: Grau, Kevin T. “Force and Nature: The Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, 1960-1998.” Isis, 1999, S295–S318. Available at: http://www.indiana.edu/~hpscdept/about/History.pdf.