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Engaging Empirical Insights in Philosophy

Before elaborating on the details of the empirical method that I have chosen to make use of, I want to consider in a meta-methodological way the manner in which I combine philosophical reflection with the empirical insights gained via social-scientific, qualitative methods. Although few philosophers mobilize such methods for their work, the use of empirical insight for philosophical reflection has been extensively discussed in the context of an integrated history and philosophy of science (HPS)—a discussion to which I return here because it helps articulate how the normative and the descriptive, the particular and the abstract, can be fruitfully interwoven for an empirically grounded social epistemology of scientific practice.

“But shouldn’t philosophy be normative?" is a question I frequently encountered when I presented the project of this book to broader philosophical audiences who were unfamiliar with the use of empirical methods. The assertion that philosophical work should be normative often implies the suggestion that it should not be too descriptive, voicing the concern that descriptive care for “time-bound particulars" is not easily reconciled with philosophy’s interest in “timeless truths" and normative standards (Caneva, 2011, p. 51). As philosopher of science William Wimsatt sees it, “[w]ithout normative force, studies of methodology, however interesting, would translate as a catalogue of fortuitous and mysterious particular accidents, with no method at all" (Wimsatt, 2007, p. 26). And yes, indeed, philosophical analyses of scientific practice need to be normative when they address questions of scientific knowledge, characterizing some beliefs as “knowledge" and others not, deeming some propositions “scientifically justified" and others not.

But not all philosophical analysis needs to be outright prescriptive, deriving precise and ultimate claims about how science should be conducted and scientific knowledge should be created. Rather, philosophical accounts of scientific practice can be normative in that they account for the limitations of actual scientific practice and reconstruct the normative judgment inherent in that practice, a judgment reflected in the experience of practicing scientists. For philosophy to be normative in this sense is an undertaking that complements outright prescriptive accounts in worthwhile ways.

In this book, I refrain from making outright prescriptive judgments about “good," “bad" or particularly “efficient” science. Rather, I trace scientists’ vernacular notions of normativity which are embedded in personal experience and individual perspective. I do not offer philosophical advice on how to improve the creation of scientific knowledge, and I fall short of prescriptively outlining which conditions lead most efficiently to the most secure knowledge and why. Instead, I seek to achieve something much more modest. Guided by an interest in epistemological concepts, I provide first-hand insight into what scientific collaboration actually looks like, how practicing scientists go about collaborating, and how they assess its epistemic challenges. I discuss how these empirical insights resonate, complement and help to modify or challenge existing accounts of collaborative knowledge creation in philosophy of science and social epistemology.

How empirical insight can relate to philosophy of science is a question that has been discussed many times regarding the integration of HPS, which has been problematized by a range of scholars and deemed impossible by some. For example, Pitt (2001) argues that anybody who seeks to combine historical case studies and philosophical abstraction is caught in a dilemma: if one takes philosophy as point of departure and picks a case study to elaborate on philosophical claims, “[...] then it is not clear that the philosophical claims have been supported, because it could be argued that the historical data was manipulated to fit the point.” But if one takes historical data as a point of departure, “[...] it is not clear where to go from there—for it is unreasonable to generalize from one case or even two or three” (Pitt, 2001, p. 373). Nonetheless, scholars do integrate historical case studies and philosophical reflections, and it has been suggested that Pitt’s dilemma can be avoided.

The dilemma of either generalizing too much or too little is avoidable, Richard Burian holds, arguing that the historian-philosopher must neither be “philosophically innocent” nor must he or she “proceed to grand conclusions by induction from absurdly small samples” (Burian, 2001, p. 388). Burian agrees with Pitt that approaches which work from first, philosophical principles and then draw on historical data for deductive inference or mere illustration are not helpful. Therefore, he advises the historian-philosopher to work his or her way up from the study of particular scientific practices to context-dependent, “limited generalizations" (Burian, 2001, p. 399). Such inductive case studies, Burian argues, can yield well-established claims of “regional" scope which are fallible but valid (Burian, 2001, p. 400).

While sympathetic to an inductive approach, Hasok Chang has more recently voiced the opinion that it is not rigorous enough. Instead, he argues, “[...] we need [...] to see if we can get beyond an inductive view of the history-philosophy relation, which takes history as particular and philosophy as general" (Chang, 2011, p. 110). He proposes that we should conceive of this relation as that between “the concrete and the abstract," two components intricately interwoven with one another. Without each other, they are meaningless. Any description of analytic depth will necessarily contain both the concrete and the abstract. “This necessity should not be resisted or avoided, but actively embraced as a great intellectual opportunity" (Chang, 2011, p. 111). In this perspective, the task of a philosopher-historian is to “extract abstract insights" (Chang, 2011, p. 110) from the detailed study of historical episodes and show their “cogency" and applicability: “successful application functions as confirmation, but without the presumption of universality in what is confirmed" (Chang, 2011, p. 111). Put differently, concepts show their phil osophical value in the ways in which they can be transferred and, I would like to add, lend themselves to fruitful modification, variation and refinement in different, “concrete" contexts.[1]

The rejection of both a naive inductive as well as a deductive view of the relation between history and philosophy is not new and has been elaborated by other historically minded philosophers in similar ways before. As Jutta Schickore argues, the integration of historical insight and philosophical conceptualization implies a complicated movement back and forth in the course of which empirical insight and conceptual framing constitute one another in a sequence of hermeneutic iterations, eventually leading to a saturated understanding (Schickore, 2009, p. 102). Similarly, Nancy J. Nersessian calls case-study-based reasoning in philosophy of science a “bootstrap procedure" (Nersessian, 1991, p. 683) which, as Paul Thagard puts it, comes to a close when a “reflective equilibrium" is reached (Thagard, 1988, p. 119). On such accounts, historians do not provide “facts" on the basis of which philosophers could draw inductive conclusions in any straightforward way. Nor should historical insights be regarded as “evidence" against which philosophical hypotheses have to be tested (Giere, 2011, p. 64).

My work takes inspiration in the approaches that Chang, Nersessian, Schickore and others have outlined for the integration of historical and philosophical work. I use philosophical concepts to guide my empirical inquiry and interpret empirical data, using empirical insight to reflect on existing conceptual approaches in philosophy of science and social epistemology. I do not seek to “confront" empirical insight with philosophical concepts, but rather to explore the resonances and dissonances between them in a cyclic, dialogical back and forth movement(see also Mansnerus & Wagenknecht, 2015).

My work aims to mediate between the established conceptual (“abstract“) discourse in philosophy and empirical (“concrete“) insights gained through qualitative observation and interviewing. Yet, already before philosophical concepts are reflected against empirical insight, the abstract and the concrete are incorporated into one another in complex ways. Any concrete experiential insight gains shape and, more importantly, meaning only when it is molded into concepts. These concepts need not be philosophical concepts; they can be vernacular notions. To combine empirical insight with philosophical reflection means to add another conceptual layer, another sense in which the concrete relates to the abstract.

In creating a dialog between abstract and concrete, I try to refrain from quickly subsuming empirical insight under philosophical concepts, avoiding the fitting of the one unduly to the other—an ideal that is difficult to achieve given the imbalance between philosophical concepts and first-hand empirical insights that any attempt to mediate between them faces. Existing philosophical concepts are rooted in an established discourse; and they have their adherents and defendants. In contrast, empirical insights are voiced, tentatively, at first only by the researcher who gathers them. Therefore, any empirically grounded philosophy is challenged to find ways to build empirical insight up, consolidate it and retain a sensitivity to its character while engaging with abstract philosophical thought.

In the result of such a dialogical process of inquiry, philosophical concepts can be further differentiated, contextualized and modified. Accordingly, this book offers a conceptual distinction between different forms of epistemic dependence (Chap. 7), provides a contextualized account of epistemic trust (Chap. 8) and discusses how a more practice- minded understanding of the collective character of scientific knowledge can be developed, a philosophical understanding that accounts for the socio-epistemic entanglements which underlie the formulation of natural scientific knowledge by a group of researchers (Chap. 9).

As will become clear in Chaps. 7, 8 and 9, the manner in which I bring together empirical insight and philosophical concepts varies. When I analyze epistemic dependence in Chap. 7, I search for empirical observations that correlate with an established philosophical concept, and on the basis of these observations, I suggest a way to differentiate the concept further. In contrast to epistemic dependence, the notion of trust is much more rooted in the vernacular. Every scientist, it seems, has rich experiences with trust, breaches of trust and the problem of gauging another person’s trustworthiness. In my interviews, scientists were able to provide comprehensive reflections upon trust. For this reason, my work in Chap. 8 has been to present scientists’ quotidian reflections upon trust and provide an account of it that reflects their experiences. My approach in Chap. 9 is different, since the philosophical concepts there are rather abstract, and particularly the concept of joint commitment has little traction with the forms of research collaboration I studied. Therefore, drawing on Melinda Fagan’s work (2011), I try to assess the applicability and the analytic value of these concepts in a more indirect way.

In the remainder of this chapter, I describe how I access “concrete" scientific practice through a comparative case study, relying on ethnographic observation (Sect. 3.2) and interviewing (Sect. 3.3). I regard interviewing as a means of gathering empirical insight in which the dialog between the philosophically abstract and the experientially concrete is, in parts, enacted in an actual dialog between philosopher-interviewer and scientist- interviewee. In Sect. 3.4, I explain how my data analysis intertwined philosophical concepts and the qualitative data I gathered. Finally, in Sect. 3.5, I reflect upon the challenge of conveying a dialog between abstract and concrete to the reader.

  • [1] Compare with reflection in qualitative social scientific method as in George and Bennett (2005)and Gerring (2007).
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