Scientific Practices in the Philosophers’ Looking-glass

Endla Lõhkivi is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at the University of Tartu and the main organiser of the recent workshop: “Practical Realism – Towards a Realistic Account of Science”.

In the middle of June, philosophers of science from eight countries gathered in Tartu for a three-day workshop entitled “Practical Realism – Towards a Realistic Account of Science”. The workshop was organised by our university’s Chair of Philosophy of Science.

The topic and the background

Philosophy of science, established in its own right in the 19th century, has long been dominated by the so-called armchair approaches. From the armchair perspective, science was seen either as an area for collecting facts and making generalisations, or as making hypotheses and testing them in experiments.

Only few philosophers paid attention to the actual history of science, and even less to the particular practical experimental settings or cultural contexts. This changed radically due to the naturalist turn in philosophy in the last decades of the 20th century.

Since then empirical facts have been increasingly taken into account in philosophy of science, as well as in other areas of philosophy. Philosophy gave up its previously superior position and became a true ally to all academic disciplines.

As a part of this process, science has become an object of scientific research. That is, to a suitable extent, philosophy applies scientific methods to the study of science. An international Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice, founded in 2006, is one of the forums that discusses philosophical issues of scientific practices.

Professors Rom Harré and Rein Vihalemm

The colleagues: Professors Rom Harré and Rein Vihalemm. Photo by Andres Tennus.

Philosophy of science at UT

At our university, the philosophy of science research group consists mainly of philosophers with a background in science. Due to new curricula, it is more complicated for younger researchers to have training both in some natural science and philosophy.

But as two of us – Prof. Rein Vihalemm and I – have graduated from the chemistry department, special attention at our chair is paid to the history and contemporary chemistry.

Prof. Vihalemm, one of the founders of the International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry, has emphasised the role of experimental practices in theory formation in chemistry in many of his publications.

We have been investigating several philosophical issues of scientific practices for many years.  However, this event was the first time we organised an international workshop dedicated specifically to the theoretical view we call practical realism.

The workshop speakers

We invited philosophers who have been contributing to the philosophy of science in practice. As one of our keynote speakers, we invited an outstanding author in the naturalised approach, Professor Joseph Rouse from Wesleyan University, CT, USA, the author of How Scientific Practices Matter: Reclaiming Philosophical Naturalism (2002); Engaging Science: How to Understand its Practices Philosophically (1996); and Knowledge and Power: Towards a Political Philosophy of Science (1987).

The other keynote speaker was Professor Rom Harré from Georgetown University, USA, and the Oxford Linacre College and Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, LSE, UK. Author of more than thirty books, Harré has been studying, amongst other topics, the cultural aspects of science, emphasizing that it is not theories but scientists who refer to scientific objects.

Interestingly, Harré has found inspiration in the idea of Umwelt developed by the Baltic German biologist and alumnus of the University of Tartu (then Dorpat), Jakob von Uexküll. According to Harré, we should interpret scientists’ activities via their life-world or Umwelt. This, of course, applies to all human activities, and it is particularly interesting to see how the sciences in their turn influence our Umwelt.

We were also very glad to host other guest speakers: Hanne Andersen from Aarhus University in Denmark; Sami Pihlström from the Universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä; Rafaela Hillerbrand from RWTH Aachen, Germany; Peeter Müürsepp from Tallinn University of Technology;  Jean-Pierre Llored from CREA/Ecole Polytechnique in France; and Evaldas Juozelis from Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius.

On the part of the organisers, Prof. Rein Vihalemm, Ave Mets, Michiru Nagatsu, Katrin Velbaum, Jaana Eigi, and I gave a talk.

Workshop: “Practical Realism – Towards a Realistic Account of Science”

At the workshop. Photos by Triin Paaver and Mats Volberg

5 theses of practical realism

Practical realism as a philosophical view can be characterised by five theses:

1. Science does not represent the world ‘as it really is’ from a god’s-eye point of view.

Naïve realism and metaphysical realism have assumed the god’s-eye point of view, or the possibility of one-to-one representation of reality, as an ideal to be pursued in scientific theories, or even as a true picture in the sciences.

Representationalism, however, is a tricky view since we lack independent criteria for judging the accuracy of a representation. Either external criteria or additional assumptions are needed, which makes the view implausible.

2. The fact that the world is not accessible independently of scientific theories — or, to be more precise, paradigms (practices) — does not mean that Putnam’s internal realism or “radical” social constructivism is acceptable.

In his work Reason, Truth, and History (1981), Putnam suggested that in the sciences we actually address reality via our internal conceptual schemes. Radical social constructivism suggests that scientific objects are socially constructed and do not exist independently of the construction.

Both of these views are controversial. Internal realism is inconsistent in the sense that it is not realism of any kind, although the title presumes it, and social constructivism in this radical form appears to be self-refuting, since social constructivist views are constructions as well.

On the practical level, the radical social constructivist view contradicts common sense – one simply cannot do anything one wants to, as reality resists.

3. Theoretical activity is only one aspect of science; scientific research is a practical activity and its main form is the scientific experiment that takes place in the real world, being a purposeful and critical theory-guided constructive, as well as a manipulative, material interference with nature.

Thus, from the practical realist perspective practice is not inferior to theory, theories are construed as sets of models, and model construction is a natural part of research practices.

4. Science as practice is also a social-historical activity, which means, amongst other things, that scientific practice includes a normative aspect, too. That means, in turn, that the world, as it is accessible to science, is not free of norms either.

Therefore, according to this view, it is justified to study the researchers’ identities, division of labour, organisation of work and relations within the wider cultural contexts.

5. Though neither naïve nor metaphysical, it is certainly realism, as it claims that what is ‘given’ in the form of scientific practice is an aspect of the real world. Or, perhaps more precisely, science as practice is a way in which we are engaged with the world.

This is the way Joseph Rouse (1987) has proposed we interpret Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm: Through paradigms we are in touch with the world.

Workshop: “Practical Realism – Towards a Realistic Account of Science”

At the workshop. Photos by Triin Paaver and Mats Volberg

All papers presented at the workshop addressed the theses in one or another way. Many interesting case studies and novel theoretical approaches were presented. Feedback from workshop participants has been very positive and strongly encouraging for future research on the topic, and the discussions were highly inspiring and interesting.

For those interested in the topic, I recommend you keep an eye on the Studia Philosophica Estonica journal’s webpage, where the articles based on the presentations will be published in a special issue in 2012.

And last but not least, I would like to thank the Doctoral School of Linguistics, Philosophy and Semiotics, the British Council, the Embassies of the US and France, and the Estonian Science Foundation (grant nos. 7946 and 7163) for their kind support of our workshop.

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