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Scientific pluralism and the mission of history and philosophy of science

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Inaugural Lecture by Professor Hasok Chang

What is HPS for? Why do we need such a professional academic discipline? There are many ways of doing HPS and many functions it can serve. However, especially when we intend it as a separate discipline apart from general history, general philosophy, and science itself, I believe that HPS at its best is an expression of pluralism concerning science. The need for HPS in this mode arises from the tendency of modern science to assume that it is in possession of the one right way of studying nature that will eventually yield a uniquely correct and unchangeable body of knowledge. Such an assumption can and should be countered both by philosophical critique and historical awareness. HPS can promote a healthy pluralism concerning science, which holds that it is beneficial to maintain multiple systems of knowledge even within one field of study, both for the distinctive contributions that each system can make and for the benefits of interactions between different systems. This mission of HPS can be most effectively achieved if history and philosophy work together, each maintaining respectful yet critical engagement with science itself. HPS practiced in this way, which I call ‘complementary science’, can improve scientific knowledge by recovering forgotten knowledge from past science, extending the recovered knowledge, and enhancing critical awareness. HPS can also contribute to the maturing of the role of science in society, by helping science move beyond monistic arrogance and enter into an open-minded and constructive engagement with other spheres of life. A full integration of HPS into science education and public intellectual life would be a momentous step, enabling the educated public to participate once again in the cultivation of our knowledge of the universe.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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