Philosophy of science has traditionally focused on the relation between scientific theories and the world, at the risk of disregarding scientific practice. In social studies of science and technology, the predominant tendency has been to pay attention to scientific practice and its relation to theories, sometimes willfully disregarding the world except as a product of social construction. Both approaches have their merits, but they each offer only a limited view, neglecting some essential aspects of science. We advocate a philosophy of scientific practice, based on an analytic framework that takes into consideration theory, practice and the world simultaneously.
The direction of philosophy of science we advocate is not entirely new: naturalistic philosophy of science, in concert with philosophical history of science, has often emphasized the need to study scientific practices; doctrines such as Hacking’s “experimental realism” have viewed active intervention as the surest path to the knowledge of the world; pragmatists, operationalists and late-Wittgensteinians have attempted to ground truth and meaning in practices. Nonetheless, the concern with practice has always been somewhat outside the mainstream of English-language philosophy of science. We aim to change this situation, through a conscious and organized programme of detailed and systematic study of scientific practice that does not dispense with concerns about truth and rationality.
Practice consists of organized or regulated activities aimed at the achievement of certain goals. Therefore, the epistemology of practice must elucidate what kinds of activities are required in generating knowledge. Traditional debates in epistemology (concerning truth, fact, belief, certainty, observation, explanation, justification, evidence, etc.) may be re-framed with benefit in terms of activities. In a similar vein, practice-based treatments will also shed further light on questions about models, measurement, experimentation, etc., which have arisen with prominence in recent decades from considerations of actual scientific work.
There are some salient aspects of our general approach that are worth highlighting here.
- We are concerned with not only the acquisition and validation of knowledge, but its use. Our concern is not only about how pre-existing knowledge gets applied to practical ends, but also about how knowledge itself is fundamentally shaped by its intended use. We aim to build meaningful bridges between the philosophy of science and the newer fields of philosophy of technology and philosophy of medicine; we also hope to provide fresh perspectives for the latter fields.
- We emphasize how human artifacts, such as conceptual models and laboratory instruments, mediate between theories and the world. We seek to elucidate the role that these artifacts play in the shaping of scientific practice.
- Our view of scientific practice must not be distorted by lopsided attention to certain areas of science. The traditional focus on fundamental physics, as well as the more recent focus on certain areas of biology, will be supplemented by attention to other fields such as economics and other social/human sciences, the engineering sciences, and the medical sciences, as well as relatively neglected areas within biology, physics, and other physical sciences.
- In our methodology, it is crucial to have a productive interaction between philosophical reasoning and a study of actual scientific practices, past and present. This provides a strong rationale for history-and-philosophy of science as an integrated discipline, and also for inviting the participation of practicing scientists, engineers and policymakers.