Monday, February 15, 2010

Historical Epistemology

I was looking through Barry Stroud's CV this morning (I trust I'm not the only one odd enough to enjoy reading people's vitaes... the practice seems comparable to reading bibliographies), and I noticed that he has a forthcoming contribution to the edited collection, Historical Epistemology.

I had never heard of this concept (I suppose if I worked more with Foucault I might have come across it by now), so I did some more looking around. I couldn't find information on the volume itself, although I have some suspicions that it might actually be the same thing as What (Good) is Historical Epistemology?, from a conference at the Max Planck Institute.

There have been other recent events around historical epistemology as well, including a conference at Columbia and at K.U. Leuven. "Historical Epistemology" seems to be exactly what it sounds like- an historical approach to conditions and possibilities of knowledge. The approach appears to be mostly discussed in the history and philosophy of science. Below is the description from the Columbia conference, which offers a good introduction of what's being talked about:

At the intersection of philosophy and history, historical epistemology has become in recent years a powerful alternative to traditional approaches to the history of science and philosophy. Focused upon conditions of possibility that transcend social causes and biographical idiosyncrasies, historical epistemology uncovers the fundamental concepts that organize the knowledge of different historical periods. It might be defined as the discipline that introduces historical contingency into the ways of understanding the world that appear inescapable to people. Kant was wrong, historical epistemology argues, to think that human beings can only understand the world as, say, Euclidean or ruled by causality. He was right, historical epistemology contends, to work to understand the conditions of possibility underlying knowledge and practice; such careful philosophical work needs to be historically specific.

Historical epistemology is a distinctive Franco-American approach to the history of philosophy and science. Building upon an earlier tradition of French history and philosophy of science culminating in the work of Georges Canguilhem, the work of Michel Foucault pointed towards historical epistemology as a viable approach for studying the past by uncovering and reconstructing the underlying historical apriori of different periods. Three of the most prominent historical epistemologists -- Lorraine Daston, Arnold Davidson and Ian Hacking -- drew on different aspects of Anglo-American philosophy and history in developing Canguilhem and Foucault’s approaches.

The precise contours of historical epistemology nevertheless remain blurry. Some eagerly endorse this approach yet do not offer any sharp positive definition (such as Davidson); others attempt to distinguish it from the history of epistemology in ways that some scholars have found unconvincing (e.g., Daston, criticized by Yves Gingras); still others dispute the name itself, but not the practice (Hacking). Without denying that a certain conceptual imprecision can sometimes be methodologically fruitful, this conference on historical epistemology will bring together scholars who have rarely had the opportunity to discuss publicly their ideas on historical epistemology.
This conversation seems quite related to some of my recent interests, which have tended to focus on historical understanding and conceptions of knowledge, interpretation, and understanding as they relate to theological problems. Arnold Davidson of the Divinity School and Lorrain Daston (recently a visiting professor at the Committee on Social Thought) seem to be closely connected with historical epistemology, although I don't know whether it has a wider presence at Chicago.

If anyone knows more about historical epistemology or has some thoughts on how it might be applied to theological work, please feel free to share. It also seems as if this is a more recent amalgamation of ideas that can actually be traced back a good ways... that is, the ideas presented here are probably a lot older than the disciplinary nomenclature. As far as that is the case, I imagine there's a lot of creative space for relating some of these newer insights with work that has come before.

At the very least, I suppose, there are a few more edited collections to keep an eye on.


  1. I think the notion of "historical epistemology" is kind of a logical outcome of pragmatism (a la Rorty and Brandom). I've taken to talking about "epistemology as ethnography" as a way of getting at this explication of epistemic practices which are contingent.

    And I think you're right re: Foucault. I remember being fascinated by his notion of a "historical apriori" in (I think) Order of Things (it's been a while).

  2. Couldn't this quickly morph into an "enlightenment project?" Now correct me if I'm wrong but Foucault and perhaps several in such a vein (Certeau?) explicitly called their genealogies "interpretations." Would any "historical epistemologists" be willing to go that far? If not, to what extent would we really be able to trust unearthed "historical apriori" of past ages if we can't even unearth our own?

    Don't get me wrong, genealogizing seems to be an incredibly productive tool but how truly "reliable" would such apriori restructuring be? Not least when based primarily off of texts?

    I guess what I'm getting at is that I wonder (out loud) how accurately we can reconstruct such ancient worldviews.

  3. Maybe it's because I've been reading so much Foucault in the last six months, but my immediate thought to this was "Yeah, and...", in the sense that this approach to epistemology makes a lot more sense of things than Kant for me.

    Jamie, do you see this pragmatic turn as obscuring knowledge or illuminating it?

  4. Ian Hacking is another big name in the area of historical epistemology - see his book "Historical Ontology," particularly the title essay, for more on this.

  5. And by the way, Arnold Davidson's interview in the May 2006 edition of "The Believer" (available for free online) might be another good place to look for very preliminary ideas regarding its relevance to theology.

  6. Adhunt, I wonder what makes you especially concerned about this approach. I think the danger you bring up is probably an appropriate one to be concerned about in most any inquiry, but what about this sort of genealogizing makes it especially worrisome for you w.r.t. the possibility of an "Enlightenment project"?

    Myles, I can understand the "yeah, and..." response to this. I think this general insight is much more widely recognized than just Foucault or any new work going under the specific name "historical epistemology". In that sense (although I don't know much about this), it doesn't strike me as especially unique or groundbreaking. Much like some of my earlier comments about some developments in the history of exegesis, I don't think that any given "movement" or "subfield" is usually all that unique. That's not to say that they aren't valuable things to undertake, but simply that we shouldn't necessarily have expectations of always being surprised by some new scholarly epiphany.

    Anon, thanks for the advice on where to look next.

    I'm also wondering... and perhaps those more familiar can help me... is the emphasis here really on historical epistemology? Or is it more of an historical reckoning of epistemology? There's an emphasis on being "historically specific" in the description I quoted above, but then there's also reference to "conditions of possibility that transcend..." and "fundamental concepts that organize...". These two emphases seem to be saying something quite different.

    In any case, I'll keep looking into this and come back with anything useful. Genealogists amongst my readership, please do continue passing on your thoughts.

  7. I'm not saying anything about your pointing it out, Evan; it was more just a curious musing about why this seems to be getting so much attention when for most it seems a foregone conclusion.

    That being said, I do think h.e. leads to certain kinds of reductionisms, i.e. away from causality toward 'accidents of history'.

  8. Evan,

    I was simply envisioning in my mind a hypothetical "historical epistemologist" saying something like: "The reason 'ancients' would believe in (something like) the Resurrection is because of X, Y and Z cultural/epistemological 'reasons.' " And so finding another extraordinarily easy way to group historical blocks of people into definable sections/periods/re-constructed historical epistemologies etc...

    I mean, if Kant couldn't even get his own apriori straightened out, could we "really" get at the epistemology of historical people?

    I see the value in genealogy in it's creativity not it's objectivity.