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 is  Historical  Epistemology?  

NOTE:  This  is  an  early  version  of  paper  that  was  translated  into  German  and  published  as:  “Was  ist  historische  

Epistemologie?“  In  Nach  Feierabend.  Ed.  M.  Hagner  and  C.  Hirschi.  Zurich  ,Berlin:  Diaphanes,  2013,  pp.  123-­‐

144.  Please  quote  or  refer  to  the  German  version  of  this  paper  

Omar  W.  Nasim  

Longum  iter  est  per  praecepta,  breve  et  efficax  per  exempla  

                -­-­-­  Seneca  

Historical  epistemology  has  been  one  remarkably  influential  approach  to  the  

history  of  science.  Some  of  the  most  widely  read  authors  have  been  its  

practitioners,  and  their  works  have  been  of  interest  to  philosophers,  historians  of  

science,  historians  of  art,  gender  studies,  sociologists  of  science,  and  cultural  

theorists.  And  recently  a  succession  of  international  conferences  has  taken  place,  

all  aiming  to  get  a  better  grasp  on  historical  epistemology.1  So  what  is  it?  

Before  we  address  this  question,  however,  we  must  begin  by  sketching  a  

particular  landscape  of  relationships  that  have  existed  between  philosophy  and  

history.  Doing  so  will  provide  the  necessary  perspective  in  order  to  delimit  my  
*  This  essay  is  based  on  my  Habilitationsvortrag  delivered  at  the  ETH-­‐Zurich,  Oct.  
2nd,  2012.  I  would  like  to  gratefully  acknowledge  the  useful  comments  made  by  
Michael  Hagner,  and  the  two  anonymous  referees.  
1  These  international  conferences  have  included  one  at  Columbia  University  

(October  10-­‐11,  2008);  at  the  Institute  of  Philosophy,  Leuven  University,  Belgium  
(December  10-­‐12,  2009);  another  at  the  MPIWG  in  Berlin  (July  24-­‐26,  2008);  and  
“Epistemologie  und  Geschichte”  at  the  MPIWG  in  Berlin  (December  9-­‐11,  2010).  
The  last  two  have  resulted  in  publications,  the  former  as  a  special  issue  of  
Erkenntnis,  2011,  75,  edited  by  Thomas  Sturm  and  Uljana  Feest;  and  the  last  has  
been  released  as  a  MPIWG  pre-­‐print  (434)  with  the  title,  “Epistemology  and  
History:  From  Bachelard  and  Canguilhem  to  Today’s  History  of  Science,”  edited  by  
Henning  Schmidgen,  Peter  Schoettler  and  Jean-­‐Francois  Braunstein.    

answer  to  the  main  question.  But  it  will  also  permit  us  to  understand  the  standard  

landscape  into  which  historical  epistemology  has  been  typically  placed  and  

subsequently  judged.  Exploring  some  of  the  different  features  on  this  landscape—

between  philosophy  and  history—will  also  enable  me  to  collect  issues  that  will  be  

flagged  and  addressed  by  my  succeeding  account  of  what  historical  epistemology  

is.  In  the  second  section  I  will  lay  out  some  of  the  relevant  characteristics  of  the  

French  background  to  historical  epistemology.  Then  by  using  an  example,  like  the  

emergence  of  probability,  I  will  focus  in  the  third  section  on  the  broad  

characteristics  of  recent  work  in  historical  epistemology.  And  finally,  in  the  fourth  

section  I  will  end  with  my  contribution  to  the  main  question.  Since  there  has  

recently  been  so  much  written  about  historical  epistemology,  my  contribution  is  

the  result  of  a  survey  of  the  literature,  and  provides  the  broad  outlines  of  what  I  

take  to  be  some  of  the  commonly  accepted  features  in  the  literature.  As  a  result,  

the  divergent  threads  to  be  found  in  this  sizeable  literature  will  not  be  directly  

addressed,  or  their  mention  will  be  limited  to  the  footnotes.  I  will  however  take  

head  on  the  following  challenges:  articulating  the  differences  between  historical  

epistemology  and  history  of  epistemology;  the  relationship  between  the  former  

and  epistemology  itself;  historical  epistemology  and  the  history  of  ideas;  and  I  will  

also  address  the  applicability  of  the  genetic  and  naturalistic  fallacies  to  historical  


I.  Philosophy  and  History,  in  History  

Aristotle  argued  that  history  has  for  its  domain  the  particulars,  while  

philosophy  studies  the  universal.2  Against  this  long  and  multifaceted  tradition,  the  

2  See  Aristotle’s  Poetics  (9,  1451a,  36-­‐38,  1451b,  1-­‐10;  23,  1459a,  22-­‐29).  In  the  

main,  however,  Aristotle  was  concerned  more  with  a  defense  against  Plato  on  

seventeenth  century  saw  the  introduction  of  an  experimental  philosophy  aided  by  

philosophical  instruments  in  the  service  of  a  natural  philosophy.3  But  while  natural  

philosophy  investigated  particulars,  it  still  had  not  completely  dispensed  with  first  

principles  and  universal  laws;  in  fact,  it  remained  positively  imbued  with  

metaphysics.  By  the  time  we  get  to  the  nineteenth  century—and  thus  in  the  midst  

of  the  second  scientific  revolution—things  are  quite  different,  and  this  thanks  to  

two  significant  transformations:  the  near  complete  transformation  of  traditional  

natural  philosophy  into  modern  natural  science,  making  the  latter  professionally  

and  epistemologically  distinct  from  philosophy;  and  second,  the  rise  of  a  new  kind  

of  history,  a  historicism  that  claims  to  go  beyond  the  particulars  even  though  it  

relies  on  them  to  became  a  methodologically  general  science.    

In  the  first  case,  the  arrival  of  natural  science  on  the  scene  helped  to  carve  

out  a  new  identity,  profession,  and  a  unique  domain  of  inquiry  that  no  longer  

overlapped  with  philosophy  and  its  concerns,  as  it  once  had  done.  As  a  result,  

forced  outside  of  philosophy  itself  was  not  only  the  most  successful  form  of  the  

human  epistemic  enterprise  (namely,  the  natural  sciences),  but  also  one  of  the  

most  temporal,  situated,  and  empirical  components  of  the  philosophical  repertoire.  

It  was  Kant  who  helped  to  articulate  philosophy’s  task  in  this  milieu.  Philosophy  in  

his  hands  becomes  the  study  of  universal  and  apriori  conditions  and  regulations  

poetry,  than  with  providing  a  systematic  account  of  history.  For  Aristotle  on  the  
nature  of  philosophy,  D.  K.  Modrak,  “Aristotle  on  the  difference  between  
Mathematics  and  Physics  and  First  Philosophy,”  Apeiron,  1989,  22:  121–139;  2009;  
M.  V.  Wedin,  “The  Science  and  Axioms  of  Being,”  Anagnostopoulos,  2009,  pp.  125–
3  See  Steven  Shapin  and  Simon  Schaffer,  Leviathan  and  the  Air-­Pump:  Hobbes,  Boyle,  

and  the  Experimental  Life,  Princeton  University  Press,  1985;  Peter  Dear,  
Revolutionizing  the  Sciences:  European  Knowledge  and  its  Ambitions,  1500-­1700,  
Basingstoke:  Palgrave,  2001.    

that  make  a  science  possible  in  the  first  place;  a  task  that  must  remain  outside  of  

the  domain  of  scientific  inquiry  itself,  since  the  latter’s  proper  operation  depends  

on  taking  for  granted  those  very  concepts  and  categories  which  are  in  question  for  

the  philosopher.  No  longer  would  it  be  in  the  preview  of  one  and  the  same  domain  

of  inquiry  to  study  the  natural  world  and  to  study  the  study  of  the  natural  world,  as  

many—like  Descartes  or  Newton—had  previously  done.4      

This  separation  is  not  only  well  exemplified  by  the  invention  of  the  

neologism  “scientist”  (in  contradistinction  to  “natural  philosopher”  and  “artist”)  by  

William  Whewell  in  the  summer  of  1833,5  but  also  by  the  fact  that  Whewell  made  

it  a  point  to  first  write  the  History  of  the  Inductive  Sciences  (in  3  volumes),  and  then  

and  only  then  to  write  the  Philosophy  of  the  Inductive  Sciences  (in  2  volume).  It  was  

only  in  this  way,  thought  Whewell,  that  we  can  extract  the  logic  of  justification  

from  the  context  of  discovery:  the  is  did  most  certainly  imply  the  ought.  The  

thinking  was  that  if  we  go  inductively  from  the  particulars  that  exemplify  the  

canonical  discoveries  of  scientists  in  the  past,  then  we  can  get  to  the  generalities  

and  thus  the  precepts  that  must  guide  science  today.  The  past  of  scientific  progress  

is  a  how-­‐to-­‐manual  for  scientists  today.  And  just  like  any  how-­‐to-­‐manual  its  

normativity  lies  in  the  conditional  (as  opposed  to  the  categorical)  inference  that  if  

4  See  essays  in  the  volume  edited  by  Tom  Sorell,  G.  A.  J.  Rogers,  and  Jill  Kraye,  

Scientia  in  Early  Modern  Philosophy:  Seventeenth-­Century  Thinkers  on  

Demonstrative  Knowledge  from  First  Principles,  Springer,  2010;  Peter  R.  Anstey,  
John  Locke  and  Natural  Philosophy,  Oxford  University  Press,  2011;  Daniel  Garber,  
Descartes’  Metaphysical  Physics,  Chicago:  University  of  Chicago  Press,  1992;  and  
William  R.  Shea,  The  Magic  of  Numbers  and  Motion:  The  Scientific  Career  of  Rene  
Descartes,  Canton,  Mass:  Science  History  Publications,  1991.  Also  see  the  review  
essay  by  Gary  Hatfield,  “The  Importance  of  the  History  of  Science  for  the  
Philosophy  in  General,”  Synthese,  1996,  106:  113-­‐128.  
5  Laura  Synder,  The  Philosophical  Breakfast  Club:  Four  Remarkable  Friends  Who  

Transformed  Science  and  Changed  the  World,  Broadway  Books,  2011.    

an  expert  has  already  successfully  accomplished  Φ  by  doing  a,  b,  and  c,  and  if  one  

wishes  to  accomplish  the  same,  then  one  too  ought  to  do  a,  b,  and  c.  In  fact,  before  

the  advent  of  historicism,  this  view  of  history’s  task—to  provide  an  exemplar  for  

correct  action  and  thought—finds  its  roots  in  ancient  writings.6  But  what  makes  

Whewell’s  work  ostensibly  historicist  in  tendency  is  his  overall  insistence  in  

keeping  history  methodologically  independent  of  philosophy,  while  making  

philosophy  inextricably  dependent  on  history  and  its  methods.    Thus  with  the  

decisive  separation  of  science  from  philosophy  in  the  nineteenth  century,  it  is  

history  that  comes  in  to  fill  the  newly  formed  gap  between  the  two.    

With  its  newly  developed  tools  and  techniques,  historicism  came  to  be  seen  

as  a  powerful  method  for  the  Geisteswissenchaften.7  It  was  precisely  because  

Whewell  recognized  the  power  of  the  historical  method  that  he  used  it  to  help  him  

formulate  one  of  the  earliest  philosophies  of  science,  a  discipline  that  appears  only  

after  the  separation  of  science  from  philosophy.8  At  the  same  time,  however,  we  

6  See  George  H.  Nadel,  “Philosophy  of  History  Before  Historicism,”  History  and  

Theory,  3:  291-­‐315.  

7  See  for  example,  Windelband,  “Geschichte  und  Naturwissenschaft,”  Strassburg  

Universitaet:  Gelegenheitsschriften,  1892-­96,  Strassbourg,  1896,  15-­‐41;  and  Dilthey,  

“Der  Aufbau  der  geschtlichen  Welt  in  den  Geisteswissenschaften,”  Abhandlungen  
der  Preussischen  Akademie  der  Wissenschaften,  Philosophisch-­Historische  Klasse,  
Berlin  1910,  1-­‐123.  Also  see,  Peter  Hanns  Reill,  The  German  Enlightenment  and  the  
Rise  of  Historicism,  Berkeley:  University  of  California  Press,  1975;  Dwight  Lee  and  
Robert  N.  Beck,  “The  Meaning  of  ‘Historicism,’”  American  Historical  Review,  1954,  
59:  568-­‐77;  Friedrich  Meinecke,  Die  Entstehung  des  Historismus,  2  vols.,  Munich  
and  Berlin,  1936.  
8  One  of  the  very  first  works  in  the  philosophy  of  science,  as  a  distinct  discipline,  

was  written  by  one  of  Whewell’s  closest  friends,  Sir  John  Herschel;  that  is,  his  A  
Preliminary  Discourse  on  the  Study  of  Natural  Philosophy,  1831.  The  work,  in  fact,  
not  only  reads  like  a  manual,  but  it  has  been  argued,  is  a  manual,  see  Marvin  Paul  
Bolt,  John  Herschel’s  Natural  Philosophy:  On  the  Knowing  of  Nature  and  the  Nature  
of  Knowing  in  Early-­Nineteenth  Century  Britain,  a  doctoral  dissertation  submitted  

have  the  exceptional  phenomena  of  systems  of  thought  that  are  conceptually  

reliant  on  a  general  history  that  is  intrinsically  philosophical,  such  as  in  the  tomes  

of  Hegel,  Comte,  and  Marx.  For  all  their  differences,  history  in  the  hands  of  these  

thinkers  is  rational  and  teleological,  and  is  governed  by  universals.  And  in  sharp  

contrast  to  Whewell’s  inductive  use  of  the  history  of  the  sciences  as  a  series  of  

particular  exemplars,  philosophical  history  is  not  only  regarded  as  imbued  with  

logic  (deductive  and  dialectical),  but  is  also  therefore  intrinsically  normative  and  

axiological.  By  bringing  time  and  logic  so  closely  together,  Hegel  was  able  to  give  a  

central  place  to  the  philosophy  of  history.9  With  the  inevitable  march  of  time  we  

can  only  come  closer  and  closer  to  the  Truth.  The  very  progress  of  science  is  a  

necessary  function  of  history;  and  in  so  far  as  history  is  philosophy,  science  once  

again  becomes  subsumed  under  philosophy.                      

  At  the  beginning  of  the  twentieth  century,  however,  scientifically  minded  

philosophers  inspired  by  the  dazzling  successes  of  the  natural  sciences,  attempted  

to  make  philosophy  itself  into  an  science,  without  allowing  it  to  intrude  on  the  

latter’s  domain  of  inquiry.  By  arguing  for  hard  fast  distinctions  between  analytic  

and  synthetic  statements,  empirical  and  non-­‐empirical  knowledge,  and  eschewing  

any  cross  over  between  the  two  by  means  of  Kant’s  synthetic  a  priori,  philosophers  

succeeded—for  a  time,  at  least—to  demarcate  their  own  distinct  domain  of  subject  

matter  from  the  empirical  sciences.  While  the  sciences  might  be  said  to  deal  with  

the  empirical,  the  time-­‐dependent,  and  what  is,  it  is  the  domain  of  philosophy  to  

study  the  non-­‐empirical,  the  timeless,  and  what  must  be  and  what  should  be.  The  
to  the  Program  in  History  and  Philosophy  of  Science  at  the  University  of  Notre  
Dame,  1998.    
9  See  F.  C.  Beiser,  “Hegel’s  Historicism,”  The  Cambridge  Companion  to  Hegel,  edited  

by  F.  C.  Beiser,  Cambride  University  Press,  1993,  pp.  270-­‐300.  


motivation  for  these  distinctions  arose  partly  in  light  of  a  strong  reaction  by  early  

twentieth  century  philosophers  against  psychologism,  and,  more  generally  

speaking,  against  naturalisms  of  all  sorts,  including  historicism.10    

Apart  from  thus  distinguishing  philosophy  from  science,  philosophers  once  

again,  and  in  reaction  to  Hegelianism,  separated  philosophy  sharply  and  explicitly  

from  other  empirical  disciplines,  including  history.11  By  this  time,  in  fact,  

philosophers  began  to  accuse  those  who  had  naturalized  philosophy,  in  some  way  

or  other,  of  having  committed  two  major  fallacies;  fallacies  which  were  also  used  

(and  continue  to  be  used)  to  attack  the  employment  of  historical  methods  in  

philosophy.  One  was  the  genetic  fallacy,  where  deducing  the  logical  validity  of  a  

theory  or  proposition  from  information  about  its  origins  is  deemed  logically  

unacceptable.  Hans  Reichenbach’s  separation  between  the  contexts  of  discovery  

from  the  context  of  justification  is  precisely  meant  to  avoid  this  first  kind  of  fallacy.  

And  the  second  is  the  naturalistic  fallacy,  which  is  committed  when  what  is  or  was  

the  case  is  used  to  imply  what  ought  to  be  the  case.  Such  critiques  by  early  

twentieth  century,  scientifically  minded  philosophers  were  certainly  indicative  of  a  

more  general  trend  against  naturalism  in  philosophy.  

In  the  twentieth  century  “scientific  philosophy”  was  quick  to  catch  on  

among  German,  Austrian,  Polish,  and  British  philosophers;  and  it  is  the  direct  

10  It  should  be  noted  however  analytic  philosophy’s  relationship  to  naturalism  has  

remained  a  complex  and  indecisive  one,  right  from  the  start.  See  Martin  Kusch,  
Psychologism:  A  Case  Study  in  the  Sociology  of  Philosophical  Knowledge,  Routledge,  
1995;  but  especially  Philip  Kitcher,  “The  Naturalists  Return,”  Philosophical  Review,  
1992,  101:  53-­‐114.    
11  For  more  on  Hegel  and  analytic  philosophy,  see  Peter  Hylton,  “Hegel  and  

Analytic  Philosophy,”  The  Cambridge  Companion  to  Hegel,  edited  by  F.  C.  Beiser,  
Cambride  University  Press,  1993,  pp.  445-­‐486,  and  the  essays  edited  by  Angelica  
Nuzzo,  Hegel  and  the  Analytic  Tradition,  London:  Continuum,  2010.  

ancestor  of  the  dominant  model  of  philosophy  today  in  the  Anglo-­‐Saxon  world;  

namely,  analytic  philosophy.12  The  hallmark  of  this  approach,  at  least  when  it  first  

began  on  its  programmatic  path,  was  that  rather  than  focus  on  everyday  natural  

languages,  philosophers  were  tasked  with  the  analysis  of  scientific  statements  by  

translating  them  into  formal  languages  made  possible  thanks  to  newly  developed  

logical  tools  and  methods.  The  analysis  of  these  statements  would  reveal  opaque  

or  unwarranted  assumptions  on  the  part  of  science,  especially  with  regard  to  such  

notions  as  existence,  time,  space,  cause,  matter,  and  mind.  The  task  of  the  

philosopher  became  a  purely  second-­‐order  task,  having  for  its  domain  the  first-­‐

order  statements  of  physical  theory.  As  such,  philosophy  might  be  kept  from  

making  statements  directly  about  the  empirical  world.  One  might  go  as  far  as  to  

say  that  some  luminaries  of  this  approach,  like  Reichenbach  and  Rudolf  Carnap,  at  

one  time  or  another,  considered  it  their  philosophical  duty  to  expose  and  clarify  

the  constitutive  and  regulative  principles,  and  thus,  the  a  priori  framework  that  

makes  the  empirical  statements  of  a  physical  theory  possible.  It  is  in  this  light,  and  

inspired  by  the  model  of  geometry  and  its  modern  axiomatic  method,  that  

Reichenbach  formulated  his  notion  of  the  relative  a  priori.13      

12  For  more  on  this  tradition  in  philosophy  see  the  now  classic  collection  of  essays  

by  Juliet  Floyd  and  Sanford  Shieh  (eds.),  Future  Pasts:  The  Analytic  Tradition  in  
Twentieth-­Century  Philosophy,  Oxford  University  Press,  2001,  and  also  the  essays  
in  Anat  Biletzki  and  Anat  Matar  (eds.),  The  Story  of  Analytic  Philosophy:  Plot  and  
Heroes,  London  and  New  York:  Routledge,  1998.  
13  See  Samet  Bagce,  “Reichenbach  on  the  relative  a  priori  and  the  context  of  

discovery/justification  distinction,”  Synthese,  2011,  181:  79-­‐93;  Michael  Friedman,  

Reconsidering  Logical  Positivism,  Cambridge:  Cambridge  University  Press,  1999;  V.  
Peckhaus,  “Psychologism  and  the  Distinction  Between  Discovery  and  Justification,”  
in  J.  Schikore  and  F.  Steinle  (eds.),  Revisiting  Discovery  and  Justification,  Dordrecht:  
Springer,  96-­‐116;  and  Thomas  Uebel,  “De-­‐Synthesizing  the  Relative  A  priori,”  
Studies  in  the  History  and  Philosophy  of  Science,  2012,  43:  7-­‐17.  

  At  this  time  the  newly  formed  philosophy  of  science  begins  to  flourish,  

while  the  enthusiasm  that  once  existed  for  the  history  of  philosophy  wanes.  In  fact  

the  distinctions  that  were  being  established  and  stabilized  within  the  tradition  of  

analytic  philosophy  (re-­‐)shaped  these  two  domains—philosophy  of  science  and  

history  of  science—in  specific  ways.  First,  with  respect  to  the  pursuit  of  the  history  

of  philosophy,  many  in  the  analytic  tradition  have  excluded  it  from  the  activity  of  

philosophy,  proper.14  This  is  because  what  came  to  define  the  scope  of  analytic  

philosophy  was  a  set  of  definite  problems  canonized  by  the  likes  of  Bertrand  

Russell  and  G.  E.  Moore,  like  the  problem  of  the  external  world,  the  problem  of  

induction,  or  the  problem  of  other  minds.15  As  such,  philosophy,  much  like  science,  

becomes  a  problem-­‐solving  enterprise;  and  if  history  can  at  all  be  conceived  of  as  

being  a  part  of  philosophy  it  must  contribute  to  this  project.  In  this  light,  the  value  

of  the  history  was  found  in  (or  limited  to)  its  rational  reconstruction  of  bygone  

arguments  in  order  to  evaluate  them  in  light  of  (supposedly)  the  same  set  of  

problems  that  philosophers  today  are  concerned  with.  The  problems,  arguments,  

statements,  and  concepts  employed  are  presumed  to  be  ahistorical,  general,  and  

universal;  and  thus  there  is  little  inclination  to  question  the  similarity  or  identity  of  

the  concepts,  statements,  and  problems  used  in  another  time  and  place.  Present  

problems  of  philosophy  are  also  the  problems  of  yesteryear,  and  solutions  to  these  

problems,  whether  from  deep  in  the  past  or  fresh  off  the  press,  are  all  assessed  

14  But  see  discussion  and  analysis  in  Hans-­‐Johann  Glock,  “Analytic  Philosophy  and  

History:  A  Mismatch?”  Mind,  2008,  117:  867-­‐897.  For  recent  and  positive  views  on  
the  relationship  also  see  essays  in  T.  Sorell  and  G.  A.  J.  Rogers  (eds.),  Analytic  
Philosophy  and  History  of  Philosophy,  Oxford:  Clarendon  Press,  2005.  
15  Bertrand  Russell,  Problems  of  Philosophy,  1912,  G.  E.  Moore,  Some  Main  Problems  

of  Philosophy,  1953  (originally  a  set  of  lectures  from  1910-­‐11),  and  William  James,  
Some  Problems  of  Philosophy,  1911.      

equally  and  according  to  the  same  standards  and  methods.  In  this  context,  

however,  what  often  goes  unacknowledged  is  that  these  same  standards  and  

methods,  namely  modern  logical  and  linguistic  analysis,  were  themselves  devised  

and  developed  at  a  very  particular  time  and  place—in  fact,  there  is  no  functional  

polyadic  logic  before  Frege  or  Russell.  

The  view  just  outlined  has  been  called  the  “pen-­‐pal”  approach  to  the  history  

of  philosophy.  Or  as  two  historians  have  put  it,  analytic  philosophers  treat  X,  where  

X  is  some  great  long  dead  philosopher,  “as  an  absent  colleague…on  an  extended  

leave  of  absence.”16  Considering  the  early  aspirations  (or  pretensions)  of  analytic  

philosophy  in  becoming  an  exact  science,  this  comportment  to  history  should  come  

as  no  surprise.  For  one  often  finds  that  those  scientists  who  write  the  history  of  

their  own  discipline  tend  to  embrace  anachronism,  articulating  histories  that  

happen  to  neatly  progress  and  develop  steadily,  rationally,  and  surely  to  the  most  

recent  and  polished  form  of  science  today.17  Foucault  refers  to  this  latter  history  as  

one  that  uses  a  “recurrential  analysis”  and  regards  it  to  be  an  exercise  within  and  

internal  to  the  sciences  themselves,  especially  in  the  case  of  those  that  have  

reached  a  high  level  of  formalism.18  In  a  similar  vein,  then,  many  from  the  analytic  

tradition  too  have  written  their  own  histories  as  a  story  of  progress  and  success.19  

16  Ian  Hacking,  Historical  Ontology,  Harvard  University  Press,  2002,  pp.  6,  27,  55,  

56;  and  G.  P.  Baker  and  P.  M.  S.  Hacker,  Language,  Sense  and  Nonsense,  Oxford:  
Blackwell,  1984,  p.  4.  
17  But  for  an  antidote  to  this  common  generalization  see,  L.  Daston,  “The  Sciences  

of  the  Archive,”  Osiris,  2012,  27:  156-­‐187.  

18  Michel  Foucault,  The  Archaeology  of  Knowledge,  Routledge,  2002,  p.  209.  In  this  

regard,  Foucault  cites  here  Michel  Serres’  Hermes  ou  la  communication,  p.  78.  
19  A  good  example  is  Michael  Dummett,  Origins  of  Analytic  Philosophy,  Harvard  

University  Press,  1993.  In  sharp  contrast  see  the  historically  sensitive  work  of  

But  while  one  can  easily  understand  why  science  might  approach  its  history  in  

these  terms,  it  is  much  harder  to  grant  the  same  to  philosophy.  To  be  sure,  the  

problem  whether  philosophy  has  in  fact  progressed  is  a  recent  one,  which  not  only  

first  arises  in  attempts  to  make  philosophy  a  kind  of  science,  but  also  by  the  way  

analytic  philosophy  has  tended  to  write  its  own  history—that  is,  as  a  science.20    

In  so  far  as  analytic  philosophy  of  science  is  concerned,  it  has  been  for  the  

most  part  a  normative  enterprise:  it  decides  what  sorts  of  concepts,  statements,  

arguments,  and  methods  are  or  are  not  permissible  within  the  sciences.  Its  

relationship  to  history,  at  least  initially,  might  be  summarized  by  quoting  from  the  

Hans  Sluga,  Gottlob  Frege,  Routledge  and  Kegan  Paul,  1980.  But  perhaps  an  even  
better  example  than  Dummett  and  of  this  anachronistic  tendency  is  the  award  
winning  two  volume  work  by  Scott  Soames,  Philosophical  Analysis  in  the  Twentieth  
Century,  Volume  1:  the  Dawn  of  Analysis,  and  Volume  2:  The  Age  of  Meaning,  
Princeton  University  Press,  2003.  The  work  was  not  only  widely  acclaimed,  but  
also  widely  criticized  for  its  historiography.  This  is  thus  a  good  place  to  emphasize  
that  even  within  analytic  philosophy  there  are  many  who  are  now  taking  its  
history  seriously.  Just  consider  the  following  abridged  list  of  those  who  heavily  
criticized  Soames’  teleological  history:  P.  M.  S.  Hacker,  “Soames’  History  of  Analytic  
Philosophy,”  The  Philosophical  Quarterly,  2006,  56:  121-­‐31;  Christopher  Pincock,  
“History  of  Philosophical  Analysis  a  Review  of  Soames,”  Russell:  The  Journal  of  
Bertrand  Russell  Studies,  2005,  25:  168-­‐171;  Scott  Soames,  “Reply  to  Pincock’s  
Review,”  Russell:  The  Journal  of  Bertrand  Russell  Studies,  2005,  25:  172-­‐177;  
Christopher  Pincock,  “Rejoinder  to  Soames,”  Russell:  The  Journal  of  Bertrand  Russell  
Studies,  2006,  26:  77-­‐86.  In  reply  to  Hacker,  Soames  says  that  the  aim  of  his  two  
volumes  was  to  construct  “a  history  that  was  itself  a  piece  of  analytic  philosophy  in  
its  emphasis  on  analysis,  reconstruction  and  criticism  of  arguments;”  and  this  
required  “a  clear  conception  of  what  did,  and  what  did  not,  constitute  lasting  
progress,”  (in  Soames,  “Hacker’s  Complaint,”  The  Philosophical  Quarterly,  2006,  56,  
p.  426).  
20  See  W.  M.  Urban,  “Progress  in  Philosophy  in  the  Last  Quarter  Century,”  The  

Philosophical  Review,  1926,  35:  93-­‐123;  T.  C.  Moody,  “Progress  in  Philosphy,”  
American  Philosophical  Quarterly,  1986,  23:  35-­‐46;  and  recently  Eric  Dietrich,  
“There  is  No  Progress  in  Philosophy,”  Essays  in  Philosophy:  Philosophy’s  Future:  
Science  or  Something  Else?,  2011,  12:  329-­‐344  actually  argues  that  because  
philosophers  deal  with  the  very  same  problems  that  the  pre-­‐Socratics  did,  there  
can  be  no  progress.  See  also,  Gary  Gutting,  What  Philosophers  Know:  Case  Studies  in  
Recent  Analytic  Philosophy,  Cambridge  University  Press,  2009.  

Vienna  Circle’s  manifesto,  wherein  it  is  announced  that  from  a  

“Einheitswissenschaft”  and  “Kollektivarbeit”  


“entspringt  das  Suchen  nach  einem  neutralen  Formelsystem,  einer  von  den  

Schlacken  der  historischen  Sprachen  befreiten  Symbolik  …  Sauberkeit  und  

Klarheit  werden  angestrebt,  dunkle  Fernen  und  unergruendliche  Tiefen  

abgelehnt.  In  der  Wissenschaft  gibt  es  keine  ‘Tiefen’;  ueberall  ist  

Oberflaeche:  Alles  Erlebte  bildet  ein  kompliziertes,  nicht  immer  

ueberschaubares,  oft  nur  im  einzelnen  fassbares  Netz.”21      

However,  in  the  1960s  philosophers  of  science  were  directly  challenged  by  

the  work  of  Thomas  Kuhn  (and  others  like  Paul  Feyerabend)  to  open  the  doors  

wide  to  the  darkness  and  depth  of  the  history  of  sciences,  which  instead  went  far  

to  make  philosophy  of  science  a  lot  more  self-­‐reflexive.22  What  precisely  history  of  

science’s  role  is  with  respect  to  the  philosophy  of  science  has  been  a  matter  of  

21  Rudolf  Carnap,  Hahns  Hahn,  Otto  Neurath,  “Wissenschaftliche  Welftauffassung  

der  Wiener  Kreis,”  Wiener  Kreis:  Texte  zur  wissenschaftlichen  Weltauffassung  von,  
Meiner  Verlag,  2006,  11.  
22  It  was  already  in  Hacking’s  1975  work,  which  I  take  up  as  an  exemplary  study  in  

the  historical  epistemology  below,  that  he  declared  that  “spaces  of  possibilities”  
can  “liberate  us  from  the  cycle  of  probability  theories  that  has  trapped  us  for  so  
long.  This  last  feature  has  a  familiar  ring.  The  picture  is,  formally,  the  same  as  the  
one  used  by  the  psychoanalysts  and  by  the  English  philosophers  of  language.  
‘Events  preserved  in  memory  only  below  the  level  of  consciousness’,  ‘rules  of  
language  that  lie  deep  below  the  surface’,  and  ‘a  conceptual  space  determined  by  
forgotten  precondtions’:  all  three  have,  of  course,  a  common  ancestor  in  Hegel”  
(Hacking,  The  Emergence  of  Probability:  A  Philosophical  Study  of  Early  Ideas  About  
Probability,  Induction,  and  Statistical  Inference,  2nd  edition,  Cambridge  University  
Press,  2006  [1975],  p.  16.  

serious  dispute.23  But  there  are  at  least  two  things  that  Kuhn  helped  to  legitimate:  

first,  the  use  of  history  as  (counter-­‐)  evidence  in  the  philosophy  of  science;  and  

secondly,  with  the  introduction  of  the  notion  of  a  paradigm-­‐shift,  a  discontinuous  

picture  of  science’s  history  becomes  firmly  rooted.  This  discontinuity  has  forced  

philosophers  of  science  to  first  acknowledge  and  access  older  and  other  forms  of  

science  before  they  then  can  evaluate  them.  Philosophers  of  science,  therefore,  

have  confronted  (and  continue  to  confront,  to  some  extent  or  other)  the  question  

of  whether  concepts,  statements,  and  problems  of  science  have  remained  the  same  

regardless  of  place  and  time.  In  some  cases,  then,  getting  the  history  right  comes  

before  analysis  in  the  philosophy  of  science.  The  irony,  therefore,  is  that  work  in  

analytic  philosophy  of  science  can  often  be  more  historically  sensitive  compared  to  

when  analytic  philosophers  write  their  own  history.              

  The  landscape  just  outlined  remains  rough  but  it  permits  us  to  appreciate  

the  array  of  connections  that  have  existed  between  philosophy,  science,  and  

history,  and  thus  it  goes  some  ways  in  helping  us  to  recognize  the  contingency  of  

these  connections.  Indeed,  how  one  comes  to  formulate  the  connections  between  

any  of  these  three  will  depend  heavily  on  how  one  defines  the  parameters  of  

each—and  there  have  been  many  different  meanings  attached  to  each,  even  in  one  

and  the  same  tradition.  At  the  same  time,  the  landscape  outlined  permits  us  to  

highlight  and  flag  key  points  and  issues  related  to  these  relationships  just  plotted.  

Before  I  go  on  to  contrast  the  foregoing  landscape  to  historical  epistemology  then,  

23  For  a  recent  and  excellent  survey  of  these  tensions  see,  Jutta  Schickore,  “More  

Thoughts  on  HPS:  Another  20  Years  Later,”  Perspectives  on  Science,  2011,  19:  453-­‐
481;  also  Larry  Laudan,  “Thoughts  on  HPS:  20  Years  Later,”  Studies  in  the  History  
and  Philosophy  of  Science,  1989,  20:  9-­‐13;  and  see  the  collection  of  essays  in  S.  
Mauskopf  and  T.  Schmaltz  (eds.),  Integrating  History  and  Philosophy  of  Science:  
Problems  and  Prospects,  Springer,  2012.    

allow  me  to  then  clearly  earmark  the  points  and  issues  we  should  keep  before  us  

as  we  continue.  These  are  the  relationships  between  the  normative  and  

descriptive,  between  genesis  and  validity,  between  philosophy  and  history  

(particularly  when  it  comes  to  the  sciences),  and  finally,  the  commitment  to  

timeless  elements  found  or  assumed  when  some  philosophers  write  history.  With  

these  in  mind,  the  contours  of  historical  epistemology  will  begin  to  emerge  more  


II.  The  French  Connection  

Historical  epistemology  seems  to  originate  in  two  different  places  at  around  the  

same  time.  The  first  is  out  of  what  is  essentially  the  Austrian  context  with  the  likes  

of  Ludwig  Fleck,  and  which  can  be  seen  as  a  direct  and  contemporary  response  to  

early  analytic  philosophers  also  in  and  around  the  same  cultural  and  geographical  

context.24  The  second  arises  from  another  philosophical  traditional  or  context  

altogether;  namely,  a  particular  line  of  thinking  about  history  of  science  and  

philosophy  to  be  found  in  Paris  in  the  1920s  and  30s.  It  is  only  relatively  recently  

that  this  tradition  was  made  to  confront  analytic  philosophy.  Due  to  considerations  

of  space,  I  have  chosen  to  focus  primarily  on  the  second  tradition.    

Contextually,  historical  epistemology  relates  to  a  more  general  assumption  

on  the  part  of  the  French  epistemological  tradition,  that  knowledge  can  only  be  

adequately  understood  if  studied  in  its  historical  development;  this  assumption  

can  in  fact  be  traced  to  some  influential  French  thinkers  of  the  nineteenth-­‐century,  
24  See  Michael  Hagner,  “Perception,  Knowledge,  and  Freedom  in  the  Age  of  

Extremes:  On  the  Historical  Epistemology  of  Ludwick  Fleck  and  Michael  Polanyi,”  
Studies  in  East  European  Thought,  2012,  64:  107-­‐120;  and  Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheinberger,  
Historische  Epistemologie  zur  Einfuehrung,  Junius  Verlag,  2007.  

like  Auguste  Comte  and  Antoine  Cournot.  But  in  so  far  as  the  twentieth  century  is  

concerned,  historical  epistemology  is  connected  to  the  Institut  d’Histoire  des  

Sciences  et  Technique  founded  by  Abel  Rey  in  1932  at  the  Sorbonne.  It  was  Rey’s  

successor  at  the  chair  and  directorship  of  the  institute,  Gaston  Bachelard,  to  whom  

the  label  historical  epistemologist  was  first  applied.25  The  label  itself  comes  from  

Georges  Canguilhem,  who  was  to  be  Bachelard’s  successor  to  the  same  post  at  the  

same  institute  in  1955.  If  we  add  Michel  Foucault,  who  studied  with  Canguilhem,  

we  then  will  have  the  early  institutional  and  philosophical  legacy  of  historical  

epistemology  in  France.26        

My  aim  is  not  to  provide  the  details  of  the  different  strands  of  this  complex,  

multifaceted  and  ever-­‐evolving  French  tradition.27  But  since  this  tradition  is  

significant  to  contemporary  work  in  historical  epistemology,  it  is  important  to  

underscore  what  I  take  to  be  important  from  it.  First  with  regard  to  the  influential  

work  of  Bachelard,  a  crucial  factor  is  his  claim  that  history  is  epistemological  

because  its  movement  is  also  the  movement  from  non-­‐science  to  science,  

irrationality  to  rationality,  and  subjectivity  to  objectivity.  This  is  epistemological  

because  as  soon  as  the  rapturous  move  from  one  to  the  other  is  made  concepts,  

beliefs,  judgments,  or  objects  are  excluded  while  others  are  included  as  scientific,  

25  D.  Lecourt,  L’Epistémologie  historique  de  Gaston  Bachelard,  Paris:  Vrin,  1969.  

26  See  Cristina  Chimisso,  “The  Tribunal  of  Philosophy  and  its  Norms:  History  and  

Philosophy  in  Georges  Canguilhem’s  Historical  Epistemology,”  Studies  in  the  

History  and  Philosophy  of  Biological  and  Biomedical  Sciences,  2003,  34:  297-­‐327;  
Also  see,  Peter  Dews,  “Foucault  and  the  French  Tradition  of  Historical  
Epistemology,”  History  of  European  Ideas,  1992,  14:  347-­‐63;  and  Hans-­‐Jörg  
Rheinberger,  On  Historicizing  Epistemology:  An  Essay,  Stanford:  Stanford  University  
Press,  2010.  
27  For  such  an  account  see,  Cristina  Chimisso,  Writing  the  History  of  the  Mind:  

Philosophy  and  Science  in  France,  1900  to  1960s,  Ashgate,  2008.  

rational,  and  objective.  The  results  of  this  sharp  break  are  thus  also  normative  

because  they  determine  what  comes  to  count  as  science  and  what  not—and  all  at  a  

civilizational  level.  But  while  Canguilhem  largely  agreed  with  Bachelard,  he  limits  

himself  specifically  to  the  life  sciences,  and  to  particular  concepts  like  norm,  

pathos,  health,  or  reflex.  Canguilhem  in  fact  advances  one  of  the  most  compelling  

cases  for  honing  the  history  of  science  in  on  concepts,  rather  than  on  true  theories  

in  which  those  concepts  have  operated.  Secondly,  like  Bachelard,  Canguilhem  is  

concerned  with  using  the  sciences  of  the  present  as  a  criterion  or  norm  for  

evaluating  the  history  of  science.  

However,  there  are  further  significant  differences  between  the  two  as  well,  

such  as  Canguilhem’s  insistence  that  while  there  are  discontinuities  there  are  also  

continuities  in  the  history  of  science.  These  continuities,  moreover,  are  not  to  be  

surmised  by  way  of  formulations  grounded  in  the  “logic  of  history,”  but  by  a  close  

study  of  the  internal  logic  of  some  past  theory  or  other.  It  is  not  enough,  that  is,  to  

simply  expect,  anticipate  or  assume  continuity  with  past  theories,  and  their  

concepts,  which  seem  to  resemble  or  are  developmentally  linked  to  accepted  

theories  today.  Instead,  scientific  concepts  might  be  identified  and  isolated  from  

within  even  false  theories  or  pseudoscientific  theories  of  the  past;  and  this  stands  

in  sharp  contradistinction  to  Bachelard.  At  the  same  time,  however,  Canguilhem  is  

not  suggesting  that  concepts  be  taken  out  of  their  historical,  social,  and  cultural  

contexts,  for  that  would  be  to  treat  the  object  of  the  history  of  science  in  the  same  

way  science  itself  treats  its  objects,  as  context-­‐free.  In  Canguilhem’s  understanding,  

the  domain  of  the  history  of  science  is  a  second-­‐order  domain,  which  studies  the  

production  of  scientific  knowledge  as  situated  and  contextualized  phenomenon.28  

Foucault  contrasts  his  own  approach  to  Bachelard’s  and  Canguilhem’s.  

Unlike  the  latter  two,  he  does  not  assume  current  science  as  a  norm  from  which  to  

then  judge  the  rest  of  the  history  of  sciences  with.  This  permits  Foucault  to  take  an  

assumed  corpus  of  knowledge,  such  as  alchemy,  and  judge  it  according  to  its  own  

terms  and  conditions  that  allow  it  to  see  itself  as  a  science.  In  contrast,  therefore,  

Foucault  searches  for  the  internal  norms  of  a  science  of  the  past,  rather  than  

imposing  on  that  “science”  standards  from  current  science  today—even  if  Foucault  

is  interested  in  the  past  for  the  light  it  can  cast  on  the  present.    For  our  purposes  

the  most  revealing  way  of  putting  the  difference  between  Canguilhem  and  Foucault  

is  to  say  the  latter  is  concerned  with  another  level  altogether.  Canguilhem  might  be  

interested  with  when  and  where  a  concept—regarded  as  true  today  even  it  be  

couched  in  a  false  theory  of  yesteryear—might  have  emerged.  But  Foucault  is  after  

specific  historical  conditions  that  make  possible  the  application  of  the  true  or  the  

false  to  a  statement  in  a  particular  place  and  time.  The  epistemological  features  of  

Foucault’s  history  thus  shift  attention  from  evaluations  external  to  a  science  at  any  

given  time  to  a  description  of  the  space  of  possibilities  at  a  particular  time,  which  

condition  specific  formulations  and  concepts  rather  than  others.            

28  As  Canguilhem  puts  it,  when  demarcating  the  subject-­‐matter  of  the  history  of  

science,  “Thus  the  history  of  sciences  is  the  history  of  an  object  which  is  a  history,  
which  has  a  history,  whereas  science  is  the  science  of  an  object  which  is  not  
history,  which  does  not  have  a  history”  (in  Canguilhem,  “The  Object  of  the  History  
of  Science,”  in  Continental  Philosophy  of  Science,  edited  by  Gary  Gutting,  Blackwell  
Publishing,  2005,  pp.  198-­‐207.  Along  with  Canguilhem’s  essay,  in  this  volume,  
there  is  included  an  extremely  helpful  introduction  to  it  by  Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheinberger,  
“Reassessing  the  Historical  Epistemology  of  Georges  Canguilhem,”  pp.  187-­‐197).  
Also  see,  Rheinberger,  An  Epistemology  of  the  Concrete:  Twentieth-­century  histories  
of  life,  Durham  &  London:  Duke  University  Press,  2010.  


III.  History  of  Epistemology  by  Example  

Many  have  been  inspired  by  Foucault  and  have  attempted  to  further  

develop  some  of  these  directions.  Probably  the  most  important  is  Ian  Hacking,  

especially  in  his  influential  book,  The  Emergence  of  Probability  (1975).  This  is  

noteworthy  because  apart  from  contributing  in  English  to  what  was  until  then  a  

primarily  French  tradition,  he  is  also  an  analytic  philosopher  of  science.  He  has  

been  one  of  the  most  articulate  practitioners  of  historical  epistemology  and  has  

been  fundamental  to  what  others  have  taken  historical  epistemology  to  be.29  One  

of  the  most  potent  examples  of  this  has  been  the  use  Hacking  has  made  of  

historical  epistemology  for  the  concept  of  probability,  which  has  inspired  an  

influential  body  of  work  by  such  scholars  as  Lorenz  Krueger,  Lorraine  Daston,  

Theodore  Porter,  and  others.30  It  will  be  worth  our  while,  therefore,  to  consider  

29  In  Hacking’s  most  sustained  discussion  as  to  what  historical  epistemology  is,  

demanded  that  it  be  relabeled,  for  good  reasons,  “historical  meta-­‐epistemology,”  
see  “Historical  Meta-­‐Epistemology,”  Warheit  und  Geschichite,  edited  by  Wolfgang  
Carl  and  Loraine  Daston,  Vandenhoeck  and  Ruprecht,  1999,  pp.  53-­‐77.  This  never  
really  caught  on,  and  so  I  stick  in  this  essay  with  what  has  remained  the  dominant  
label  today,  historical  epistemology.  It  should  also  be  noted  here  that  soon  after  
Hacking  would  later  come  to  subsume  historical  meta-­‐epistemology  under  the  
more  general  heading  of  “historical  ontology,”  see  Hacking,  Historical  Ontology,  
Harvard  University  Press,  2002,  p.  9.  
30  Lorenz  Krüger,  L.  Daston,  M.  Heidelberger,  G.  Gigerenzer  &  M.  S.  Morgan  (eds),  

The  Probabilistic  Revolution.  2  volumes,  Cambridge,  1987;  Krüger,  Lorenz,  G.  

Gigerenzer  et  al.:  The  Empire  of  Chance.  Cambridge:  Cambridge  University  Press,  
1989;  Lorraine  Daston,  Classical  Probability  in  the  Enlightenment,  Princeton  
Univeristy  Press,  1988;  Gerd  Gigerenzer,  Zeno  Swijtink,  Theodore  Porter,  Lorraine  
Daston,  John  Beatty,  and  Lorenz  Krüger,  The  Empire  of  Chance:  How  Probability  
Changed  Science  and  Everyday  Life,  Cambridge  University  Press,  1989;  Theodore  
Porter,  The  Rise  of  Statistical  Thinking  1820-­1900,  Princeton  University  Press,  

some  features  of  historical  epistemology  by  taking  as  our  example  Hacking  on  the  

“emergence”  of  probability.31    

The  example  kicks  off  with  two  fundamental  observations  about  the  modern  

concept  of  probability,  one  has  to  do  with  the  concept’s  history  and  the  other  has  

to  do  with  the  concept  as  it  stands  today.  The  first  is  that  the  modern  concept  of  

probability  did  not  exist  before  circa  1660.  And  the  second  is  the  widely  

recognized  peculiarity  that  the  single  term,  probability,  harbors  two  distinct  

meanings:  it  can  refer  either  to  a  degree  of  belief  or  certainty,  or  to  statistical  

frequencies.  This  duality  has  been  the  occasion  of  many  general  and  specialist  

disputes  and  theories;  and  the  attempt  to  clarify  this  confusion  has  been  one  of  the  

central  tasks  of  philosophers  in  the  middle  of  the  20th  century  onwards.32  Rather  

than  attempting  to  dissolve  this  confusion  by  using  logical  analysis,  we  as  good  

historical  epistemologists  ask,  Why  does  our  current  concept  of  probability  have  

this  dual  character?  With  some  historical  work  and  ingenuity,  we  discover  that  the  

duality  is  a  remnant  trace  of  the  concept’s  emergence  in  the  middle  of  the  

seventeenth  century,  and  that  it  reflects  the  conditions  that  made  it  possible  in  the  

first  place.    

31  In  this  I  also  follow  Lorraine  Daston  in  her  retrospective  review,  “The  History  of  

Emergences,  Ian  Hacking:  The  Emergence  of  Probability  …”  Isis,  98:  801-­‐908.  
32  See  Rudolf  Carnap,  Logical  Foundations  of  Probability,  Chicago:  University  of  

Chicago  Press,  1950;  Carnap,  “K.R.  Popper  on  Probability  and  Induction”,  The  
Philosophy  of  Rudolf  Carnap,  P.A.  Schilpp  (ed.),  LaSalle,  IL:  Open  Court,  1963,  995–
998;  Karl  Popper,  “The  Propensity  Interpretation  of  the  Calculus  of  Probability”,  S.  
Körner  (ed.),  The  Colston  Papers,  1957,  9:  65–70;  Karl  Popper  “The  Propensity  
interpretation  of  Probability”,  British  Journal  for  the  Philosophy  of  Science,  1959,  
10:  25–42;  and  see  also,  S.  L.  Zabell,  “Carnap  on  Probability  and  Induction”,  The  
Cambridge  Companion  to  Carnap,  M.  Friedman  and  R.  Creath  (eds.),  Cambridge  
University  Press,  2007,  273-­‐294.    

So  what  are  these  historical  and  conceptual  conditions?  The  conditions  

necessary  for  the  emergence  of  our  modern  concept  of  probability  are  to  be  found  

in  the  gradual  transformation  of  a  particular  set  of  scholastic  and  pre-­‐modern  

notions  like  opinion,  evidence  and  sign.  Each  of  these  transformations  has  their  

own,  sometimes  interrelated,  histories.  So  for  example  it  is  only  when  things  and  

not  just  people  can  act  as  evidence  that  signs  of  nature  can  begin  to  be  read—with  

more  and  more  frequency—in  order  to  “probably”  contribute  to  the  formation  of  

an  opinion,  rather  than  demonstration.  In  addressing  the  emergence  of  a  concept,  

therefore,  we  as  historians  are  forced  to  shift  from  the  typical  interest  in  the  “high  

sciences”  like  mathematics  and  astronomy,  to  the  “low  sciences”  like  medicine,  

astrology,  and  alchemy  where  one  finds  opinion  rather  than  demonstration  (the  

latter  was  thought  to  be  the  true  method  of  knowledge  by  the  scholastics).  In  any  

case,  when  these  pre-­‐modern  notions—evidence,  opinion,  and  sign—are  suitably  

evolved  and  modified  by  the  middle  of  the  1600s,  they  become  the  conditions  for  

the  emergence  of  a  Janus-­‐faced  concept  of  probability.  When  the  modern  concept  

of  probability  emerges  from  out  of  this  conceptual  space  of  possibilities  other  

spaces  of  discourse,  practices,  objects,  and  problems  are  made  possible  and  

determined  by  that  new  space;  in  fact,  a  new  form  of  knowledge  arises,  one  that  is  

no  longer  founded  on  the  scholastic  notion  of  demonstration  but  on  a  newly  

formed  notion  of  opinion.  And  when  probability  is  further  coupled  with  a  novel  

notion  of  cause,  and  the  arrival  of  a  distinct  understanding  of  fact,  the  now  classical  

philosophical  problem  of  induction,  first  formulated  by  Hume  in  1739,  becomes  


This  example  concerns  probability,  one  of  the  most  central  concepts  to  the  

natural  and  social  sciences  today.  Along  similar  lines  others  have  engaged  in  

historical  epistemological  studies  with  other  concepts  just  as  basic  to  science  as  we  

know  it  today,  such  as  evidence,  objectivity,  and  facts—these  are  what  Hacking  

calls  “organizing  concepts.”33  Other  historical  epistemologists  have  chosen  rather  

to  focus  on  the  emergence  of  entire  “styles  of  reasoning,”  such  as  the  “psychiatric  

style  of  reasoning,”  or  the  style  of  reasoning  associated  with  statistical  thinking  

and  probability,  or  in  the  grounding  of  particular  periods,  communities,  and  

places.34  There  have  been  studies  done  of  concepts  that  are  more  local  to  certain  

scientific  practices,  such  as  persons,  organism  and  heredity.35  And,  finally,  there  

have  also  been  studies  that  target  what  have  been  called  “epistemic  things,”  such  

as  the  protein-­‐synthesis,  genes,  and  electrons.36  Historical  epistemology  which  

targets  epistemic  things,  pioneered  by  Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheinberger,  are  unique  in  that  

they  are  not  so  much  about  systems  of  concepts  as  much  as  they  are  about  

33  Hacking  speaks  at  length  about  organizing  concepts  in  “Historical  Meta-­‐

Epistemology,”  pp.  58-­‐65.  See  Lorraine  Daston  and  Peter  Galison,  Objectivity,  Zone  
Books,  2007;  Mary  Poovey,  A  History  of  the  Modern  Fact:  Problems  of  Knowledge  in  
the  Sciences  of  Wealth  and  Society,  University  of  Chicago  Press,  1998.  
34  Arnold  Davidson,  The  Emergence  of  Sexuality:  Historical  Epistemology  and  the  

Formation  of  Concepts,  Harvard  University  Press,  2001,  p.  136;  Hacking,  The  
Emergence  of  Probability,  2nd  edition,  Cambridge  University  Press,  2006  [1975],  
and  Hacking,  The  Taming  of  Chance,  Cambridge  University  Press,  1990;  and  James  
Elwick,  Styles  of  Reasoning  in  the  British  Life  Sciences:  Shared  Assumptions,  1820-­
1858,  London:  Pickering  &  Chatto,  2007.  
35  Ian  Hacking,  “Making  Up  People,”  Reconstructing  Individualism:  Autonomy,  

Individuality,  and  the  Self  in  Western  Thought,  ed.  Thomas  C.  Heller,  Morton  Sosna,  
and  David  E.  Wellbery,  Stanford,  CA:  Stanford  University  Press,  1986,  pp.  161-­‐171;  
Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheiberger  and  Staffan  Müller-­‐Wille,  Vererbung  :  Geschichte  und  Kultur  
eines  biologischen  Konzepts  Frankfurt  am  Main:  Fischer  Taschenbuch  Verlag,  2009.  
36  Staffan  Müller-­‐Wille  and  Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheinberger,  Das  Gen  im  Zeitalter  der  

Postgenomik  :  eine  wissenschaftshistorische  Bestandsaufnahme.  Frankfurt  am  Main:  

Suhrkamp,  2009;  and  T.  Arabatzis,  Representing  Electrons:  A  Biographical  
Approach  to  Theoretical  Entities,  Chicago  and  London:  University  of  Chicago  Press,  

“experimental  systems.”  The  latter  both  materially  shapes  and  conceptually  

determines  epistemic  things;  and  it  is  from  within  these  experimental  systems,  and  

in  conjunction  with  their  “technical  objects,”  that  novel  and  surprising  results  

emerge.    As  such,  the  focus  on  experimental  systems  (and  “epistemic  spaces”)  

rather  than  on  conceptual  spaces  of  possibilities  might  be  regarded  as  a  reflection  

of  the  material  and  practical  turn  that  took  place  in  the  historiography  of  the  

history  of  science  in  recent  years.  But  it  should  also  be  noted  that  collections  of  

experimental  systems  contribute  to  an  “experimental  culture”  which  itself  may  

emerge,  as  might  any  epistemic  space,  under  specific  set  of  historical  conditions.37    

All  in  all,  whether  one  is  engaged  with  organizing  concepts  or  local  

concepts,  epistemic  things  or  styles  of  reasoning,  Lorraine  Daston’s  description  is  

certainly  apt:  historical  epistemology  is  the  “history  of  emergence.”  Granting  the  

many  possible  and  actual  differences,  I  believe  some  fruitful  and  illuminating  

things  can  be  said  that  are  generally  speaking  common  to  all  these  kinds  of  studies  

in  historical  epistemology.  What  I  intend  to  do  now  is  present  the  basic  elements  of  

what  constitutes  historical  epistemology  in  a  way  that  accounts  for  similarities  

rather  than  the  differences  among  its  practitioners.    

37  For  more  on  the  experimental  system  see  Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheinberger,  

Experimentalsysteme  und  epistemische  Dinge  :  eine  Geschichte  der  Proteinsynthese  

im  Reagenzglas.  Göttingen:  Wallstein,  2001;  and  Rheinberger,  “Experimental  
Systems:  Historiality,  Narration,  and  Deconstruction,”  Science  in  Context,  1994,  7:  
65-­‐81;    more  recently,  Rheinberger,  “Consistency  from  the  Perspective  of  an  
Experimental  Systems  Approach  to  the  Sciences  and  their  Epistemic  Objects,”  
Manuscrito,  2011,  34:  307-­‐321;  and  Michael  Hagner,  "Versuch  über  historische  
Experimentalkulturen,"  Liechtensteiner  Exkurse  IV.  Kontamination,  ed.  N.  Haas  /  R.  
Nägele  /  H.-­‐J.  Rheinberger.  Eggingen:  Edition  Isele,  83–102;  Michael  Hagner  and  
Hans-­‐Jörg  Rheinberger.  (Ed.).  1993.  Die  Experimentalisierung  des  Lebens.  
Experimentalsysteme  in  den  biologischen  Wissenschaften  1850/1950.  Berlin:  

IV.    Bare-­Bones  of  Historical  Epistemology  

With  the  foregoing  example  in  mind,  but  not  limited  to  it,  it  is  time  now  to  get  to  

the  bare  bones  of  what  historical  epistemology  is.  To  begin  with,  some  scientific  

concept  or  style  of  reasoning  is  selected  which  seems  to  us  today  to  be  inevitable.  

Historical  epistemologists  are  not  interested  in  long  dead  concepts  or  styles,  but  

with  those  that  are  active  today—so  active,  in  fact,  that  they  tend  to  be  taken  for  

granted.  Secondly,  the  initial  assumption  is  that  scientific  concepts  or  styles  all  

contain  in  them  some  trace  of  their  origin.  As  Hacking  puts  it,  “When  there  is  a  

radical  transformation  of  ideas,  whatever  made  the  transformation  possible  leaves  

its  mark  upon  subsequent  reasoning.”38  So  thirdly,  one  wants  to  select  concepts  

that  have  emerged  from  out  of  some  transformation  in  history,  so  that  one  can  

determine  whether  or  not  before  the  period  of  transition  there  was  such  a  concept  

or  style  possible.  The  transformation  need  not  be  recognized  as  revolutionary  or  

radical  at  the  time,  but  might  even  be  gentle,  gradual  and  piecemeal.39  As  soon  as  

one  has  isolated  such  an  historical  target,  then  the  Kantian  question  to  ask  is:  What  

are  the  conditions  that  have  made  this  concept  or  style  possible?  And  why  at  this  

particular  time  in  history  have  they  emerged  and  not  at  another?  It  is  in  answering  

these  questions,  by  pursuing  genuine  historical  research,  that  one,  hopefully  more  

often  than  not,  arrives  at  conditions  that  make  a  new  concept  or  style  emerge  then  

and  there.  Since  the  conditions  of  emergence  are  historical  but  at  the  same  time  

38  Ian  Hacking,  “How  Should  We  Do  the  History  of  Statistics?”  I  &  C,  1981,  8:  15-­‐26,  

p.  17.    
39  This  is  particularly  so  for  “styles  of  reasoning,”  according  to  Hacking,  which  

“comes  into  being  by  little  microsocial  interactions  and  negotiations,”  (in  “’Style’  
for  Historians  and  Philosophers,”  Studies  in  the  History  and  Philosophy  of  Science,  
1992,  23:  1-­‐20,  p.  10).  

necessary  for  the  emergence  of  a  concept  or  style,  we  might  say  that  the  conditions  

are  contingently  necessary;  in  fact  these  have  been  aptly  referred  to  as  the  

“historical  a  priori.”40  There  is,  therefore,  no  need  for  atemporal  or  transhistorical  

elements  that  can  make  this  actual  historical  research  relevant  or  worthwhile  to  

philosophers,  particularly  those  who  care  for  concepts  and  their  clarification.41  

Indeed,  we  have  in  historical  epistemology  a  type  of  conceptual  analysis,  but  one  

that  is  historical  rather  than  logical  or  linguistic.42    

But,  it  might  be  asked,  are  historical  actors  and  ideas  inextricably  

determined  by  historical  a  priori  conditions  of  possibility?  Is  this,  in  other  words,  a  

form  of  historical  determinism?  The  answer  is  that  it  is  not.  The  reason  is  that  the  

conditions  that  make  the  emergence  of  a  novel  style  or  concept  possible  are  

necessary  but  not  sufficient  for  its  emergence  at  a  particular  time  and  place.  So,  for  

instance:  one  can  have  two  players  at  a  chess  board,  who  both  know  the  rules,  and  

have  all  the  pieces  available  to  them,  without  there  necessarily  occurring  a  chess  

game.  In  this  case,  it  is  the  will  to  play  the  game  on  the  part  of  both  parties  that  

40  The  term  was  first  used  by  Husserl,  then  by  Canguilhem  to  describe  the  result  of  

Foucault’s  archeological  method,  and  then  is  used  by  Foucault  himself  in  his  
Archeology  of  Knowledge;  for  the  details  of  this  heritage,  see,  David  Hyder,  
“Foucault,  Cavailles,  and  Husserl  on  the  Historical  Epistemology  of  the  Sciences,”  
Perspective  on  Science,  2003,  11:  107-­‐129.  
41  I  stress  actual  historical  work  here  because  I  wish  to  distinguish  it  from  the  

“imaginary”  or  “fictional”  geneology  employed  by  Bernard  Williams,  Truth  and  
Truthfulness:  An  Essay  in  Genealogy,  Princeton  University  Press,  2002,  p.  38.  
42  After  Hacking,  this  might  be  called  “historical  analytic.”  But  Hacking  is  also  

hesitant  to  regard  this  as  a  kind  of  analysis,  since  there  is  apparently  no  breaking  
up  a  concept  into  its  constituent  parts.  However,  in  many  ways,  we  do  end  up  with  
historically  constituent  parts  of  a  concept,  even  if  they  are  not  their  logical  parts.  
Just  consider  the  case  with  probability  examined  and  the  role  played  by  other  
concepts  like  cause,  fact,  opinion  and  sign.  Hacking,  “Historical  Meta-­‐
Epistemology,”  pp.  62,  66.  

would  result  in  the  game  being  played;  the  will  on  the  part  of  both  parties  would  

cause  the  game.  The  conditions  of  possibility  are  not  causes,  but  only  conditions.  

Agency  on  the  part  of  the  historical  actors  remains,  therefore,  intact.43  

Now,  a  similar  word  like  “probable”,  “fact”,  or  “objective”  may  have  been  

used  before  in  another  time  and  place  in  human  history;  but  the  point  is  that  the  

concept  and  its  new  contents  cannot  have  existed  before  their  emergence  in  that  

new  form,  because  the  historical  set  of  conditions  that  make  it  possible  were  not  

present  when  the  word  was  used  at  another  period.  In  this  regard,  historical  

epistemology  is  not  the  history  of  ideas,  because:  (a)  the  idea  of  a  precursor  or  

anticipation  so  central  to  the  history  of  ideas  is  entirely  irrelevant;  and  (b)  there  is  

no  need  to  posit  any  transhistorical  and  essentially  unchanging  “unit-­‐idea”  that  

invariably  appear  and  reappear  in  history.44  But  it  does  share  with  the  history  of  

ideas  the  commitment  to  interdisciplinary  research.      

To  continue  on  to  the  last  characteristic  of  historical  epistemology,  which  is  

also  the  one  of  the  most  trickiest,  a  brand  new  concept  emerging  at  a  particular  

point  in  history  may  also  signal  the  emergence  of  a  new  style  of  reasoning,  as  we  

have  just  seen  in  the  case  of  probability.45  But  in  other  accounts,  it  is  the  style  of  

43  See  James  Elwick,  “Layered  History:  Styles  of  Reasoning  as  Stratified  Conditions  

of  Possibility,”  Studies  in  History  and  Philosophy  of  Science,  2012,  43:  619-­‐627,  esp.  
44  For  more  on  the  unit-­‐idea  in  the  history  of  ideas  see  the  introduction  to  Arthur  

Lovejoy’s,  The  Great  Chain  of  Being:  A  Study  of  the  History  of  an  Idea,  Harvard  
University  Press,  1936.  For  a  reappraisal  see,  Richard  Macksey,  “The  History  of  
Ideas  at  80,”  MLN,  2002,  117:  1083-­‐1097.  For  more  on  the  critique  of  the  
precursor,  see  Canguilhem,  “The  Object  of  the  History  of  Science,”  pp.  205-­‐206.  
45  This  may  be  a  good  place  for  an  important  caveat.  Ian  Hacking  has  insisted  in  the  

past  that  we  keep  separate  his  work  and  interest  in  “historical  meta-­‐epistemology”  
from  the  work  on  styles.  It  seems  to  have  been  Arnold  Davidson  that  first  brought  
the  two  so  close  together,  especially  in  the  way  I  do  here.  As  far  as  one  can  tell,  

reasoning  that  first  appears  to  emerge  to  make  a  concept  possible.  This  is  the  case,  

for  example,  with  Arnold  Davidson’s  historical  analysis  of  the  concept  of  

perversion.  Along  with  the  style  of  reasoning  associated  with  psychiatry,  which  

emerges  as  a  result  of  the  way  it  defines  itself  against  pathology  and  physiology,  a  

whole  set  of  new  diseases  are  conceptually  made  possible,  such  as  sexual  

perversion;  that  is,  for  the  first  time  diseases  that  are  functional  and  at  the  same  

not  localizable  are  possible.46  In  any  case,  the  order  of  emergences—concept  or  

style—are  two  sides  of  the  same  coin,  where  in  fact  what  often  happens,  as  

Hacking  puts  it,  “The  style  comes  into  being  with  instances  although…the  

according  to  Hacking,  historical  epistemology  has  to  do  with  rigorous  historical  
research,  and  the  other  with  what  Hacking  refers  to  as  mythical  “overarching  
pictures  of  civilization.”  However,  the  latter  can  surely  be  the  work  of  an  historian,  
which  it  in  fact  is  when  Hacking  elects  to  submit  to  A.  C.  Crombie’s  “styles  of  
thinking.”  The  trouble  is  that  Hacking’s  Emergence  of  Probability  can  be  read  as  
both  a  work  in  historical  “meta-­‐epistemology”  and  as  a  work  in  styles;  after  all,  it  
examines  the  emergence  of  a  concept  and  of  number  five  in  Crombie’s  list.  
Strangely  enough,  when  Hacking  describes  a  style  of  reasoning  as  introducing  “a  
great  many  novelties,”  such  as  objects,  evidence,  sentences,  laws,  possibilities,  he  
does  not  at  all  mention  concepts  (“’Styles  for  Historians  and  Philosophers,”  p.  11).  
However,  in  the  same  place  he  insists  that  the  work  on  styles  is  connected  to  
“objectivity,”  going  as  far  as  to  say  that,  “I  am  concerned  with  the  way  in  which  
objectivity  comes  into  being”  (10).  This  sounds  exactly  like  what  work  in  historical  
meta-­‐epistemology  ought  to  be.  In  fact  in  his  paper  on  historical  meta-­‐
epistemology  he  takes  the  concept  of  objectivity  as  his  primary  example.  Another  
difference  between  the  two  might  lie  in  the  fact  that  Hacking  nowhere  mentions  
“positivities”  when  speaking  about  historical  epistemology  as  he  does  with  styles.  
However,  it  would  be  strange  to  say  that  the  emergence  of  a  concept  of  evidence  or  
objectivity  do  not  have  with  them  resulting  positivities,  even  if  they  may  not  
always  be  of  the  true  or  false  sort.  Recently,  however,  Hacking  has  come  to  accept  
that  “it  was  stupid  to  patent  [styles  of  reasoning],  and  to  restrict  it  to  members  of  a  
list.”  In  fact  he  says,  Davidson  was  “right  [to  combine  the  two]  and  I  was  wrong”  
(Hacking,  “’Language,  Truth,  and  Reason’  30  years  later,”  Studies  in  History  and  
Philosophy  of  Science,  2012,  43:  599-­‐609.    
46  Arnold  Davidson,  The  Emergence  of  Sexuality,  Harvard  University  Press,  2001.  

recognition  of  something  as  new,  even  the  naming  of  it,  may  solidify  the  style  after  

it  has  begun.”47    

 But  whether  we  are  dealing  with  the  initial  emergence  of  a  concept  or  a  

style,  with  them  come  internal  rules  and  conditions  that  help  to  determine  what  

makes  statements  meaningful  or  not,  and  true  or  false.  Historical  epistemology  is  

therefore  not  in  the  business  of  evaluating  the  validity  of  theories,  statements,  

beliefs,  practices,  or  concepts,  but  is  rather  concerned  with  revealing  how  these  

made  possible,  or  were  made  possible  by,  certain  normative  regimes.  That  notions  

like  objectivity,  fact,  probability,  have  in  fact  had  and  continue  to  have  a  normative  

role  to  play  is  precisely  what  historical  epistemology  attempts  to  explain.  Thus,  

rather  than  taking  the  normative  stance,  historical  epistemology  is  concerned  with  

what  grounds  the  normative  stance  at  any  given  period  in  history.48    

Thus  with  regard  to  the  naturalistic  fallacy  we  might  address  it  by  stressing  

that  historical  epistemologists  are  not  interested  in  deducing  a  norm  from  a  

description.  The  fallacy  is  entirely  irrelevant  to  it,  since  historical  epistemology  

does  not  set  out  to  make  the  relevant  kind  of  prescriptive  conclusions.  To  be  sure,  

historical  epistemology  most  certainly  may  describe  the  emergence  or  activation  of  

a  norm,  such  as  when  the  notion  of  mechanical  objectivity  in  the  nineteenth  

century  brings  with  it  a  kind  of  system  of  values  that  go  into  reshaping  the  

scientific  self.49  But  we  would  not  say  that  the  authors  of  that  study  would  then  

prescribe  these  values.  In  the  same  vein,  the  authors  are  also  not  interested  in  

47  Hacking,  “’Styles’  for  Historians  and  Philosophers,”  p.  11.  
48  There  is  also  the  question,  which  will  remain  unexplored  here,  as  to  how  

something  maintains  its  normative  stance  over  a  period  of  time.    

49  Lorraine  Daston  and  Peter  Galison,  Objectivity,  Zone  Books,  2007.  

justifying  (as  true  or  false,  as  good  or  bad)  the  normative  status  objectivity—that  it  

is  normative  is  simply  taken  for  granted.  What  is  not  taken  for  granted  are  the  

contingent  but  necessary  conditions  required  for  a  norm  to  emerge  and  how  it  

might  in  turn  contribute  to  the  establishment  of  new  norms;  and  this  is  no  

deduction  as  much  as  it  is  a  description.    

It  would  seem  therefore  that  the  genetic  fallacy  is  also  inapplicable  to  

historical  epistemology.50  Explaining  the  origins  and  genesis  of  a  concept  may  

actually  cast  light  on  why  we  justify  it  or  value  it  the  way  we  do  today  but  this  is  

not  to  say  that  the  history  or  origins  of  the  concept  does  justify  or  validate  a  

statement  or  content.  The  very  question  of  justification  or  validation  is  beyond  the  

scope  of  historical  epistemology—it  does  not  logically  evaluate  arguments.  Nor,  it  

should  be  said,  does  it  attempt  to  access  the  psychological  or  cognitive  conditions  

of  historical  actors.  Instead,  it  tries  to  explain  the  emergence  of  conceptual  and  

epistemic  spaces  that  make  certain  kinds  of  evaluations  possible  rather  than  

others.  In  this  sense  it  might  be  regarded  as  a  second-­‐order  discipline  that  is  not  

itself  a  normative  enterprise,  but  which  has  for  its  domain  normative  enterprises  

like  philosophy  and  science.  In  fact,  it  is  precisely  for  this  reason  that  we  might,  

with  Hacking,  prefer  to  use  the  ugly  label,  “Historical  Meta-­‐Epistemology.”      

   Moreover,  as  we  have  just  outlined  with  regard  to  the  skeptical  problem  of  

induction,  new  philosophical  problems  can  emerge.  That  is,  some  philosophical  

problems  are  not  timeless  and  do  often  contain  traces  of  their  origins  in  how  today  

50  The  fallacy  itself,  of  late,  has  been  in  a  little  bit  of  trouble.  Very  few  people  know  

how  to  precisely  state  it,  and  some  have  also  recently  begun  to  find  exceptions  for  
its  plausible  use.  Thus  it  has  been  asked  whether  the  genetic  fallacy  is  really  a  
fallacy  after  all.  See,  Kevin  C.  Klement,  “What  Is  Genetic  Reasoning  Not  Fallacious?”  
Argumentation,  2002,  16:  383-­‐400;  Andrew  C.  Ward,  “The  Value  of  Genetic  
Fallacies,”  Informal  Logic,  2010,  30:  1-­‐33.  

they  are  formulated  and  constrained  by  their  historical  path  dependences.  Thus  

one  cannot  simply  compare  historical  epistemology  to  the  history  of  epistemology  

on  the  basis  of  which  one  helps  to  treat  classic  epistemological  problems  in  

philosophy.  This  is  because  one,  historical  epistemology,  is  an  activity  that  does  

not  assume  the  stability  of  the  problem,  while  the  other,  history  of  epistemology,  

does  simply  assume  it.  Historians  of  epistemology  want  to  know  how  philosophers  

in  the  past  have  attempted  to  solve  the  same  epistemological  problem  that  

troubles  philosophers  today.  Historical  epistemologists  want  to  understand  how  

we  got  to  formulate  the  problem  the  way  we  do  now.  It  is  not  the  job  of  historical  

epistemology  to  answer  problems  of  epistemology,  but  to  show  us  how  they  have  

become  problems  for  us  as  philosophers  today.  As  such,  considering  that  the  

formulation  of  a  problem  is  a  part  of  the  activity  of  philosophy,  then  historical  

epistemology  too  can  be  considered  a  way  of  doing  philosophy.    

Any  attempt  to  evaluate  historical  epistemology,  therefore,  by  how  well  it  

treats  epistemological  problems  is  to  misunderstand  what  it  is.51  So  even  in  an  

attempt  to  supply  the  historical  epistemology  of  the  modern  concept  of  belief,  for  

example,  what  it  might  have  to  say  about  belief  will  not  directly  address  the  

epistemological  problem  of  what  belief  is,  or  how  it  is  related  to  knowledge  and  

justification.  Rather,  historical  epistemology  will  take  the  commonly  accepted  or  

problematic  features  of  the  current  notion  of  belief,  and  attempt  to  answer  the  

question:  when  did  these  features  of  belief  first  come  to  characterize  it,  and  why?  

Or  when  did  this  modern  notion  of  belief  first  arise,  and  why?  Answering  these  

sorts  of  questions  will  provide  a  historical  analysis  of  the  concept  and  will  reveal  
51  This  has  to  be  stressed  because  this  is  precisely  what  some  have  tried  to  do,  see  

Thomas  Sturm,  “Historical  Epistemology  or  History  of  Epistemology?  The  Case  of  
the  Relation  Between  Perception  and  Judgment,”  Erkenntnis,  2011,  75:  303-­‐324.  

the  conceptual  space  required  for  the  concept’s  emergence,  but  it  will  not  pretend  

to  solve  current  epistemological  problems  surrounding  belief.  It  might,  at  best,  go  

into  providing  a  kind  of  conceptual  analysis  for  a  concept,  in  the  sense  sketched  

above,  but  not  in  the  sense  of  supplying  necessary  and  sufficient  conditions  for  it.  

As  such,  I  do  not  believe  that  historical  epistemology  ought  to  replace  the  history  

of  epistemology  or  epistemology  itself.        

The  family  of  practices  and  methods  regarded  to  fall  under  the  category  of  

historical  epistemology  outlined  above  have  been  rightly  referred  to  by  Foucault  as  

a  history  of  the  present,  for  they  are  committed  to  historically  revealing,  

philosophically  relevant  ways  in  which  high-­‐profile  concepts,  styles  of  reasoning,  

and  epistemic  things  we  today  take  for  granted  take  the  shape  and  dimensions  that  

they  do.  It  does  not,  however,  exhaust  the  different  ways  of  doing  the  history  of  

science.  Nor  does  it  replace  epistemology  or  the  history  of  epistemology,  but  it  can  

fruitfully  complement  each  by  providing  a  kind  of  historical  analysis  of  relevant  

concepts  and  by  pointing  out  path-­‐dependencies  that  have  long  been  forgotten  or  

erased  in  each.  In  fact,  the  more  that  philosophical  and  scientific  notions  begin  to  

be  regarded  as  inevitable,  the  more  there  will  be  a  need  for  the  application  of  

historical  epistemology.  For  just  as  philosophy,  as  a  second-­‐order  discipline  and  by  

means  of  logical  and  linguistic  analysis,  began  to  reveal  hidden  assumptions  and  

surreptitiously  introduced  notions  in  the  sciences,  so  too  has  historical  

epistemology  begun  by  means  of  rigorous  empirical  research  and  study  to  disclose  

connections  and  long  forgotten  conditions  in  not  only  the  sciences  but  also  in  

philosophy  and  its  history.  Indeed,  historical  epistemology  can  aid  philosophy  to  

recognize  and  form  other  kinds  of  correlations,  without  falling  prey  to  grand  

systems  or  to  muddled  associations.  But  historical  epistemology  is  at  its  best  when  

it  stands  between  philosophy  and  science,  connecting  the  two,  without  reducing  

one  to  the  other,  and  without  infringing  on  either.