Uljana Feest (Technische Universität, Berlin)

Epistemology traditionally seeks to identify principles for the evaluation of knowledge claims, while the history of science aims to elucidate specific contexts of knowledge production. A recent alternative beyond this divide, appealed to mostly by historians of science, has been named „historical epistemology”. This raises two basic questions: What kind of historical enterprise is historical epistemology? Conversely, in what sense is it a form of epistemology? These questions will be addressed at the conference, which is structured around issues of (1) epistemic concepts and practices, (2) epistemic objects, and (3) the dynamics of scientific research.

For a more extensive description, see below.


Participation is free, but space is limited. To register, please contact Thomas Sturm: [email protected]



July 24

10.00 — 12.00 a.m.

(I) Epistemic Concepts and Practices

Jutta Schickore (Bloomington): “Experimental Practice in Historical Perspective”

Thomas Sturm (Berlin): “Perception and Judgment – Historical Epistemology or History of Epistemology?”

Commentator: Lorraine Daston (Berlin)

1.30 — 3.30 p.m.

M. Norton Wise (Los Angeles): “On the Historicity of Scientific Explanation”

Michael Heidelberger (Tübingen): “Plurality and/or Historicity of Causes”

Commentator: Sandra Mitchell (Pittsburgh)

4.30 — 6.30 p.m.

(II) Epistemic Objects

Theodore Arabatzis (Athens): “The Historicity of Scientific Objects: From Cathode Rays to Electrons”

Hasok Chang (London): “The Evolution of Epistemic Objects”

Commentator: Hans-Joerg Rheinberger (Berlin)

July 25

10.00 — 12.00 a.m.

(II) Epistemic Objects (cont’d)

Margaret Schabas (Vancouver): “The Economy as an Epistemic Object”

Uljana Feest (Berlin): “Remembering Memory: The Death of an Epistemic Object?”

Commentator: Chrysostomos Mantzavinos (Witten)

1.30 — 3.30 p.m.

(III) The Dynamics of Scientific Research

Michael Friedman (Stanford): “Extending the Dynamics of Reason: Generalizing a Post-Kuhnian approach to the History and Philosophy of


Peter Barker (Oklahama): “The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions”

Commentator: Jürgen Renn (Berlin)

6.00 — 8.00 p.m.

Keynote Address: Philip Kitcher (New York): “Epistemology without History is Blind”

July 26

9.30-12.30 a.m.

(IV) Reflections: Historiographical and Epistemological

Mary Tiles (Manoa): “Is Historical Epistemology Part of the ‘Modernist Settlement’?”

Martin Kusch (Cambridge, UK): “Historical Epistemology and Styles of Reasoning: A Critique”

Barry Stroud (Berkeley): “The Value of a Historically Oriented Epistemology”

Commentator: Catherine Wilson (New York)

2.00 — 3.30 p.m.

Panel: What Have We Learned? Anything Historical? Anything Epistemological?

Chairs: Uljana Feest & Thomas Sturm

Wolfgang Carl (Göttingen), Jean-Francois Braunstein (Paris), Daniel Garber (Princeton), Robert J. Richards (Chicago)

General description

The central purpose of epistemology, as traditionally understood, is to identify and justify the epistemic basis of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. While epistemology in this sense is one of the strongest branches of contemporary philosophy, its universalizing approach has been criticized in various ways. In particular, it has been suggested that knowledge is always situated in a context (biological, social, historical, material) and that epistemology cannot afford to ignore the features of this context. In this vein, recent decades have seen the emergence of naturalized, social, or feminist epistemologies.

One particular kind of challenge to traditional epistemology has been named “historical epistemology”. Contrary to the other “alternative” epistemologies just mentioned, it is not widely known or discussed by contemporary Anglo-American philosophers, but has in recent years been appealed to mostly by historians of science. Proponents of such an approach have proceeded by looking at (a) the histories of epistemic concepts (e.g., observation, rationality, probability), (b) the histories of the objects of scientific inquiry (e.g., heredity, life, temperature) or (c) the dynamics of scientific developments, as they can be extracted from an analysis of scientific texts or practices.

However, historical epistemology may also be pursued as a philosophical project, namely one that thoroughly historicizes epistemology. It starts from the assumption that the standards and forms of what can count as knowledge have histories, which interact with various kinds of knowledge, most especially scientific knowledge. Such a project may then take at least two different directions: (1) One might claim that current epistemological questions and the standard philosophical methods of answering them are only historically relative, and no more valid than those of other times and places. (2) Or one might reject the assumption that to historicize is to relativize, and instead unsettle current epistemological questions and methods by exploring, in a serious historical vein, earlier alternatives in their own philosophical and scientific frameworks.

All of these construals of historical epistemology are faced with challenges. For example, even if its aim is “merely” historical, the choices of concepts, objects, and dynamics under study give rise to historiographical puzzles not only about the status and identity conditions of objects and concepts over time, but also regarding the methods by which historical developments are best to be studied. What, then, is the relationship (if any) between historical epistemology and the methodological turns towards the practices and material cultures of science? Furthermore, from the perspective of the history and philosophy of science, it may be asked what contributions historical epistemology has to make towards a genuinely philosophically informed history of science and/or to a genuinely historically informed philosophy of science. Historians of philosophy, again, have already for a while accepted the historicity of epistemological questions and their dependence upon past science. They also often acknowledge the possibility of replacing or reforming currently dominant questions in epistemology by looking at their history. Does historical epistemology offer any insights in addition to these developments within the history of epistemology? Last but not least, philosophical epistemologists might object that the goal of identifying and justifying the epistemic basis of knowledge most likely cannot be achieved by asking historical questions about past science. Can a case be made that historical epistemology is a philosophically sophisticated project?

In these and other ways, the notion of historical epistemology brings to the fore a variety of debates that are located at the interface between philosophy and the history of science. The basic goal of the conference is to improve these debates by making more precise, and put to the test, different versions of historical epistemology.