Historical Context

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What is historical context? How should it be defined? Does it include only the content of the scientific mosaic, or does it also involve non-epistemic sociocultural phenomena?

In the contextual appraisal theorem, historical context is understood as epistemic historical context; it denotes the content of the scientific mosaic at the respective community and the respective time. However, when discussing the influence of socio-cultural factors on the mosaic, we seem to shift to a conception of historical context which includes non-epistemic social and cultural phenomena. Presumably, the notion of historical context must be consistent throughout scientonomy, so it needs to be properly defined.

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Stephen Watt in 2016. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. At the moment, the question has no accepted answer in Scientonomy.


For a long time, the philosophy of science did not acknowledge the historical context – in any meaning of the term– when evaluating the science conducted in a certain time period. Authors like Karl Popper judged theories in a persistently progressive view where science was contrasted for success against contemporary theories. As an example, this view was prevalent in Popper’s demarcation criteria. This criterion dismissed all sociological and political factors when evaluating scientific claims and thus rejected many of these claims prematurely.1pp.62 The ideology taken by Popper and his like was a direct result of a Whig interpretation of history. Whig history is a term coined by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 and it is a view implying the past is an impending march towards enlightenment. Originating in British history, the term was used to describe Whig politicians and historians who would rewrite history as victors and therein inherently distort it.2pp.12 Consequently, any ideology derivative of this view can potentially twist what would otherwise be a correct explanans.

While Butterfield criticized the term himself, it was not until Thomas Kuhn that the beliefs behind a Whig interpretation of history were tackled by the philosophy of science. With the introduction of incommensurability, Kuhn essentially showed that science does not retain nor can it explain in current terms anything from its past:

1. Knowledge is not retained because we lose knowledge when we accept new philosophies, e.g. we forgot what Greek fires were until we invented flamethrowers.3pp. 66-80

2. Theories are not backwards compatible because we cannot explain old theories with new ones, e.g. a phlogiston cannot be explained through general relativity.4pp.268

As such, historical context came into play in the evaluation of science as there was no other way to go about it. At the time, this resulted in the commencement of philosophers’ analysis of the epistemic attitudes of actors in science. In Kuhn’s eyes, actors were locked into their paradigm and unable to be converted to any new views; these actors’ theories and paradigms were to be evaluated on their own terms under their own epistemic attitudes.3pp.169-180

Nonetheless even with the posited solutions to the intrinsic values of science, philosophers faced a bind. By accepting such a proposition, philosophers had to reject that science progressed inevitably; here, an explanation was due. In response to these new problems, the Social Constructivists posited their theory of scientific change: the sociology of scientific knowledge. This theory stipulated a social interpretation of sciences hinging on factors previously dismissed in the interpretation of historical context such as economic, political, and other motivations.5pp.75-94


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Scientonomy1 April 2016This question was acknowledged as legitimate in the Scientonomy Seminar 2016.Yes

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  1. ^  Popper, Karl. (1963) Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge.
  2. ^  Butterfield, Herbert. (1965) The Whig Interpretation of History. New York: W. W. Norton.
  3. a b  Kuhn, Thomas. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
  4. ^  Kuhn, Thomas. (1970) Reflections on My Critics. In Lakatos and Musgrave (Eds.) (1970), 231-278.
  5. ^  Bloor, David. (1984) Scientific rationality: The sociological turn. Springer Netherlands.