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Contingency in the History and Philosophy of Science

How can contingent historical cases be used in support of normative philosophical claims?

Contingency often appears as a key sticking point between historians and philosophers of science. When philosophers reach into the historical record for case studies to support their claims, they must anticipate the historians' qualification: the history we find is not fully determined by the rational principles at work in scientific practice; it might have been otherwise. How might philosophers of science make best use of historical data in the face of the menace of contingency?

We tackle this central challenge for integrating history and philosophy of science by examining contingency from two sides. First, we develop an account of how philosophical tools can promote a better understanding of historical contingency. As recent work from both historians and philosophers of science shows, when historians say 'that's contingent', they might mean a variety of different things. They could be discussing indeterminacies in the historical process, explanatory inadequacy with respect to a certain set of causal factors, or particular causal dependencies. They might be suggesting that various parts of what we count as science exhibit any one of these contingencies. Getting clear about what we mean when we make contingency claims makes metaphysical commitments that historians invariably bring to their interpretations, and that go unstated otherwise, explicit. Using philosophical inquiry to expose, interrogate, and defend those metaphysical commitments readies historical work for philosophical relevance.

Second, we explore ways in which historical understandings of contingency can function as tools for philosophers. History gives us resources to assess of how and where contingency functions in the practice of science. Some historical processes are more robust than others. Some turn on the contingency of different factors. Historical analysis therefore need not proceed from assumptions about where contingency resides, but can help sustain claims about where it is most relevant in particular instances. Attending to where and how contingency operates in the scientific process therefore offers philosophers a valuable tool with which to make normative claims about scientific practice. Linking historical work (that is sensitive to the metaphysical freight that contingency claims carry with them) with philosophical work (that advances normative assessments on the basis of understanding science as a historical process) allows us to see historical contingency working to the advantage, rather than the detriment of the philosopher.

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