This time last week saw the end of the BSHS annual conference. My talk seemed to be received well.
I’d never been to a history conference before and found myself pleasantly surprised. Everyone was very friendly and there was very little confrontational arguments. Typical questions were along the lines of asking speakers to expand upon their argument, what else was going on during these particular events, what theories were dominate, how did this relate to what came before and afterwards, how did this relate to activity in a wider setting (other counties, other sciences). Questions allowed the speaker another opportunity to discuss their research. This felt quite different to philosophy conferences (which I am more used to) where quite a few questions, though by no means a majority, focus upon criticizing the speaker’s argument: what about this counter example, surely you are making this particular assumption, maybe you should consider whoever’s view points. The history approach certainly makes for a more relaxing conference but which one is best? Generally, the history questions gave opportunities to present more empirical evidence rather than specifically defend a particular argument. Philosophy is typically more about defending the argument. To varying degrees (and with many exceptions) both history and philosophy need an empirical basis and a strong argument. The historian seems to build up from lots of empirical evidence to an argument whereas philosophy focuses more on the argument but then often need make their argument compatible with empirical evidence, i.e. fit available evidence as so avoid counter arguments. Personally, I prefer philosophy when it starts with a lot of empirical evidence and tries to analyse that evidence, systematise it and see how it relates to wider bodies of knowledge. I do not know how far it could be taken but I think philosophy could benefit from some approaches adopted by historians.
The other difference is how specific many history papers were, totally unrelated to my field, whereas most philosophy of science is relevant to most other philosophy of science. With exceptions, I think a philosopher of physics could still benefit from seeing, say, a philosopher of biology speak. Both cases may use notions in similar or different ways, i.e. cause, explain, predict, inductive, law, model, etc. You can learn from both the similarities and the differences. The benefits of attending many presentations at history conferences are less obvious but still there. History of 1800s paleontology is no use to the history of autism but you see a historian try to create a historical narrative or create explanations from a particular type of evidence, often using very different type of evidence than I’m used to. For instance, that presentation on paleontology had to appeal to a very limited number of paintings to understand 1800s views of woolly mammoths whereas I primarily deal with journal articles. Someone else deals with diaries, another with hospital records, another with medical equipment. Observing how a historian employs a particular type of evidence, with associated limitations that evidence brings, makes one reflect upon how I go about using evidence, how reliable is it, how representative is it, what is it missing, etc. A useful experience, but, again, useful in a different way to the benefits of seeing philosophers of science dealing with other sciences speak.