Philosophy Research Seminar - ‘Whewell’s Ghost’: Philosophical Lessons from Peirce’s History of Science

19 April 2018, 2.00 PM - 19 April 2018, 3.30 PM

Chiara Ambrosio

Cotham House G2

In this talk, I present a particular line of investigation which has emerged from my ongoing work on Charles S. Peirce’s writings on the history of science, and their relevance to the broader contemporary HPS agenda. I focus on the 1890s, which are arguably Peirce’s most productive years. Along with refining his own brand of Pragmatism – subsequently re-labelled “Pragmaticism”, in explicit contrast to William James’ appropriation of his own philosophical brainchild – Peirce was in those years busy developing his theory of signs, fleshing out his “scientific metaphysics”, and completing his diagrammatic system of Existential Graphs in logic. In parallel to all this, Peirce was also writing a volume on the history of science, promised – but never delivered – to the editor Putnam’s Sons.
I focus in particular on the relations between Peirce’s approach to the history of science and the approach developed by his much better known (at least by contemporary historians and philosophers of science) predecessor: William Whewell. Indeed, in one of the drafts for his history of science, Peirce claims explicitly that “a new book in the spirit of Whewell is called for” (MS 1274a,3), referring precisely to the continuity between Whewell’s volumes on the history and philosophy of the inductive sciences and his own History of Science.
Both Whewell and Peirce aligned their history with logic – inductive logic for the former, abductive logic for the latter. I argue that both approaches have distinctive philosophical and historiographical consequences, and that Whewell’s inductive project, albeit occasionally becoming the target of Peirce’s friendly criticism, was also a crucial springboard for his reflections on the effectiveness of the abductive method in science and beyond, and in particular on its implications for historical inquiry.

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