How Philosophy of Science Relates to Scientific Practices

Angela Potochnik

It’s widely appreciated that contemporary philosophy of science, when done well, engages with actual scientific practices. Philosophers should not sit back (in armchairs, of course), consider what we think good science would look like, then inform scientists of our findings. Rather, current thinking goes, we should take seriously what scientists actually do, using these practices as the starting points for our philosophical accounts of the aims, processes, and products of science.

I’d like to make two points about this approach to philosophy of science. Here’s the first. Philosophers sometimes talk as if practice-based philosophy of science needs to accept scientists’ activities and views as definitive. That a scientist employs some method, or interprets a finding in some way, is often used as evidence for or against a philosophical position. And this does seem closely related to how I described the approach above: that actual scientific practices should be the starting points for our philosophical accounts of science.

But things cannot possibly be so simple. Science is not monolithic. Of course, practices vary across fields and projects. But beyond that, scientists working on the same projects frequently have different approaches and even philosophical disagreements. Accordingly, even if one takes very seriously a commitment to starting from scientific practices, this cannot be definitive. There is sometimes no option for a philosopher other than to disagree with one or more scientists about their approaches and interpretations thereof.

Here are two examples of how this can play out. Significant inspiration for much of my research traces back to a puzzling experience I had in the Biology Department at Stanford University. Two theoretical biologists there worked on many of the same phenomena and shared some graduate students, but they employed different methods: evolutionary game theory and population genetics. They agreed about one thing (and perhaps only that one thing): one of these methods was warranted and the other was not. Of course, they disagreed about which method belonged in each of those categories. I puzzled over what to make of this disagreement and found myself disagreeing with both biologists; both approaches were important. To maintain this, I teased out differences in their specific aims that would account for the different approaches. The starting point of this project was, in essence, a decision to disagree with two preeminent biologists about the nature of their work. On the face of it, that may seem inconsistent with practice-based philosophy of science.

A second example is a recent exchange in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Connolly et al. ([2017]) employed philosophical work on mechanisms in the course of advocating greater use of process-based and component-based models in macroecology. Brian McGill, a macroecologist, and I wrote a response letter, urging that macroecologists not underestimate the importance of distant and large-scale causes. In our view, because of the importance of such causes, not all causal models represent processes or components. It was this exchange that inspired these thoughts about practice-based philosophy of science. Here I was, disagreeing with biologists about their own field. Who was I to say? In this instance, I had a convenient answer to that question: I felt comfortable weighing in because a different biologist agreed with me. But I don’t think a philosopher’s ability to jump into the scientific fray is limited to that circumstance.

Scientists regularly take different approaches to their work and disagree with one another about significant matters. This is why philosophers of science not only can but indeed must bring to bear considerations that go beyond existing scientific practices. Sometimes one might think one scientist is right about something while another is wrong. Other times, making sense of the range of practices observed requires disagreeing with all the scientists at the table. So, while contemporary philosophy of science takes actual scientific practices as its starting point, those practices aren’t definitive; legitimate philosophical positions may be at odds with some, or even all, of what the relevant scientists are up to.

That’s my first point about a practice-based approached to philosophy of science. Here’s a second. If we are truly pursuing philosophical accounts of science that take their lead from actual scientific practices, then we need to take seriously how the features of scientists influence the character of science. Scientists take up space, so to speak. Scientific practices are not only influenced by the nature of the world and the specific aims of the research, they also reflect the features of scientists, both individual and shared, and the features of their circumstances, including those that are incidental.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy ([1986]) described how the focus of primatology shifted when a critical mass of women primatologists began participating in research. Heather Douglas and Kevin Elliott, among others, have described decision points in science where scientists’ individual and shared values are relevant to the outcome. And I was deeply impressed when, as a high school student worker in a physics lab at the University of Arkansas, I witnessed researchers faced with an unexpected difficulty rummaging in the janitorial closet for something they could use as a different solvent. This ad hoc step was unremarkable to them, and such manoeuvres around scientific setbacks are surely common. But it made clear to even a high school student how little about the scientific process was prescribed and how much depended on individual decision and chance circumstances—like what cleaning supplies were stocked for the janitor.

The general point that features of scientists and their circumstances influence scientific practices is accepted by many or most philosophers of science. This is perhaps a result of work done in history and sociology of science, feminist philosophy of science, and on the topic of values in science. But you wouldn’t know this by the look of many of our other philosophical debates about science. Many of these debates proceed as if scientists’ features and their circumstances are inconsequential or, at most, distracting side issues. This is so even among some who accept that actual scientific practices are the starting point for theorizing about science. Dominant views in philosophy of science have tended to ignore or underplay the significance of scientists’ characteristics in shaping scientific practices, research aims, and the nature of scientific successes.

Most work on scientific explanation, for example, focuses predominantly or entirely on the relationship a satisfactory explanation should bear to the world, that is, on the nature of metaphysical dependence that qualifies as explanatory. How the audience influences what counts as a satisfactory explanation has been brushed off as belonging in ‘the dustbin of pragmatics’ (Carl Craver, in conversation) and likened to merely the atmospheric distortion of light from stars (Strevens [2008]). Even many who grant the in-principle importance of the human influence on explanation focus predominantly on the question of explanatory dependence without offering much commentary on the nature of the human influence on science’s explanations.

I suspect the same goes for other philosophical discussions about the sciences, perhaps especially about science in general. Another example may be discussion of science’s so-called theoretical virtues, like simplicity or parsimony. Much ink has been spilled on whether and in what ways simpler hypotheses or theories may be epistemically superior, particularly whether they may be more likely to be true. But regardless of whether this is so, there’s a much more basic way that simple theories or hypotheses contribute to science, concerning not to how our theories relate to the world but how they relate to us. Simpler theories are easier for us to comprehend. If they are adequate to the world (remaining neutral here on what that requires), this makes them of greater cognitive value.

My basic point is simply that philosophers of science could, and should, get more mileage out of basing our work in scientific practices. We can do so by acknowledging that scientific practices are shaped by science’s practitioners and the circumstances in which they find themselves, and that this influence is philosophically significant. This is the basic idea at the root of my recent book, Idealization and the Aims of Science ([2017]).

Considering the two points developed here, I suppose what I’m after is, first, the recognition that philosophy of science can’t simply be based on what scientists say and do. But, on the other hand, there are other aspects of what scientists say and do that need to be taken more seriously. Truly taking on board a starting point in scientific practices requires deeper changes to our philosophical stances about science. Scientific practices are shaped not just by the need for the scientific enterprise to connect with the world, but also by the need for the scientific enterprise to connect with its human practitioners and audience.

Angela Potochnik
Department of Philosophy
University of Cincinnati


Connolly, S. R., Keith, S. A., Colwell, R. K. and Rahbek, C. [2017]: ‘Process, Mechanism, and Modeling in Macroecology’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, b, pp. 835–44.

Hrdy, S. B. [1986]: ‘Empathy, Polyandry, and the Myth of the Coy Female, in R. Bleier (ed.), Feminist Approaches to Science, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 119–46.

McGill, B. J. and Potochnik, A. [2018]: ‘Mechanisms Are Causes, Not Components: A Response to Connolly et al.’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution33, pp. 304–5.

Potochnik, A. [2017]: Idealization and the Aims of Science, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Strevens, M. [2008]: Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.