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Kristian Camilleri Transcript - S2 E3

Hi all! From the team here at the HPS podcast, we welcome you back to a new episode. I'm Indigo Kiel, your host, and my co producer is Samara Greenwood.

In some of our earlier podcast interviews, reference has been made to a practice term in philosophy of science. Today, Kristian Camilleri returns to the podcast to help explain a little bit more about what this practice thing is all about.

How exactly can we define turn to practice? Why was it such an important development in the history of HPS? And what does it offer us in terms of an epistemology of science?

[00:00:00] Indigo Keel: Hello, Kristian. Welcome back to the HPS Podcast.

[00:00:42] Kristian Camilleri: Hi, Indigo. It's nice to be back.

[00:00:45] Indigo Keel: So, what topic were you keen to talk about today?

[00:00:47] Kristian Camilleri: So today I thought I'd talk about the practice turn, much discussed in history, philosophy, and social studies of science.

[00:00:56] Indigo Keel: So, I've heard that defined a couple of different ways. Can you just talk us through what you're going to be talking about?

[00:01:02] Kristian Camilleri: So, the practice turn is something that is said to have happened in science studies, in the history and philosophy of science, probably beginning somewhere around the 1980s, 1990s, and continuing through to this day.

It is often put forward, this turn to practice, as a different way of doing history and philosophy of science, perhaps more specifically a different way of doing philosophy of science, which has been greatly influenced by history and sociology of science. One of the main meanings that term acquires, the term ‘the practice turn’, is that we begin to look more closely at what scientists actually do in practice, rather than relying on idealizations, a priori conceptions of what we think they're doing or what we think they ought to be doing.

If you look at the way a lot of older, traditional philosophies of science had constructed their subject matter, if you were following Karl Popper, you might say that scientists try to conjecture and falsify and refute those conjectures, and they do that by any one of a number of different means. If you were following the philosophy of Imre Lakatos, you might say, scientists attempt to generate novel predictions and then see if those predictions are borne out.

Now, both those philosophies - they're closely related - take a certain idealized view of how science works. Or perhaps it might be better to say how science ought to work. They don't deny that sometimes scientists don't do that. But what they say is when science is working well, it's doing that. And that is the normative ideal to which sciences aspire generally.

However, the turn to practice messed with that idea. And it messed with the idea that we can simply somehow develop theories about science, whether they're philosophical, like the ones that I mentioned with Popper and Lakatos, two very famous philosophers of science from the 20th century, or in fact any other major philosopher of science, whether that would be Thomas Kuhn or someone like Carl Hempel, who did a lot of work on explanation.

So instead of just devising philosophical views about science, about how it works, the idea at the heart of the practice turn is to go back and actually look at what scientists have actually done. The idea is to develop our philosophical conceptions based on a close historical or sociological understanding of what scientists actually do.

Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, and I can go into a bit more detail if you'd like.

[00:03:55] Indigo Keel: Always happy for more detail on this podcast.

[00:03:58] Kristian Camilleri: Okay, then. So that in itself is pretty vague, ‘what scientists do’. I mean, scientists do lots of things. They complain about the review they've got on their last submitted paper, they nominate colleagues for prizes, and they become embroiled in political intrigues. Technically one could say whatever scientists do, is what we study in practice.

Now, sometimes those things are really important to understand, for example, what social or political movements they were part of. But when philosophers study practice, they typically have in mind something else. They typically have in mind the kind of practices, the kind of ‘doings’ that actually generate knowledge.

One word for this might be inquiry, whether you spell it with an E or an I is up to you. But inquiry is supposed to capture that sort of investigative action that we undergo. And it's at this point that the practice term acquires a number of distinct different meanings. It has different connotations for different people.

For some people, the practice term is really about action and practice. It is the study of acts, scientific activity, research activity, looking down a microscope, making calculations. Here the verbs come back. We don't think of reason and experience as nouns. We have reason, we have experience. We think of them as verbs. We experience. We reason. They are things that we actually do.

So, the practice turn turns us towards the variety of activities that scientists engage in. And one of the reasons why it has proved to be a fruitful turn, a fruitful way of thinking about history and philosophy of science, is that it turns out scientists do a great many things when they generate knowledge. They don't just come up with theories, and they don't just perform experiments. They might draw diagrams. They might make calculations. They might try to combine different observations together in interesting ways. They might play with symbols on bits of paper. Symbolic manipulation turns out to be incredibly important.

They don't just perform the basic patterns of rational inference that many philosophers had them doing. Most of their interesting work is about checking machines or finding the right way around a problem. So, they do all these other things and we've opened up a much richer picture.

A second aspect, which is very much related to what I've been talking about, is this idea that scientists need to use a lot of tacit knowledge. This kind of ‘know-how’, the knack of using an instrument or performing a set of mental operations, which become pretty much habitual the more you do it.

Like anything in life, like any skill, some people are innately better than others, but most of us get better than we were by practicing. And that's the same for using an electron microscope or running a complex search algorithm on a data set. Or, I'm sure, using this fancy piece of equipment in this pod that we're in at the moment.

There's a certain conscious way in which you work, and then - when it becomes second nature - it becomes kind of unconscious and it's a bit of a ‘know-how’ thing. And we know that scientists acquire these skills, and often that's what is meant by being in a discipline. You're very disciplined in that way.

So that's one of the major aspects of the turn to practice. It's the unarticulated, perhaps even un-articulable in words, form of know-how that underpins scientific activity and the generation of knowledge, ironically enough.

 [00:07:47] Indigo Keel: Why was the turn to practice such an important development in HPS?

[00:07:52] Kristian Camilleri: It's generally regarded as important for a number of reasons. One, it has been seen to put an end to overly idealised, highly abstracted accounts of science, which divorce it from the world in which scientists operate. So, it brings the places and spaces in which science is done back into the picture.

If you read an account by a classic philosopher of the 1950s or ‘60s, not to denigrate them in any way, but this is how philosophy was done back then, you would have no idea where the people were in their immediate environments, let alone in the broader culture in which they worked.

The turn to practice is said to bring that back a little bit. People are working with things, with other people. It's generally believed to be a more social account of science. It's not without its problems, but that's one major reason why it has been considered, or a bunch of reasons really, why it's been considered such an important development.

The other thing is it's opened up new problems. We've now understood that there are all these kinds of different ways in which we experiment. We used to think that experiments were pretty much hypothesis tests. And in fact, many students of science still believe that to be the case based on limited experience they might have with their pracs. But in fact, the deeper we've delved into accounts of practice, the more variegated science has become. Scientists do all sorts of things with experiments. They try to optimize certain effects. They try to amplify them. They try to elicit certain empirical regularities, but without any hypothesis in mind.
They attempt to find common ways of describing different experiments, without an overarching hypothesis and, what's more, all sorts of knowledge can be generated in that way.

Now we’ve got a raft of really interesting case studies that have come out of the turn to practice, which give us a much richer picture.

Even observations out in the field have their own knack and their own skill set. And they can't be substituted for any other. So, the turn of practice has replaced the ‘generic knower’ with a very highly specialized practitioner who has a very different set of observational and mental and physical skills, even, than the scientist of yesteryear, at least in those philosophical conceptions we used to have.

[00:10:22] Indigo Keel: Yes, absolutely. And what does the turn to practice offer us in terms of an epistemology of science?

[00:10:29] Kristian Camilleri: So, I think this is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the turn to practice. And this will go back to the question you just asked me a few minutes ago, Indi. Why is it such a big development?

When you think of epistemology - epistemology is the study of knowledge or theories about how we acquire knowledge - and epistemology has typically dealt with beliefs. ‘Are beliefs justified?’, would be one question a philosopher would ask who's doing epistemology. At what point do our beliefs constitute knowledge? Are they true? Are they justified and true? That used to be an old way of thinking about knowledge.

The turn to practice is effectively an epistemological reorientation away from mental states, states of belief that scientists or any of us might have, asking all those types of curly questions about whether that really counts as knowledge. What's the bar? What's the threshold? Under what conditions are beliefs genuinely justifiable?

It shifts the attention to the actions that are done in order to generate knowledge. The evaluative questions that we ask, like of belief, disappear, or recede into the background. Instead, we ask about what the person is doing. Now we have a doer, not a knower. And that actually is a very refreshing new perspective in epistemology.

Let me give some examples. When someone is undertaking inquiry, they typically don't know the answer to the question they're posing, otherwise they wouldn't bother, right? So, we're dealing with a person who doesn't know yet, but they're trying to undertake actions in order to furnish themselves and others with some knowledge. But that's too vague. They're not pursuing truth. What is it to pursue truth? It could be any one of a number of things. They're pursuing specific goals. We call them epistemic goals.

They might be trying to measure the Hubble constant. They might be trying to work out the gait that a dinosaur had when it walked the earth a hundred million years ago. They might be trying to work out the thermonuclear reactions in the inside of stars. They might be trying to work out the cognitive behavior of hummingbirds.

If you think about all those things, they're all scientific forms of inquiry, they require incredibly different forms of action. So just talking about truth seeking doesn't actually give us a very rich picture, but once I give you actual examples, you can imagine the scientists undertaking all those tasks are doing very different things, and they're doing different things because those objects of inquiry are different, and the questions they're asking are very different.

Once we understand, okay, inquirers are goal seeking people, then we can begin to ask, are the strategies they devise in order to answer their questions or solve their problems, are they adequate?

We can see that inquiry is a normative process. It has a structure, and people are doing the things they're doing in order to ultimately answer their research question, but they're often having to ask subordinate questions like; Is my machine working? As we were asking just before we began here, right? Is my machine working such that it's reliably giving me the results so I can use that in order to further my research and answer this question? So, although there's a big goal, there's a whole lot of subsidiary questions that are constantly erupting during inquiry.

And so, what we have is we have goals, we have strategies and we have the capacities of inquirer. But the interesting thing now, once we think about the inquirer as a practitioner, is their skill sets aren't fixed. They're not like, ‘you've reached it, you're certified to use this microscope, off you go’.

People learn how to learn in the process of learning. It's a reciprocal process in which inquiry transforms the inquirer, endowing them with more capacities.

And so, the turn to practice gives us this much more dynamic picture of how knowledge is created, rather than working through chains of inference. It's not to say scientists don't make inferences, of course they do, but often making the inference is the easy part, establishing what you're going to be inferring from is the really hard part, and that involves a whole sequence of activity.

[00:14:56] Indigo Keel: I feel that this discussion of turn to practice ties in really neatly to your episode from Season 1 on The Disunity of Science. When you stop seeing science as a monolith, then you're better able to look at the specific skills it requires to do different types of science.

[00:15:11] Kristian Camilleri: Yes, I think you're exactly right. The turn to practice has presented a more variegated view of science. Once you stop looking at theories and knowledge and you start looking at activities and action and practices, you can begin to see that the sciences are very different and, even within one science, it's different.

I will say this though Indi, it actually makes it hard to teach, really hard to teach. I think in part that is because our imaginations are generally fired up by big ideas and thinking about someone slaving away on a few slides doesn't necessarily get every student's pulse racing, right? Like learning about some big idea like Darwin's theory of evolution.

I can certainly sympathize with that, but the turn to practice can be incredibly exciting. It's led to all sorts of connections with the history of art. Because there's a lot of knowing that comes through drawing. There's the intimate interconnection between the hand, the mind, and the eye in a lot of these practices.

And many of them actually evolved out of artisanal practices themselves. If you think that the word laboratory, right up until the late 18th century, meant a workshop where you produced and distilled substances, often pharmaceuticals. You realize that science actually has evolved out of a lot of different practices, which are themselves perhaps more technological or material rather than scientific, at least in their infancy, but quickly developed, or perhaps in some cases more slowly, into the various different sciences that they are, forming part of the mosaic that we study in history and philosophy of science.

[00:16:54] Indigo Keel: Yes, absolutely. It gives us a better picture, but also a more disparate one.

One of the best ways to understand a complex theory is to consider a real-life example. In the final part of this interview, Kristian talks about the turn to practice in reference to perhaps one of the best known figures in the history of science, Galileo.

[00:17:15] Kristian Camilleri: So Galileo is obviously very famous for a number of things, one of which is his staunch advocacy for Copernicanism - Copernicus's idea that the sun is at the centre of the universe, and the planets, including the earth, revolve around it. He's also very famous for changing the idea of motion, which was based on the philosophy of Aristotle up until his time.

The practice turn actually informs both and very well. So, let's start with the second of those two little examples to do with Galileo. When you look at Galileo's theory of motion in his Discourse on the Two New Sciences, and you look at Aristotle's theory of motion, it might seem that they are miles apart and that Galileo has this sort of spark of genius and just come up with something entirely new, almost out of left field. There's this leap of thinking that takes place. Now while that appeals to those of us who like that sort of spark, you can actually make better sense if you look at all Galileo's work in the intervening years in his practice, in what he was actually doing. And people who've studied his folios, his notes, have pieced together the way in which he begins with Aristotle, he actually adopts many of Aristotle's concepts, but gradually and slowly through the course of his practice finds that they're not quite gelling, they're not making sense of, for instance, a simple object like the pendulum. Or, in another case, the projectile.

And he has to patchwork together bits and pieces of those concepts with other things he's doing. And so, when you actually look at how his practice unfolds over time, it gives us a wonderful insight into scientific creativity, into the creative process in action. Rather than thinking it's just some flash of inspiration that comes out of nowhere, we can actually track these things in quite a detailed fashion.

So what, at one point, might have looked like leaping from peak to peak of a mountain, we can now actually follow the person's trajectory down the valley, through the complex pathway, meandering and back up the other side.
The turn to practice, has given us a deeper insight into how knowledge is generated, which is what it's all about.

My other example is a little bit different and examines much more the cultural aspect of Galileo's practice. So, I mentioned that Galileo is very famous for defying the Catholic Church. There was no greater champion in his day of Copernicanism, of heliocentric astronomy, than Galileo.

It's very tempting for us to say, ‘well, we know heliocentrism is true, so, of course, he's going to champion for it’, but he obviously did so at great personal cost in the end. So ‘Why was he so defiant?,’ might be a good question to ask. It's one thing to feel you possess the truth, it's another thing to go on a crusade for it.

And here again, the turn to practice can shed light on this. Once you situate Galileo as a courtier in the Medici Court of Cosimo II and you understand what a courtier is supposed to do, not simply what they're supposed to theorize, you can see that the pursuit of lofty and noble causes is part of the lot of a courtier.

Now, it's very important to note here that Galileo is not a professor working at a university, where one might have to toe a certain line. He is there to bring glory to the Tuscan court. So, the spectacles of an intellectual kind, as well as of an artistic kind, are part and parcel of the practice of a courtier.

Once we see that, we can, as Mario Biagioli has taught us, begin to understand the zeal with which Galileo defended and championed the heliocentric cause. And, in doing so, often ridiculed and humiliated his opponents. It wasn't just an idiosyncratic character trait; it was almost part of the dynamic of Baroque court culture.

So, with those two examples, admittedly from a historical episode long ago. I wanted to illustrate the way that a focus on practice and not just the end products, in one case heliocentrism, in another case Galileo's theory of motion, actually serve to understand the dynamics of science and the generation of knowledge.

[00:21:53] Indigo Keel: Very cool, thank you. That did clear things up for me quite a bit.

[00:21:58] Kristian Camilleri: Excellent. Always happy to help.

[00:22:00] Indigo Keel: Thank you so much for being on the podcast, Kristian.

Thank you all for listening to season two of the HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science.

We want to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their support. To learn more, check out our website at There, you can also find links to our blog, our social media, as well as show notes for today's topic. I'm Indigo Keel and my co producer is Samara Greenwood.

We look forward to having you back again next time.


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