Facts and the Factitious in Natural Sciences

Critical Inquiry 18 (1):140-153 (1991)


The problem that confronts us when we try to compare the structure of discourse and explanation in different domains of knowledge is that no one is an insider in more than one field, and insider information is essential. An observer who is not immersed in the practice of a particular scholarship and who wants to understand it is at the mercy of the practitioners. Yet those practitioners are themselves mystified by a largely unexamined communal myth of how scholarship is carried on. R. G. Collingwood, although primarily a philosopher, was immersed in the community of historians and understood how history is done, so that he has had an immense influence on our ideas about historiography. Every historian knows The Idea of History.1 He was also a metaphysician, yet his influence on scientists’ understanding of nature, and of science, has been nil, and it is a rare scientist indeed who has ever heard of Collingwood or read The Idea of Nature.2 Collingwood’s views of the structure of science had to be constructed in large part from the elaborate fictions created by scientists and by an earlier generation of philosophers and historians of science who participated in the Baconian myth of the hypothetical-deductive scheme. 1. See R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History .2. See Collingwood, The Idea of Nature . R. C. Lewontin is Alexander Agassiz Professor at Harvard University. He is an experimental and theoretical evolutionary geneticist who has also worked extensively on epistemological issues in biology. He is the author of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change and, with Richard Levins, of The Dialectical Biologist . His current research concerns the nature of genetic variation among individuals within species

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