Scientific Practices and their Social Context

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation is, primarily, a contribution to a body of literature in philosophy of science that is often called the science and values debate. In brief, this debate concerns the legitimate influence that ethical and political values may have on scientific inquiry. In the terminology that I introduce, isolationists believe that this influence is only legitimate in certain aspects of scientific inquiry, such as the choice of research problems; however, these values may not legitimately influence the standards for knowledge itself, which must, on this view, remain “value-free.” By contrast, transactionists believe that this influence is, at least in principle, legitimate with respect to all aspects of scientific inquiry, including the standards for knowledge.

This debate is normally, and inadequately, construed as an epistemological controversy: What role should values play in normative epistemology? I argue that it is in fact better construed in terms of the social relations between several kinds of concrete, goal-oriented, social or collaborative activities – between different human practices. In the first few chapters, I develop a general conception of such practices, developing the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and drawing on John Dewey and work in philosophy of science of the past thirty years. I then develop two distinct conceptions of science as a practice, and use them to recast the science and values debate “from the perspective of practice.” The question, on this construal, is (for example) how should the practice of scientific inquiry be related to such activities as feminist activism and corporate profit-seeking? In the words of the title, the debate concerns the relationship between scientific practices and their social context. Key to this reconstrual are a pair of claims that I call the connection hypotheses. These hypotheses claim that the two basic positions in the science and values debate depend on the two distinct conceptions of science. One, a “narrowly” epistemic conception, leads to isolationism; the second, a “broader,” more pragmatic conception, leads to transactionism. In other words, the epistemological construal conceals rival assumptions concerning the goals and social organization of scientific inquiry.

In the long final chapter (roughly the final 25% of the dissertation), I attempt to support the intuition that certain kinds of influence on scientific inquiry – such as excessive commodification or manipulation for the sake of partisan political gain – are forms of injustice, but others – such as feminist critique of androcentric assumptions – are not. To do so, I show how the conception of practice can be embedded within and inform a conception of justice from liberal political philosophy. This leads me to consider whether the conception of practice – which emphasizes collaboration and social interdependence, and which is the product of a deeply anti-individualist intellectual tradition – is really compatible with liberal individualism.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04192012-131117

Author Daniel J. Hicks
Advisor Don Howard
Contributor Don Howard, Committee Chair
Contributor Ruth Abbey, Committee Member
Contributor Janet Kourany, Committee Member
Contributor Paul Weithman, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Philosophy
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2012-04-12

Submission Date 2012-04-19
  • United States of America

  • politicization of science

  • social philosophy

  • political philosophy

  • science and values

  • Alasdair MacIntyre

  • commercialization of science

  • science and social values

  • philosophy of science

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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