CFP: The Future of the Past: Philosophical issues in the "historical sciences"

Submission deadline: June 1, 2022

Conference date(s):
August 8, 2022 - August 9, 2022

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Conference Venue:

The Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Israel

Topic areas


The Future of the Past: Philosophical Issues in the “Historical” Sciences

8th-9th August 2022

The Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Levy Building, Edmond J. Safra Campus

The universe began around 13.8 bya (billion years ago). The solar system formed around 4.6 bya, the earth and its moon around 100 myr (million years) later. Liquid water was present on the surface of the earth by 4.4 bya, with life appearing by 3.8 (possibly as early as 4) bya. The first animals appear in the fossil record by 541 mya (million years ago), and representatives of nearly every major phylum were present just 20 myr later. The so-called “historical” sciences constitute a sizeable proportion of the scientific community and have made considerable progress in establishing an astonishing array of claims such as the above concerning the past. Yet despite their ubiquity and evident success, sciences that reconstruct the past (with the exception of evolutionary biology) have classically been ignored by philosophers of science. This has begun to change in recent decades, with an increasing number of philosophers turning their attention to epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic concerns in geology, palaeontology, archaeology, and related areas. The debate, however, is still very much in its infancy, with considerable work to be done and many open questions to explore. The aim of this workshop is to bring together an international group of scholars to discuss and debate some of these questions. We are especially interested in contributions focussing on geoscience, astro-science, forensic science, archaeology, and historical dimensions of social science.

Keynote speakers:

Alisa Bokulich (Boston University)

Derek Turner (Connecticut College)

Peter Vickers (Durham University)

Alison Wylie (University of British Columbia)

Caitlin Wylie (University of Virginia)


Craig Fox (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Thomas Rossetter (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Questions we hope to discuss include (but are not limited to):

● Does the term “historical science” pick out a useful sub-category of scientific inquiry?

● What is it that makes a science historical and thus distinct from experimental or non-historical science? Are historical sciences distinctively abductive?

● What is it that makes historical science science? That is, what, if anything, distinguishes historical science from arts and humanities disciplines that investigate the past such as history and classics?

● What kinds of unobservable entities are historical scientists concerned with? How are they different from the unobservables targeted by experimental scientists? What, if any, epistemological implications do these differences have?

● What specific problems do scientists face when trying to reconstruct the past? Does the absence or degradation of evidence pose a special challenge?

● Is there a fundamental methodological difference between historical and experimental science?

● Are there methods that are available to historical scientists but not to experimental scientists and vice versa? If so, what epistemological consequences does this have?

● What is the epistemic status of historical narratives in sciences that investigate the past?

● Are historical sciences devoted principally or solely to abductive reasoning about singular events? Or do they uncover genuine types of phenomena and reason inductively?

● What does progress look like in historical science and how can it be assessed?

● Are some historical scientific claims so well established that they can plausibly be considered “facts” rather than mere “theories” or “hypotheses” about the past?

● To what extent can historical evidence be used for non-historical purposes? What, for example, are the challenges and prospects for the use of historical records in climate science? How does evidence from historical climatology bear on climate models? Is the historical record reason to be more or less optimistic?

● What are the roles played by technology in reconstructing the past? Is historical science more or less technology dependent than other fields? What prospects does technological advance offer for progress in historical science? What are its limitations?

● What about historical social science? Are there special considerations needed for work that investigates, say, past economic or sociological trends? Can progress be made on the origin of language?

● Given the plurality of types of inquiry and methods employed, what are the prospects for a general philosophical framework for understanding scientific inquiry into the past?

● What role does aesthetic engagement play in historical science?

● What kinds of ethical issues arise when investigating the past? How might they be dealt with?

We warmly invite anyone interested in participating to submit an abstract of 200-300 words. We especially welcome contributions from students and early-career researchers. The workshop will be a combined in-person/remote event. We strongly encourage participants to attend in-person if they are able to do so but understand that this may not be possible for everyone. Talks will be presented in English. To submit an abstract, or for any other enquiries, please email: [email protected]

Deadline: June 1, 2022

We plan to create an edited volume with chapters based on talks given at the event. When submitting your abstract, please indicate whether you would be interested in contributing to the volume.

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