Poststructural Toolbox in the Philosophy of Science

In this post, I point towards interesting connections between the “poststructural toolbox” (Inayatullah 2004; 1998) and philosophical analysis of science. The poststructural toolbox consists of deconstruction, genealogy, distance, alternative pasts and futures, reordering knowledge. Next, I show how each element can be found from the philosophy of science and how the insights in the field enable us to shed new light on the poststructural toolbox.


Inayatullah (2004, 8) characterizes deconstruction as follows: “The first concept is deconstruction. In this we take a text (here meaning anything that can be critiqued [–]) and break apart its components, asking what is visible and what is invisible? Research questions that emerge from this perspective include:

Who is privileged at the level of knowledge? Who gains at economic, social and other levels? Who is silenced? What is the politics of truth? In terms of futures studies, we ask: Which future is privileged? Which assumptions of the future are made preferable?”

The philosophy of science is essentially based on the analysis of (i.e., “breaking apart”) scientific concepts, notions, and practices. The philosophy of science attempts to define, explicate, and characterize concepts, notions, and practices and make visible the implivit conceptions, assumptions, and tension in our thinking. A canonical example of such a tradition of analysis concerns the concept of causality in science. An important component of such analysis is “to make distinctions among different sorts of causal and explanatory claims, distinctions that are often overlooked by those who make such claims” and to recognize “that causal and explanatory claims sometimes are confused, unclear, and ambiguous” (Woodward 2003, 7). Also the theories of scientific development that we used as examples in the previous post serve this purpose. For example, Popper recognized that we have overlooked how easy it is to confirm a theory if it lacks real empirical content. Kuhn recognized that there are scientific changes that are not accounted for by theories of linear accumulation of scientific knowledge. He also recognized that scientific development requires an interplay between various elements, ranging from values to ontology to observations, and cannot be reduced to straightforward theory-observation dynamics. Finally, scientific realism argues, in its divide et impera strategy, that despite the apparent radical changes in the history of science, there has been theoretical continuity in the history of science that can be made visible through analysis of past theories (Psillos 1999).

All the theories highlight certain aspects of science and de-emphasize others. They provide insights on what is and what should be privileged, silenced, and how the notion of truth functions in science. For example, the Kuhnian theory suggests that social aspects and cohesion of science are silenced in traditional accounts and that the notion of truth is irrelevant to understanding scientific development (1970, 170–171; 206).

Different philosophical theories privilege different futures and prefer different assumptions about the possible futures of science. For example, scientific realism privileges futures where our current understanding is improved in a piecemeal manner and assumes that there probably will be continuity from the present to the future science. The Kuhnian theory privileges futures with radical disruptions and assumes that current scientific paradigms might come to an end. The privileging and preferring are based on the prior analysis of the dynamics of scientific development that each theory is based on. Given how science is analyzed (or “broken apart”/”deconstructed”), different visions for the future arise. Philosophical analysis and the estimating of the future of science are linked together.


Inayatullah (2004, 8) characterizes genealogy as follows: “The second concept is genealogy. This is not a continuous history of events and trends, but more a history of paradigms, if you will, of discerning which discourses have been hegemonic and how the term under study has travelled through these various discourses. [–]

Which discourses have been victorious in constituting the present? How have they travelled through history? What have been the points in which the issue has become important or contentious? What might be the genealogies of the future?

The idea that the historical trajectory of science has shaped its nature is widely recognized in the history and philosophy of science. For example, Schickore argues that  “[–] a history of the present should remain part and parcel of our present efforts to understand the sciences. Fully to understand the concepts, practices, and methodological and epistemological goals and commitments of present science, we need to trace how they have come into being”. (2011, 477.)  Moreover, Psillos concludes that “[–] what science tells us about the world, as well as the reasons to take what it tells us seriously, are issues that are determined historically, by looking at the patterns of convergence in the scientific image of the world”. (2012, 101). A historian of science, Daston, has suggested that “[the historians of science] must explain how [the distinctive] character [of science] crystallized out of practices, both intellectual and manual, designed for other purposes”. (Daston 2009, 807).

A canonical work in the spirit of genealogy is Leviathan and the Air-Pump by Shapin and Schaffer where they ask “Why does one do experiments in order to arrive at scientific truth?” (1985, 3). They continue: “We want our answers to be historical in character. To that end, we will deal with the historical circumstances in which experiment as a systematic means of generating natural knowledge arose, in which experimental practices became institutionalized, and in which experimentally produced matters of fact were made into the foundations of what counted as proper scientific knowledge.” (ibid.) The authors study how one discourse became victorious in constituting the present by looking at a historical point in which experimentation became important and contentious. “Yet we want to show that there was nothing self-evident or inevitable about the series of historical judgments in that context which yielded a natural philosophical consensus in favour of the experimental programme. Given other circumstances bearing upon that philosophical community, Hobbes’s [anti-experimental] views might well have found a different reception.” (Ibid. 13.)

The study of important junctures in the history of science that could have led elsewhere is important with respect to the issue of inevitability vs. contingency of science. The I-C issue concerns the possibility of an alternative science. If science is inevitable, there could not be a fundamentally different science (at least not as successful science as the actual one). If science is contingent, there could be a fundamentally different science (see Soler et al. 2015; Kinzel 2015). This issue is important with respect to the future of science because possible answers to it enable us to map the amount of possible change in the future of science. One strategy to answer the question of contingency is to seek points in history such that: had that point been different, the present would be different. If such points are plausible, then science could have been different. (Virmajoki 2018.) There have been studies that conduct exactly this kind of counterfactual analysis (e.g. Bowler 2013; Pickering 1984; Cushing 1994). The counterfactual approach makes it also possible to write genealogies of the future. If we know how the present could have been different, we are in a good position to tell how we could achieve a certain future: we can reflect on the future in the same terms as we reflect on counterfactual alternatives to the present. There is no fundamental difference between the two.


Distance is characterized as follows (Inayatullah 2004, 8-9): “The third crucial term is distance. [–] Scenarios become not forecasts but images of the possible that critique the present, that make it remarkable, thus allowing other futures to emerge. [–]

Which scenarios make the present remarkable? Make it unfamiliar? Strange? Denaturalise it? Are these scenarios in historical space (the futures that could have been) or in present or future space?

The major philosophical theories of science have the tendency to distance ourselves from the current science. For example, the Kuhnian theory forces us to take seriously scenarios where there are radical changes in science, not only on the level of theories, models, and concepts, but also on the level of methodology, ontology, and values, as all these are ingredients in a paradigm that might be replaced. Even realism does not assume that there is a straightforward development from the present science to the future science. First, it is not committed to the approximate truth of theories whose success is unclear. Secondly, even the most successful theories might be replaced with theories that preserve only certain parts of the current theories and rethink other components. That the philosophy of science distances us from the current science is a rather automatic consequence from the fact that the field does not take for granted received views of science but attempts to analyze science in its complexity.

The historical analyses of science also distance us from the present science. For example, Shapin and Schaffer distance us from the experimental tradition by denaturalizing its origins, as we saw. Another example is Bowler’s Darwin Deleted where he analyses “What would a world without Darwin look like?” (2013, 8). Bowler explains: “My interest in exploring what happens in a world without Darwin is driven by the hope of using history to undermine the claim that the theory of natural selection inspired the various forms of social Darwinism. The world in which Darwin did not write the Origin of Species would have experienced more or less all of our history’s social and cultural developments.” (ibid., 10.). The work does not describe a world where the catastrophic history of racism and ideologies of struggle did not exist (ibid., 10-11) but it nevertheless challenges an explanation of that history thus distancing us from how the history appears to us. “We need to think harder about the wider tensions in our culture responsible for the ideologies that came to have the inoffensive Darwin as their figurehead.” (Ibid., 11.)

Finally, there is exists metalevel discussions in the philosophy of science about the limits of our ability to distance ourselves from the present science.

First, in the inevitability vs. contingency issue, it has been suggested that, in order to really know whether there could be successful alternative science, one should build one. This is known as the “put up or shut up” argument (see Soler 2015). The obvious problem with this argument is that establishing a scientific tradition requires enormous resources. The lack of alternative science might not tell us anything about the plausibility of the alternatives but only about the allocation of resources.

Secondly, there is a strong argument, known as “the problem of unconceived alternatives”, by Stanford that we simply are not able to conceive alternative theories:

 “By contrast, I propose what I will call the new induction over the history of science: that we have, throughout the history of scientific inquiry and in virtually every scientific field, repeatedly occupied an epistemic position in which we could conceive of only one or a few theories that were well confirmed by the available evidence, while subsequent inquiry would routinely (if not invariably) reveal further, radically distinct alternatives as well confirmed by the previously available evidence as those we were inclined to accept on the strength of that evidence. For example, in the historical progression from Aristotelian to Cartesian to Newtonian to contemporary mechanical theories, the evidence available at the time each earlier theory was accepted offered equally strong support to each of the (then-unimagined) later alternatives” (2006, 19.)

Thirdly, Tambolo (2020) has pointed out that even counterfactual histories may not be able to distance us from the present science. Tambolo argues that “In the case of general history, it is often possible to imagine a consequent dramatically different from actual history, and yet plausible; in the case of history of science, imagining outcomes far removed from the results of actual science seems more complicated” (2020, 2012). The problem is that, in order to construct a counterfactual narrative, we need knowledge of how the world works. Given that the actual science provides this knowledge, the present science leaks into the counterfactual narratives thus shaping their direction towards the present state of science.

It follows that, while the philosophy of science can distance us from the current science, there might be general limitations to the ability to make the present remarkable. However, we should not be demoralized by this. Rather, the arguments should be seen as a crucial methodological insight: Even if we cannot (in some cases) distance ourselves from the present world, it does not follow that the present world is inevitable and the only possibility. Rather, the present world might look inevitable only because we do not have the tools to think it away.

Alternative pasts and futures

Alternative pasts and futures are characterized as follows (Inayatullah 2004, 9): “Futures studies has focused only on alternative futures, but within the poststructural critical framework, just as the future is problematic, so is the past. The past we see as truth is in fact the particular writing of history, often by the victors. The questions that flow from this perspective are: Which interpretation of past is valorised? What histories make the present problematic? Which vision of the future is used to maintain the present? Which undo the unity of the present?”

In the philosophy of science, there has been a long debate about testing the philosophical theories against the history of science. This debate has shown that it is extremely difficult to choose one theory over another by confronting them with historical evidence. The many problems are summarized recently by Bolinska and Martin (2020). One straightforward problem is that philosophers of science can choose historical cases that support their theory. It is possible to highlight certain episodes in the history of science that make the theory look appealing. Deeper problems arise when we analyze how historical episodes are interpreted. Lakatos (1971) famously suggested that we should rationally reconstruct the history of science. We need to explain as much of the history of science as we can in terms of a philosophical account. The more of the history of science an account deems rational, the better the account is. The obvious worry with this theory-driven account is that it seems to lead inevitably to a distortion of the past. Why should historical reality conform to our philosophical theories? It has been pointed out that this worry is rather naïve. A philosopher of historiography Kuukkanen has argued that “All history writing includes a theoretical basis of some kind and is indeed normative, implying selectivity and emphases on what is important and explanatory in history. [–]. [Lakatos unlike others] explicitly accepted that the same historiographical data can be brought into several alternative accounts, and he formulated some viable options using schemes and ‘philosophies of science’ of his time.” (2017, 91.)

If we wish to know which philosophical theory we should accept as the correct one, the considerations above create a problem because there is no neutral arbiter against which we could compare the theories. However, the absence of neutral arbiter does not mean that every interpretation is equally good. As Bolinska and Martin point out “[h]istory, philosophy, and indeed most academic disciplines rely on careful, critical analysis to answer difficult questions, even if a firm answer is not immediately forthcoming” and that “whatever stand we take, we should admit its fallibility” (2020, 40). Moreover, if we conceive the philosophical theories as worldviews and descriptions of the possible structures (the third level of CLA), the problems associated with historical thinking turn out to be strong methodological tools. First, when we have scenarios of the future of science that are based on a particular worldview, we can critically engage the historical interpretations that justify the worldview. We can ask what cases are chosen and what interpretations are influenced by that worldview and find out which cases it ignores and what alternative interpretations are possible. Secondly, we notice that all scenarios of the future of science are shaped by theoretical interpretations. Even if a scenario appears natural, we have to explicate its theoretical underpinnings and ask how alternative theoretical frameworks would construct alternative scenarios. Awareness of the interpretive frameworks makes it possible to move between alternative histories and alternative futures. There is a shared epistemic ground between different presentations of the past and different presentations of the future.

Reordering Knowledge

Reordering of knowledge is characterized as follows (Inayatullah 2004, 9): “Reordering knowledge is similar to deconstruction and genealogy in that it undoes particular categories; however, it focuses particularly on how certain categories such as ‘civilization’ or ‘stages in history’ order knowledge.

How does the ordering of knowledge differ across civilization, gender and episteme? What or Who is othered? How does it denaturalise current orderings, making them peculiar instead of universal?

The philosophy and history of science are especially well equipped to perform such analysis. For example, the core idea in the Kuhnian theory is that different stages in history, paradigms, differ radically in their assumptions about “the right” methodology, values, and ontology. Moreover, we have already seen how genealogy and distance in the philosophy of science involve analysis of historical origins and contingencies in the development of the present science. As we saw, these analyses denaturalize current orderings and make them peculiar.

There has also been a shift from the history of science to the history of knowledge, a shift that acknowledges the historical contingency and peculiarity of science. Renn writes:

“For many historians of science, science no longer seems distinguishable from other forms of cultural practices. It has ceased to be a paradigm of universal rationality and presents itself as just one more object of study for cultural history or social anthropology. Even the most fundamental aspects of the classical image of science — proof, experimentation, data, objectivity or rationality — have turned out to be deeply historical in nature. This insight has opened up many new perspectives on the study of the history of science, which is turning more and more into a history of knowledge. It thus includes not only academic practices, but also the production and reproduction of knowledge far removed from traditional academic settings, for instance, in artisanal and artistic practices, or even in family and household practices”. (2015, 37–38.)

Moreover, the history of knowledge is not merely interested in how knowledge has been produced and understood in different social and historical context, but it also analyses the processes that shaped how different forms of knowledge were classified and valued and how hierarchies of forms of knowledge were established (e.g., Mulsow 2018, 180). In this way, the philosophy and history of science and knowledge enable us to understand how knowledge has been ordered in the past and how the current ordering is not a self-evident part of the future of science.


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