Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021


History has a lot to teach us. We know that. The hard part is making the leap from past to present, or more generally from “is” to “ought.”

One way to use history is as a map of paths not taken. I think that’s the most obvious implication of the book: it shows what a generation of scientists thought they were doing by reflecting on method by studying other minds—before their work was taken in a different direction. If we go back to their original vision, we might find some lessons for shoring up expertise today.

There are other implications I wish I’d brought out more explicitly in the book. One has to do with politics. The move to naturalize science paved the way for insisting that it was apolitical. This idea has been used (unsuccessfully, in many cases) to shield science from politics.

But as I show in Chapter 2, this research program actually began with politics—specifically, with the desire to define science as both radical and conservative. Science, in this view, encompasses politics. If we thought of it that way today, we might have different strategies for building trust in it.

The other implication that’s mostly latent in the book has to do with objectivity. Attempting to find a least common denominator for science, something so general you could find it in any animal, these scientists framed it as an objective tool—usable in any context, on any problem.

But there’s another way to think about objectivity, one that builds our identities into science, rather than separating them out. Feminist arguments for “Strong Objectivity” or what Donna Haraway has called “situated knowledges,” adopt this view—and it has immense potential for repairing our sense of science as a human activity, as something we do together, fallibly.

I’m drawn to this view of objectivity, and I think some of the figures in my book would’ve been too. One of them, William James, was actually the source of my epigraph. I think it makes as much sense as a conclusion as it did as an opening: “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.”