Philosophy of Science in Russia

by Anna Alexandrova | 18 August 2020

Daria Drozdova is an Assistant Professor and Deputy Head of School of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. In this country focus, she talks to us about the Soviet heritage in philosophy of science, compulsory philosophy courses for postgraduates, and the current state of the field in the Russian Federation.

Tell us about how you became a philosopher of science. What are the contributions you are most proud of?

I graduated from Moscow State University, Faculty of Physics. There I became interested in philosophy and after obtaining my diploma I decided to change my specialty. Of course, initially my interest was connected with philosophical problems of physics. I was interested in how we understand the world, how real are those objects (waves, particles, black holes) which we are studying, why the physical conception of time differs so much from time of our human experience. But I was also interested in broader philosophical topics: the problem of freedom, human existence, language, and so on. As a result, I went to Gregorian University in Rome where for some time I was engaged with phenomenology rather than philosophy of science. However, my master's thesis was dedicated to the idea of science in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, and in my PhD dissertation I studied history of the Scientific Revolution as it was interpreted by a famous Russian-born historian of science Alexandre Koyré. Since then my interests switched more and more to history of philosophy and science. Only later I acquired better knowledge of contemporary topics of philosophy of science.

Here my personal history probably becomes quite typical, especially for Russia: after having started my work at HSE University, I was included in the teaching staff for the History and Philosophy of Science course for PhD students thanks to my expertise in history of science. Soon enough the historical part disappeared and only philosophy of science left. So gradually I’ve been more and more involved with teaching various topics of philosophy of science. With my scientific background it was not difficult to enter the subject.

In my research, I started to study thought experiments in science and philosophy. One part of the project is dedicated to real and thought experiments with falling bodies in the 17th century mechanics, but I have also a general interest in thought experiments as an argumentative strategy. In my most recent publication I analyse how thought experiments are used in philosophy (especially experimental philosophy) and science. I argue that philosophical thought experiments differ quite a lot from scientific ones in their object: while scientific thought experiments are a kind of deductive reasoning based on an accepted model of reality, philosophical thought experiments question our representations and models of the same reality.

How many philosophers of science are working in Russia at the moment and what are the key institutions that support their research? Is there a society for philosophers of science, and, if so, what are its activities?

Since 2005 there is a special requirement at the Russian universities that all PhD students should take a course in History and Philosophy of Science. This means that every university should have at least one teacher who can lecture on the subject. Of course, sometimes it may be only one person, but sometimes there is a whole department which have to provide the teaching of (History and) Philosophy of Science for various graduate schools at the same university. So, in every city where there is a university, there should be at least one philosopher of science.

Of course, among all this amount of university lecturers the majority are not trained in the field. The obligatory philosophical education is a specific trait of the Russian educational system since Soviet time. Initially it was mainly historical and dialectical materialism, but after 1991 general philosophical education shifted toward history of philosophy and general philosophical questions which were still taught in a Marxist vein. When the teaching of History of Philosophy in graduate schools was substituted by History and Philosophy of Science, a big discussion arose. During these discussions some doubts were expressed on whether university philosophy teachers were ready to become philosophers of science in mass. Prof. Lyudmila Mikeshina wrote in 2005 that "among local philosophers there are not so many specialists in the field of philosophy of science". In order to provide universities with a sufficient number of trained philosophers of science, professional training courses were organised where former lecturers of Marxism and History of Philosophy studied the main topics and problems of Philosophy of Science for 1-2 months. The history of science was largely left out. 

The great demand for the Philosophy of Science in education in last 15 years gives rise to a large number of people who are associated (even formally) with this field of study. Naturally, a formal structure which helps all these people to be connected, was needed. So, in 2016 the Russian Society of History and Philosophy of Science was established. The Society held its first congress in 2017. It was attended by about 180 people. This autumn, the second congress of the Society is to be held, and the number of declared participants is approaching 300 which may be a realistic evaluation of number of teachers and researchers working in the field. The Society has 10 regional branches in a number of major Russian cities. In addition to regular congresses, the Society organises thematic conferences, establishes prizes, distributes information about grants and publishing programs. The creation of the Society was a great step in the institutionalisation of Philosophy of Science in Russia. There is reasonable hope that the further activity of the Society will contribute to the growing presence of Philosophy of Science in Russian universities.

In addition to the Society, which unites researchers from different cities and universities, there are also specialised research groups at research institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In Philosophy, the leading role is played by the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, based in Moscow, and the Institute of Philosophy and Law of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, based in Novosibirsk. The Institute of Philosophy in Moscow is divided in a number of research departments (sectors). Some of them deal with Philosophy of Science and related subfields. There are departments of Theory of Knowledge, Logic, Social Epistemology, Philosophy of Natural Sciences, Philosophical Problems of Social Sciences and Humanities, Interdisciplinary Problems of the Development in Science and Technology, Humanitarian Expertise and Bioethics. Among periodicals published by Institute of Philosophy there are three related to Philosophy of Science: Logical Investigations, Philosophy of Science and Technology, Epistemology & Philosophy of Science. The last one is recently entered in the first quartile of philosophical journals in Scimago Journal Ranking.

There are also specialised departments at Universities, where students can be trained in philosophy of science. It’s worth mentioning Department of Philosophy and Methodology of Science at Moscow State University (Head Prof. Valery Kuznetsov) and Department of Philosophy of Science and Technology at Saint Petersburg State University (Head Dr. Lada Shipovalova). At my university, Higher School of Economics (Moscow), a research group in Philosophy of Science was created a year ago. There are about ten researchers in the team including PhD students, head of the group is Prof. Helena Khyazeva. We are working on different topics, from general philosophy and history of science to philosophy of physics and biology, but out common project is related to philosophical problems of inter- and trans-disciplinarity. 

What was philosophy of science like in the Soviet Union and how has it changed since its collapse? Is there a distinctive tradition in Russian philosophy of science that should be better known abroad? Any must-read texts?

The philosophy of science was quite a popular subfield of philosophy in the Soviet Union in the ’60-‘80s. There were at least two reasons for this. First of all, postwar scientific advances, the success of the space program, the development of cybernetics gave rise to growing enthusiasm toward science and technology. Philosophers, especially students, shared these feelings. They shared the belief that in the near future science would liberate humankind from many disasters and improve human nature itself. Therefore, philosophical reflection on science was an attractive endeavor. Secondly, philosophy of science was less influenced by the Marxist ideology. Therefore, philosophy of science was seen a possible refuge for those who wanted to be free from ideological control.

However, on my view, the whole Soviet philosophy was so filled with Marxist thought that it influenced philosophy of science anyway. The most characteristic trait of the late Soviet philosophy of science is that it was built upon conception of science as a human activity whose final aim was transformation of material world. Natural science is thus essentially a research into natural laws as rules of transformation of material objects. It creates an immediate link of science to technology, because a pure contemplation, ‘reflection’ of the nature, would be just unproductive and thus useless.

The ‘activity approach’ to science has determined other features of late Soviet philosophy of science. Soviet philosophers in general were less inclined to embrace positivistic conception of science, especially logico-semantical approach. They found instead the ideas of post-positivists such as Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, to be consistent with their owns. These three philosophers still form the core of Russian syllabi in philosophy of science. 

Furthermore Soviet and Post-soviet philosophy of science considered science to be a product of human activity situated in social and cultural contexts. This explains preferences given to such topics as anthropological and humanistic dimension of science, influence of science on cultural and spiritual transformation of humankind, social responsibility of science ad technology, norms and values of scientific research. In addition to that Soviet philosophers generally had a very extensive knowledge of history of European philosophy. It was not unusual to meet in books and articles on philosophy of science references to Hegel, Husserl, and especially Wittgenstein. The great minds of the twentieth century science were also well respected. Philosophical reflections on science produced by Einstein, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Bohr, Wiener and others were translated in Russian and used in philosophical papers quite extensively.

I will not fill my answer with names which are well known in Russia but do not mean much to external readers. I will mention only two of them and for quite different reasons. The first person is Prof. Vyacheslav Stepin (1934-2018), the Full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the authors of the most popular textbook on philosophy of science in Russia (Stepin V., Rozov M., Gorokhov V. Philosophy of science and technology, Moscow, 1996). The second one is Prof. Mikhail Rozov (1930-2011), author of an original conception of science as social wave (kumatoid), the lecturer who influenced a lot my own path to the philosophy.

Prof. Stepin was a leader of the Minsk group of philosophy of science, but later he moved to Moscow and worked at the Institute of Philosophy of Russian Academy of Science. The main topic of his research was theoretical knowledge in natural sciences, especially the structure of scientific theory and role of models and idealized objects in theoretical reasoning. But the greatest legacy of Stepin in current Russian philosophy of science is his conception of scientific rationality and scientific worldviews. His starting point was doctrines of Kuhn, Holton, Toulmin, Laudan who recognize that scientific practice and what is considered ‘rational’ in science are shaped by a set of commonly accepted norms of scientific research, ontological suppositions, ideas regarding scientific objectivity and so on. Stepin then elaborated a conception of three historical stages of scientific rationality: classical (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), non-classcal (twentieth century), and post-non-classical science (twenty first century). These three stages can be distinguished by how their object is constructed: in classical science the object is considered to be independent from researcher and therefore a scientific theory can be true ‘reflection’ of natural processes, the prototype for classical science is Newtonian mechanics; in non-classical science the reality under investigation is a product of interaction of external objects, instruments and theoretical conceptions, therefore objects cannot be separated from human ways of seeing them, and the prototype for non-classical science is quantum mechanics; in post-non-classical science the boundary between human and natural is blurred, the research is focused on complex non-linear systems of which human being is an essential part (ecology, epidemiology, biotechnology and biomedical studies). Each stage is then characterized by a specific type of ‘rationality’, that is the ways to conduct the research, to construct and confirm hypothesis and theories, to perform rational choice between theories.

Research into scientific rationality was not the exclusive domain of Prof. Stepin. In the late 80s - the first half of the 90s, a number of publications and collective monographies on historical forms of scientific rationality and their transformations were published, authored by N. Avtonomova, P. Gaidenko, V. Lektorsky, V. Porus, V. Shvyrev, and others. But undoubtedly a great role in the popularization of the doctrine on historical forms of scientific rationality was played by the textbooks written by Stepin, which are recommended for study for a great number of Philosophy of Science courses. 

Mikhial Rozov also was an author of the textbook alongside with V. Stepin and V. Gorokhov, but his own views are less well known, though no less original. He proposed to consider science as a particular form of persistent social being (social wave or ‘kumatoid’) which is not constructed by their material constituents (scientists, instruments, libraries) but by ‘tradition’, that is, by repetitive practice, organized through a set of norms and reproducible exemplars.  Rozov’s traditions are similar to Kuhn’s paradigms, but they are more flexible, they can be divided in different subtraditions and exemplars, which can be transferred and imitated across disciplinary boundaries. For example, every type of scientific activity such as ‘conducting an observation', ‘writing a paper’, ‘conjecturing a hypothesis’ presuppose a certain normativity which is learned through examples given by more experiences members of a group. And sometimes one may learn a new practice or even new approach to reality from very different discipline, even arts or humanities, and it may produce an effective innovation in one’s own field. I usually introduce Rozov’s works immediately after Thomas Kuhn’s as the parallels are obvious and students find them useful and more realistic. 

These are two examples of Soviet heritage in philosophy of science that are potentially interesting to contemporary work in our field. Stepin’s book was translated into English in 2005 (V. S. Stepin, Theoretical Knowledge, Dordrecht: Springer, 2005). Mikhail Rozov’s texts have never been translated. Unfortunately, the Russian philosophical style is closer to the German and Italian essay-writing traditions, so it isn’t always palatable to anglophone readers used to more structured texts. Nevertheless, these ideas may fit well with contemporary work in social epistemology and philosophy of science.

How would you characterise philosophy of science in Russia? Is it mostly general or of specific scientific disciplines such as physics, biology or economics?

Two factors influence the current state of philosophy of science in Russia. It’s the already-mentioned universal postgraduate teaching of philosophy of science and the heritage of the Soviet philosophy of science. The consequence is that general themes of the philosophy of science, such as scientific rationality, theoretical and empirical methods, norms and values of science, relationship between science and society are still very popular as research topics. 

However, there is also a significantly growing interest in philosophical analysis of cognitive and neuro sciences, informational and computational technologies, biotechnologies and medical ethics. There is a very interesting group at the Moscow Centre for Consciousness Studies (V. Vasilyev, D. Volkov, A. Kuznetsov and others) working in an impressive international collaboration. In bioethics and medical humanitarian expertise the leading scholar was the late Prof. Boris Yudin, now the Department of Humanitarian Expertise and Bioethics at the Institute of Philosophy, headed by Olga Popova, preserves and develops his scientific legacy. Researchers of philosophy of computer technologies from different universities of Russia (Pyatigorsk, Vologda, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Saint-Petersburg) are united around an online journal Philosophical problems of IT and Cyberspace (chief editor P. Baryshnikov) which is published by Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University.

Among the other areas I would like to mention the philosophy of mathematics, logic and formal philosophy. I cannot say that I am very familiar with these fields: I have tried several times to attend conferences of my fellow logicians, but I realized that even all my previous mathematical education does not allow me to understand their presentations beyond the first page. However, the Russian logical school is well known, and it’s almost the only area of Russian philosophy that has fewer problems with international recognition.

Typical Russian publications in general philosophy of science are exegetical or comparative, dealing with classical authors such as Popper, Kuhn, and Lakatos, or dedicated to rendition of issues such as scientific realism, consciousness, scientific method, etc. Because the majority of authors are primarily teachers, rather than researchers, there is less emphasis on engaging contemporary anglophone literature and on developing their own distinctive positions.

However, new trends in science studies are finding their adherents in Russia. STS and social epistemology have recently gained popularity, largely due to the work of the Department of Social Epistemology, headed by Ilya Kasavin, at the Institute of Philosophy. The group is editing a journal Epistemology and Philosophy of Science which publishes articles not only on traditional theory of knowledge, logic and philosophy of science, but also on historical, political, and social epistemology. There is also a journal named Logos which publishes work of young authors in wider humanities and has become a platform for shaping a new humanitarian agenda, in philosophy of science as well.

As I was writing this, news of a mega-grant was announced: several academic institutions, including the Institute of Philosophy, will jointly study existential risks connected to new digital technologies and the rise of new human sciences. I hope this will stimulate philosophy of social sciences and of humanities in Russia. 


TAGS • Russia • Philosophy of Science • History of Science • Soviet Philosophy

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