2019 Winner

Bone and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences


Adrian Currie

[Cover] Bone and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences

About the book

Adrian Currie’s Rock, Bone and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences is a systematic philosophical examination of how scientists generate knowledge of the deep past. Currie’s analysis emphasises the flexible, creative and opportunistic epistemic strategies historical scientists adopt. Paleontologists, geologists and archaeologists construct and co-opt a wide range of tools, techniques and other epistemic resources, and adapt them to the particular needs of their ‘epistemic situations’. Currie argues forcefully that understanding scientific success requires an examination of the local strategies of scientists, adopting a synthetic approach that threads the needle between highly abstract, formalised philosophical analysis and the rich, detailed descriptions of cases common in the history and philosophy of science.

Central to Currie’s book is a novel way of conceptualizing debates about scientific success. Setting himself apart from the traditional realism/anti-realism debate, he argues for optimism about the historical sciences. Optimism and pessimism, for Currie, are attitudes about the future success of a science, which are grounded in examining the practices that scientists adopt, and which are grounded in pluralism about the epistemic goods of science. In addition to setting the stage for further analysis of historical science—putting the philosophy of historical science on the map—this new framework, and the debates it engenders, are applicable across the sciences.

In arguing for optimism about historical reconstruction, Currie provides a foundational account of the epistemic status of paleontology and related sciences, as well as connecting practices in historical science to discussions in the philosophy of science more generally. Currie provides the first explicit philosophical analysis of the notion of a ‘trace’ and ‘trace-based reasoning’—the practice of inferring from a present observation to the past. On this basis, he argues that the epistemic resources that historical scientists have at their command go well beyond trace-based reasoning. To demonstrate this point, Currie discusses the role of coherence in historical reconstruction, as well as analogous reasoning, modelling practices, and the role of idealisation. For Currie, historical scientists are ‘methodological omnivores’: it is their pluralistic opportunism which explains their success.

Rock, Bone and Ruin is also methodologically innovative. It is, as Alison Wylie says on the dust-jacket, “an incisive argument for doing philosophy differently: attentive to the epistemic challenges scientists actually face, resolutely local and contextual, and unabashedly normative”. Currie argues that pluralistic, pragmatic and local approaches to epistemology are called for to explain scientific success, while retaining the tools and advantages of philosophical precision. Drawing on rich and varied examples from across the historical sciences, Rock, Bone and Ruin is an excellent example of what can be accomplished by taking the practice turn in philosophy of science seriously.

The MIT Press
ISBN 978-0262037266
376 pages · 2018

[Photo] Adrian Currie

About the author

Adrian Currie is a Lecturer of Philosophy in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. He is also a member of Egenis (the Centre of the Life Sciences at Exeter), a research affiliate with the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, and an external collaborator at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence also at the University of Cambridge. He is a founder of, and regular contributor to, Extinct, the philosophy of paleontology blog.

Currie received his PhD in 2014 from Australian National University, having previously obtained his Undergraduate and Masters Degrees at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He has taught at the University of Sydney and held Postdoctoral Research positions at the Universities of Calgary and Cambridge.

His extensive list of publications, etc. can be found on his website. Rock, Bone and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (MIT 2018) is Currie’s first book.

The 2019 Fernando Gil Prize for Philosophy of Science

In this book Adrian Currie develops an original philosophical approach to the historical sciences. Such bodies of knowledge are built from slight and contingent traces of the past, and pessimistic minds would deem this basis insufficient for eliciting significant explanations and making sense of the unwitnessed entities and events of the past world.

But paleontologists, geologists and archeologists have been remarkably creative: they have optimistically found means for yielding successful models and methods and adapting them to the multi-conditional rendering of the relevant data.

In his analyses, Adrian Currie points to the fact that the conceptual apparatus of present-day philosophy of science, essentially developed to account for the hard natural sciences and their modes of development, falls short of meeting the challenge of enlightening the ways and means by which historians provide adequate reasons for paleontological realities and the like. The manner in which they rationally rehearse and reconstitute the data they build from, affords a coherent probabilistic understanding of a world which has survived only through the material signs they decipher.

Adrian Currie’s book is a magnificent attempt at providing the pragmatic, reasonable and efficient elements of an epistemology that can successfully interpret how human reason breeds explanations in the historical sciences.

The jury felt this endeavor met the highest standards for an outstanding single-authored book in the philosophy of science and judged it to be therefore a worthy winner of the Fernando Gil prize for 2019.