Philosophy of Science and Social Activism, Ilya Kasavin

How can a philosopher of science contribute to the social good?

Posing this question performs a step in the ethic of science. It is more than a question, it is a problem, and not only a theoretical but also a practical one. … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Kasavin, Ilya. 2023. “Philosophy of Science and Social Activism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (4): 1–3.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Lada V. and Yulia V. Shaposhnikova. 2023. “Being at the Crossroads: On the Mission of the Social Philosopher of Science | Review of Kasavin’s A Social Philosophy of Science. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (3): 36–40.

I draw the difference between two dimensions of science—the internal and the external ones and respectively between two functions of philosophical reflection on science. First, a scientist is obliged to seek the new and true knowledge proceeding within what Lakatos dubbed “the codex of scientific honesty”. Surely this codex is not immortal depending on the particular scientific discipline and the stage of its development. Second, a scientist being a member of a social institution, participates practically in the social life to the extent, which is required by her community in the particular culture and historical epoch.

A Detailed Picture of Science

Philosophy and ethics of science can contribute to both dimensions of science performing reflexive and mediatory activity. Reflexivity here means that the observation and description of science by concrete science studies should not be taken for granted. In contrast to this, the hidden presuppositions and remote social consequences of scientific activity must be investigated and the full-bodied picture of science should be created. In turn, the mediation means that a philosopher is engaged in building a trading zone, inventing the common language and the world view in order to support the internal science communication and the interrelations between science and the public sphere.

In this context, the question about scientific activism posed by Lada Shipovalova and Julia Shaposhnikova is highly relevant. In terms of two dimensions of science, I will distinguish the professional and non-professional activism. The later might be viewed as a manifestation of the scientist’s position as a common citizen who has political, economic and cultural interests and might defend them to the degree of her personal and collective ability. Scientific community as such is not qualified to organize the non-formal activism unless it identifies itself as a political agent.

The former, namely a professional activism is characterized by specific forms of the scientific activity. A brief enumeration of them would include:

• Establishing and running scientific societies;
• Participating in the scientific expertise of socially significant projects;
• Establishing and editing scientific journals;
• Organizing scientific conferences;
• Reforming scientific institutions.

Yet the scientific community represents not a homogenic structure. It is more rigid in the center and less solid on the periphery. It is exactly the periphery that reacts especially sensitive towards the events happening outside science. So, scientists do engage in the non-professional activism, when they decide to defend primarily their interests as citizens even disregarding their pure scientific ones. Putting aside emotional factors determining this kind of engagement, a scientist still makes a decision as a reflexive and mediatory agent. It means she must take the current situation into account and act either for creating a moral heroic pattern or for achieving some practical ends. The both are hardly feasible.

Now I present an example of the latter decision.

Creativity Over Criticism

Mstislav Keldysh (1911-1978), a famous Russian mathematician and theoretical mechanic, the President of the USSR Academy of Sciences had once, according to a legend, formulated an interesting axiom for the ethics of science.

Keldysh, blessing academician Ivan Petrovsky (1901-1973), another well-known Russian mathematician, to the rectorship at Moscow State University, recommended him, among other things, to observe the rule: not to fight evil, but to do good deeds. When Petrovsky asked why it was not recommended to fight evil, he replied: in this struggle evil uses all means, and you are only the noble ones, and therefore you will lose and suffer (“Memories of V. A. Egorov”, in Mstislav V. Keldysh Creative Portrait According to the Memories of Contemporaries. M.: Science, 2001).

Mind that Keldysh’s position cannot be viewed as too easy one. As far as I can guess, he considers the pure protest as an empty and meaningless action. It is enough space to fight evil, because in order to do good deeds one has to oppose those who do bad things. In other words, he believed in the priority of creativity over criticism. That was a position of a high scientific official in the situation of science totally governed by the state. We also know different examples of Russian scientists demonstrating against military attack of the “Prague spring” or French scholars participating in the “student revolution” 1968 both presenting a heroic moral pattern. After Paul Feyerabend one can also imagine a utopian situation of “science in a free society” and contemplate on the corresponding activist position of a scientist.

In my opinion, philosophy cannot dictate anybody how to act, this is a personal decision whose moral pattern to follow (J.-P. Sartre). What philosophy can do is solely to provide the proper intellectual means for the reflexive and responsible decision. I always tried to propose something like this within my social philosophy of science.

Статья подготовлена при финансовой поддержке гранта РНФ № 19-18-00494 «Миссия ученого в современном мире (продление)».[1]


I express my deep gratitude to Lada Shipovalova and Julia Shaposhnikova for initiating the discussion and to Jim Collier for providing a perfect trading zone for this.

Author Information:

Ilya Kasavin, Russian Academy of Sciences,

[1] The article was prepared under the financial support of the RSF grant No. 19-18-00494: “The Mission of the Scientist in the Modern World (extension)”.

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