Why library and information science needs philosophy

The idea that philosophy is of value to science is a contentious issue. Perhaps one of the most widely discussed attacks on philosophy has come from the late Stephen Hawking, who made the bold claim that '…philosophy is dead' (2010, p.5). Hawking argued that it is impossible to answer fundamental questions regarding the nature of the universe without scientific data, such as that gathered from the Large Hadron Collider and from space research in general. While the traditional questions of philosophy, such as 'why are we here?' and 'where do we come from?', he argued, are things most people sometimes wonder, these questions cannot be answered by philosophy as it has not kept up with developments in modern science. Hawking also makes the further claim that the influence philosophers have had has been limited and that their preoccupation with such issues as the problem of induction has made them obstacles to progress (Warman, 2017).

If this were true, then it would perhaps be clear that philosophy would be of no relevance to library and information science (LIS). However, it is clear that this is nonsense: philosophy is far from dead and is of great value to science and thus also to LIS. What Hawking, and other critics, often fail to recognise is the implicitness of philosophy within science, whether this is in the inferences made by scientists or at the speculative stage, where, as Norris (2017) notes, 'scientists ignore the guidance offered by well-informed philosophers only at risk of falling into various beguiling fallacies of fictions'. The thought is that philosophical investigation can reveal the underlying concepts that guide scientific inquiry and that without understanding philosophical thought scientists could end up empirically testing ideas and concepts that do not make logical sense and/or do not reflect reality.

Independent of the aforementioned implicitness of philosophy within science, it does not follow from the claim that philosophy has not kept up with developments in science, that philosophy as an academic discipline is dead. A more reasonable conclusion might be that philosophy has nothing to contribute to science, but, as we will see, this is also not true. Philosophy has much to contribute to all sciences, just as the sciences, in turn, have much to contribute to philosophy. For example, it could apply its rigorous analytical framework to analyse the truth of the conclusions being put forward by scientists following the results of their experiments, or by revealing the underlying presuppositions that may have guided the nature of the experiments they carried out. Logic is topic neutral and therefore one does not need to have in-depth subject knowledge to spot a bad argument.

Concerning Hawking's second claim – that philosophy's preoccupation with outstanding problems has made them it an obstacle to progress – this would seem to ignore the fact that science stemmed from philosophy. As Russell (1959) noted in his canonical Problems of Philosophy 'as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science' (p.90). What Russell is saying here is that once there exists the means to develop subject specific knowledge through empirical methods, i.e. by carrying out experiments, it stops being philosophy (stops depending upon a priori reasoning and analysis) and becomes science (starts depending upon experimental observation).

Thus, as Russell also noted, 'every advance in knowledge robs philosophy of some problems which it formerly had' (Russell and Slater, 2003, p.124). This, historically, is how science developed from its roots in what was known as natural philosophy. However, while science and philosophy are now seen as distinct activities, each with their own methods – empirical observation for the former and logical analysis (to put it very simplistically) for the latter – they still inform each other in an interdependent relationship. Science relies on philosophical assumptions and philosophical investigation is informed by science (Pigliucci, 2010).

As Floridi (2002) has noted, throughout its history, philosophy has been responsible for 'the whole chain of knowledge production' (p.134). Its role has been to identify different kinds of problems and outsource them to new disciplines best suited to tackle them. However, following this, it has always returned to these problems to clarify the concepts involved and the tools and methods used to investigate them (ibid.). It is not then that science robs philosophy of problems, as Russell argued, but rather that philosophy serves to prepare ideas for empirical testing.

This is similar to Godfrey-Smith's (2017) contention that the relationship between philosophy and science is that of incubator and incubatee. In this relationship, philosophy acts as the incubator for ideas, which, once fully developed, can be tested with appropriate empirical methods. He notes that many of the concepts in psychology originated from philosophy. One such example provided is associationism – the view that thoughts are associated based on causal history (Mandelbaum, 2017) – which has moved from being a philosophical concept to a concept now studied in psychology (Godfrey-Smith, 2017, p.2).

A final problem with Hawking's argument is that the claim that philosophy is dead itself amounts to a philosophical claim. In other words, by claiming that philosophy is dead Hawking is doing philosophy. De Haro (2013, p.6) refers to this as the 'the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism'. He claims that to argue that philosophy is not useful to science requires one to have a complete knowledge of the subject matter, methods and goals of science in general. However, even if one has this knowledge, to argue about them it is necessary to do philosophy. While De Haro thinks this is a strong argument against the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism, the strongest argument, he claims, comes from looking at the work of Thomas Kuhn on how science develops.

Kuhn argued that progress in science is not linear but rather a series of revolutions or paradigm shifts (De Haro, 2013, p.7). For Kuhn, a paradigm must have two characteristics. First, it must be significant enough in its achievements to attract adherents to the existing paradigm – these achievements can include new laws, theories, applications and instrumentation. Second, it must be sufficiently open-ended to leave problems to be solved for those who have moved away from the existing paradigm. (Kuhn, 1970, p.10). What De Haro argues is that these paradigm shifts cannot occur without uncovering the underlying presuppositions of the existing paradigm – these presuppositions are an 'intrinsic and necessary part of science regarded as pursuit of truth' (p.7). What this means is that science cannot move forward towards truth without the ongoing process of uncovering underlying presuppositions and subjecting them to critical analysis. Thus, philosophy is necessary – though not in itself sufficient – for progress in science.

This can be demonstrated by considering Kuhn's example of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Prior to formulating this theory, the idea of evolution had already been suggested and had been discussed for decades. The element of Darwin's theory that faced the most difficulty was that he proposed an alternative to the teleological view of evolution – the view that evolution is purpose, or goal driven. Theories of evolution prior to Darwin relied upon the existence of a creator, i.e. God, who set in motion the purpose, or goals, that evolution worked towards (Kuhn, 1970, p.171-172). This forced people to ask 'what could 'evolution,', 'development,' and 'progress' mean in the absence of a specified goal?' (ibid.). In other words, for science to make progress in light of Darwin's theory, it became necessary to answer philosophical questions

Philosophy and normativity

A further element of philosophy that is important to science is concerned with normativity. While science, in general, is considered descriptive, i.e. it describes the world as it is but does not prescribe action. Some sciences, such as the applied sciences, are normative in the sense that they aim to put in place norms, such as in the science of educational psychology which aims to put in places norms surrounding learning and teaching in light of evidence from empirical experiment and observation (Thagard, 2009). LIS can also be seen as having an applied element in that it aims to put in place norms for practice, such as, for example, how we should best make information discoverable to library users in light of empirical evidence from information seeking behaviour studies.

We can, also, go deeper, and ask: why it is a norm in the first place that we should seek to improve the discoverability of information? This can also be related to Hume's famous 'is/ought' problem. Hume argued that when we move from a descriptive claim to a normative claim, we are committing a logical fallacy as there is nothing in the descriptive claim that suggests anything normative (Cohon, 2017). To move from descriptive to normative there must be a logical argument provided to justify the move. Once this move has been made, answering these normative questions is best carried out within the philosophical framework.

As Thagard (2009, 246) notes 'philosophy is the field […] with the most experience in the assessment of normativity. Epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge, traditionally addresses whether and how people ought to obtain knowledge. Ethics traditionally addresses how people ought to act'. What Thagard is saying is that there is no other field as well equipped as philosophy to answer normative questions. It follows from this, given that the questions at the foundational level in LIS will require, primarily, normative and not descriptive answers, that philosophy is the field best equipped to provide a foundation for LIS.


For philosophy to be of relevance to LIS, and to provide it with the conceptual foundation it needs, it must be the case that philosophy is of intrinsic value to science more broadly. I hope to have shown here that Hawking's "philosophy is dead" argument, or the "the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism" – does not provide good reason to reject the idea that philosophy has nothing to contribute to science. Further, I also hope to have shown that philosophy is of value to science, and that, in fact, it is difficult for science to make progress without looking at its own underlying assumptions, which necessitates doing philosophy.

Finally, the normative element implicit in sciences with an applied element, which aim to be more than just descriptive – such as LIS – is dependent upon the answering of philosophical questions. De Haro (2013, p.8) offers a set of specific tasks for philosophy in relation to science. To return to the relationship between LIS and philosophy, these tasks can be paraphrased as tasks for a conceptual foundation for LIS as follows:

  • Analyse the terms and presuppositions of LIS to clarify their meaning and reveal underlying assumptions;
  • Discover standards for what count as good theories, valid modes of explanation and appropriate methods within LIS;
  • Develop an epistemological framework for research within LIS;
  • Provide ethical guidance, i.e. help uncover the most plausible ethical principles for LIS;
  • Explain how the research within LIS fits into the wider scientific framework and also within society as a whole.

In my PhD research, I will be investigating whether the philosophy of information is fit to carry out these tasks.


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