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- John D. Norton, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Room
817L CL, 412 624 1051, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Room G28 CL
- Thursday 9:30-12noon
1. 4 short papers of 500-1000 words, sent to
me by email at email@example.com, chosen from the list of questions with
2. Presentation of at least 2 assigned readings in the seminar.
3. Alert attendance and participation in discussion.
HPS graduate students will sit a two hour, closed-book exam in the final
class meeting on December 14, in order to satisfy the examination requirement
of the HPS graduate program's Comprehensive
The essence of good philosophy is the formulation of a strong and clear
thesis and the mounting of cogent arguments in its favor. This is what I will
look for in assessing the papers. I will ask: What is the thesis? What is the
argument? I will give no quarter to vague or muddled thought.
Good philosophy suffers if it is not communicated clearly. I expect the
papers to be written in clear, simple prose. I expect short, snappy
sentences. And I expect plain talk, concrete words and vivid examples to be
used wherever possible, instead of jargon, remote abstraction and free
Late submissions are strongly discouraged. Deadlines are serious. That way
everyone is under the same time pressures. You have a choice of papers. Save
the missed papers for when you need them. They are intended to give you
flexibility in dealing with life's little disasters that can make normal
deadlines hard to meet, such as when the cat
brushed past your coffee cup so that it
spilled into your computer, so that you lost all your notes, and, while you were taking the cat to the vet to
treat the burn in the car you borrowed from your friend, you noticed that the registration had expired six
months ago just at the same time as a passing police car noticed and pulled
you over, finding that your name and
vehicle description matched that of a serial identity theft fraudster wanted
in six states specifically for scamming veterinarians, and you said you were
on the way to the vet, so the next thing
you knew was that both you and your cat were in handcuffs, on a train being
extradited to Alabama, and in the train the air conditioning didn't work and
the windows didn't open and it was 115 degrees, so the other prisoners
rioted, and you were struggling to wake up since this couldn't really be
happening. And when you woke up you realized that you'd forgotten to write
the paper due today.
Presentation of Readings
Your goal is to review the essential content of the paper read for the
seminar, proceeding with the assumption that the seminar has read the paper
in advance. That essential content should be sought in the paper's theses and
the arguments used to support it.
If you can, identify the point of intractability (see below) and the dynamic
that sustains it.
Presentations are enhanced by a handout.
30 minutes have been assigned to each reading. Presentations should keep
stricly within this 30 minutes so that we can keep to our schedule of three
papers read per seminar meeting.
What is Philosophy of
"The field of philosophy of science encompasses the philosophical scrutiny
of science, both in general and in its particular branches; and the
scientific scrutiny of those issues in philosophy to which the content of
scientific theories and their methods are relevant."
Mission statement, Center for Philosophy of Science, University of
This definition identifies two parts to philosophy of science. In one, the
methods of philosophical analysis are applied to an understanding of science
itself. These methods have no mysterious content or powers. They amount to an
insistence on the clear statement of ideas and claims and that they be
supported by cogent arguments. That one should proceed in this way is widely
accepted. What distinguishes a professional philosopher is that, even when
the problems are tough and the going very murky, they will not compromise on
clarity and cogency and still find ways of proceeding. The second part of the
definition reflects the fact that philosophy is not a closed field. Its
traditional problems--the nature of space, time and matter; life; mind;
experience; and so--can overlap with the concerns of the sciences. Indeed one
should expect that a knowledge of these sciences has something of use for the
These two parts roughly align with another division in philosophy of science.
On one side we have the treatment of issues common to all sciences, so-called
"general philosophy of science." Its concerns include the structure of
theories, the nature of experiment, induction and confirmation, explanation,
scientific realism and scientific change. On the other side we have the
analysis of problems peculiar to individual sciences and include "philosophy
of physics," "philosophy of biology," "philosophy of cognitive science" and
The Point of Intractability
What should you seek when you start reading in a new topic in philosophy of
science? The emphasis should be on identifying the central theses and
arguments. But how deeply should you read? I have found one rule of thumb
very helpful. In any field, there are easy and obvious results. They are
typically picked up and published early. The sign of maturity of a field is
that none of them are left. Rather one develops a sense of a deep
intractability that blocks further progress. You should seek to read to this
point of intractability and try to find how that intractability arises. It is
generally manifested in a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" dynamic;
and there will be a proliferation of different viewpoints, each designed to
circumvent the difficulty, but with none commanding universal assent.
The classic philosophical problem, Hume's problem of induction, illustrates
this. How can inductive inference be justified? Any purported justification
must call upon other means of inductive justification, so that they are
circular or trigger an infinite regress. Or, if you accept that no
justification is admissible, then it would seem we have no reason to believe
inductive inference. So can you justify induction? You are damned if you try;
and damned if you don't.
The common experience in entering a new field in philosophy of science is
that you see lots of easy results. Exactly because they are easy, chances are
that they are widely known. When you find that progress has been stalled by
apparently intractable problems, rejoice! You have come to the point where
novel contributions are possible.
July 8, August 31, 2006