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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 floating generalizations.
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.
Your goal is active engagement with the reading. You are to identify what are the major theses, the arguments that support them, the important ideas, and the paper's strengths and the weaknesses.
Your goal is NOT merely to recapitulate passively what you read. "Author says this, then this, then this, then this ..." is unhelpful to the seminar and minimizes what you learn from the reading.
For long readings, it will not be possible to present everything in the paper. Be bold. Select the most important content and concentrate on that. Leave the incidentals. That is better than giving superficial coverage of everything.
To help you focus on what is important and what you have learned, I am asking each presentation to identify "three gems." They are just three items in the reading that you judge noteworthy.
Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sapphire_Gem.jpg
Presentations are enhanced by a handout.
30 minutes have been assigned to each reading. Presentations should keep strictly within this 30 minutes so that we can keep to our schedule of three papers read per seminar meeting.
The literature in philosophy of science has grown enormously in recent decades. There are now many survey volumes and handbooks available, most of them pretty good. The best one for you is the one that you find most informative.
The Department's early contribution to these survey volumes comprised chapters written by each of the department's (then, c. 1990) faculty members and is
M. H. Salmon et al. Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1999.
and, if you are an HPS graduate student, you should own a copy.
Another volume edited by an HPS faculty member is:
Peter Machamer and Michael Silberstein, eds., The Blackwell Guide of the Philosophy of Science. Blackwell, 2003.
A handy reference for paragraph sized
explanations of things that everyone else but you seems already to know all
Stathis Psillos, Philosophy of Science A-Z. Edinburgh: Edunbugh University Press, 2007.
"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 Pittsburgh
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 professional philosophers 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 on--can overlap with the concerns of the sciences. Indeed one should expect that a knowledge of these sciences has something of use for the traditional problems.
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. It includes "philosophy of physics," "philosophy of biology," "philosophy of cognitive science" and so on.
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. 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.
See "The Point of Intractability," in my Goodies pages.
July 8, August 31, 2006; August, 2009; August 2011, August 2014.