Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Second Young Researchers Days & Workshop on the Relations between Logic, Philosophy and History of Science

September 6-7, 2010, Palais des Académies, Rue Ducale / Hertogstraat 1, Brussels.
If you happen to be in the Low Countries next week, this should be fun:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A mainstream economist admits the obvious [told you!]

It is rare to hear a prominent mainstream economist discuss so frankly (in public) the ways in which non trivial value judgments enter into welfare economics and public pronouncements of economists:

I probably shouldn't say, "I told you so," but...I told you so:
[The published version will be available soon: http://www.amazon.com/Elgar-Companion-Chicago-School-Economics/dp/1840648740]

Moreover, elsewhere I tell the story how even at Chicago-Economics (where they were early and rather trenchant critics of the claims of value-neutrality of welfare economics), the new welfare economics was adopted: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1628102
For philosophers this paper may be entertaining (or a cautionary note) because I show how Kuhn's ideas were both anticipated and then aggressively promoted to create a mythic history (and, thus stiffle dissent) at 'Chicago'.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Duck and drake clusters

The following post about homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) is pretty long, so I've split it into several sections. Here's the very short version: Ereshefsky and Matthen argue that the HPC approach to natural kinds fetishizes similarity and is undone by polymorphism. I argue that it's not, and that the HPC approach is really about looking for causal structure.
[crossposted at Footnotes on Epicycles]

Thursday, August 26, 2010

SEP on ENlightenment

I love the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is why I try to read (well, scan) most of new and updated entries. You can, too: http://plato.stanford.edu/new.html
So, I really don't want to be known for kvetching about SEP (as I did recently: http://itisonlyatheory.blogspot.com/2010/08/copernicus-at-stanford-encyclopedia-of.html).

But while I picked on the Copernicus article because of my own (no doubt rather eccentric) pet-peeves, the entry on "Enlightenment" is based on claims that do not withstand scrutiny. It is also clearly informed by a self-serving German (if not outright Kantian as understood by certain Rawlsians) historiography of Enlightenment. (This dawned upon me when I read that "Only late in the development of the German Enlightenment, when the Enlightenment was near its end, does the movement become self-reflective." Such a bizarre claim is only possible because Rousseau, who famously challenged the value of Enlightenment, is treated as an entirely moral-political thinker; his three Discourses are not even mentioned in the bibliography! [The secondary literature bibliography is rather limited.]

In what follows, I have tried to emphasize the HPS relevance of my concern. (This is not a reach because Newton plays a crucial role in the narrative: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/#TruSciEpiMetEnl
So when WIlliam Bristow writes, "It belongs centrally to the agenda of Enlightenment philosophy... to provide a metaphysical framework within which to place and interpret this new knowledge" he imposes the Kantian conception onto the subject; for many Enlightenment thinkers natural philosophy makes metaphysics irrelevant.)

Here are two claims from the entry's very first paragraph that reveal some of the article methodological and historical flaws:
I. "Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution." If we think in strict calendar-periods--then one might be inclined to agree. But a) now it looks like the French [why not American?] Revolution is a kind of teleological outcome of Enlightenment thought; this goes against the self-understanding of a lot of politically-gradualist Enlightenment thinkers (especially in Scotland). And b) if the Enlightenment is a kind of regulative ideal (for future-oriented action), then the French revolution may mark the real (as opposed to merely theoretical) possibility of Enlightenment, but by no means its completion. (Think of Lincoln at Gettysburg who turned the US Constitution into an open-ended project.) This option not irrelevant for those (i.e., many eighteenth century historians) that wish to have a *science of history* that can shape the future. C) Why think that Enlightenment must culminate in political events rather than in a change of attitudes or knowledge?

II "The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles."
Well, no. A lot of philosophy (including natural philosophy) remained in some respects a handmaiden of theology or natural theology. Newtonianism routinely got connected with theological (theo-cosmological) arguments. (It is as if Weber and Merton never wrote.) Many of the folk that are most eager to see philosophy end its handmaiden role (Spinoza, Hume, Diderot) are also most ambivalent about the course of mathematical natural philosophy. [Not to mention that there is now a very rich literature on Catholic Enlightenments.]
The whole article conflates secularization and the advancement of science (as well as the idea of progress).

I could go on and on, paragraph by paragraph (and maybe I will in future postings), but this is long enough for now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

cfp - Graduate Conference on Philosophy of Science and/or Technology GHENT

1st Dutch-Flemish Graduate Conference on Philosophy of Science and/or Technology
The NFWT organizes its first graduate conference for advanced master students, Phd-students, and recent Phd’s, working on philosophy of science and/or technology. The goal of this conference is to help young researchers establish a research network, and try out papers in a cordial setting. All participants will be alloted ca. 30 minutes to present a paper, followed by 15 minutes of discussion.
There will be two keynote lectures on the topic of “levels of organization in the life sciences”, and contributions related to this topic are especially encouraged, without this being an exclusionary criterion.
Abstract of maximum 500 words should be submitted no later than October 1, 2010, by email to: maarten.vandyck@ugent.be. Notification of acceptance will be sent by October 10.
Dates: 25 and 26 November 2010
Venue: Het Pand, Ghent University, Ghent
Keynote speakers: Jon Williamson (Kent University) and Gertrudis Van de Vijver (Ghent University)

For more information on the NFWT (Dutch-Flemish Network for Philosophy of Science and Technology), see: http://logica.ugent.be/NFWT/index.php

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Copernicus at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The entry on Copernicus has been updated at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

I want to offer one minor kvetch. The article claims: Copernicus "was responsible for the administration of various holdings, which involved heading the provisioning fund, adjudicating disputes, attending meetings, and keeping accounts and records. In response to the problem he found with the local currency, he drafted an essay on coinage (MW 176–215) in which he deplored the debasement of the currency and made recommendations for reform. His manuscripts were consulted by the leaders of both Prussia and Poland in their attempts to stabilize the currency."

This is all what's said about the matter! Now, this understates the significance of Copernicus on these matters. First Copernicus articulated what is often known as Gresham's Law well before Gresham. (See wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham%27s_law) More important, Copernicus articulated what is known as the quantity theory of money (often attributed to David Hume). Again, see wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantity_theory_of_money#Origins_and_development_of_the_quantity_theory

The quantity theory is a major conceptual and 'scientific' achievement. It is a milestone in economic theorizing. Now, by failing to investigate this more fully, the entry at SEP perpetuates the blindness among philosophers to a) the shared history between philosophy and economics (and political economy); b) their ongoing mutual development; c) makes Copernicus' interest in theorizing about currency (shared by Galileo, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) seem largely insignificant.

End of rant!


13-15 May 2011, University of Toronto. Presented by the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto and the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, University of Chicago

The philosophy of science has an illustrious history of attraction and antipathy towards metaphysics. The latter was famously exemplified in the Logical Positivist contention that metaphysical questions are meaningless, but in the wake of the demise of Positivism, metaphysics has found its way back into the philosophy of science. Increasingly, questions about the nature of natural laws, kinds, dispositions, and so on have taken a metaphysical cast. The metaphysics of science
commands significant attention in contemporary philosophy.
While many philosophers embrace the increased contact between metaphysics and the philosophy of science, others are wary. Should science (and its philosophical study) lead us into doing metaphysics? If so, which metaphysical issues are genuine and which are illusory, and how might we tell? Such questions dovetail with similar soul-
searching in metaphysics proper (sometimes under the banner of "meta-metaphysics", sometimes simply as methodology).
This conference will examine ground-level debates about metaphysics within the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of biology, and broader methodological questions about the role of metaphysics in the philosophy of science. Participation is open and welcome from all parties to these questions: from those who hold that metaphysics must have a place within the philosophy of science, to those who hold it
should not.

Craig Callender (University of California, San Diego)
Anjan Chakravartty (University of Toronto)
Katherine Hawley (University of St. Andrews)
Jenann Ismael (University of Arizona)
James Ladyman (University of Bristol)
Kyle Stanford (University of California, Irvine)
Michael Strevens (New York University)
Robert Wilson (University of Alberta)
C. Kenneth Waters (Minnesota)

Essays of 4,000-5,000 words (30 minutes allotted for presentations) concerning any aspect of metaphysics and the natural or social sciences will be accepted for review until January 10, 2011. Please include a short abstract (200 words or so), a few keywords, prepare your essay for blind review (do not include your name or other
identifying references in the document), and submit it in PDF format here: http://www.easychair.org/conferences/?conf=mpsc2011
Notification by early February 2011.

Chris Haufe (University of Chicago)
Matthew H. Slater (Bucknell University)
Zanja Yudell (California State University, Chico)
Please direct general conference inquiries to mpsc2011@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Homage to Ian Mueller

I was in the Chicago philosophy graduate program during the 1990s. My
primary field of study was philosophy of physics, but I spent a good
third of my time on ancient Greek philosophy as well, most of it with
Ian. I adored Ian, both personally and professionally. I feel
privileged to have been his student, and even more to have known him
as a person. I find as I make my way through the world of academic
philosophy that by and large the people who know Ian---and when
someone in the field knows Ian, they invariably revere him---are those
people who themselves do the finest work.

Ian was a philosopher's philosopher---a true scholar and open-minded
thinker who never let his astonishing carefulness and thoroughness
degenerate into pedantry. He was the only person I know who could
make the commentaries and the apparatuses fun. (Indeed, this is the
thanks I gave him in the "Acknowledgments" section of my doctoral
dissertation, the second person I thanked there: "It is a pleasure to
acknowledge and thank the following people.... Ian Mueller---for
exemplifying the spirit of careful scholarship, and for making me
realize that sometimes (not often, but sometimes) studying the
secondary literature can be almost as rewarding as reading the
original text.")

This is one of my fondest memories of Ian. We were in the weekly
group he used to lead on Aristotle's *Metaphysics*, going through a
particularly difficult passage in Book Lambda, as always going through
the text line by line, word by word (while always keeping an eye
firmly fixed on the bigger picture). At one point, I recalled that
Ross, in the commentary to his edition of the Greek, had an
interesting take on a disputed reading, so I offered my recollected
gloss on it. Ian looked puzzled, and said surely that was not right,
that was not what Ross had said. I guess I was feeling cocky, because
normally I would have deferred to Ian's mastery of the apparatus, but
on that occasion I was sure I was right and said so. Like dueling
gunslingers, Ian and I simultaneously and gleefully (albeit, Ian in
his understated way) reached for our copies of Ross and scrambled to
beat each other to the relevant part of the commentary. At about the
same moment, again, we each declared ourselves to be right. And
looked at each other puzzled, because we could not both be right.
After a moment's confusion, we worked out that I had the second
edition of Ross and Ian had the first. I figured that was the end of
the matter, but Ian asked to see my copy. Lovingly he lay the two
editions side by side and perused them in turn for several moments,
working out the details and subtleties of Ross's apparent change of
heart, clearly trying to figure out not only the substance but the
reasons behind it. Finally, dreamily, he looked up, eyes on the
Platonic Heaven, and said softly, "God help me, I love this stuff."

I tried to tell Ian several times how much he meant to me, how much he
had contributed to my intellectual development---how much of my
teaching and research, even to this day, even on topics not related to
ancient philosophy, is still done with him consciously in my mind as a
paragon. He always brushed it aside with a shy modesty that was
humbling to me. I know full well that I am far from the only one of
Ian's ex-students to feel this way.

Monday, August 16, 2010


As Brian Leiter reported http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/08/the-ny-times-philosophy-blog-again.html. The New Times has recruited Timothy Williamson for its online blog, the Stone. In a recent entry (perhaps his first?) he writes about the role of the imagination in science: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/reclaiming-the-imagination/

The main point of the entry is revealed in its closing paragraph. It is to answer unnamed "Critics of contemporary philosophy" who "sometimes complain that in using thought experiments it loses touch with reality...Once imagining is recognized as a normal means of learning, contemporary philosophers’ use of such techniques can be seen as just extraordinarily systematic and persistent applications of our ordinary cognitive apparatus."

I offer four observations:
1. First, Williamson makes it easy on himself by simply asserting without evidence that contemporary philosophers’ use of imagination can be seen as just extraordinarily systematic and persistent applications of our ordinary cognitive apparatus. The blog clearly implies that if the imagination is good enough for science it is good enough for philosophy. But Williamson makes no effort to show that contemporary philosophers systematically constrain the use of the imagination in the manner that scientists (perhaps?) do. He just asserts philosophers' systematicity and persistence. (The piece ends a line later.) This is an argument from authority.

2. Nevertheless, my reason for blogging about this entry is not to continue to harping about the tendency of leading analytic philosophers to claim the mantle of science when it suits them. Rather, it is to note the surprising (to me!) impact of recent (well, post-Kuhnian!) history and philosophy of science on Williamson's thought in at least two ways. First, Williamson takes the context of discovery very seriously. It is what grounds his appeal to the authority and use of the imagination. Second, he asserts that even in the context of justification the imagination plays a very important role, and this is a good thing.

3. So, perhaps philosophers of science can engage Williamson on these two previous points in constructive fashion? The recent methodological turn of my leading (and young) analytic metaphysicians should be an opportunity in this respect.

4. I end with a historical note. Williamson's position is a rediscovery of David Hume's and especially his friend's Adam Smith's understanding of science. In Smith's "The History of Astronomy," the imagination plays a positive constructive and justificatory role in natural science and philosophy: "Philosophy, therefore, may be regarded as one of those arts which address themselves to the imagination." As Smith writes, "For, though it is the end of Philosophy, to allay that wonder, which either the unusual or seemingly disjointed appearances of nature excite, yet she never
triumphs so much, as when, in order to connect together a few, in themselves,
perhaps, inconsiderable objects, she has, if I may so, created another
constitution of things, more easily attended to, but more new, more contrary
to common opinion and expectation, than any of those appearances themselves."
(IV.33, 75)

Cat on Neurath

At first glance this looks like à stunning achievement:

More after careful read.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Epistemic egalitarianism vs epistemic hierarchy

During the last few months Brian Leiter has agitated against what he usefully calls "epistemic egalitarianism." See here:

I always think of philosophy as an epistemic egalitarian enterprise--you are as good as your last argument.

It's not only because I am a huge fan of wikipedia that I am reserved about Leiter's trust in the experts and their authority. Let me explain, but, first, epistemic egalitarianism (EE) should not be confused with Bush-ite science-bashing. EE is not anti-science, it is just very skeptical of claims from authority.
What *in the context of public policy* could be said in favor of EE's stance? (Within a scientific community EE rules in some limited sense.)
1. Scientific authority can get willfully abused (Nazi medicine, eugenics, etc). But let's leave this aside.
2. A. Scientific expertise is fairly narrow and it can easily be misapplied in public policy domains. B. Few scientific experts are trained in neighboring fields as to judge the interactions among their expertise and other experts.
3. scientific expertise gets selected for by interested parties, including (alas) self-selection.
4. scientific experts are normal rent-seeking agents.
5. When scientific experts get it wrong in matters of policy they do not tend to run the costs of their errors.
Note that none of these (2-4) points mean we should not seek expert advice or base policy on scientific knowledge. (The fifth one may incline us to be very cautious about scientific experts.) But points 2-4 do encourage transparency of the sort that EE insist on in order to let (skeptical) non-experts weigh in on and scrutinize expert authority in decision-making processes. (Incidentally, there are good feminist, stand-point theorist's arguments for this position.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ian Mueller RIP

Ian Mueller supervised my preliminary essay on Plato's Laws and was -- due to his extensive knowledge of Marx and his love of philosophy, more generally -- a very valued and critical reader of my dissertation (on Newton, Hume and Adam Smith).

Ian was one of two people at The University of Chicago that I nominated for a graduate teaching award. He won it the same year, I believe, as his wife, Janel, a very distinguished scholar of Renaissance English literature. His graduate teaching style can be best described as follows: you take a canonical text. You go through it line by line with your students, eliciting from them the now standard/canonical (often very dull) reading (sometimes you assign that, too). You then carefully show with them how it cannot possibly be right. Then you draw attention to an exciting, non-standard reading. Just before the end of class you show it, too, has fatal objections. Class ends (like a Platonic dialogue) in aporia. Repeat exercise at next class. (As Eric Brown reminded me, sometimes he would go through many more flawed positions.)

I always though of Mueller's as the (contemporary) philosophers' philosopher introduction to Euclid (and Greek math more generally). His book is just full of subtle arguments and observation. Like most of the great commentaries on Euclid (with which Ian was very familiar) it is as informative about Euclid as it is about the state of play in philosophic reflection on mathematics of its own day. Ian's contribution to Kraut's Cambridge Companion to Plato I continue to re-read with pleasure. I am always annoyed by those who tried to treat Ian as a niche scholar of ancient math--I am convinced that his papers help unlock far wider issues in Ancient Greek thought (no surprise given the importance of mathematical thinking in their philosophy) and, given the centrality of Euclid to western 'scientific' thought, to our philosophic culture.

My qualifying paper on the Laws was a commentary, and (despite opposition by others in the department) he was very supportive of it. If it weren't for his encouragement I probably would have left the discipline. But after the whole ordeal he told me he doubted anybody would ever get Plato convincingly right, but that there was still much to learn from Plato reception, both in the Ancient world but also from later periods (something I take to heart in some of my Early Modern scholarship). I had chosen the commentary form without much reflection, but much later something dawned upon me. While I did not keep up with all of his recent scholarship or the translations of the commentators, which I suspect he viewed as a kind of service to the discipline, but -- more poetically -- as a way of rehabilitating the commentary tradition as a philosophic art. He will be missed.

Bad week

Upon return from holiday, I learned that Ian Mueller and David Hull had died during last few days.
In an earlier discussion on this list I had listed Mueller's Philosophy of Mathematics and Deductive Structure in Euclid as one of the most important contributions to HPS since the 1980s:
What I did not know then is that Dover reprinted Mueller's book, so it is easily and cheaply available.
I had failed to include Davide Hull's *Science as a Process*, which is a landmark in HPS work of the era; it's empirical, reflexive, very informed and offers a challenging account of scientific practice. It is also widely discussed (760 hits on scholar.google), and, thus, was surprisingly left out of my original list; unaccountably it then went unmentioned in the learned discussion.