Philosophy of science as a tool for change

Welcome to the Wednesday link-dump, brought to you by the question that kept coming up over and over this past week in Pittsburgh and New York: How can philosophy make a difference?

On Saturday, some of the editors at The American Reader talked with me about the inheritance of this question from a continental-philosophy perspective. The great experiment and great failure of Marx, and the idea that ideas can change the world, etc. I rehearsed for them some of the areas of philosophy of science that are known for finding some social engagement–bioethics, science and values–and we discussed the relationship between Science and Technology Studies and philosophy of science. We took the fact that they knew Bruno Latour’s name as evidence of the relatively wider reach of his ideas than some of the ideas I suggested (the no-miracles argument, confirmation theory), and spent a while ruminating on the tradeoffs between rigor and accessibility. It has always struck me as a sorrow of our field that the demands for rigor can make the ideas somewhat less tractable to broad audiences, and I admire people like J.D. Trout who can transcend that tension.

Then what should I find in my inbox Sunday morning but an article about the Public Philosophy Journal, a new collaborative project by groups at Penn State and Michigan State. While the project presents itself as more about creating a journal with collaborative, social-media methods than a journal aimed at publicly-minded content, both projects seem to be on the horizon. So I signed up for the listserv, and maybe you should too. It will be exciting to see how it develops!

Speaking of listservs, I manage the listserv for JCSEPHS (the Joint Caucus for Socially Engaged Philosophy and History of Science), a new group of philosophers and historians of science who are interested in doing socially engaged research, which I believe includes figuring out exactly what “socially engaged” means. The Caucus met at November’s Philosophy of Science Association/History of Science Society conference in San Diego, and while I couldn’t attend the meeting, I heard they are interested in involving philosophers and historians of science in policy decisions, among other things. Good idea.

The listserv is so new, in fact, that there haven’t been any discussions on it yet–please pardon the administrative timeline! There should be discussion starting on the listserv in the next month or two; if you want to sign up in time to catch all the action, click here.

Bringing things back to nano (because come on, I made it five whole paragraphs without referring to a length scale, you can’t honestly expect six), I had a wonderful conversation with the tech journalist Chris Baraniuk on Thursday about the prospects for nanoscience/nanotechnology and the potential role for philosophy in those prospects. AKA My Favorite Thing To Talk To Strangers About. You all know the drill by now if you’ve been following along: nano’s theories are underdeveloped, and philosophers of science have the needed expertise in analysis of concepts and methodology in order to help solve conceptual, modeling, and other theoretical conundra. We also talked about his recent Atlantic article about phone phreaking and the methodology of hackers/phreakers as an instance of multiple realizability. Which was super fun and informative.

Sunday night I saw a very different use of philosophy as a tool for change. Ross Perlin and the Ways of Being Together project put on a real, live language-games seminar-party-improv-night-event that would have made Wittgenstein proud. Yes, obviously it was in Brooklyn. The premise of WOBT is to put a bunch of people in a room and make them interact in somewhat novel and/or uncomfortable ways. In other words, they are trying to catalyze new kinds of reactions among and between attendees. (What? This is a philosophy of chemistry blog.) Ross’s idea was to bring to the foreground a variety of elements of our linguistic background. So we played language games and I found myself cursing a friend, then confessing to a stranger, then begging a very uncomfortable girl to give me her glasses. And we made up words, and guessed at the meaning of speech we didn’t understand, and slowly had our grammar stripped away as we talked about death. The whole experience of live-action philosophy of language seems like a great teaching tool, and a way of using philosophy (rather than mentioning it) in order to force more thoughtful and effective communication between strangers, coworkers, or classmates. It’d be more interesting than trust falls, anyway.

Which brings me around to a job title I would like to have someday: Philosophical Consultant. Between Ross’s project and JCSEPHS and my continued work with the Millstone Lab on epistemic kinks in nanosynthesis, I think it’s beyond time to recognize that one of the better ways philosophy of science might make a difference is by simply making itself available to science as a problem-solving strategy, in the form of people whose job it is to recognize improper inferences, problematic inconsistencies, or other methodological and epistemic gaps in the design of theories and experiments. Yeah, it’s a pipe dream and no, I wouldn’t give up teaching to do it, but wouldn’t both scientists and philosophers benefit greatly from a formalized interaction of that sort? After all, Scientific Advisor to The Stars is a much less plausible job title, and it’s already out there.


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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One Response to Philosophy of science as a tool for change

  1. Robin Tecon says:

    Hi Julia,
    It’s great to read about the philosophy of science that is done now in the academia! I have a personal and professional interest in it – I’m a biologist -, but I am also very ignorant of it, particularly of the state of the field today. Most of what I’ve read about philosophy of science is quite dated… I’ll be reading your posts to keep up!

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