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Primary source seminars

Part II students' guide: Primary sources

Seminars are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science unless other arrangements are announced.

Michaelmas Term
Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911/1938
Richard Staley
Fri 10am (weeks 1–4)
The Stanford School
Agnes Bolinska
Fri 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Reichenbach's The Direction of Time (1956)
Matt Farr
Mon 11am (weeks 1–4)
Discovery and Visual Culture: The Nova Reperta of Johannes Stradanus, c. 1590
Dániel Margócsy
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Medical Reports of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service
Mary Brazelton
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences Transactions, 1949–1953
Joe Martin
Wed 2pm (weeks 1–4)


Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911/1938
Richard Staley (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York: Macmillan, 1911; 2nd ed. 1938)

In 1911, the German-American, Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas published a book based on lectures that he had given at the Lowell Institute in Boston and the National University of Mexico the previous year. The book offered an account of the relations between biological and cultural features of human development that treated race, language and culture independently. It still stands as the primary theoretical manifesto of a form of anthropology that Boas's students – such as A.L. Kroeber, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead – helped make central to the discipline, and is regarded as a landmark text in the articulation of cultural relativism. Yet the book was also an important intervention in the treatment of racial types and immigration in the U.S. and was republished following the rise of Nazism in Europe. In critiquing common conceptions of the civilized as well as the primitive mind it thus offers a rich example of a scientists' work as a public intellectual. Although commonly regarded as foundational, Boas's thought has been controversial since its earliest articulation and is still a point of reference for arguments on the future development of anthropology; this class teases apart his arguments in order to reassess his views.

The Stanford School
Agnes Bolinska (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

Is there a unified method to science? And does this method reveal a unified reality? These are the questions that preoccupied philosophers of science from the so-called Stanford School. Their approach arose in the 1980s as a counterweight to the then conventional philosophy of science. As well as questioning methodological and metaphysical unity of science, the Stanford School philosophers advocated a greater engagement with the details of scientific practice, its history and sociology. We will study three particularly influential papers:

  • John Dupré, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1993), chapter 10, 'The Disunity of Science', pp. 221–243
  • Ian Hacking, 'Do we see through a microscope?', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 62 (1981): 305–322; it is also reprinted essentially in the same form as chapter 11 of Hacking's Representing and Intervening
  • Nancy Cartwright, 'Fundamentalism versus the patchwork of laws', chapter 1 of The Dappled World: A Study in Boundaries of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); previously published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94 (1994): 279–292

Reichenbach's The Direction of Time (1956)
Matt Farr (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)
Relevant to Papers 5 & 6

  • Hans Reichenbach, The Direction of Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971)

In his final work, Hans Reichenbach applied his brand of logical empiricism to the philosophical problem of time's arrow. The Direction of Time (1956) set out novel and highly influential theories of both time and causation. Starting with a rigorous assessment of the emotive significance of time, Reichenbach explores the nature of causality in classical physics, the thermodynamic basis for the concepts of earlier and later, and the difference between cause and effect, as determined by his principle of common cause. We will consider the philosophical and scientific motivations for his views, and the influence they have had on contemporary theories of time and causation.

Discovery and Visual Culture: The Nova Reperta of Johannes Stradanus, c. 1590
Dániel Margócsy (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • Jan van der Straet (Stradanus), Nova Reperta (New Inventions), a series of 20 engravings, c. 1590

Stradanus' Nova Reperta is the iconic visual representation of the so-called scientific revolution. Completed around 1600, it catalogued and illustrated the major discoveries of the modern world, from gunpowder through America to stirrups. While images from the series are omnipresent in textbooks on the history of science, surprisingly little scholarly work has been done on how and why these images were produced, and what 16th- and 17th-century viewers thought of them. We will examine what these prints tell us about the aspirations of early modern science and the interaction of artists and scientific practitioners. We will also critically evaluate why Stradanus has become so popular with 20th- and 21st-century historians. This primary source seminar will provide a general introduction to the study of printed images, the analysis of visual materials, and the circulation and reception of prints in the early modern world.

For reproductions and basic information on the series, see:

  • Susan Dackerman, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), cat. no. 1
  • Alessandra Baroni and Manfred Sellink, Stradanus 1523–1605: Court Artist of the Medici (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), pp. 300–306
  • Huigen Leeflang and Marjolein Leesburg, Johannes Stradanus vols I–III (New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish), 322.IV

Medical Reports of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service
Mary Brazelton (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

The Imperial Maritime Customs Service was established in China to collect maritime trade taxes for Britain in 1854, amid the aftermath of the First Opium War. By the dawn of the 20th century it had expanded to include domestic customs administration, postal service, water management, weather reporting, currency reform and police action across China. The documents of the Customs Service, available online, include medical reports alongside meteorological observations; the former present not only quantitative data about epidemics and populations in China, but also the experiences of a varied group of correspondents in practicing, teaching and translating medicine there. In the seminars, we will read these reports alongside relevant visual materials, translated accounts by Chinese doctors and patients, and missionary sources. The reports cover the period from 1870 to 1910: a significant period for both the British and Qing empires, as well as a period of remarkable change in the history of modern medicine.

Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences Transactions, 1949–1953
Joe Martin (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • Pias, Claus, Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences 1946–1953 – The Complete Transactions (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2016)

Ten conferences were held between 1946 and 1953 to investigate 'Circular Causal, and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems'. The meetings, sponsored by Josiah Macy Jr., laid ground to the ambitious architecture of cybernetics. The complete transactions of the final five conferences constitute the foundational document to this epoch-making project. Cybernetics was supposed to establish a unified theory of thinking across the life sciences that took technological terms such as 'information' and 'feedback' as a starting point. A hard-wired dedication to discussions across fields cemented a blueprint of interdisciplinary communication between mathematics, biology, sociology, language studies, computer science, psychoanalysis and economy. The exclusive ranks of the participants shared the intention of developing a utopia for a forthcoming unity of knowledge, a universal theory of regulation and control. Cybernetic theory was to integrate economic as well as mental processes, sociological as well as aesthetical phenomena and applies to living beings as well as to machines. The transactions allow deep insights into this systematic enterprise of integrating concepts that had been hitherto kept far apart and illuminate the emergence of lasting conceptual frameworks such as our distinction between the analogue and the digital.

Resources for the primary source seminars on Moodle