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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) is a network of academics and students working in the philosophy of science in various parts of the University of Cambridge, including the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and the Faculty of Philosophy. The Wednesday afternoon seminar series features current research by CamPoS members as well as visitors to Cambridge and scholars based in nearby institutions. If you are interested in presenting in the series, please contact Matt Farr (mwef2). If you have any queries or suggestions for other activities that CamPoS could undertake, please contact Huw Price, Jeremy Butterfield or Anna Alexandrova.

Seminars are held fortnightly on Wednesdays, 1.00–2.30pm on Zoom.

Michaelmas Term 2020

21 October
Adrian Currie (Exeter)
Science and speculation

Despite wide recognition that speculation is critical for successful science, philosophers of science have attended little to it. When they have, speculation has been characterized in narrowly epistemic terms: a hypothesis is speculative due to its (lack of) evidential support. These accounts provide little guidance to what makes speculation productive or egregious, and how to foster the former while avoiding the latter. I examine how scientists discuss speculation and identify various functions speculations play. On this basis, I provide an account which starts with the epistemic function of speculation. This analysis grounds a richer discussion of when speculation is egregious and when it is productive, based in both fine-grained analysis of the speculation's purpose, and what I call the 'epistemic situation' scientists face.

4 November
Petri Ylikoski (Helsinki)
Learning from case studies

The case study is one of the most important research designs in many social scientific fields, but no shared understanding exists of the epistemic import of case studies. One of the perennial challenges of case study research has been the problem of generalization. Social scientists expect to learn something more general from case studies, but articulating how this 'generalization' works has proved to be difficult. From early on, there has been an agreement that case studies cannot produce statistical generalizations and that statistical measures of representativeness are not adequate for the purposes of case study research. However, a generally acceptable alternative view has failed to emerge. Sociologist Howard S. Becker argues in his What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from Cases (2014) that case study research is about learning about social mechanisms. Rather than being about timeless generalizations about relations between variables, case studies help us to learn about social mechanisms, or logics of situation, that produce great variety of social experiences depending on contextual details. My aim is to provide a philosophical reconstruction of this idea. For Becker, the notion of a mechanism is basically a useful metaphor that captures salient dynamical features of some recurring social situations. I suggest that a more systematic idea about mechanism-based theorizing developed within so-called analytical sociology could be employed to make sense of case studies.

18 November
Haixin Dang (Leeds)
Epistemic responsibility and scientific authorship

Epistemic responsibility is a central concept in the social epistemic practices of science, but the concept has often been left unanalyzed. The paper reporting the mass of the Higgs boson had over 5,000 listed authors. To what extent are these authors epistemically responsible for the discovery of the mass of the Higgs boson? We need to clarify the concept of epistemic responsibility which can ground our determination of who should be acknowledged or rewarded for scientific discovery and also who should be sanctioned when a scientific claim turns out to be false or erroneous. Questions over epistemic responsibility in science are intimately tied with issues over scientific authorship. In face of collaboration, some philosophers of science have argued that there is no responsible agent or responsible author in large scientific teams (Huebner 2014; Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg 2017; and Winsberg, Huebner, and Kukla 2014) and others (Wray 2006, 2018) have argued that only a group agent can be said to be responsible for collective outputs as a group author. Both of these existing accounts are inadequate for scientific practice. I argue that we ought to reject both these views of scientific authorship. Instead, I offer an alternative account and show how we can coherently locate epistemic responsibility to individuals. Every collaborator will be responsible but be responsible in different senses. I argue that we ought to look for a more fine-grained analysis of epistemic responsibility. There are questions about who is properly connected to the scientific claim (attributability), who can answer for and give reasons for a particular scientific claim (answerability), and who should be held accountable for or praised for scientific claims (accountability). In conclusion, I discuss how my analysis bear on current reforms as scientists and journal editors look for new models of scientific authorship.

2 December
Ariane Hanemaayer (Brandon/Cambridge)
Nominalism in the social sciences: promises and pitfalls

Nominalism is typically defined in philosophical analysis as a metaphysics that rejects the existence of universal and abstract entities. It emerged during a period of unrest in medieval Europe in response to criticisms within theology. There is a lesser known set of nominalist commitments, however, that have been inflected into social science theories and practice: a split between words and things, and the romantic specter of the Will. This presentation discusses work from two forthcoming co-authored projects (with Ronjon Paul Datta, Windsor) that posit nominalism as the defining commitments of the social sciences. Insufficient attention has been paid to these commitments by social theorists and philosophers, I argue, since nominalism offers critical sensibilities while also raising serious questions regarding theoretical coherence. I discuss two key classical theoretical terrains and conclude with the normative pitfalls of holding nominalist commitments.