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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm in Mill Lane Lecture Room 9 unless otherwise stated.

Organised by Richard Staley.

Michaelmas Term 2021

21 October (Rausing Lecture)
María M. Portuondo (Johns Hopkins University)
The kinetic Caribbean: technologies of mobility in a pre-modern world

4.30pm in the Peterhouse Theatre

The early modern Caribbean can come across as a fractured region whose political history conspired against the cohesion nature conferred upon it. And yet, it shared a maritime culture that transcended political boundaries and unified the region in unexpected ways. This talk proposes nautical technologies-in-use and their supporting infrastructures as functional relations that contributed to this maritime culture and also reordered the region for its inhabitants. It will consider as examples pre-Columbian nautical technology, the consolidation of a maritime culture within trans-Caribbean smuggling and piratical operations, and the technological infrastructure that supported the kinetic Caribbean.

28 October
Andrew Buskell (University of Cambridge)
Cultural groups, essentialism, and ontic risk

The comparative study of cultural groups – ethnology – experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune in the twentieth century. Though initially central to the field, by the millennium's end many in social anthropology had not only abandoned ethnology but also adopted sceptical attitudes toward the culture concept (and those nearby, like 'cultural group'). The opposite seems true for the social sciences, which increasingly adopted both the culture concept and comparative methods over the same period of time. The study of cultural groups is now in an unusual epistemological situation: researchers in one set of disciplines take themselves to have repudiated the comparative study of cultural groups and the culture concept, yet in another, researchers take these to be critical for ongoing empirical work. What are we to make of such a situation?

This talk considers some longstanding metaphysical critiques of ethnology. These are concerns around a supposed 'essentializing' tendency of comparative cultural work. This 'essentializing' is taken to be bad scientific practice, leading to wrongheaded characterizations of human populations and empirically unprincipled research. I’ll be arguing that these concerns are not as serious as they appear. If contemporary work is 'essentialist' in some way, it is not the kind of 'essentialism' that should trouble critics. Yet I'll suggest there is a more pressing kind of metaphysical worry for the comparative social scientist: what Joeri Witteveen has called ontic risk. Choices around how cultural groups are ontologized (in models, theoretical claims, classifications) can generate harms and costs for extant populations. While ontic risk does not repudiate comparative social scientific work, it does point to potentially serious consequences that should be considered in research design.

4 November (McConnell Lecture)
Gloria Clifton (Emeritus Curator, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, Greenwich)
Tracing scientific instrument makers: the importance of researching the actual objects they made or sold

Historians tend to regard manuscripts, letters and books as the primary sources of information for their research, but for the history of scientific-instrument making, the objects themselves are just as important, sometimes even more so. This lecture will examine the various ways in which instruments in collections or shown in catalogues can reveal information about the careers and work of their makers. Sometimes the information provided by an object is the only source for a particular detail, in other cases the objects point to documents and other materials which can be used to build a fuller picture of a particular maker's work. Where possible, examples will be taken from the collections at the Whipple Museum, but there will also be illustrations from collections elsewhere.

11 November
Vera Keller (University of Oregon)
Charlatans and the making of research: the undisciplining and redisciplining of experimental philosophy in seventeenth-century Europe

This talk explores the making of academic experimental philosophy as the product of a century-long dynamic that began with the undisciplining of knowledge. The ancient concept of discipline sought to protect the transmission of knowledge from master to disciple, crystallizing forms of knowledge in distinct structures and hierarchies meant to preserve them unharmed through the tempests of time. Whereas the early modern period is often interpreted as a time of social and epistemic disciplining, I argue that in fact it demonstrates the undisciplining of knowledge as the authority of masters and distinct boundaries between forms of knowledge were rebuffed. Undisciplining produced hybrid forms of knowledge drawn from across a wide social and epistemic hierarchy, such as the 'experimental philosophy' that first appeared in England in the 1630s. A case in point was the trend for integrating the performances of wandering 'charlatans' – waterspouters, fire-eaters, and sword-swallowers – into experimental study. Undisciplined forms of knowledge posed a challenge for seventeenth-century German pedagogues who sought to introduce English-style experimental philosophy into their curricula and who established the first chairs of experimental philosophy. These academics developed new infrastructures for working playful, unstable and heterogeneous experimental philosophy (including the performances of charlatans) into an academic framework. In so doing, I argue, they transformed practices of disciplinarity as a whole, framing knowledge as both transmissible and changing, that is, as research.

18 November
Mark Sprevak (University of Edinburgh)
Physical computations are idealisations

What does it mean when we say that the brain implements a computation? In this paper, I build on recent work on idealisation to suggest that we should re-think this question about computational implementation. First, it is a mistake to approach the problem in the abstract, by reflecting on physical computation in a topic-neutral way. It is essential to have an idea of why theorists apply the notion in certain domains, why they feel motivated to provide a specific computational model of a physical system, and what benefits they regard flow from doing so. Second, an underappreciated feature of computational descriptions is that they involve a major degree of abstraction and idealisation. Normally, only a handful of physical properties of a target physical system feature in a computational model and these are themselves idealised in ways that depart from reality. The dynamics of a select, idealised group of properties are the fare of a computational model. I suggest that one should expect this rationale to be reflected in conditions of computational implementation. I argue that this explains the appeal of rival, incompatible theories of implementation among philosophers: in the real world – and in particular, in cognitive neuroscience – implementation is often constrained in different ways for different ends.

25 November
Kate Vredenburgh (London School of Economics)
Causal explanation and revealed preferences

Revealed preference approaches to modelling choice in the social sciences face seemingly devastating predictive, explanatory, and normative objections. In this talk, I will focus on predictive and explanatory objections, and offer two defences. First, I argue that when revealed preferences are multiple realizable, revealed preferences can causally explain behaviour well. But, considerations of multiple realizability open the revealed preference theorist to an equally plausible interpretation of these models, that they pick out a coarse grained psychological disposition. Second, I argue that when agential preferences cannot be easily analytically separated from the environment that produces the relevant behaviour, revealed preferences also causally explain, if one adopts a counterfactual dependence account of causal explanation. An upshot of these two arguments is an explanatory argument against a unified dispositional interpretation of 'preference'.