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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Zoom on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm UK time unless otherwise stated.

Organised by Helen Anne Curry and Sam Robinson.

Easter Term 2021

29 April
Sarah Dry (University of Cambridge)
World models and intuition in the 1970s

In this paper I consider the 1972 publication of the Limits to Growth report and the so-called decade of world modelling that followed it. For early proponents, world models offered not only super-human analytical and computational capacities but something perhaps more surprising: the promise of self-revelation and a new kind of human agency. By revealing the ineradicable role of human judgement and intuition in both model- and decision-making, they were seen as tools for elevating consciousness and motivating action on the urgent matter of the Earth's future. Such an approach to modelling depended on self-reflexive attitudes on the part of modellers and a commitment to rendering the process of model-building at least somewhat transparent to outsiders. A series of conferences in the 1970s tried to do just this. In this paper, I consider the rise and eventual transformation (if not total fall) of the idea that world modelling could be a way to understand not only the complexity of the natural world but of what makes us human.

6 May
Jenny Andersson (Upsala University) and Sandra Kemp (Lancaster University)

Drawing on research for our recently published co-edited OUP Handbook Futures, we will examine historical and contemporary forms of futures knowledge, the methodologies and technologies of futures expertise, and the role played by different institutions in legitimizing, deploying, and controlling anticipatory practices. This presentation will examine the growing interest in futures thinking in opening up multidisciplinary research. Forms of futures-making depend on complex processes of envisioning and embodiment. We place the provocation of power at the heart of the book through an investigation of futures as both objects of science and objects of the human imagination, creativity, and will. Bringing together emerging perspectives on the future from diverse disciplines including critical theory, design, anthropology, sociology, politics, and history, our book positions the future as a question of power, of representations and counter-representations, and forms of struggle over future imaginaries. Our contributors challenge and debate the varied ways in which futures are conjured and constructed, exploring issues as diverse as the utopian imagination, history and philosophy, literary and political manifestos, artefacts and design fictions, and forms of technological and financial forecasting, big data, climate modelling, and scenarios. Each chapter investigates the critical vocabularies, genres, and representational methods – narrative, quantitative, visual, and material – of futures-making as deeply contested fields in cultural and social life.

13 May
Harun Küçük (University of Pennsylvania)
Islamic science, cultural difference and colonization

Almost since its emergence as a field, the history of Islamic science has played a key role in the narrative of the preservation and flourishing of Greek science, particularly as it pertains to the emergence of modern science. In many ways, the history of Islamic science remains the most Hellenophiliac, to use David Pingree's familiar term, among the arguably non-Western histories of science. Scholars working on earlier periods easily relate to Greek categories of natural inquiry and largely share the conceptual parameters that we often associate with Western science. Scholars of the modern period, by contrast, associate more easily with other parts of the world and now join the broad effort to decolonize the history of science. Consequently, there is a chasm between the progressive narrative that dominates the earlier periods and the more pessimistic narrative that dominates the modern period as Muslim polities have in fact been subject to literal and discursive types of violence. The notion of decline is almost universally rejected in favour of explanations involving colonial domination and cultural difference. But do cultural difference or colonization sufficiently explain the career of science among modern Muslim polities? Conversely, does Islamic science explain the developments that took place in the earlier centuries? In this talk, I wish to approach these questions from a materialist perspective by deploying the case of early modern Istanbul as a methodological tool and scientific labour as an analytical term.

20 May
Sean Valles (Michigan State University)
Humility in population health science: lessons for fostering an elder-supportive 'culture of health' after the pandemic

One component of the increasingly popular 'population health science' framework is a conviction that public health requires health-conducive policies and social practices across society, which together constitute a 'culture of health': living wages, anti-racist public education and legal reforms, community-run health clinics, etc. One challenge for such efforts is that most communities are ill-designed for supporting elders' well-being: substandard eldercare facilities, neighbourhoods not designed for people with vision or mobility impairments, etc. I argue that one important piece of this public health effort is the humility that will need to be cultivated alongside other more concrete cultural resources. In particular, I will draw out a lesson from population health science theory: that humility is a vital part of an effort to create a culture of health in any community, a culture that fully includes elders' well-being. This includes humility in the relations between academic disciplines, between sectors of society, and between individual members of society.