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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Part II students' guide: Primary sources

The primary source seminars are all held online on Teams.

Michaelmas Term
The Sphere of Manilius
Liba Taub, Emma Perkins, Arthur Harris
Thu 12noon (weeks 1–4)
COVID-19 Vaccination
Stephen John
Fri 2pm (weeks 1–4)
The Direction of Time
Matt Farr
Mon 10am (weeks 1–4)
Science for the People
Helen Anne Curry
Mon 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk
Richard Staley
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Knowledges in Transit: Linnaeus's Laplandic Journey
Staffan Müller-Wille
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?
Tim Lewens, Andrew Buskell
Wed 11am (weeks 1–4)


The Sphere of Manilius

Liba Taub, Emma Perkins, Arthur Harris (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

This folio volume contains the first book of Marcus Manilius' Astronomica, an ancient work on astronomy and astrology, and a lengthy appendix by Sherburne. Little is known about Manilius except that he was a resident of Rome in the first century CE. The full version of the Astronomica contains five books, the first on astronomy, and the remainder on astrology. The first book includes information on the constellations, planets, celestial circles and comets. Sherburne's appendix features a history of astronomy and 'A Catalogue of the Most Eminent Astronomers, Ancient and Modern'.

As well as being visually attractive this book also embodies a very specific agenda significant in the history of science in late 17th-century England: to promote modern astronomy and encourage its readership to provide financial patronage. Sherburne seeks to achieve this, in part, by depicting modern astronomers as the most recent participants in an august tradition traceable back to classical antiquity and biblical times. He hoped to inspire his readers to learn about and support astronomy by providing them with an entertaining and informative book using the method of 'Knowledge with delight'.

COVID-19 Vaccination

Stephen John (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

Decisions about vaccination in the UK are informed by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. In this seminar, we focus on two of the most controversial decisions which the JCVI has taken around COVID-19 vaccinations: in setting priority groups, and in deciding not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger patients. These seminars consider vaccination choices from the perspective of bio-ethics, philosophy of science and political philosophy, to ask who should decide who gets which vaccines when.

The Direction of Time

Matt Farr (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

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.

Science for the People

Helen Anne Curry (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In 1969, a group of American activists, many of them scientists, founded the organisation Science for the People. Their aim was to disrupt the association of scientific research with causes they saw as unjust, such as sustaining war through weapons development for the US government, and to promote more socially aware science, in the form of community health programmes, environmental monitoring and other interventions. From 1970 to 1989 the organisation published a magazine, Science for the People, which charted members' concerns and their efforts to foster social and political change in and through science. Using contributions to the magazine as our primary sources, we will explore the history of Science for the People and some key issues and controversies that motivated its members, situate their activities within a broader global context, and assess their influence in the 1970s and beyond.

Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk

Richard Staley (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois published a remarkable book that furthered nearly a decade of research and advocacy in history, economics and sociology but that in intent and form broke with the usual forms of those disciplines – and has since become foundational for our understanding of African Americans and Black Studies more generally, especially for its introduction of the concept of the veil and double consciousness in thinking across the colour line. This primary source seminar sets The Souls of Black Folk and Du Bois's career in the context of his earlier work, the ambivalent reception that he received amongst different groups over time, his later work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the recent resurgence of sociological interest in Du Bois. It will raise questions about activism and academic work, the relations between history, economics and sociology – and social and economic justice – and the significance of concepts of science, values in research and empirical methods, thereby providing foundational insights into the ongoing project of decolonising the sciences. A helpful guide to internet-accessible resources is available.

Knowledges in Transit: Linnaeus's Laplandic Journey

Staffan Müller-Wille (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In the summer of 1732, the Swedish medical student Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) travelled through Northern Scandinavia. The diary from that journey has been celebrated as pioneering modern scientific and ethnographic field methods. We will read it 'against the archival grain' and challenge established narratives that portray Linnaeus's journey as entering uncharted terrain. The knowledge Linnaeus gathered about Northern environments and ways of life was generated at intersections of diverse communities in a colonial setting and hence affected by frameworks of hospitality and hostility. The diary thus offers a wealth of material to address questions like: In what ways did Linnaeus integrate within his cosmology lessons learned from Sámi reindeer herders about parasites or Finnish settler-women about childbirth? What do such translations reveal about the role of encounters, mobility and multilingualism in the framework of a fledgling nation state with colonial ambitions? Do they simply consist of extracting, decontextualising and appropriating local knowledges from their environments? Or are they also shaped by the potential for empathy, curiosity and aversion that cross-cultural encounters provoke? We will try to find answers to these questions that not only focus on Linnaeus himself, but take into account the experiences and attitudes of people he interacted with.

While the diary itself was not published during the lifetime of Linnaeus, inclusion of passages from it in publications like Flora Lapponica (1737) impacted on enlightenment discourses of the 'noble savage'. Extracts from the diary were first published in English translation in 1811 by James Edward Smith, President of the Linnean Society of London, which still holds the original manuscript. Scholarly editions of the Swedish-Latin text followed in 1889, 1913 and 2003, and an updated English translation was published in 1995. The seminar will also familiarize you with techniques of tracing a topic through complex sets of source materials.

Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?

Tim Lewens, Andrew Buskell (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In this 2014 debate in Nature, an eminent group of scientists argued that evolutionary theory urgently needed a 'rethink' in the light of new data and new concepts emerging from biological disciplines that had been overlooked during the forging of the modern synthesis. Another equally eminent group of evolutionists responded to the contrary, arguing that 'all is well', and no radical reform was required. A sometimes bad tempered debate has rumbled along since then, played out in leading journals and prestigious conferences. This source raises a linked set of philosophical, biological and historical questions about the nature and necessity of the reforms advocated by proponents of the 'Extended Evolutionary Synthesis', about the importance of natural selection acting on genetic variation, and about evolutionary causation and explanation.


Resources for the primary source seminars on Moodle