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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
Discovery and Visual Culture: The Nova Reperta of Johannes Stradanus
Dániel Margócsy (4)
Thu 12noon (weeks 1–4)
Reichenbach, The Direction of Time
Matt Farr (4)
Thu 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man
Richard Staley (4)
Fri 10am (weeks 1–4)
Cancer Drugs Fund
Stephen John (4)
Fri 2pm (weeks 1–4)
The Stanford School
Agnes Bolinska (4)
Mon 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Ehrlich, The Population Bomb
Salim Al-Gailani (4)
Wed 2pm (weeks 1–4)


Discovery and Visual Culture: The Nova Reperta of Johannes Stradanus
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

Reichenbach, 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.

Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man
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 scientist's 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.

Cancer Drugs Fund
Stephen John (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, PMG19 Addendum A: Final amendments to the NICE technology appraisal processes and methods guides to support the proposed new Cancer Drugs Fund arrangements (2016)

Access to drugs on the NHS depends on approval by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE considers not only whether drugs are effective at curing disease, but whether they are cost-effective; that is to say, whether they are worth public money. As a result, patients can be denied access to effective, but expensive treatments. These decisions are often controversial, particularly when they involve denying access to cancer drugs. Soon after the 2010 General Election, then, the government set up a new 'Cancer Drugs Fund', providing extra money for – and only for – cancer care. In 2016, this fund changed strategy: now, cancer drugs can be made available on the basis of weaker evidence than is demanded for other drugs. In these seminars we study some of the key issues raised by this case: how does NICE normally make decisions, and are these procedures justifiable? Is cancer 'special'? In what sense? Is it fair to treat cancer sufferers differently from non-cancer sufferers? Is there a difference between paying more for a drug and using lower standards to assess efficacy? These questions relate, in turn, to more fundamental questions about the relationships between experts, politicians and scientists in democratic societies.

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

Ehrlich, The Population Bomb
Salim Al-Gailani (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968)

'Population Control, or Race to Oblivion?' This provocative question lay at the heart of Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich's 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Credited with bringing concerns about global overpopulation into the mainstream, the book attracted a huge following with its ominous prediction that humanity stood on the brink of catastrophic famine, epidemics and war. One of the most resonant works to emerge from the American environmental movement, Ehrlich's draconian prescriptions, from scaling back food aid to forced sterilizations, were also extremely controversial, on both left and right. How was the book written and read in the 1960s and 70s, and how was it reassessed when climate change put the world population problem back on the agenda? These seminars offer an opportunity to explore the history of population thinking and its relations to reproduction, geopolitics, global health and scientific activism.

Resources for the primary source seminars on Moodle