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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> 25 september 2007

Thursday-Sunday, 11-14 October 2007

A Sage and a Seer

The moment had finally come. Ernan McMullin senior sage of history and philosophy of science took his place at the podium and gazed out over the conference room. It was packed, with a row of people standing at the back and more sitting in the aisle. I sat back to listen to his charming Irish lilt and to watch those mischievous eyes that promised unexpected amusements.

It had taken well over a year to come to this moment. The idea has generated spontaneously in email two summers ago when a number of us all had the same thought. There really needs to be a conference in which the marriage of history and philosophy of science is celebrated. It would be a place where those of us who practice both in one paper need not apologize that now we are injecting some serious history or now some serious philosophy. The presumption would be that everyone in the room values both and appreciates the sensibilities and passions of both fields.

That thought had grown like a luxurious tropical creeper that each day grows larger than you expect. So it was with "&HPS." The committee grew unstoppably until we had 19 committee members from six countries. Our call for papers swamped us. These 19 had to select from more than 100 strong proposals to fill a program that could hold less that half that many. Then as the registrations flowed in, we knew that this event would need more space and more funds that we had planned.

We wanted just two invited speakers to anchor the ends of the conference. The first, we decided, should be Ernan McMullin. He would be our "Sage." Ernan had only reluctantly agreed to the honorific title and the commission. He was to speak of the past of history and philosophy of science, to remind us how we came to be where we are now. That he was perfectly positioned to do, for he had experienced that past first hand.

To introduce him, we managed to find an old student of his from his Notre Dame years. This was someone who had stood with Ernan in the early days of HPS and, as he told us, had learned a great love for philosophy of science himself from this teacher. That student, Jim Maher, had now made his own way to become Provost of the University of Pittsburgh.



Then it was Ernan's turn. He would do his best, he assured us, while his cautious manner told us he did not think that be so impressive. I did not believe it for a moment.

Ernan took us back to 1959, to Herbert Feigl, founder of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. Then Feigl convened a conference on the mutual relevance of history of science and philosophy of science. This led to the celebrated fifth volume of the venerable Minnesota Studies series and the founding by Gerd Buchdahl of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

As Ernan continued, tracing the story of the continuing development of Feigl's efforts and the idea of the mutual relevance of history of science and philosophy of science, I began to smile. Here was Ernan gently delivering the sage wisdom of age and experience. Every new generation believes it invents its fascinations and passions anew. We were no different with our self-assured sense of our quirkly named &HPS. To repeat the wisdom of Walt Disney's Peter Pan:

"All this has happened before; and it will happen again."

This had happened before, in another Center and another place. And here it is happening again. I knew Ernan's early protestations had been too modest.

Now that he had quietly tweaked our collective noses, he tweaked a little harder.

"Those letters H, P and S." I recall him saying, "&HPS bothers me a little. It is ill-formed except in Polish logic, where the operators can come out the front. Why not use H&PS with the & where it belongs grammatically; or IHPS"?

I sighed inwardly. Ernan had revived an issue that had vexed our committee. Are we the "Committee for Integrated History and Philosophy of Science"? It is an accurate and complete label, but far from memorable. Who could we be, we asked. "H&PS"? It's snappy, but much used. Would someone seeing it know that it was us and not, say, HOPOS or Pitt's own Department of HPS? What about "IHPS"? That could be us or IUHPS, the International Union of HPS, or perhaps IHPST, Toronto's Institute of HPST, or the Parisian institute with the same acronym. Or, as someone quipped to me in a break, "iHPS" might just be the latest Apple product.

This was the debate that played out in email and eventually led us to settle on "&HPS." (We say "and-HPS" or "ampersand-HPS" or, thanks to Paolo Palmieri, "unpronounceable-HPS.") It works, we thought, precisely because it is grammatically anomalous. It cannot be mistaken for anyone else's use of those three letters. It places the emphasis where it belongs, on integration, as captured in the universally recognized symbol "&," which will be our moniker.

I wanted to spring to my feet and assure Ernan that, after a little while, he'd get used to it. It will become familiar and even ordinary. Fortunately, the moment for such an outburst had passed. Ernan had moved on to show us in a masterful example from his own work just what &'ing history of science and philosophy of science amounts to, when it is done well.

The seventeenth century had been the birthplace of modern science. It held the most extraordinary outpouring of new discoveries in science and, at the same time, searching reflections into the ways and methods of this new learning. The study of that century had in turn figured prominently in the birth of history and philosophy of science.

Ernan offered us a sampling of these reflections, drawn from the writings of five of the century's heroes: Kepler, Descartes, Boyle, Galileo and Newton. Ernan described how each had grappled with issues of method. The details were colorful, but I could not see how to assemble them together into a single picture. Then the moment of assembly came. These reflections, Ernan told us, exemplified two approaches to science and discovery.

In one, as found in Boyle and Descartes, the scientist sought to build a complete picture of things in terms of the tiny components that comprise them. In the other, exemplified in the work of Galileo and Newton, the scientist sought laws and principles that constrain the world sufficiently for us to deduce what we need, but without deciding the details of all the hidden machinery.

The thought was unstoppable: "But that is just Einstein's celebrated distinction between constructive theories and theories of principle. Doesn't he know...?!"

Of course he knew and he did not need to say it. His long time colleague at Notre Dame is Don Howard. Don is the co-convener of &HPS, a noted Einstein scholar who had worked more than anyone to explore Einstein's distinction and was sitting so close he could almost reach out and touch Ernan.

"All this has happened before; and it will happen again."

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

In a conference of this size--24 speakers, 16 panelists, 13 chairs, 77 registrants--there will be moments. I became part of one.

In opening the conference on Thursday afternoon I had made the usual speeches of thanks to the many who had worked so hard. Those thoughts drifted off into more mundane matters such as which room would be used for the talks and then to remind chairs that 45 minutes was the absolute maximum any speaker was allowed. You learn the first time you give a conference talk that even 45 minutes evaporates far more quickly than you expect. A chair cannot succumb to the desperation of speakers who have budgeted their time poorly, for that only takes precious minutes from other speakers. I brought my fist down forcefully on the podium to make the point.

The point had not been made strongly enough for Robert Rynasiewicz. Or so I surmised a few hours later. Then he chaired the session in which I consumed a prized 45 minutes. When those minutes had ticked away, I found him standing closer to me, uncomfortably close. Then he grabbed me and began to throw me out the door, unsuccessfully. It was moment of great theater and hilarity. I appreciated his commitment to his duties as chair, but had hoped for a less physical display of it.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

As the days of the conference passed, we were all feeling that special sort of exhaustion that a conference brings. You do nothing but sit and listen. Yet a weariness overtakes you and you yearn to stretch out and find rest. It seems sometimes the only way to keep concentration.

By Sunday morning, the numbers assembling in our Center conference room for the pre-meeting breakfast were notably thin. The next event was to be our panel discussion. Communal enthusiasm had overtaken organizational prudence and we had ended up with an unmanageable panel of sixteen. They had contributed discussion questions in advance and we had decided on a novel protocol designed to get us to the real discussion as rapidly as possible. Everyone could speak, but not on their own question. Jim Bogen had agreed to take on the unenviable task of moderating this panel. His would be the job of keeping the lid on the pressure cooker.

As Jim and I hovered over the breakfast bagels, fruit and pastries and gazed at the few in the room, the thought jelled. How many weary participants will come on this final Sunday morning? Let's just move the event from the large conference hall up here to this cosier space. That way we keep close to the coffee and bagels and won't try to fill a hall with a handful of participants. So Peter Gildenhuys went downstairs to the G floor to tell the one or two who may have gone directly to the conference hall that they should go upstairs. He would leave a big notice on the blackboard.

Finally the pace was slowing and I could relax. I was looking forward to a quiet and small discussion in the peaceful confines of our eighth floor room and perhaps a few moments to gaze out of its sunny Gothic windows. Then my cell phone rang. It was Peter. "You'd better come downstairs," he said, "the room is full."

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Our Sage, Ernan McMullin had launched our conference. Now it was time for our Seer, Peter Machamer, to draw the event to a close. Peter always proudly acknowledged that Ernan had had a special influence on him from his earliest days in the field. So we invited Ernan to introduce Peter. Ever the historian, Ernan called back into his records to find the perfect introduction. Thirty years ago, before he was a faculty member in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, before he became its longest serving Chair, Peter was a junior professor applying for a position in the department. Then Ernan had written a letter of recommendation for Peter. He found it in his files and proceeded to read from it. It was beautifully written, as these letters should be, with phrases in which readers can find their own meaning. One phrase was prescient and memorable. Peter "agitates long stagnant pools."

Peter now stood to speak but was deflected by the moment. He never dreamt, he confessed to us, that one day he would be the other bookend to Ernan at a conference. I have known Peter for a quarter century and I could hear the crack in his voice.

Now Peter turned to the business at hand. He is a strong speaker. He has a booming voice and an intense gaze that simply commands assent. You will agree with what he says, even if you are not quite sure what it is.

He started quietly recounting various statistics of the talks on the programs. He broke them down by time period, by affiliation of speaker and by many more parameters, finding small revelations in each.

He then turned to the bigger issue of the integration of history of science with philosophy of science. He listed the dichotomies that block it: normative versus descriptive, and many more--too fast for me to write down. The biggest barrier, he boomed, is recent. It is an idea of philosophy as narrow conceptual or logical analysis that dates to 1903 and, variously, to Russell and G. E. Moore. Until then, you couldn't tell a philosopher from a psychologist or an historian by their writings. Then, in 1903, philosophy became normative, universal and a priori. Once you are thinking of the a priori, what use is history? You have no need to learn from experience.

The strength of Peter's ideas and the power of his voice were growing. The energy of his presentation was visible in his face. From my close photographer's vantage point, I could see a drop of sweat making its way from his forehead down his right cheek.

He distilled his thoughts into two ideas. One was that we must give up individualism, the notion that our focus is on the thought and work of an individual. Descartes had placed the individual at the center of our values in the seventeenth century. Then also the notion of the individual in the free market had ascended. That, Peter recalled, Karl Marx pointed out in Book 1 of his Das Kapital.

The other idea, however, was the one that drew my attention. We must rethink our concepts of the rational and the normative. We should not be lured into thinking of them of fixed and immovable. History tells us that they change over time and we must be aware of that. That was an idea that I found both uncomfortable and appealing--the latter only because, in my own work, it had proved impossible to find a single, fixed notion of inductive norms.

Then came the final phase. Peter offered a series of predictions, as one would expect from a seer. As they unfolded, I noticed that they were more recommendations than predictions. But perhaps they would come to pass if we heeded his advice.

There were many and I sensed from the strongly favorable reaction in the ensuing question time that they appealed to this audience. Peter praised experimental history of science, the need for more graduate training in science for those who practice HPS, the need to accept the complexity of the subjects of our study and the need to be an activist in our work, to write works and do things that bring good outside the confines of our academic halls.

The example that found its mark with me was his noting of just how little our numbers appear among authors in the popular literature. We are best equipped to inform the greater world of what science is really all about, yet we mostly leave that important job to others. In all these areas, we can and should do better.

These were serious matters and weighed upon us. Lest we carry that weight home on a sunny Sunday, Peter closed with what he assured us would be the really important idea. After a suitable pause to tease us, up came the screen. "Oenology," he said, "if we spent more time thinking and drinking, the world would be a much better place."

We entered question time. Soon it was my turn to ask a question. I was still smarting from the gentle smack Ernan had given me over &HPS. When I cornered him in one of the sessions, I had still not been able to convince him that the decision to "think different" had been a good one. Encouraged by Peter's decree that we rethink rationality, I took another opportunity.

"I heard your call to 'think different' about logic..."

"DifferentLY," Peter interjected. I was perturbed that Peter did not recognize the little grammatical trap in Apple's clever, old advertising slogan. Perhaps it was too much an inside joke for grammatically obsessed copy editors. I tried again.

"I heard your call to 'think different' about logic and grammar and more. It is hard to do. It makes us uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. I wonder if a good symbol for it might not to be an ampersand out the front?"

It was clear from Peter's stare that it was not a good question to repeat. "I'm not responsible for bad graphics," he said, "Ampersand HPS does not come trippingly off the tongue." It was an awkward moment and Peter sensed instantly that complete honesty is not always the best policy. And I had learned a lesson too. It was a foolish vanity to expect that what amuses me will amuse everyone. Perhaps bland is better; it offends no one but me.

John D. Norton

::: &HPS1
Conference in Integrated History and Philosophy of Science
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Revised 11/13/07 - Copyright 2006