I have been teaching university philosophy classes for something like 78 years. (At some point, when you can’t summon the energy to figure out how old you are, and what year something happened, and then do a bit of subtraction, then the point you were going to make can be made just as well by making up an absurdly large number and putting it in the slot.) An intelligent person would already have prepared every standard course they would ever teach, and when the time for that course came around, they would just pop off the lid, reheat, and serve the course once again. But I have never been able to do that. For whatever reason – I think it has to do with having a very limited attention span – did you know imaginary numbers are actually used by engineers in their calculations? – I constantly seem to reinvent a course every time I teach it.
So this coming academic term I am teaching two courses, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Epistemology is always a frustrating puzzle for me to solve, and I’m trying to solve it this go-around by writing my own textbook. I’ll probably discuss that on another occasion. Philosophy of Science is a course I have not usually taught, so I have less experience continually reinventing it, which makes it a fresher puzzle. My initial thought was to grab a standard textbook and use it as a sort of master plan, fitting in extra remarks, questions, and tangents along the way.
But as I read the text I grew increasingly antsy and frustrated. Philosophy of science is a large and important subdiscipline within philosophy, and it has attracted some very bright and clever thinkers like Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Bas van Fraassen, and so on and so forth. But, like nearly every subdomain of contemporary academic philosophy, it has been severely blinkered by refusing to look at anything outside a very narrow reading list; in particular, it has not joined in any serious way with history and the broad array of scholarship contained under the heading of “science studies”. Moreover, it usually has been surprisingly silent about any sort of thinking about nature prior to Copernicus (and, post-Copernicus, the world seems to have been populated by about ten or so figures in science, if you base your guess on philosophers’ discussions).
Such a view of science is willfully ignorant, obviously. At the same time, it is the stuff one should sort of expect to see in an undergraduate class surveying the philosophy of science. But it is willfully ignorant! But it is the stuff. But there are so many other interesting things to know! But it’s what everyone else teaches. But!!!
These frustrating concerns have been wrestling in my head for a few weeks until a sleepless episode a few nights ago in which I realized, for about the one hundred millionth time, that I could do things differently.
What I realized was that the course could consist of two big chunks. The first chunk is what I can call “the history (and philosophy) of knowledge of nature”. This chunk is a very long story about how people have understood nature and how that understanding relates to philosophical subjects like metaphysics, religion, morality, and the meaning of life. We read and think about the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, Plato, some neo-Aristotelians, various figures in the early modern period including philosophers and magic enthusiasts, Darwin, Einstein, and quantum mechanics, and we think about the metaphysics of each view, how it connects to their surrounding culture, and what such a view says about our place in the universe: big picture stuff. Obviously, this chunk could be infinite, as there is so much to explore in it. And I wish I had greater competence to explore more of the so-called “non-western” stuff.
The second chunk is a comparatively shorter story. It concerns the history of an academic subdiscipline that calls itself “the philosophy of science”, which got its start early in the 20th century and continues today. There are important concepts and problems and insights in this subdiscipline, but it has to be framed as a relative newcomer to the historical stage, and just as much conditioned by cultural forces as anything else humans come up with.
This seems to be something I can really get behind. (At least until the next time I teach the course.) Students, I think, are extremely interested in thinking through “big picture” metaphysics, which is exactly what we find in the first chunk of the class. And the content of the second chunk will I think become deeper and more insightful, but at the same time more obviously limited and skewed, by having the broad picture offered by the first chunk serving as a frame of reference. Well: we’ll see how it goes.