On the benefits of a graduate education in History and Philosophy of Science

Benefits to My Research

Since I fashion myself an historian of the philosophy of science (with focus on the early modern period), I would say that the greatest benefit, by far, of studying in a department that housed both historians of science, historians of the philosophy of science, and philosophers of science was the exposure I had to different ways of fruitfully engaging history. I’ll admit that this exposure was initially taken to be a curse. Even though I had an M.A. in HPS from the University of Leeds, it wasn’t until I got to IU that I engaged in serious study of the history of science with historians of science, and it was with Nico Bertoloni Meli whom I studied the most. I took his history of science survey my first year and then a Newton seminar with him the next year.

The reason I found this a curse had nothing to do with Nico. I couldn’t have asked for a better historian to have as a teacher. The problem, as I then saw it, was figuring out how I was supposed to write about the history of science in my own projects without offending historians of science. Slowly, I realized that given what I wanted to accomplish – to offer a narrative that would give voice to the philosophies of past natural philosophers and to bring their positions into current debates about early modern philosophy – I would never be able to fully meet the standards used by historians of science. Nonetheless, I still think about those standards as I engage with texts and as I write my papers. Doing so helps me stay reflective about what I’m doing, and to stay attentive to what my narratives might be missing.

Beyond developing a keen understanding of the different approaches that different scholars take to the historical record, I also developed a firmer appreciation for how important it is to situate philosophical proposals in their historical context. Through my education at IU, regardless of whether I was in a seminar focused on Newton’s Principia or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the emphasis was always on learning a text by learning about the historical context in which these texts were composed. Currently, I find much of work (on Newton, Kant, and others) is still driven by this sensitivity to history and context, since many philosophers and even historians of philosophy are content taking an ahistorical approach to a text and translating early modern texts into the terms of contemporary philosophical debates. And this now leads me to my next point.

As much as my research has benefited from my interdisciplinary education, there was a drawback. When I left IU and got more exposure to mainstream early modern philosophy, I realized that the rather popular way of engaging early modern philosophers is ahistorical. It’s what many call an ‘analytic’ approach to history (and what some call stupid). The drawback: you have to find an audience for your historically-informed work and make wise choices when picking venues for paper presentations and publications.

Benefits to My Teaching

In this area of my professional life, my HPS background has been absolutely instrumental. (As a note, since I started at UNM in fall 2005, I’ve been awarded two prestigious teaching awards, and I don’t think I would have received either if it weren’t for my HPS education.)

There are direct ways in which my education in HPS has impacted my teaching: I use the history of science when I teach my lower-division early modern philosophy survey course (entitled ‘Descartes to Kant’) and when I teach my graduate seminar on Kant’s First Critique (which I’m doing for the third time at UNM this semester). I also had the opportunity to teach a class on 17th math and metaphysics in fall 2009, and it was a hit.

Besides making mere appeals to history into the classroom, I try to teach my students the very thing I learned in the IU HPS Department: one cannot read a text without appeal to history. As it stands, it is no easy task to make philosophy digestible to the average undergraduate. Sometimes students are overflowing with enthusiasm (UNM has a lot of “cool, dude” and “that blows my mind” kind of students) but don’t have the skills to actually read a text – to understand the rather abstract and dense claims being made. Many students in fact appreciate my historical approach to philosophy, because it helps them make some sense of proposals that initially sound wacky or nonsensical (think Spinoza’s monism here, or Leibniz’s monads, or even Newton’s universal force of attraction). So, when I teach philosophy at whatever level and regardless of the specific topic, I apply, as far as possible, a modified version of the very principle on which the HPS education is founded: philosophy without history is blind, and doing history of philosophy without history is a really bad idea.

There’s a further way in which my HPS education has influenced my approach to teaching. When you grow up in a department like this one, you learn the value of connecting different thinkers, different ideas, and different historical and philosophical episodes. In this regard, I learned from the absolute best that there’s something you can see in a text and in a figure’s work that you miss if you study them in isolation. You have to make connections – historical and philosophical – to understand a text or a figure and learn from them. One must connect Kant to Leibniz and Hume and Newton, and connect Newton to Descartes and Galileo and Huygens, and all of 19th and 20th Century philosophy to Kant (or so I was taught by Michael Friedman). And this tendency to “making connections” informs all my teaching. Even when I teach intro to philosophy, where the goal is to give a broad survey of standard and classic philosophical problems, I try to connect all the abstract pieces of the puzzle together. The ultimate goal is to show and convince my bright-eyed undergraduates that philosophical issues (e.g., the nature of the self, the soul, the divine) are connected to their everyday affairs and especially to their ethical, moral decision-making.