(click here for my teaching experience and philosophy)
Feminist Perspectives on Science
If science is a value-free method, what could it possibly mean to critique it from a feminist perspective? If science provides objective knowledge of the world, how can that knowledge be political, let alone oppressive? Drawing on epistemology, philosophy of science, history of science, and sociology of science, we will explore the key concepts in feminist critiques of science which attempt to uproot the deepest and least visible forms of oppression in our society: those pertaining to facts and methods we unquestioningly take to be true, known, and valid. We will first acquaint ourselves with the value-free ideal of science as an objective, rational process of discovery, and the ways this ideal has been wielded as an instrument of domination. We will spend the rest of the quarter challenging this ideal by (1) demonstrating science’s symbiotic alliances with political ideologies of gender and race, (2) examining structural and interactive practicalities of knowledge-construction and -circulation that reproduce social oppression, and (3) deconstructing the very notions of objectivity and rationality that are used to insulate science and other forms of knowledge from feminist critique.
Philosophy of Social Science
To study humans in their social capacity, would you start with individual interactions and derive large-scale cultural trends from their aggregate effects? Or is there an ontological reality to “the social” that cannot be reduced to “the individuals” involved? To truly understand social behaviour, must we study cognitive science and neuro-biology, or are there symbolic aspects of the human mind that cannot be translated into scientific vocabulary? Are we looking for histories of non-repeating events or are we searching for universal laws of society? Is it the job of social science to analyze society or to change it? Different answers to these questions branch off into traditions as distinct as rational choice theory, cognitive anthropology, and queer theory. The assumptions written into these social sciences, in turn, determine who speaks with authority on truths as political as our own human nature, and what we owe each other as actors in a shared social reality.
Science and Democracy
The way we conceive of science and democracy can fundamentally alter the moral and political demands we are able to make of these institutions. If democracy is merely a form of government, we can only demand free and fair elections. If it defines the entire functioning and dynamics of a society, we can demand the continual transformation of all social institutions according to the diverse knowledge, experience, and needs of differently situated constituents. If science is merely an independent quest for ‘Truth’ detached from society’s polluting values, we can only demand knowledge. If it is a socially organised tool for enriching human life, we can demand that it engage in research according to the values we accept. If our society is in fact democratic and our science is in fact a social tool, we can pose questions like, ‘Why are there millions of dollars to allocate to research on space exploration and self-driving cars, while sustainable energy research struggles to find funding?’
History of Social Science
“Social Science” is used to refer to the various disciplines devoted to the study of humanity in its social manifestations: sociology, social and cultural anthropology, economics, political science, human geography, and history. But these disciplines employ radically different methodologies, rooted in distinct histories. While positive social science and the application of statistics to society began in the context of French Revolutionary nation-building, ethnographic methods emerged in the very different context of British imperial encounters with ‘exotic’ cultures. Amidst a growing interest in ‘society’ and ‘culture,’ distinct methodological schools with competing social and cultural ontologies emerged across Europe. This course studies these traditions, and their development in the contexts of revolution, empire, racial justice, and disciplinary institutionalization.
Pragmatism, Evolution, and the Sciences
In the late 19th century, evolutionary theories of humanity sent shockwaves through American universities. So much so, in fact, that a network of intellectuals insisted that former structures of thought, along with even their most basic ontological and epistemological assumptions, now needed to be completely revolutionized. Constructed out of Darwinian and Spencerian theories of evolution, the philosophical tradition of pragmatism was born and, by the early 20th century, had become dominant in the United States. Our class will explore the origins and development of this intellectual movement through the lives, work, and relationships of its major thinkers, asking: (1) What did this (r)evolutionary philosophy of mind, self, and society look like? (2) How did this philosophy influence the sciences, from psychology, sociology, and education, to economics and even physics? (3) How did this intellectual movement intersect with social and political movements of the Progressive Era, from anti-racism to immigration rights, economic reform to experimental education?
Scientism is the controversial view that scientific methods are the best or only valid means for acquiring knowledge. The implications of this position are vast. If only science can provide knowledge, what are the arts and humanities contributing? If only scientific structures and categories adequately reflect reality, how should we understand human morality and culture? What does all this suggest about how we should determine public policy? While scientism is a topic of intense contemporary debate, it has a deep history in which its theoretical and practical components have evolved according to shifting intellectual, social, and political demands. We will explore debates on scientism (and its cousin, positivism) throughout Europe and the United States in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries to better understand the many facets and consequences of this controversial viewpoint. A major question in this course is whether our historical analysis can provide insights (and perhaps solutions) for twenty-first century debates on scientism.