Philosophy of Modern Science and Technology: Syllabus


Spring 2010

James Collier
Office: 433 Shanks
Hours: 12:15-1:15 M, W and by appointment
(O) 231-8340; (H) Please refer to the abridged syllabus

Course Description

This course is the second in a sequence that addresses central issues and concepts in both the philosophy of science and in the philosophy of technology. In this course we will take up issues including the growth of knowledge, the role of history in the philosophy of science, the rise of the technological society, democracy and technology and the conduct of post-positivist inquiry. We will analyze concepts including falsifiability, theory, verification, incommensurability, paradigm, scientific revolution, technique and technological essentialism. We will put Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery into conversation with Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society into conversation with Andrew Feenburg's Questioning Technology. Finally, we will examine contemporary theoretical and methodological gestures in the social studies of science and technology including constructivism, actor-network theory and reflexivity.

Course Goals

• Gain familiarity with central issues and concepts in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology since 1945;

• Consider the ideas of Popper and Kuhn in the trajectory of philosophy of science and STS;

• Trace conceptions of the relationship between technology and humanity beginning in the 1960s;

• Examine the conduct of philosophy of science in the post-positivist era;

• Develop criteria and provide arguments regarding the practice and reception of ideas in philosophy of science and philosophy of technology.

Course Narrative

Every course tells, or should tell, a story. The story of this course rests on numerous, more or less well-grounded, assumptions. By way of illustration, let me make explicit some guiding assumptions of the course in order that we might challenge them and develop a cogent narrative about the ideas and issues animating the course. The following tale employs a rather potted history with which, I trust, you will take issue.

The significance of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) comes well-documented — and well-contested. One can reasonably assert that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was the most influential academic book published in the last half of the twentieth century. Structure has sold over a million copies, has been translated into over twenty languages and remains a citation superstar. Included among the numerous social and intellectual exploits for which Structure receives credit, or blame, are ending logical positivism, introducing history to the philosophy of science, and serving as the founding document of Science and Technology Studies. While Structure's broad influence appears unassailable, why such a comparatively brief "essay" by a scholar having but an "avocational interest in the philosophy of science" would resonate in such specific areas of inquiry appears inscrutable. What did Kuhn capture in Structure that eluded other scholars, other philosophers? Namely, Karl Popper.

Karl Popper wrote Logik der Forschung in 1934 and wrote The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959. Popper did not translate Logik der Forschung into English, rather he reformulated his ideas into English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, like The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is considered one of the most important books in philosophy since 1950. Popper's concept of "falsifiability" — much like Kuhn's notion of "paradigm" — is invoked frequently when distinguishing between scientific and non- or pseudo- scientific activity. Given The Logic of Scientific Discovery's eminence, longevity and renewal in English, and Popper's assertion that the book, in part, offered a guide for critically appraising science, why did it have less currency among the same people that would turn Structure into a manifesto for intellectual change?

I offer these rough-hewn, indefinite, observations and comparisons to illustrate what I take as initial moves in putting the main texts in this course into conversation. A primary assumption, then, of the course is that having the works of Kuhn and Popper and Ellul and Feenberg speak to one another gives us latitude to consider their respective arguments as way to talk about, and re-imagine, the conduct of science and technology. As always, talk "about" (be wary of meta- mongering in this course) science or technology, or philosophy for that matter, invites accompanying discussion about expertise, the bases for historical and philosophical judgment, how one properly situates ideas and the like. In a disciplinary framework, however, we need to be alive to how ideas about our objects of inquiry travel and are received. In offering just a hint of the historical speculation one might make surrounding the reception of Popper and Kuhn, I want you to consider your intuitions and develop counter-arguments to the suppositions that peek through as we talk about the texts and ideas in this course.

To distill the course narrative, then, my approach is to take two leading texts (with supplementary texts) in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology and put them in conversation. Such a move entails numerous "extra-textual" notions about the conduct and efficacy of meta-inquiry, and the relative significance of the possibilities that arise as interpret otherwise the dissemination and reception of ideas.

As I invite each of you to challenge the assumptions guiding this course, I also ask you to challenge accepted notions of the conduct and purpose of philosophical inquiry. I look forward to beginning our story.



Leading Discussion (Question Formation, Keyword Entry, Class Discussion, Commentary)

Once during the semester, each class member will pose questions to the appropriate forum on the wiki, will provide keywords, will lead the class discussion, and will provide a commentary on previous questions, keywords, responses and discussions. Members of the class will evaluate the class discussion through an on-line form. Scores and comments will be forwarded to me. I will share comments, anonymously, with the presenters. I will provide an overall assessment of both the presentation and the commentary. (Please refer to the essay sequence assignment.)

Participating in Discussion

Class members not leading a given week's discussion will provide 350 to 500 word responses to selected questions to the appropriate forum on the wiki. As the responses are time sensitive, you will not have a opportunity for late submission. Responses will be evaluated by the number completed as follows (Please refer to the essay sequence assignment.):

    • 6 or more responses: A
    • 5 responses: B
    • 4 or fewer responses: F


I understand "the essay" broadly. Broadly essays short, non-fiction works in prose from the author's point of view. As such, essays share much in common with academic journal articles. I choose to identify these assignments as essays to emphasize brevity in the writing.

I also understand that you may be interested in, or working on, other genres of writing — learned (scholarly) arguments, dissertation or thesis chapters, other course writing — in the context of this course. Consequently, I do not wish to be overly prescriptive about the form of your work. I will ask that you post your work to the class wiki.

In assessing the essays, I will look to the norms of academic argument. To that end, each essay will (Please refer to the essay sequence assignment.):

    • Define in careful detail the problem, idea or issue being explored;
    • Pose an explicit central question about the idea or issue;
    • Provide an arguable claim that takes a position on the central question;
    • Develop clear argumentative logic;
    • Lend textual (and other) evidence to support the argument's claim.

You may revise Essay One as many times as you wish during the semester. I will average the grades. Given time constraints, you will not have an opportunity to revise Essay Two.

Omnibus Review

In assessing your individual and collective performance, I will focus on each of the four steps of the assignment. For this assignment to succeed, the steps need to completed in a timely, fully realized manner. The assignment also requires an independently organized level of discussion and cooperation. As on-line collaborative writing is in its infancy, I will reward generously your pioneering spirit, creativity and enthusiasm. Thus, while I will keep in mind your contributions along the way, I will give a shared grade on the omnibus review at the end of the semester.


Books listed as they appear in the course:

• Samir Okasha. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 0192802836
• Karl Popper. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Routledge, New edition edition. ISBN-10: 0415278449
• Steve Fuller. Kuhn vs Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science. (PDF 501 KB).
• Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd edition. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN-10: 0226458083
• John H. Zammito. A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. University of Chicago Press. ISBN-10: 0226978621
• Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society. Vintage Books. ISBN-10: 0394703901
• Andrew Feenberg. Questioning Technology. Routledge. ISBN-10: 0415197554

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you any have questions please ask me, or consult the Graduate Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Philosophy of Modern Science and Technology