Reference Information

James Collier
Office: 215 Lane
Hours: By appointment
(O) 540-231-4336

Course Description

One might argue that the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) originated as a philosophical dispute regarding the incommensurability of scientific paradigms. Using philosophy as a wedge, and fashioning a ready assortment of empirical methods, early STS researchers challenged received views of science and technology. These challenges met with great curiosity and apparent success. A new academic field was born. As STS grew, however, its philosophical roots became hidden, buried under the detritus of method. The loss and misapprehension of philosophy by STS practitioners and critics alike fueled the fear and antagonism of the "science wars." Now, two decades after the science wars, STS busily traces actor-networks. Anti-humanist projects reign. We dare not. In forgetting the philosophical questions of our past, we do not know how to pose the questions for our future. In this course, we seek to understand, reclaim and re-imagine the philosophical origins, motivations and innovations of STS. In so doing, we will consider the following questions:

    • What were the philosophical origins and commitments of STS?
    • Does STS still need philosophy, or does philosophy need STS?;
    • What philosophical questions should STS pose and try to answer?;
    • Might, or ought, STS develop a unique philosophy?;
    • Might, or ought, STS provide a different way of conducting or governing academic inquiry?

Course Goals

• To examine the philosophical beginnings and character of the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS);

• To analyze the relationship between philosophy and method in STS;

• To consider the effect of the "science wars" on the philosophical development of STS;

• To pose questions, to form responses, to initiate discussion and to forward arguments on the interrelation of philosophy and STS;

• To explore whether STS can, or should, develop a unique philosophy of the study of science and technology.

The Story of Our Course

The story of our course begins both well before, and just before, the spring of 2009. Well before 2009 my dissertation (The Structure of Meta-Scientific Claims: Toward a Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies), completed in 1998, analyzed the nature of, and appeal to, 'context' in STS. The appeal to context, I argued, served as an a priori commitment to a form of realism that offered a path to a normative philosophy of STS. A prominent influence on my work was, and is, Steve Fuller. While Fuller's The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies (2006) owes little to my work, one might strain to hear in the background discussions surrounding my dissertation. Still, my dissertation chair remained Professor Joe Pitt.

In the winter of 2008, I proposed this course. As I developed the proposal, I asked Professor Pitt to co-teach. He accepted readily (and absent remuneration!). Our course, then, continues to carry his voice. Moreover, as Professor Pitt helped to found our program his philosophical influence remains woven not only into my work and this course but also, and much more significantly, into the origin, principles, and curricular fabric of STS at Virginia Tech. To renew our story, allow me to refer to our initial exchange regarding the course ...

    As any course, ours' rests on a set of assumptions—assumptions you should challenge freely. Befitting STS, the instructors have complimentary but differing tales of STS's beginnings.

    From Pitt, then:

    As I see it, one of the original sources of the development of STS came from the breakdown of positivism and the realization that the origins, nature, changing character of science (nobody really talked about technology) was too big a topic for any one discipline (see Laudan's Progress and Its Problems, Part 2). History of Science was essentially internal at that point and missed the larger social context and forces that affected science. SSK was also going internal, rejecting Mertonian norms and the institutional character of science in favor of science as the search for personal power (reflecting the constant intellectual insecurities of sociologists, no matter what they studied). What Kuhn tried to show us, perhaps unintentionally, was that there were other internal and external factors that needed to be considered and that in so doing philosophical problems arose in reconciling these perspectives. But even then, by suggesting that all three disciplines were needed, the topic was still science and not science and technology—even though some rhetoric about technology was occasionally tossed in. So a true STS approach could not emerge until history, philosophy and sociology of technology came into their own. When the approaches of all of these intellectual enterprises are considered in terms of their contributions to understanding science and technology, it is manifest that no one method can dominate such an endeavor.

    But, your [Collier's] view does not contradict this perspective, for what you have done is isolate the internal struggles of sociologists in their attempt to take advantage of an opportunity to seize control of a problem area once the alleged demise of positivism was evident.

    So, what to do about these two somewhat different views? One, you can let them emerge in the course debate. Two, you can include it as an alternative view. Three, you can set it up as a set of differences between the instructors and ask the class to figure it out by the end of the semester.

    From Collier, then:

    Initially, we assume a broad narrative of the development of STS. STS was a critical reaction to the post-World War II social transformations wrought by science and technology. With terrible finality, science and technology won the war. To win the peace science, with federal assistance, promised an "endless frontier" of social and economic progress. The social contract struck between science, industry and the federal government held promise for both great progress and great destruction. Payment for new medicines, increased security and more employment was the cold war, the arms race, and the expansion of the military-industrial complex. As Eisenhower warned in 1961:

      In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

    The political anxiety captured in Eisenhower's speech, and the intellectual vanguard forwarded by the publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in 1962, signaled the necessity of a broad, sophisticated understanding of science, technology and society. Kuhn's book, growing out of Harvard's general education curriculum, described an historical approach to, and knowledge about, science and technology. Integrating history and philosophy of science appeared both to be an effective way of teaching students how to assess, and make decisions about, science, and to be a tonic to positivism's excesses. We assume, then, that the publication of Structure marks both the rise of STS and, subsequently, the fall of philosophy in STS.

    The political ethos associated with 1960's radicalism, and the oft-debated lessons of Structure, was conveyed effectively by practitioners in sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). The rise of the the Edinburgh School and the Bath School (and their associated methods) relegated philosophy to the background of the STS triumvirate. Armed with micro-sociological techniques, methods and critical theory STS practitioners "construct facts" about objects of study by performing fieldwork of scientific and technological sites. Once the facts are constructed, little room remains for philosophical queries. The embrace of fieldwork, epitomized in Laboratory Life, demonstrated the possibilities of privileging the object of inquiry over the inquirer. Recognizing the agency of objects helped put to rest the shopworn bifurcations and definition mongering seen as the arid legacy of philosophy. Much current STS continues in the vein established by the "unparalleled" (Latour, "For Bloor and Beyond," 1999) influence of the strong programme and in the dominant method of contemporary STS, actor-network theory.

    In various guises, actor-network theory (ANT) dominates the STS landscape. ANT, as practiced by many researchers, becomes an all-purpose theoretical and methodological orientation that allows for the rapid, endless, production of marketable case studies—cases seasoned with the right amount of reflexive awareness and post-modern guile. These cases, these occasions for constructing facts and artifacts, pile up in the pages of leading STS journals. We find that these cases, and their accompanying methods, lead to philosophical questions that must be addressed in order for STS to avoid atrophy.

    So, let's move from our potted history to a more explicit enumeration of assumptions guiding this course:

      We assume that STS began, at least in part, as a philosophical response to the conundrum of the post-war expansion of science and technology;
      We assume that philosophy is vital, if not necessary, to the conduct of STS;
      We assume that the sociological wing of STS is dominant for reasons and outcomes we will explore;
      We assume that method in STS may be anti-philosophical;
      We assume STS, to grow, requires a philosophy of its own.

    Certainly our assumptions may by in error. Let's take a spirited look.

For spring 2015 while my assumptions remain—and remain circumspect—let's tell a different story guided by an imaginative and thorough consideration of what a philosophy of STS can—and should—be.


Grading Criteria

Allow me to share certain aspects of my philosophy (if you will) as to how I approach assessment in this class. I offer more of a general sensibility than specific grading criteria for each assignment.

I seek to take you where you are:
Offering a somewhat informed guess (informed, that is, by a brief Google search) this course may be the only graduate seminar in the philosophy of STS. I believe this absence indicates, among other things, that I—and perhaps you—are among the few STS scholars that believes STS should hold identifiable, explainable and unique philosophical positions. Yet, given the idiosyncratic aspects of the course, I cannot appeal to a mastery of the subject matter as a basis for assessing your performance. That you are willing to entertain the ideas in the course suggests a level of interest with which I will engage and, hopefully, expand. Still, you have other interests and concerns. I will do my best, then, to make the assignments and my assessment of your work fit with your background, scholarly interests and overall engagement with the class.

Consider what you want you want to learn:
As you go through the course consider, and reconsider, what you want to learn. Do you want to learn a particular way, or ways, of thinking, arguing, expressing yourself, writing, reading, understanding concepts and ideas, asking questions? By determining, at least in some variable measure, what you want to learn, you can shape the content of the course to your goals.

Do the work:
As with any course—and graduate courses in particular—stay on schedule with the work. I have designated the readings on the course calendar as either primary or secondary. Rea as closely as you can, aiming toward full comprehension, the primary selections. If you have to forgo the secondary reading for a given class, well, do so. But return to the secondary reading to prepare for the exams and to give yourself a full experience of the course.

Try things:
Trust yourself. Trust me. If there is something you want to try—writing an essay in a different key (something other than a typical seminar paper), asking questions in a different way, integrating ideas, arguments and texts from other areas—we can discuss where and how you want to make this try and then do it. When possible, try making connections between the ideas and arguments we explore in this course and ideas and arguments from other courses.

Focus on asking questions.
Our emphasis in this course will be on asking good questions. I will look for that emphasis in your work.

Rather more specifically:
My approach to grading (any) work follows a general pattern. On first reading I will give my impressions, reactions and comments—my reader reaction notes. Given these notes, and on a second read, I will identify three aspects (as we all know three is a magic number) of the piece that work well and three aspects of the piece that could be revised. I trust you, given my comments and in consulting with me as necessary, to make editorial decisions that will improve the work.


Texts are listed in order of their appearance in the course:

Honor System

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

Philosophy of STS