February 24, 2008

Why I'm going to be a philosopher of science

This semester, I entered the orals stage of my Ph.D. programme. Sometime in the next 7-14 months, I will spend 90 minutes locked in a room with five faculty members, who will happily interrogate my understanding of a list of classical and recent works of philosophy. Should I pass, I move on, more or less immediately, to the final (and interminable) thesis-writing stage. Should I fail, I can try again before the end of my fourth year (next May); if I fail at that point, or don't manage to get a second try scheduled before the end of the year, I get kicked out of school.

Despite the immense pressure, what's nice is that I get to choose what's on the list. At least, to an extent. I pick the general area, and about 2/3 of the list is standard for that general area; I get to decide what goes on the remaining 1/3. So, roughly speaking, everything on the list are things I'm interested in. I don't have to read any metaphysics or Plato or Scotus if I don't want to.

But I've had some problems picking the general area. I enjoy both philosophy of math and philosophy of science immensely, and while I don't think that they should be seen as two distinct areas of philosophy, trying to fit them both into a single orals list has proven impossible. On Thursday I met with one of my professors to get some help with figuring out the list. She gave me an ultimatum: Within two weeks, I have to decide whether I will be a philosopher of science who knows a bit about philosophy of math, or a philosopher of math who knows a bit about philosophy of science. She recommended I think about potential thesis projects and look through the major philosophy of math and philosophy of science journals to decide.

While I had some thesis projects in mind, they were hopelessly vague, and this is part of the problem I was having putting together a list. (One thing that's especially great about this particular professor: she never, ever lets me get away with any sort of hand-waving.) So I went and looked through journals and spent an hour writing down rough versions of thesis projects. Most of the projects I came up with were either impossibly difficult or, upon closer inspection, would be incredibly boring to actually work on in detail. The philosophy of math projects that looked both feasible and interesting came in two distinct flavours:

  1. The relationship between mathematics and society, especially the relationship between ethico-political values and `good mathematics'.
  2. The epistemological significance of certain features of the community of mathematicians, such as the underrepresentation of women and racial and ethnic minorities.

Philosophers of science are interested in these two things. But -- critically, and counterintuitively -- philosophers of math generally aren't. Philosophers of math, almost uniformly in this country, work on formal logic, the metaphysics of math (do numbers exist?), and foundations. Furthermore, what I discovered in the journals was that, to the extent that someone works on such things, they're published in philosophy of science and history of mathematics journals, and not published in philosophy of math journals. So, to work on one of these projects, I would have to read a lot of philosophy of science literature, and most of the philosophy of math literature would be completely irrelevant.

So I've made my decision. Strictly speaking, I will be a philosopher of science. Like most philosophers of science, I'll have a certain amount of expertise and affection for one science in particular -- mathematics -- and this will be reflected in what I write and teach. But I won't, strictly speaking, be a philosopher of math. My interests and research projects simply aren't the sort of things philosophers of math work on, at least in the English-speaking part of the world.

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