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Gepubliceerd op 02-09-2015

Verslag: Epistemic Virtues Challenge Boundaries between Sciences and Humanities

The University of Utrecht hosted the two day workshop “Epistemic Virtues in the Sciences and the Humanities”, where scholars dedicated themselves to exploring the possibility of rethinking the science-humanities divide by means of the concepts of epistemic virtue and scholarly personae. With speakers from the USA, Canada, Denmark, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, this event presented a rare opportunity to gather historians of science and historians of humanities in order to address a common set of problems.

From the 19th century to the Nuclear Age

On the first day of the workshop, Ian James Kidd, from Durham University, was responsible to start the activities. He presented his main thesis on the connection between epistemic virtues and worldviews (Weltbilder) by showing how 19th century naturalists could claim epistemic humility at the same time as possessing a deep, hubristic confidence in science. Professors Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen and Herman Paul, from Roskilde and Leiden respectively, followed with presentations that explored the possibility of using commemorative sources for understanding normative discourses in both history and other sciences. Eskildsen discussed the case of the portraits of Hermann von Holst ordered by the University of Chicago, and Paul used obituaries from history, physics, and chemistry to argue that virtue language appears in disputes, rather than in situations of agreement.

Hereafter, the floor was given to Lejón Saarlos, a Ph.D. student from Leiden, whose paper on the use of imagination in science described the ways in which scientists thought about disciplining their faculties (like imagination) in order to achieve good scientific conduct. The next presentation, by Matthew Stanley, from New York, showed us how two British scientists drew on their religious backgrounds to argue for persistence as an epistemic virtue. Ad Maas, from the Boerhaave Museum, talked about a shift in scientific authority from being connected to persons to being based on statistics, and Jessica Wang, from the University of British Columbia, closed the session with a paper on the nostalgic language employed by physicists during the Nuclear Age as they referred to “those old times of pure science”.

Physicists, astronomers, nature protectors, and the Science-Humanities divide

The second day followed the path of case studies. Jeroen van Dongen, from the universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam, showed how Einstein altered his own recollections of his career based on his change of stance towards theoretical work in physics, from an empirical to a more mathematical framework. Chaokang Tai, Ph.D. student in the University of Amsterdam, reflected on the different virtues cultivated by Anton Pannekoek in his political and scientific lives. Finally, Raf de Bont, from Maastricht, described the virtues of endurance and truthfulness cultivated by an early generation of nature protectionists, and the importance of place, rather than discipline, for what counted as desirable traits.

Closing the workshop, Rens Bod argued that since the 19th century we can find a tendency towards formalization and precision in both the Natural Sciences and the Humanities. He questioned the widespread belief that influence flows only from the Sciences to the Humanities by showing three specific cases where we can see the opposite – the former borrowing abstract schemes from the latter.

Closing Remarks

As Herman Paul noted by the end of the second day, this workshop explored how historians of science and historians of the humanities study epistemic agents in the past and their cultivation of dispositions seen as necessary for achieving good epistemic conduct. One of the main results from this exploration was the perception that a contextualizing approach is far more adequate for thinking about epistemic virtues than the abstract, universal mode in which philosophers usually operate. Such an historical approach enables us to perceive different layers of meaning where otherwise we would see homogeneity. Concretely, it warns us to be very careful with strict boundaries between epistemic and moral virtues, or between the Natural Sciences and the Humanities.

João Rodolfo Munhoz Ohara (Leiden/São Paulo State University/São Paulo Research Foundation)

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