Suggestions regarding philosophy (for scientists)

I received a question from a Ph.D. student in science, who is interested in philosophy and philosophy of science. He had done quite some reading, mainly of the classics, and requested some recommendations for navigating the philosophy of science literature. Below is a slightly redacted version of my reply.

  • If you are in a similar situation, I posted this for you!
  • If you are a philosopher, feel free to add additional suggestions (or indicate parts you disagree with).

Thank you for your question. Always interesting to ‘meet’ people who have a similar background and who are interested in philosophy / philosophy of science! :-) I never did a systematic study of philosophy myself, so I think I know the situation you describe. ;-) But I do think I can help you with some suggestions. Here they are:

* If you want to get some idea of which subbranches exist in philosophy and how actively they are being researched, take a look at the PhilPapers index. (It functions as an archive of pre- and postprints in philosophy).

You probably already noticed “the great divide”: there is ‘continental’ philosophy (which is more similar to literature) and ‘analytical’ philosophy (which relies more on logic and mathematics). The former used to be dominant in Europe, and the latter more in the Anglo-American world, but analytical philosophy is becoming mainstream everywhere.

* If you still want/need a general introduction to phrases and methods that are common to many areas of philosophy, check out “The Philosopher’s Toolkit” by Baggini. (You can check the index e.g. on Amazon: if you don’t know most of the words in the section titles, this is probably a good book to start with.)

* A good general introduction to philosophy of science is James Ladyman’s “Understanding Philosophy of Science”. (I have used it for an introductory course and found it very intelligble.)

* You might want to supplement this with readings in philosophical logic, but I don’t know a good starting point (sorry).

* After this I would suggest reading a “Cambridge Companion to …” (or similar) on a particular subbranch of philosophy that interests you. For instance, philosophy of physics (or a different science). If you are also interested in ethics, then you will be better off with philosophy of technology, but I am less familiar with that area. My own specializations include philosphy of probability, time, and infinity. So I can make more specific recommendations for these; just ask me!

* In general, SEP is a very good source, so each time you see a topic of interest or a philosophical term that you don’t know but are interested in, start there! (The search function is not great, though, so just use Google and add SEP as a search term.) If you follow-up on some of the links or sources in the bibliography you will always be reading relevant material.

* My colleagues and me have just founded “Philosophy of Science Leuven” (PSL) to make the philosophers of science activities more visible to people outside our research centre. Our website is not ready yet, but you can already use it to subscribe to one or more e-maillists in case you want to be informed of lectures on those topics. Alternatively, you can also just check out the events at this website. We have regular meetings on Friday afternoons (starting 3pm), but occasionally also at other times. Always welcome!

* Have fun exploring!

Best wishes,

PS: If you want to have some idea of what philosophers gossip about, currently this website is the place to be. ;-)

PPS: If you ever consider publishing in a philosophy journal or switching careers, be forewarned that publishing is much more difficult than in science or engineering. There are very few ‘good’ journals, so the acceptance rate is very low and the turn-around time is insanely long at some of these popular journals (years!). Except for the journals that use triple-blind refereeing, most of them are double blind; this means the editors see the names of the authors and there are many desk-rejections, especially for authors that are not famous (yet). I don’t like this at all about my new field. :( Rarely any of the ‘good’ journals have impact factors, so what is considered ‘good’ is just a reputation thing as well and it takes quite some time to learn about these unwritten rules. :/

Addendum (11pm):

My colleague Pieter Thyssen (Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, currently doing research in philosophy of physics) has two further suggestions (via Twitter). He wrote: “also loved reading Curd & Cover’s Central Issues in the Philosophy of Science” and “Another one I liked a lot was Alan Chalmers’ What is this Thing Called Science?”

Addendum (14 Jan.):

Thanks to David De Wolf for pointing me to the following blogpost written by Tomas Petricek: “Philosophy of science books every computer scientist should read“. Another vote for “What is this Thing Called Science?” Hm, maybe I should read that sometime. ;-) The other suggestion are primary sources and I like this selection. For instance, I usually assign my students at least one chapter of Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method”, too. :-)

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