Exploratory Workshop: Scientific Concepts and Investigative Practice

Workshop Organizers:

Uljana Feest (TU Berlin) & Friedrich Steinle (Bergische UniversittWuppertal)


Technische Universität Berlin, Hauptgebaeude, Strasse des 17. Juni, Raum H3005


May 22/23, 2009


May 22

9:00  9:15: Arrival

9:15  9:30: Introduction (Feest/Steinle)

1. Concept Formation and Knowledge Generation

9:30  10:30

Mieke Boon (Universiteit Twente): Circumventing the realism-debate — How concepts are made and shape the thinkable world

10:30  11:30

Hanne Andersen (Aarhus University): Concepts, knowledge, and groups

11:30-12:00: break

2. Models and Modeling in Conceptual Innovation

12:00  1:00

Nancy Nersessian (Georgia Institute of Technology): Modeling practices in conceptual innovation

1:00  2:30: lunch

2:30  3:30

Dirk Schlimm (McGill University): New approaches to the creation of mathematical concepts in the nineteenth century

3:30-4:00: coffee break

3. Definitions in Scientific Practice

4:00  5:00

Uljana Feest (Technische Universitt Berlin): Concept formation and theory-construction: The role of operational definitions

5:00  6:00

Corinne Bloch (Tel Aviv University/University of Pittsburgh): Definitions as tools in investigative practice

May 23

4. Concepts, Meaning, and Experiments

9:00  10:00

Theodore Arabatzis (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens): Experimentation and the meaning of scientific concepts

10:0  11:00

Friedrich Steinle (Bergische Universitt Wuppertal): Concepts and experiments

11:00  11:30 break

5. Philosophical Appraisals

11:30  12:30

Allan Gotthelf (University of Pittsburgh): Concepts and their Formation: philosophical support for the Steinle thesis

12:30  2:00: lunch

2:00  3:00

Andreas Bartels (Universitt Bonn): Skepticism about Concepts. What is its point and what does it mean for historians of science?

3:00  3:30: coffee

3:30  4:30: Final Discussion

Workshop Description

In the philosophy of science, concepts have traditionally been treated from the perspective of the rationality of conceptual change. Recently, however, there has been a surge of interest in the issue of how concepts themselves function in the research that gives rise to new scientific insights. While some philosophers and historians have framed their inquiries in terms of questions about the formation of empirical concepts in the investigative process, others have asked about the role of definitions in empirical research, or have started to examine the ways in which theoretical concepts figure in experimental practice. Yet others have attempted to model the cognitive mechanisms of the processes that can lead to creative conceptual innovations. Much of the work just mentioned is concerned with the empirical sciences, often quite explicitly focusing on the epistemology of experimentation. However, it is interesting to note that some recent work in the history and philosophy of mathematics has also investigated the ways in which conceptual structures contribute to knowledge generation.

While there are surely many differences among these various approaches, they share a few core elements. They focus on scientific concepts, rather than theories, as units of analysis, and on the ways in which concepts are formed and used rather than on what they represent. They analyze what has traditionally been called the context of discovery, rather than (or in addition to) the context of justification. And they examine the dynamics of research rather than the status of the finished research results.

These points raise several questions. For example:

–         Can concepts be clearly distinguished from the sets of beliefs we have about their referents?

–         What  if any  sense can be made of the separation between concepts and theories?

–         What are we to make of the terminological distinction between empirical and theoretical concepts in the light of Quines attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction?

–         Are there interesting similarities and differences between the productive role of concepts in the empirical sciences and in mathematics?

–         What underlying notion of investigative practice could be drawn on to explicate the role of concept use as an important scientific activity?

–         Is the distinction between discovery and justification really a helpful way of characterizing the research agendas pursued by scholars who are examining the role of concepts in investigative practice?

–         What is the philosophical import of inquiring into a dynamic (i.e., historical) process, and (conversely), from a historiographical point of view, does a focus on concepts face the danger of falling back into an old-fashioned version of the history of ideas?

Rationale of the Workshop

The workshop seeks to bring together scholars interested in the role of concepts in investigative practice in order to identify some key questions and issues, and to map out some directions for current and future research. We will invite participants to prepare a brief statement (10-15 minutes) in which they outline their own research interest, preferably by relating it to a scientific example. Speakers will be asked specifically to address at least some of the above questions, insofar as they are relevant to their research. However, they will, of course, also be encouraged to draw attention to other relevant questions. In addition, we would like speakers to reflect on what (if any) theory of concepts informs their research, and what bearing this has on the kinds of questions they ask.