The Status of Philosophy of Science in the Profession (guest post by C. Kenneth Waters)

The following is a guest post* by C. Kenneth Waters, professor of philosophy at the University of Calgary and Canada Research Chair in Logic and Philosophy of Science.

The Status of Philosophy of Science in the Profession

by C. Kenneth Waters

Has philosophy of science been given a backseat at American Philosophical Association (APA) and Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA) conferences? Many philosophers of science think so and some complain bitterly. But what are the facts? As with many discussions about our profession, philosophers seem comfortable drawing broad conclusions from anecdotes. In this case, the anecdotes are usually not about experiences of those who have put in the hard work of constructing conference programs; rather, the anecdotes are about not having been invited to give presentations. Where’s the data? Brian Hanley, Niall Roe, and I are collecting some that could help inform discussion.

As part of a project we call PhilSci at the APA & CPA, we inspected the 2016 programs of the three APA conferences and we will inspect programs of future CPA and APA conferences as they appear. Our methodology adheres to official categories (e.g. major sessions, invited papers, colloquia papers, etc.). We try to identify and count all presentations in each category that address topics and that use approaches characteristic of presentations at conferences such as the Philosophy of Science Biennial Meetings, of articles published in journals such as Philosophy of Science, and of preprints posted at sites such as the PhilSci-Archive. This turns out to be more difficult than it might sound.

Our data shows that of the 13 sessions that the APA labeled as “major sessions” at the three conferences, none counted as philosophy of science. Of the 12 invited papers, none counted as philosophy of science. We counted 6 of the 59 invited symposia as philosophy of science, but all of them were at the Pacific conference. The combined number of philosophy of science presentations in the categories of major sessions, invited papers, invited symposia, and authors meet critics on the main programs of the Eastern and Central divisions was exactly zero. Perhaps 2016 was a fluke. We will find out as PhilSci at the APA & CPA continues to collect data.

But there is another side of the data. Only 4 contributed symposia and 22 regular colloquium papers for all three conferences were in the area of philosophy of science. This is a very small number, especially when compared to the number of symposia papers and colloquia papers presented at PSA biennial meetings (133 and 148, respectively). Is the acceptance rate of philosophy of science submissions to the APA similar to the acceptance rate of papers at the PSA (at the last Biennial meeting, it was 55% for symposia proposals and 43% for submitted papers)? Is the acceptance rate of philosophy of science submissions to the APA similar to the overall acceptance? Why aren’t philosophers of science submitting more of their work to the APA? We don’t know. When we don’t know, our imaginations can run wild.

Many societies construct program committees to reflect the proportion of papers submitted in different areas (work load considerations). If we philosophers of science are not contributing papers in proportion to our numbers, then perhaps the makeup of program committees reflect this. And if there is not much philosophy of science at conferences, there is less motivation for philosophers of science to attend or submit. Sounds like a downward spiral. More information is needed.

Comparing our statistics about different APA divisions is also revealing. The Eastern division conference was a desert for philosophy of science. Just 4 papers on the main program. The Pacific division was a comparative oasis, at least with respect to invited symposia. The data also highlight features of the conferences that I suspect go largely unnoticed. For example, did you know that the main program of the Pacific conference is considerably larger than that of the Central conference, and that the main program of the Central conference is considerably larger than that of the relatively small Eastern conference? The Eastern conference has a relatively high percentage of Society/Association/Research Groups Sessions. The structure of conference programs is interestingly different. As a pluralist and pragmatist, and as a philosopher of scientific practice, I find this diversity unproblematic and possibly quite beneficial. But now I want to know more about how the separate divisions construct their programs, who constructs them, and who chooses who constructs them. Collecting data raises more questions and provides a basis for more productive discussion.

After talking to many people about the standing of philosophy of science at APA and CPA conferences, and after inspecting the programs, I think we have lots to learn before we can draw informed conclusions. We need empirical information. And instead of asking “what are the APA and CPA doing for philosophers of science?”, I believe we should pursue our inquiry by asking what philosophers of science can do for the APA and CPA, or even better, what philosophers of science can help achieve for the larger philosophical community by participating in the APA and CPA. Sometimes I worry that with our spectacular success in creating specialist associations, journals, and conferences, we philosophers of science might have inadvertently volunteered to take a backseat.

I invite readers to look at the data, which is available here. Hearing what people make of the data, and from those who have worked within the APA and CPA, could help us see how to move forward.

seguy patterns

(patterns by Eugène Séguy)

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