I have, throughout my career, made significant contributions to two distinct, and apparently unrelated, areas of research: Ancient Philosophy (primarily focused on Aristotle) and History and Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology. I am the author of the entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on ‘Aristotle’s Biology’ <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-biology/> and on ‘Darwinism’ <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/darwinism/>; and have contributed chapters on Aristotle to Blackwell’s A Companion to Ancient Philosophy and A Companion to Aristotle as well as the chapter on ‘Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism’ to Blackwell’s A Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. Those essays are a suitable introduction to my research and provide lots of references to other work in those two areas.
More recently, as a way of focusing my interest on the history of Aristotle’s influence on the life sciences, I have been investigating the influence of Aristotle’s philosophical and biological writings on William Harvey during and after his medical studies in Padua. The focus of that work is to establish that Harvey was a natural philosopher of the first rank, who viewed the experimentalism for which he is famous as flowing from his Aristotelian commitments. What unites these three areas of my research is a fascination with the question of whether, and how, philosophical assumptions about nature, inquiry and knowledge shape the way a thinker investigates and seeks to understand living beings.
I first began to consider philosophy as a career in my junior year of college. Two years earlier I had read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which convinced me that I should take control of my life–decide what I most wanted to do with my life and go after it. The philosophy that informs Rand’s novels, Objectivism, has been a central influence on all aspects of my life, including my research (for details, see my Publications page).
I earned my BA from York University in 1971 and my Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1978, shortly after taking up a position in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh in 1977. In 1983-84, my Aristotelian studies were supported by a Junior Fellowship at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies (in Washington DC) and by Consecutive NSF Summer Research Grants for 1983 and 1984. In 1987 I was elected Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge University (and elected a Life Fellow the next year.) These years were primarily devoted to research on Aristotle’s biological writings (about 25% of his entire corpus) and on their relationship to his metaphysics and, especially, his theory of scientific knowledge (epistêmê). Based on my participation in an NEH funded conference, ‘Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology’ directed by Allan Gotthelf at Williams College in 1983, I was asked to co-edit with him an eponymous volume, center around papers first presented at the conference, the first of many projects on which we collaborated over they years. Published in 1987 by Cambridge University Press, Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology is widely credited with sparking a renewed interest, not only in Aristotle’s biological writings but in his contributions to natural science more generally. The papers resulting from this phase of my Aristotle research, originally published in various specialist journals and conference proceedings, are gathered together in my Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science (2001) a volume in Cambridge University Press’ Studies in Philosophy and Biology series. Thanks to this publication, these papers are now widely available to the general community of historians and philosophers of biology.
During that same period I applied for, and received, a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (P3290), providing one term of leave each year from 1989 to 1992 to work on a translation, with introduction and commentary, of Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals. I was invited by John Ackrill to contribute it to Oxford’s Clarendon Aristotle Series. It was published in 2001, as Aristotle: On the Parts of Animals I-IV.
Starting in the mid-1980s, after being invited to attend the 1982 Summer Institute in Philosophy of Biology at Cornell University directed my Richard Burian and Marjorie Grene (a significant event in solidifying the then nascent field of history and philosophy of biology), I developed an independent line of research on Charles Darwin and his influence, including teaching regular graduate seminars on the subject. I chose to focus on the development of distinctive features of Darwin’s approach to biological investigation and explanation, taking advantage of the wealth of resources then being made widely available (his private notebooks were being carefully edited and published, as were the thousands of pages of his correspondence). My Darwin research began to be published in the early 1990s, as a series of publications on Darwin’s distinctive use of thought experiment and the subsequent history of ‘Darwinian thought experiments’ in evolutionary biology; and a series of papers arguing that, contrary to what most histories of evolutionary biology will tell you, Charles Darwin self-consciously develops a distinctive form of selection-based teleological explanation. (During this period I was invited to contribute the entry on ‘Teleology’ to Harvard’s Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, and the Cambridge Encyclopedia on Darwin and Evolution, edited by Michael Ruse, includes a paper of mine on ‘Darwin and Teleology’.) In 1993 I published ‘Darwin was a Teleologist’ in Biology and Philosophy, which elicited a nasty response from Michael Ghiselin, published in the same journal, along with a measured reply from me, in the following issue. Two of my most recent papers cap these two series of publications: ‘The Darwin/Gray Correspondence 1857-1869: An Intelligent Discussion about Chance and Design’ (Perspectives on Science Vol. 18, No. 4 (2010) 456-479); and ‘Accentuate the Negative: A Mystery about the Structure of Darwin’s Origin Solved’ (Studies in History and Philosophy of Science A Volume 87 ( June 2021) 147-157.
There are two major projects on which I am currently engaged, both of which will eventuate in books and both of which are under contract. The first began to take shape during my years (1997-2005) as Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Philosophy of Science. Perhaps thanks to hearing this topic so often discussed by contemporary philosophers of science, I became deeply interested in the question of how Aristotle conceived of the unity of the science of nature, and the place of his zoological research within it, an interest first apparent in a 2001 essay in International Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, ‘Aristotle on the Unity and Disunity of Science’. My current thoughts on this topic are expressed in three recent, related papers: ‘Aristotle on Norms of Inquiry’, ‘Aristotle’s Natural Science: the Many and the One’, and ‘Aristotle on Mind and the Science of Nature’. (For publication details, see the accompanying CV.)
When I stepped down as Center director in 2005, I was invited to given a week long series of seminars at the National University of Colombia in Bogatà (September 18-22) and to be a Senior Fellow at the Istituto di Studi Avanzati at the University of Bologna (May-June 2006) and it was during this period that I began to consider a monograph on the topic. In 2009 I was deeply honored by an invitation to take the John and Penelope Biggs Residency in Classics at Washington University of St. Louis, which I did April 5-9, 2010. That same month I was invited to give the Rosamond Kent Sprague Lecture in Ancient Philosophy at University of South Carolina (April 15th), and I used these opportunities to develop my project further. In 2008 and 2010 I taught graduate seminars and helped to organize workshops on the topic at the University of Pittsburgh and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
In 2010 I submitted a proposal for a book (now tentatively titled Aristotle on Norms of Inquiry) including a narrated table of contents, to Cambridge University Press. It was not until I retired, however, that I had significant time to devote to completing that project. The book, now titled Aristotle on Inquiry: Erotetic Frameworks and Domain-Specific Norms, was published in May of 2021 (See Publications).
The second project is a contribution to the Oxford University Press Clarendon Aristotle Series, the same series that published my translation, with commentary, of Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals. Many years ago, while we were still colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, Mary Louise Gill and I taught a graduate seminar on Aristotle’s matter theory, and focused a good deal of attention on book IV of his Meteorology. We prepared a translation of the book, and eventually we sent a proposal to Oxford to do a translation with commentary for the Clarendon Series, which was accepted. When Gill moved to Brown, the collaboration became more difficult, but in the mean time one of our graduate students, Tiberiu Popa (now tenured at Butler University), decided to do his dissertation on the nature of the material level explanations in this work, and eventually he joined us in the project and got us moving again. The translation is now completed and has been accepted by the Series editor, and we are at work on the commentary. (Our current thoughts were presented at a symposium of the History of Science Society meetings in San Diego in 2012, and published in HOPOS Vol.4.2 (Fall 2014) 271-350.) There are, of course, many more self-contained projects targeted for book chapters and journals.
Future Research Plans
Looking forward, I have two quite specific projects already outlined—evidence being folders on my computer’s “desk top” for each of them. One will sound like a very nuts and bolts Ancient Science project—and in one sense it certainly is. But I see it as critical support for the thesis of my book on Aristotle’s normative theory of inquiry. It is a systematic study of Aristotle’s theory and practice of comparative anatomy. The focus will be primarily on two sorts of texts: [i] the 28 passages where Aristotle refers his readers to “the dissections”, assumed to be a collection of diagrammatic representations of what one would see or does see when a certain dissection is performed in the interests of studying an internal organ or organic system; [ii] the many passages throughout his many studies of animals where one can infer that what you are reading is based on a systematic use of dissection. This project is motivated in part by frustration with descriptions of Aristotle’s epistemology, both by people working in Ancient Philosophy and by people discussing Aristotelianism in the Early Modern period, as antithetical to experimental investigation of nature; and (more positively) as fertile and unexplored territory in which to test views I have about Aristotle’s theory of inquiry. A description of that project is appended.
The other project extends the research I have done over the past two decades on Charles Darwin and the history of Darwinism in the 19th and 20th century. I have published a number of papers in different venues, all in one way or another focused on Darwin as a creative methodologist. Looking back over that work recently (as part of preparing a grant proposal) I saw a number of threads unifying that work, and I have come to realize that those threads, woven together in a certain way, provide a picture of Darwin that is unlike any that is currently available. I’m tentatively titling this project ‘A Different Darwin’. Either as part of this work, or independently if it seems more fitting, I have made a number of historical discoveries about the history of the concept of ‘fitness’ before, during and after the founding documents of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis that are downright puzzling and which need further investigation. This work might fit better with another longstanding philosophical interest of mine: the norms and practices surrounding the introduction of new concepts either into an existing domain of investigation or as part of the creation of a new domain of investigation (the sort of work found in, e.g. Feest and Steinle, Scientific Concepts and Investigative Practice).