March 2002


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Written by
Jason Togyer

Photograph by
Lee Hirshenson

Adolf Grünbaum built Pitt’s philosophy
program into one of the world's best.
His first creation at Pitt, the Center
for Philosophy of Science, celebrates

its 40th anniversary this year. From
black holes to big bangs, the University’s
philosophers of science go behind the
scenes of the world's big scientific debates.

Paving the Way

On the eve of his bar mitzvah—the religious rite of passage into manhood for Jewish boys—Adolf Grünbaum decided he was an atheist. Doubtless his rabbi was not pleased, though Grünbaum, in a way, had the synagogue to thank.

The first time he heard of philosophy was at temple in Cologne, Germany. Though not yet 12 years old, his interest was piqued, and he read a then-popular book in which philosophers speculated about the origins of the universe. The belief in the hereafter, he decided, was “just wish-fulfilling.”

It was not a fortuitous time to be so precocious or a Jew. The Nazis had consolidated their power. Grünbaum and his friends weren’t allowed to play in the streets, take physical education, or visit public swimming pools. At the synagogue, at lectures, and in the Jewish culture clubs, he exercised his mind instead.

When his parents immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1938, he continued his education—first high school, where he had to learn English, then Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and post-graduate work at Yale, interrupted by a stint in US Army intelligence during World War II, interrogating Nazi officers and highly placed civilians. Since 1960, among his many roles at the University of Pittsburgh, he has served as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy.

Sitting with his wife, Thelma, in the sunroom of their home in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood, Grünbaum is friendly, patient, gracious, and thoroughly disarming; a writer for the Baltimore Sun called him “jolly,” but that word is neither apt nor accurate. It implies frivolousness, and while Grünbaum may be humorous, he has never been frivolous. Beneath his cheerful demeanor there is resolve, an intensity that served him well in his boyhood days in Cologne, and which has constantly pushed him onward and upward.

Beginning with the inauguration of Pitt’s Center for Philosophy of Science, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Grünbaum and his recruits turned a backwater philosophy department into one of the best in the nation, persuaded the administration to create a new history and philosophy of science department in 1971, and attracted some of the world’s best philosophers to Pitt to work and teach, most as driven and intense as Grünbaum himself.

It’s lunchtime in a conference room on the eighth floor of the Cathedral. Faculty members, students, and visitors file in, some carrying sandwiches, others fast-food cartons. A few drift over to a table of doughnuts and coffee—anecdotal evidence, but certainly not scientific proof, of the widely-held belief that academia is fueled by caffeine and sugar.

James Lennox, director of the Center for Philosophy of Science, introduces the guest speaker for one of the frequent “lunchtime talks.” She is Anouk Barberousse, a professor of philosophy of science from the Ecole Normale Supérieure* in Paris, part of the prestigious French National Center for Scientific Research. Today, she’ll be discussing how scientists’ actions—sketching diagrams or recording in notebooks, for instance—affect how they develop models and theories to test. Barberousse has concluded that, for scientists, writing and drawing are themselves tools of reasoning; not merely the record of their thought processes. Now, she questions whether or not these tools unduly influence their future work.

Barberousse spent months analyzing a 1999 research paper by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes published in the European Physical Journal. The topic—“Glass Transitions in Thin Polymer Films”—is obscure and difficult to understand for the lay person, but the ideas were considered radical by de Gennes’ colleagues. Barberousse steps to the head of the table. Despite her expertise, and the friendly audience, she seems somewhat ill at ease. “Forgive me, my English is not very good,” she begins, softly.

Barberousse isn’t here to debate the science in de Gennes’ paper. She wanted to know how de Gennes created the scientific model that he proposed, whether his notoriety unduly influenced the journal’s editors. De Gennes granted extraordinary access to his notebooks so that she could trace his process of discovery.

Scientists, and the editors of science journals, are looking for theories that offer “novelty, simplicity, and elegance,” she says. Those are fairly subjective values in the supposedly impartial field of science. And yet, Barberousse points out, while scientific papers are not judged by the standards readers would use to evaluate a novel, aren’t new scientific theories a sort of fiction? The audience is still. A few folks have lowered their chins to their chests. The room is warm and crowded, and Barberousse’s faint voice is at times drowned out by the noise of traffic on Forbes Avenue, far below—is their attention waning?

Not at all. When Barberousse finishes her presentation, people are on their feet. They’ve heard every word, and they pepper her with pointed questions:

“I love the case and it’s quite interesting, but I really don’t understand, what is the analysis?” asks Peter Machamer, gravelly-voiced professor of history and philosophy of science. “No one said a [scientific] model is a fiction. It’s just incomplete.”

Barberousse demurs. “I was wondering why de Gennes’ colleagues were willing to accept this model with very little debate,” she says. “Was it because it worked, or because he won the Nobel Prize?”

De Gennes’ colleagues accept the value of his previous work, Machamer replies. “He has merely found a successful model, which he continues to use! End game!”

Now several people are talking at once, questioning not only Barberousse and Machamer, but also each other. The discussion is spirited; Lennox referees.

While the history and philosophy of science department is nationally renowned for its instruction, the Center for Philosophy of Science is a unit for research, not teaching; throwing people from different disciplines, countries, and cultures into spirited debate is one of the things it does best. It sponsors lectures, publishes philosophy of science papers, and supports research both within and outside the University. Since 1977, philosophers of science from around the world have been accepted to work at the center; it’s an ever-widening circle of “Pitt alumni.”

When they can’t come to Pittsburgh, Pitt goes to them, hosting conferences and workshops throughout Europe and South America. The center has links with Germany’s University of Konstanz, Greece’s National Technical University and University of Athens, England’s University of Oxford, and schools in Argentina, Italy, and elsewhere.

Wielding such international influence among philosophers was unthinkable at Pitt before 1960. “The people who were doing philosophy here were kind of a mixed bag,” says Professor Nicholas Rescher, one of Grünbaum’s first recruits, who came to Pitt in 1961. “They were not really pushing forward the boundaries of information or misinformation, as the case may be.”

Grünbaum, then the William Wilson Selfridge Professor of Philosophy at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, remembers meeting several members of the Pitt philosophy department in the mid-1950s and being shocked at their “extremely provincial” attitudes. The department was primarily concerned with teaching undergraduate courses; its only post-graduate program was an MA geared to retired clergymen.

By contrast, Grünbaum in 1960 was among philosophy’s young stars. He had risen quickly at Lehigh from instructor to an endowed chair. In 1956, he served as a visiting researcher at the University of Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science,* the first of its kind in the world, and home to the renowned Wilfrid Sellars. Grünbaum’s philosophical analysis of space and time was attracting international attention of both peers and the National Science Foundation, which awarded him a five-year grant.

Still, it must have been a surprise when Pitt Chancellor Edward Litchfield had Charles H. Peake, vice-chancellor for academic disciplines, contact Grünbaum on behalf of Pitt’s “extremely provincial” department.

Peake, the equivalent of today’s provost, agreed with Grünbaum that philosophy should be able to link together the sciences, arts, and humanities, while still tending to its traditional work, such as research in ethics. Peake wanted to start at Pitt a philosophy of science program like the one in Minnesota.

Grünbaum happily accepted the Mellon professorship offered by Peake; “I was extremely excited by Dr. Peake’s vision of the new University, precisely because I was to start from scratch,” Grünbaum says. “I thought I could attract first-class people of national and international stature who would and could constitute a major philosophy department of which the University would be proud.”

Pitt philosophy professor Nicholas Rescher
in 1962, shortly after his arrival at the University.

Soon after Grünbaum’s arrival, Rescher, Grünbaum’s friend and colleague from Lehigh, joined him at Pitt. Things began to pick up speed. In 1962, Yale tried to recruit Grünbaum, knowing that he wanted to be in the same department with Sellars, one of the most influential American philosophers, then in New Haven. But the Yale philosophy department, though one of the best at the time, was divided by personality conflicts and “turf wars” and before Yale knew it, Sellars and several colleagues had jumped to Pitt. In the decorous, rarified atmosphere of academia, it was a raid of major-league proportions.

“They called me the ‘Pittsburgh Pirate,’” Grünbaum says, grinning. One of his former teachers at Yale called to complain that Pitt was “stealing” Sellars.

“I said Heavens, no, he’s a big boy, and he knows what he wants,” Grünbaum says. “My conscience was completely clear.” Suddenly, Pitt’s philosophical community had the critical mass to attract other leaders in the field. By the 1980s, the department ranked among the best in the nation—along with the Ivy League schools that once regarded it as a brash upstart.

Yale didn’t hold Grünbaum’s success against him. In 1990, the university awarded its graduate school alumnus the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal for distinguished achievement in his field.

When they think of philosophy, if they do at all, average Americans likely envision men in ivory towers wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. A rare few might remember, dimly, the names of some great past philosophers. Those of a certain mindset may even be able to quote someone such as Nietzsche, whose writings (often taken out of context) influenced both fascist dictators of the 1930s and hippies of the 1960s.

To think of philosophy as a living, breathing thing? Unlikely. There’s no listing in the yellow pages: “24-Hour Philosopher, Logic Unclogged While-U-Wait.” While philosophers like Santayana and Dewey once influenced public discourse in the United States, for the last several decades popular culture has all but ignored the field, says Rescher.

Philosophers, on the other hand, have by no means ignored American culture. Perhaps the profession is “small potatoes” (Rescher’s phrase) compared to physics or chemistry; but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in prodigiousness of output and diversity of interests. Of those, philosophy of science is one of the largest specialties in the United States.

The earliest Greek philosophers, working six centuries before Jesus Christ’s birth, were interested in argument and reason, and unraveling mathematics, biology, and astronomy. Aristotle 200 years later referred to them as “investigators of nature.” With the fall of the Greek and Roman empires, formal philosophy came to a standstill, then re-emerged in medieval times, with philosophers more concerned with the nature of God than the physical world. When science was reborn during the Renaissance, the age’s best scientists—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo—regarded themselves as philosophers as well.

“The commerce between science and philosophy is continuous and ongoing,” says John Norton, chairman of Pitt’s history and philosophy of science department, founded in 1971. Throughout time, he says, their paths “converge and diverge.”

The divergence of philosophy of science from pure or “classic” philosophy began in earnest following World War I. As the bloody “war to end all wars” ended, intellectuals in Europe began questioning social norms. In the arts, it led to the Dadaist and Bauhaus movements; in politics, fascism and communism took hold; and in the humanities, there arose what Rescher calls a “Young Turk” movement.

“World War I led to a radicalization of European politics, and a deliberate turning away from traditional values,” he says. German philosophers looked at the carnage—an entire generation of young men dead—and said, “see what traditional values have gotten us,” Rescher says. Instead of the classic, broad questions of philosophy, they decided science was “where the action is.” In Germany, a disproportionate number of these philosophers—along with medical doctors and scientists—were Jewish, because traditional careers like manufacturing and civil service were closed to them. With Nazification, they were condemned as radicals and degenerates, and those who could, fled—some to Great Britain, South America, or what is now Israel, but most to the United States.

Since the industrial revolution, it's almost seemed science could overcome all problems, “Better living for better things, through chemistry,” went the slogan of one multinational company, until pollution and chemical warfare made both chemistry and multinational companies unpopular in the 1960s. Still, when “four out of five” scientists recommend nostrums, diets, or techniques, reporters clamor for more information about the supposed breakthroughs; and consumers and companies are likely to jump on the bandwagon. Understanding how science wields that power is the domain of the sociology and politics of science.

“Most research in philosophy of science is about trying to understand the nature of scientific knowledge,” Lennox says. “What’s different about the way scientists go about trying to understand the world? What are the standards of a good scientific explanation? What distinguishes a good scientific conjecture?”

To most Americans, saying that a scientist believes something “shows that the belief rests on very solid ground,” he says. “Scientists are supposed to believe something because they have very specific standards for gathering evidence.”

There’s also a belief science is impartial and without bias. “Hokum,” scoffs Ted Zaleskiewicz, a physics professor at the University’s Greensburg campus and president of the international Contemporary Physics Education Project. “If they were completely unbiased, they’d have no motivation to start the experiment. There’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek saying among physicists that a scientist finds what he’s looking for.”

When biases threaten to knock science off track, philosophers of science speak. They spark debate in the scientific community, and at times they upset apple carts. Grünbaum, for instance, caused an uproar among psychiatrists and psychologists by applying the scientific method to Sigmund Freud’s theories of mental disorder, dreaming, psychosexual development, and psychotherapy.

The claims of Freudian psychoanalysis often are impossible to prove, and the results are irreproducible, Grünbaum argued in books and articles; hence, it is not scientific. His 1984 book, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique, is still hotly discussed.

But philosophers of science are not the traffic cops of science and they have no desire to take that role. “I would be happy if scientists can find our writings useful,” Norton says.

Some do, and some don’t. “Philosophy of science has become so hard to read,” says Donald Simanek,* author of Science Askew, published by the Institute of Physics in London. Simanek, a physics professor emeritus at Pennsylvania’s Lock Haven University, considers many texts cluttered with jargon and written for other philosophers of science. “Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the average person could pick up a book and understand it.… Now, there’s a vacuum…of philosophy of science that’s accessible to the layman.”

There is evidence to support the claim. In the early days of the Center for Philosophy of Science, it was not uncommon for interested novices to drop in on the lectures it sponsored. “What philosophy of science has become, for better or for worse, is not what it was in the early days, which was interpreting the findings of science for laymen,” Rescher says. Those who do, like Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan, “tend to be philosophically-interested scientists rather than philosophers of science,” he says.

Grünbaum adds, “Though some of these supposed popularizations of science enjoy best-seller status, they are sometimes actually not comprehensible to the laymen who buy them. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a clear case in point.”

Nevertheless, under Lennox’s directorship and Grünbaum’s watchful eye, community outreach is becoming more important for the Center for Philosophy of Science. In conjunction with its 40th anniversary, the center is reaching out to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library, Carnegie Science Center, and to the media, in hopes of learning how it can help unlock science for the community. That’s no surprise to Rescher, who notes the center “has always been a work in progress.”

Jason Togyer is associate editor of this magazine.

Visitors welcome

The daily grind at a large college or institution—teaching, writing, administration—can leave a philosopher ill-prepared to contemplate life’s larger questions. Enter the visiting fellows program at Pitt’s Center for Philosophy of Science.

For 24 years, the Center has offered philosophers, historians, and scientists from around the world the opportunity to study the philosophy of science at Pitt. They have access to some of the nation’s top philosophers. Also, papers of historical figures like Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, Frank Ramsey, Herbert Feigl, Bruno de Finetti, and Wilfrid Sellars, among others are housed in Pitt’s Archives for Scientific Philosophy.

If selected, applicants take a year’s sabbatical from their posts and receive a monthly stipend to live in Pittsburgh. Normally, up to a dozen fellows are in residence at the Center, says director Jim Lennox. Among this year’s fellows are Zofia Rosinska of the University of Warsaw,* Poland, and Jessica Pfeifer of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.*

Rosinska, who is researching the role of memory in psychoanalysis, was attracted to Pitt by Adolf Grünbaum’s criticism of Freud. She was no stranger to the University, having been a fellow last year. She also gave a lecture here on psychotherapy, which was an eye-opener for her. “So many people took part in the discussion, and knew what they were talking about, and they were competent,” she says. The Center for Philosophy of Science is unique in that its associates are willing to go outside their fields to seek information, Rosinska says; they also have a strong interest in history.

There is a lively philosophical climate at Pitt, adds Pfeifer. “Critical comments and helpful suggestions, that’s what I find here.”


*—denotes an external link. Links to external websites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.

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