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Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality

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ISBN-13: 978-0674015456
ISBN-10: 0674015452
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Editorial Reviews


Bill Wimsatt is a visionary. He was, and remains, a man ahead of his time. One sees, in these essays (some old, some new), how he challenged orthodox philosophical views of science, and how much contemporary methodological work now conforms to his prescient understanding and analysis. Wimsatt was a pioneer in displaying how messy and complex our world is and in demonstrating how our idealized conceptions of the logic of science, of the nature of our arguments, and of intertheoretic relations, need to be "messied" up to capture and reflect the actual detailed practice and understanding of scientific investigations. Simply read the introductory chapter "Myths of La Placean Omnicience" and you will see why you must read the entire book. (Robert Batterman, Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science, University of Western Ontario)

Wimsatt is concerned with an aspect of the philosophy of biology that has not been a major concern of most philosophers in modern times. He is grappling with the issue of biological complexity and it is certainly an important set of questions. Indeed, it may be the central issue for the philosophy of biology. (Richard Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Research Professor,Harvard University)

Wimsatt is very thoughtful and imaginative. He has a subtle position on reduction. He shows that it is necessary to hold to a sophisticated position on this issue, [and he] avoids reifying things at the upper level. (Herbert Simon, recipient of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Economics)

In the rich and impressive collection of essays gathered as Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings, Bill Wimsatt argues that philosophy of science, in its standard forms, has chosen the wrong models: the wrong models of scientists, of their products, and of their explanatory targets...Wimsatt is among the most creative, original, and empirically informed philosophers of our day. These essays clearly demonstrate his imagination, his mastery of many diverse literatures, and his eye for the big question...Few essay collections are integrated and systematic: Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings is an important exception. (Kim Sterelny Science 2008-07-18)

About the Author

William Wimsatt is Professor of Philosophy and of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (June 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674015452
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674015456
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #867,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Carck on July 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this collection of essays, Wimssatt invites both philosophers of science and scientists to think about some typical perspectives on the roles of their fields and how their (actual) practice relates to these perspectives. As the title suggests, Wimssatt's core argument lies on the acceptance of human failability: our perception of the world is filtered by multiple layers, from biophysical to psychosocial ones, which leaves us with nothing but a limited amount of information about the world in which we live. Thus, our philosophical/scientific questions are necessarily constrained, our methods are often not optimal and consequently, our answers are modest, "piecewise approximations to reality". Wimssatt argues that people are not really concerned with the "goodness" of their intelectual constructs, simply because they are not omniscient and cannot make rational decisions in an absolute sense. Thus, most of the time, Wimssatt suggests, we are actually targeting satisfaction - not the best possible (because we don't know it!), just the good enough. So, the construction of human knowledge follows much of biological evolution: most of the time, new things come out from re-fashioned, old ones. Wimssatt elaborates on this "human heristics" and other concepts to show how philosophers and scientists could improve their approximations within their fields and to each other.
As a biologist, I found the book's message quite simple, yet very powerful. Wimssatt goes deep into the scrutiny of his ideas, without becoming too boring. In fact, the reading felt to me like a continuous, engaging brain storm. Very nice.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lou Agosta on July 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Strengths: From this reviewer's point of view, the term "causal thicket" is a useful and powerful distinction to be applied to many phenomena in science and the humanities. One application of interest to this reviewer is empathy as well as to the explanatory mechanism of "shared manifold hypothesis" that is supposed to navigate the labyrinthine connections between the level of folk (social) psychology and neurology. The idea of different levels of description, explanation, understanding, etc. is a key point in the text that rewards careful engagement. I hasten to add that Wimsatt's text does not otherwise engage with empathy, but this is an example of its flexibility and application to expanded areas of engagement. Of course, Wimsatt's essays have many other strong and engaging points that takes the philosophy of science to a new level of excellence. For example, the glossary of key terms provides much value added.
Weaknesses: I cannot find any real weaknesses, certainly none that can be explained concisely and without elaborate give-and-take. Found a single, lone typo on page 168, four lines from bottom, where the intended word should be "Second." No other problems or criticism detected. Newton is supposed to have said, If I have seen further than others, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants who came before me. Not to lay it on too thick - but if not now when? - in this case, Newton's saying actually applies.
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Format: Hardcover
As someone without a background in biology or science, this book was a fascinating introduction to the sorts of issues that are too big, deep, and old even for an expansive New Yorker piece to dig into. It's certainly dense, and there are a lot of parts I didn't really get, but the concept of a "causal thicket" alone is worth struggling through the whole thing!
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Dennis B. Mulcare on February 3, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I first encountered this title, I simply had to order this book right away. The title itself is most compelling and rather clever. Alas, having read the book, I am rather disappointed, mainly because:

● Re-engineering - requires Reverse Engineering to establish a credible base upon which to undertake desired or appropriate changes. This book offers essentially nothing explicit and straightforward to explain just why and how philosophy needs re-engineering.

● Philosophy - is not the ultimate focus of this book. Rather, methodology in a vague sense is its primary subject. Additionally, appreciable attention is devoted essentially to methodology users’ guidebook type content.

● Limited Beings - is a rather shopworn attribution used here ostensively to warrant a skewed and perfunctory consideration of human fallibility. It does seem rather exaggerated in the examination of the practice of science in general.

Despite my growing frustrations, I nevertheless persisted in spanning the content of the book, but not in a strictly linear order. I jumped around considerably trying to pick up an orderly thread of development. In fact, I spent rather more time on this book than I typically would on one of comparable length and scholarly level. So my attention did not vanish; instead it persisted in seeking cognitive traction because there are some worthwhile notions scattered about in it. Otherwise, I would not have finished the book. Moreover, I am going to pursue certain of the book’s intriguing topics that are new but plausible to me: e.g., evolutionary epistemology, via Toulman’s “Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts.
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