Friday, July 16, 2010

Fuller, Steve. Review of Theodore L. Brown, IMPERFECT ORACLE. NDPR (July 2010).

Brown, Theodore L. Imperfect Oracle: the Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2009.

Theodore Brown is the ultimate academic all-rounder. A distinguished research chemist, author of a best-selling chemistry textbook, founding director of what is arguably America's leading research unit that actually lives up to its 'interdisciplinary' remit (University of Illinois' Beckman Institute), a vice chancellor for research and the author of a respectable, liberal-minded book on metaphor as the lifeblood of scientific creativity (Brown 2003). In fact, were it not for his apparent lack of interest in geopolitical manoeuvring, Brown's career might be comparable to that of another indefatigable 20th century American chemist, James Bryant Conant, the mentor of Thomas Kuhn.

But as readers of this journal would have asked of Conant, how is Brown as a philosopher? Whatever verdict one wishes to deliver on Conant as a philosopher of science, it is clear that he treated the positivist and pragmatist philosophies of his day more as inputs than authorities. Thus, Conant freely picked and mixed what he needed from them to clarify and justify the benevolent but elite role that he would have science play in the Cold War era. In contrast, Brown appears to be only as good as the intellectual agents he works with. Consequently, there are few interesting emergent properties from their combination. Brown's deferential approach means that his book could be easily mistaken for a lightly revised Ph.D. thesis by an above average student of naturalised analytic philosophy. Put a bit more positively, while this book is priced as if it were a specialist monograph, it could have been marketed in paperback as an introductory textbook in applied epistemology and ethics of contemporary science.

To his credit, Brown begins by asking some of the right questions about the foundations of science's epistemic and moral authority. Unfortunately he fails to see the need to range far beyond the precincts of contemporary analytic epistemology and constructivist sociology of science into the heart of political theory. . . .

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