William Wimsatt

William Wimsatt is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and is on the Committee on Evolutionary Biology and the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science. He studied engineering, physics, and philosophy at Cornell, earning a B.A. in 1965. He received the Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 and began working at the University of Chicago in the same year. Wimsatt teaches in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division, the Committee on Conceptual Foundations of Science (graduate), the Program in History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science (undergraduate), the Committee on Evolutionary Biology (graduate), the M. A. Program in the Social Sciences (graduate), and, of course, the Department of Philosophy (graduate and undergraduate). His work centers on the philosophy of the inexact sciences-biology, psychology, and the social sciences-the history of biology, and the study of complex systems.

CV (PDF)


Contact

office: Judd Hall 414
Office Hours: Wed 4-5 pm and by appointment
email: wwim@midway.uchicago.edu

 

Recent News

  • The International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology is pleased to announce that the 2013 David L. Hull Prize is awarded to William C. Wimsatt, Winton Professor of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota and Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Philosophy and Evolutionary Biology (Emeritus), University of Chicago.
  • Bill Wimsatt is the Winton Professor at the University of Minnesota and a residental fellow at the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, for Autumn 2010, Autumn 2011, and Autumn 2012.
  • "Big Problems turns ten and faces the future" - Chicago Maroon interviews William Wimsatt, September 20, 2010 - Link

Selected Books and Publications

  • Developing Scaffolds in Evolution, Culture, and Cognition (with Eds. Linnda R. Caporael and James R. Griesemer) MIT Press, 2014 - Link
  • Aggregate, composed, and evolved systems: Reductionistic heuristics as means to more holistic theories (PDF)
  • Reductionism and its heuristics: making methodological reductionism honest (PDF)
  • Taming the Dimensions-Visualizations in Science
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1990, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers (1990), pp. 111-135 (Link)
  • Some Problems with the Concept of 'Feedback'
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1970 (1970), pp. 241-256 (Link)
  • Reductive Explanation: A Functional Account
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1974 (1974), pp. 671-710 (Link)
  • Complexity and Organization
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1972 (1972), pp. 67-86 (Link)
  • The Units of Selection and the Structure of the Multi-Level Genome
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1980, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers (1980), pp. 122-183 (Link)
  • Using False Models to Elaborate Constraints on Processes: Blending Inheritance in Organic and Cultural Evolution
    Philosophy of Science, Vol. 69, No. 3, Supplement: Proceedings of the 2000 Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers (Sep., 2002), pp. S12-S24 (Link)
  • Aggregativity: Reductive Heuristics for Finding Emergence
    Philosophy of Science, Vol. 64, No. 4, Supplement. Proceedings of the 1996 Biennial Meetings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers (Dec., 1997), pp. S372-S384 (Link)
  • Simple Systems and Phylogenetic Diversity
    Philosophy of Science, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 267-275 (Link)
  • Generative Entrenchment and Evolution (with Jeffrey C. Schank)
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1986, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers (1986), pp. 33-60 (Link)
  • The Ontology of Complex Systems: Levels of Organization, Perspectives, and Causal Thickets
    Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supp. vol #20, 1994, pp. 207-274 (Link)
  • Generative Entrenchment and Evolution (with Jeffrey C. Schank)
    PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1986, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers (1986), pp. 33-60 (Link)
  • Genes, Memes, and Cultural Heredity
    Biology and Philosophy Volume 14, Number 2 / April, 1999 (Link)
  • Randomness and Perceived-Randomness in Evolutionary Biology
    in Conceptual Issues in Ecology Ed.E. Saarinen (Link)
  • Heuristics and the Study of Human Behavior
    in Metatheory in Social Science: Pluralisms and Subjectivities Ed. Donald Winslow Fiske, Richard A. Shweder (Link)
  • Generative Entrenchment and the Developmental Systems Approach to Evolutionary Processes
    in Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution Ed. Susan Oyama, Paul E. Griffiths, Russell D. Gray (Link)
  • Generativity, Entrenchment, Evolution, and Innateness: Philosophy, Evolutionary Biology, and Conceptual Foundations of Science
    in O Design, H Contingency - Where Biology Meets Psychology Ed. Valerie Gray Hardcastle (Link)

Please see my CV (PDF) for a complete list of publications.

Selected Reviews by William C. Wimsatt

  • Author(s) of Review: William C. Wimsatt
    Reviewed Work(s): Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought by George C. Williams
    Philosophy of Science, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Dec., 1970), pp. 620-623 (Link)

Selected Review of William C. Wimsatt's Work

  • Author(s) of Review:  Robert C. Richardson
    Reviewed Work(s): Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality by William C. Wimsatt Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2007). Link

     

  • Recent Courses

    23400. Philosophy of Mind and Science Fiction. Could computers be conscious? Might they be affected by changes in size or time scale, hardware, development, social, cultural, or ecological factors? Does our form of life constrain our ability to visualize or detect alternative forms of order, life, or mentality, or to interpret them correctly? How do assumptions of consciousness affect how we study and relate to other beings? This course examines issues in philosophy of mind raised by recent progress in biology, psychology, and simulations of life and intelligence, with readings from philosophy, the relevant sciences, and science fiction.(B) Spring 2012.

    20300/30300. Scientific and Technological Change
    Open to college and grad students. Since Kuhn's watershed book in 1962, scientific change has been a major problem in philosophy and in history of science. We will survey different accounts of scientific and technological change in their cumulative and revolutionary modes starting with Kuhn and his critics, then Latour, Basalla, Simon, and Wimsatt, and consider detailed case studies from modern science to test and illuminate these accounts. Spring 2008.

    22210. Boundaries, Modules, & Levels
    Open to college students. The course will investigate conceptual problems arising in the attempt to analyze the structure of complex systems in a variety of biological, psychological, social, and technological contexts, and how the answers may vary with how the boundaries are drawn We will confront descriptive, critical, and normative puzzles arising from questions like: Is a society just a collection of people, an organized collection of people, or something more? Can corporation have rights and responsibilities and groups have identities? Why are minds in the head, or are they? And are genes the bearers of heredity? (B). Co-taught with John Haugeland. Winter, 2006.

    22500/32500. Biological and Cultural Evolution
    Open to college and grad students. Prerequisites: Third- or fourth-year standing or consent of instructor. Core background in evolution and genetics strongly recommended. . This course draws on readings and examples form linguistics, evolutionary genetics, and the history and philosophy of science. We elaborate theory to understand and model cultural evolution, as well as explore analogies, differences, and relations to biological evolution. We also consider basic biological, cultural, and linguistic topics and case studies from an evolutionary perspective. Time is spent both on what we do know, and on determining what we don't . Co-taught by S. Mufwene Additional idents: BPRO 23900, NCDV 27400 Winter 2006, Autumn 2007. Winter 2010.

    22700/32700. Philosophy of Biology
    Open to college and grad students. This course explores topics in the history of evolution and genetics from 1859 to the present, illustrating conceptual and methodological issues in the nature of scientific change, problem-solving, mechanistic explanation, and strategies of model-building. Case studies include: (1) the development of genetics and its competitor theories from Mendel through the classical period (ca. 1926); (2) the units of selection controversy in modern evolutionary biology; (3) theories of the role of development in evolution from Haeckel to the present (i.e., Buss, Kauffman, Gould, Arthur, Raff), and the instructor's research. A computer simulation lab is two hours a week in addition to scheduled class time to give hands-on experience with model building, and to teach relevant classical and population genetics. Winter 2003.

    22900/32900. Seminar: Philosophy of Social Science
    Open to college and grad students. This course considers philosophical issues in the social science, such as the interaction of factual, methodological, valuational issues, problems special to the historical sciences, issues of scale and hierarchy, the use of quantitative and qualitative methods, models of rationality and the relation between normative and descriptive theories of behavior, the nature of teleology, functional organization and explanation, social adaptations, levels of selection, and methodological individualism, cultural and conceptual relativity, and heuristics and problems with and strategies for analyzing complex systems. (B) Spring 2007.
    22900/32900. Philosophy of Social Science. (=CHSS 37700, HIPS 22300, ISHU 32900) This course considers philosophical issues in the social science, such as the interaction of factual, methodological, valuational issues, problems special to the historical sciences, issues of scale and hierarchy, the use of quantitative and qualitative methods, models of rationality and the relation between normative and descriptive theories of behavior, the nature of teleology, functional organization and explanation, social adaptations, levels of selection, and methodological individualism, cultural and conceptual relativity, and heuristics and problems with and strategies for analyzing complex systems.(B) Spring 2010.
    23400. Philosophy of Mind and Science Fiction
    Open to college students. Could computers be conscious? Might they be affected by changes in size or time scale, hardware, development, social, cultural, or ecological factors? Does our form of life constrain our ability to visualize or detect alternative forms of order, life, or mentality, or to interpret them correctly? How do assumptions of consciousness affect how we study and relate to other beings? This course examines issues in philosophy of mind raised by recent progress in biology, psychology, and simulations of life and intelligence, with readings from philosophy, the relevant sciences, and science fiction. Spring 2004.

    23400. Philosophy of Mind and Science Fiction
    Open to college students. Could computers be conscious? Might they be affected by changes in size or time scale, hardware, development, social, cultural, or ecological factors? Does our form of life constrain our ability to visualize or detect alternative forms of order, life, or mentality, or to interpret them correctly? How do assumptions of consciousness affect how we study and relate to other beings? This course examines issues in philosophy of mind raised by recent progress in biology, psychology, sociology, cognitive anthropology, and simulations of life and intelligence, with readings from philosophy, the relevant sciences, and science fiction. A secondary aim of the course will be to address the question: what makes a good thought experiment, and when can fiction play that role? (B) Autumn 2006.

    32201. Genetics in an Evolutionary Perspective
    Open to grad students and college students with consent of instructor. Prerequisites: Biological Sciences Common Core or its equivalent, pre-calculus math. Historical development of theories of heredity and evolution, from before Darwin and Mendel, through the development of cytology and classical genetics, population genetics and neo-Darwinism to evolutionary developmental biology and "eco-evo-devo" and the relation between macro-evolution and micro-evolution. Disputes, current and historical, over applications in biology and the social sciences. Lab/discussion. Computer simulations for historical and modern simpler models in population biology, and the strategy and tactics of mathematical model building Spring 2004.

    32201. Genetics in an Evolutionary Perspective
    Open to grad students and college students with consent of instructor. Prerequisites: Biological Sciences Common Core or its equivalent, pre-calculus math. Historical development of theories of heredity and evolution, from before Darwin and Mendel, through the development of cytology and classical genetics, population genetics and neo-Darwinism to evolutionary developmental biology and "eco-evo-devo" and the relation between macro-evolution and micro-evolution. Disputes, current and historical, over applications in biology and the social sciences. Lab/discussion. Computer simulations for historical and modern simpler models in population biology, and the strategy and tactics of mathematical model building Winter 2008.

    52800. Workshop: Evolutionary Processes
    Open to grad students. Co-instructors: Salikoko Mufwene and Robert Perlman. Recent work in biology has produced an explosion of interest in evolutionary models of cultural entities, institutions, and processes, with greater awareness of the complexity of the mechanisms involved. Language has been perhaps the most richly studied of these. Fruitful cross-pollination can occur without sacrificing the autonomy of the respective disciplines. We will explore, with case studies, similarities and differences between biological, linguistic, and cultural evolutions, how they can be accounted for, and how they affect the character of the processes. Possible topics chosen by participants; e.g., bio-cultural co-evolution as in industrial agriculture and our diseases; extinction and transformation of species, languages and other cultural entities (e.g., religions, cities, markets) by changes in their ecologies; and causes of 'tempo and mode' of change in languages and other human products. Meets bi-weekly over three quarters. Autumn 2003.