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Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings

Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings

Piecewise Approximations to Reality

William C. Wimsatt

ISBN 9780674015456

Publication date: 06/30/2007

Analytic philosophers once pantomimed physics: they tried to understand the world by breaking it down into the smallest possible bits. Thinkers from the Darwinian sciences now pose alternatives to this simplistic reductionism.

In this intellectual tour--essays spanning thirty years--William Wimsatt argues that scientists seek to atomize phenomena only when necessary in the search to understand how entities, events, and processes articulate at different levels. Evolution forms the natural world not as Laplace's all-seeing demon but as a backwoods mechanic fixing and re-fashioning machines out of whatever is at hand. W. V. Quine's lost search for a "desert ontology" leads instead to Wimsatt's walk through a tropical rain forest.

This book offers a philosophy for error-prone humans trying to understand messy systems in the real world. Against eliminative reductionism, Wimsatt pits new perspectives to deal with emerging natural and social complexities. He argues that our philosophy should be rooted in heuristics and models that work in practice, not only in principle. He demonstrates how to do this with an analysis of the strengths, the limits, and a recalibration of our reductionistic and analytic methodologies. Our aims are changed and our philosophy is transfigured in the process.


  • 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


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

Book Details

  • 472 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press