University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Cooperative division of cognitive labour: the social epistemology of photosynthesis research

Cooperative division of cognitive labour: the social epistemology of photosynthesis research

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Historians and philosophers of science have long recognised that the generation of scientific knowledge is a social endeavour, and that traditional epistemologies, which focus on individual scientists, are unable to capture its dynamics. Historians have provided rich accounts of research groups and institutions, although more recently, epistemological questions have received less attention. Philosophers of science, on the other hand, have developed formalised models that are difficult to match with actual historical episodes. In this paper, I argue that an integrated HPS perspective helps to better understand the social epistemologies of scientific collectives.

I flesh out this claim by presenting episodes from the history of photosynthesis research in the late 19th to mid-20th century. In this period, photosynthesis became a subject of great interest for researchers from many different disciplines, while the underlying mechanism remained obscure. I claim that, although the researchers were to some extent competing, their mostly cooperative interactions resulted in a division of cognitive labour that was never formally agreed, but in effect ensured the persistence of a plurality of complementary approaches. By this means, individual scientists improved their own chances of success, while also taking part in the success of others.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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