University of Cambridge > > CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar > 'Put on my tomb: this is what she was trying for': the extraordinary life of Margaret Masterman

'Put on my tomb: this is what she was trying for': the extraordinary life of Margaret Masterman

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Between 1931 when a twenty-one year old student at Newnham College, Cambridge changed her degree subject from Modern Languages to Moral Sciences, and 1979 when the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association was founded a formidable presence at the edges of Cambridge collegiate and academic life ran riot, creatively embracing the ordinary language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the rituals of Christian worship, the philosophy of science and its connection to religious belief, the very beginning of computational linguistics which she pioneered (at a time when access to the machines that could run computer programs was extremely limited), the very earliest attempts to develop functional machine translation and a powerfully imaginative and potentially summative theory of language and meaning that to this day has yet to be properly engaged with by researchers in fields that are now unavoidable for contemporary life: Artificial Intelligence, neuroscience, information science and computational linguistics. Unknown to almost all these researchers, and completely unacknowledged within widely disseminated and accessible accounts of the origins of these fields, her work was decades ahead of that of her contemporaries. Unknown perhaps to these researchers, but not unknown to members of HPS . She was Margaret Masterman, the author of a paper that has become canonical on the work of Thomas Kuhn, entitled ‘The Nature of a Paradigm’ which was published in the volume edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. She was also the wife of Richard Braithwaite, the Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy who, as is widely known to HPSers, had given his help in the early introduction of HPS into the natural sciences tripos in 1951 by providing lectures on the history of science.

This paper will provide an overview of Masterman’s extraordinary achievements, taking in not only the two projects she founded, the Cambridge Language Research Unit and the Epiphany Philosophers, but also a brief account of some of her collaborators, almost all of them, like her, on the margins of ‘official’ Cambridge and in their own ways just as extraordinary. In this 50th anniversary year for HPS it seems appropriate to bring Masterman into the limelight as her interests in the philosophy of science and contemplative religious practice, coupled to her incredibly original approach to the philosophy of language and machine translation were deeply grounded in her intellectual formation during the 1930s in Cambridge, precisely the era of where Cambridge HPS finds its origins.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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