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Clemson professor receives grant to delve into the foundation of scientific philosophy

Clemson University

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Tom Oberdan, associate professor of science and technology in society, has received a Scholars Award of $128,000 from the National Science Foundation to explore the 20th-century origins of how philosophers think about science.

Oberdan is using the grant award to fund travel and other expenses as he conducts research related to a book project titled "The Origins of Scientific Philosophy."

More specifically, he will be tracing the efforts of a group of intellectuals from diverse fields -- the Schlick Zirkel -- who gathered around the physicist-turned-philosopher Moritz Schlick at the University of Vienna in the 1920s. They believed the sweeping paradigm change effected by Einstein's relativity theories was not limited to physics, but included any effort to comprehend the scientific enterprise.

According to Oberdan, the mathematicians, physicists and philosophers of the Schlick Zirkel maintained that only a genuinely scientific philosophy, an attempt to grasp the implications of science from the "inside out," could yield philosophical insights about the aims and activities of scientists. Oberdan's research will explore the efforts of the Zirkel members to create a scientific philosophy. Eventually, their efforts developed into logical empiricism, the philosophical conception of science which dominated academic philosophy for the next half-century.

"So its meetings must have been exciting, as the thinkers introduced and considered insights and ideas drawn from a wide range of sources, discussed and criticized them, ultimately rejecting or embracing them," Oberdan said. "Imagine being there when Kurt Gödel explained his epoch-making theorem for the first time or when Schlick described his discussions with Ludwig Wittgenstein during his latest vacation or when Rudolf Carnap explained his revolutionary ideas about the nature of logic. The excitement must have been palpable."

Richard Goodstein, dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, said, "When the National Science Foundation funds humanities-based research, you can bet there's a very good reason. Professor Oberdan's research holds promise for a clearer understanding of how our culture interprets and explains science. Clemson is pleased and proud to be at the center of this research into the origins of scientific philosophy."

Oberdan joined the Clemson faculty in 1990 and has taught in the science and technology in society program since it was created in 2005. He is originally from St. Louis and earned degrees in philosophy and history and philosophy of science from Indiana University.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1456582. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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