Dr. Robert meunier
I am a philosopher of science. As of August 2018, I am the PI of a research project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) titled: “Forms of Practice, Forms of Knowledge: Method, Notation and the Dynamics of Perspectives in the Life Sciences”. The project concerns the kinds, forms and epistemic functions of scientific activity. These can be activities of creating the social and material spaces in which science happens, of working with materials that constitute or represent the subject matter of a given investigation, and of producing (mainly visual and textual) forms of notation by which the outcome of an episode of research becomes represented. Studying these activities also requires an analysis of the kinds of knowledge that inform these activities in the first place, i.e. knowledge about the organisation of scientific work, possible outcomes and appropriate methods to achieve them, as well as notational techniques and conventions, or what might be called “project knowledge”. By teasing out what can be generalized about scientific activities on these levels, universally, or for a given form of knowledge (e.g. classificatory, causal, historical, etc.), or, in turn, what is specific for activities in a given field or even an individual inquiry, I aim to systematise the plurality of approaches and accounts found in science and the resulting dynamics in terms of diversification or unification of, and tensions or productive relations between research fields.
The empirical basis of my work are case studies from the history of biology, especially from genetics, embryology, and behavioural biology in the long twentieth century. In the framework of the project another subproject conducted by a PhD student will look at case studies in the fields of evolutionary biology and ecology. By studying the ways in which different forms of knowledge emerge from different forms of practice in these fields, we will aim at deriving an account of the epistemic functions of scientific activities, which can then be tested against other areas of the natural and social sciences. Furthermore, however, these studies will further the understanding of the specific dynamics that shape these parts of the life sciences in the twentieth century. Next to historical approaches, the project draws on STS methodology and analytic categories, as well as on semiotic and cognitive accounts of scientific practice.
During my time as postdoc in the Narrative Science project (November 2017 to July 2018), I have organised (together with Mary Morgan and Dominic Berry) a workshop on Narrative Science and its Visual Practices and presented my own work at this and various other occasions, e.g. at the 2018 UK Integrated HPS Workshop and the 7th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice. Furthermore, I have developed a subproject focussing on research articles. This genre of scientific writing can well be considered narrative because such articles are constructed, i.e. they do not faithfully report the research process, but instead, select and re-order the representation of activities and data and retrospectively reconstruct a motive or a claim for which evidence is provided. Nonetheless, research articles take the form of a (albeit often highly standardized) narrative of what the researchers have done, experienced, and thought. Their form should be understood in terms of the functions these texts serve, while, inversely, studying how narrative ordering is at work in these texts can illuminate the ways in which these functions are achieved. Next to the well-known epistemic function of justification of scientific claims analysed by philosophers and the rhetoric functions of persuasion and defence against potential adversaries observed by sociologists, I aim to show how research articles serve in various ways to shape the conceptual systems of a science, i.e. how they facilitate concept formation and change. They do so by verbalizing operations and observations performed in experimental or other observational systems, which enable access to epistemic things embodying new concepts, by linking concepts within a field and connecting them to concepts imported from other fields, which deliver new narrative resources. When experimental or other observational systems are differentially reproduced, a series of differentially reproduced research narratives emerges in which the conceptual system of a field is slowly transformed. Again, these processes are studied through case studies in genetics and embryology in the 20th century. A paper on these issues is currently under review.
This work will be continued in the context of my affiliation with the Narrative Science project as a visiting researcher. The research conducted as part of the Narrative Science project supports the aims of my Forms of Practice, Forms of Knowledge project and vice versa. The analysis of research articles serves as a lens through which the significance of activities and operations performed in experimental and other observational systems for the scientists themselves becomes obvious. Researchers chose which activities to represent and on which level of more or less fine-grained description. Furthermore, the research article as a locus of data communication, concept formation and the formulation and justification of knowledge claims is the central unit of analysis for the study of forms of notation and activities of representation. Inversely, an account of the relevant features of scientific activities will provide insight in the motives and form of research narratives.
For an updated list of publications see https://lse.academia.edu/RobertMeunier