I am in Boston this week, part of a fest-program, A Question of Evidence, to celebrate George Smith's contributions to scholarship and teaching. Remarkably, one of his courses, a year long class on Newton's Principia -- roughly Semester/Part 1 puts the student in a position to read the Principia; Part 2 is the reading of the Principia. This course has shaped and re-shaped scholarship on Newton through its impact on students of all levels who have taken a version of the course at Tufts (George's home institution), Notre Dame, and Stanford. I took the course in 1991/92, as an undergraduate at Tufts. (I believe it was the third installment of the course.) When I first walked into the class-room -- I was an IR/Econ major -- I thought I must have made a mistake: I saw a bunch of MA students and faculty from different departments (including some of my own economics professors). As I hesitated walking in I saw that some students were the known campus nerds.
I had met George on the university's budget and priority meeting where I represented student interests. He had impressed me as its chair. It was clear he was an engineer who had worked in corporations, and he seemed to know what we were doing as we negotiated rather steep budget cuts. When I looked him up in the course catalogue, I couldn't find him in the big book (this is pre-internet days). But I did find somebody with his name in the philosophy department offering an undergraduate course on Isaac Newton. 'That's me,' he said. 'But you're an engineer.' 'I am a philosopher, too.' (It's true see here.) Much later I learned he wrote a dissertation on modal logic at MIT.
I stuck with the course, first, because I wanted to know what distinguished successful science (physics) from the failures (political science/economics, etc.). [I wouldn't put it like that anymore.] The Berlin Wall had collapsed in my first semester in college, and i had been baffled by my social science professors -- some of the world's leading scholars -- inability to forecast and even understand it as the process was unfolding in real time. I had no intrinsic academic interest in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I wanted to join the IMF or some such institution that could help run the world, and it seemed pointless to me to get a degree in a field promising to help you run the world but that was based on quicksand. But, the more important reason to stick with the course was George. George lectured. And he did so partially reading from amazing lecture notes. (He would put these on reserve after class (and editing).) But what made him mesmerizing was that he took us, the students of all level, seriously as genuine interlocutors in this shared adventure of understanding Newton's method. And what made the whole point even more remarkable: many sessions would start with his excitement of his latest discovery -- sometimes overnight discovery -- of the evolution and development of Newton's thought. (I return to this below.) Our paper assignments were all clearly designed to contribute to a collective endeavor of understanding Newton's breakthroughs (in the context of the very high baseline set by Huygens and Galileo, especially).
George's pedagogic methods break every rule of the education consultants (that the 'managers' at my university hire to help improve 'learning outcomes'): he sets very high expectations from his students, assigns challenging primary texts (and a lot of them), often lectures for three hours on end (in the evening), does not include amusing (irrelevant) anecdotes, and he does not flip the class room. What he does do, and he does this amazingly well, is prepare you qua student to be a co-equal in this astounding intellectual adventure. He makes sure you acquire all the technical background, one firm step at the time, and then puts you in the position to contribute to active research, if you so wish. (A lot of students end up writing term papers that could be the basis of a journal article.) Along the way, he invites you out on frigid winter nights to stare through a telescope to experience what Galileo might have experienced when he turned one toward the Moon. (George makes sure to let you try to see anything with the magnification Galileo used.)
George changed my life not just through the course, which enlarged my sense of intellectual possibility, but because after my graduation (as a BA student), he roped me into a joint (and ongoing) project on Huygens's empirical challenge to Newton's account of universal gravity (see here). (At the time, under the influence of Koyré, most historians and philosophers assumed, falsely, that the resistance to Newton was mostly driven by a metaphysical rejection of action at a distance and a stubborn adherence to the methods of the mechanical philosophy.) After that apprenticeship, I wanted to become a scholar. The amazing thing about our joint project was that George decided to redo all of Huygens's and Newton's relevant calculations. This is something he had also done in the budget process/debates we were involved in a few years ago. What's important here is that George did not merely eye-ball or even check the calculations, he re-did them (after getting hold of the original data from the manuscripts). Because George does that work his research turns out to be more durable (and more standard-setting) than a lot of other scholarship.
George's scholarship has transformed our understanding of Newton's Principia and the research that it stimulated over two centuries (see "Closing the Loop" [an amazing paper] here) and is doing so for a number of other research areas. Yet, while he was trained as a philosopher at MIT in the 1970s (and it shows in the clarity of his prose and the rigor of his arguments), it is very difficult to insert George's work into standard philosophical debates. That it does not do so is, in part, a consequence, I think, of the fact that philosophers had abandoned understanding how scientific discovery really works in practice (treating it as a mysterious black box) or got focused on confirmation theory (driven by toy examples).+ But while he makes enormous contributions to the history of science, and, as I've witnessed, is treated with enormous respect by historians of science, the work is driven by philosophical questions about the epistemic and evidential status of scientific theories.
Some other time, I'll blog more about the content of George's works and its significance. Here I want to close with a (moralized) observation. There is a tendency, even by very well-meaning people, in efforts to push back against the one-sided attention to 'research' (say in status, academic reward, and grant recognition) to emphasize, say, the social significance or transformative potential of 'teaching.' Here I want to say something closely related, but I think distinct. And, that is, that it should not be forgotten that the impact of research, one's own and others, can also be felt in the classroom. This is not just true on the more general level that we, qua teachers-intellectuals, are shaped by the research we have done, or the more specific level in the material (itself a product of research) we teach, but also that we can treat teaching as an occasion to engage in a collaborative intellectual enterprise with our students not just in the advanced graduate seminar or the research lab meeting, but also in the undergraduate classroom.
+There is now a large community of philosophers of scientific practice, although in practice that community tends to have different focus than Smith.