Rethinking Woodger’s Legacy in the Philosophy of Biology

Journal of the History of Biology 47 (2):243-292 (2014)

Abstract

The writings of Joseph Henry Woodger (1894–1981) are often taken to exemplify everything that was wrongheaded, misguided, and just plain wrong with early twentieth-century philosophy of biology. Over the years, commentators have said of Woodger: (a) that he was a fervent logical empiricist who tried to impose the explanatory gold standards of physics onto biology, (b) that his philosophical work was completely disconnected from biological science, (c) that he possessed no scientific or philosophical credentials, and (d) that his work was disparaged – if not altogether ignored – by the biologists and philosophers of his era. In this paper, we provide the first systematic examination of Woodger’s oeuvre, and use it to demonstrate that the four preceding claims are false. We argue that Woodger’s ideas have exerted an important influence on biology and philosophy, and submit that the current consensus on his legacy stems from a highly selective reading of his works. By rehabilitating Woodger, we hope to show that there is no good reason to continue to disregard the numerous contributions to the philosophy of biology produced in the decades prior to the professionalization of the discipline

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Author's Profile

Daniel J. Nicholson
George Mason University

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