Posts by

Elisabetta Basso

Anyone of you in Berlin this week?

Technische Universität – Berlin, 25th April 2013

Guest lecture: Prof. Claude Debru

“Science and Philosophy: possible interactions”

Prof. em. Claude Debru (Ecole normale supérieure, Paris)

The lecture will be held in German

Thuesday, 25th April 2013, 18.00 p.m

Main building of the TU Berlin, room H 0110


Gastvortrag: Prof. Claude Debru “Wissenschaft und Philosophie: mögliche Wechselwirkungen, 25. April 2013

Prof. em. Claude Debru (Ecole normale supérieure, Paris)

“Wissenschaft und Philosophie: mögliche Wechselwirkungen”

Technische Universität Berlin, Innovationszentrum Wissensforschung

Veranstalter: Dr. Elisabetta Basso (AvH-Postdoc-Stipendiatin am IZW)

Claude Debru ist emeritierter Professor der Wissenschaftsphilosophie an der “Ecole normale supérieure de Paris” und Mitglied der “Académie des sciences (Institut de France)”. Als Historiker und Wissenschaftsphilosoph hat er im Bereich der Molekularbiologie, der Neurowissenschaften (im besonderen im Bereich der Schlaf – und Traumphysiologie), der Hämatologie und Immunologie  sowie im Bereich der Biotechnololgien geforscht und sich zuletzt mit dem Problem der Zeitlichkeit der Philosophie in den Neurowissenschaften beschäftigt.

Herr Debru wird den Vortrag in deutscher Sprache halten

Donnerstag, den 25. April 2013, 18.00 Uhr c.t.

Hauptgebäude der TU Berlin, Raum H 0110

Michel Foucault’s Trajectory from Existential Psychiatry to Historical Epistemology

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all fine and your work is going well!

Last Spring I had the opportunity of talking with some of you about my work on Foucault, existential psychiatry, and historical epistemology. Some of you asked about my PhD dissertation, which I published some years ago… in Italian.  Last week a paper in English about the same subject was published: I take the liberty of drawing your attention to it, in case some of you would be still interested:

Good work! Bests,
Elisabetta Basso

A.v.Humboldt PostDoc Fellow
Technische Universität Berlin
Fakultät I: Geisteswissenschaften, Institut für Philosophie, Literatur-, Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte
Sekr. H72
Straße des 17. Juni  135
D – 10623 BERLIN

Associated Member
CNRS-École Normale Supérieure, Paris

What Ever Happen to Phineas Gage?

Dear friends,

Do you remember our visit to the Warren Museum? How to forget the scull of Phineas Gage?!

I permit myself to draw your attention to a recent research that could be interesting for those between us who were struck by the history of Phineas Gage, one of the most famous neurology patients in history.

A team of experts, led by John Van Horn, based at the University of California and Harvard Medical School, has used diffusion imaging data, together with anatomical MRI, to try to find out how Gage’s injury affected the connective tissues of his brain.

Here is the internet reference:


Canguilhem’s Archives at ENS

Dear Friends,

During the last week I had the opportunity of talking with some of you about the Canguilhem’s archives at ENS.

Here you find some more information about the Caphés (Centre d’Archives de Philosophie, d’Histoire et d’Édition des Sciences; USR-3308 CIRPHLES, CNRS-ENS), that is the documentary center where the archives are collected:

I recommend the Caphés’ library to all of you, American and French students and researchers, since you could find there not only Canguilhem’s manuscripts (here is the list), but also a very good collection of books and documents about history and philosophy of science (here is the catalog of the library:*frf~S11/).

The librarians are extremely kind and, for any further information or questions, you can contact Nathalie Queyroux (Responsable du Centre de documentation-Bibliothèque du CAPHES):
29 rue d’Ulm. 75005 Paris
+33 1 44 32 29 57

I take this opportunity also to express my sincere gratitude to all of you for the great time we had together in Cambridge.

Keep in touch!

Peter Galison: Practices, Places and Material Culture in the History of Science


by Silvia, Nicola, and Elisabetta


The second conference planned for the afternoon session was held by Peter Galison, who outlined an overview of the project in which he is currently involved, that is “a material history of the present.” This approach looks to the contemporary scene by investigating the scientific practices in their materiality and visualisation. Indeed, the “material history” is related not only to philosophical and intellectual issues in sciences, but also to practical ones. Galison took the example of physics, which in the last hundred years took a dual direction : on one hand, physics devoted itself to classical Kantian questions, while becoming, on the other, a matter of State as well as a large scale political economy issue. Now, what is at stake in Galison’s approach is to question where physics is happening in contemporary society and what is its contemporary impact. Methodologically, it is a matter of applying historical methods in order to understand contemporary physics starting from the period around 1900.

Galison emphasized that material phenomena makes history local and links specific, it makes choice more evident, it provides proportion and crossing of scale, and makes contingencies more apparent by historical analysis. This entails inevitably a political issue: to analyse choices that are already made, indeed, means to understand choices in the past, and this is intended as a way of offering us choices now. Actually, to see current events as contingencies of history prevents us from considering them as inevitable. Moreover, it lets us develop a sense of proportion, since many aspects of contemporary physics involve taking into account “out of human sight” dimensions. There exist thus historical as well as political reasons for adopting a material and visualisable approach and transforming thereby transhistorical transcendentals into something graspable in practice. To substantiate further his argument, Galison pointed out the importance of understanding the history of the history of science, i.e. the history of the very idea of knowledge. Ernst Mach, for instance, was convinced that knowledge should be grounded in accumulation of observations and that scientific theories were to be seen as mere bookkeeping devices. The same attitude towards theories, along with the belief that the language of science and perception was reducible to atomic bits, was shared by all the upholders of logical positivism, like Otto Neurath, Gottlob Frege or Bertrand Russell. This philosophical school, remarked Galison, played a heavily progressive political and social role at its beginnings, since it fostered cooperation between epistemologists and scientists from various nations (above all France and Germany), while fighting against idealism and hegelianism. For logical positivists, especially the austro-german ones, stripping away metaphysics from philosophy amounted to fight against reactionary stances, both political and cultural, as well as upholding an anticlerical, antifascist and antinationalistic agenda.

Thirty years later the situation had been completely reversed, as logical positivism had come to be seen as stronghold of intellectual conservatism, drawing attacks from such philosophers as Gerald Holton, Norwood Russell Hanson, Mary Hesse and Thomas Kuhn. According to them, positivistic epistemology was deeply flawed because it failed to recognize that scientific observations are always conditioned to theories, which do not serve only as codifying directories for experience, but actually form it.

Thomas Kuhn, inspired among other sources by Gestalt psychology, questioned the existence of atomic bits of reality, as well as neutral sense pre-percepts, and the ideal of a single neutral observation language. His contributions to the history of science were instrumental in shifting the attention from observations to theories, along with replacing the concept of continuos knowledge accumulation by those of epistemic break and incommensurability. This shift resulted in a blow for a relativist conception of scientific knowledge, on the model of the boasian school in social sciences, which reached its apogee with the birth of science and technology studies in the early 80s . Knowledge was regarded a sort of inland empire and science historians, as an antidote to teleological thinking, were trained to recognize the solidity of every system.

Concerning the history of physics, this attitude took the shape of an emphasis put on major theoretical breakthroughs, like the publication of Einstein’s papers on special relativity. Peter Galison clearly distanced himself from this stance as he pointed out that the history of physics is marked by big breaks, but not by overall change. In his opinion, believing this would be paramount to committing a logical fallacy, since, from the absence of a single scientific language capable of crossing all theories and all periods, it does not follow that there is no way of comparing two different theories. As Galison pointed out further, there exist three different material cultures within physics, each of them reposing on a particular conception of what it means to demonstrate something : the theorists, the experimentalists and the object makers. By doing so, he equated theory to all other forms of scientific practicing, like manipulating objects or constructing instruments. These three levels are not hierarchically superposed and epistemological breaks can occur at any level, since it is always possible to check a new theory with an already existing procedure and vice versa. Another important feature of Galison’s standpoint is locality, i.e. the requirement of considering every scientific issue within its particular context, rather than aiming at drawing a cultural history of Zeitgeist at different ages. This approach is supposed to allow historians to focus on what really holds together different material subcultures within a given scientific discipline. Scientific theories, argued Galison, are like natural languages, i.e. they do not transition from each other abruptly, but undergo a series of complex hybridisation processes resulting from verbal exchanges between agents that do not share a common language. In this framework, for instance, biochemistry can be contextualised as a sort of pidgin – a functional exchange language aiming at making possible particular applications – originating from negotiations taking place between biologists and chemists. Moreover, while some processes of hybrid end up freezing in structures that are able to survive, not every hybrid evolves into a full blown language. Exchanges of this kind give birth to “trading zones”, where scientists from different backgrounds interacts with the goal of solving certain given problems. These trading zones involve partial exchange for working together through a language of coordination, such as in the case of nanotechnologies, computer simulation, string theory and environmental arenas.

Natural History Museum

by Silvia, Nicola, and Elisabetta


Wednesday morning was devoted to the visit of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, one of three natural history museums whose public face is the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Janet Browne guided us throughout the visit and explained us the history of the Museum. The Museum of Comparative Zoology was founded in 1859 through the efforts of the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. The institution was made possible by private gifts and funds supplied by the state of Massachusetts. The central part of the building that one can see today is the original part, whereas the wings were subsequently added by Alexander Agassiz, Louis’ son.

Louis Agassiz and the Museum of Comparative Zoology

Louis Agassiz was a major figure of the natural history in the 19th century. Before starting his career in the United States, Agassiz had published monographs on ichthyology, paleontology, and geology. The five volumes of the Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833-1843) were written according to the tradition of his mentor Georges Cuvier. They contained descriptions of more than 1.700 ancient species, together with illustrated reconstructions based on principles of comparative anatomy. This work, with his researches on glacial action, earned him the admiration of well established savants as Cuvier, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Lyell.

Having traveled to the United States in 1846 to study the natural history of North America, Agassiz was offered a professorship at Harvard and decided to settle in Boston. He then started to popularize natural history and to establish lasting institutions of research and education. The Museum of Comparative Zoology, as it was intended by Agassiz, was conceived for the public more than for students and researchers. Today, we had the chance to go “behind the scenes” and visit also one of the collections (Herpetology) used by researchers.

The Museum was founded by Agassiz in an important year in the history of biology: the year of publication of Darwin’s Origin of species (1859). Agassiz had always sustained a fixist view. In fact, he was convinced that each specific form of plant or animal represented “a thought of God” at the moment of creation, and that structural affinities between living organisms were ideas’ associations in God’s mind. Agassiz’s opposition to Darwin’s theory was immediate. Asa Gray –the other great figure of Harvard’s Faculty of Natural History and Darwin’s correspondent– started to support and make public evolutionary theory already in a lecture held in 1858. After this lecture, Agassiz admonished seriously his colleague with these words: “Gray, we must stop all this.” For the rest of his life, Louis Agassiz remained a strong opponent of evolutionary view.

The arrangement of the halls originally reflected Agassiz’s non-evolutionary views: species are displayed according to a geographical order. The Hall of Mammals still presents today quite the same arrangement. Each species is presented as a stuffed form and as a skeleton, without any element of its environmental context. After Agassiz some changes occurred, for example a display case of man and ape skeletons has been added. This became famous thanks to Thomas Henry Huxley’s cover of Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863).

Today, the organization of the Museum follows an evolutionary approach.

The case of Gorilla: Epistemological issues

Janet Browne’s presentation developed some very interesting epistemological issues. We can just recall the way in which she presented the gorilla in the Hall of Mammals. Actually, according to Browne, such an “object” is supposed to represent many things and to tell sundry stories. On one hand, indeed, it makes us to reflect upon the way in which the animal was shot and became an object for the academic research. On the other hand, the position of the animal as “male dominant” refers to the social life of the apes, so recalling us the researches of the philosopher and feminist Donna Haraway, whose study on “Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science” (1989) explicates the metaphors and narratives that direct the science of primatology.

It is a very important approach, since it shows, in the spirit of historical epistemology, that scientific “objects” are not conceptually pure, but are always at the crossroad of different perspectives—philosophical, social, political, economic—and they are the stakes of different interests and goals.

Romer Hall and Glass Flowers

The Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology presents an impressive specimen : the Kronosaurus, an extinct pliosaur of the Cretaceous. In fact, this specimen is only 68% real, as some vertebrae were added artificially to impress the public. Paleontology is, in its essence, a discipline were imagination has to be exerted to reconstruct an entire organism from small parts… but in this case imagination was too wild!

Finally we visited the collection of glass model of plants. We learned that these models were made from 1886 through 1936 by the glass artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschkas, whose studio was located in Hosterwitz (near Dresden, Germany). This artisanal method aimed at creating life-like representatives of the plant kingdom for teaching botany. The models include over 800 species with accurate anatomical sections and enlarged flower parts.

We really enjoyed the visit. The collection was amazing and we had the great chance to follow a special tour guide! Thanks again to Janet Browne.



CaphéliENS: database on history and philosophy of sciences

Dear friends,

I permit myself to draw your attention to a database on history and philosophy of sciences recently created by the library staff of the Caphés (USR 3308-CIRPHLES, CNRS-Ecole Normale Supérieure):

If you have any comments or suggestions about it, please contact Florence Neveux (Centre documentaire du Caphés):

All the best and see you soon,
Elisabetta Basso

Bonjour à tout le monde !

Bonjour à tout le monde !

My name is Elisabetta Basso. Let me say first how lucky and honored I feel to have this great opportunity to take part in this research exchange between our two universities. The program of the week is extremely stimulating and I look forward to being there!

I will start with some biographical information.

I am Italian and I graduated in Philosophy at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice. I received my PhD in Philosophy in 2007 from both the University of Venice (Ca’ Foscari), and the University of Paris-1 Sorbonne (my dissertation’s title was: “Michel Foucault and Daseinsanalyse. A methodological Inquiry”). From 2008 to 2010 I was Associated Member of the Caphés (Centre d’Archives de Philosophie, d’Histoire et d’Édition des Sciences, CNRS, Paris). In 2010 I was employed as a PostDoc at Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin, with a research project about “Phenomenology and Psychiatry: An Epistemological History of the Concept of Structure”. Since 2010 I have been a member of the “École Française de Daseinsanalyse” (Archives Husserl, UMR 8547, CNRS-École Normale Supérieure). From 2011 onwards, I have a position as a PostDoc at the USR 3308-CIRPHLES/Caphés, CNRS-ENS), working on a project about the “Influence of German psychiatry on French philosophy in 1930-1960”. I also collaborate with the section “Analyse d’ouvrages” of the Revue d’Histoire des Sciences, and I am currently editing a special issue on: “Archives des sciences: médecine et psychiatrie. Un regard épistémologique”. From October 2012 I will be employed as a A. v. Humboldt PostDoc research fellow at the Technische Universität, Berlin (Fakultät I: Geisteswissenschaften, Institut für Philosophie, Literatur-, Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte). (Further information here:

My dissertation on Foucault’s “historical epistemology” questioned the role that the methods, problems and discourses of psychiatry played, at the origin of archaeology, in the epistemological methodology outlined by Foucault. I started from the interest of the young Foucault in existential psychiatry, and I focused especially on the French philosophical context in which the Introduction to Ludwig Binswanger’s “Dream and Existence” (1954) was conceived. At the core of my analysis was the concept of “historical a priori.” I argued that this concept is rooted not in purely philosophical phenomenology, but in the analysis of ‘existence,’ whose model was given to Foucault—especially via M. Merleau-Ponty and G. Canguilhem—by the “structural a priori” that phenomenological psychiatry borrowed from the medical anthropologies of such authors as Kurt Goldstein, Viktor von Weizsäcker, Frederik J. J. Buytendijk.

This investigation into the problem of the “historical a priori” drove my research interests in two directions. On the one hand, I continued to study the phenomenological current of psychiatry within the past and present-day French context. On the other hand, I widened my research in Foucault’s thought within the context of the ongoing debate between history and philosophy of sciences.

The aim of my current research project is to go back to the German and Swiss psychiatry of the beginning of the 20th century in order to questioning the common reading according to which phenomenological psychiatry would be born and developed as a philosophical-anthropological model in opposition to the scientific and medical framework of the psychiatry of that time. I intend to show how this current of psychiatry historically entailed an epistemological debate about the problem of what “scientificity” and “objectivity” mean in the field of psychiatry. It is a matter of a historical research that in particular focuses on the epistemological problem of how psychiatric “categories” and “types” were worked up at that time, thereby investigating especially the relations between psychiatry and medical sciences.

Thanks again for the week you have organized and see you soon!

p.s. Such a great idea this internet site!

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