During the XI International Congress on Leibniz (31 July to 4 August 2023) in Hannover, Germany, I presented a paper called Wicked Problems and the invention of Calculus. Just before the start of the presentation I mentioned to the audience that I was surprised to see a full room since it was a smaller session of the Congress with only two presenters; “it has an interesting title” answered someone from the back of the room. “It is marketing and it worked” I quipped to the hilarity of the audience. The Congress was attended mostly, but not exclusively, by Historians, and I am mostly, but not exclusively, a Philosopher of Science.
It was not the first time that I was discussing my work with Historians while presenting my ideas stemming from Philosophy. Last year during the summer of 2022 I went on a research trip (see my earlier blog in this series) to do primary sources research at the Leibniz, Bohr, and Turing archives, in Hannover, Copenhagen, and Manchester respectively. My research aims to show common patterns in the discoveries associated with the work of Gottfried Leibniz (Calculus and analysis), Niels Bohr (complementarity and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics), and Alan Turing (computability and artificial intelligence) to understand additions to the body of knowledge in the History and Philosophy of Science. One way to describe the dialogues arising from those discussions is by using the metaphor of the arguments between literalism and interpretivism: ideas can be seen evolving strictly from the perspective of analysing extant written texts or from interpretation of those ideas in the context in which they were written or presented. While I do not claim that my work is Historical in nature and method, I do recognize that the historiography of the periods I am working on is indispensable to understand and see the patterns behind the expansion of knowledge.
The wicked problems were not identified, and their characteristics described until the later part of the last century, and before that time, the term wicked did not have the meaning now associated with that type of problems, and yet, some problems in natural philosophy did have similar characteristics to wicked problems. When I joked at the congress that marketing was behind the use of the word wicked, in reality I was not using a simplistic hook with a buzz word to attract attention to the paper but pointing out the similarities of existing processes in the History and Philosophy of Science addressing a class of problems that were not unique to a time period. The provocative title could help call for the discussion and feedback that true marketing aims at when making inferential analysis.
Prior to the trip and at the invitation of the organisers of the Leibniz Congress when I met them last year, I submitted a paper to be presented at the Congress and applied for selection to the 3rd Doctoral School to be held also at the University of Leibniz the week before the Congress. The Doctoral school is a type of “think tank” in which Doctoral candidates working around the world on different aspects of Leibniz ideas get together and present their theses for discussion and feedback. My paper was accepted as well as my application for the Doctoral school and I was given a research grant by Manchester Met’s Graduate School to help with the expenses. The interactions, feedback received, and networking made was invaluable, in addition to the refreshing experience of interacting with other researchers from a truly international set of universities and research institutions in a beautiful setting.
The perspective of the Historians and the insightful questions that they often have made has helped me hone, polish, and clarify my arguments and conclusions. The specificity of examples given have often enhanced the clarity of the arcs I see stemming from intellectual and historical environments where the discoveries are made, and their subsequent adoption happen. Our PGR school advocates frequently for interaction, networking and discussion of our ideas. The point is not to demonstrate that we are “right.” The objective is to receive feedback on how what is clear to us is interpreted by others, how the questions and examples generated by our arguments help us make connections we were not able to see before, aid us in linking pieces of information that we were not aware of and that support our logical flow. Most of the intellectual work happened outside of the presentation sessions during discussion in coffee breaks, breakfasts, and meals, during musings and arguments on walks in the beautiful streets of Hannover. Working with others is invaluable in its usefulness and I am very grateful for the grant received to help me attend the events in Hannover.
The feedback received validates my belief that the project is interesting and that it is stable enough that I can concentrate in the last phase of formally writing it for evaluation and the viva. This is the value coming from the wonderful experience of the trip.