, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 261-268
Date: 17 Feb 2010

William C. Wimsatt: Re-engineering philosophy for limited beings: piecewise approximations to reality

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Citing Archilochus as his source, Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes: the former know one big thing and the latter know many small things. (To get a handle on the distinction, Plato was in Berlin’s view a hedgehog, while Aristotle was a fox.) Berlin did not seem to allow for the possibility of what we might call “hedgefoxes”—that rare thinker who knows several big things. Among philosophers of biology, and more generally among philosophers of science, William Wimsatt comes closest to filling that bill.

If Wimsatt had only introduced us to the notion of generative entrenchment, he would have had an enduring impact on the subject. But he did not stop there. He was perhaps the first to make much of the rolls of robustness, heuristics, mechanisms, aggregativity, and complexity in biology and in our understanding of it. Some of this happened so long ago, way back among the first generation of latter day philosophers of biology, that it has become part of the com ...