She was educated at Harvard (A.B. 1973) and Cambridge (Dipl. 1974) Universities, and received a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard (1979). She has taught at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Brandeis, the University of Göttingen, and the University of Chicago and held visiting positions at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the University of Vienna, and Oxford University (Isaiah Berlin Lectures in the History of Ideas).
Since 1995 she has been Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University, both in Berlin. At the Max Planck Institute she has organized research projects on the history of demonstration and proof, the varieties of scientific experience, the moral authority of nature, and the common languages of art and science.
She has published widely in the history of statistics and probability theory, early modern natural knowledge, scientific objectivity, and the cognitive passions. Her books include Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (1988) and (with Katharine Park), Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (1998), both of which were awarded the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society, as well as Eine kurze Geschichte der wissenschaftlichen Aufmerksamkeit (2000), Wunder, Beweis, Tatsache: Zur einer Geschichte der Rationalität (2001) and Objectivity (2007, with Peter Galison).
She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and of the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences.
The project of a philosophical anthropology is at once empirical and reflective, aiming to understand fundamental human capacities without abstracting from their diverse expression in various cultures. The perception and creation of order is a prime candidate for such a philosophical anthropology, especially because it notoriously conflates descriptive and normative judgments: to discern an order and to desire it are often one and the same impulse. Modern philosophers reject this conflation as the “naturalistic fallacy”, an illegitimate attempt to transmute an “is” into an “ought.” Yet no amount of criticism has been able to dislodge this fallacy, if fallacy it be. The philosophical anthropologist poses a different kind of question: not “Why is the conflation of natural and moral orders wrong?”, but rather, “Why is it so irresistible?”