Epistemic Concepts and Practices - Session I



Chair: Michael D. Gordin (Princeton University)

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Jutta Schickore (Indiana University, Bloomington): Experimental Practice in Historical Perspective

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Experimentation has been regarded as an essential part of scientific research at least since the seventeenth century. Opinions may have differed as to the epistemic status of knowledge gained from experiments and its inferential relation to theories, but hardly anyone would have denied that in order to gain knowledge of nature, it was important to make experiments. However, most all experimentalists, past and present, would also agree that experimental practice is precarious and not always successful. Some even published essays on the “unsuccessfulness of experiments” (e.g. Boyle 1661). The history of concerns with the vagaries of experimentation has rarely been studied. This is unfortunate because these concerns are of great interest for the historian and philosopher of scientific method and methodology. The history of these concerns reflects the development of scientists’ concepts of nature, causation, intervention, and instruments.

In my contribution, I examine experiments with snake poison in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A large number of people were involved in these endeavors, major figures like Robert Boyle as well as doctors and apothecaries now long forgotten. They performed vivisections, dissections, and in-vitro experiments with snake poison. One motivation for undertaking such investigations was practical and straightforward: finding an antidote for snake poisoning. But these experiments had far-reaching implications. They were expected to shed light on essential phenomena of life, including the nature of blood and its circulation, the function of nerves, and the mechanism of disease. Reports of these experiments are a treasure trove for the historian and philosopher of experimental methodologies because they are full of remarkable reflections about what may go wrong in an experiment and about how to make it work well. I show that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the most conspicuous methodological notion was repetition, the repeated performance of an experimental trial by one and the same experimenter. But repetition came in very different brands and fulfilled quite different purposes. Moreover, the meaning of repetition changed fundamentally during this period. My paper traces this change and considers the reasons for it.



Thomas Sturm (MPIWG Berlin): Perception and Judgment - Historical Epistemology or History of Epistemology?

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I shall compare Historical epistemology (HE for short) with a variety of the history of epistemology (HoE) as practiced in many philosophy departments nowadays. Disagreement between practitioners of HE and HoE should, as I argue, not arise with respect to goals but more with respect to method. For instance, some historical epistemologists aim to study how epistemic concepts and standards were shaped by past scientific practices. Historians of epistemology, in contrast, favor the reconstruction and evaluation of past philosophical arguments. But defenders of both approaches claim that their inquiries might be viewed as enriching current epistemological debates by bringing into play past or forgotten alternatives. Which of the methods is better suited to this goal?

As material for discussion, I consider the question of how one should study the history of the relation between perception and judgment. A central epistemological problem here is that while the passivity of perception is necessary for perception to be a window on the world, perception must nevertheless be related to conceptual or judgmental activities to play an epistemic role. Hence, we need to clarify (i) whether any contents of perception are independent of conceptual, judgmental, or inferential activities; and (ii) in case perception involves these kinds of activities, which of these activities are such that perception can still function as a window on the world – and which are such that it cannot.
Now, one of the earliest programs for an historical epistemology was developed precisely by reference to the claim that “perception has a history” by Marx Wartofsky in the 1970s. He didn’t mean a history of theories of perception, but of perception itself. He claimed that perception has a history because it is part of a complex “feedback loop” in which it causally influences, and is causally influenced by, two basic human activities—communication and production. Moreover, Wartofsky claimed that if one accepts his “feedback loop” model, this would lead to a change in the nature of the philosophical problems concerning perception (such as the ones mentioned). To this I object, first, that Wartofsky’s view underestimates, if not ignores, the implasticity of perception. Second, Wartofsky did not show how the epistemological problems of perception would be redefined in the light of his historical epistemology. Such worries can be extended to the more recent claims by Daston and Galison that scientific practices shape modes of vision and observation as well.
In contrast, an historical reconstruction employing methods used more often by philosophical historians of epistemology can allow us to see how and why the concepts of perception and judgment have been understood differently. The example I will use concerns the 20th-Century debate concerning the Moon illusion that took place between the psychologists Boring & Holway, and Kaufman & Rock. Here the concepts of perception and judgment, originally made for the epistemological issues mentioned, came to be employed in research where the only goal was the explanation of perception. This lead to a questionable usage of the concepts, which is one of the reasons why the Moon illusion remains unsolved. In this way, historical investigations of debates can show that shifts in meaning are due less to varying research practices than to different agendas and arguments. Moreover, the nature of these shifts becomes clear only if a good deal of rational reconstruction and appraisal of the arguments contained in empirical research is undertaken.



Commentator: Lorraine Daston (MPIWG Berlin)

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General discussion

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