Generating Experimental Knowledge



Cooperation and Funding


Generating Experimental Knowledge: Experimental Systems, Concept Formation and the Pivotal Role of Error

In the past two decades, experimentation, a core procedure of modern science, has received new attention in the history and philosophy of science. While a wealth of new perspectives has opened up, however, one essential feature has remained largely unanalyzed – the very role of the experiment as a knowledge-generating procedure. This is where our project starts off. We aim at developing a broader understanding of how knowledge is gained, shifted and revised in experimental research. We shall explore the links and dynamics between three focal issues: experimental systems, concept formation and the pivotal role of error.

Challenging the clear-cut rationalist picture of experimentation, Ludwik Fleck and others have drawn our attention to the manufacture of scientific facts, arguing that modern scientists usually do not deal with single experiments in the context of a properly delineated theory. Experimental scientists deal with systems of experiments that are usually not well defined and do not provide clear-cut answers. In permanently changing and varying patterns, experimental systems mix up elements, which historians and philosophers of science usually wish to have properly separated: Research objects, theories, technical arrangements, instruments as well as disciplinary, institutional, social, and cultural dispositifs . An analysis of the ways in which different experimental systems interact – how they overlap, delimit, exclude, or supplement each other – is expected to provide insights into the developmental dynamics of broader fields of science.

Recent studies have made it clear that in order to account for the great variety of existing epistemic practices, several different several levels of theorizing are required. Experiments are only possible by virtue of the fact that scientists rely on certain instruments, procedures, and concepts that are taken as unproblematic. At the same time, experimental practices and scientific conceptualizations are constantly fine-tuned to each other as the experimental process unfolds. Focusing on these processes, a specific type of experimentation becomes visible: Such “explorative” experiments are not designed to test scientific theories. Nonetheless, they follow distinct guidelines and epistemic principles. In many cases, moreover, they lead to the revision of existing concepts and to the formation of new concepts, which allow for robust characterizations of the experimental results. The study of concept formation in experimental contexts promises new insights into the epistemic dynamics of experimental research. At the same time, it points sharply to the interlocking character of systems of experiments as contrasted with the traditional picture of experiments as single instances of corroboration or refutation of hypotheses.

A claim to knowledge within a certain system of research may be found in time – by various means – to be erroneous. But the variety of notions of what “error” or, more general, “going wrong” might mean is huge and has not been studied so far under an epistemological perspective. At the same time, we might gain significant insight into the epistemic dynamics of experiment through the probing of experiments with error. There is a close connection between, on the one hand, epistemological framework and methodological approach and, on the other hand, detection and characterization of error. What counts as an error, moreover, is as much dependent on the singular experiment as on the wider system in which it has been designed and conducted. Again one is directed from the individual experiment to a broader system. To explain the undermining phenomenon of error, the very structure of the system has to be taken into account. Studies of error shall exhibit how the system functions, how it can fail and how it can guard itself against error.

The project combines a set of complementary studies concerning particular experimental systems, historical developments and systematic conceptual analyses. The project group, distributed on the two locations of Haifa and Berlin, brings together historians and philosophers of science, PhD students, postdocs, and senior researchers.


The project "Generating Experimental Knowledge" comprises an ensemble of individual, though related studies. Topics that are investigated are:

  • Context and Error in the Epistemology of Scientific Experiment (Thomas Dohmen)
  • Exploring Implicit Memory: On the Interrelation Between Operationalizations, Concept Formation, and Experimental Artifacts (Uljana Feest)
  • Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM): A groundbreaking reliable invention or imagining surfaces? (Galina Granek)
  • Natural Selection in the Lab: Background Knowledge and its Role in Evolution of Experimental Systems (Igal Dotan)
  • Complexity :: 1960 – 2000 (Lambert Williams)


The working groups

The two working groups at the University of Haifa and the Max Planck Institute, Berlin, include two Ph.D. students (Thomas Dohmen at the University of Haifa, and Lambert Williams at the MPI for History of Science in Berlin), two post-doctoral fellows (Galina Granek at the University of Haifa, and Igal Dotan at the MPI for History of Science in Berlin), and the two principal investigators (Giora Hon and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger). The project is coordinated by Uljana Feest (Technische Universität Berlin).

In order to facilitate and implement the exchange and cooperation among all group members, there are regular meetings of the local groups at Haifa and Berlin in which the progress of individual projects and relevant literature are discussed. Moreover, to bring the two groups together, there havebeen two workshops so far – one in Haifa, May 2005, one in Berlin, June 2006 – in which individual works were presented. There will be a final conference, to take place at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal, June 2007 (more information coming soon).