Umbrella Research Theme (2004-2007)

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 this project started off. The scholars aimed at developing a broader understanding of how knowledge is gained, shifted, and revised in experimental research, exploring 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 that historians and philosophers of science usually wish to have properly separated: research objects, theories, technical arrangements, and 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—provideed 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 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 “ explorative” experimentation becomes visible: Such 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 refutations of hypotheses.

A claim to knowledge within a certain system of research may be found over time—by various means—to be erroneous. But the variety of notions of what “ error," or more generally, what “ going wrong” might mean, is huge and previously not studied from an epistemological perspective. At the same time, we can gain significant insight into the epistemic dynamics of experiment through the probing of experiments with error. There is a close connection between epistemological framework and methodological approach on the one hand, and detection and characterization of error on the other hand. 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 will demonstrate how the system functions, how it can fail and how it can guard itself against error.

The project combined a set of complementary studies concerning particular experimental systems, historical developments, and systematic conceptual analyses. The project group, working from the two locations of Haifa and Berlin, brought together historians and philosophers of science, PhD students, and postdoctoral and senior researchers.