Project (2004-2007)

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

Experimentation, a core procedure of modern science, has received new attention in history and philosophy of science in the last two decades. While a wealth of new perspectives have opened up, however, one essential feature has remained largely unanalyze—the very role of experiment as a knowledge-generating procedure. Here is where the project started off. The members of this project aimes at developing a broader understanding of how knowledge is gained, shifted, and revised in experimental research. They looked to 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 experiment, Ludwik Fleck and others drew 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 definitive answers. In a permanently changing and varying pattern, experimental systems combine elements that 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 how different experimental systems interact—how they overlap, delimit, exclude, or supplement each other—was intended provide insight into the developmental dynamics of broader fields of science.

Focusing on the details of experimental practice, recent studies have made clear that to account for the epistemic variety one needs to differentiate several levels of theorizing. Experiment is only possible by relying on certain instruments, procedures, and concepts that are taken as unproblematic. At the same time, acting and conceptualizing are in constant attunement to each other as the experimental process unfolds. Focusing on these processes, a specific type of experimentation becomes visible: not a testing procedure of theories, exploratory experiment follows nevertheless distinct guidelines and epistemic principles. In many cases, moreover, it leads to the revision of existing concepts and the formation of new concepts which allow a stable and general expression of the experimental results. The study of concept formation in experimental contexts offered new insights into the epistemic dynamics of experimental research. At the same time, it pointed sharply to the interlocking character of systems of experiments as contrasted to the traditional picture of experiments as single instances of corrobation 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 what “error” or, more generally, “going wrong” may mean is huge and had not previously been studied from an epistemological perspective. At the same time, the project researchers hoped to 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 combined 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, brought together historians and philosophers of science, PhD students, and postdoctoral and senior researchers.

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