Were experiments ever neglected? Ian Hacking and the history of philosophy of experiment

Philosophical Inquiries 9 (1):167-188 (2021)
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Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening is often credited as being one of the first works to focus on the role of experimentation in philosophy of science, catalyzing a movement which is sometimes called the “philosophy of experiment” or “new experimentalism”. In the 1980s, a number of other movements and scholars also began focusing on the role of experimentation and instruments in science. Philosophical study of experimentation has thus seemed to be an invention of the 1980s whose central figure is Hacking. This article aims to assess this historical claim, made by Hacking himself as well as others. It does so first by highlighting how a broader perspective on the history of philosophy reveals this invention narrative to be incorrect, since experimentation was a topic of interest for earlier philosophers. Secondly, the article evaluates a revision of this historical claim also made by some philosophers of experiment: the rediscovery narrative, which frames Hacking and others as having rediscovered the work of these earlier authors. This second narratives faces problems as well. Therefore we develop a third narrative which we call the contextualist narrative. Rather than considering experimentation in an essentialist manner as a fixed research object that is either present or not in the work of specific authors, experimentation should be addressed through a narrative that asks in what way it becomes a philosophical problem for certain authors and for what purpose. Such contextualization enables a repositioning of Hacking’s philosophy of experiment in relation to the specific debates in which he intervened, such as the realism-antirealism debate, the Science Wars and the debate on incommensurability.

Author Profiles

Massimiliano Simons
Maastricht University
Matteo Vagelli
University of Venice


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