Examining the Structured Uses of Concepts as Tools: Converging Insights

Filozofia Nauki 27 (4):7-22 (2019)
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Examining the historical development of scientific concepts is important for understanding the structured routines within which these concepts are currently used as goal-directed tools in experiments. To illustrate this claim, I will outline how the concepts of mental imagery and hallucinations each draw on an older interdependent set of associations that, although nominally-discarded, continues to structure their current independent uses for pursuing discrete experimental goals. In doing so, I will highlight how three strands of literature offer mutually instructive insights for understanding how the uses of our current scientific concepts contribute to experimental practices. The first strand of literature includes recent scholarship examining how the uses of scientific concepts can enable scientific practices (e.g., Boon 2012; Brigandt 2012; Feest 2010; Steinle 2012). In this context, scientific concepts have been described as tools that function in ways that contribute to empirical knowledge; contributions that extend beyond their traditionally recognized roles in mental and linguistic representation. The second strand of literature can be glimpsed within the technoscientific studies focus on non-human agency; a focus that supports an account of the disciplined routines within which concepts are used as acting in analogous ways to the routinized participation of machines in experiments (Pickering 1995). The third strand of the literature draws attention to how the functions of concepts are grounded by the set of historically-contingent experimental practices (e.g., Canguilhem 2008; Tiles 1984). Although maintaining valuable differences, the focus of these three strands of literature are mutually instructive. Together, they offer a view of the uses of concepts as taken-for-granted tools that function within networks of subterranean associations; associations that are grounded by historically contingent experimental practices that structure how they act (in concert with human and material participants) within the temporally dynamic processes of scientific practice. Through examples drawn from a comparison of the concepts of mental imagery and hallucinations, I aim to demonstrate the value that the converging insights of these three strands of literature offer for studying the role of scientific concepts in experimental practices.

Author's Profile

Eden Tariq Smith
University of Melbourne (PhD)


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