top of page

Coming Full Circle: a New History of New Experimentalism

In their recent paper "We have never been New Experimentalists", Massimilano Simons and Jan Potters achieve a rare, but oddly satisfying level of reflexivity [1]. Normally, when you read about a topic, that very reading is not the topic itself. A paper on the ecological system of small-scale lakes, is not about that paper; it is about the ecological system of small-scale lakes. However, in philosophy, and especially the philosophy of knowledge and ideas, some texts achieve a level of reflexivity that both stimulates and confuses the mind [2]. Potters and Simons discuss the shift of attention to experimentation in the philosophy, history and sociology of science in the 1980s, often called New Experimentalism, related to the work of Ian Hacking, Peter Gallison and Allan Franklin. Yet, this description of their paper is deceptive: Simons and Potters don't discuss the work of Hacking, Gallison and Franklin at all. Not a single scientific experiment is mentioned in the entire paper, nor any problematisation of Hacking's, Gallison's or Franklin's approach to experimentation. So, how can the paper be about the turn to experimentation in the 1980s?

Although Potters and Simons never mention it, they show that intellectual topics have a dual nature. On the one hand they topicalise something: question are asked, theoretical perspectives introduced and factual examples offered to drive further discussion. About this level of the topic "scientific experimentation" Simons and Potters are absolutely silent. On the other hand topics also function as avenues to question and reshape the boundaries of an intellectual discipline. Simons and Potters claim that struggles over the institutional and disciplinary boundaries of Anglophone philosophy of science were part and parcel of the turn to experimentation. Should philosophy of science uphold a distinction between a context of justification and context of discovery? Shouldn't philosophy focus on the collective, social and inherently political nature of scientific knowledge production, ultimately alinging itself with broader historical and sociological perspectives on science? In discussing scientific experiments, intellectuals were equally discussing, and struggling over, the proper boundaries of their field. An intellectual topic is thus always either a challenge to or a reshaping of the intellectual field on both of the aforementioned levels.

According to Simons and Potters, the debates in the 1980s over experiments refracted on the disciplinary level in a variety of ways. One of them was the addition of "exploratory experimentation" to the list of standard topics in Anglophone philosophy of science - something that a trained individual in professional philosophy of science ought to know about, e.g. at a conference. More dramatically, the debates also lead to, or at least helped setting up, an entirely new discipline, Science and Technology Studies, an intellectual cubby-hole complete with its own conferences, programs, societies, journals and PhD's, and to a large extent, completely distinct from philosophy of science.

Of course, the narrative of the papers is not neutral. Simons and Potters offer a convincing story about the 1980s turn to experiments, that truly reshapes our understanding of the history of very recent philosophy of science - a lot of the actors in their story are still alive, driving the field(s) forward. However, the story also has a moral: at every turn, the disciplines within which we operate both shape our intellectual interests and strategies, but at the same time are the results of our collective actions. Every disciplinary action - lecturing, publishing, refereeing - is an open window to a critical moment in which one's disciplinary identity can be challenged, continued, restored or diverted. The moral becomes very explicit at the end, when Simons and Potters give the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science and its journal, HOPOS, a mission: "to play a prominent role in unearthing forgotten debates and revamping them." The circle is complete: they are using the topic of the history of the turn to experiment to shape the intellectual agenda of a field. The content of the article and the article itself are one and the same. And the reader becomes aware that the reading of the paper, and the responses to the paper (ignore it, share it, use it, promote it) are themselves part of the never-ending struggling over what is part of their intellectual identity and what is not. Potters and Simons use history to raise intellectual conciousness and foster the capacity to take a critical stance towards one's own ideas, and through their example, they both perform what it is to be a historical epistemologist and drive that very tradition forward.

[1] Jan Potters and Massimiliano Simons, "We have never been "New Experimentalists": on the Rise and Fall of the Turn to Experimentation in the 1980s", HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, volume 13, number 1, Spring 2023.

[2] The classical examples are of course: Steven Shapin, "Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science as Seen through the Externalism-Internalism Debate", History of Science, volume 30, number 4, 1992; and the 2011 introduction to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaeffer's Leviathan and the Air-pump.


bottom of page