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Learning in the world: Van Musschenbroek's lessons for the philosophy of experimentation

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Abstract

In this paper, I discuss Petrus van Musschenbroek’s (1692-1761) philosophy and practice of experimentation. In the current literature, van Musschenbroek is mostly mentioned for his “discovery” of the Leiden jar or in the context of his role in the spread of Newton’s ideas on the Continent. In his own time, van Musschenbroek was a well-known natural philosopher and a celebrated experimentalist. In an oration titled “On the method of performing physical experiments”, van Musschenbroek gave an overview of what we could call his philosophy of experimentation. In my discussion of this philosophy, I will show how the complexity of nature played in important role in his thinking on the method of performing experiments. Van Musschenbroek emphasised that there are always a lot of (unknown) variables at play in experimental research. One therefore needs to repeat and vary one’s experiments in order to identify as much relevant variables as possible and to remove hidden sources of disturbances. However, for van Musschenbroek, there were other reasons to vary and repeat an experiment. I show how van Musschenbroek also characterised the process of repeating experiments as a learning process. I argue that this learning process should be seen as a process of augmenting one’s practical grasp and understanding of the experimental set-up and the phenomena under investigation. To illustrate these views, I discuss two fields in which van Musschenbroek performed experimental research: the strength of materials and electricity. I show how many points made by van Musschenbroek in his methodological writings were instantiated in his experimental research practice. In both cases, his research was characterised by an emphasis on the variety and heterogeneity of the phenomena under investigation, the need to explore bodies in different ways by means of experiments, and attention for the details of the experimental set-up. In the second part of this paper, I will build upon the discussion of van Musschenbroek’s theory and practice of experimentation to provide a more elaborate philosophical discussion of experimental learning as a process of learning in the world. More specifically, I show how the choice to speak about learning in the world, instead of learning about the world, reflects a non-representationalist view on science. It is also connected to a view on science as a practice, more specifically as a situated and dynamic collection of activities. The main aim of this is to provide a philosophical view on the role of experimentation and the nature of scientific learning which allows me to do justice to the experimental research performed by van Musschenbroek. However, I will also make some more general philosophical points. More specifically, I will argue that van Musschenbroek’s work and ideas provide an interesting starting point to build further upon Friedrich Steinle’s concept of “exploratory experimentation (EE)”. Whereas Steinle’s notion of EE is still (I would argue) mainly centered on propositional knowledge, my discussion of van Musschenbroek’s work will allow me to expand Steinle’s notion of EE to include other kinds of learning. As mentioned, I argue that we should understand scientific practice as a process of learning in the world. According to this view, experimental learning is a process of actively engaging with and reshaping the world. The results of this learning process are not limited to propositions, but are also embodied in instruments, processes, procedures, standardised objects, and the skills of practitioners.
LEARNING IN THE WORLD
Pieter Beck SPSP 2022 Conference 04/07/2022
DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY AND MORAL SCIENCES
INTRODUCTION
1. Petrus van Musschenbroek (1692-1761)
i. Oration on method of performing experiments
ii. Experimental research on electricity
2. What can we learn from this (philosophically?)
i. Steinle on exploratory experimentation (EE)
ii. Limits of Steinle’s EE for understanding vM
iii. Learning in the world
3. Implications for PSP
PETRUS VAN MUSSCHENBROEK (1692-1761)
3
1692: ° Leiden
1715: doctorate in medicine, supervisor:
Boerhaave
1717: study trip to London, Desaguliers, Newton
Professor (textbooks)
1719-1722: Duisburg
1723-1739: Utrecht
1740: Leiden
Experimentalist: magnetism, capillary action,
strength of materials, electricity,
1745: Leiden jar
VM’S OF SCIENCE IN TWO MINUTES
“Nature abounds in so much variety
Warns against:
uncritical use of mathematical abstractions
(idealised models)
hasty generalisations (more “special lawsthan
general laws” of nature)
unwarranted identification of causes
bad experimental practice
4
DE METHODO INSTITUENDI … (1730)
Oration on the method of performing physical experiments
5
Leiden University Library, Special
Collections, BPL 240.59
Van Musschenbroek’s personal
copy of the printed text of the
oration, containing many
additions and notes
EXPERIMENTS: SOURCES OF ERROR
6
Possible sources of
error:
The experimentalist
Components of the
experimental set-up
External
circumstances
(including unknown
unkowns)
???
EXPERIMENT: REPETITION & VARIATION
7
Possible sources of error avoided
through repetition and variation
The experimentalist becomes
skillful
Components of the experimental
set-up are tested
Relevant external circumstances
(including unknown factors) are
identified
EXPERIMENT: SKILLFULNESS
8
[W]hen [the test] is taken the first time, all
phenomena cannot, or at least very rarely, be
observed:because things which are not foreseen
happen, [and] these are more clearly understood
when the test is repeated, because then the mind
has learnt to what it should attend. [] Moreover,
by repeating examinations, we become more
dexterous;because no matter how experienced we
may be, whenever we shall explore an experiment
with a body for the first time, we are always
somewhat unskilled and inexperienced.
(Van Musschenbroek, ‘Oratio de methodo’, xxiii-xxiv).
EXPERIMENT: REPETITION & VARIATION
9
Possible sources of error avoided
through repetition and variation
The experimentalist becomes
skillful
Components of the experimental
set-up are tested
Relevant external circumstances
(including unknown factors) are
identified
EXPERIMENTS ON ELECTRICITY
10
Van Musschenbroek’s experimental notebook for research
on electricity. First entry of experiments, dated 10
December 1745. (LUL BPL 240.18, fol. 63r)
EXPERIMENTS ON ELECTRICITY
Varying suspension of the
prime conductor:
Blue silk & dishcloth
Camel hair (white & blue)
Strings made of animal
intestines
Seal-wax wands
Glass barometric tubes
11
EXPERIMENTS ON ELECTRICITY
Varying cushion:
Linnen cushion filled with flax
Cotton cushion filled with cotton
Green silk cushion filled with
silk
Green silk cushion filled with
feathers
Fresh silk cushion filled with
horse hair
Cushion made from lamb
leather filled with feathers
Cushion made from lamb
leather filled with horse hairs
An old black hat
12
EXPERIMENTS ON ELECTRICITY
Varying cushion:
Linnen cushion filled with flax
Cotton cushion filled with cotton
Green silk cushion filled with silk
Green silk cushion filled with
feathers
Fresh silk cushion filled with horse
hair
Cushion made from lamb leather
filled with feathers
Cushion made from lamb leather
filled with horse hairs
An old black hat
Experiments repeated on 20 August
1746
13
HOW TO ASSESS THESE EXPERIMENTS?
“Musschenbroek’s unimaginative approach to the study
of electricity” (John Heilbron, “G.M. Bose”)
Van Musschenbroeks anti-speculative stance
14
EXPLORATORY EXPERIMENTATION
Friedrich Steinle on “exploratory experimentation” (EE)
theory-driven” versus “exploratory experimentation
“The most prominent characteristic of the experimental
procedure is the systematic variation of experimental
parameters. The first aim here is to find out which of the
various parameters affect the effect in question, and which
of them are essential.(Steinle, Experiments in History and Philosophy of Science”, 419)
15
EXPLORATORY EXPERIMENTATION
Friedrich Steinle on “exploratory experimentation” (EE)
theory-driven” versus exploratory experimentation
but perhaps still too theory-oriented?
-Closely connected, there is the central goal of formulating
empirical regularities about these dependencies and correlations.
- (Steinle, Experiments in History and Philosophy of Science”, 419)
-EE aims at “ever more general empirical regularities
- (Steinle, Experiments in History and Philosophy of Science”, 420)
- Finding laws pursued by the systematic variation of parameters,
under ceteris paribus conditions as broad as possible
- (Steinle, Exploratory Experiments,314, emphasis added).
16
LEARNING IN THE WORLD
In working on the world, we find out what it is like. The world is not something
inaccessible on the far side of our theories and observations. It is what shows up
in our practices, what resists or accommodates us as we try to act upon it.
Scientific research, along with the other things we do, transforms the world and
the ways it can make itself known. We know it not as subjects representing to
ourselves the objects before us,but as agents grasping and seizing upon the
possibilities among which we find ourselves. The turn from representation to
manipulation, from knowing that to knowing how, does not reject the
commonsense view that science helps disclose the world around us.
(Joseph Rouse, Knowledge and Power, 25.)
17
LEARNING IN THE WORLD
In working on the world, we find out what it is like. The world is not something
inaccessible on the far side of our theories and observations. It is what shows up
in our practices, what resists or accommodates us as we try to act upon it.
Scientific research, along with the other things we do, transforms the
world and the ways it can make itself known.We know it not as subjects
representing to ourselves the objects before us,but as agents grasping and
seizing upon the possibilities among which we find ourselves. The turn from
representation to manipulation, from knowing that to knowing how,does not
reject the commonsense view that science helps disclose the world around us.
(Joseph Rouse, Knowledge and Power, 25.)
18
LEARNING IN THE WORLD
19
The experimentalist becomes skillful embodied, tacit knowledge
Cf. Rouse on circumspection”; Westerblad on understanding
Cf. Kuhn, Kaiser, Warwick on pedagogy
Components of the experimental set-up are tested knowledge
embedded in instruments, cycles of (re)design
Cf. Nersessian on distributed learning processes in the
laboratory
Cf. Chang on epistemic iteration
Cf. Baird on “thing knowledge
Relevant external circumstances (including unknown factors) are
identified black-boxing, standardization, remaking the world
Cf. Rouse, Latour, Gooding
HISTORY OF THE SET-UP
20
HISTORY OF THE SET-UP
21
LEARNING IN THE WORLD
22
The experimentalist becomes skillful embodied, tacit knowledge
Cf. Rouse on circumspection”; Westerblad on understanding
Cf. Kuhn, Kaiser, Warwick on pedagogy
Components of the experimental set-up are tested knowledge
embedded in instruments, cycles of (re)design
Cf. Nersessian on distributed learning processes in the
laboratory
Cf. Chang on epistemic iteration
Cf. Baird on “thing knowledge
Relevant external circumstances (including unknown factors) are
identified black-boxing, standardization, remaking the world
Cf. Rouse, Latour, Gooding, Hughes
LEARNING IN THE WORLD
Importance of education: people have also to be
remadeto become part of these distributed practices
Distributed among people and things
The world is remade
Implications for PSP
From learning about to learning in the sciences (?)
23
THANK YOU! QUESTIONS?
Van
Musschenbroek,
MS LUL BPL
240.18, fol 93v.
24
Pieter Beck
E-mail:
pieter.beck@ugent.be
Twitter:
@PTRBCK
Academia:
Ugent.academia.edu/
PieterBeck
Researchgate:
Researchgate.net/
Profile/Pieter-Beck-2
Pieter Beck
Postdoctoral assistant
DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY AND MORAL
SCIENCES
E-mail: Pieter.Beck@ugent.be
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