Postgraduates work in progress

Speaker: Jan Potters

Title: Perspectivism and the epistemology of experimentation: from regress to exploration

Abstract: In this talk, I will outline a sketch for the elaboration of a perspectivist understanding of the practice of experimentation. My starting point for this will be Michela Massimi’s claim, in reply to a criticism of perspectivism by Anjan Chakravartty, that perspectives are needed in order to account for how scientists justify their belief in the reliability of an experiment. This led her to develop a view of perspectivism as historically situated practices, which, at the same time, could still provide a form of realism with respect to experimental knowledge.

My focus will be on the argument that Massimi uses to make this claim, namely an experimenters’ regress argument. By means of Uljana Feest’s claim that a central role in such arguments is played by the idea of tacit knowledge, I will argue that Massimi’s perspectivism runs into trouble, since it conceptualizes perspectives as fully explicit sets of beliefs and methods. To overcome this, I will then argue that perspectives should be reconceptualized as partly embodied and situated ways of knowing about one’s way in experimental practice. On this view, cross-perspectival evaluation is not, as Massimi sees it, a process of explicit truth-tracking translation, but rather an either implicit or explicit hermeneutic process of interpretation. On this view, scientists are not primarily interested in evaluating the truth of experimental knowledge claims that are formulated from within a different perspective, but rather in understanding how these claims came about.

The essential difference with Massimi’s view, I will then argue, is that on this conception, an experiment in itself never produces true experimental knowledge claims, since an experiment is essentially exploratory. Such a knowledge claim is rather a result that can only be achieved through the practice of experimentation, which essentially involves criticism, scrutiny and dialogue through the replication of experiments. As a kind of conclusion, I will then argue that this view still allows for a realist interpretation of experimental knowledge claims, by drawing parallels with Ian Hacking’s view of experimentation as a style of reasoning, i.e. as a historically contingent practice that opens up such knowledge claims for the possibility of truth or falsity.

If time permits, I will then give a very short outline of how I plan to elaborate this view in more detail through a historical study of how experiments on radiation influenced the development of the electromagnetic world view and the quantum-approach as perspectives.


If you would like to present work at the seminar, or for more information on dates and venues, please contact Olivia Coombes, John Dorsch or visit the Work in Progress Seminar homepage.

Work in Progress Seminar homepage

Feb 21 2020 -

Postgraduates work in progress

2020-02-21: Perspectivism and the epistemology of experimentation: from regress to exploration

Room 7.01, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD