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

Beck, Pieter (2022) Learning in the world: Van Musschenbroek's lessons for the philosophy of experimentation. In: UNSPECIFIED.

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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.


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Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (UNSPECIFIED)
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Beck, Pieterpieter.beck@ugent.be0000-0003-4788-4715
Keywords: history and philosophy of science learning in the world scientific practice Petrus van Musschenbroek philosophy of experimentation
Subjects: General Issues > Experimentation
General Issues > History of Philosophy of Science
General Issues > Science and Society
Depositing User: Dr. Pieter Beck
Date Deposited: 30 Jun 2022 02:36
Last Modified: 30 Jun 2022 02:36
Item ID: 20821
Subjects: General Issues > Experimentation
General Issues > History of Philosophy of Science
General Issues > Science and Society
Date: 2022
URI: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/id/eprint/20821

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