Philosophy of science: Why is science experimental?

blind man opticsOptional MA course (designed for the MA in Analytic Philosophy)

Dana Jalobeanu

Tuesday 16-20, S7

Faculty of Philosophy (Splaiul Independentei 204)

The theme

A thought experiment suggested by Henri Poincare goes like this: would there ever have been a Copernicus if the Earth were continually surrounded by an impenetrable and always unbroken blanket of clouds? Would we know that the Earth turned on its axis and went around the Sun if we had never been able to practice astronomy? How could mankind, located inside an atmospheric cave ever have learned that the Earth belongs to a planetary system?

 This is just one possible way to enter the complex and fascinating issue of the relation between theories and experiments. What is the role of experiment in science? Why is science experimental at all?

Course description 

This is an optional graduate course in history and philosophy of science, in English, designed mainly for the students enrolled in the master of analytic philosophy. However, students enrolled in other master programs are welcome to attend and enroll in the course.

Enrolment:  at the first meeting or via email at until Oct. 15.

The course theme this year will focus on the questions and debates bearing upon the relation between theory and experiment. We will ask (and try to answer) questions like:

  • What is a scientific experiment?newton eye
  • What is the relation between theories and experiments in scientific thought?
  • What kind of knowledge one gains from experiments/experimenting?
  • What is a (scientific) discovery?
  • Is there a logic of scientific discovery? (what would that mean?)

Our course will approach such and like questions from a historical perspective, using examples from the history of science. We will read together extracts from some of the fundamental texts of philosophical (and scientific) modernity: Descartes’ Optics, Galileo’s Discourse and Dialogue, Newton’s System of the world, as well as extracts from his Optics and the Principia. The purpose of the seminar (on the format of a reading group) is to illustrate the wide array of roles and functions scientific observation and scientific experimentation played in these works.

The course will consist of one hour lecture and three-hour seminar (on the format of a reading group). Attendance and participation in the seminar is compulsory.

Evaluation: Students will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • Participation in the discussions at the seminar 30 %
  • Essay writing during the term (optional) 10 %
  • Final essay handed out one week before the exam 30 %
  • Final exam (oral examination) 30 %

Reading list (primary)

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry and Meteorology, translated, with introduction by Paul J. Olscamp, Hackett: 2001

Galileo Galilei, Two New Sciences, translated, with introduction and notes by Stillman Drake, Wall&Emerson: Toronto, 1989

Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, translated by Stillman Drake (foreword by Albert Einstein), University of California Press, 1962

Isaac Newton, A treatise of the System of the World, Dover Publications (reprint) 1969 (foreword by I.B.Cohen)

Isaac Newton, Principia, translated by I.B. Cohen and A. Whitmann, Cambridge University Press, 1999

Reading list (secondary):

Zvi Biener, Eric Schliesser, Newton and Empiricism, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014

David Cassidy, Gerald Holton, James Rutherford, Understanding physics, Springer 2005

Lorraine Daston, Elizabeth Lunbeck, eds. Histories of Scientific Observation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Ian Hacking (1983): Representing and Intervening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Van Fraasen, Bas C. (2007), Scientific Representations. Paradoxes of perspective, Oxford, 2008

Laudan, Larry, Progress and its problems. Towards a theory of scientific growth, 1977

Nickles, Thomas, ed. Scientific discovery, logic and rationality, D. Reidel, 1980

Steinle, Friedrich, Schickore, J., Revisiting discovery and justification. Historical and philosophical perspectives on the context distinction, Springer 2006


Course planoptics

Module I: Observation

1. Naïve empiricism and experimentalism: the problem of “observation.” How complex is observation in science?

2.  The problem “sensible experience” (1)


Galileo, Dialogue, Day One, 47-62 (what is “sense experience” and what counts as observation?)

Daston, Lorraine. „The Empire of Observation, 1600-1800.” In Histories of Scientific Observation, edited by Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lünbeck, 81-113. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

3. The epistemology of scientific observation

Readings: Descartes, Optics, First discourse (do we need to have a theory on the nature of light in order to understand how and what we see?)

Supplementary readings: Descartes, Optics Discourse 2-3

4. The physiology of observation: theories of vision

Descartes, Optics, discourses 4-6

5. Background theories in experimental philosophy: the theory of vision

Readings: Descartes, Optics IV, Newton, fragments of Optical lectures

Readings (secondary): Philippe Hamou, Vision, color and method in Newton’s Optics, in Biener, Schliesser, Newton and Empiricism, 66-97.

6. Empiricism(s) and experimentalism

Readings: Galileo, Dialogues, Day 1, 62-105 (If Moon would be like a mirror, we won’t be able to see it)

Readings (secondary): Stephen Gaukroger, Empiricism as a Development of experimental natural philosophy, in Biener, Schliesser (eds) Newton and Empiricism, 15-39

Module II: Scientific experimentation and the construction of theories

7. Scientific experimentation (1): thought experiments or actual experiments?

Readings: Galileo, Day 2, 141-183 (motion of projectiles and the motion of the Earth)

8. Scientific experimentation (2): Thought experiments or actual experiments?

Readings: Galileo Day 2, 219-

9. Scientific experimentation: exemplars

Readings: Newton, A treatise of the System of the World, 1-8

10. Constructing phenomena

Readings:Bacon, History of dense and rare, tables of densities

Newton, first paper on light and colors

Readings (secondary): Dana Jalobeanu, Constructing natural historical facts: Baconian natural history in Newton’s first paper on light and colours, in Biener, Schliesser, Newton and Empiricism, 39-66

11. Measurement and theory mediated measurements: Phenomena

Readings: Newton, A treatise of the system of the world, 11-29

Readings (secondary): William Harper, Isaac Newton’s scientific method 1-3, 21 ff

12. Successive approximation and modeling

Readings: Newton, A treatise of the system of the world 29 ff (measuring the apparent diameters of planets)

13. Testing: theory and practice (1): the laws of collisions

Readings: fragments from Descartes, Wren, Wallis (see drop-box)

Readings (secondary): Dana Jalobeanu, The Cartesians of the Royal Society, in Peter Anstey, Dana Jalobeanu, Vanishing matter and the laws of physics, Routledge 2011.

14. Testing: theory and practice (2)

Readings (secondary) George E. Smith, Closing the loop: testing Newtonian gravity, then and now, in Biener, Schliesser, Newton and empiricism, 262-344