Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments / Edition 1

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Western philosophers have traditionally concentrated on theory as the means for expressing knowledge about a variety of phenomena. This absorbing book challenges this fundamental notion by showing how objects themselves, specifically scientific instruments, can express knowledge. As he considers numerous intriguing examples, Davis Baird gives us the tools to "read" the material products of science and technology and to understand their place in culture. Making a provocative and original challenge to our conception of knowledge itself, Thing Knowledge demands that we take a new look at theories of science and technology, knowledge, progress, and change. Baird considers a wide range of instruments, including Faraday's first electric motor, eighteenth-century mechanical models of the solar system, the cyclotron, various instruments developed by analytical chemists between 1930 and 1960, spectrometers, and more.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520232495
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 294
  • Lexile: 1270L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Davis Baird, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, is author of
Inductive Logic:
Inferring the Unknown
(1999) and coeditor of Heinrich Hertz: Classical Physicist, Modern Philosopher (1997).

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Read an Excerpt

Thing Knowledge

A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments

By Davis Baird


Copyright © 2004 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92820-6


Instrument Epistemology

If your knowledge of fire has been turned to certainty by words alone, then seek to be cooked by the fire itself. Don't abide in borrowed certainty. There is no real certainty until you burn; if you wish for this, sit down in the fire.

JALAL AL-DIN RUMI, Daylight: A Daybook of Spiritual Guidance

Knowledge has been understood to be an affair of the mind. To know is to think, and in particular, to think thoughts expressible in words. Nonverbal creations—from diagrams to densitometers—are excluded as merely "instrumental"; they are pragmatic crutches that help thinking—in the form of theory construction and interpretation. In this book I urge a different view. I argue for a materialist conception of knowledge. Along with theories, the material products of science and technology constitute knowledge. I focus on scientific instruments, such as cyclotrons and spectrometers, but I would also include recombinant DNA enzymes, "wonder" drugs and robots, among other things, as other material products of science and technology that constitute our knowledge. These material products are constitutive of scientific knowledge in a manner different from theory, and not simply "instrumental to" theory. An example will help fix my meaning.


On September 3 and 4, 1821, Michael Faraday, then aged thirty, performed a series of experiments that ultimately produced what were called "electromagnetic rotations." Faraday showed how an appropriately organized combination of electric and magnetic elements would produce rotary motion. He invented the first electromagnetic motor.

Faraday's work resulted in several "products." He published several papers describing his discovery (1821b; 1821a; 1822c; 1822d). He wrote letters to many scientific colleagues (1971, pp. 122–39). He built, or had built, several copies of an apparatus that, requiring no experimental knowledge or dexterity on the part of its user, would display the notable rotations, and he shipped these to his scientific colleagues (1822b; 1822a; 1971, pp. 128–29).

A permanent magnet is cemented vertically in the center of a mercury bath. A wire, with one end immersed a little into the mercury, is suspended over the magnet in such a way as to allow for free motion around the magnet. The suspension of the wire is such that contact can be made with it and one pole of a battery. The other pole of the battery is connected to the magnet that carries the current to the mercury bath, and thence to the other end of the wire, completing the circuit (see fig. 1.1).

The apparatus produces a striking phenomenon: when an electric current is run through the wire, via the magnet and the mercury bath, the wire spins around the magnet. The observed behavior of Faraday's apparatus requires no interpretation. While there was considerable disagreement over the explanation for this phenomenon, no one contested what the apparatus did: it exhibited (still does) rotary motion as a consequence of a suitable combination of electric and magnetic elements.


How should we understand Faraday's device? One could say that it justifies assertions such as, "A current-carrying wire will rotate around a magnet in a mercury bath as shown in figure 1.1." One could say, and Faraday did say, that the phenomenon exhibited by the device articulates Hans Christian Oersted's 1820 discovery of the magnetic effects of an electric current (Faraday 1844, p. 129). One could speculate—and several did—that the device shows that all forces are convertible (Williams 1964, p. 157). Are such theoretical moves all that is important about the device? Why did Faraday think it necessary to ship ready-made versions of this motor to his colleagues?

Moving immediately from the device to its importance for these various theoretical issues misses its immediate importance. When Faraday made the device, there was considerable disagreement over how it worked. Today, many people still do not know the physics that explains how it works. Both then and now, however, no one denies that it works. When Faraday built it, this phenomenon was striking and proved to be very important for the future development of science and technology. Whatever explanations would be offered for the device, and more generally for the nature of "electromagnetical motions," would have to recognize the motions Faraday produced. We don't need a load of theory (or indeed any "real" theory) to learn something from the construction and demonstration of Faraday's device. Or to put it another way, we learn by interacting with bits of the world even when our words for how these bits work are inadequate.

This point is more persuasive when one is confronted with the actual device. Unfortunately, I cannot build a Faraday motor into this book; the reader's imagination will have to suffice. But it is significant that Faraday did not depend on the imaginations of his readers. He made and shipped "pocket editions" of his newly created phenomenon to his colleagues. He knew from his own experience how difficult it is to interpret descriptions of experimental discoveries. He also knew how difficult it is to fashion even a simple device like his motor and have it work reliably. The material product Faraday sent his colleagues encapsulated his considerable manipulative skill—his "fingertip knowledge"—in such a way that someone without the requisite skill could still experience the new phenomenon firsthand. He did not have to depend either on the skills of his colleagues or on their ability to interpret a verbal description of his device. He could depend on the ability of the device itself to communicate the fact of the phenomenon it exhibited.


I conclude from this that there is something in the device itself that is epistemologically important, something that a purely literary description misses. The epistemological products of science and technology must include such stuff, not simply words and equations. In particular, they must include instruments such as Faraday's motor.

Understanding instruments as bearers of knowledge conflicts with any of the more-or-less standard views that take knowledge as a subspecies of belief (Bonjour 1985; Goldman 1986; Audi 1998). Instruments, whatever they may be, are not beliefs. A different approach to epistemology, characterized under the heading "growth of scientific knowledge," also does not accommodate instruments; such work inevitably concentrates on theory change (Lakatos 1970; Lakatos and Musgrave 1970; Popper 1972; Laudan 1977). While I examine some instruments that might be understood in terms similar to theories (e.g., models in chapter 2), instruments generally speaking cannot be understood in such terms. Even recent work on the philosophy of experiment that has focused on the literally material aspects of science either has adopted a standard proposition-based epistemology or has not addressed epistemology. This book aims to correct this failure and to present instruments epistemologically.

This project raises a variety of problems at the outset. There are conceptual difficulties that, for many, seem immediately to refute the very possibility that instruments are a kind of scientific knowledge. We are strongly wedded to connections between the concepts of knowledge, truth, and justification. It is hard to fit concepts such as truth and justification around instruments. Even work that drops these connections finds substitutes. Work on the growth of scientific knowledge does not require truth—"every theory is born refuted." Instead, we have "growth of scientific knowledge" expressed in terms of verisimilitude (Popper 1972), progressive research programs (Lakatos 1970), and the increasing problem-solving effectiveness of research traditions (Laudan 1974). In chapter 6, I develop substitutes for truth and justification that work with instruments.

Prior to these philosophical problems are difficulties arising from the very concept of a scientific instrument. At the most basic level, this is not a unitary concept. There are many different kinds of scientific instrument. What is worse, the different kinds work differently epistemologically. Models, such as Watson and Crick's ball-and-stick model of DNA, clearly have a representative function. Yet devices such as Faraday's motor do not; they perform. Measuring instruments, such as thermometers, are in many ways hybrids; they perform to produce representations. Consequently, before I take on the philosophical issues of truth and justification, I consider these three types of instrument: models (chapter 2); devices that create a phenomenon (chapter 3); and measuring instruments (chapter 4). I do not claim that this is a philosophically exhaustive or fully articulated typology of instruments or instrumental functions. I do claim significant epistemological differences for each type, differences requiring special treatment.

These categories have histories. Indeed, the very category of scientific instrument has its own history (Warner 1994). The self-conscious adoption of instruments as a form of scientific knowledge has a history. I thus argue in chapter 5 that a major epistemological event of the mid twentieth century has been the recognition by the scientific community of the centrality of instruments to the epistemological project of technology and science. My arguments for understanding instruments as scientific knowledge have, then, to be understood historically. While I use examples scattered through history, my goal is neither to provide a history of scientific instruments nor to argue for the timeless significance of this category. To understand technology and science now, however, we need to construct an epistemology capable of including instruments.


Instrument epistemology confronts a long history of what I call text bias, dating back at least to Plato, with what is commonly taken as his definition of knowledge in terms of justified true belief. To do proper epistemology, we have to "ascend" from the material world to the "Platonic world" of thought. This may reflect Plato's concern with the impermanence of the material world and what he saw as the unchanging eternal perfection of the realm of forms. If knowledge is timeless, it cannot exist in the corruptible material realm.

This strikes me simply as prejudice. "It is unfortunate that so many historians of science and virtually all of the philosophers of science are born-again theoreticians instead of bench scientists," Derek de Solla Price writes (1980, p. 75), which is my reaction exactly. Philosophers and historians express themselves in words, not things, and so it is not surprising that those who hold a virtual monopoly over saying (words!) what scientific knowledge is, characterize it in terms of the kind of knowledge with which they are familiar—words.

Prejudice it may be, but powerfully entrenched it is too. The logical positivists were obsessed with "the languages of science" (Suppe 1977). But text bias did not die with them. Consider figure 1.2., taken from Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's seminal postpositivist book Laboratory Life (1979). Here is the function of the laboratory. Animals, chemicals, mail, telephone, and energy go in; articles go out. The picture Latour and Woolgar present of science is thoroughly literary. "Nature," with the help of "inscription devices" (i.e., instruments), produces literary outputs for scientists; scientists use these outputs, plus other literary resources (mail, telephone, preprints, etc.), to produce their own literary outputs. The material product the scientists happened to be investigating in Latour and Woolgar's study—a substance called "TRF"—becomes, on their reading, merely an instrumental good, "just one more of the many tools utilized as part of long research programmes" (Latour and Woolgar 1979, p. 148).

This picture of the function of a laboratory is a travesty. There is a long history of scientists sharing material other than words. William Thompson sent electric coils to colleagues as part of his measurement of the ohm. Henry Rowland's fame rests on the gratings he ruled and sent to colleagues. Chemists share chemicals. Biologists share biologically active chemicals—enzymes, etc.—as well as prepared animals for experiments. When it is hard to share devices, scientists with the relevant expertise are shared; such is the manner in which E. O. Lawrence's cyclotron moved beyond Berkeley. Laboratories do not simply produce words.

There is much to learn from Latour and Woolgar's Laboratory Life, as well as from the subsequent work of these authors. Indeed, Latour and Woolgar are important because they do attend to the material context of laboratory life. But, continuing a long tradition of text bias, they misdescribe the telos of science and technology exclusively in literary terms. Although the rhetoric with which they introduce their "literary" framework for analysis seems new, even "postmodern," it is very old. Once again scholars— wordsmiths—have reduced science to the mode with which they are most familiar, words.


A considerable portion of David Gooding's Experiment and the Making of Meaning (1990) focuses on Michael Faraday's experimental production of electromagnetic rotations—the motor I started with. Given this focus, one might suspect that Gooding would see the making of phenomena—such as that exhibited by Faraday's motor—as one of the key epistemological ends of science, but he does not. The first sentences of his book are instructive:

It is inevitable that language has, as Ian Hacking put it, mattered to philosophy. It is not inevitable that practices—especially extra-linguistic practices—have mattered so little. Philosophy has not yet addressed an issue that is central to any theory of the language of observation and, therefore, to any theory of science: how do observers ascend from the world to talk, thought and argument about the world. (p. 3; emphasis added)

Scientists "ascend" from the world to talk about the world, from instruments to words, from the material realm to the literary realm, according to Gooding. Semantic ascent is the key move in experimental science. Words are above things.

As with Latour and Woolgar, I do not mention Gooding's use of "semantic ascent" to criticize him, for the problem of how words get tied to new bits of the world is important and Gooding has much of great interest and value to say about it. But thinking in terms of the metaphor of ascent implies a hierarchy of ultimate values. It turns our attention away from other aspects of science and technology that are equally important.

It is instructive to see how Gooding discusses Faraday's literary and material products. Faraday accomplished two feats. He built a reliable device and he described its operation. Gooding writes: "[T]he literary account places phenomena in an objective relationship to theories just as the material embodiment of the skills places phenomena in an objective relation to human experience" (p. 177). Faraday's descriptions—his literary "ascent"—"places phenomena in an objective relationship to theories." Analogously, his material work—his device—"places phenomena in an objective relation to human experience."

But "human experience" is the wrong concept. Faraday's descriptions could speak to theory. In doing so, they could call on the power of logic and contribute to knowledge. We need an analogously detailed articulation of how Faraday's material work could contribute to knowledge. "Human experience" ducks this responsibility. We can and should say more, and in more detail, about what the material work had "objective relations" with. Avoiding doing so is a symptom of the disease of semantic ascent.

Faraday's device had a good bit to "say." The apparatus "spoke" objectively about the potential for producing rotary motion from electromagnetism, which could be developed through material manipulations, starting with the apparatus as a material given. Six months after Faraday made his device, Peter Barlow produced a variant (fig. 1.3) using a star-shaped wheel.

Current runs from one "voltaic pole" to the star's suspension [abcd] through the star to the mercury bath [fg] and thence to the other voltaic pole. A strong horseshoe magnet [HM] surrounds the mercury bath and, as Barlow put it in a letter to Faraday, "the wheel begins to rotate, with an astonishing velocity, and thus exhibits a very pretty appearance" (Faraday 1971, p. 133, letter dated March 14, 1822).


Excerpted from Thing Knowledge by Davis Baird. Copyright © 2004 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables

Instrument Epistemology
2. Models: Representing Things
3. Working Knowledge
4. Encapsulating Knowledge
5. The Instrumentation Revolution
6. Thing Knowledge
7. The Thing-y-ness of Things
8. Between Technology and Science
Instrumental Objectivity
10. The Gift



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