Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments

Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments

Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments

Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments


"Davis Baird's "Thing Knowledge uses instruments to do philosophy. Grappling with a wonderful assortment of objects--from antique orreries to modern spectrographs--he draws the reader deep into fascinating questions about the nature of knowledge. All too often, the knowledge Baird pursues here has been obscured by accounts that reduce understanding to theory. By contrast, in this rich text Baird shows the myriad of ways that models and devices do work in science: by representing, by manipulating, by measuring, and by calculating. This is a book as lucid on the semantic account of theories as it is on the inner workings of the cyclotron; it is a book that brings the laboratory to philosophers and philosophy into the laboratory."--Peter Galison, author of "Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time

"Davis Baird has given us something new and demanding to think about: namely, in addition to propositional knowledge, he argues, there is 'thing knowledge.' That is, scientific instruments embody or encapsulate knowledge in ways that most often not transparent. In making his case, Baird forces us to reconceptualize how we go about doing science and how to understand the product of human labor, both intellectual and manual. "Thing Knowledge is must reading for anyone interested in the development of science and its attendant technologies."--Joseph C. Pitt, author of "Thinking About Technology: Foundations of the Philosophy of Technology

"Over the years the new frontier in philosophy of science has been on logic, then on theories to most recently on models and experimentation. Davis Baird goes one step further and considers the 'immediate' kind of knowledge embodied by scientificinstruments and devices. His book is highly thought provoking and will become a classic source."--Eric Scerri, UCLA, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and editor of Foundations of Chemistry.

"From the air pump to the


Contrary to what Ralph Müller writes in the epigraph I have chosen for this book, it is not well known “that the history of physical science is largely the history of instruments and their intelligent use. ” This is a pity, because instruments, always central to science, have become central to everyday life as well. We rely on instruments to keep weapons off commercial airlines. We rely on instruments to diagnose and treat illness. Instruments scan bar codes as we check out of the grocery store and even open the door for us as they sense our approach to the exit. Scientists could not have mapped the human genome without automatic DNA sequencers. Nanotechnology and nanoscience have been made possible by the development of powerful new microscopes. That the history of science and increasingly the history of modern culture is indeed a history of instruments and their intelligent—and sometimes not so intelligent—use should be well known. We need to take notice.

Part of the reason instruments have largely escaped the notice of scholars and others interested in our modern techno-scientific culture is language, or rather its lack. Instruments are developed and used in a context where mathematical, scientific, and ordinary language is neither the exclusive vehicle of communication nor, in many cases, the primary vehicle of communication. Instruments are crafted artifacts, and visual and tactile thinking and communication are central to their development and use. Herein lies a big problem and a primary reason why instruments have been ignored by those who write about science and technology. Writers, reasonably enough, understand language to be the primary vehicle of communication. Other modes of communication either are not recognized or, if they are, are not well understood. In his discussion of nineteenthcentury mechanics, Anthony F. C. Wallace makes this point vividly:

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