Academic journal article Philosophy Today

What Is an Artifact?

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

What Is an Artifact?

Article excerpt

If hermeneutical philosophy of science is to gain wider appeal, Martin Eger recently argued, its advocates need to make greater efforts to show that it leads to more insightful understanding of the kinds of practical issues and specific historical examples that realists, social constructivists, and New Experimentalists often consider. Eger followed up this claim by reviewing Trever Pinch's treatment of the discovery of the solar neutrino deficit, by Brookhaven National Laboratory chemist Ray Davis, a treatment which is often cited as a success story, triumph even, of social constructivist analysis. Yet Eger finds Pinch's treatment lumps together very different kinds of activity, distorting and even mystifying the scientific process. The hermeneutic approach, Eger finds, is better able to address the rich intricacy of instruments, practice, and pre-conceptions involved in this kind of scientific episode (Eger 1997).

In this spirit I propose to take up the question "What is an artifact?" and discuss it in the light of a specific historical episode. By artifact here I mean the specific scientific sense of the antonym of "real effect," not in the sense of any humanly produced object (as in Dipert 1993, Preston 1998). This kind of discussion, I think, might respond to Eger's challenge and allow hermeneutic philosophy to demonstrate its ability to interpret the practice of science with greater clarity than other approaches, and exhibit its explicit differences from them in the process.

Let me first describe two common approaches to episodes in the philosophy of science that I shall try to avoid. One is to consider an episode without noticing how the way we observe it affects what we see, or without letting what we see affect the way we observe in turn. I call this "surveillance." In surveillance we observe something without reflexively turning to our own process. Another approach to be avoided is to use the episode mainly as an occasion to elaborate and develop one's own perspective, so that we never really turn to the episode itself but remain absorbed in describing our interpretive processes. This I call "station identification." In station identification, one talks about something mainly as an opportunity to state one's philosophical allegiances. I shall try to avoid both surveillance and station identification by trying to engage with a topic in a way that lets it alter the very process and concepts with which I am engaging it.

What I have just said, of course, describes the traditional notion of hermeneutical dialogue, in which interpretation takes place via a back and forth process between anticipations of what is to be interpreted, and the experience of that thing itself, in which both the terms with which we approach something, and our experience of it, change. This process involves the primacy of meaning over technique, of the practical over the theoretical, and of situation over abstract formalization (Crease 1997). But this kind of hermeneutical dialogue seems rarely carried out in philosophy of science. Why is this so? Ihde has proposed a historical explanation: hermeneutics, in its early concern with sacred texts and historical sources, developed without reference to the explanatory dimension of natural science, and ceded to positivist philosophy the right to interpret the natural sciences, implicitly accepting the result. Each side thus ceded territory to the other in a situation he characterizes as the "H/P [hermeneutic-positivist] binary" (Ihde 1997).

But one can work out from this suggestion a more hermeneutically developed account having to do with our understanding of science itself. Certain ways of understanding the kinds of concepts involved in science may appear to make such dialogue impossible, irrelevant, or trivial. If we understand the concepts of science-here, what distinguishes an artifact from a non-artifact, a scientific phenomenon from one that's not-in an objectivist fashion, to have originated separately from the rest of life, then there is no reason to think that coming to understand this can affect or be affected by our own interpretive process, and hermeneutical dialogue does not take place. …

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