Thing Knowledge

Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 294
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Thing Knowledge
    Book Description:

    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 Knowledgedemands 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92820-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xxii)
  5. 1 Instrument Epistemology
    (pp. 1-20)

    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...

  6. 2 Models: Representing Things
    (pp. 21-40)

    We can begin by considering the ″curious machines″ called orreries. (They were named for Charles Boyle, the fourth earl of Orrery and patron of John Rowley, who built one for him in 1713, although the device had actually been invented a few years earlier by a clockmaker′s apprentice named George Graham.) In essence, they are models of our solar system—as well as being amazing demonstrations of the skills of the artisans who made them, predominately during the eighteenth century. In the orrery, knowledge takes a material, although still representational, form, and it is this kind of material knowledge that...

  7. 3 Working Knowledge
    (pp. 41-66)

    In a letter to John Winthrop dated July 2, 1768, Benjamin Franklin brought a new device to the attention of his scientific colleagues, the pulse glass (see also B. Franklin 1941; 1972, 15: 166 –72). This simple device consists of a narrow tube bent at right angles at either end, with two larger spheres on the ends. The tube is roughly one-third to one-half filled with water or alcohol, evacuated, and sealed (fig. 3.1).

    Because of the vacuum, the liquid in the glass can be brought to a boil by holding it in one′s hand. Several toys are now made...

  8. 4 Encapsulating Knowledge
    (pp. 67-88)

    During the 1940s, innovations in spectrometry brought certain applications of spectrometric instruments to the stage of perfection described above by Ralph Müller. Through the wedding of photomultiplier tube electronics with commercial emission spectrographs, analysts in several economically important industries, such as magnesium, steel, and aluminum, could in minutes determine the percentage quantities of various elements in ″the melt.″ The information was available fast enough to direct the production of the metal (Saunderson et al. 1945; Hasler et al. 1948).

    In a general sense, analytical instruments, such as the spectrometer, tell us something about a ″specimen″; they measure it in some...

  9. 5 The Instrumentation Revolution
    (pp. 89-112)

    The direct-reading spectrometer developed at Dow Chemical during the 1940s (see chapter 4) was one piece of a major epistemological change in science. By the middle of the twentieth century, the epistemic centrality of instruments, the fact that they are bearers of scientific knowledge, had become a matter of scientific self-awareness. This is seen most easily in analytical chemistry, but these changes were widespread in the physical sciences. Ernest Lawrence′s cyclotron, discussed in chapter 3, is a prime example from the heart of physics. This is the scientific instrumentation revolution.

    The changes analytical chemistry experienced during the middle years of...

  10. 6 Thing Knowledge
    (pp. 113-144)

    Does it matter that we call the various devices discussed in chapters 1–4 ″knowledge″? Is the scientific instrumentation revolution of chapter 5 a revolution in name only? Why not content ourselves with the observation that much analytical skill can be encapsulated in a direct-reading spectrometer, as described in chapter 4? Why not be content to say that Faraday made a new instrument that provoked the development of our theoreticalknowledgeof electromagnetism and the development ofusefulmachines? Why not be content to admire the skills of eighteenth-century orrery makers for their beautiful devices that so closely mimicked the...

  11. 7 The Thing-y-ness of Things
    (pp. 145-169)

    With Richard Ray, a civil engineer at the University of South Carolina, I co-teach a course in the philosophy of technology. Our first assignment is to build a bridge from Popsicle sticks and glue. It must span thirty inches, provide for a five-inch roadbed, and support at least one pound in the center. Such an assignment, while not uncommon in engineering, is almost unheard of in philosophy.

    For most of our students who are not engineering majors—and even for those who are—the time spent on design and analysis is much less than that spent on construction. The major...

  12. 8 Between Technology and Science
    (pp. 170-188)

    My central message in this book is that our material creations bear knowledge. Sometimes this knowledge has a theoretical or propositional counterpart. But sometimes it does not; the materials bear the knowledge independently of theory or in spite of bad theory. Here material devices—thing knowledge—lead theory. This situation is not uncommon. The development of the telescope preceded any decently accurate astronomical or optical theory, and the telescope had an enormous impact on astronomy. Recognizing this kind of interaction between thing knowledge and theory promotes a different and more productive picture of the role of technology, including that developed...

  13. 9 Instrumental Objectivity
    (pp. 189-210)

    The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), as developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), is used to help implement a presumably merit-based admissions system for higher education in the United States. ETS′s claim that the SAT ″is an impartial and objective measure of student ability″ (quoted in Crouse and Trusheim 1988, p. 5) is important. This claim to objectivity underwrites the SAT′s claim to fairness. A significant component to claims for the objectivity of the SAT derives from the belief that individual exams can be accurately graded by machine. What is called ″subjective human judgment″ is seemingly not necessary....

  14. 10 The Gift
    (pp. 211-238)

    The close of the nineteenth century was characterized by the rise of monopoly power over the then central industries of steel, oil, trains, and finance. The close of the twentieth century can similarly be seen as characterized by the rise of monopoly power. The struggle with monopoly is similar, with efficiencies of standardization and centralization pitted against efficiencies of the market and consumer choice. But now the central industries traffic in information, not steel, oil, trains, or finance, and this poses deeply troubling new questions.

    Seth Shulman, in his polemic against the ownership of information, warns of ″an ominous descent...

  15. References
    (pp. 239-260)
  16. Index
    (pp. 261-273)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 274-274)