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Biomedicine in museums

Scientific instruments in the history and philosophy of (medical) science

By November 5, 2009No Comments

The creative editors or Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science (see earlier mention here) are planning a focused discussion section on scientific instruments in a forthcoming issue of the journal.

With the “practical turn” in history and philosophy of science came a renewed interest in scientific instruments. Although they have become a nexus for worries about empiricism and standards of evidence, instruments only rarely feature as primary sources for scholars in the history and philosophy of science. Even historians of technology have been accused of underutilizing the evidence embodied in material objects (Corn 1996). The fundamental questions are not settled. First, there is no general agreement as to what counts as a scientific instrument: Are simulations instruments? Can people function as instruments? Do economic or sociological instruments operate in the same way as material instruments? There is a second, related debate about how scientific instruments work: Is there a unified account? Do instruments produce knowledge or produce effects? Do they extend our senses (Humphreys 2006) or embody knowledge (Baird 2006)? Third, HPS has seen a variety of approaches to fitting instruments into broader historical and philosophical questions about scientific communities and practices: Shapin and Schaffer (1985) relate instruments to the scientific life, Galison (1997) gives instrument makers equal footing with theorists and experimentalists within the trading zone of scientific discourse, and Hacking (1983) elevates instruments to central importance in the realism-antirealism debate. Finally, it seems plausible that there are methodological concerns specific to scientific instruments: What lessons can we draw from anthropology, material culture, and other allied fields?

I hardly need to emphasise that many instruments for medical and biomedical research fall into the category of ‘scientific instruments’ — so, if you’ve got a good idea for a 1000-3000 word essay, don’t hesitate to send your submission before 26 February 2010.

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Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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