1 minute read


Two Experimental Traditions: Classical And Baconian

To understand the rise of experiment, it would be helpful to recall a significant distinction, drawn by Thomas S. Kuhn, between two different traditions in the development of the sciences. The first tradition, the classical sciences (mathematics, astronomy, harmonics, optics, and statics), had been well developed since antiquity. Those sciences were radically transformed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In that transformation, however, experimentation played a minor role. The second tradition, the Baconian sciences that emerged in the seventeenth century, investigated electric, magnetic, chemical, and heat phenomena. Experimentation was instrumental in the emergence and development of this tradition.

Furthermore, the mode of experimentation was different in the two traditions. In the classical tradition experiments were guided by theory, involved idealization, and were, often, not clearly distinguished from thought experiments. Their outcomes were presented in the form of universal, lawlike generalizations. In the Baconian tradition, on the other hand, experiments had an exploratory character and were carried out with an eye to the local, contingent conditions that gave rise to the observed phenomena. Detailed circumstantial information about those phenomena was included in the written reports of the experiments, whose aim was to establish particular "matters of fact." Those phenomena were created or measured by some of the new instruments that were invented in the seventeenth century (such as thermometers, air pumps, and electrostatic generators).

These two traditions started to merge only toward the end of the eighteenth century in France, where Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) and his followers attempted to develop mathematical theories of the phenomena investigated by the Baconian tradition.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExperiment - The Emergence Of Experiment, Two Experimental Traditions: Classical And Baconian, Galileo Galilei, The Baconian Program And Its Institutional Expression