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Experiment

The Baconian Program And Its Institutional Expression

Francis Bacon was one of the most eloquent advocates of the new experimental method. In The New Organon (1620), a logical treatise that was meant to supersede Aristotle's Organon, he stressed the importance of inductive reasoning for the investigation of nature. Bacon argued, however, that the starting point of inductive reasoning should not be the information obtained by the unaided senses, because it is limited or even deceptive. Rather, the senses should be assisted by "instances and experiments fit and apposite" (p. 53). The knowledge thus acquired about natural phenomena would then be codified in natural or experimental "histories." Furthermore, the point of natural knowledge was to give humans the power to intervene in natural processes for their own benefit. The understanding of nature and its manipulation were inextricably tied: "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed" (p. 39).

Another important aspect of Bacon's program was his emphasis on the social nature of the knowledge-seeking enterprise. In his utopian New Atlantis (1627) he suggested that investigation of the natural world should be a collaborative pursuit, carried out in special institutions. Bacon's vision inspired the founding of the Royal Society of London (1660) and the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris (1666). Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), a prominent member of the Paris Academy, contended that "the principal occupation of the Assembly and the most useful must be, in my opinion, to work in natural history somewhat in the manner suggested by" Bacon (Dear, p. 116). The primary aim of the Royal Society was also Baconian, namely the advancement of experimental knowledge. As one of its statutes reads, "The business of the Society in their Ordinary Meetings shall be to order, take account, consider, and discourse of philosophical experiments and observations" (Hall, p. 1).

Yet, the experiments that were carried out and discussed under the auspices of the Royal Society had a different aim than that envisaged by Bacon. Bacon viewed experiment as a means for discovering general truths about nature. Experimental outcomes were not just particular events, but instances of universal generalizations. The kind of experimentation practiced in the Royal Society, on the other hand, aimed at establishing particular facts. The presentations of experiments that were published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were written in a specific manner, containing detailed and circumstantial information about the experiments in question. The point of this rhetorical strategy was to create the illusion of "virtual witnessing" and thereby persuade the intended audience of the veracity of the results obtained. This fascination with particular "matters of fact" is evident in the work of Robert Boyle.

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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