Were experiments ever neglected? Ian Hacking and the history of the philosophy of experiments


  • Massimiliano Simons Ghent
  • Matteo Vagelli Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne




philosophy of experiment, Ian Hacking, experimentalism, realism, constructivism, Science wars


Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983) is often credited to be one of the first works that focused on the role of experimentation in philosophy of science, initiating a movement which is sometimes called the “philosophy of experiment” (Hacking, 1988) or “new experimentalism” (Ackermann, 1989). Moreover, in the 1980s, a number of other movements and scholars also started to focus on the role of experimentation and instruments in science, ranging from science studies (Pickering, 1984; Shapin & Schaffer, 1985; Latour, 1987), Hans Radder (1984) and postphenomenology (Ihde, 1979). A philosophical study of experiments seems thus to be an invention of the 1980s, with Hacking being one of its central figures.

This article aims to assess this historical claim by Hacking and others. First of all, from a broader perspective on the history of philosophy, this invention narrative is incorrect, since experiment has been a topic for philosophers before, ranging from Ernst Mach (1905), Pierre Duhem (1906), Hugo Dingler (1928) to Gaston Bachelard (1934). Secondly, also a possible reassessment of this historical claim in the form of a rediscovery narrative, where Hacking and others merely rediscovered the work of these earlier authors is also problematized. The conclusion, nonetheless, is not that Hacking made no relevant contribution whatsoever to the philosophy of experiment nor that the hype around experiments in the 1980s should be dismissed as historically uninformed. Rather, it leads to a reevaluation of how to assess the history of the philosophy of experiment and Hacking’s position in it.

Instead of looking at experimentation as a fixed research object that is either present or not in the work of specific authors, such an essentialist thesis about experiments should be abandoned in favour of a contextualist narrative that rather asks the questions in what way experimentation becomes a philosophical problem for certain authors and for what purpose. This also enables us to resituate Hacking’s philosophy of experiment, which should not be evaluated solely on the fact whether he was the first to talk about experiments or not, but rather in relation to the specific debates in which he was intervening with these claims. Hacking’s claims, such as his experimental argument for the reality of theoretical entities, therefore, will be situated within his debates with the sociology of science (Bloor, 1976; Collins, 1985), Bruno Latour’s constructivism (Latour, 1987; 1999) and the Science Wars (Hacking, 1999).