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Experimentation is a foundational activity in modern science. Although several Renaissance thinkers prepared the way toward modern concepts of experimentation, Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1624) was the first systematic attempt to articulate and justify and articulate the proper method of experimental scientific inquiry. Bacon envisioned scientific experimentation as a form of recursive knowledge production that both interprets nature and intervenes in it. Yet efforts to fully define experimentation in a consistent, comprehensive, and prescriptive way have been unsuccessful because of the diverse subject matter and disciplines, as well as instrumental developments, that continually create new variants. An alternative conception of experimentation construes it as an integral part of the actual formation and development of modern society, rather than as just a series of operations conducted in laboratories. Experimentation in the real world requires public participation; risk and uncertainty replace the ideal of an experimental world isolated from society.

Renaissance Roots of Experimentation

Two intellectual sources of Renaissance culture nurtured the idea of experimentation: humanistic values and the practices of superior artisans. In her historical-philosophical study The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt demonstrated a deep break between Renaissance thinking and the received preeminence of the contemplative life in classical and medieval traditions. Claims for the superiority of theoria over utility were rooted in the Platonic and Christian visions of an eternal, unchanging world that could be known in the futile human life-world only by intuitive reason or spiritual contemplation. In the prosperous and independent city republics of the Renaissance, however, humanist writers questioned this hierarchical order and proposed a more balanced appraisal of the vita active in relation to the vita contemplativa. Beginning with the Florentine chancellors Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) and Leonardo Bruni (1369–1444), humanists became advocates of worldly learning and dispensers of fame and glory in the services of cities, merchant families, princes, and popes.

This humanistic resurgence in vita activa was modest and not concerned with understanding or conquering nature but simply with rediscovering the great deeds of antiquity. But its ideals of austere republican virtue, participatory citizenship, and Machiavellian power communicated to the vita activa a new value of its own,pavingthe wayfor theBaconian scientia activa. Pico della Mirandola's famous oration "On the Dignity of Human Beings" (1486) is the literary highlight of the attempt to define humans not by some fixed location in the great chain of being, but by their ability and duty to determine their position outside the natural order as a free and extraordinary shaper of themselves. This is echoed in Arendt's interpretation of the vita activa as part of the "rebellion against human existence as it has been given" (Arendt 1958, p. 2). At the heart of the urge toward modern experimentation is a restless overturning of the primacy of the vita contemplativa, which holds that "no work of human hands can equal in beauty and truth the physical kosmos" (Arendt 1958, p. 15).

The unpolished vernacular writings of craftsmen, artist-engineers, instrument makers, and other practitioners who tried to escape the constraints of the guilds provide a different and clearer origin for experimentation and—again in the services of cities and princes—offered new devices, procedures, and designs apt to increase the power, fame, and delight of the patrons. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was the outstanding genius of this new social stratum of technological intellectuals. In a letter to the Duke of Milan, documented in the codex atlanticus, he offered new military, civil, and artistic technologies, concluding that "if any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impractical to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make a trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency" (Da Vinci 1956, p. 1153).

Renaissance texts show that the design of new technologies was viewed as an achievement with its own merits and reputation. William Norman, a mariner and instrument maker, wrote a treatise, "The New Attractive" (1581), on magnetic experiments that greatly influenced William Gilbert's "De Magnete" (1600). For the historian of science Edgar Zilsel (1881–1944), this episode served as a solid illustration of his general thesis that modern science developed from breaking down the barriers between three distinct strata of intellectuals (Zilsel 2000). While the university scholars contributed conceptual strength and logical argument, the humanists promoted a reappraisal of worldly affairs and secular thinking, and artisans supplied the experimental spirit in their intent to discover new and useful things. However the first outstanding and most fruitful field shaped by these components was not science proper, but Renaissance art, which brought together the Pythagorean-Platonic understanding of the world, the technical skills of the artists, and the humanist values of glory and fame (Panofsky 1960).

Francis Bacon on Experimentation and Modernization

Philosophers have since struggled with the question of whether experimental action is a subservient function of discovering the laws of nature, or a powerful strategy for giving unforeseen features to nature. For Francis Bacon (1561–1624), this interplay of conceptual understanding and experimental intervention signifies a recursive learning process termed scientia active (or operative). This kind of knowledge production would profoundly alter technology, nature, and society. The most provocative pronouncement Bacon offered was that approval of the experimental method in philosophy and science implied turning society itself into an experiment, a proposition developed in his fragmentary Great Instauration (1620).

When Bacon was unable to use his position in the highest administrative ranks of the British Empire to advance the new science, he resorted, in the Preface to Novum Organum, to publicity: "I turn to men; to whom I have certain salutary admonitions to offer and certain fair requests to make." After having pondered the pros and cons of the new experimental method, he declared: "Lastly, even if the breath of hope ... were fainter than it is and harder to perceive; yet the trial (if we would not bear a spirit altogether abject) must by all means be made" (Novum Organumbook I, aph. 114). The Latin original is experiendum esse. Society should give the experimental method an experimental chance. The promises of gains cannot be justified by anticipatory argument, but only by the outcomes of a test. Skeptics are invited to consider the deal in terms of risk assessment: "For there is no comparison between that which we may lose by not trying and by not succeeding; since by not trying we throw away the chance of an immense good; by not succeeding we only incur the loss of a little human labor. ... It appears to me ... that there is hope enough ... not only to make a bold man try [ad experiendum], but also to make a sober-minded and wise man believe." (Novum Organum, xxbook I, aph. 114).

Bacon's assessment of the societal risks of politically authorizing the experimental method was founded on an important assumption about the relationship between science and society: Experimental failure as well as errors of hypothetical reasoning are acceptable because they affect only the internal discourse of science, not its social environment. Mistakes in the laboratory can be easily corrected and society is only affected by its choice of options offered by approved scientific knowledge. In this sense, Bacon's notion of experimentation foreshadowed latter distinctions between basic and applied research.

Such conditioning of experimental science became institutionalized in the founding charters of scientific academies and learned societies, and has served as the backbone of the dominant ideology for supporting scientific progress. It makes scientific research and technological invention central aspects of organizing and modernizing society and its institutions. In other words, Bacon's conception of experimental science was the foundational element in the contract between science and society (Gibbons et al. 1994) and between society and nature (Serres 1995).

It is pointless to deny the epistemic and institutional advantages of laboratory science. But they have their price. Epistemologically laboratory science tends to develop ideals of constraint, abstraction, simplicity, and purity that are at odds with the course of nature and society, and give rise to a worldview that interprets space, time, things, and people as faint approximations of the abstractions that make up the laboratory world (Cartwright 1999). It fosters a view of scientific knowledge as objective, neutral, disposable, and instrumental, and research as socially independent and pure. However from the early beginnings of industrial society through the most recent development of the knowledge society, there is evidence of a recursive rather than a linear relation between the trials and errors experienced in the social dynamics of change and the failures and successes of experimental strategies. Both the intended and unintended consequences of scientific experimentation impact the development of society, which in turn influences scientific research. This has sparked several reinterpretations of the contract between science and society.

The Experimental Mode of Industrial Society

John Dewey (1859–1952) was prominent in this quest to reenvision the recursive relationship between the experimental production of knowledge and the activities of society: "The ultimate objects of science," he wrote, "are guided processes of change," and truths are "processes of change so directed that they achieve an intended consummation" (Dewey 1925, p. 133–134). In this way, Dewey married the search for certainty in knowledge to the struggle for reliability in action. Influenced by the epistemology of William James (1842–1910), Dewey asserted that truth is something that happens to an idea as it is tried out successfully in practical situations.

This vindicated Bacon's supposition that the experimental method (as one of the key features of science) would be writ large and institutionalized as societal experimentation. However Bacon's neatly drawn boundary separating pure knowledge experiments from an experimental society mobilized by and mobilizing new technologies has become increasingly blurred. Controversies about the legitimate basis of scientific experimentation arose. Among the most fiery and permanently debated vivisection, in support of which Claude Bernard (1813–1878) wrote his famous "Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine" (1865). While he declared vivisection indispensable for progress in medical research and proclaimed that mutilating living beings is justified by the noble goals of science, his opponents considered such research to be driven by perverse instincts intolerable to a humane society. Shortly thereafter the public discussion extended to questioning the scientific practice of victimizing ethnic minorities, criminals, patients, pregnant women, prostitutes, and soldiers. (Foucault 2003).

In the industrialization process of the nineteenth century, scientific experimentation became closely linked with experimental practices of innovation in various economic sectors. The distinguished chemist Justus von Liebig (1803–1873) promoted agricultural chemistry. His experiments clarified the chemical cycles involved in biological reproduction. Liebig applied this knowledge in agriculture to improve productivity. He realized that laboratory chemistry needed to be complemented by experiments located in complex natural systems. His seminal Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (1862) states: "Our present research in natural history rests on the conviction that laws of interaction not only exist between two or three, but between all the phenomena of the animal, vegetable, and mineral spheres which determine life on the surface of the earth" (Liebig 1862, p. 167–168). Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) attempted to convince farmers and ranchers of the efficiency and usefulness of animal vaccination. Under both Liebig and Pasteur, scientific experiments became closely allied with practical applications. The recursive learning process depends on opening the laboratory to the complexity of the world and, in turn, targeting scientific knowledge to relatively narrow applications.

Agriculture became standardized through the application of chemistry and microbiology. Similar processes of intertwined experimental learning can be observed in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering, communication technology, and industrial chemistry. In all these areas, laboratories continue to be important sources of inventions, but are no longer the exclusive domain of the academic sciences. Science has permeated industry, commerce, and the military and is inextricably linked with market forces, production processes, and governmental decisions. Thomas Edison's (1874–1931) invention factories at Menlo Park and other places have served as models for modern industrial research laboratories.

Experimental Society

The social sciences have brought another aspect of societal experimentation into focus. Sociologists in the United States interpreted the dramatic growth of cities as collective self-experiments, guided both by planning and design and by unforeseen outcomes and surprises. Albion W. Small (1854–1926) described his Introduction to the Study of Society (1894) as a laboratory guide, whereby settlements and cities are ready-made experiments that are available to the sociological observer:

All the laboratories in the world could not carry on enough experiments to measure a thimbleful compared with the world of experimentation open to the observation of social science. The radical difference is that the laboratory scientists can arrange their own experiments while we social scientists for the most part have our experiments arranged for us. (Small 1921, p. 187–88)

Small located the idea of experimentation in social life, not the scientific method. This notion of experimentation became influential in American sociology, especially within the Chicago School developed by Robert Park (1864–1944), but it lacked a precise specification of the societal and cultural conditions that give social life its experimental characteristics.

Donald Campbell (1969) presented an elaborated methodology of sociological real-world experiments. Reliable prediction of the success of social reform projects in areas such as education, youth delinquency, taxes, and housing is not possible, but a careful design of reforms as experiments would allow planners to learn about the acceptance and efficiency of strategies so that outcomes could be used to adjust future reforms. Although objections have been raised against the technocratic attitude of this approach (as reforms are more or less superimposed on the people concerned), it has also had great influence in the field of adaptive management.

Later discussions of real-world experimentation centered on the notion of acceptable risk, that is, the paradox of not knowing before the experiment whether the social and ecological risks are acceptable. One good example is the large-scale release experiments involving genetically modified organisms. The increased power of modern science and technology qualifies Bacon's original optimism about societal experimentation because the losses involved in failed experiments are potentially much greater than a little human labor. Experimentation in the real world unavoidably leads to surprises, which causes problems and provides opportunities for learning. Science involved in such endeavors renders the ideal of detached and austere knowledge production obsolete and makes public involvement necessary in order to enhance acceptance and legitimation of projects. Ecological experimentation in particular has gained support by incorporating local knowledge and by making the risks and uncertainties of theoretical models more transparent. Hearings, volunteer and stakeholder groups, and other methods of making experiments participatory entail costs in time and money yet fail to guarantee support or consensus. But the risks of experimentation can no longer be hidden from view. The production of knowledge in a democratic society requires public discourse and participatory involvement, and these are the features with which real-world experimentation must experiment.


SEE ALSO Bacon, Francis.


Arendt, Hannah. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bacon, Francis. (1857–1874). Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath. London: Longman.

Bernard, Claude. (1957). An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, trans. Henry Copley Green. New York: Dover. First analysis of the meaning of experimentation with living substances; originally published in1865.

Campbell, Donald. (1969). "Reforms as Experiments." American Psychologist 24 (4): 409–429.

Cartwright, Nancy. (1999). The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Offers a sceptical view of the scientific prospect to understand the reality completely by the means and models of natural laws.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. (1956). The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Arranged, Rendered into English and Introduced by Edward MacCurdy. New York: Braziller.

Dewey, John. (1925). Experience and Nature. Chicago: Open Court. Dewey's comprehensive attempt to understand knowledge, values, action, and facts in their natural connectivity.

Foucault, Michel. (2003). Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France, 1974–1975. New York: Picador. The lectures refer to Foucault's central theme of power, knowledge, and social exclusion.

Gibbons, Michael; Limoges, Camille; Nowotny, Helga; et al. (1994). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gilbert, William. (1958). De magnete, trans. P. Fleury Motteley. New York: Dover. Considered to be the first textbook on experimental natural science, published 1600; Gilbert was physician to Elizabeth I and James I.

Lederer, Susan E. (1995). Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America before the Second World War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Liebig, Justus, Freiherr von. (1855). Principles of Agricultural Chemistry: With Special Reference to the Late Researches made in England. New York: Wiley.

Liebig, Justus, Freiherr von. (1862). Die organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie [Chemistry in its application to agriculture and physiology]. Braunschweig: Vieweg.

Panofsky, Erwin. (1960). Renaissance and Renascenses in Western Art. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell. Classical studies of the symbolic meaning and relevance of the arts at the beginning of the modern era.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. (1986). De hominis digitate, trans. Douglas Carmichael. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Pico lived from 1463–1494. The oration was first published in 1496 and reckons as the "manifesto" of the humanist movement.

Radder, Hans, ed. (2003). The Philosophy of Scientific Experimentation. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Serres, Michel. (1995). The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Small, Albion Woodbury, and George E. Vincent. (1971 [1894]). An Introduction to the Study of Society. New York: American Book Co.

Small, Albion Woodbury (1921). "The Future of Sociology." Publications of the American Sociological Society 15: 174–193.

Zilsel, Edgar. (2000). Social Origins of Modern Science, ed. Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen. Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Classical work proposing the relevance of superior artisans for the origins of experimental science.