How does technology enable scientific discovery?

“We should notice the force, effect, and consequences of inventions, which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients… printing, gun powder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world… innumerable changes have been thence derived, so that no empire… appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical  discoveries.”

– Francis Bacon

The idea that science is a “theory producing machine” came to be challenged by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. A growing, if still controversial, view sees science as situated within social, political and constructivist contexts.  Even amongst scientific realists (and I tentatively include myself in that camp), it is recognised that science itself is technologically embodied:

“Without instruments and laboratories, there was no science.” (p. 7)

The philosopher Don Ihde’s pioneering work draws upon the philosophic traditions of pragmatism and phenomenology to provide a fresh perspective in understanding technology. What Ihde calls postphenomenology begins with the pragmatism of John Dewey:

“The term ‘pragmatic,’ contrary to the opinion of those who regard pragmatism as an exclusively American conception, was suggested to [Pierce] by the study of Kant.. in the Metaphysics of Morals Kant established a distinction between pragmatic and practical. [Practical] applies to the moral laws which Kant regards as a priori… whereas [pragmatic] applies to the rules of art and technique which are based on experience and are applicable to experience.” (p. 9)

The development of pragmatism and Huseerl’s phenomenology ran in parallel from common roots. Besides Kant, both were subject to the tectonic shift of perspective in science and philosophy brought about by Darwinian evolution theory.

What Idhe draws from phenomenology is foremost Husserl’s variation theory (derived from the mathematical theory of the same name) which sought to find the essence of things by determining what was variant and what was invariant, i.e. what could be changed in something without losing its essential quality. Pragmatists, however, rejects any form of essentialism as metaphysical nonsense. The use Idhe puts variation theory is instead to show that the same thing can be seen in multiple stable ways, what he dubs multistablity.

To illustrate this he uses various basic optical illusions but a more striking example of this can be seen in the famous “duck-rabbit” illusion used by Wittgenstein:


Idhe argues that the same visual profiles examined through various perceptual or bodily positions can change how things appear to us. The way we see things isn’t a matter of passively accepting what we are given.

“Phenomenologically, perception is not passive but active; holistically, it is bodily interactive with an environment, but while this agrees with both pragmatism and phenomenology, it is the phenomenologically derived variation that provides the rigorous demonstration.” (p. 15)

This multistability in the ways of seeing is reflected in our approach to understanding technology as well. As an example, Idhe considers three variations of bows: the English longbow, the Mongolian horse bow and the Chinese ‘artillery’ bow. Although each has the purpose of firing projectiles that are recognisably similar, but how they are constructed and how they are used is significantly different. Equally importantly, their cultural context is radically different.

“[T]he phenomenological variations that now include considerations of the materiality of the technologies, the bodily techniques of use, and the cultural context of the practice are all taken into account and demonstrate again the importance of variational theory with its outcome in mulitstability, the role of embodiment, now in trained practice, and the appearance of differently structured lifeworlds relative to historical cultures and environments” (p. 18-19)

What phenomenology has added to pragmatism’s account of the experience of organisms in their environment is a rigorous style of analysis, variational theory and the recognition of the importance of embodiment, situated in social and cultural contexts.

Ultimately, applying this empirically, leads to a new postphenomenological approach in understanding technology:

“In place of describing technology as autonomous… [philosophers of technology] brought to light the many social forces that act upon it… earlier, Kuhn-inspired philosophers of science refused to treat “science” as a monolithic, but found that it needed to be broken up into many different sciences, each of which needed to be independently analyzed, so the new philosophers of technology found the same had to be done with “technology”… the new, more empirically oriented philosophers of technology began to speak of the co-evolution of technology and society” (p. 22)


Ihde, D. (2009) Postphenomenology and Technoscience: The Peking University Lectures, SUNY Press.

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