Workshop 1 - Stephen Pumfrey ‘On the emergence of modern experimentalism: the Renaissance and after'

 Stephen Pumfrey (History, Lancaster University) opened his paper by suggesting an exercise. He asked the participants to add one word to the phrase ‘An Experimental Christian…’. All the chosen words were nouns (music, art, ethics or other) and Pumfrey illustrated how the same phrase in early books of 1700 was itself treated as a noun, suggesting a different meaning and understanding of the term ‘experimental’. 

He followed by arguing that we live in a world discursively and performatively shaped by the narrative of our culture's transformation by a scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. All related terms like "experiment", "experimentalism" and even neologisms like "experimentality" are freighted with modern meanings derived from it.

Pumfrey argued that the words and concept have a longer history. Thirteenth-century philosophers like Roger Bacon wrote of "scientia experimentalis". Until recently the phrase was badly mistranslated as "experimental science" when what they meant was "true knowledge acquired through everyday life". Stephen Pumfrey’s paper reflected upon how we got from there to here, or at least to the eighteenth century.

Pumfrey used this framework of differentiation of the modern concept of experiment from experience to portray experiment as "event experience" and experience as "universal experience". Consequently, he argued that the particularity and situatedness of an experiment was an obstacle to science's claim to generate objective knowledge:How can an experiment occurring in a small part of device, unavailable to most of the people, generate scientific knowledge?

Despite these concerns, however, Pumfrey argued that the widespread confidence in everyday experience as the grounds of knowledge began breaking down, giving space for the experiment to grow. In contrast to modern experiment, experience in premodern thought was cumulative, passive, not produced and collective but problematically subjective.

Pumfrey used examples from 16th and 17th century literature to show how 'experience' and 'experiment' were used interchangeably:

‘Great is the power of experience [experientia] which arises from the memory of things which sense time and time again supplies, for indeed memory comes from repeated sensation. Many memories of the same thing grant the means of one experience [experientia]; moreover, cognition of the first principles comes from experiments [experimenta]… The principles are derived from experiment [experimentum]; as for example, the principles of astronomical science [scientia] are collected from astronomical experience [experientia].' Francesco Buonamici, De Motu (Florence, 1591)

Pumfrey disagreed with previous speakers, claiming that in scientific sense experimenting is not a part of everyday human experience.

Discussion following Stephen Pumfrey’s presentation focused around four questions relating to: the meaning of 'experiment', the experiment's relationship with modernity, the passive/active dichotomy of experience, and the relationship of modern means of technology and historical research.

Firstly, debate considered a core meaning of experiment as ‘to try’. Arguments concluded with an understanding of experience as ‘trying’ and the distinction between passive and active experiments (in historical context : ‘you have experimented because God allowed you’). Further, a dialectic of ‘tried’ (experiment) and ‘not found wanting’ (experience) was considered.

Secondly, an issue of whether experiments were a perennial human activity or introduced with modernity was debated. Pumfrey explained how before 1660, experimentality procedures were not called experiments but have emerged as a historically separate activity.

Discussion aimed at the recovery of the ways in which the terms were used at the time and contested later; considering the initially troubled use of the term ‘experiment’ in the context of the understanding of it as a contemporarily secure terminology.

Thirdly, debate oriented around the passive/active dichotomy, raising the question of to what extent any experience can be passive since we are always participating in the world and producing knowledge. Pumfrey demonstrated how in the pre-modern pre-experimental society the natural philosopher considered himself as objective and disengaged observer with no means of intervention or actual human agency (‘observing nature left to itself’). This perception was mistaken as it is impossible to detach yourself and the synthesis of experience into general statements requires human analysis.

Lastly, a question was posed in relation to modern means of technology, namely: what was the historian's experience like before the existence of Google. Discussion compared the past experiences requiring going to obvious places where people talk about experiments with the modern popularity of this term and its strong status amongst many interdisciplinary debates.