Embarking on an artifact-based study, the scholar presented with a scientific object engages with it in a very different manner that she would with textual resources such as published books and papers, notebooks, letters, or lab memos. Interacting with the very materiality of the objects allows the scholar to experience new dimensions of the artifacts history, presence, and use. Underpinning this intimacy is the idea that scientific objects are bearers of meaning, although not necessarily (and never exclusively) textual. Objects impress us, and interacting with them opens up a silent repository of tacit knowledge and embodied perception that only material engagement can access. Thus, a central concern for the study of scientific objects has been to devise and to clarify different modes of engagement with scientific objects, in order to extract, interpret, and situate the knowledge scientific objects bring with them. A first-hand engagement with the objects can also disclose their affordances for action and the cognitive strategies required for their use, thus offering a very different window into the mind of their designers and past users than textual sources can.

The aim of this course is to develop the student’s critical thinking concerning the historical, philosophical, cognitive, and sociological study of scientific objects. We will address three main philosophical questions concerning scientific instruments: (1) What does it means for scientific instruments to be bearers of knowledge? (2) How should we study the knowledge embodied in the scientific instruments? (3) What can we learn from studying these objects, and can we learn something that textual resources fail to convey alone?