Towards a Mutually Beneficial Integration of History and Philosophy of Science: The Case of Jean Perrin

Klodian Coko
University of Western Ontario
Since the 1960s, there have been many efforts to defend the relevance of History of Science to Philosophy of Science, and vice versa. For the most part, these efforts have been limited to providing an abstract rationale for a closer integration between the two fields, as opposed to showing: (a) how such an integrated work is to be produced concretely, and (b) how it can lead us to a better understanding of past and/or present science than if historical and philosophical perspectives are employed separately. In this chapter, I argue that one of the most promising ways to integrate history and philosophy of science is the historicist-hermeneutic approach to iHPS. I present the main features of the historicist-hermeneutic approach and show, concretely, how it can provide a mutually beneficial integration of History and Philosophy of Science. More specifically, I employ the historicist-hermeneutic approach to elucidate one of the most problematic historical case studies in philosophy of science: Jean Perrin’s argument for molecular reality at the beginning of the twentieth century. By following the historicist-hermeneutic approach, I emphasize both the historical context and the temporal development of Perrin’s argument. I argue that Perrin’s argument was the result of his clear understanding of the philosophical and scientific challenges facing the empirical verification of claims regarding the existence of unobservable entities, such as atoms and molecules, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Perrin’s efforts were influenced by the late nineteenth century recognition that an experiment in physics, in general, and the experimental investigation of unobservable entities, in particular, required the use of complex instruments and experimental procedures as well as the employment of many theoretical and experimental auxiliary assumptions. Lacking direct observable evidence for the existence of atoms and molecules, Perrin’s efforts were concentrated on what he considered to be the next best thing: the determination of the various (hypothetical) molecular magnitudes via independently theoretically-dependent routes. The extremely remarkable agreement on the numerical values for the molecular magnitudes determined by independently theoretically-dependent determinations, gave rise to a strong no-coincidence argument that was used to argue both for the correctness of the values determined and the validity of the theoretical and experimental auxiliary assumptions underlying the different determinations. There are structural elements of Perrin’s argument which, although are neglected in the literature, were responsible for its strength and, ultimately, for its success. These are, namely: (a) the numerical or quantitative nature of the agreement, (b) the close agreement on the numerical values calculated (especially if one considered the a priori improbability of such an agreement), (c) the theoretical independence of the determination procedures, (d) the genetic independence of both the determination procedures and of the agreement achieved, (f) the high quality and reliability of some of the determinations, (g) the lack of discordant results, (h) the ability to conclusively explain away any objections and discordant results when they eventually emerged, and (i) the relatively large number of determinations.
Keywords Jean Perrin  atomism  experiment  multiple determination
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