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Argument, Narrative, and Methods Discourse

Argument, Narrative, and Methods Discourse

(p.11) Chapter One Argument, Narrative, and Methods Discourse
About Method
Jutta Schickore
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

The first chapter develops the historiographical approach and the analytic tools that are used in the remaining part of the book. Focusing on writings about method by mid-seventeenth-century experimenters, notably Robert Boyle, the chapter examines how methodological questions about “proper experimental procedure” were dealt with in the early modern period. The concept “methods discourse” is introduced. The term refers to all kinds of methods-related statements in scientific writing, including explicit commitments to experimentalism, descriptions of experimental protocols, explanations of methodological concepts, and justifications of strategies of experimentation. Various layers of methods discourse are distinguished: 1) Experimental protocols, i.e. scientists’ (or experimental philosophers’) descriptions of the steps of a particular experiment or observation, as well as of the materials, equipment, and techniques that were used. 2) Methodological views, i.e. scientists’ (or experimental philosophers’) conceptualization of procedures to assess and secure empirical results. 3) Broader commitments to experimentalism, specifically to the imperative that scientific ideas must be confronted with, or based on, empirical findings.

Keywords:   Robert Boyle, experimentation, scientific method, experimental reports, methods discourse, experimentalism

One very common and very general programmatic commitment can be found in almost all accounts of experiments from the early modern period: the commitment to experimentalism or to the “new experimental method.” Of course, systematic manipulations of natural objects to gain knowledge of nature were performed long before the seventeenth century—in alchemy and in medicine, for example.1 But in the early seventeenth century, when new instruments such as the telescope and the microscope, along with the extension of trade and travel, had revealed new and strange facts, natural and experimental philosophers—most notably Francis Bacon—took it upon themselves to order and systematize the new knowledge that had been gained through experiments and observations, as well as the methods through which such knowledge was gained. In the second half of the seventeenth century, scholars began to pursue experiments on a larger scale in the context of new organizations, including the Florentine Accademia del Cimento, the Royal Society of London, and, a little later, the Paris Académie des Sciences.

The early modern scholars presented their experimental projects as “new”—as a “new organon” for the investigation of nature, a new challenge to the authorities, a new concern with matters of fact. Those investigators who were attached to the budding societies and organizations committed themselves expressly and in print to the new experimentalism. For instance the authors of the Saggi di naturali esperienze fatte nell’ Accademia del Cimento of 1667, the Cimento’s sole and collaborative official publication, declared that the institution’s “only task” was “to make experiments and to tell about them.”2

(p.12) The “New Experimental Method” in Tuscany, London, and Paris

The “new experimental method” had many supporters at the Tuscan court, among the Royal Society, and at the early French Académie des Sciences and other related French institutions. Founded in 1657 to invigorate Tuscan science and to develop and promote research in the spirit of Galileo, the Cimento Academy provided an institutional setting for some of the most notable Italian natural and experimental philosophers. Its aristocratic patrons encouraged experimental research, often requesting that specific topics be examined, and provided resources to aid these investigations. Although the academicians complied with these requests, they often took Galileo as their authority and model for matters of experimentation.

The men of the Royal Society were committed to Francis Bacon, of course. Bacon’s emphasis on the importance of experiment, method of induction, and warnings against the idols of the mind became key reference points of the New Philosophy of the Royal Society, which stipulated the importance of performing experiments—and performing them oneself rather than relying entirely on the opinions of authorities, an ideal encapsulated in the succinct motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba.

Like the members of the Tuscan court, the French sovereign expected by promoting science to magnify the ruling monarch and acquire benefits for the French people. Like London’s natural and experimental philosophers, the sçavants at the French Academy initially endorsed a Baconian framework for their pursuits: they warned of prejudices, highlighted the practical utility of the advancement of knowledge, and encouraged the collective use of instruments in public demonstrations and experiments. Jean Chapelain, one of the organizers of the academy, evoked the Baconian spirit of the enterprise, writing that one of the academy’s principal goals was “to banish all prejudices from science, basing everything on experiments, to find in them something certain, to dismiss all chimeras and to open an easy path to truth for those who will continue this practice.”3

All this is well known. It is, however, less appreciated (at least outside the community of early modernists) that the Italian, French, and English investigators held varying views about what exactly the commitment to experimentalism involved. Early modern scholars in different institutional contexts expressed and explicated their commitments in subtly different ways; they made their appeals to different leading experimentalists, and (p.13) their opinions about the merit and value of older philosophical approaches to the study of nature diverged quite substantially.

Methodological Statements

The early members of the nascent Royal Society had one clear favorite: Francis Bacon. The concrete philosophical commitments of the academicians at the Cimento, however, were rather diverse and encompassed scholastic as well as mechanist notions.4 The Proem of the Saggi di naturali esperienze illustrates how the academicians combined a commitment to experience and, ultimately, to Truth (capital T), with a commitment to the aristocratic authorities. The academicians humbly dedicated their work to the most serene Highness Ferdinando II, “who contributed so much with the power of his most happy favors to such new and stupendous discoveries and to the opening of an untrodden path to the more exact investigation of truth.”5

In the Saggi di naturali esperienze, the expressed commitment to experimentalism is combined with (and subordinate to) deductive, geometrical reasoning. According to the authors of the Saggi, the best means for the investigation of truth was, in fact, geometry; and only when geometry abandoned the natural philosophers should they turn to experiment: “As one may take a heap of loose and unset jewels and seek to put them back one after another into their setting, so experiment, fitting effects to causes and causes to effects—though it may not succeed at the first throw, like Geometry—performs enough so that by trial and error it sometimes succeeds in hitting the target.” Experiments can give us knowledge about causes and effects—but the academicians were by no means overconfident in their evaluation of the knowledge that could be gained by experiment. In the end, experiments might help in getting out of Plato’s cave, yet experimenters must proceed “with great caution lest too much faith in experiment should deceive us, since before it shows us manifest truth, after lifting the first veils of more evident falsehood, it always makes visible certain misleading appearances that seem to be true.”6

The Italian academicians signaled to their patrons that they were developing and promoting research in the spirit of Galileo. But in Tuscany, the call for experimentation did not include a clean break with older scholarly traditions. Even the motto of the Cimento Academy—provando e riprovando (checking and checking again)—suggests a rather intricate relation (p.14) to past scholarship. The expression is taken from Dante’s Divina Commedia, and the original context in Dante’s canto is the discussion of a procedure for examining a celestial phenomenon. Some historians have thus suggested that the motto was chosen to highlight a break with the past and the rise of a new kind of experimental science in which matters of fact take prevalence over speculation. The Proem of the Saggi di naturali esperienze is very explicit about the necessity of reviewing older experiments, reconsidering the claims of ancient authorities, and “verify[ing] the value of their assertions by wiser and more exact experiments.”7 Historians of Tuscan science have described this concern with critiquing previous authorities as part of a “civil conversation” but also as the beginning of what Jay Tribby has called a “codification of impatience” with ancient authorities.8

At the same time, the choice of a line from Dante clearly signals an appreciation for Tuscan literary heritage.9 The reference itself, however, is ambiguous. In the relevant passage (Paradiso, canto II), Beatrice responds to Dante’s query about the nature of the moon spots by showing him that both his offered explanations are wrong. One explanation she refutes by reasoning, the other (that moon spots are caused by the reflection of light from the moon’s uneven surface) by what appears to be an empirical demonstration involving three mirrors. At first glance it seems plausible to assume that this is an endorsement of experimental tests for theoretical hypotheses, but in the original context, Beatrice merely asks Dante to consider an arrangement of mirrors: no experiment is performed. Moreover, Beatrice finally offers a metaphysical explanation of the moon spots that does not rely on experience.

Dante’s line as it appears in the Saggi di naturali esperienze involves a subtle and creative reinterpretation of the original text. What is more, the academicians gave the expression a new twist: the writers of the Saggi called for performing experiments again and again. This reference to toil and perseverance is emphasized in the Proem of the work but is not implied in the original canto.

In the Royal Society, by contrast, experimentalism was more forcefully defended than in the Italian context, and the society’s members distanced themselves more explicitly from past scholarship. True to the Baconian spirit, Royal Society members advocated experimentalism as the preferred alternative to reasoning from first principles. The members of the Royal Society—represented by their spokesman, Thomas Sprat—were quite iconoclastic, declaring that the new experimental method might well make the old system of natural philosophy “fall to the ground.” But, (p.15) Sprat demanded, “What can we lose, but only some few definitions, and idle questions, and empty disputations? Of which I may say as one did of Metaphors, Poterimus vivere sine illis. Perhaps there will be no more use of Twenty, or Thirty obscure Terms, such as Matter, and Form, Privation, Entelichia, and the like. But to supply their want, and [sic] infinit varity of Inventions, Motions, and Operations, will succeed in the place or words.”10 Sprat’s statement is much more uncompromising than the cautious note in the Saggi di naturali esperienze. Still, the commitment to experimentalism is very general: it is programmatic and might appear quite provocative, as Sprat’s pronouncements illustrate, but it does not offer much guidance beyond the notion that experiments are an important means of obtaining knowledge about nature. To guide the experimenters’ actions, this general commitment needs to be supplemented with more concrete instructions about how to be a good experimentalist: How should experiments be performed? What is the proper procedure? What are the pitfalls, and how might they be avoided?11

On the one hand, specific projects require specific arrangements and designs. To determine the spring of the air, one must know how to build an air pump, empty it, seal it effectively, and so forth. To perform blood transfusions, one must know how to constrain an animal, collect blood from it (including how much and with what instrument), and inject that blood into another.12 On the other hand, some views about proper procedure are both more specific than a general commitment to experimentation and at the same time more general than the concrete procedures and arrangements for a particular experimental endeavor. Consider, for instance, Galileo’s famous statement that he had repeated “a full hundred times” his experiments with the inclined plane as described in the Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences.13 This statement is more concrete than a general commitment to experimentation. It tells us not only that an experiment was performed but also that the experiment was repeated many times—perhaps not exactly “a full hundred times” but definitely more than once or twice. At the same time, the statement is not bound to the specific context of experiments on falling bodies. Other experiments might also be repeated a hundred times.

These types of statements are methodological statements: They do not inform the reader of specific techniques and procedures that are particular to a concrete investigative task. Instead, they tell the reader something about how experimental findings should be obtained and secured. Methodological statements thus tell us something about what experimentalism means for an individual experimenter or for a group of experimenters.

(p.16) Such statements encapsulate what counts as proper procedure. They are a “contact zone” between localized research techniques and approaches and broader commitments such as programmatic agendas. They transcend individual and localized experimental contexts. Notions about proper procedure often have a longer life than the methods, instruments, and techniques for tackling specific experimental questions, yet their content might change even as the general commitment to experimentalism prevails. This book examines statements such as these, and their history.

Boyle on Methods of Experimentation

Sometimes methodological statements play only a minor role in accounts of experiments; at other times, they are very conspicuous. Take Robert Boyle, for example: He was perhaps the most prominent “Baconian” experimentalist at the time of the formation of the Royal Society.14 He conducted plenty of trials, many of them for the Royal Society, and wrote numerous accounts of his experiments. Boyle repeatedly emphasized that only experimentation, not familiarity with the beliefs of authorities, was the road to truth, adding that it was important to broaden the empirical foundation of knowledge by collecting more experimental results and that knowledge about nature could be attained through careful and critical assessment of the outcomes of observations and experiments.

At the same time, Boyle was very much concerned with the messiness of actual experimental practice and supplemented the Baconian conception of the new scientific method with some practical guidelines for fact-gathering. Bacon had a different goal. His commitment to experiment and observation as it is advanced in the Novum Organum was a means to an end—namely, to eschew the old Aristotelian and medieval scholastic philosophy, according to which certain knowledge about nature was derived from first principles. Bacon’s Novum Organum is first of all a book on methods of reasoning from experiments. The critical part—Book I—discards traditional logic. Book II, the constructive part, offers a systematic account of the “New Scientific Method.”

The critical part of Bacon’s project aimed at uncovering potential impediments to the advancement of the new science. The famous typology of “idols of the mind,” the obstacles to epistemic progress, is a part of this project. The typology comprises four different sources of false ideas, including falsehoods arising through general psychological tendencies, individual (p.17) prejudices and expectations, the vagueness of language, and previously taught but erroneous worldviews or doctrines (such as the Aristotelian system and traditional logic). This typology of sources of falsehoods presents a systematic overview of the things that might obstruct the generation of human knowledge in all contexts—and especially, of course, when knowledge is generated using the “old” method of natural philosophy.

The typology of idols of the mind focuses almost entirely on those cognitive factors that present obstacles to scientific advancement because they lead to the formation of false ideas. The book outlines and defends a systematic method of reasoning from facts to “natures.” Bacon’s typology of idols of the mind (and indeed the entire project of the Novum Organum) is a very optimistic account of the scientific method. The expressed aim is to become acquainted with sources of error in order to avoid or remove false beliefs: “forewarned is forearmed” appears to be the general motto. The typology as Bacon drew it up reminds the reader that falsehoods could have diverse origins: They could originate in the general way in which all humans think and judge, in the human makeup (i.e., in human sense organs), in personal idiosyncrasies, or in the subtleties of language. Yet they all spring from the activity of the human mind, and they can all be identified and eradicated.

Book II, the constructive part, outlines the proper procedures for the systematic interpretation of nature—that is, for the ordering of facts in tables of presence, absence, and degrees and for proper induction from them. In it, Bacon described the methods for processing results of systematic experiments and observations to discover the “form natures” of things. The challenges of collecting those facts that are to be included in the tables—­viz., the concrete challenges of observation and experimental research—are occasionally mentioned, but they are not systematically discussed.15

Boyle turned his attention from the activities of the mind to the particulars of experimentation. He was much less confident than Bacon that the challenges of fact-gathering could be completely overcome. Boyle had little to say about error as such—he took for granted that an error was a false belief about nature. Such a false belief could come into being if one did not conduct experiments. The point is that if one did conduct experiments, it was by no means guaranteed that truth could be attained. Experiments could be unsuccessful or false, and indeed Boyle pointed to specific cases in which “learned Writers” had formed false beliefs on the basis of “contingent Experiments.”16 Bacon’s project was optimistic; Boyle’s was apologetic. Sometimes experiments do not succeed and thus might lead (p.18) the experimenter into error. Overall, however, we are better off making experiments than not making experiments.

The difference between a more broadly “Baconian” commitment to experimentalism and the explicit concern with various practicalities of experimentation is most clearly visible in some of Boyle’s early writings, such as the “Two Essays, Concerning the Unsuccessfulness of Experiments” of 1661, written a few years before the formation of the Royal Society. The “Two Essays” were geared toward the active experimenter, and particularly toward those experimenters dealing with chemicals. Together with an essay on niter and one on the qualities of fluidity and firmness, they form a series: “Certain Physiological Essays” (1661).17 The series begins with a “Proemial Essay,” and it is in this introductory text that Boyle invoked Baconian ideas, especially the view that experiments and observations help uncover false opinions. In the “Two Essays,” however, he emphasized failed, “unsucceeding” experiments, including experiments that fail to produce a certain (previously obtained) effect, experiments whose outcomes are tainted by unrecognized interfering factors, and the like.

Boyle expressed the hope that an experimenter who was aware of potential troubles ahead would be better prepared to deal with them, which readily calls to mind Bacon’s motivation for putting together a list of idols. But Boyle’s concrete project was quite different. He attempted to identify the factors responsible for failure (in that an experiment did not produce the expected effect), which could in turn lead to false beliefs in the misinformed or ignorant experimenter. In Bacon’s typology of idols, the impediments to scientific progress are cognitive (the idols are, after all, idols of the mind). For Boyle, too, falsehood-producing factors might be cognitive—he referred to the investigator’s fancy and imagination, for example. But more often than not, other factors made the experiment unsuccessful: bad instruments, the “unskilfulness of the Tryers of the Experiments,” and especially “the particular or mistaken properties of the Materials imploy’d about them.”18 What Boyle had in mind was, above all, the impurity of the chemical substances that were used for experiments. If experimenters unwittingly used chemicals that were contaminated or even intentionally adulterated, their experiments would not succeed.

The second of the “Two Essays” casts an even wider net and discusses more generally “the Contingencies to which Experiments are obnoxious upon the account of Circumstances, which either are constantly unobvious, or at least are scarce discernable till the Tryal be past.”19 In each field, experimental practice was prone to circumstances or contingencies. For Boyle, these circumstances, like accidents for Aristotle, “can hardly be (p.19) discours’d of in an accurate Method, (which their nature will scarce admit of).”20 A systematic treatment of contingencies being impossible, he resigned himself to examples. The discussion of circumstances and contingencies ranged over anatomy, therapeutics, and, again, chemistry, as well as over gardening and glass-blowing—which, for Boyle, were experimental contexts, too. Gardeners and anatomists must reckon with the variability of plants and dissected bodies, physicians must deal with variations in their patients’ constitutions, and everyone must be aware of “some wantonness or other deviation of Nature”—or, as the first essay put it “the effects of an unfriendliness in Nature or Fortune to your particular attempts, as proceed but from a secret contingency incident to some experiments, by whomsoever they be tryed.”21

In short, experiments were unsuccessful for all sorts of reasons. And yet there were certain measures one could take to avert total failure. Boyle insisted that the experimenter “try those Experiments very carefully, and more than once, upon which you mean to build considerable Superstructures either theoretical or practical, and to think it unsafe to rely too much upon single Experiments, especially when you have to deal in Minerals.”22 A cautious experimenter who performed experimental trials repeatedly had good reason to be confident. Most experiments did succeed, and the gain from successful experiments was so great that it was worth the risk of failing.23 Thus experimenters should not feel discouraged; after all, neither would a merchant quit after having lost one vessel.

I have already characterized Galileo’s statement about repeating experiments with the inclined plane as a “methodological” statement, and we have just seen that Boyle, too, referred to repetitions. Indeed, in his essay on “unsucceeding experiments,” he referred to repetitions as a methodological imperative, pointing out the danger of relying overmuch on single experiments while he recommended—indeed, demanded—that an experiment be performed more than once.

What should we make of such an imperative? Galileo’s commitment to repetitions has been read as an “Aristotelian” formula through which Galileo assured his reader of the uniformity and hence the reliability of the experiments described. The formula evoked the Aristotelian notion of experience as “knowing how things usually behave.” This technique of assuring readers of the authenticity of an experience and of experiential conviction was frequently used by scholastic, mostly Jesuit writers in the early seventeenth century.24 Even if this explains Galileo’s methodological statement, however, Boyle’s reference to repetitions was not formulaic, and the idea that the members of the Royal Society were Aristotelians (p.20) after all is perhaps a little far-fetched. It appears more likely that Boyle’s concern with repetitions really did spring from his and his fellows’ encounter with all kinds of contingencies in experimentation.

Boyle’s early essays on the “unsuccessfulness” of experiments are methodological essays: They are concerned with the practicalities of experimentation and with proper procedure, and in this sense they are more specific than the programmatic commitment to experimentalism—yet at the same time they transcend the context of particular experimental projects. The methodological essays deal with problems that all experimenters face—nature’s contingencies, impure materials, and inept workers (or their own limited skills)—as well as with quite general measures for addressing them: repetitions, cautious distrust, and carefulness.

In his essays on airs, air pumps, bodies, and chemicals, too, Boyle had much to say about proper procedure—both about the project at hand and about experimental trials more generally. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s classic analysis of Boyle’s so-called literary technologies draws attention to significant features of Boyle’s writings, including his prolix descriptions of successful and failed experiments, his many references to witnesses, and his display of “gentlemanly” virtues such as modesty and self-deprecation.25

These methods-related statements are quite diverse—there are descriptions of instruments and procedures specific to particular projects, more general references to proper procedure (the employment of witnesses), and equally general references to the persona of the experimenter (modesty and self-deprecation). Shapin and Schaffer’s main point was that proper experimentation in the context of the Royal Society required, above all, properly virtuous experimenters.

Here I shift my attention to the statements concerning proper procedure, examining them in greater detail. To do so, I take a look at Boyle’s account of another set of experiments more relevant to the main theme of this book: his experiments with viper poison. For Boyle, these experiments were just one small part of his work on poisons, which in itself constituted only a fraction of his entire experimental work. Nevertheless, the account is an instructive example of how Boyle incorporated methodological notions in his (early) writings on experimentation—and is also a prelude to the controversy that unfolded across the English Channel only a few years later.

Boyle’s report on experiments with poisons comes in two versions—a very early (and unpublished) longer manuscript and an abbreviated account. (p.21) The latter forms part of a general essay on the usefulness of experimental natural philosophy to the mind (in the study of nature) and to the body and fortune (in the improvements of medical treatment, gardening, husbandry, and the like). Boyle’s early essays combined Helmontian chemical philosophy with a commitment to the “new” experimental philosophy.

When it was published, the short section on poisons became part of a general apology for animal experiments. Just like other experiments, animal experiments could be used as a tool to correct the false beliefs of the ancients as well as the false beliefs of physicians who were not experimentalists and would merely trust authorities.26 In the context of this essay, Boyle did not dwell on contingencies, impure substances, or any other causes for failure. On the contrary, he stressed that active intervention—including the dissection of an animal to observe the changes that the intervention had produced—was much more informative than passive observation and thus could arbitrate pathological disputes.27

Experiments with poisons were of special interest for pathology. Poisoning formed a specific class of disease—namely, diseases brought about by an element external to the body, not by an “internal distemper” of the patient. Animal experiments could reproduce those diseases, because the disease-producing element could be introduced at will into the animal body. To illustrate this point, Boyle envisioned a series of experiments in which poison was administered in various ways: “not only by giving Beasts poisons at the mouth, but also by making external applications of them especially in those parts where the Vessels that convey Blood more approach the surface of the Body, and also by dexterously wounding determinate Veins with Instruments dipt in Poysons (especially moist or liquid ones) that being carried by the circulated Blood to the Heart and the Head.” The outcomes of the trials, Boyle hoped, could establish “whether their strength be that way more uninfringed, and their operation more speedy (or otherwise differing) then [sic] if they were taken at the mouth.”28

Considering that Boyle’s experimental writings on airs, pumps, and chemical substances were full of circumstantial descriptions and have been treated as paradigmatic prolix reports, it is striking how few details Boyle provided in his descriptions of the experiments with poison. The one experiment that Boyle did perform himself was significant not so much for the manner in which it was performed but because the results he obtained did not agree with the beliefs of older authorities (including Aristotle). This experiment examined the question of whether certain body parts of vipers were poisonous, (p.22) as Aristotle had assumed. Boyle reported matter-of-factly that he had fed to a dog various parts of a viper that traditional sources held to be poisonous: the head, the gall, and the tail. He had fed another viper’s head and gall to a different dog; both dogs survived.

He also offered information about other people’s findings, again without going into too much detail. An “inquisitive friend” of Boyle’s assured him that he had set out to perform a similar trial, having given a dog “a dozen heads and galls of vipers, without finding them to produce in him any mischievous symptom.” Moreover, “the old man … that makes viper wine, dos it (as himself tels me) by leaving the whole vipers, if they be not very great, perhaps for some months, without taking out the gall, or separating any other part form them in the wine, till it have dissolved of them as much as it can.”29 Based on these reports, Boyle inferred that established views about the poisonous parts of the viper must be wrong. He suggested an alternative interpretation of the findings as they presented themselves to him. Because the dogs had survived their meals, no poison could have been contained in them.

And yet vipers brought about death. Accordingly, Boyle concluded that viper venom could not be a material substance. Instead he assumed “that the venom of vipers consists chiefly in the rage and fury, wherewith they bite, and not in any part of their body, which hath at all times a mortal property.”30 He compared this process to the bite of a mad dog, whose teeth were not poisonous until the dog went mad.

Boyle drew this assumption from Andrea Bacci’s treatise De venenis et antidotes prolegomena of 1586 but did not develop this view, nor did he try to find further experimental evidence for it. Indeed, the notion that rage and fury were involved in causing disease was a key element in the theory of disease proposed by Belgian chemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont. According to van Helmont, diseases were caused by an indwelling vital principle, the Archeus—which, if incensed, whether by a troubling idea or by harmful material substances, produced disturbance and corruption in the body.31

For Boyle, the experiments on vipers were only one project among many others, certainly not as essential to his experimental philosophy as were his experiments with airs and pumps. Elsewhere, however, snake venom research was both a topic of considerable medical interest and a topic of fierce controversy, as we will see. Both the Aristotelian question of whether body parts of snakes were poisonous and the Helmontian view of disease became driving forces for the controversy that unfolded between the Tuscan naturalist Francesco Redi and his French critic, the apothecary Moyse Charas. (p.23) As these two experimenters criticized and attacked each other, they were compelled to make their experimental methods and procedures explicit.

Layers of Methods Discourse

Experiments need to be communicated if they are to be of consequence for the scientific community. Even though many early modern experiments were performed in public—at meetings of the Royal Society, at the Tuscan Court, at the Paris Academy—it was important to let faraway scholars know of their results. Reports of experiments were put on paper and circulated. The early modern scholars used quite different textual genres for that purpose: They produced book-length treatises and collections of accounts of experiments such as the Saggi. They wrote letters addressed to other scholars as well as to their patrons, which were often widely circulated, printed, and published in novel scientific journals such as the Transactions of the Royal Society and the Journal des Sçavants. These two publications also carried reviews and reports of various experimental projects and publications.

Such accounts of experiments announce what experiments were performed and what was found and often present their reader with additional discussions of the significance and implications of the findings. Boyle, in fact, turned this distinction between work performed and results obtained into a guideline for writing reports. In the preface to New Experiments Physico-Mechanical touching the Spring of the Air, he distinguished between “narratives of experiments” (detailing what had been done) and “discourses made upon experiments” (interpreting what the findings meant). This distinction had normative implications for Boyle, who insisted that a strict distinction between the elements of narrative and the elements of discourse be maintained in the account of an experiment—a goal that Boyle himself did not always reach in his own writings but that encapsulated the Royal Society’s preoccupation with “matters of fact.”32

To capture the dual function of relating what had happened in an experiment and conveying the significance of the events, historian Larry Holmes proposed distinguishing between “narrative” and “argument” in scientific writings about experiments.33 The narrative element comprises descriptions of what experiments were performed, of experimental setups and procedures, of specific circumstances, and of the results obtained. The argument deploys evidence from observations and experiments to advance and support a claim to knowledge.

(p.24) Holmes stated: “This duality of literary form reflects the dual function of the research paper as both a summary of the author’s current findings and an account of investigative work that she or he has carried out during a previous period of time.”34 Drawing on an analysis of research papers published by eighteenth-century chemists, Holmes showed that different research papers might vary in the proportion of narrative and argument (or “story” and “presentation of findings and their significance”), not least depending on the social contexts in which the work was performed. In the tightly knit community of full-time researchers at the French Academy, authors of experimental reports did not have to establish authority, and they did not have to establish whether the experiment had actually been performed and how.35

Narrative elements include narrations of concrete events, vivid descriptions of scenarios, and records of the feelings and emotions of the experimenters. Narratives often (but by no means always) say something about the consecutive steps of the investigation. Elements of argument, by contrast, comprise statements of findings as well as of those findings’ significance and of the implications and consequences that might follow from them. The argument’s structure and presentation tell modern readers something about the mode of reasoning that the authors endorsed, but not necessarily the order in which the steps of the research were actually performed. The argument might be laid out in a deductive fashion, with general statements expounded first and findings then presented to support those ideas. The argument might also be laid out inductively, with several matters of fact presented first and more general conclusions derived from them. For Bacon, it was expressly a part of the new method that facts be collected first, then ordered in tables, then reasoned about. But we will see that some of his contemporaries chose modes of presentation that did not reflect the Baconian schema exactly.

The categories of narrative and argument are helpful analytic tools with which to compare accounts of experiments across contexts and, as we will see hereafter, across historical periods. At the same time, Boyle’s own accounts of experiments show that some relevant distinctive features and elements of writings on experimentation do not neatly fall into either of the categories “argument” and “narrative.” His writings contain, as we have seen, very general endorsements of experimentalism. These endorsements are neither narratives of work carried out nor discussions of the significance of particular findings. Those more specific statements invoking methodological criteria and ideas—statements about repetitions, (p.25) witnesses, and the care taken with the investigative project—also escape the distinction, as do the passages vindicating those methodological ideas, such as references to contingencies, variability, and the “wantonness” of nature.

Methodological discussions and imperatives in experimental writings are more than just particulars of specific events; they express, reinforce, and sometimes challenge dominant methodological ideas about good experimental practice. Such statements provide additional support for the overall argument expounded in the experimental report, because they tell their readers something about how the experiments were done and by what means the experimental outcomes were secured. They assure readers of the validity and significance of experimental outcomes.

Of course, it would be a mistake to take accounts of methodological strategies at face value, reading them as faithful representations of strategies that the researchers actually followed. Nevertheless, descriptions and discussions of methodological issues are valuable resources for the history of methodology, because they reflect the experimenter–authors’ understanding of the structure and organization of good experimental research. My reading of the early modern texts about experiments suggests a threefold distinction of textual elements: Accounts of experiments combine elements of narrative and of argument as well as methods-related elements. The methods-related parts are also complex, with several layers distinguishable. First are the descriptions of the design of an experiment or observation. I am thinking not so much of the very specific recipes for performing individual experiments in local contexts. Rather, I am thinking of procedural methods or series of steps such as the steps involved in performing a color indicator test or a test of spontaneous generation. Hereafter I will use the term protocol to refer to this procedural information. It is apt, because we commonly associate protocol with an explicit, binding procedure. Such a protocol prescribes certain procedures for experimental investigations—just like diplomatic protocol prescribes certain procedures for visits of foreign state officials. The term is also reminiscent of experimental protocol, a term that is used in modern science to refer to the written procedure for carrying out an experiment.

Second are scientists’ (or experimental philosophers’) conceptualizations of procedures to secure empirical results, such as repetitions or precautionary measures for the identification of impurities. I call the conceptualizations of such procedures “methodological views” or “methodological statements” (or “strategies”). Boyle’s example shows that these (p.26) statements can be formulated as imperatives about what ought (or ought not) to be done.

Third, there are broader commitments to experimentation as the main road to knowledge about nature. Finally, there are different perspectives on methods and methodologies: explicit reflections on, justifications of, and defenses of protocols, of methodological views, and even of broader commitments—such as the commitment to experimentalism.

My umbrella term for all this is methods discourse. I use the term discourse in a wide, nontechnical (and, I should add, non-Foucauldian) sense. Unlike Boyle’s “discourse made upon experiment,” which refers to the interpretation of experimental findings, I intend my “methods discourse” to cover all layers and aspects of methods-related accounts—namely, explicit commitments to experimentalism, protocols, and everything in between: methodological statements, explanations of methodological concepts, methodological imperatives, and justifications of strategies of experimentation. Methods discourse covers both authoritative expressions and justifications of commitments to and straightforward descriptions of procedures.

The distinction among narrative, argument, and methods discourse and the distinction among the different layers of methods discourse are not clear-cut. Reflections on methodological views, for instance, might at times invoke broader commitments to experience, impartiality, or the like. Naming of witnesses or reporting of repeated trials can be regarded as part of the narration of the work done while telling the reader how experimental outcomes were secured—and thus both are part of methods discourse. Which distinction we make depends on our specific goals as analysts: Do we want to trace the history of certain experimental designs and practices—say, the role of tasting in chemical experiments? Or are we interested in the historical development of broader programmatic commitments, such as Baconianism or—yet broader—experimentalism? Nevertheless, the distinctions are valuable analytic tools for understanding methodologies of experimentation and their history. Distinguishing between narrative and argument helps prepare the ground for analysis of the patterns of reasoning by which experimenters interpreted their findings. Distinguishing among the different layers of methods-related accounts allows for a fine-grained analysis of historical developments, offering an analytic tool with which to capture continuities and discontinuities in scientists’ conceptualizations of proper experimental procedures both across local contexts and across historical periods. For instance, all the early modern experimenters were committed to some form of experimentalism, even if a locally specific (p.27) one. Moreover, in one form or another, commitments to experimentalism continued to be made at least until the late nineteenth century. Protocols, however—experimental designs and procedures—are often bound to specific contexts and goals. Methodological views, methodological reflections, and broader commitments are typically transcontextual, spanning longer periods and broader spaces.

We already have some indication of what factors might constitute the layers of methods discourse and what forces might drive changes in methodological concepts and reflections. We know, especially from early modern historians, that the organization of the scientific community and its status in society affects the methodological reflections that are incorporated in scientific texts because the experimenter–authors seek to appeal to those who will judge the worth and value of their work. Thus, for example, someone soliciting funding from courtiers might well seek approval of his findings by appealing to aristocratic witnesses.

In addition, Boyle’s example suggests that methodological statements reflect, at least to an extent, the very experience of trying to manipulate variable bodies, elusive airs, and recalcitrant mechanical devices in an orderly fashion. His urgings that experiments be repeated can be understood as a result of the experimental philosophers’ trials, conducted to find recognizable patterns and structures in animal guts and mixtures of primitive and simple elements.

The following chapters examine past reports of experiments with an eye to exposing and reconstructing the layers of methods discourse they incorporate. In a sense, these chapters examine what today we would call the methods section of a scientific paper, tracing its history and probing its structure.


(1.) See, e.g., Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989); William R. Newman, Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); and Robert Adam Leigh, “On Theriac to Piso,” Attributed to Galen: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary (PhD diss., University of Exeter, 2013).

(2.) W. E. Knowles Middleton, The Experimenters: A Study of the Accademia Del Cimento (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 92. As Jay Tribby notes, at the Tuscan court, the difference between “experiment” and experience” was being collapsed. The contemporaneous dictionary of Tuscan language that was being put together at the Accademia della Crusca cross-references the terms; see Jay Tribby, “Cooking (with) Clio and Cleo: Eloquence and Experiment in Seventeenth-Century Florence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52 (1991): 425. In general, there does not seem to have been a systematic distinction among experience, experiment, and observation (or among the equivalent terms in Latin, French, or Italian). See also Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 203–5.

(3.) Roger Hahn, The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666–1803 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 5–19

(4.) Luciano Boschiero, Experiment and Natural Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century Tuscany (New York: Springer, 2007), chapter 4.

(6.) Ibid., 90.

(7.) Ibid., 91.

(9.) I am grateful to Luciano Boschiero and Martin Eisner for their instructive discussions of the relevant passage of Dante’s text.

(p.237) (10.) Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London: Printed by T. R. for J. Martyn at the Bell without Temple-bar, and J. Allestry at the Rose and Crown in Duck-lane, Printers to the Royal Society, 1667), 327.

(11.) Lorraine Daston, “The Empire of Observation, 1600–1800,” in Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 93.

(13.) Galileo Galilei, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1914), 179.

(14.) Michael Hunter, ed., Robert Boyle Reconsidered (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

(15.) I will return to Bacon’s discussion of “new methods” in later chapters.

(16.) Robert Boyle, “The Second Essay, of Unsucceeding Experiments,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davies (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999), 61.

(17.) “Physiology” is meant in the widest sense of the study of physis—it includes anatomy, botany, and chemistry.

(18.) Boyle, “The First Essay, of the Unsuccessfulness of Experiments,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Hunter and Davies, 38.

(19.) “The Second Essay, of Unsucceeding Experiments,” 57Rose-Mary Sargent, The Diffident Naturalist: Robert Boyle and the Philosophy of Experiment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), chapter 3, for a more detailed account of this essay.

(23.) ibid., 82.

(24.) Peter Dear, “Narratives, Anecdotes, and Experiments: Turning Experience into Science in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument: Historical Studies, ed. Peter Dear (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 138.

(25.) (p.238) Larry Principe, “Virtuous Romance and Romantic Virtuoso: The Shaping of Robert Boyle’s Literary Style,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56 (1995): 377–97.

(26.) Robert Boyle, “Essay I. Containing Some Particulars Tending to Shew the Usefulness of Natural Philosophy to the Physiological Part of Physick,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Hunter and Davies, 296.

(27.) The experimenter might choose, for example, “to open the Body or Limbs, to make Ligatures strong or weak on the vessells, or other inward parts, as occasion shall require, to leave them there as long as he pleaseth, to prick, or apply sharp liquors to any nervous or membranous part, and whenever he thinks convenient, to dissect the Animall again, to observe what change his Experiment hath produc’d there: such a Liberty, I say, which is not to be taken in humane bodies, may in some case either confirme or confute the Theories proposd, and so put an end to divers Pathologicall Controversies, and perhaps too occasion the Discovery of the true genuine causes of Phenomena disputed of, or of others really as abstruse”; Boyle, “Essay II,” 323–24.

(28.) Ibid., 326.

(29.) “Observations out of Mr B. Essay of Turning Poisons into Medicins,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Hunter and Davis, 252.

(30.) Ibid., 251.

(31.) On van Helmont’s conception of disease, see Walter Pagel, “Van Helmont’s Concept of Disease—to Be or Not to Be? The Influence of Paracelsus,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 46 (1972): 419–54. On the transmission of Helmontian theories in seventeenth-century England, see Antonio Clericuzio, “From Van Helmont to Boyle: A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England,” British Journal for the History of Science 26 (1993): 303–34.

(33.) Holmes, “Argument and Narrative in Scientific Writing,” 166Frederic L. Holmes, “Scientific Writing and Scientific Discovery,” Isis 78 (1987), 220–35.

(35.) Ibid., 171.

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