Technology as Proto-Science by Sven Hansson

Sven Hansson argues that the experimental method dates much further back in history than science. Experiment, though part of science, an indispensable part, many would say - is more akin to a type of technological practice and intervention, rather than to questions of theoretical kind. Similarly, Hansson, states that technology is much more than applied science. Technology and experiment both form part of an older and more complex history of human craft, compared to, for instance, theoretical and mathematical physics.

The term experiment was initially associated with the term experience. It meant simple observation without any attempt to directly intervene, modify or change the environment through an artificial laboratory setting.

Hansson quotes the 19th century astronomer John Herschel as one of the people who drew the boundary between observation and experiment, both forming parts of the concept of experience.

“experience may be acquired in two ways: either, first, by noticing facts as they occur, without any attempt to influence the frequency of their occurrence, or to vary the circumstances under which they occur; this is OBSERVATION: or, secondly, by putting in action causes and agents over which we have control, and purposely varying their combinations, and noticing what effects take place; this is EXPERIMENT.” (Hansson, S.O. 2015)

After quoting various authors from the scientific literature, Hansson offers his own definition: “a procedure in which some object of study is subjected to interventions (manipulations) that aim at obtaining a predictable outcome or at least predictable aspects of the outcome” (Hansson, S.O. 2015). Hansson identifies repeatability as the essential component of experimentation.

There are two main types of experimental inquiry according to Hansson: We can study the world either through a. Techne or b. Episteme. Each relates either to practical or theoretical understanding respectively. And each provides an outcome measure based on what it plans to achieve. The technical outcome measure offers insight into a particular preferable course of action. Experiments in the tradition of Techne, like clinical trials for instance, offer solutions to very specific and temporally constrained problems in the form of temporary regularities, as oppose to epistemic types of experiments which answer more general questions concerning natural laws and/or regularities that hold for very long term. The latter tends to address questions of the universal kind. Experiments of the Techne variety are therefore termed by Hansson as directly action-guiding experiments, as opposed to epistemic.

Importantly, the same experiment can fall into both categories at once. The one and the same event could account for both questions of universal and practical import. It is first and foremost, thus a question of interpretation, rather than strictly speaking; methodology.

The history of epistemic experimentation is much shorter than the history of directly action-guiding experiments. Hansson argues that agriculture is a product of such action-guiding experimentation. “It was not uncommon for a family to have as many as 30 different fields in different locations and with different microclimatic and ecological conditions. In each of these fields, several different crops were cultivated. This, of course, was a sophisticated risk management strategy; crop failure in some of these fields would be compensated by good harvests in others” (Hansson, S.O. 2015) Apparently this is an example of a technological and action-guided experiment for Hansson.

The bottom-line is that craftsmanship had been around long before science in the epistemic sense and it deserves no less credit as a science of the practical sort in its contribution to human knowledge. Diverging from Hansson’s view for a moment, it seems to this day, we have a need for a critical history of science, where we could expose the epistemic monopoly on the discoveries made by craftsmanship. The appropriation of the conclusions from action-guiding experimentation by elite scientists that have lost touch with their colleagues who work with their hands. We are taught today, that the real inventors and innovators in science are the ones who in reality have only formalized and paraphrased the discoveries of their economic inferiors.

Unlike epistemic experiments, techne progresses through trial and error without any overarching theory or an ideal map of how it plans to arrive at the desire result.

  1. Hansson, S. O. (2015). Experiments before science. What science learned from technological experiments. In The role of technology in science: Philosophical perspectives (pp. 81–110). Springer, Dordrecht.


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