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  • Philosophical Instruments: Minds and Tools at Work
  • Marcia-Anne Dobres (bio)
Philosophical Instruments: Minds and Tools at Work. By Daniel Rothbart. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Pp. xiv+138. $35.

Some philosophical texts on technology are infamous for being turgid, long-winded, and obtuse. This slim volume by Daniel Rothbart is exceptional for its clarity of prose and argument. In a mere 138 pages, Rothbart integrates profound issues of ontology and epistemology with compelling case studies that traverse the seventeenth to twenty-first centuries. Rom Harré’s foreword may overstate that this is a “definitive” account of the nature of laboratory equipment, but it is certainly an important and worthwhile read. At issue are ontological, epistemological, conceptual, and phenomenological aspects of scientific (lab) instruments, which Rothbart analyzes through detailed readings of their visual design plans. Resurrecting the seventeenth-century term “philosophical instruments,” he characterizes both nineteenth-century spectroscopy and the latest in scanning tunneling microscopes as philosophical, because of the way their design plans enable the experimenter to virtually witness the machinery of the subatomic world long before such tools are realized materially.

Rothbart’s thesis is that laboratory tools—rather than being the “handmaidens” of scientific inquiry which merely enhance our God-given senses—are decidedly philosophical in their own right. Moreover, design plans for lab equipment predispose the experimenter to imagine and explain the natural world in a particular way. Ontologically, modern scientific instruments rest on a mechanical view of nature that, in turn, enables the scientist to see and describe the observable world using mechanical analogies and metaphors. Epistemologically, contemporary philosophical instruments (such as those designed to study quark-level aspects of radiation, the surface of silicon, or DNA coils) rely on certain assumptions about how minds and tools work in concert to produce scientific knowledge.

Phenomenology plays a large role in developing this argument, though not in an obvious way. Rather than the materiality and ergonomics of instruments and how they shape the body’s skillful engagement with a lab specimen, Rothbart focuses on what he calls the “vicarious virtual witnessing” of thought experiments generated when a scientist visually decodes, or works through, the engineer’s drawings of a proposed piece of experimental equipment. We’ve all seen these architectural plans for laboratory instruments, [End Page 791] from the exquisitely artistic lithographs of the earliest singlelens and compound microscopes to modern CAD graphics. Visually reading such diagrams excites not only an experimenter’s mind, eye, imagination, and aesthetics, but also his or her body. Well before some high-tech gizmo ever sees the inside of a lab, the engineer’s design plans have already persuaded the scientist to imagine, analogically and metaphorically, what they will be able to observe once the instrument is constructed and employed. And this is what Rothbart means by developing a philosophy of (not from) design.

Chapters 3 and 4 take a page from visual anthropology and art history and examine the iconic role of artistic perspective, aesthetics, cognition, and the visual grammar required to “decode” instrument design plans. Rothbart shows how such plans are actually agents that, when read skillfully, enable the experimenter to “see” long before they empirically observe. He then walks us through a phenomenological and symbolic reading of two truly philosophical instruments which, though centuries apart, revolutionized Western science: Robert Hooke’s mid-seventeenth-century architectural plans for the compound microscope, and the 1982 patent drawings of Nobel laureates Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer’s scanning tunneling microscope. Rothbart argues convincingly that philosophical instruments “cause” experimenters to see and acquire scientific knowledge in a particular (cognitive, phenomenological, symbolic, and analogical) way, precisely because of the synergy of mind, tool, and specimen.

Current topics (purposefully) omitted in developing this argument turn on the sociological dynamics of laboratory practice and the economic underwriting of scientific technologies by particularly vested corporations and governments, as well as the obviously gendered symbolism of the nature-as-machine metaphor. I hope these and related issues will be addressed in Rothbart’s next book, because the socially constituted and academically disciplined body of the scientist, engaged in a gendered community of practice, is also known to play a significant role in the...


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