Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Economising Experience

Thought Experiments and the Origins of the Vienna Circle

Julian Bauer


My current project examines the role of thought experiments in the history and philosophy of science during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During this period thought experiments were perceived as a legitimate tool with prognostic and retrospective power to determine significance in causal explanation. Therefore I’ll analyse practical occurrences as well as negotiations of the epistemic status of them. It is quite obvious that this status was linked to scientific concerns about the appropriate abstraction from a huge and confusing plenitude of data and to concerns about the selection of causally significant objects in historical processes as well as in experiments proper. Thought experiments seemed convenient when one was neither willing nor able to proceed deductive-nomologically nor inductive-statistically but trying to reflect concrete events in general statements. Heuristically speaking thought experiments provided ideal, undisturbed scenarios in order to simulate the setup and course of real experiments, and realign the interpretation of (historical) contexts of action in an ideal-typical way. Starting with Ernst Mach’s ideas about these phenomena I’m trying to provide a thick reconstruction of the role of thought experiments for the constitution of the philosophy of science. Doing this helps to revise traditional narratives regarding the supposedly huge divide separating the ‚two cultures‘ or ‚erklärende‘ and ‚verstehende Wissenschaften‘ as some used to say.