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Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Experiment and Theory: Constitution and Reality

Author(s): Patrick A. Heelan
Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 85, No. 10, Eighty-Fifth Annual Meeting American
Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct., 1988), pp. 515-524
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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of Philosophy.
OW in a constitutional analysis do theories relate to experi-
mental phenomena, and how do both relate to nature or
reality: this is the theme of my
Examples are taken
chiefly from physics, e.g., Robert Milliken's oil-drop experiment and
recent experiments in fundamental particles physics.'
The activities of scientific research all contribute to one or other of
two distinct research strategies, experimental and theoretical. In this
paper, we ask two questions: (1) How are the objects-for-knowing
generated by experimental strategies related to the objects-for-
knowing generated by theoretical strategies? (2) Which counts for
The method I employ is constitutional analysis.2 This supposes
that objects-experimental or theoretical-are prepared by the
noetic activity of subjects in anticipation of being presented as ob-
jects-for-knowing. Experimental and theoretical noetic activity are as
different as looking at the sun and looking at the sunbeam-one can
only do one at a time, for, though related, they are different noetic
The function of theory is to explain via a mathematical model how
and why the practical procedures work for the experimenter,
whereas the function of experiment is to authenticate the presence
of the phenomenon in the practical procedures. I take 'theory' to
mean the mathematical model closest to experimental praxis (Hack-
ing, 216-218; Galison, 249-254).
To be presented in an APA symposium on The Philosophical Significance of
Experimentation, December 28, 1988. Ian Hacking will be co-symposiast, and Peter
Galison will comment; see this
this issue, 507-514 and 525-527, respec-
tively, for their contributions.
' I am deeply indebted to many important studies by Harry Collins, G. Holton, B.
Latour, Andy Pickering, Trevor Pinch, Steven Shapin, and others, of the historical,
sociological, and psychological relationships between theory and experiment. Two
deserve special mention: Peter Galison, How Experiments End (Chicago: Univer-
sity Press, 1987); and Robert Crease, The Second Creation (New York: Macmillan,
1986). In the philosophical literature, I refer especially to Ian Hacking, Represent-
ing and Intervening (New York: Cambridge, 1983); and Robert Ackermann, Data,
Instruments, and Theory (Princeton: University Press, 1985); and my Space-Per-
ception and the Philosophy of Science (Berkeley: California UP, 1983); but impor-
tant work has also been done by others. [References in the text to these works are
given in the form: (author, page numbers).]
Semantic analysis studies meanings, whereas constitution analysis studies the
origins of meanings. For an account of constitution analysis, see, for instance,
Robert Sokolowski, The Formation of Husserl's Concept of Constitution (The
Hague: Nijhoff, 1964).
1988 The Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
Before plunging into constitutional analysis, let me present my
conclusions in a preliminary way under the form of an analogy: a
theory is related to a phenomenon as a musical score is related to a
musical performance. Theory alone can no more witness to the au-
thentic presence of a phenomenon than can the score alone of a
piece of music witness to the authentic presence of a musical perfor-
mance: there are hosts of other relevant factors in each case. The
phenomenon and the musical performance are each the realization
of theoretical models or schemata that depend on social, practical,
technological, hermeneutical, and artistic judgments that are local,
contextual, and immersed in cultural history.
The roots of constitution analysis are in Kant, Hegel, and Husserl.
Husserl was trained in mathematics and taught at Gottingen (1901-
1916) during its "Golden Years." He was a colleague and friend of
the great geometers, logicians, and axiomatizers who set the agenda
for twentieth-century physics.3
Husserl applied Felix Klein's transformation theory of projective
geometry to the analysis of perceptual objects. Just as a geometrical
object lies somewhere between the subjectivity of the coordinate
system and the objectivity of its representation in that system, so the
perceptual object lies somewhere between the subjectivity of an indi-
vidual viewing and the objectivity of the view that the individual gets.
The geometrical object, for Klein, is the symmetry or invariant pre-
served under permissible transformations of the representation and
of the coordinate system; the perceptual object, for Husserl, is the
symmetry or invariant preserved under permissible transformations
of the viewing system and of the viewers. The key to the analysis is, of
course, to identify correctly the transformation group (or symmetry
group) of the phenomenon, i.e., the group of transformations that
permute the profiles among themselves while preserving the stability
of the phenomenon.4
Whereas most theoretical physicists have directed their research
toward simplicity defined in terms of the symmetries of a model,
most experimental physicists have directed their research toward a
comparable experimental symmetry, the stable synthesis of a scien-
Husserl was himself an axiomatizer-in anticipation of Patrick Suppes? Well,
yes and no. See my "Husserl's Later Philosophy of Science," Philosophy of Science,
LIv, 3 (1987): 368-390, for a commentary on Husserl's philosophy of science and a
critique of it.
4 The importance of symmetries or invariance under transformation groups is
borne out by high-energy physics. As Steven Weinberg says, "The Universe is an
enormous direct product of representations of symmetry groups. It's hard to say it
any more strongly than that" (Crease, 187).
tific phenomenon. Although the centrality of the model is stressed by
all who take their inspiration from G6ttingen, the importance of a
robust and stable phenomenon is, in the long run, more important.
Both Ian Hacking and Peter Galison make a move in this direction
(Hacking, 222, 229; Galison, 259-260).
The notion of view, profile, or perspective, however, involves a
relation between perceiver and perceived. Every transformation af-
fecting the object is paired with a correlative inverse transformation
affecting the subject which would have the same phenomenological
outcome. This second group of transformations, initiated by the
agency of the subject, has the structure of the inverse group, but this
has the same structure as the group itself, since every inverse trans-
formation is also a member of the group.5
The correlativity of the objective and subjective transformation
groups is in turn the key to understanding the constitution of the
phenomenon. The objective transformation group is then the law of
the objective constitution of the phenomenon. Husserl called it the
noema of the phenomenon (cf. Heelan, 6-8). The subjective trans-
formation group is the acquired ability of the prepared experi-
menter to explore at will the noema of an object, and this is (what
Husserl calls) noesis. Noesis is the law of subjective constitution of
the object. One is led in this way into the analysis of perception as an
active process and as a species of experimental performance. Noesis
and noema then are correlative and (since a group and its inverse
are the same) both are representations of the same basic transforma-
tion group.
Constitutional analysis attempts (1) to define this basic transfor-
mation group, and (2) to describe its noematic and noetic imple-
mentations. These noetic implementations always employ the human
body and its sensory systems; they may, in addition, involve technolo-
gies such as instruments and the laboratory traditions that use them.
Can experimental phenomena be or become perceptual objects in
the Husserlian sense? The answer depends on whether an experi-
5 In physics, the first group is called the active group, and the second-for
constitutional analysis more interesting-group is called the passive group. Physi-
cists call it the "passive" group because it seems to them that the passive group leads
merely to redescriptions of the phenomenon. Husserl would have pointed out that
observers are not passive spectators, that the phenomenon itself subsists between
perceivers and profiles, and that, as a consequence, a constitutional analysis of the
perceptual kind of a thing begins precisely with a study of "the passive transforma-
tion group." For the notion of passive and active transformation groups in physics,
see Eugene Wigner, Symmetries and Reflection (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1957),
p. 45.
mental phenomenon can be prepared in a stable way by standard
instrumental procedures so as to exhibit its symmetry structure. If it
can, then it is a perceptual object in a world in which the equipment
and laboratory skills for constituting such phenomena experimen-
tally is available. I believe such a description applies to such things as
electrons, positrons, muons, and possibly neutral currents and quark
combinations, insofar as all of these can be constituted within tradi-
tions of laboratory practice and presented as stable phenomena. (Cf.
the discussions of muons in Galison, 126-133, and the general dis-
cussion on pp. 252-262).
O is the object-for-knowing constituted by the experimental role
say, Milliken's discretely charged oil droplets. M is the set of instru-
ments used in the preparation-presentation process. I use Dirac no-
to represent the experimental profiles of the phenome-
non 0, because I do not want to imply that 0 is a classically objective
space-time object, that is, I want to make room for the possibility that
not all of its experimental profiles are realizable under arbitrary
circumstances.6 When 0 is a phenomenological symmetry, i.e., a
stable, reproducible, empirical object, then it has the structure of a
Husserlian phenomenon.
How does one refer to the experimental profiles of a scientific
phenomenon? They are distinguished from one another by the sets
of measure numbers that substitute for the symbol 'X' in
I X>x
Iql, q2, etc.>X,
ql, q2, etc.,
are the measure
numbers provided by measurements with M.7 The measure numbers
denominate the profiles and distinguish among them. If this is what
is meant by 'describing', then the measure numbers describe, but
this, I believe, is not everything a description does; description also
gives the sensory qualitative appearances or profiles of a thing.
Dirac notation highlights the transformation theory aspect of Husserl's theory
of the phenomenon. In classical physics, the ket vectors
X> would be replaced by a
classical (n-dimensional) vector space, each vector representing a determinate ob-
jective state of the system. In a nonclassical theory such as the quantum theory, ket
vectors belong to a Hilbert space, and only those have phenomenological meaning
which are contextually linked to measurement.
7The 'X' (in I
will be replaced, after measurement, by some set of definite
q2, etc., standing for one complete set of characteristics for a given
context of measurement. It is usually assumed that the profiles of a scientific
phenomenon exist antecedently to measurement and are not constituted by the act
of measurement. This is the source of the view-held by Husserl and many others
-that measurement merely "idealizes" aspects of phenomena already there. I
criticized such views in my "Husserl's Later Philosophy of Science"; cf. also my
"Natural Science as a Hermeneutic of Instrumentation," Philosophy of Science, L,
3 (1983): 181-204. Cf. also Hacking, Representing, p. 240.
How do the phenomena appear to
The appearances of a phe-
nomenon are a function of the (usually) standard measuring context
M; this "dresses" the phenomenon 0 qualitatively with the charac-
teristic set of profiles I
q2, etc.>x.
Using the analogy with our
bodily senses and sensory powers that "dress" everyday perceptual
objects with color, texture, hardness, smell, etc., as well as size and
shape, M in like manner "dresses" scientific objects as perceptual
objects for our knowing in characteristic sets of sensory-technologi-
cal "garb." The description of the phenomenon is both quantitative
and qualitative.
The measure numbers
q2, etc., are obtained from a "reading"
of the measuring instruments M (cf. Heelan, 206/7). What is the
connection between the preparation-cum-presentation of the phe-
nomenon 0 and the numbers "read" from the signals? In the first
place, one may validly "read" numbers from the instruments only
when the phenomenon 0 is present to
for only then do the events
(and numbers) signal the empirical profiles of a phenomenon 0
"dressed" by the equipment M (Galison, 73/4, 88). In the second
place, having the right numbers does not guarantee the existence of
a phenomenon, for there are other factors involved, such as the
instruments, standard procedures, experimental skills, laboratory
traditions, and the social context of the research community (Gali-
son, 86-110). In the third place, having the phenomenon does not
depend on having one (uniquely) right set of numbers, for different
laboratory traditions may produce systematically divergent mea-
sures.8 Alternatively, the phenomenon could be the outcome of a
different theoretical background (classical, say, rather than relativis-
tic, giving a different set of characteristic numbers) and different
instrumentation.9 Just as a musical score always goes together with
performer, instrument, audience, and musical tradition, without
which there can be no music, so a theory always goes together with
experimenter, equipment, laboratory traditions, and the social
to J. S. Hunter, "The National System of Measurements," Science,
ccx (November 21, 1980): 869-874, for almost all measures other than the Interna-
tional System of Units, repeatability (within a single laboratory) and reproducibility
(among different laboratories) is poorly estimated, implying the existence of differ-
ent and virtually divergent laboratory traditions for many scientific measures. Some
of these divergences usually taken to be random may conceal undisclosed systematic
9 Consider the history of the theory of the electron (Galison, 31-52), or the
history of the theory of the positron (Galison, 86-110), first as related to the
"birth-cry of atoms," and then as due to Dirac pair-production, or the history of the
theory of the muon (Galison, 126-131), first as the "red" electron that caused
cosmic ray showers, and then as the cosmic "green electron" with singular pene-
trating power (cf. also the general discussion in Galison, 252-262).
context of science, without which there can be no scientific
Although the measured values of measure numbers are often
taken to be data, strictly speaking data are not-and should not be
taken to be-just numbers, but phenomenological profiles
These are experimental state vectors individuated by their individ-
ual set of measure numbers. The true datum is the vector I
Much discussion of the relationship between theory and data,
even of the more enlightened kind, such as Robert Ackermann's, is
unsatisfying for want of a distinction among the following: (1) mea-
sure numbers, (2) the model state vector
I X>,
specified by the num-
bers, and (3) the phenomenological state vector
Let us take a closer look at theory. Every "reading" of the mea-
suring instruments in terms of measure numbers supposes a theoret-
ical model. I have chosen to represent such a model by a set of Dirac
with its transformation groups defining its model in-
variants or symmetries. The theoretical vector
I X>,
is linked with the
empirical profile I X>. through the events-"measurement events"
-that occur in the measuring instruments (cf. Galison, 126-131).
the "measurement events" play a part in the
constitution of the phenomenon-for-Sr. Measurement "dresses" the
phenomenon 0 with a set of characteristic profiles. The "measure-
ment events" are not profiles of 0; they are no more profiles of 0
than, say, red patches are profiles of a strawberry, for a profile is
experienced as nothing but the presence of a perceptual object
under one of its profiles. A profile of a red strawberry is one particu-
lar view of a red strawberry; a red patch is something on its own
(from which possibly one may infer the presence of a strawberry or
something else), but it is not nothing but the presence of a straw-
berry. (How right are the arguments of those-Wilfred Sellars and
Husserl-who reject the "Myth of the Given"!)
Now consider St. For St these "measurement events" are potentially
"readable" events, that is, they are signals, subject to the proviso
that, at the time of the "reading," the phenomenon is present to
The process of passing from the measurement event as signal (which
is physical) to a number (which is nonphysical) is a species of inter-
pretation; it is what we do when, for example, we "read" a numeral
(a physical sign or signal) as a number (that which under the right
circumstances the numeral is taken to signify). Measurement events
are then not just plain events, like the red patches mentioned above,
but they are the physical signifiers of theoretical vectors, those
which within the experimental situation are characterized by mea-
sure numbers.'0
From the standpoint of St, the measurement events qua signals
comprise a semiotic system, that is, a system of differences which
functions as such. Events comprise a semiotic system, not because of
any features the events may have as physical events but because, as a
system of differences, they can function as signifiers. Semiotic events
may take many forms and still remain events of the same semiotic
system (cf. Galison, 248/9). Signifiers, moreover, are timeless and
ideal, and so they can be taken to refer to past or future phenomena.
Semiotic events, then, partake of a certain physical arbitrariness; by
social convention, however, they will have standardized or canonical
shapes. What they signify-their semantic meaning-comes in part
from the abstract theoretical model
I X>,
and in part from the con-
text of use. What they refer to is the phenomenon 0 under its set of
profiles I X>x. The theoretical model
now appears from the
standpoint of St to be a kind of langnage under which the reference
phenomenon with its empirical profiles
is described. Such a
relationship is hermeneutical in the typical epistemological sense of
that term.
The syntax of that "language" is mathematical; of itself it provides
no more than what Husserl would have called a formal ontology or a
possible formal ontology, that is, empty schemata of categories of
things." Its semantics, however, is tied up with the standardized
experimental praxis within which it is used. Semantically it needs a
social-historical-technological context to complete its meaning, and
this is an open context (Galison, 254). From the point of view of St,
then, the following analogy holds: the theoretical model (e.g., elec-
is to (the kind of) phenomenon (e.g.,
as the linguistic
model (the abstract signifier) is to the signified (the kind of thing the
phenomenon is). So far I have been speaking of the research role St.
It is different for
What is overlooked when one looks out from
the standpoint of
alone is the constitutive function that the mea-
surement events play in the preparation-cum-presentation of the
phenomenon 0 within the experimental role
A semiotic sign or
signal connotes a semantical meaning. It is not generally the case that
a semiotic sign also functions to constitute its referent object as an
For the nature of semiotic systems, see, e.g., Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in
General Linguistics, Wade Baskin, trans. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959),
or textbooks in semiotics.
See, for example, Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic, Dorian Cairns,
trans. (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969), p. 120.
object-for-knowing. Measurement events do just this, for they be-
long to the process whereby S.
constitutes the phenomenon as
present, knowable, and actually known. This process is also herme-
neutical, not now in the epistemological sense, but in an
artistic-"existential" or "ontological"-sense, as resulting from a
species of experimental performance.'2 Let me clarify this.
Consider, for example, the way a violinist addresses her instru-
ment with the bow in order to produce a piece of music. The bow in
this case is guided by a memory of the piece to be realized, its
position on the strings interprets the needs of the memorized piece,
and the sounds produced are in turn interpreted by the listening ear.
The score is the theoretical "description" of the piece, it stands for
I X>t;
the score
alone, however,
is insufficient for a
have music, one needs in addition an instrument, a performer, a
place, an audience, and much besides. For example, performances
fulfill different purposes: to teach, to rehearse, to celebrate, etc.
Finally, every performance relates to some historical tradition of
good performance.
But most important of all, for every good performer, the role of
the score undergoes a transformation when it ceases to be a theory
and becomes instead a mnemonic, then the artist's scorebook be-
comes a set of "places" or topoi, the function of which is to remind
the artist of the suites and sequences to be performed. As such it is a
local, personal, contextual, historical, technological, and artistic
guide, it an open or endless set of memory cues, it is no longer a
universal theoretical prescription. Such a mnemonic belongs to the
tradition of (what Frances Yates calls) "the art of memory."
Just so in science, once a skilled experimenter knows how within a
laboratory tradition to prepare and present a scientific phenome-
non, theoretical models become converted into mnemonics for per-
formance and demonstration. The last word in scientific research is
then with
Sx. Theory as such has a formal place only up to the
moment when a laboratory tradition permits the realization and re-
producibility of stable phenomena suitable for the research needs of
the social-historical situation; then it can drop out (Galison, 244,
252-262; and Crease, 337-350) for it is now realized in praxis.
Methodological or epistemological hermeneutics is the conscious and deliber-
ate work of interpreting a text or a set of signs or symbols. Existential hermeneu-
tics, introduced by Martin Heidegger, is that ontological character of all human
understanding whereby it interprets life in terms of Being. For a useful survey, see
Josef Bleicher, Contemporary Hermeneutics (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1980). Joseph Rouse's Knowledge and Power (Ithaca: Cornell, 1987) is an impor-
tant recent work introducing Heideggerian hermeneutics to the philosophy of
natural science.
When the last word is said, how does S. use the language of theory?
Substantive terms used in the theory, such as 'electron', etc., refer to
phenomena, i.e., to
etc. Each kind of phenomenon is
defined in terms of its characteristic set of profiles, e.g., of mass,
charge, spin, lepton number, strangeness, etc.; these are the compo-
nents of
I X>.,.
In each category, the profiles are distinguished from
one another by measure numbers that specify and distinguish the
contextually realizable vectors of the theoretical model. Some of
these measure numbers may be additive, some ordinal, and some
merely serve to make discriminations. The descriptive qualities of the
phenomenon-what I mean by the dress of the phenomenon-are
given by the kinds of standard preparation devices or laboratory
practices established by the research community. When the last
word is said, the vocabulary of theory remains, but no longer as
"theory-laden"; its meaning has become instead "praxis-laden" (cf.
Galison, 255).
Whether or not the memory of its theoretical origins is retained,
the phenomenon becomes-or seems to become-a part of nature.
And though the old terms have their origins in theory and continue
to be used, their semantic content changes, bypassing theory and
signifying directly the characteristic empirical qualities of the
"dressed" phenomenon. That "naturalized" artifact of human cul-
ture, the scientific phenomenon, is now, in the sense appropriate to
the historical culture of that scientific community, a thing of nature.
In our culture, electrons, positrons, muons, and possibly neutral
currents are things of nature.
So much for the epistemological question. What now about the onto-
logical question? If phenomena-i.e., perceptual objects-are real,
then scientific phenomena are real. Then
etc., are real and belong to appropriate regional ontologies
of the cultural-historical world in which we presently live. As for
black holes, quarks, and such like, about which physicists are pres-
ently undecided, one will say that laboratory physicists will decide
eventually whether these are-can be made to exhibit the phenome-
nological symmetries of-scientific phenomena (cf. Galison,
126-131). If they become phenomena, then they are-i.e., they
become for us, for our culture-real. Reality, in this view, is natural-
istic and evolutionary, but people and praxis are what provide it with
the categories of the real.13 Within this picture, the objects of
Of those who defend a naturalistic evolutionary realism of this kind, some, such
as C. S. Peirce, belong to the pragmatist tradition and some, such as
bermas, to the Marxist tradition.
positront, etc.-are ideal semiotic entities like
words, and, like words, they represent no more than empty schemata
of an indeterminate and undecidable formal ontology outside of
social-historical-technological contexts.
If, to the contrary, one takes formal ontologies to give categories
of reality apart from the means of realizing or fulfilling the schemata
they define, then theoretical entities such as
positront, etc.,
should be taken to be, not as in the first position the meanings of
word-like semiotic entities, but to refer to real categories indepen-
dently of the social-historical-technological context of experimental
fulfillment. This Platonizing position is today called "Scientific
There is a third or transcendental position that lies in between the
two just mentioned and has certain attractive features. Husserl gave
it preference in his own philosophy of science. In this view, theoreti-
cal models are not constitutive of an ontology-they are not the
categorial contents of a realism-but they are nevertheless univer-
sally and transcendentally regulative for all lifeworlds, and they are
exemplified in historical culture-relative ways. The fulfillment of
such formal conditions then is not a contingent social-historical-tech-
nological event as it would be for the first position, but a necessary
-though not a sufficient-condition governing all constitutions of
phenomena and all constitutions of historical life-worlds. The neces-
sity in question belonged, as Husserl thought, to the privileged status
of scientific knowing.
My personal view tends to favor the first position. I have criticized
Husserl's view in a paper cited above. I find that the reasons he gave
are bad reasons. Whatever choice is made, it has to be made against a
background that is much broader than that of science itself, an open
background that involves history, culture, religion, and art, and the
other ingredients of experimental performance so well described
and analysed by-to mention just two-Galison and Hacking.'5
State University of New York/Stony Brook
Wilfred Sellars gave the now classical defense of scientific realism in "Philoso-
phy and the Scientific Image of Man," in Science, Perception, and Reality (Lon-
don: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 1-40. Of particular note among the many
recent works on this topic are Clifford Hooker, A Realistic Theory of Science
(Albany: SUNY Press, 1987); Rom Harre, Varieties of Realism (New York: Black-
well, 1986); and Scientific Realism, Jarrett Leplin, ed. (Berkeley: California UP,
15 For an excellent analysis and critique of the current state of the question
concerning truth and realism in science, see Joseph J. Kockelmans, "On the Prob-
lem of Truth in the Sciences," in Proceedings and Addresses of the American
Philosophical Association, LXI, Suppl. (1987): 5-26.