Thought Experiments in Methodological and Historical Contexts


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During the last decades of the twentieth century highly imaginative thought experiments were introduced in philosophy: Searle’s Chinese room, variations on the Brain-in-a-vat, Thomson’s violinist. At the same time historians of philosophy and science claimed the title of thought experiment for almost any argument: Descartes’ evil genius, Buridan’s ass, Gyges’ ring. In the early 1990s a systematic debate began concerning the epistemological status of thought experiments. The essays in this volume are an outcome of this debate. They were guided by the idea that, since we cannot forge a strict definition of thought experiments, we should at least tame the contemporary wild usage of this notion by analysing thought experiments from various periods, and thus clarify how they work, what their limits are, and what their conceptualisation could be.

Medieval and Early Modern Science, 15

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Katerina Ierodiakonou is Associate Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Athens. She has published extensively on ancient and Byzantine philosophy, especially in the areas of epistemology and logic. She currently works on a book about ancient theories of colour.

Sophie Roux (Ph.D., EHESS, 1996) is Associate Professor at the University of Grenoble and Junior Fellow at the Institut universitaire de France. She has published extensively on various aspects of philosophy and science in the early modern period.
“Thus, there is debate about the nature and status of the counterfactuality or modality of thought experiments and also of the epistemic implications of these various modalities. Moreover, there is disagreement about the purposes or function that thought experiments can be put to: can they, for instance, be used constructively to prove (or directly support) theories, or only destructively to weaken or disprove them? Finally, as the presence and fascination of many thought experiments show, their very concreteness seems to provide them with a compelling power to be taken seriously, whatever one may think about their modal and epistemic status. This, I think, is made perfectly clear by the range of contributions in the book, and perhaps its greatest virtue is that it reflects this disagreement in such a transparent way. However, its ambition, stated on the back cover, is very high: “to tame the contemporary wild usage of this notion”. While the book succeeds in making the multi-dimensionality of its topic clear, and by addressing many of its aspects in lucid and thought-provoking ways, I fear more is needed for realizing that ambition.”
Øyvind Rabbås (University of Oslo), in Reviews in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 2/2013.

“This significant collection, should stimulate a great deal more work on the wonderfully rich topic of TEs.”
James Robert Brown and Michael T. Stuart in: HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 154-157

"All in all, this collection presents us with nine thought-provoking essays on thought experimentation and other argumentative strategies from antiquity to today.A good reading for anyone interested in the history of philosophy and science and the methodology of thought experimentation in either discipline." Daniel Cohnitz, Metascience (DOI 10.1007/s11016-012-9709-7)

"The papers in the book concentrate on historical and methodological issues of thought experiments providing a range of analyses and thus clarifying a concept that has been hard to pin down...[this book] will provide a useful prism through which to assess agent-based modelling." Corinna Elsenbroich, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, Volume 15, Number 1, 2012.
Introduction: The Emergence of the Notion of Thought Experiments, Sophie Roux


Remarks on the History of an Ancient Thought Experiment, Katerina Ierodiakonou
Thought Experiments in the De Anima Commentaries, Peter Lautner
Thought Experiments in Late Medieval Debates on Atomism, Christophe Grellard


Thought Experiments and Indirect Proofs in Averroes, Aquinas, and Buridan, Simo Knuuttila and Taneli Kukkonen
Galileo’s Use of Medieval Thought Experiments, Carla Rita Palmerino
On Kant’s Critique of Thought Experiments in Early Modern Philosophy, Stelios Virvidakis


Philosophical Thought Experiments: In or Out of the Armchair?, Pascal Engel
On the Very Idea of a Thought Experiment, Jean-Yves Goffi and Sophie Roux
Thought Experiments and Mental Simulations, John Zeimbekis

List of Contributors
Index nominum
All those interested in history and philosophy of science, epistemology and philosophy of mind.
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