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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


The Scientific Thought Experiments Reading Group will be meeting weekly on Thursdays at 2–3pm UK time on Zoom. Organised by Ruward Mulder (ram202) and Sam Rijken (

Scientific Thought Experiments: what do they do and how do they do it? Thought experiments are everywhere, both in the history of science and in present science, often with far-reaching consequences. STEs first and foremost demand analysis because they are performed in the imagination, which is a dubious source of knowledge. Yet we seem to learn about the world by performing a thought experiment. The main explanandum, therefore, is this: how can we learn about the world by performing a thought experiment, that is, by merely using our imagination?

Michaelmas Term 2021

7 October

  • Kuhn (1964), 'A Function for Thought Experiments' (in: The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change)

A cornerstone of contemporary literature. Formulates central questions concerning STEs – how can we learn about the world by merely using the imagination? – and formulates a possible non-controversial answer: we can learn to adopt concepts, and, consequently because of the legislative role of concepts, we can learn about the world. Discusses Galilei vs Aristotelians on the concept of 'speed'.

14 October

  • Brendel (2018), 'The argument view: are thought experiments mere picturesque arguments?' (in: The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments)

Incredibly helpful article on a central question in the contemporary literature on STEs: are thought experiments mere picturesque arguments? Discusses the debate on this questions between Norton and Brown, and distinguishes usefully between several conflated claims in this debate. Also discusses the conceptual space in between Norton and Brown, and places the more 'intuitionist'-approaches by e.g. Nersessian and Gendler therein.

21 October

  • Damper (2006), 'The logic of Searle's Chinese room argument' (Mind Mach 16)

A rather technical but insightful application of modal logic to thought experiments. Almost all thought experiments contain a modal claim that asks us to imagine something that we deem 'possible'. Therefore, modal logic is bound up to be useful in the formalisation of thought experiments. Damper uses a logical framework developed by Sorenson to evaluate Searle's Chinese Room Argument (making this arguably the least scientific thought experiment that we cover).     

28 October

  • Gendler (2004), 'Thought Experiments Rethought – and Reperceived' (Philosophy of Science 71)

An important paper in the literature on STEs. Takes important steps in getting an analytic grasp of the 'quasi-sensory intuitions' at work in STEs that are a source for new beliefs and even justifications of beliefs, thus play a possibly irreducible epistemic role in thought experiments.

4 November

  • Salis and Frigg (2020), 'Capturing the Scientific Imagination' (in: The Scientific Imagination)

Using an adapted version of an STE by Galilei, the authors propose a taxonomy of the scientific imagination and argue that a specific type of propositional imagination called ‘make-believe’ is the only type of imagination necessary to account for all the use of imagination in science – certainly for thought experimenting and model-based reasoning. Contrast their view of the imagination with e.g. Nersessian (and judge her ‘mental-modelling’ neither necessary nor sufficient) and mere counterfactual reasoning.

11 November

  • Stuart (2018), 'How Thought Experiments Increase Understanding' (in: The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments)

Connects the philosophy of STEs to the literature on scientific understanding, as opposed to scientific knowledge (the more commonly discussed epistemic product in the context of ETEs), and discusses several specific STEs in the process.

18 November

  • Norton (2018), 'The worst thought experiment' (in: The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments)

Discusses Maxwell's Demon in Norton's characteristic style. Nice to read something by Norton that is not a 'meta-STE'-paper, and a must-read to understand (or avoid misunderstanding) Maxwell's Demon.

25 November

  • Ian Hacking (1992), 'Do thought experiments have a life of their own?' (Philosophy of Science 2)

A critical reflection on the literature, from right when the literature took off. Hacking is not impressed, neither by the questions that are posed nor by the answers provided by authors such as Norton, Brown, and Nersessian. For Hacking, the literature on STEs does not manage to explain the aspects of STEs that we want to have explained. This paper will help us to reflect, at the end of this reading group, on the contemporary literature on STEs: have we progressed, where are we now, and where are we going?