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Early Modern Experimental Philosophy
A project of the Early Modern Thought Research Theme at the University of Otago

How general was Newton’s experimental philosophy?

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Newton is often taken to have spawned two important, but different, sciences: an experimental science exemplified in the Opticks, and a mathematical science exemplified in the PrincipiaI. Bernard Cohen and George Smith, for example, write:

There is, perhaps, no greater tribute to the genius of Isaac Newton than that he could thus engender two related but rather different traditions of doing science.

Like many commentators, they emphasise the differences between the austere, formal mathematism of Newton’s so-called ‘rational mechanics’ and the complex and sophisticated experimentalism of his work on light and colour.  And so, the two works are typically taken to exemplify very different methodologies.

In contrast, on this blog, I have emphasised the common features, rather than the differences—presenting a more integrated account of Newton’s methodology.  For example, I have argued that his claim, that the Principia is a work of experimental philosophy, is something we should take seriously.  And so the mathematico-experimental method is a feature of both the Opticks and the Principia.  Moreover, I have argued that Newton’s mathematico-experimental method can be broadly characterised by an epistemic triad: a three-way epistemic division between theories, hypotheses and queries.  The epistemic triad drives Newton’s optical work and his rational mechanics in a trajectory from experiment to certainty, using mathematical reasoning.

While the Opticks and the Principia represent two fields to which Newton made important contributions, these impressive tomes do not signify the entirety of his research output—nor even the bulk.  During his lifetime, Newton produced vast quantities of written work on chymistry, theology and Church history, as well as mathematics.  Over several posts, I plan to explore some of this less well-known work in order to learn more about Newton’s methodology.  In particular, I want to see what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are between his many projects.

This may seem like a fool’s errand.  Indeed, these lesser-known parts of Newton’s research have a poor reputation.  One idea, floated by Jean-Baptiste Biot in his 1829 biography, was that Newton’s intellectual life divided naturally in two: prior to his mental breakdown in 1692, Newton’s life was sane, rational and scientific, but afterwards was mad, irrational and religious.  And so Newton’s alchemical and theological manuscripts are often dismissed as the half-baked musings of an old man.  In more recent times, however, commentators such as Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, William R. Newman, Rob Iliffe and Sarah Dry (to name just a few!) have aimed to redress this situation.  They have demonstrated that Newton’s alchemical and theological pursuits were as much a part of his intellectual life as the optics, rational mechanics and mathematics, for which he is famous.  So, firstly, if there was any kind of cleavage, it was not along disciplinary lines, and secondly, these intellectual pursuits should be counted as serious scholarship—not simply to be swept under the proverbial rug.

So what sorts of continuities should we expect to find?  In the remainder of this post, I’ll offer a few preliminary suggestions.

One striking feature of Newton’s published scientific work is how methodologically reflective it was.  Perhaps we should expect similar reflections in his manuscripts on chymistry, theology or Church history.  Indeed, a cursory look at the collection shows that Newton approached chymistry, theology and Church history with the same persistence and vigour that we find in his other work.  Moreover, we can recognise several of the same methodological and foundational concerns.  For example, Newton’s interest in the restoration of an ancient tradition of knowledge that has been lost or corrupted, and the view that reason, hard work and disciplined empirical research are always preferable to speculation.

Another feature of Newton’s work that I have discussed on this blog is what I call his ‘rhetorical style’: Newton borrowed familiar terms and bent them to his own needs.  He is, moreover, best characterised as a methodological omnivore—he read widely on different methodologies and approaches, and selected from among them the best tools for the job.  We might expect to find the same thing in his chymistry and theology.  Again, my preliminary reading offers some support.  Newton appears to have been interested in all aspects of chymistry—a heavily experimental discipline, often with a pragmatic eye to profit, as much about developing chemical technologies and pharmaceuticals as it is about turning base metals into gold.  However, while Newton worked on the typical alchemist’s project of deciphering ancient myths, he doesn’t seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid.  He appears to have been much more concerned with linking his chymical research to his more mainstream science—for example, his matter theory.  In short, in these manuscripts, we can recognise the same desire to penetrate appearances and arrive at the fundamental truths of nature that we find in his physics.

Following on from this, we might also expect to find a concern for unification: the idea that Newton’s many topics of investigation are in fact part of a larger project.  For example, in Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton argues for both ontological and methodological unification.  Again, looking briefly at some of his alchemical manuscripts, we see a similar preoccupation.  Newton’s discussions of the ‘vegetative spirit’, for example, offer insight into the ways in which the various strands of his scholarly endeavours, including chymistry and theology, were united under one grand scheme.

When understanding the development of Newton’s thought, I often find it helpful to distinguish between Public-Newton and Private-Newton.  I have argued that there are important methodological differences between the work that Newton published (and hence, was willing to assert and defend) and the work he kept private.  While the former conforms, in some sense, to the experimental philosophy, the latter is typically much more speculative.  The distinction is particularly useful when considering Newton’s optical work, where we find stark differences between draft material and the final published version.  But I suspect it won’t be so useful once we turn to his chymistry, theology and Church history, where many of Newton’s unpublished manuscripts were in circulation—some only among his closest circle of like-minded friends, and others, much more widely.  And yet, this raises one final issue.  Newton’s efforts to pass off his published work as experimental philosophy may well have been politically motivated: by describing his work as ‘experimental philosophy’, he was signalling his commitment as much to the Royal Society as to observation- and experiment-based theorising.  His chymical, theological and Church history manuscripts were circulated much more privately—and presumably the same political motivations did not apply.  When working outside the jurisdiction of the Royal Society, did Newton conform to the experimental philosophy?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

The ambiguous status of Maupertuis

Peter Anstey writes…

Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698–1759) was one of the leading and most celebrated French natural philosophers of the eighteenth century. A competent mathematician who studied with Johann I Bernoulli, a foreign member of the Royal Society, a member of the Parisian Académie royale des Sciences and, from 1746, the perpetual President of the Berlin Académie des sciences et belles lettres, Maupertuis was one of the premier savants of his age. But, was Maupertuis an experimental philosopher?

There is no doubt that his greatest achievement was the Lapland expedition to determine the length of a degree of longitude near the North Pole and to settle once and for all the debate over the shape of the Earth. Maupertuis’ observations, in spite of challenges from the astronomer Cassini, proved decisive and the Newtonian theory that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, bulging at the Equator, was finally accepted. The expedition involved all the elements of experimental natural philosophy: instruments, teamwork, careful observations, measurement, analysis, experimental reports, etc.

The expedition took place from May 1736 to August 1737, just at the time when experimental philosophy was being enthusiastically embraced in France through the influence of Nollet, Voltaire and others. On the expedition Maupertuis was accompanied by the young Pierre Charles Le Monnier, who five years later dedicated his translation of Roger Cotes’ lectures on experimental philosophy to him. It is entitled Leçons de physique expérimentale (Paris, 1742) and in the dedicatory epistle Le Monnier says of Maupertuis, ‘no one can ignore how many discoveries you have enriched natural philosophy with’.

It is tempting, therefore, to regard Maupertuis as having vindicated Newtonian experimental philosophy over and above the speculative Cartesians and to see him as a beacon for the new methodology that gives priority to experiment and observation over premature theorizing. Who would better qualify to be a leading experimental philosopher in France? However tempting this may be, we should resist it, for, as J. B. Shank intimates (The Newton Wars, Chicago, p. 429), Maupertuis seems never to have expressed any enthusiasm about experimental philosophy. Moreover, from the 1740s his intellectual trajectory seems to take him in the opposite direction.

No doubt one of the motivations for Frederick the Great to invite Maupertuis to Berlin to head up the revivified Academy there in 1746 was to secure the services of a leading and mathematically competent experimental philosopher whose Lapland expedition was now a cause célèbre throughout Europe. The new structure of the Académie, as we have noted before on this blog, consisted of four classes: Experimental Philosophy, Speculative Philosophy, Mathematics and Belles-lettres. Each member of the Academy, apart from the President, belonged to one of these classes, and the bulk of the work of the Academy was published in one of the four sections of the Memoirs that matched the classes.

Surprisingly, a careful survey of Maupertuis’ contributions to the main publication of the Berlin Academy, the Histoire de l’académie royale des sciences et belles lettres reveals that, in spite of his scientific achievements, Maupertuis didn’t publish a single article in the Experimental Philosophy memoirs. Nor did he publish anything in the Mathematics section. His account of his famous Principle of Least Action, entitled ‘The laws of motion and of rest deduced from a metaphysical principle’, appears in the 1748 memoirs for speculative philosophy. Likewise, his ‘The different ways by which men have expressed their ideas’ and his ‘Philosophical examination of the proof of the existence of God’ also appeared in the Speculative Philosophy section in 1756 and 1758 respectively. His ‘On the manner of writing and reading the lives of great men’ appeared in Belles-lettres in 1757. Moreover, there appears to be no evidence that he ever performed an experiment after arriving in Berlin in 1746.

An adequate explanation of this ambiguous status of Maupertuis vis-à-vis experimental philosophy is likely to be complicated. It would have to reach back to some of his earliest papers in natural philosophy, such as ‘On the laws of attraction’ published in 1735, for this includes a metaphysical section on God and the inverse square law (Histoire de l’académie royale des sciences, 1735, pp. 343–62). It would also have to explore the influence of Leibniz and Wolff on both Maupertuis and others in the Berlin Academy, such as its secretary Samuel Formey. For example, the influence of Leibniz and Wolff may account for the absence of any tension between experimental and speculative philosophy in the Berlin Academy. Clearly the case of Maupertuis requires further reflection. We are very keen to hear from anyone who has thoughts on these matters.


Call for Abstracts: Conceptions of Experience in the German Enlightenment between Wolff and Kant

Call for Abstracts: Conceptions of Experience in the German Enlightenment between Wolff and Kant

University of Leuven, February 24-25, 2017

Submission deadline: October 15, 2016

Confirmed keynote Speakers
Christian Leduc (Montréal)
Arnaud Pelletier (Brussels)
Anne-Lise Rey (Lille)
Udo Thiel (Graz)

Organized by Karin de Boer (University of Leuven) and Tinca Prunea-Bretonnet (University of Bucharest)

The purpose of this conference is to analyze the various conceptions of experience at play in eighteenth-century German philosophy between Leibniz’s death in 1716 and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. During this period, the classical Aristotelian definition of experience as cognition of singulars – to some extent still present in Wolff – became confronted with the Baconian and Newtonian accounts of empirical knowledge. In the decades before the mid-century, the views of Locke and Hume, as well as French sensualism and materialism, complicated the prevailing German perspective on experience even more: the notion of empirical or ‘historical’ knowledge became linked to experiment and observation, investigations into perception and sensation took center stage, and ‘inner experience’ grew into a widely discussed topic.

The Berlin Academy, through the prize-essay contests it organized and the writings of its members, importantly contributed to the dissemination of Newtonianism and empiricism. Yet while most philosophers acknowledged the fundamental role of experience, they tried to accomodate the modern notions of experience to a view of cognition and science influenced by Wolffian metaphysics. The question as to the contribution of foundational metaphysical principles and empirical data to scientific knowledge was much discussed, as was the relationship between inner and outer experience, experience and thought, experience and judgment, experience and facts, experience and perception, experience and experiment, and perception and apperception.

Challenging the historiographical opposition between empiricism and rationalism, the conference aims to explore the often ambivalent or fluid conceptions of experience at work in these debates, as well their influence on disciplines such as psychology and aesthetics. Whereas all contributions relevant to these topics are welcome, we are particularly interested in contributions on the conceptions of experience elaborated by members of the Berlin Academy and by participants in the contests initiated by this institution.

The conference aims at stimulating fruitful exchanges between established scholars, junior researchers, and PhD students. Presentation time will be 25 minutes + 20 minutes for discussion.

Abstracts (of no more than 500 words) should be sent in MSWord as attachment to

Abstracts should be prepared for double-blind review by removing any identification details. The author’s name, paper title, institutional position and affiliation, as well as contact information, should be included in the body of the e-mail.

Notification of acceptance by November 15, 2016.


The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain 2

Juan Gomez writes…

Following up on my previous post, we will examine today the second part of the  Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy. Last time, we introduced the issue by examining Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo’s attempt to stand at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide. We saw that he gave an account of the creation of the world which he claimed was consistent with both the story told in Genesis and the theory of atomism. However, some scholastic thinkers viewed Alvarez’s account as a threat, and decided to criticize him. In today’s post we will look at Fransisco Palanco’s attack on the new science and a reply from the novatores side by Juan de Nájera.

Fransisco Palanco published in 1714 his Dialogus physico-theologicus contra Philosophiae Novatores, sive thomista contra atomistas as a reaction to Alvarez’s texts. Palanco was perhaps the most vocal of the scholastic thinkers who opposed the novatores and the new science, but his attacks were easily dismissed by the novatores themselves. In fact, even some well-known priests from Palanco’s same order (Emmanuel Maignan and Jean Saguens) criticized the Dialogus physico-theologicus. To begin with, the title of the text suggests that it proposes a defense of Thomism from atomism, but it turns out the text is actually an attack on Descartes and the Cartesian system. Even this description of the text is somewhat inaccurate, since the criticisms made are against a few Cartesians (Antoine Le Grand, Theodore Graanen, and François Bayle) and not Descartes himself. Palanco had missed his target: Cartesianism is not the same as atomism, as the novatores would soon point out. But the most criticized aspect was the fact that Palanco takes the discussion out of its scientific framework, focusing solely on the religious and theological aspect.

In spite of all the flaws of Palanco’s text, the book did manage to get the attention of the novatores and it set the stage for a proper scientific debate between scholastics and novatores.

In 1716 Juan de Nájera, under the pseudonym Alejandro de Avendaño, published Diálogos philosophicos en defensa del atomismo as a response to Palanco. Nájera constructs a dialogue between an atomist and a scholastic (Palanco), where he shows the supremacy of atomism and reinforces the maxims we saw in Alvarez’s Historia de la Iglesia: corpuscles as the primitive matter for compounds, material forms, the distinction between substance and accident, among other topics.

Besides Nájera’s response, the book contains a review by Diego Mateo Zapata where he defends the new science and the novatores, explaining that atomism is different from cartesianism, rejecting Aristotelianism, and reinforcing the importance of experimental physics for our investigation of the natural world. Zapata’s review stands out as valuable, since it gives us some very clear statements of the way in which the novatores stand as Spain’s promoters of experimental philosophy.

Zapata first clarifies: “I am not Cartesian, but rather Maignanist,” stating that he adheres to the atomism of Maignan. Despite this claim, he goes on to defend Descartes, making an exaggerated emphasis on the latter’s religious devotion and faith. Aside from this defense of Descartes, the main thrust of the review is to defend the new science. Zapata gives us the following statement which summarizes his viewpoint:

Oh poor, miserable, weary Physics, or Natural Philosophy, how unattended and disregarded you are, on accounts of not being understood! Everyone dares you, abuses you, and disfigures you wanting to dress you with a Metaphysical varnish. Your truth, real nature and properties are obscured so they can’t be found, nor can the immense variety of your legitimate, sensible, natural Phenomena be explained.

Following this, Zapata claims that the cause for this neglect lays in upholding Aristotelianism. He comments that the scholastics follow Aristotelianism blindly, to the point where “the eyes are not believed so the belief in Aristotle is not lost.” This rejection of Aristotelianism and the complaint of the way the scholastics carry out their natural philosophy places the Spanish novatores clearly on the experimental side of the ESD, strengthening the claim that the ESD can be useful for our interpretation of the history of philosophy in Spain.

As for the controversy at hand, Palanco’s arguments are not strong enough and even a bit sidetracked, leaving us without much to work with in order to understand the scholastic viewpoint on the matter and if such views line up with the speculative side of the ESD. However, in my next post we will have the opportunity to examine a text by a scholastic which does shed some light on the matter: Juan Martin de Lessaca’s Formas ilustradas a la luz de la razón, a response to Zapata and Nájera.


Locke and the Newtonian Achievement

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In the Principia, Newton claimed to be doing experimental philosophy.  Over my last three posts, I’ve wondered whether we can interpret his so-called ‘experimental philosophy’ as Baconian.  In the first two posts, I identified methodological similarities between Bacon and Newton: first, the use of crucial instances; second, the use of Baconian induction.  In each case, I concluded that, without some sort of textual evidence clearly tying Newton’s method to Bacon’s, such similarities don’t demonstrate influence.  In my third post, I tried a different approach: I considered Mary Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia should be considered Baconian because members of the Royal Society recognised, and responded to, it as part of the Baconian tradition.  While Domski’s argument was fruitful in helping us better to understand what’s at stake in discussions of influence, I raised several concerns with her narrative.  In this post, I shall address those concerns in more detail.

Let’s focus on Domski’s account of how Locke reacted to Newton’s Principia.  Domski argues that Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program.  That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes.  In short, Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes.  Last time, I expressed two concerns with this account.  Firstly, ‘speculative naturalist’ looks like a contradiction in terms (I have discussed the concept of ‘speculative experimental science’ here), and surely neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with the label.  Secondly, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian.  Domski’s discussion of the reception of the Principia establishes the former, but not necessarily the latter.

We can get more traction on both of these concerns by considering Peter Anstey’s account of how the Principia influenced Locke.  Anstey argues that Newton’s achievement forced Locke to revise his views on the role of principles in natural philosophy.  In the Essay, Locke offers a theory of demonstration—the process by which one can reason from principles to certain truths via the agreement and disagreement of ideas.  In the first edition, Locke argued that this method of reasoning was only possible in mathematics and moral philosophy, where one could reason from certain principles.  Due to limitations of human intellect, such knowledge was not possible in natural philosophy.  Instead, one needed to follow the Baconian method of natural history which provided, at best, probable truths.  However, Anstey shows us that, by the late 1690s, Locke had revised his account of natural philosophy to admit demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’ (that is, principles that were discovered by observation and experiment).

I now draw your attention to two features of this account.  Firstly, Newton’s scientific achievement—his theory of universal gravitation—as opposed to his successful development of a new natural philosophical method per se forced Locke to revise his position on demonstration from principles.  (A while ago, Currie and I noted that this situation is to be expected, if we take the ESD seriously.)  This feature should make us suspicious of Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia was taken to exemplify the speculative stage of Baconian natural philosophy.  Locke did not see Newton’s achievement as a system of speculative hypotheses, but as genuinely empirical knowledge, demonstrated from principles that are justified by observation and experiment.  Newton had not constructed a Baconian natural history, but nor had he constructed a speculative system.  Rather, Locke recognised Newton’s achievement as something akin to a mathematical result—one which his epistemological story had better accommodate.  This forced him to extend his theory of demonstration to natural philosophy.  And so, by the late 1690s, we find passages like the following:

“in all sorts of reasoning, every single argument should be managed as a mathematical demonstration; the connection and dependence of ideas should be followed, till the mind is brought to the source on which it bottoms, and observes the coherence all along” (Of the Conduct of the Understanding).

Secondly, Anstey emphasises that Locke didn’t regard Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as Baconian, but only as consistent with his, Locke’s, theory of demonstration.  (Anstey also claims that Locke never fully integrated the revisions required to his view of natural philosophy in the Essay.)  On this blog, we have suggested that, in the 18th century, a more mathematical experimental natural philosophy displaced the natural historical approach.  And Anstey has offered a sustained argument for this position here.  He argues that the break was not clean cut, but in the end in Britain mathematical experimental philosophy trumped experimental natural history.  That this break was not clean cut helps to explain why experimental moral philosophers, such as Turnbull, thought they were pursuing both a Baconian and a Newtonian project, and were quite comfortable with this.

Notice that I’ve shifted from the vexed question of the extent to which Bacon influenced Newton, to a perhaps more fruitful line of enquiry: how Newton influenced Locke and others.  This is no non sequitur.  The members of the Royal Society strove to understand Newton in their terms—namely, in terms of Baconianism and the experimental philosophy.  Here, it seems that two conclusions confront us.  Firstly, we (again) find that Newton was taken as legitimately developing experimental philosophy by emphasising both the role of experimentally-established principles of natural philosophy and the capacity of mathematics to carry those principles forward.  These aspects are, at best, underemphasised in Bacon and certainly missing from the Baconian experimental philosophy adopted by many members of the Royal Society.  Secondly, we see that Newton’s influence on Locke was due, at least in part, to his scientific achievements.  Newton did not argue directly with Locke’s epistemology or method, nor did Locke take Newton’s methodology as a replacement for his own.  Rather, Locke took Newton’s scientific success as an example of demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’.  This, in turn, necessitated modifications of his own account.

A response to Anstey’s ‘Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration’

A guest post by Mordechai Feingold.

Mordechai Feingold writes …

I thank Peter Anstey for drawing attention to my ‘“Experimental Philosophy”: Invention and Rebirth of a Seventeenth-Century Concept’, and for giving me the opportunity to correct certain misunderstandings of my argument.

Anstey begins: ‘Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term “experimental philosophy” in them.’ The unsuspecting reader of the blog may conclude that the paper is devoted in its entirety to such minute study; in fact, only a third is given over to the Hartlib papers. More serious, however, is Anstey’s insinuation that on the basis of such a survey I conclude: ‘there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660’. I make no such claim. As both the title and the content of my article make abundantly clear, I argue explicitly that it was the concept of ‘experimental philosophy’, not the practices that would be identified later under such term, that was absent before the Restoration.

Anstey pivots to my claim that when John Aubrey, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood described, two decades and more after the events, the activities carried out at Oxford during the 1650s, they anachronistically projected the term ‘experimental philosophy’ onto such activities—thereby leading historians to assume that the term had been in use already back then. Anstey disagrees. ‘As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love’, he writes, ‘Boyle had been described by the anonymous author … of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’. I was aware of this reference. However, since the first edition of Seraphic Love was published in late September 1659, and since it is not at all clear whether the anonymous second advertisement was actually included in the initial printing of the book, I considered the following statement sufficient to denote Boyle’s centrality to the revamping of the concept: ‘By early 1660 Boyle added “experimental philosophy” to his rhetorical repertoire, thereby becoming intimately involved in refitting the meaning of the phrase’. I documented the statement by citing the very expressions from New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air that Anstey cites against my interpretation. In particular, Anstey claims, the context in which Boyle referred to John Wilkins as the ‘Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’ is ‘entirely experimental’—thereby implying that I denied the existence of experimental activity before 1660. Anstey further contends that ‘Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood’. I don’t see the problem here. The reference to Wilkins was obviously added to the discussion of the twentieth experiment when Boyle prepared the manuscript for press in early 1660. Thus, the inclusion of the term coheres perfectly with the other references to ‘experimental philosophy’ in the book.

Ultimately, whether Boyle started using the term in late 1659 or in early 1660 is of no great matter. What is important, and this is the point I insist on, is that Boyle and other members of the Royal Society—with the notable exception of William Petty whom I discuss at some length in my article—had previously used terms other than ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their scientific activities. And in view of my pronounced aim to probe the changing fortunes of a concept, I’m puzzled by Anstey’s characterization of my undertaking as a denial of the historical relations furnished by Aubrey, Wallis, Wood, and Boyle concerning the existence of a flourishing experimental activity at Oxford during the 1650s. My intent was to show why it was only around 1660 that Boyle and his Royal Society colleagues decide to appropriate the term ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their activities, thereby imbuing it with a fixed conceptual and polemical meaning. Given Anstey’s divergent understanding of the meaning and fortunes of ‘experimental philosophy’, it is understandable why he is reluctant to accept my argument or my periodization. This divergence notwithstanding, however, ultimately Anstey and I share much more in common than we disagree.

Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration

In a recent article, Mordechai Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in them. His conclusion after surveying them all is that the term was used without a common determinate referent. This raises the question: Did experimental philosophy exist in England before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660? Feingold argues that there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660 and that those in later years who claimed that there was were being anachronistic: they were projecting the experimental philosophy of the 1660s or even the 1670s back into the late 1650s.

What evidence does he adduce for his claim of anachronism? First, there is the comment by John Aubrey from the 1680s which describes John Wilkins in the 1650s as ‘the principal reviver of experimental philosophy … at Oxford, where he had weekly an experimentall philosophy clubbe …’. Second, there are the comments of Anthony Wood from later years, such as his description of Lawrence Rooke moving to Oxford because he was ‘much addicted to experimental philosophy’. Third, there is John Wallis’ defense of himself in 1678 against the charges of William Holder. Like Aubrey, Wallis refers to the meetings at Oxford in the 1650s. Wallis is concerned to correct Holder’s own recollection of events in 1659 and so is almost certainly trying to recollect accurately. He claims, correcting Holder:

the Set Meetings for such a purpose (which had before been there [i.e. at Wadham College]) were then dis-used, and had been for a good while. And, what was of this nature at Oxford (about Experimental Philosophy) in those days, was rather at Mr. Boyl’s Lodgings, than at Wadham-Colledge. (Wallis, Defence of the Royal Society, London, 1678, p. 5)

So we have (1) Aubrey in the 1680s mentioning an experimental philosophy club and describing Wilkins as the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’; (2) Wood many years after the event describing Rooke as moving to Oxford because he was addicted to experimental philosophy; (3) Wallis in 1678 describing the Oxford meetings as being held at Boyle’s lodgings and being ‘about Experimental Philosophy’. Taken at face value, these might all be backward projections onto the meetings of the late 1650s in Boyle’s lodgings.

However, when these comments are juxtaposed with a contemporaneous account they look quite different. As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love Boyle had been described by the anonymous author (perhaps Boyle himself) of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’ (Boyle, Works, 1: 60). But the most interesting uses of the term appear in his Spring of the Air. The experiments in Boyle’s Spring of the Air were begun in 1657 and the work was completed by 20 December 1659. He tells us as much in the work itself. Negotiations with the printer were well underway as early as 26 January 1660 (Robert Sharrock to Boyle, 26 Jan 1660, Boyle, Correspondence, 1: 399). In Spring of the Air Boyle uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ three times. For example, he speaks of ‘my grand Design of promoting Experimental and Useful Philosophy’ and he makes the following comment in passing when discussing Experiment 20 on the question as to whether, like the air, water has a kind of spring:

And, on this occasion, it will not perhaps be amiss to acquaint Your Lordship here (though we have already mention’d it in another Paper, to another purpose) with another Expedient that we made use of two or three years ago, to try whether or no Water had a Spring in it. About that time then, That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy Dr. Wilkins, doing me the Honor to come himself, and bring some of his inquisitive Friends to my Lodging … (Boyle, Works, 1: 207)

The context of the recollection from c. 1657 is entirely experimental. Note the reference to Wilkins as ‘That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’. This is similar to Aubrey’s claim that Wilkins was the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’. Note too the claim that the meeting was in Boyle’s lodging, the same location, indeed the same term as used by Wallis. Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood.

Where does this leave Feingold’s case for anachronism? In my view Boyle’s contemporaneous comments provide persuasive corroborating evidence that the claims of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood are accurate recollections of the pre-Restoration Oxford meetings. That is, Boyle’s comments should be used to shed light on what Aubrey, Wallis and Wood meant by the term in the decades following the Oxford meetings rather than the other way around. According to Boyle in 1659, those meetings were in his lodgings and concerned experimental philosophy, just as the others later claimed. The case for the anachronistic reading is, therefore, seriously weakened in the light of Boyle’s testimony. It seems far more likely that there was an activity carried out by a small group in the late 1650s in Boyle’s Oxford rooms that was and still is aptly described as experimental philosophy.

Workshop: Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Religion

Workshop: Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Religion

University of Warwick, 10-11 May 2016

Keith Allen (York), Cavendish on Colour and Experimental Philosophy
Peter Anstey (Sydney), Experimental Philosophy and Corpuscular Philosophy
Philippe Hamou (Paris-Ouest Nanterre), John Locke and the Experimental Philosophy of the Human Mind
Dana Jalobeanu (Bucharest), Francis Bacon’s ‘Perceptive’ Instruments
Dmitri Levitin (Oxford), Metaphysics, Natural Philosophy, and the Soul: Rethinking Kenelm Digby’s Philosophical Project
Elliot Rossiter (Concordia), From Natural Philosophy to Natural Religion: Teleology and the Theologia Rationalis
Tom Sorell (Warwick), Experience in Hobbes’ Science of Politics
Alberto Vanzo (Warwick), Experimental Philosophy and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Italy
Koen Vermeir (Paris-Diderot), Magnetic Theology
Catherine Wilson (York), What was Behind the Rejection of Hypotheses in Newtonian Science

The full programme is available on the workshop webpage:


– Full fee excluding workshop dinner (includes two buffet lunches and coffee breaks): £20
– Discounted fee excluding workshop dinner: £10
– Full fee including workshop dinner: £49
– Discounted fee including workshop dinner: £39
The discounted fee is available to students, under-employed recent postgraduates and unemployed.

To register, please email first to ensure that spaces are still available and, if so, please send a cheque, payable to the University of Warwick, to Dr Alberto Vanzo, Department of Philosophy, Social Sciences Building, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL.

Registration closes on Monday 25th April. You are advised to register early as space is limited.


Childcare support
We hope to provide some financial support to those who would like to attend, but require childcare. If you are interested, please email


Accessibility information
Available at


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Aristotelian Society, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the British Society for the History of Science.

CFP: ‘Feeding on the nectar of the gods’: Appropriations of Isaac Newton’s thought, ca. 1700-1750

CFP: ‘Feeding on the nectar of the gods’: Appropriations of Isaac Newton’s thought, ca. 1700-1750

Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 5-6 July 2016

University Foundation
Egmontstraat 11 Rue d’Egmont
B-1000 Brussels, Belgium

The conference theme is the diffusion of Newton’s thought during the first half of the eighteenth century across Europe. The seeming ease with which Newton’s ideas were diffused has long been described as self-evident. State-of-the-art research has, however, shown that the spread and success of Newton’s corpus was far from obvious. More particularly, it has been suggested that the successful diffusion of Newton’s ideas was not merely determined by the obvious merits of the scientific claims which Newton developed in his two major works, the Principia (first edition: 1687) and the Opticks (first edition: 1704), but also by local factors and contexts, such as inter alia: (a) already established scholarly and educationally dominant traditions or systems; (b) theological and religious fractions, sensibilities, and worldviews; and (c) metaphysical and methodological orientations. Seen from this perspective, if we want to fully understand the successful spread of Newton’s ideas, we need to take into account the multifarious ways in which his ideas were appropriated in order to meet local ‘needs’. At the same time, we need to pinpoint the characteristics of those very ideas in virtue of which they could be successfully ‘exported’ to different intellectual and scientific hubs across Europe. The scientific committee welcomes presentations that contribute to our understanding of the spread of Newton’s thought across Europe from approximately 1700 to 1750.

Abstracts of approximately 500 words should be sent to the conference chair Prof. Dr. Steffen Ducheyne by 24 April 2016. Decisions will be made shortly thereafter. There will be room for 12 contributed presentations (20-22 minutes for the actual presentation + 10-8 minutes for Q&A). Abstracts will be evaluated anonymously by the scientific committee according to the following criteria: 1. quality, 2. relevance to the conference theme, and 3. capacity to engender a diverse coverage of the diffusion of Newton’s thought.

Keynote Speakers
Marta Cavazza (Universita di Bologna)
Tamas Demeter (Hungarian Academy of Science)
Steffen Ducheyne (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Mordechai Feingold (Caltech)
Niccolo Guicciardini (Universita degli Studi di Bergamo)*
Rob Iliffe (University of Oxford)
Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge)
Stephen D. Snobelen (University of King’s College)

* Lecture sponsored by Belgian Society for Logic and Philosophy of Science.

More information here.

The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain

In my last post I considered the benefits of applying the ESD framework to our interpretation of the history and philosophy of science in early modern Spain. We saw that, in spite of the appearance of the terms “empiric” and “rationalist” in the work of some of the Spanish intellectual figures of the period, the ESD framework had a lot more to offer than the traditional RED framework. Today I want to introduce a particular controversy that highlights the advantages of working with the ESD in our examination of science and philosophy in early modern Spain.

The whole controversy began with the publication of a book by a scholastic figure: Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo (1662-1714), librarian to the king. In 1713 he published Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), a book in which he gives an interpretation of Genesis consistent with the theory of atomism. The book stands at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide and as such it offers us a great insight into the uniqueness of the development of philosophy in early modern Spain. The book is an attempt to adopt the ideas of the new science within a scholastic framework. Alvarez begins his chapter on the creation of the sensible world with a presentation of his atomism:

At the beginning, the matter of the Sensible World was a tangled mass of imperceptible small bodies, which were the primitive state of the creative action, of the material Substance. These tiny bodies differed in their form, and due to them, through movement were capable of creating the various compositions that make this Fabric, which is as varied as it is beautiful. Each tiny body had its own place, and in this way they had extension, though this does not mean that they were subject of division, given that the principle of them was Creation, dividing them would be annihilating them.

Here we have a case where a scholastic figure attempts to adopt the new science into his scholastic system, explaining the creation of the world through the union and separation of corpuscles of various kinds. Alvarez adds a note to the passage quoted above where he explains how his account of the creation based on corpuscles and the indivisibility of matter is consistent with the power and wisdom of God. First he explains that God created all things independent of each other, giving each corpuscle its individuality, and that this is not contrary to the process of Creation, since compound bodies are nothing but united corpuscles, whether these bodies are created already as compounds or not. Regarding the indivisibility of the corpuscles, Alvarez explains that, being the result of simple Creation, corpuscles cannot be divided, since this would entail that each of the divided parts would have to exist either through creation or generation, and neither of these options is possible.  He goes on to say that the heterogeneity in form, and the extension of these corpuscles is clear, and he finishes the note with a caution which highlights the care taken by the scholastics who adopted theories from the new science. One way of preventing any suspicion of heresy was to claim that the theory was not certain, but rather that it was a probable hypothesis. This is what Alvarez does to conclude his note, saying that “…we do not propose our maxims as evident, but we are satisfied to leave it in terms of probable”.

However cautious Alvarez was, the scholastics still saw his book as a threat to their beliefs and set out to criticize it. This was the beginning of a controversy that would involve the leading intellectual figures of the time. Two scholastic thinkers, Fransisco Palanco and Juan Martin de Lessaca set out to attack Alvarez´s book and the new science, while Diego Mateo Zapata and Juan de Najera replied defending the Novatores and calling for the replacement of the old, scholastic science with the new.

We will look at the details of each of the texts in forthcoming posts. For now, I want to conclude by commenting on the nature of the experimental/speculative divide in early modern Spain. The Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy shows that the experimental and speculative ideals stand at two opposite ends of a whole spectrum. While the scholastic Palanco and Lessaca stand clearly closer to the speculative end, Alvarez, a scholastic intellectual, stands closer to the middle, with Zapata and Najera standing at the experimental end. In fact, both Zapata and Najera began their intellectual life closer to the speculative end, but went on to fully embrace the methodology of experimental philosophy as time went by. To complicate the scene even further, during the final years of his life Najera gave up on experimental philosophy and went back to defend the scholastic, speculative way of thinking. This highlights the complexity of the Spanish intellectual landscape, while at the same time providing us with the opportunity to shed light on such a landscape by examining it from the ESD framework.