Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map
Search

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

Natural Histories and Newton’s Theory of the Tides

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Newton’s work on the tides. In the Principia Book 3, Newton identified the physical cause of the tides as a combination of forces: the Moon and Sun exert gravitational pulls on the waters of the ocean which, together, cause the sea levels to rise and fall in regular patterns. This theory of the tides has been described as one of the major achievements of Newtonian natural philosophy. Most commentators have focussed on the fact that Newton extended his theory of universal gravitation to offer a physical cause for the tides—effectively reducing the problem of tides to a mathematical problem, the solution of which, in turn, provided ways to establish various physical features of the Moon, and set the study of tides on a new path. But in this post, I want to focus on the considerable amount of empirical evidence concerning tidal phenomena that underwrites this work.

Let’s begin with the fact that, while Newton’s empirical evidence of tidal patterns came from areas such as the eastern section of the Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic Sea, and the Chilean and Peruvian shores of the Pacific Ocean, Newton never left England. So where did these observational records come from?

Newton’s data was the result of a collective effort on a massive scale, largely coordinated by the Royal Society. For example, one of the earliest issues of the Philosophical Transactions published ‘Directions for sea-men bound for far voyages, drawn up by Master Rook, late geometry professour of Gresham Colledge’ (1665: 140-143). Mariners were instructed “to keep an exact Diary [of their observations], delivering at their return a fair Copy thereof to the Lord High Admiral of England, his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and another to Trinity-house to be perused by the R. Society”. With respect to the tides, they were asked:

“To remark carefully the Ebbings and Flowings of the Sea, in as many places as they can, together with all the Accidents, Ordinary and Extraordinary, of the Tides; as, their precise time of Ebbing and Flowing in Rivers, at Promontories or Capes; which way their Current runs, what Perpendicular distance there is between the highest Tide and lowest Ebb, during the Spring-Tides and Neap-Tides; what day of the Moons age, and what times of the year, the highest and lowest Tides fall out: And all other considerable Accidents, they can observe in the Tides, cheifly neer Ports, and about Ilands, as in St. Helena’s Iland, and the three Rivers there, at the Bermodas &c.”

This is just one of many such articles published in the early Philosophical Transactions that articulated lists of queries concerning sea travel, on which mariners, sailors and merchants were asked to report. In its first 20 years, the journal published scores of lists of queries relating to the tides, and many more reports responding to such queries. This was Baconian experimental philosophy at its best. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to construct a Baconian natural history of tides: using the method of queries, they gathered observational data on tides from all corners of the globe which was then collated and ordered into tables.

Newton’s engagement with these observational records is revelatory of his attitudes and practices relating to Baconian experimental philosophy. Firstly, especially in his later years, Newton was regarded as openly hostile towards natural histories. However, here we see Newton explicitly and approvingly engaging with natural histories. For example, in his discussion of proposition 24, he drew on observations by Samuel Colepresse and Samuel Sturmy, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1668, explicitly offered in response to queries put forward to John Wallis and Robert Boyle in 1665:

“Thus it has been found by experience that in winter, morning tides exceed evening tides and that in summer, evening tides exceed morning tides, at Plymouth by a height of about one foot, and at Bristol by a height of fifteen inches, according to the observations of Colepress and Sturmy” (Newton, 1999: 838).

Colepresse’s Tidal Scheme for Plymouth, 1667

I have argued previously that Newton was more receptive to natural histories than is usually thought. The case of the tides offers additional support for my argument. Newton’s notes and correspondence show that, from as early as 1665, he was heavily engaged in the project of generating a natural history of the tides, although he never contributed data. And eventually, he was able to use these empirical records to theorise about the cause of the tides. This suggests that Newton didn’t object to using natural histories as the basis for theorising. Rather, he objected to treating natural histories as the end goal of the investigation.

Secondly, I have previously discussed the fact that Newton seldomly reported ‘raw data’. The evidence he provided for Phenomenon 1, for example, included calculated average distances, checked against the distances predicted by the theory. Newton’s empirical evidence on the tides, as reported in the Principia, was similarly manipulated and adjusted with reference to his theory. Commentators have largely either condemned or ignored this ‘fudge factor’, but such adjustments are ubiquitous in Newton’s work, suggesting that they were a key aspect of his practice. Newton recognised that ‘raw data’ had limited use: to be useful, data needed to be analysed and interpreted. In short, it needed to be turned into evidence. The Baconians appear to have recognised this: queries guide the collection of data, which is then ordered into tables in order to reveal patterns in the data. As this case makes clear, however, Newton’s theory-mediated manipulation of the data went beyond basic ordering, drawing on causal assumptions to reveal phenomena from the data.

Thirdly, this case emphasises Newton’s science as embedded in rich social, cultural and economic networks. The construction of this natural history of tides was an organised group effort. That Newton had access to data collected from all over the world was the result of hard work from natural philosophers, merchants, mariners and priests who participated in the accumulation, ordering and dissemination of this data. Further, the capacities of that data to be collected itself followed the increasingly global trade networks reaching to and from Europe. Newton’s work on the tides was the very opposite of a solitary effort.

On this blog, we have noted in passing, but not explored in depth, the crucial roles played by travellers’ reports and information networks in Baconian experimental philosophy. Newton’s study of the tides is revelatory of the attitudes and practices of early modern experimental philosophers with respect to such networks. I shall discuss these in my next post.

When did Locke and Boyle first meet?

Peter Anstey writes…

Until now the earliest evidence for Locke making Boyle’s acquaintance is a letter from Dr Ayliffe Ivye to Locke of 20 May 1660. This letter implies that Locke knew Boyle by this time and Ivye recommends to Locke that he ‘lett slippe no occasion’ to develop his acquaintance with Boyle (Locke Correspondence, ed. E. S. de Beer, vol. 1, p. 146). New evidence has now emerged that strongly suggests that Locke knew Boyle at least two years earlier, in 1658.

Locke’s earliest surviving medical notebook, Bodleian Library MS Locke e. 4, was in use in the 1650s. There appears to be no indication from its contents that Locke used it after 1658. In this notebook there are a number of entries deriving from a person called M. B. Could this refer to M[r] B[oyle]? The content of one of these entries confirms that it does.

On page 59 Locke made the following entry under the marginal title ‘Obstructio’:

A lady that had been sick a great while of the * & used very much physic to noe purpose was curd presently by useing her owne water M. B.

Locke almost certainly heard this from Boyle, because in Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663), which he was composing in the late 1650s, Boyle relates:

I knew an ancient Gentlewoman, who being almost hopeless to recover of divers Chronical Distempers (and some too of these abstruse enough) was at length advised, instead of more costly Physick, to make her Morning-draughts of her own Water; by the use of which she strangely recovered, and is, for ought I know, still well. (Boyle Works, eds Hunter & Davis, vol. 3, p. 385)

It is unlikely that this entry was made before 1658 because in this notebook, apart from some very early entries at the end, Locke seems to have made entries in chronological order and ‘Obstructio’ is preceded by references to Marin Cureau de la Chambre’s A Discourse on the Principles of Chiromancy (London, 1658) on pages 25–6.

There is an entry derived from M. B. that precedes the one quoted above (MS Locke e. 4, p. 43), it occurs after the entry from de la Chambre. So, there are no grounds on the basis of this notebook for claiming that Locke had met Boyle before 1658.

What all of this shows is that Locke met Boyle at the very time when the latter was formulating his new approach to natural philosophy that he came to call experimental philosophy.

Locke’s Experimental Philosophy of Ideas

A guest post by Kenny Pearce.

Kenny Pearce writes …

It is by now well-known that Locke intentionally sets his Essay in the context of Baconian natural history, the project of the Royal Society. This can be seen in Locke’s mention of several prominent members of the Society in the Epistle to the Reader, and his description of his own role as that of an “Under-Labourer … removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way of Knowledge” (Essay, Nidditch p. 10). It can also be seen in Locke’s explicit description of his project as following the “Historical, plain Method” (§1.1.2), and in his assertion to Stillingfleet that “if [his ‘way of ideas’] be new, it is but a new history of an old thing [i.e., human understanding]” (Works, 4: 134–135). Further, it is clear that the Essay was received as a contribution to Baconian natural history in the decades following its publication. For instance, in a footnote to his 1732 translation of William King’s Essay on the Origin of Evil, Edmund Law refers to the Essay concerning Human Understanding as “Mr. Locke’s excellent History of the human mind” (vol. 2, p. 308), and in his 1734 Philosophical Letters, Voltaire writes, “After so many thinkers had written the romance of the soul, there came a wise man [Locke] who modestly described its history” (Steiner p. 42).

But what exactly is this Baconian project, and what bearing should it have on our reading of Locke’s Essay? Thomas Sprat, the earliest historian of the Royal Society, describes its methods as follows:

The Society has reduc’d its principal observations, into one common-stock; and laid them up in publique Registers, to be nakedly transmitted to the next Generation of Men; and so from them, to their Successors. And as their purpose was, to heap up a mixt Mass of Experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model: so to this end they confin’d themselves to no order of subjects; and whatever they have recorded they have done it, not as compleat Schemes of opinions, but as bare unfinish’d Histories … For it is certain, that a too sudden striving to reduce the Sciences, in their first beginnings, into Method, and Shape, and Beauty; has very much retarded their increase … By their fair, and equal, and submissive way of Registring nothing, but Histories, and Relations; they have left room for others, that shall succeed, to change, to augment, to approve, to contradict them, at their discretion (Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society [1667], pp. 115–116).

According to Sprat, the key to the method of natural history is to “heap up a mixt Mass of Experiments” and observations (or ‘instances’ as Bacon liked to call them) without working them into a system. This is important because it will allow future generations of natural philosophers “to change, to augment, to approve, to contradict” the conclusions drawn by those who made the observations.

Law and Voltaire were, I believe, perfectly correct in regarding Locke’s Essay as a natural history of the human understanding, working within the Baconian methodological paradigm. This is not merely supported by Locke’s occasional uses of the words ‘history’ and ‘historical’, quoted above. It is also supported by Locke’s explicit descriptions of his methodology. For instance:

This, therefore, being my Purpose to enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent; I shall not at present meddle with the Physical Consideration of the Mind; or trouble my self to examine, wherein its Essence consists, or by what Motions of our Spirits, or Alterations of our Bodies, we come to have any Sensation by our Organs, or any Ideas in our Understandings; and whether those Ideas do in their Formation, any, or all of them, depend on Matter, or no (Essay 1.1.2).

for [my account of the origin of ideas] I shall appeal to every one’s own observation and experience (Essay 2.1.1)

my design being, as well as I could, to copy nature, and to give an account of the operations of the mind in thinking, I could look into nobody’s understanding but my own, to see how it wrought … All therefore that I can say of my book is, that it is a copy of my own mind, in its several ways of operation. And all that I can say for the publishing of it is, that I think the intellectual faculties are made, and operate alike in most men (Works, 4: 138–139).

Further, in the actual text of the Essay, Locke does indeed appear to follow this method: he aims to describe, in an orderly fashion, the phenomena revealed by introspection. The case against innate knowledge and innate ideas in book one focuses primarily on arguing that no example of an innate idea or item of innate knowledge has yet been produced: there is no true specimen of such a thing in our register. Book two is then a detailed catalogue or register of ideas, and book four is a catalogue of instances of assent (knowledge and belief). (Book three, on language, was apparently an afterthought, not fitting neatly into the ‘method’ Locke originally proposed; see Essay 2.23.19.)

This line of interpretation has consequences for how we must understand Locke’s account of ideas. If Locke is following this kind of Baconian methodology then, although he does at various points seek to explain various phenomena, his ‘ideas’ cannot be understood as theoretical posits aiming to explain how we perceive external objects. Locke makes no attempt to explain “by what Motions of our Spirits, or Alterations of our Bodies, we come to have any Sensation by our Organs, or any Ideas in our Understandings” (Essay 1.1.2), and frequently admits that, although we can give mechanical explanations of the transmission of information from objects to the brain, the mind-brain interface remains utterly mysterious. Instead of attempting to solve this mystery, Locke aims simply to describe the ideas of which we are aware.

If this is correct, then, although there is a sense in which the Essay is a systematic treatment of the human mind, there is another sense in which Locke is an intentionally, self-consciously unsystematic thinker and the Essay is an intentionally unsystematic work. The Essay, as a natural history of the human understanding, is systematic in that Locke’s observations and the generalizations he draws from them are laid out in a reasonably orderly fashion, intending to be of use to future natural historians. But it also exhibits a Baconian skepticism about ‘grand systems’. The human understanding, Locke has observed, is (like most natural phenomena) messy and complex and, in Locke’s view, it would be a serious methodological error to try to massage this messiness out of the data. A neat and clean, elegant and systematic account of the human understanding would be a ‘romance’ and not a modest history.

(This post is based on a portion of a paper in progress, “Ideas and Explanation in Early Modern Philosophy.” You can read a draft here. Many thanks to Kirsten Walsh for the invitation to share these thoughts in this forum. Comments welcome below!)

 

Locke Studies goes online

Locke Studies makes Vols 14–16 freely accessible online

We are pleased to announce that Vols 8, 9 and 14–16 of Locke Studies are now freely available on the Locke Studies website<https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/XhIpCD1jy9tMoolwflPWVy?domain=thejohnlockesociety.us15.list-manage.com>. The editorial team of the journal will continue to add back issues to the website as quickly as they are able to prepare them. Eventually the entire series of Locke Studies and The Locke Newsletter will be digitized and freely available. Hyperlinks to each article will be added to the entries in the Locke Bibliography<https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/xX-0CE8kz9tnll5OiQruGS?domain=thejohnlockesociety.us15.list-manage.com> as they are published online.

Visit the Locke Studies Archive<https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/k-TvCGvmB5iqBB5Ef1kf2t?domain=thejohnlockesociety.us15.list-manage.com>

2017 Issue of Locke Studies
The table of contents is available via the website, but the PDFs of the articles will not be made available until Jan 2019. Beginning with the 2018 issue, all new content will be open access immediately upon publication. Here is the table of contents for the 2017 issue of Locke Studies:

Recent Publications, pp. 5–38
JOHN C. ATTIG

Locke’s Orthography and the Dating of his Writings, pp. 39–47
J. R. MILTON

A Puzzle in the Print History of Locke’s Essay, pp. 49–60
PATRICK J. CONNOLLY

Locke’s Ontology of Relations, pp. 61–86
SAMUEL C. RICKLESS

Locke on Individuation and Kinds, pp. 87–116
JOSEPH STENBERG

Toland and Locke in the Leibniz-Burnett Correspondence, pp. 117–141
STEWART DUNCAN

Shaftesbury, Locke, and their Revolutionary Letter?, pp. 143–171
D. N. DELUNA

Locke and Hate Speech Law: A Critical Review, pp. 173–196
J. K. NUMAO

Locke’s Political Theology and the ‘Second Treatise’, pp. 197–232
JOANNE TETLOW

Locke and the Churchill Catalogue Revisited, pp. 233–241
JOHN SAMUEL HARPHAM

Workshop: Definitions in Early Modern Natural Philosophy, Logic and Mathematics

Workshop: Definitions in Early Modern Natural Philosophy, Logic and Mathematics

13 April 2018

SOPHI Common Room,
Level 8, Brennan MacCallum Building, A18
The University of Sydney

Sponsored by The Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science


Schedule

10.00: Definitions as principles in early modern natural philosophy
Peter Anstey (Sydney)

11.00: From Pascal to Arnauld and Nicole: definitions in Port Royalist works
Laura Kotevska (Sydney)

12.00: Lunch

13.30: Logic in definitions and the search for the definition of continuity
James Franklin (UNSW)

14.30: Newton’s definitions
Kirsten Walsh (Nottingham)

15.30: Discussion

16.00: Close


See here for further information and registration.

Organiser: Peter Anstey

‘To treat of God from Phenomena’

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In my last few posts, I’ve discussed some of the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work. In my first post on this topic, I talked generally about how we might consider Newton’s chymistry, theology and Church history to be methodologically continuous with the experimental philosophy of the Principia and the Opticks. And in my second post I considered Newton’s alchemical tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, and identified several features that seem to highlight Newton’s early (albeit tacit) commitment to experimental philosophy.

In today’s post, I’ll begin to discuss an important but relatively understudied aspect of Newton’s work: his theological methodology. Since this blog is primarily concerned with early modern experimental philosophy, I’m going to start with the famous passage from the General Scholium to the Principia: “to treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy”. The meaning of the first part of the statement is clear: we have epistemic access to God via our observations of the world. And so, from the phenomena, we can learn about God’s nature and divine will—in the same way that we can learn about, say, gravity. But in what sense is this ‘a part of natural philosophy’? That is, how does this statement fit with Newton’s stated views regarding that topic?

In the General Scholium, Newton explains that, while the laws of motion explain why celestial bodies move in Keplerian orbits, they cannot explain how celestial bodies come to be in their present orbits. And so, he writes, “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being”. Prima facie, examples such as this don’t fit with Newton’s natural philosophical method. He seems to employ non-empirical background assumptions about the nature of God’s intervention to plug gaps in his theory. This looks dangerously close to feigning hypotheses. Moreover, from these assumptions, he seems to leap right to the first cause, blocking further scientific inquiry, and contradicting the satis est’ attitude he adopts in his natural philosophy.

I think, however, that Newton’s treatment of God from phenomena is more consistent with his method of natural philosophy than it first appears. But to recognise this, we need to look more closely at how Newton approaches God from the phenomena. In fact, Newton treats of God from phenomena in several different ways. One approach is to move directly from the phenomena to the nature of God’s interactions with the world. For example, in the General Scholium, Newton notes that all celestial bodies move in regular orbits, which tells us that neither planets nor comets encounter any kind of resistance in their orbits. Newton uses the lack of resistance to argue that celestial bodies do not move through vortices but through empty space. However, this phenomenon also reveals that, while God is omnipresent and substantial, he is not material:

God is one and the same God always and everywhere. He is omnipresent not only virtually but also substantially; for action requires substance. In him all things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they on him. God experiences nothing from the motions of bodies; the bodies feel no resistance from God’s omnipresence (Principia, Cohen & Whitman translation, pp. 941-942).

Another way Newton approaches God is to ask after the nature of his interventions. Here, Newton identifies explanatory gaps between phenomena and theory, and asks whether God could be acting, and if so, what is the nature of that action? For example, in a letter to Bentley Newton notes that that his theory of universal gravitation can explain the motions of the planets, but not their original sizes or positions in the solar system. The latter, he concludes, can only be explained by divine intervention. That God works to achieve such perfect balance in the system of the world tells us that he is “not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry”. Here, the insight is that gravity can destabilise the system of the world—and so the physical world constantly tends towards decay. Thus, God is required to use his skills of design and maintenance to prevent this from happening.

Neither approach looks like ‘feigning hypotheses’. For one thing, Newton doesn’t allow his thinking about God to justify or constrain his theorising. Rather, God is introduced after the physical theory has been established to see what it can teach us about the nature of his intervention. And for another thing, Newton’s ideas about God don’t result from speculation, but from rigorous study of both scripture and the natural world, and the careful application of reason. It is from our post-Enlightenment perspective that rigorous study of scripture seems to fall outside of natural philosophy.

Moreover, Newton’s introduction of God doesn’t stop inquiry. Rather, it raises further questions about how and why God intervenes on the system of the world. And these, in turn, lead back to physical inquiry. For example, Newton’s discussions about God’s role in the sizing and positioning of the planets leads to a fruitful inquiry about the specific compositions of the planets and why the biggest planets are furthest from the Sun. That the inquiry continues highlights the fact that Newton doesn’t view the cause of a given phenomenon as either natural or supernatural: every phenomenon is generated by both natural and supernatural causes. That is, physical objects act on one another as natural causes, subject to physical and mathematical laws, but God is the first-cause, and hence, behind all actions. And so, when Newton treats of God from phenomena, the inquiry doesn’t end there.

Finally, as a good experimental philosopher, Newton knows that we only have direct epistemic access to the evidence of our senses, so our knowledge of God is necessarily limited. However, as he makes clear in query 28 of the Opticks, we mustn’t be put off by our inability to discover the first cause directly. Instead, we must work to uncover intermediate causes—proximate causes—and work slowly to uncover deeper and deeper levels of causes until we come to the first cause. And, importantly, these intermediate causes can also reveal the nature of God:

And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite Space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself… And though every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued (Optics, Dover edition, p. 370).

Locke’s earliest use of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’

Peter Anstey writes…

It is well known that the leading English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) had much exposure to the writings and practice of experimental philosophers within his ambit from the early 1660s. For example, Locke was involved in some of Boyle’s natural historical projects and read most of Boyle’s writings as they came off the press. Likewise, he read Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy which appeared in 1664.

It is hardly surprising then that Locke’s early medical essays, ‘Anatomia’ (1668) and ‘De arte medica’ (1669) contain many of the leading methodological ideas of the English experimental philosophers, not least the decrying of hypotheses and the endorsement of natural history. Nevertheless, Locke seems not to have used the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in any of his medical writings from the 1660s nor in the early drafts of the Essay dating from c. 1671.

The earliest use of the term in his own writings that I have found appears in a journal entry from 8 February 1677 written while Locke visited Montpelier during his long sojourn in France. The entry has various marginal headings indicating the subject. It opens with the heading ‘Understanding’ followed by ‘Knowledg its extent & measure’, ‘End of Knowledg’ and then simply ‘Knowledg’. Here is what Locke says:

we need no other knowledge for the attainment of those ends [being happy in this world and the next] but of the history and observation of the effects and operations of natural bodies within our power, and of our duties in the management of our own actions as far as they depend on our wills, i.e. as far also as they are in our power. One of those is the proper enjoyment of our bodies and the highest perfection of that, and the other our souls, and to attain both those we are fitted with faculties both of body and soul. Whilst then we have abilities to improve our knowledge in experimentall naturall philosophy, whilst we want not principles whereon to establish moral rules, nor light … to distinguish good from bad actions, … we have no reason to complain if we meet with difficulties in other things. (Cited from Locke: Political Essays, ed. M. Goldie, Cambridge, 1997, p. 264, with modifications)

The sentiments of this passage certainly appear in the published Essay. And, in fact, there are verbal parallels between the whole entry and Essay IV, chapter 3, called ‘Of the extent of human knowledge’. The subjects broadly overlap and so does some of the terminology. For example, Locke uses terms such as ‘canton’ (which only appears once in the Essay) and ‘abyss’ in both passages in similar ways.

So what are we to make of this early appearance of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’? Well first, it is worth pointing out that it is accompanied in the entry with other comments that suggest that Locke was thinking about our knowledge of nature from the perspective of experimental philosophy. We note in the above extract the reference to ‘history and observation’ of the ‘effects and operations of natural bodies within our power’. It is almost certain that Locke has natural history in mind here. This is because Locke claims earlier in the entry that we need only trouble ourselves with ‘the history of nature and an enquiry into the qualities of the things in this mansion of the universe’. Likewise, we find Locke expressing the standard warning against hypotheses:

They might well spare themselves the trouble of looking any further, they need not concern or perplex themselves about the original, frame or constitution of the universe, drawing this great machine into systems of their own contrivance and building hypotheses obscure, perplexed, and of no other use but to raise disputes and continue wrangling. (Locke: Political Essays, p. 262)

There is, therefore, no doubt that Locke has imbibed the methodology of the experimental philosophers and that this is informing his musings on the nature and extent of human knowledge in the winter of 1677.

A second point is just how naturally Locke deploys the term. Its first appearance in Locke is as an obiter dicta: Locke seems to use the term quite naturally with no special focus or emphasis. If the evidence of Locke’s early medical essays is not enough, it is clear that by the time of his travels in France Locke had come to conceive of the acquisition of knowledge of nature in the terms of the new experimental natural philosophy.

Is this Locke’s earliest use of the term? I would be most grateful to any reader who could direct me to an earlier usage.

Review of the rationalism-empiricism distinction in Latin America

Juan Gomez writes…

In this post I want to take a break from sharing my research on the ESD in early modern Spain. I want to talk about the current application of the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) by philosophers in Latin America.

A few days ago, Sociedad de Filosofia Aplicada (Society for Applied Philosophy), an organization in Spain, posted on their Facebook page a link to a blog written by a philosopher in Mexico. The blog entry is titled “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo.” I had to check out the post, and what I found led me to do a bit of research on the current use of the RED distinction in the Spanish-speaking world. In this post I want to focus on two examples to illustrate both the dangers of the RED and the benefits of adopting the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD).

In Spanish speaking countries, we are taught in philosophy classes in high school and university that the rationalism-empiricism debate frames the history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that such debate was brought to an end by Kant. This assumption leads us to think of rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical schools or movements. This is where the RED starts giving us problems. The author of the blog mentioned above has two posts on rationalism and empiricism: “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo” and “Apunte critico: la metafísica dentro del empirismo.” In the former, the author presents rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical theories, although his description of them reflects that they are two opposing epistemological viewpoints. As we have already mentioned in this blog, the fact that the RED is an epistemological distinction means that it is not at all appropriate when it comes to our interpretation of the breadth history of philosophy of that period. This same problem arises in the author’s other post, where he presents empiricism as a whole movement which pretends to “eliminate metaphysics.” There are two issues here: the author uses the term empiricism to refer to logical positivism and the verification principle, and he takes empiricism as more than an epistemological theory. Regarding the first issue, we can see that the use of the term ’empiricism’ itself is unclear, given that it is used to describe both the Vienna Circle and eighteenth-century empiricists; at best, this would lead us to distinguish different kinds of empiricism which, as we have already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is troublesome. The second issue reiterates the problem of adopting the RED as much more than an epistemological distinction. The author runs into trouble when trying to describe Hume’s thought: “Hume admits, to a certain degree, the value of reason…” Labeling Hume as an empiricist and then claiming that he admits the value of reason raises doubts regarding the usefulness and accuracy of the label.

For a second example I want to refer to a blog entry by a Brazilian philosopher. On the blog for filovida.org, she has an entry titled “Sobre o Empirismo e o Racionalismo de John Locke.” She acknowledges the difficulty of labeling a philosopher under either rationalism or empiricism, and then sets out to explain how John Locke cannot be labelled under any of these terms. She explains that Locke in some sense has a foothold in each of the so-called philosophical schools: “Locke’s starting point is an empirical method while at the same time he is committed to a rationalist project…” “This is how Locke’s philosophy encompasses, admirably and sui generis, not rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but rather a rationality which follows a rigid, reasonable, and novel empiricist method.” The author here acknowledges the issues that arise when considering the work of Locke under the RED framework, but her thought can be finessed by switching to the ESD framework. The apparent ambiguity of Locke’s work —sitting between rationalism and empiricism— vanishes when his thought is viewed under the ESD lens. Locke can be more comfortably labelled an experimental philosopher, providing us with a more accurate description of his work and a clearer insight into his thought.

The two examples mentioned here just serve the purpose of illustrating the current situation when doing early modern philosophy with the RED framework. Though there has been some talk among Spanish-speaking philosophical circles of the suitability of the RED, most philosophers in the region still take the rationalist–empiricist distinction for granted and work within such framework, unaware of the issues (like in the first example) or the advantages (like in the second example) of an alternative framework. Historians of philosophy in the region can enhance their work and understanding of early modern philosophy by adopting the ESD framework. The switch is a difficult but very rewarding one, one that needs to take place across the whole curriculum in the region; from introductory classes in high school, to advanced research projects in universities.

Vegetative and mechanical processes in Newton’s Chymistry

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In my last post, I started thinking about the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work—his chymistry, theology and Church history—in order to learn more about his methodology.  In particular, I wondered what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are across his many projects.  In this post, I’ll focus on a tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, from Newton’s alchemical corpus.  Newton probably wrote this piece in 1672—the year that he wrote his ‘New Theory of Light and Colour’.  The piece represents Newton’s attempt to give a synopsis of his early alchemical reading and to come up with, essentially, a ‘theory of everything’.

There is a great deal to interest us in this tract, including an early mechanical-æthereal theory of gravity and a discussion of the nature of God.  But here, I’ll focus on one idea: Newton’s distinction between mechanical processes and vegetative processes.  Where ‘vegetation’ is the generative process through which animals, plants and minerals grow, putrefy and regenerate themselves, ‘mechanical’ processes involve adding, subtracting and rearranging parts (described as “a gross mechanical transposition of parts” (5r)).  Newton considers these processes to be exhaustive: “Natures actions are either vegetable or purely mechanical” (5r).

Newton’s discussion of this idea highlights several methodological continuities.  I’ll discuss two of them here.

The first concerns the way Newton infers physical processes from observed phenomenal patterns.  Drawing comparisons across the ‘three kingdoms of nature’—animal, vegetable and mineral—Newton notes that some metals grow, putrefy and regenerate within the Earth, much in the way that trees grow out of the earth, suggesting that some metals and minerals ‘vegetate’.  In contrast, some salts and minerals appear to generate by the simple combining and arranging of parts.  And so Newton proposes that there are two distinct processes at work in nature: vegetative and mechanical.  The postulated distinction in turn guides further exploration of natural phenomena, enabling him to unify some patterns of generation and to differentiate others.  The phenomena he explores go well beyond the initial cluster of metals and salts, eventually including organic life, heat and flame, and gravitation.  And these phenomena, in turn, offer further clues about nature’s hidden processes.  In short, observed phenomena illuminate underlying processes, which, in turn, guide further exploration of phenomena.

We see Newton engaging in similar inferential patterns in both the Principia and the Opticks.  In the Principia, from the observed Keplerian orbits of the planets, Newton infers the inverse-square centripetal force.  The inverse-square force, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration of other celestial phenomena, allowing him to calculate the motions of comets, the shapes of planets, and also to correct for perturbations of orbits.  Similarly, in the Opticks, from the phenomena of the unequal refraction of light, Newton infers the heterogeneity of white light.  The heterogeneity of white light, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration and theorising of other optical phenomena, including the colours of thin plates, thick plates and coloured fringes.  In other words, this inferential feedback loop between phenomena and processes appears to be a standard feature of Newton’s methodology.  In Query 31 of his Opticks, Newton describes this in terms of the joint methods of ‘analysis’ and ‘composition’.  ‘Of Natures obvious laws’ might be considered an early manifestation of this method.

A second feature worth considering is the way Newton operationalised the concept of vegetation in order to develop a quantitative test for such processes.  The term ‘vegetative’ was familiar to those concerned with the study of life and vitalism, and Newton was happy to speculate on the nature of this process:

The principles of her vegetable actions are noe other than the seeds or seminal vessels of things those are her onely agents, her fire, her soule, her life (5r).

But such a qualitative description of the process wasn’t very helpful for establishing which phenomena were generated by which processes.  Especially since, as he noted, some natural phenomenon might appear to have been generated through vegetative processes, but in fact be produced mechanically.  The way to distinguish between the two kinds of effects was to analyse them—i.e. break the entity down into its parts—and then try to put it back together again.  If the recomposition was successful, then this indicated mechanical processes, if it wasn’t, then vegetative processes were operative.  And so the methods of resolution and composition, or analysis and synthesis, provided him with a way of testing for vegetative processes.  And thus ‘vegetation’ was effectively operationalised: the concept was defined through the operations which tested for it.

We see Newton engaging in a similar practice in his study of interference phenomena.  His hypothesis on the nature of light postulated a hypothetical cause for the observed pattern of coloured rings: an æthereal ‘pulse’.  Operationalising the concept of a pulse gave Newton a unit of measurement and, eventually, a way of formalising and abstracting the explanation.  I have argued that Newton’s hypotheses played sophisticated supporting roles in his optical investigations.  The role performed by the hypothesis of vegetation in this alchemical tract, and the way Newton links it to observation and experiment, looks similarly rich and sophisticated.

This feature helps me to say something more specific about, what I have termed, Newton’s ‘rhetorical style’.  As I have noticed in previous posts, Newton took familiar terms and stretched them to fit his methodology.  It is well-known that he did this with physical concepts such as ‘force’ and ‘mass’, and I have shown, on this blog, that he did this with methodological concepts such as ‘query’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘principle’.  Bill Newman has demonstrated that Newton also borrowed the concepts of ‘analysis’, ‘synthesis’ and ‘redintegration’ from chymistry and adapted them to his optical work—massaging them to fit his own needs.  But Newton’s use of ‘vegetation’ highlights a particular feature of his rhetorical style: Newton took common terms with imprecise, qualitative meanings and defined them in terms of methods which measure, quantify or detect certain processes.  And so what was really innovative in this case wasn’t that Newton used analysis and synthesis to investigate salts and metals, but rather, that he defined mechanical and vegetative processes in terms of that kind of intervention.  In other words, Newton’s rhetorical style involved operationalising concepts—turning them into tools of measurement.

I closed my last post by pointing out that 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.  Newton’s chymical papers were circulated much more privately and so, presumably, the same political motivations didn’t apply.  Moreover, Newton did not describe himself as an ‘experimental philosopher’ in his published work until 1713.  So it is not surprising that we find no explicit mention of experimental philosophy or the methods of the Royal Society in this tract, which predates that explicit declaration by at least 40 years.  However, the two features I’ve identified highlight Newton’s commitment to observation- and experiment-based theorising.  That this commitment is evident, absent of any political pressure, suggests that it was genuine.

Call for Papers: Causa sive ratio: causality and reason in modernity between metaphysics, epistemology and science

Call for Papers: Causa sive ratio: causality and reason in modernity between metaphysics, epistemology and science

14-16 November 2017, Università degli Studi di Milano

Submission deadline: 15 June 2017

Confirmed keynote Speakers
Jeffrey Mcdonough (Harvard U.)
Katherine Brading (Duke U.),
Angela Breitenbach (Cambridge U.)
Walter Ott (U. of Virginia)
Ansgar Lyssy (LMU München)
Hylarie Kochiras (IAS Bologna)
Andrea Sangiacomo (U. Groningen)

Organizers : Tzuchien Tho, Stefano Di Bella

The very advent of modernity in philosophy could be interpreted through the lens of the fundamental redefinition of causality in the ontological, epistemological and logical separation of cause from reason. From the rejection of formal and final causes in the generation of Descartes and Gassendi, the debates on these questions in the period of Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz, to the phenomenalization of causation in Hume and its subsequent idealization in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, we can see the definitive conceptual separation between logical implication, epistemic explanation and physical causation. It is this historical conceptual transformation and its present consequences that is the object of this conference.

What does this separation between cause and reason mean for the role of rationality, the property of intelligibility and the ontology of grounding in the development of metaphysics and the foundations of science in the 17th and 18th century? How do the emergent concepts of the general laws of nature and universally conserved physical magnitudes harmonize the rationality of nature and the uniqueness of causes in a new cosmology? What becomes the status of the self-caused? How does the early modern rejection of formal and final causes return, in other guises, and transform the semantic content of physical theories? How does the identity or distinction of reason and cause continue to inform contemporary philosophy?

The aim of this conference is to explore the distinction (and relation) of cause and reason from a historical examination of early modern philosophy and science while engaging with the contemporary debates surrounding grounding, causation and scientific explanation. Aside from paper presentations by invited and selected speakers, short reading groups of primary source texts (relevant to the presentations) will be led by conference organizers and invited speakers.

We invite papers addressing these problems of reason and cause based on historical studies and contemporary problems. We are particularly interested in papers that are able to connect 17th and 18th century thinkers with contemporary issues in metaphysics and philosophy of science. However, papers focusing on these issues contextually based in the 17th and 18th century are also enthusiastically welcomed.

Presentations are planned to be 45 minutes, leaving 15-20 minutes for discussion.

Please submit an abstract of 500 words, including the title of the presentation, to easychair. The abstract should be prepared for blind review. We welcome Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars as well as more established colleagues.

Notification of acceptance by 30 June 2017

For more information, see the conference website.

Please direct any futher questions to Tzuchien Tho.