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Monthly Archives: September 2010

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As those of you who’ve been following us since our first post will know well by now, we claim that the most common and important distinction in early modern philosophy is the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESP). Among others, Bacon, Boyle, Locke, Newton, Turnbull, Hutcheson, Hume, and Reid all employ the ESP. They see themselves as belonging to the tradition of experimental philosophy. They contributed in various ways to the shaping and the evolving of this tradition.

However, if you open any history of philosophy which has been written in the last 150 years or so (say, Kuno Fischer’s, Frederick Copleston’s, or my high school manual), you will find the claim that another distinction was central to the development of early modern philosophy. This is the distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

The ESP and the empiricism-rationalism distinction are far from equivalent. In fact, ESP is best. While the ESP is absent from the histories of philosophy, the rationalism-empiricism distinction is absent from the writings of early modern philosophers – the so-called empiricists and rationalists. The rationalism-empiricism distinction was first adumbrated in Kant’s first Critique (B882). It was later developed in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century in the histories of philosophy of several authors influenced by Kant (Reinhold and Tennemann are two examples).

This fact raises some questions:

  • Did Kant or his followers intentionally obliterate the ESP?
  • Did they introduce the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism as a replacement for the historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy?
  • Did they know the ESP in the first place?

To answer these questions, I started studying the influence of British experimental philosophers in Germany between the beginning of the eighteenth century and the publication of Kant’s first Critique in 1781.

I then want to follow the development of the empiricism-rationalism distinction in the histories of philosophy which were written in Germany from 1781 to the mid-nineteenth century. That’s the period in which some of the basic narratives that we still read today in many histories of philosophy first took shape. The way late eighteenth century and nineteenth century authors articulated and developed the empiricism-rationalism distinction is hardly agenda-free. It reflects their philosophical views and assumptions. I’m curious to learn more about that.

So far, I’ve discovered some interesting texts, especially those by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and Johann Nicolaus Tetens (1736-1807). Next time I’ll tell you about Wolff’s criticism of Newton’s hypotheses non fingo. Next Monday Juan will tell us about Turnbull’s explicit rejection of hypotheses and his endorsement of the application of the experimental method beyond natural philosophy.

I’d love to hear what you think about my research plans.

ESP is best

Peter Anstey writes…

There are two ways to carve up 17th and 18th century philosophy: the traditional way is to divide it into rationalist versus empiricist philosophy (REP); a new way is to divide it into experimental versus speculative philosophy (ESP). We argue that the ESP way is far better than the traditional terms of reference.

Let’s start the comparison by pointing out the fact that the ESP distinction provided the actual historical terms of reference that many philosophers and natural philosophers used from the 1660s until late into the 18th century. There are literally scores of books from the period that use these terms and deploy this distinction (They are used by Boyle, Hooke, Sprat, Glanvill, Cavendish, Locke and Newton). By contrast, the terms ‘Rationalism’ and ‘Empiricism’ (and their non-English cognates) were introduced by Kant and his followers in the late 18th century. One can find very occasional uses of the terms in the earlier period, but they have completely different meanings. For example, ‘empiricism’ in Johnson’s Dictionary (1768) means ‘Dependence on experience without knowledge or art; quackery’.

Second, on the standard view, REP is largely about epistemology, that is the origins of ideas and sources of knowledge. The REP view has it that rationalists claimed that there are innate ideas and that these are the foundations of knowledge: the empiricists claimed that all ideas originate in the senses and that knowledge is built upon experience and not innate ideas or principles. By contrast, ESP is largely about methodology, about how to proceed in acquiring knowledge, especially knowledge of nature. It includes questions about the sources of knowledge and ideas, but it also includes views on the nature of hypotheses, principles, theory, mathematics, experiment and natural history.

So ESP has more explanatory range than REP and allows a more nuanced understanding of individual philosophical positions and debates. One important example is Newton’s rejection of hypotheses. This is very nicely explained by ESP, but is largely irrelevant to REP and has therefore posed a problem for scholars who approach Newton from the REP framework.

Third, you’ll notice that I highlighted ‘standard view’ above. This is because nowadays it is pretty difficult to settle on exactly what ‘Empiricism’ and ‘Rationalism’ mean. The Hume scholar Don Garrett reckons that there are 5 types of Empiricism. The Locke scholars Jonathan Lowe and Michael Ayers give us 3 and 2 types respectively. Paul Feyerabend reckoned that there were 3 types and Ernan McMullin has a few more. This proliferation of empiricisms is an indicator that the term no longer earns its keep.

By contrast, the term ‘experimental philosophy’, while it admits of some latitude of application, its widespread use by the philosophers themselves means that it’s pretty easy to work out whether someone is an experimental philosopher or not and whether they are sympathetic to it.

Fourth and finally, there’s the issue of demarcation. According to REP the leading empiricists are normally thought to be Locke, Berkeley and Hume and the leading rationalists are Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. But even this is often contested: Des Clarke has Descartes as an empiricist; Richard Aaron had Locke as a rationalist; Nicholas Rescher has Leibniz as an empiricist! And where does Robert Boyle, the archetypal experimental philosopher sit? He promoted observation by the senses, but he was partial to innate ideas. ESP provides a far more natural line of demarcation and one that explains this vacillation on the part of modern scholars.

All in all ESP is better. So what should we do with the Rationalism and Empiricism distinction? Are there any good reasons to retain it?

Newton’s Mathematical Method

Kirsten Walsh writes…

My PhD is on Isaac Newton.  Working within the experimental/speculative framework of our project, I am taking a fresh look the development of Newton’s method of natural philosophy.  I am addressing the following research questions:

  1. What does Newton’s method amount to?
  2. What were the key innovations in Newton’s method of natural philosophy?
  3. To what extent was Newton’s method influenced by the Baconian method of natural history?
  4. Where does Newton’s method fit in the experimental/speculative framework?

I am developing a clearer account of the ‘mathematical revolution’ in natural philosophy that began with Newton.

Newton, Opticks, 4th edition. Experiment demonstrating the separation of rays of different 'refrangibility'.

At the moment I am examining Newton’s famous first optical paper, read to the Royal Society in February 1672.  Newton’s new theory of light and colours sparked controversy.  He had to defend his views against the objections of some important natural philosophers: Hooke, Pardies and Huygens.  The debate forced Newton to clarify his views on scientific method.  I hope that closer analysis of this controversy will give us a clearer idea of Newton’s early views on method, hypotheses, queries, and experiment.

My work is at an early stage, and I’d love to hear your comments.

Experimental Method in Moral Philosophy

Juan Gomez writes…

This is just a quick summary of the project I’m working on, so you can get a grasp of it, hopefully get interested, and discuss related issues with us. Our Marsden project as a whole revolves around the experimental/speculative distinction in the early modern period (see project description). My interest is to trace and study such distinction within the moral philosophers and the texts produced by them. I’m trying to find answers to the following questions:

  • Was the experimental method actually being applied in moral philosophy, or did they use it just as a rhetorical tool?
  • Can  introspection amount to more than just speculation?

These are just two of the questions that have come up in my research. I should point out here that I’m focusing only on British philosophers in the Eighteenth century, since it seems to be the most fertile ground for my interests. There is enough evidence to show that the British philosophers (Hutcheson, Turnbull, Hume, Reid, Fordyce) were using the language of experimental philosophy in their moral treatises, but this is a different thing from actually following the guidelines of the experimental method of natural philosophy and applying it in moral topics. And even when they were following such guidelines, the most important tool for acquiring knowledge of the “science of man” was introspection, and it is just not clear how different this is from plain speculation.

It seems that most of the eighteenth-century British philosophers (especially Turnbull and Hume) dealing with moral topics tried to fulfill the following ‘prediction’ made by Newton:

    if Natural Philosophy, in all its Parts, by pursuing this [experimental] Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will also be enlarged.” (Newton’s Optics. Book 3, Query 31).

We are trying to find how far they succeeded in making moral philosophy a ‘moral science’ by following the experimental method.

At the moment I’m studying George Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy (1749), and I’ve come across many interesting findings, which make me realize how important this philosopher and teacher was for the Scottish Enlightenment, and how he has been overlooked and underrated. In future posts I will tell you more about Turnbull’s philosophy, and why I believe he is of extreme importance for understanding philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment. For the time being I leave you with this quick description of my research, and welcome any comments or questions you have.