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?