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

Monthly Archives: November 2010

David Fordyce’s advice to students

Juan Gomez writes…

I have mentioned the name ‘David Fordyce’ a couple of times in my previous posts. The influence this thinker had in the second half of the eighteenth century (Benjamin Franklin was impresed by his works, though he mistakenly credited them to Hutcheson) usually goes unnoticed, despite the success of his main works. He is also a very good example of the adoption of the rhetoric and methodology of experimental philosophy in the field of moral philosophy.

Fordyce (1711-1751) studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen, in the 1720s (the same decade George Turnbull was a regent there). He came back to his alma mater in 1742 to become a regent himself. During this period he taught, as most regents did, “all the Sciences, Logics, Metaphysics, Pneumatics, Ethics strictly so called & the Principles of the Law of Nature and Nations with natural and experimental Philosophy.” (David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 6 June 1743. Quoted in the Liberty Fund edition of his Elements of Moral Philosophy). This was also the period when he published his main works, the Dialogues Concerning Education (1745) and The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1748). The latter was first published as section nine of Robert Dodsley’s The Preceptor (1748), anonymously, and then published posthumously in 1754. The essay had such a good reception that it was used as the text book for moral philosophy lectures in North American universities, and it was used almost in full (only the conclusion was ommitted) for the entry on moral philosophy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from its first edition until well into the nineteenth century.

A recent edition of the Elements also includes a speech he gave to his students at the start of the year of lectures on moral philosophy, which is the text I want to focus on. The speech is entitled A brief Account of the Nature, Progress, and Origin of Philosophy delivered by the late Mr. David Fordyce, P. P. Marish. Col: Abdn to his Scholars, before they begun their Philosophical course. Besides the explicit use of the terminology of the experimental method in his Elements (induction, hypotheses, deduction of rules from observation, etc.), his speech shows the traits that characterize the methodology of the experimental philosophy. For example:

    “It is evident that setting aside sovreign instruction, true knowledge must be acquired by slow degrees from experience & observation, & that it will always be proportionate to the largeness & extent of our Experience.”
    “The knowledge then of the nature, laws & connections of things is, as has been observed, Philosophy; and they who apply to the study of these, & from thence deduce rules for the conduct & improvement of human life, are Philosophers. They who consider things as they are or as they exist, & draw right conclusions from thence, are true Philosophers. But they who without regard to fact or nature indulge themselves in framing systems to which they afterwards reduce all appearances, are, notwithstanding their ingenuity & subtilty, to be reckoned only the corrupters & enemies of true learning.”
    “Now there is a natural & proper method of attaining to true knowledge as well as any other accomplishment, which if neglected must occasion error & contradiction. It cannot be too often repeated, that there is no real knowledge, nor any that can answer a valuable End, but what is gathered or Copyed from nature or from things themselves. That the knowledge of Nature is nothing else than the knowledge of facts or realities & their established connections. That no Rules or Precepts of life Can be given or any Scheme of Conduct prescribed, but what must suppose a settled Course of things conducted in a regular uniform manner. That in order to denominate those Rules just, & to render those Schemes successful, the Course of things must be understood & observed. & that all Philosophy, even the most didactic & practical parts of it, must be drawn from the Observation of things or at least resolved into it; Or which is the same thing, that the knowledge of truth is the knowledge of Fact, & whatever Speculations are not reduceable to the one or the other of these are Chimerical, Vague & uncertain.”

The previous are just the most telling quotes, but the whole overview Fordyce gives of the history of philosophy embodies the anti-Aristotelian, anti-hypothetical attitude of the experimental philosophy. Such was the message Fordyce delivered as a regent to his students in the 1740s, highlighting the relevance of the experimental/ speculative distinction, with the former being the only appropriate method for the progress of knowledge.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned to our blog. Pretty soon we will have a guest post by Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt on a topic closely related to Fordyce’s speech: early modern universities and experimental philosophy.

On the Proliferation of Empiricisms

Peter Anstey writes…

One sign that a historiographical category no longer earns its keep is that it needs to be redefined in each new context of use. Another is that it leads to a proliferation of taxonomies of meaning. Such is the case with the term ’empiricism’. I have commented in a previous post that this term is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down: that Don Garrett gives us 5 empiricisms; Michael Ayers gives us 2; Jonathan Lowe gives us 3 and so on. In his recent post on the New APPS Blog Eric Schliesser gives us 4 and refers us to a recent article by Charles Wolfe which provides 3. If we throw into the mix Feyerabend’s 3 and Ernan McMullin’s 2 forms of ‘classical empiricism’ and allow for overlap, we have around 15 different forms of empiricism! And this is only a sampling of the field. It’s a field that is too crowded for anyone’s liking and provides one of the main arguments for letting go of the whole Kantian/post-Kantian historiographical category and for exploring the experimental/speculative distinction as a positive alternative.

The claim here is not that each of these 15 or so empiricisms is without value in so far as they might give us some insight into a particular thinker or trend within early modern thought. It is rather that the term ’empiricism’ is being called upon to do too much work to the point that its semantic domain is too fluid for it to have a determinate meaning. It is simply bad history to flog a term this hard.

This is where the experimental/speculative distinction can help. The fact that it is a historical distinction, that is easy to locate in early modern natural philosophers and philosophers alike, makes it easy to track. Restricting ourselves to Anglophone works, searches in EEBO and ECCO for ’empiricism’ (in any of the 15 senses) and ‘Rationalism’ yield very meagre results, but similar searches using ‘experimental’, ‘experimental philosophy’, ‘speculative’, ‘speculative philosophy’ and their cognates (e.g. ‘speculation’) are enormously fruitful.

What we claim is that it is now time to work through early modern thought using these terms and this distinction and to determine what the results are. We do not claim that ‘experimental philosophy’ has one determinate meaning (see my last post on Baconian vs Newtonian Experimental Philosophy). So it’s not as if we ourselves might never face a proliferation problem (though so far it seems to us that the usage of the terms is relatively consistent). It’s rather that the heuristic value of such a research program is enormous, whereas the rationalism/empiricism distinction is nearing its ‘use-by date’. We are not in competition with those who hang on to rationalism and empiricism. Rather we have a complementary and, in our view, far more promising research program.

Newton on Certainty

Kirsten Walsh writes…

A few weeks ago, I said that in Newton’s early optical papers:

    Newton claims that his doctrine of colours is a theory, not a hypothesis, for three reasons:
    1.  It is certainly true, because it is supported by (or deduced from) experiment;
    2.  It concerns the physical properties of light, rather than the nature of light; and
    3.  It has testable consequences.

From this set of criteria, we can see that early-Newton’s strong anti-hypothetical stance is closely related to his goal of generating theories that are certainly true.  Students from Florida have pointed out that Newton’s criterion of certainty seems to set the bar quite high.  Indeed it does.  So today I will explain early-Newton’s goal of absolute certainty and why he thought it was achievable.

For Newton, absolute certainty is closely related to mathematics – he wants to achieve certainty in the science of colours by making it mathematical.  In his first letter to the Royal Society, he says:

    A naturalist would scearce expect to see ye science of those become mathematicall, & yet I dare affirm that there is as much certainty in it as in any other part of Opticks.  For what I shall tell concerning them is not an hypothesis but most rigid consequence, not conjectured by barely inferring ’tis thus because not otherwise or because it satisfies all Phænomena (the Philosophers universall Topick,) but evinced by ye mediation of experiments concluding directly & without any suspicion of doubt.

In a letter to Hooke, Newton says, ideally the science of colours will be “Mathematicall & as certain as any part of Optiques”.  However, absolute certainty is difficult to achieve because the science of colours

    depend[s] as well on Physicall Principles as on Mathematicall Demonstrations: And the absolute certainty of a Science cannot exceed the certainty of its Principles.

Thus, Newton thinks that absolute certainty is also closely related to experiment.  It is no accident that, in his first paper, Newton attempts to establish the physical principles of colour experimentally by focussing on refrangibility rather than colour of light.  It would have been difficult to measure precisely changes in colour, but Newton was able precisely to measure degrees of refraction and lengths of refracted images.  He hardly even mentions colour until he believes he has established that white light is a mixture of differently refrangible rays.  When he is ready to reveal his theory of colour, he does so by first asserting that there is a one-to-one correspondence between refrangibility and colour of light rays.  Newton claims that he has established the physical principles of colour with absolute certainty.

When he reveals his theory of colour, he does so in a quasi-mathematical style.  In a letter to Oldenburg, Newton says:

    I drew up a series of such Expts on designe to reduce ye Theory of colours to Propositions & prove each Proposition from one or more of those Expts by the assistance of common notions set down in the form of Definitions & Axioms in imitation of the Method by which Mathematicians are wont to prove their doctrines.

This quasi-mathematical ‘proof’ of his theory of colours is set out in his reply to Huygens.

To summarise, Newton’s mathematical method and his experimental method are linked by his notion of absolute certainty.  Newton claims his theory of colours is certainly true, because (1) his physical principles are established experimentally and are certainty true, and (2) he can use these physical principles as the basis of his mathematical proof.  That a lengthy and sometimes heated debate followed Newton’s original paper, shows that his opponents weren’t as convinced by his careful demonstration as he was.

Monthly Update

Hello, readers!

In our monthly updates, we look back at what happened on the blog in the past few weeks and we highlight recent posts, conferences, and upcoming deadlines on early modern experimental philosophy.

Since the last monthly update, we wrote on Wolff’s criticism of Newton‘s hypothesis non fingo, on whether Newton actually feigns any hypotheses and on Tetens’ distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy. We also continued our discussion with Eric Schliesser on experimental vs speculative philosophy. Peter responded to Eric’s first review of our project by distinguishing Baconian and non-Baconian forms of experimental philosophy. Eric expanded on his views on the history of experimental philosophy on the New APPS blog. Then Juan and Eric debated on Newtonianism and anti-Newtonianism in early modern moral philosophy. Many thanks to Eric Schliesser for his stimulating inputs and to Zsolt Almási and Gerhard Wiesenfeldt for their comments on the blog. They are much appreciated.

Juan and Kirsten are giving two papers at the upcoming conference of the New Zealand division of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. The conference is hosted this year by the University of Waikato in Hamilton, and it will run from the 5th to the 9th of December. Both Kirsten and Juan will be talking about topics related to their PhD research. Kirsten’s paper investigates Newton’s first optical paper, and Juan will be talking about Turnbull and the theory of association of ideas. Here are the abstracts:

Hypotheses and Newton’s First Optical Papers (by Kirsten Walsh)

Newton’s famous pronouncement, Hypotheses non fingo, is controversial. Some writers, such as Sabre and Dear, argue that Newton is merely ‘paying lip-service’ to the dominant methodological tradition. Others, such as Janiak, argue that Newton’s anti-hypotheticalism is a polemical device, designed specifically to oppose his Cartesian and Leibnizian critics. I argue that we should take Newton’s pronouncement as a genuine account of his methodology.

I take a fresh look at Newton’s anti-hypothetical stance in light of the role of hypotheses in the Baconian-experimental tradition in which Newton’s early research was conducted. I examine Newton’s earliest publications: his first papers on optics. I argue that Newton is working with a rough but genuine distinction between hypothesis and theory. This distinction is consistent with both the Baconian-experimental method and with his later anti-hypothetical pronouncements.

The Association of Ideas in Hobbes, Locke, and Turnbull (by Juan Gomez)

John Locke added a chapter titled ‘Of the Association of Ideas’ to the fourth edition (1700) of his Essay concerning Human Understanding, which most scholars regard as just an afterthought. However, it has been argued that the theory of association explained in this chapter had a remarkable influence on most thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment, including Hutcheson, Hume, and Hartley, just to name a few. In his inquiry into the development of the theory of association in eighteenth-century Britain, Martin Kallich argues that Locke was not the first thinker in the early modern period to come up with such a theory, since Hobbes had already proposed a similar doctrine in Leviathan. Kallich also thinks that Locke’s originality consists in examining the association of ideas as a “hindrance to right thinking.” Hobbes, on the other hand, has a ‘positive’ representation of the theory. If we accept Kallich’s interpretation, George Turnbull’s description of the theory of association stands as an interesting case; he mentions Locke as one of his main sources, but gives a particularly ‘positive’ version of the association of ideas. In this paper I examine the theory of association in Hobbes, Locke and Turnbull, and argue for two claims: 1.) Kallich’s interpretation is not quite accurate, since Hobbes’ version of the theory of association is not as closely related to Locke’s version as he thinks; in fact, it can’t even be regarded as a proper theory of association 2.) Turnbull’s commitment to the experimental method led him to construct a version of the association of ideas that was the opposite of what Locke meant by ’association’. I will support my claims by showing the similarities and differences in the three versions of the theory, focusing on the difference between ‘natural association’, ‘associated ideas’, and ‘trains of thought’.

Early Modern experimental philosophy on the net:

Upcoming deadlines:

That’s it for this time. Have we missed some event, call for paper, or interesting reading? Would you like us to include your writings or events in the next monthly update? Do let us know! Also, you can subscribe to our mailing list or RSS feed if you would like to be notified of new posts. For more frequent updates, follow us on Twitter. You can “like” us on Facebook by pressing the buttons at the bottom of each post and on our Facebook page if you want. But most of all, thanks for reading and feel free to send us your comments, suggestions, and criticisms.

This coming Monday Kirsten will publish a post on Newton’s views on certainty in natural science. Stay tuned!

Tetens on Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Christian Wolff as an example of knowledge of experimental philosophy in Germany during the first half of the eighteenth century. Wolff knew, among others, Boyle’s, Hooke’s, and Locke’s works and he criticized Newton’s rejection of hypotheses in the field of natural philosophy.

However, the fact that Wolff knew leading experimental philosophers does not mean that he regarded them all as exponents of one and same the movement of experimental philosophy. Did eighteenth century German philosophers identify a continuous tradition of experimental philosophy? If so, what did they regard as the distinctive features of that tradition? What authors did they regard as its representatives?

Johann Nicolaus Tetens

Johann Nicolaus Tetens

Today I am going to sketch the answers that Johann Nicolaus Tetens gave to these questions. Tetens was one of the brightest minds in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century. The essay on which I am going to focus was published in 1775, six years before Kant’s first Critique. It is entitled On General Speculative Philosophy. It contrasts speculative philosophy [speculativische Philosophie] with observational philosophy [beobachtende Philosophie].

Observational philosophy is a philosophy which relies on observation. Observation, in the relevant sense, is a form of introspection. It takes place when we disregard the relation of our mental representations with the objects they are about and we regard our mental representations as “something subjective, modifications of ourselves”. Observation enables us to discover truths about God, the human soul, and the world, to which we have access

    without previous general speculations on substance, space and time, etc. […] Reid, Home, Beattie, Oswald, and also several German philosophers have proven this beyond doubt with their reasonings and with the proofs that they have put forward.

This passage makes clear that Tetens’ observational philosophy is actually Scottish common sense philosophy – a movement that had a great influence in Germany in the 1770s. Scottish common sense philosophy was an incarnation of experimental philosophy. Tetens’ contrast between observational and speculative philosophy is a version of the experimental-speculative distinction.

According to Tetens, common sense and introspection provide us with a stock of hypotheses and intuitions. These form “the terrain that one must cultivate when doing speculative philosophy.” Speculative philosophers must reformulate those intuitions in well-defined terms, look for systematic links between them, assess their truth, seek for reasons to believe them to be true, and so on. The philosophy that Tetens advocates in 1775 combines an initial observational stage with a later speculative stage.

According to Tetens, this means combining the virtues of British and German philosophy. Tetens regards observational philosophy as a distinctively British movement (with French and German followers) and speculative philosophy as a distinctively German tradition:

    British philosophers could be our models in observing; but they should not be our models in speculative philosophy. … New [British] philosophy was first shaped by Bacon and later by Locke. […] Bacon’s [New] Organon, regarded as a set of directions to perform observations and to extend empirical knowledge, is a masterwork … Locke’s books on the human understanding contain an excellent model for employing that method in the knowledge of our soul and its operations. Yet both of their logics are insufficient on the other side [scil. the speculative side] … British philosophy was nearly only an observational philosophy, an empirical physics of man.

Tetens identifies a continuous tradition of experimental (or in his terms, observational) philosophers stretching from Bacon to Reid, through Locke, Hume, and Condillac. This shows that the existence of a tradition of experimental philosophy and its opposition with speculative philosophy (ESP) were known to Kant’s contemporaries in the mid-1770s.

Over the following two decades, Kant adumbrated a new distinction between empiricism and rationalism. His followers (Reinhold, Tennemann) chose to privilege it over the ESP that they could find in Tetens’ text from 1775 (and elsewhere). Given their knowledge of the ESP, their choice to privilege the new distinction between empiricism and rationalism must have been a deliberate one. What reasons motivated that choice? Do let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Anti-Newtonianism in moral philosophy?

Juan Gomez writes…

Peter Anstey recently posted a reply to Eric Schliesser’s criticisms of the experimental/speculative distinction we are proposing. Eric posted some comments on this topic in the New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog, where he expanded his criticisms by presenting a four-fold problem for our distinction. I quote the fourth point of criticism from Eric’s post:

    Fourth, and most important to the history of philosophy, when the “experimental” philosophy was introduced into moral areas (Turnbull, Hume, etc.) it was decidedly Baconian in character, and often quite hostile to Newton (but that story must await more detail later).

I am going to pitch in my reply before Eric gives us more details on this hostility to Newton. In my previous post on the ‘spirit’ of experimental philosophy, I attached a document with some quotes from Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy that illustrate the opposite of Eric’s claim.  The following are just the three most explicit quotes (you can check this document for more of them):

    Account for MORAL, as the great Newton has taught us to explain for NATURAL Appearances, (that is, by reducing them to good general laws) (Epistle dedicatory, i)
    The great Master [Newton], to whose truly marvelous (I had almost said more than human) sagacity and accuracy, we are indebted for all the greater improvements that have been made in Natural Philosophy, after pointing out in the clearest manner, the only way by which we can acquire real knowledge of any part of nature, corporeal or moral, plainly declares, that he looked upon the enlargement Moral Philosophy must needs receive, so soon as Natural Philosophy, in its full extent, being pursued in that only proper method of advancing it, should be brought to any considerable degree of perfection, to be the principal advantage mankind and human society would then reap from such science. (Preface, iii)
    It was by this important, comprehensive hint [Newton’s], I was led long ago to apply myself to the study of the human mind in the same way as to that of the human body, or any other part of Natural Philosophy: that is, to try whether due enquiry into moral nature would not soon enable us to account for moral, as the best of Philosophers teaches us to explain natural phenomena. (Preface, iii)

One last thought, and a preview of a post in the near future, regarding Eric’s comments: David Fordyce, regent at Marischal College for 10 years (1741-1751), studied in the same college in the 1720’s when Turnbull was a regent. His posthumous publication The Elements of Moral Philosophy might fall under Eric’s description of being ‘Baconian in character,’ but there is certainly no hostility to Newton, and it fits in nicely with our description of experimental philosophy. I leave you with a passage from Fordyce’s book. It is interesting to mention here that parts of Fordyce’s book were used by William Smellie’s for the entry on moral philosophy of his first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and were maintained in the following editions for decades.

    Moral Philosophy has this in common with Natural Philosophy, that it appeals to Nature or Fact; depends on Observation, and builds its Reasonings on plain uncontroverted Experiments, or upon the fullest Induction of Particulars of which the Subject will admit. We must observe, in both these Sciences, Quid faciat & ferat Natura; how Nature is affected, and what her Conduct is in such and such Circumstances. Or in other words, we must collect the Phaenomena, or Appearances of Nature in any given Instance; trace these to some General Principles, or Laws of Operation; and then apply these Principles or Laws to the explaining of other Phaenomena. (The Elements of moral Philosophy, 1754, p. 7-8)