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)
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