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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.

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