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Archive for March, 2011

Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism: Symposium Abstracts

Monday, March 28th, 2011 | Comments Off

Hello, readers!

Below are the abstracts of the papers that we will discuss at the upcoming symposium on experimental philosophy and the origins of empiricism. The symposium will take place at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ, on the 18th and 19th of April and you can find the programme here.

If you would like to attend but have not registered yet, drop an email to Peter. Attendance is free, but we’d like to have an idea of how many people are coming. If you cannot attend, but are interested in some of the papers, let Alberto know. We are happy to circulate them in advance and would love to hear your comments. Also, check this blog in the weeks after the symposium. We will post discussions and commentaries on the papers. We’re looking forward to extend our discussions to the blog. We might also post the video of one of our sessions if we manage to.

Word cloud of our symposium abstracts

Peter Anstey, The Origins of the Experimental-Speculative Distinction
This paper investigates the origins of the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESP) in the mid-seventeenth century. It argues that there is a significant prehistory to the distinction in the analogous division between operative and speculative philosophy, which is commonly found in late scholastic philosophy and can be traced back via Aquinas to Aristotle. It is argued, however, the ESP is discontinuous with this operative/speculative distinction in a number of important respects. For example, the latter pertains to philosophy in general and not to natural philosophy in particular. Moreover, in the late Renaissance operative philosophy included ethics, politics and oeconomy and not observation and experiment – the things which came to be considered constitutive of the experimental philosophy. It is also argued that Francis Bacon’s mature division of the sciences, which includes a distinction in natural philosophy between the operative and the speculative, is too dissimilar from the ESP to have been an adumbration of this later distinction. No conclusion is drawn as to when exactly the ESP emerged, but a series of important developments that led to its distinctive character are surveyed.

Related posts: Who invented the Experimental Philosophy?

Juan Gomez, The Experimental Method and Moral Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment
One of the key aspects, perhaps the most important one, of the enlightenment in Great Britain is the scientifically driven mind set of the intellectuals of the time. This feature, together with the emphasis of the importance of the study of human nature gave rise to the ‘science of man.’ It was characterized by the application of methods used in the study of the whole of nature to inquiries about our own human nature. This view is widely accepted among scholars, who constantly mention that the way of approaching moral philosophy in the eighteenth century was by considering it as much a science as natural philosophy, and therefore the methods of the latter should be applied to the former. Nowhere is this more evident than in the texts on moral philosophy by the Scottish intellectuals. But despite the common acknowledgement of this feature, the specific details and issues of the role of the experimental method within moral philosophy have not been fully explored. In this paper I will explore the salient features of the experimental method that was applied in the Scottish moral philosophy of the enlightenment by examining the texts of a range of intellectuals.

Related posts: Turnbull and the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method; David Fordyce’s advice to students.

Peter Anstey, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and the Experimental Philosophy
If the experimental/speculative distinction provided the dominant terms of reference for early modern philosophy before Kant, one would expect to find evidence of this in mid-eighteenth-century France amongst the philosophes associated with Diderot’s Encyclopédie project. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s ‘Preliminary Discourse’ to the Encyclopedie provides an ideal test case for the status of the ESP in France at this time. This is because it is a methodological work in its own right, and because it sheds light on d’Alembert’s views on experimental philosophy expressed elsewhere as well as the views of others among his contemporaries. By focusing on d’Alembert and his ‘Discourse’ I argue that the ESP was central to the outlook of this philosophe and some of his eminent contemporaries.

Kirsten Walsh, De Gravitatione and Newton’s Mathematical Method
Newton’s manuscript De Gravitatione was first published in 1962, but its date of composition is unknown. Scholars have attempted to date the manuscript, but they have not yet reached a consensus. There have been two main attempts to date De Gravitatione. Hall & Hall (1962) argue for an early date of 1664 to 1668, but no later than 1675. Dobbs (1991) argues for a later date of late-1684 to early-1685. Each side lists handwriting analysis and various conceptual developments as evidence.
In the first part of this paper, I examine the evidence provided by these two attempts. I argue that the evidence presented provides a lower limit of 1668 and an upper limit of 1684. In the second part of this paper, I compare De Gravitatione‘s two-pronged methodology with the mathematical method in Newton’s early optical papers composed between 1672 and 1673. I argue that the two-pronged methodology of De Gravitatione is a more sophisticated version of the mathematical method used in Newton’s early optical papers. Given this new evidence, I conclude that Newton probably composed De Gravitatione after 1673.

Related posts: Newton’s Method in ‘De gravitatione’

Alberto Vanzo, Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany
The history of early modern philosophy is traditionally interpreted in the light of the dichotomy between empiricism and rationalism. Yet this distinction was first developed by Kant and his followers in the late eighteenth century. Many early modern thinkers who are usually categorized as empiricists associated themselves with the research program of experimental philosophy and labelled their opponents speculative philosophers. Did Kant and his followers know the tradition of experimental philosophy and the historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy? If so, what prompted them to introduce the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism?
To answer these questions, the first part of the paper focuses on Christian Wolff, the most influential German philosopher of the first half of the eighteenth century. It is argued that Wolff developed his philosophy in a way that was orthogonal to the experimental-speculative distinction. The second part of the paper argues that the distinction experimental-speculative distinction was known and widely used by Kant’s contemporaries from the 1770s to the end of the century. It is concluded that Kant and his followers were well aware of experimental philosophy. Their choice not to focus on the ESD must have been a deliberate one.

Related posts: Experiment and Hypothesis, Theory and Observation: Wolff vs Newton; Tetens on Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy

Alberto Vanzo, Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann
Many scholars have criticized histories of early modern philosophy based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism. Among the reasons for their criticism are:

    The epistemological bias: histories of philosophy which give pride of place to the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) overestimate the importance of epistemological issues for early modern philosophers.
    The Kantian bias: histories of early modern philosophy that embrace the RED are often biased in favour of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. They portray Kant as the first author who uncovered the limits of rationalism and empiricism, rejected their mistakes, and incorporated their correct insights within his Critical philosophy.
    The classificatory bias: histories of philosophy based on the RED tend to classify all early modern philosophers prior to Kant into either the empiricist, or the rationalist camps. However, these classifications have proven far from convincing.

After summarizing Kant’s discussions of empiricism and rationalism, the paper argues that Kant did not have the classificatory, Kantian, and epistemological biases. However, he promoted a way of writing histories of philosophy from which those biases would naturally flow. It is argued that those biases can be found in the early Kant-inspired historiography of Karl Leonhard Reinhold and Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann.

Related posts: Kant, Empiricism, and Historiographical Biases; Reinhold on Empiricism, Rationalism, and the Philosophy without Nicknames

Thanks to Wordle for the word cloud above.

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Who invented the Experimental Philosophy?

Monday, March 21st, 2011 | 6 Comments

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes the question ‘Who invented X?’ has no determinate answer, in spite of claims of particular individuals. One thinks of questions like ‘Who invented the internet?’ and the various dubious claims to this honour. Christoph Lüthy has argued quite convincingly that ‘the microscope was never invented’ (Early Science and Medicine, 1, 1996, p. 2). I suggest that the same probably goes for the experimental philosophy: there is no single person or group of people who created it, rather it somehow ‘emerged’ in Europe sometime between the death of Francis Bacon in 1626 and the founding of the Royal Society in 1660. One place to look for answers is to trace the early uses of the term ‘experimental philosophy’.

Here is the evidence that I am aware of for the emergence of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in early modern England. The first English work  to use the term ‘experimental philosophy’ according to EEBO was Robert Boyle’s Spring of the Air in 1660. Interestingly, the term philosophia experimentalis had already appeared in the title of Nicola Cabeo’s Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology of 1646 and Boyle cites Cabeo’s book twice in Spring of the Air. The first English book to use the term in its title was Abraham Cowley’s A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy of 1661. From then on, however, books about experimental philosophy start to roll off the presses of England. Boyle’s Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy and Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy, both published in 1663, got the ball rolling. (Incidentally, Cabeo’s book was reprinted in Rome in 1686 under the title Philosophia experimentalis.) As for manuscript sources, the earliest use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ that I have found is in Samuel Hartlib’s Ephemerides in 1635.

Another place to look for evidence for the inventor of the experimental philosophy is in discussions of natural philosophy and of experiment. It appears that Francis Bacon never used the term ‘experimental philosophy’, but he did develop a conception of experientia literata (learned experience), which might be thought to be a precursor of the experimental philosophy. This appears in Book 5 of his De augmentis scientiarum of 1623, where it is distinguished from interpretatio naturae (interpretation of nature). The experientia literata is a method of discovery proceeding from one experiment to another, whereas interpretatio naturae involves the transition from experiments to theory. But this doesn’t resemble the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy very closely. For example, the experimental philosophy was, on the whole, opposed to speculation and hypotheses and there is no sense of opposition or tension in Bacon’s distinction.

Furthermore, a distinction between operative (or practical) and speculative philosophy was commonplace in scholastic divisions of knowledge in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and this, no doubt provided the basic dichotomy on which the experimental/speculative distinction was based. But the operative/speculative distinction doesn’t map very well onto the experimental/speculative distinction, not least because by ‘operative sciences’ the scholastics meant ethics, politics and oeconomy (that is, management of society) and not observation and experiment.

Who invented the experimental philosophy? I don’t think that there is a determinate answer to this question, but I’m happy to be corrected and am keen for suggestions as to where to look for more evidence.

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Newton’s Method in ‘De gravitatione’

Monday, March 14th, 2011 | Comments Off

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Newton’s manuscript De Gravitatione (‘De Grav.’ for short) was published for the first time in 1962, but no one knows when it was written.  Some scholars have argued that Newton wrote De Grav. as early as 1664, others, as late as 1685, and there have been arguments for almost every period in between.

Ostensibly, the topic of De Grav. is “the science of the weight and of the equilibrium of fluids and solids in fluids”.  Newton discusses this topic in the form of definitions, axioms, propositions, corollaries, and finally a scholium.  However, the scholium ends abruptly and the manuscript is unfinished.  One of the most notable features of this manuscript is what Hall & Hall describe as a “structural failure”: what begins as a brief discussion of a definition turns into a lengthy and detailed attack on the Cartesian conception of space and time.  This digression is significant.  Firstly, it is useful for understanding the development of Newton’s thoughts on many topics.  Secondly, it supports the view that, in Principia, Newton’s intended opponent was Cartesian, rather than Leibnizian.

In this post, I am not going to talk about Newton’s 23-page digression (which may well form the basis of another post).  Rather, I am interested in the opening paragraph of this manuscript, in which Newton describes his method.  He begins:

    “It is fitting to treat the science of the weight and of the equilibrium of fluids and solids in fluids by a twofold method.”

The first, he tells us, is a geometrical method.  He says he plans to demonstrate his propositions “strictly and geometrically” by:

  1. Abstracting the phenomena from physical considerations;
  2. Establishing a strong foundation of definitions, axioms and postulates; and
  3. Formulating lemmas, propositions and corollaries.

The second is a natural philosophical method.  He says he plans to explicate and confirm the certainty of his propositions by the use of experiments.  He says that these discussions will be restricted to scholia, to ensure that the two methods are kept separate.

This twofold method bears striking resemblance to two other aspects of Newton’s work:

  1. It accurately describes the method and structure of Principia; and
  2. It resembles the quasi-mathematical method he uses to ‘prove’ his theory of colours.

The first point is uncontroversial – almost boring, given how many times it has been mentioned in the literature.  But it shows that this method is in use by Newton at least by the mid-1680s.  My second point, however, requires some explanation.

In an earlier post I argued that, at least in the early 1670s, Newton’s goal is absolute certainty.  He hopes to achieve certainty in the science of colours by making it ‘mathematical’.  The clearest demonstration of his quasi-mathematical method is found in Newton’s reply to Huygens, where he sets out his theory of colours in a series of definitions and propositions, in the style of a geometrical proof.

Despite the resemblance, this is not precisely the same method that Newton is advocating in De Grav. Experiment appears to play a different role.

In his early optical work, propositions are founded on experiment.  So experiment should be the first step in any inquiry.  For example, in a letter written in 1673, Newton says:

    “I drew up a series of such Expts on designe to reduce the 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.”

But in De Grav., Newton says that experiment is employed to ‘illustrate and confirm’ the propositions.  That is, experiment is supposed to occur as a later step.

This raises several questions about Newton’s methodology.  Is there any practical difference between the two methods?  Does this represent a significant shift in the role Newton assigned to experiment?  Can methodology shed any light on the dating of De Grav.?  What do you think?

Next week, we’ll hear from Peter Anstey.

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Reinhold on Empiricism, Rationalism, and the Philosophy without Nicknames

Monday, March 7th, 2011 | Comments Off

Alberto Vanzo writes…

There is a traditional way of narrating the development of early modern philosophy. I first studied it in high school and no doubt you are familiar with it. According to this narrative, the central dispute within early modern philosophy concerned epistemological matters:

  • Do we have a priori knowledge of the world?
  • Do we have innate concepts?

Rationalists answered that we do, whereas empiricists denied it. Eventually came Kant, who refuted empiricists and rationalists, sentenced the end of those movements, and embodied their insights within his own transcendental philosophy.

These days, this sort of narrative is regularly attacked for overstating the importance of epistemological matters and for being biased in favour of Kant’s philosophy. Who first framed that narrative? Some say it was Kant. Yet I argued in an earlier post that this is not the case. While Kant introduces the terms “empiricism” and “rationalism”, he does not view empiricism and rationalism as purely epistemological views. Moreover, he does not take his thought to be above empiricism and rationalism. He takes himself to be a rationalist.

Karl Leonhard Reinhold

Karl Leonhard Reinhold

Karl Leonhard Reinhold first spelled out the traditional historiographical framework in works from the early 1790s (such as On the Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge and the Contributions toward Correcting the Previous Misunderstandings of Philosophers, from which I will quote). In these years, Reinhold was articulating his own system, “Elementary Philosophy”. He distinguished it from Kant’s philosophy with these words:

    The Elementary Philosophy is therefore essentially different from the Critique of Pure Reason. And the philosophy of which it is a part [...] can no more be called critical than it can empirical, rationalist or sceptical. It is philosophy without nicknames.

At this point, Reinhold makes some bold historiographical claims:

    The insufficiency of empiricism brought about rationalism, and the insufficiency of the latter sustained the other in turn. Humean scepticism unveiled the insufficiency of both of theses dogmatic systems, and thus occasioned Kantian criticism. The latter overturned one-sided dogmatism and dogmatic skepticism.

How did this all happen? First came Locke’s empiricism and Leibniz’s rationalism:

    The two philosophers laid down, one in the simple representations drawn from experience and the other in innate representations [...], the only foundation of philosophical knowledge possible for the empiricists [on the one hand] and the rationalists [on the other.] And while their followers were busy disagreeing about the external details and the refinements of their systems, David Hume came along

and revealed their mistake. This was believing that we are able to know mind-independent things, either on the basis of simple mental representations drawn from experience (empiricism), or by means of innate concepts and principles (rationalism).

    Hume confronted this crucial issue about the conformity of impressions to their objects; this was what everybody had taken for granted without proof before his time, and he demonstrated that no proof can be offered that is without contradiction.

Hume’s mistake was assuming, like Locke and Leibniz, that the objects that impressions must conform to be true are mind-independent or, in Kant’s terms, things in themselves. Kant rejected that “groundless assumption by proving “that objective truth is entirely possible without knowledge of things in themselves”. Reinhold’s Kant takes objective truth to be the correspondence of our mental representations with mind-dependent, phenomenal objects. On the basis of this view, Kant answered the central question of what are the extension and limits of our cognitive powers. For Reinhold, answering this question enabled Kantians to solve the disputes in the fields of ethics and natural law, and even theology.

With his account, Reinhold places Kant above and beyond empiricism and rationalism. Reinhold takes epistemological issues on the foundation and limits of knowledge to be central to the whole philosophy of early modern age. In short, Reinhold has the epistemological and Kantian biases.

It is easy to see why Reinhold’s potted history of early modern philosophy was attractive for Reinhold’s contemporaries. From a historiographical point of view, it places four works that Reinhold’s contemporaries held in great esteem (Locke’s Essay, Leibniz’s New Essays, Hume’s Treatise, and Kant’s first Critique) within a single, coherent narrative. From a philosophical point of view, Reinhold places Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies that had become increasingly popular at the summit of the development of human reason.

Reinhold’s history of early modern philosophy is very sketchy. The first historian to flesh it out in great detail was Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann. Next time I will tell you about him.

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