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Gideon Manning on the Origins of the Experimental/Speculative Distinction

Gideon Manning writes…

Having commented on Peter Anstey’s “The Origins of the Experimental-Speculative Distinction” at the recent symposium in Otago, I am pleased to share a much abbreviated and slightly revised version of my comments.  I limit myself here to making two points.  First, there is reason to believe the Experimental-Speculative Distinction (ESD) is not all it is cracked up to be.  Second, the best place to look for what Peter has called the “pre-history” of ESD might be in the Scholastic distinction and distinct practice of general as opposed to particular physics.

1. Part of what motivates Peter’s interest in the Experimental-Speculative Distinction (ESD) is his belief that in just about every way it is superior to the post-Kantian Rationalism-Empiricism Distinction (RED).  I agree that RED is no good – it’s an idealization and it’s imposed after the fact to tell a self-affirming story about how philosophy was waiting for Kant to come along.  In addition, RED ignores all sorts of interesting characters in early modern philosophy (like Boyle) and further it ignores the shared doctrines between members of the supposedly opposed camps.  Without wanting to defend RED, however, I do want to raise a red flag about ESD’s advantages.  With the sole exception that the terms employed in ESD were used by many of the actors in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, I see the same worries Peter identifies with RED coming up for ESD.  Specifically, where RED over emphasizes epistemology ESD over emphasizes methodology; where RED admits to too many significations of “empiricism” and “rationalism” ESD admits to too many significations of “experiment” and “experimental”; where RED leaves a demarcation problem with figures like Boyle – and I would add Hobbes and Berkeley – ESD leaves a demarcation problem with figures like Huygens and Descartes.  Put succinctly, the fact that ESD is an actor’s distinction does not mean it is not an idealization imposed to tell a self-affirming story.

2. In passing, Peter notes that Niccolò Cabeo’s commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology (1646) uses the phrase “experimental philosophy / experimentalis philosophia”.  I urge him to pursue this lead further.  For, there was a Scholastic distinction between two approaches to natural philosophy found in Aristotle’s corpus: physica generalis and physica particularisPhysica generalis is exemplified by Aristotle’s Physics, where he defines the object of natural philosophy, notes the conditions for the possibility of any kind of motion or change, and identifies matter, form, privation and the four causes as the principles of nature. Physica particularis is exemplified by On Generation and Corruption and the fourth book of the Meteorology, where Aristotle defines the object of natural philosophy as corpus potentia sensibile, considers what the object of sense-perception is, and concludes that touch is the most fundamental of all the senses.  Physica generalis is a metaphysical and theoretical or speculative approach to the study of nature since it is based on the conceptual analysis of the concept of a natural body.  Physica particularis is an experimental approach to nature since it is based on an empirical analysis of what is or seems to be given in sense-perception, as Cabeo observed.  Put succinctly, physica particularis was unquestionably experimental with its own experimental philosophy, so if the story of the “new science” and ESD represent a move away from the general to the particular and toward experimentation, we must look closely at physica particularis.

The case of Daniel Sennert further supports this suggestion.  Sennert was aware of the two approaches to natural philosophy in Aristotle’s corpus and as he matured he grew, in Bill Newman’s words, “increasingly impatient with the traditional scholastic focus on the more theoretical side of Aristotle’s thought”.  In fact, in Sennert’s late Hypomnemata physica (1636) he complains about traditional scholastic practice:

    I consider the chief cause of the imperfection of physics to be the fact that in previous centuries those who considered themselves particularly subtle consumed the greatest part of their life in those very general questions about the prime matter, form, privation, motion, and the like, and wore out their time in those disputations repeated so many times ad nauseam. Indeed they never considered the specifics from whose observation their principles should have been derived, or those specifics which should have provided the foundations of medicine and other disciplines…. And this to such a degree that so many wagon-fulls, practically, of commentaries on Aristotle’s books of general physics have been born, stuffed for the greatest part with questions that are not physical, but rather metaphysical, and often empty speculations. But very few are found who would read or comment on Aristotle’s Meteorology, Historia animalium, De partibus animalium, De generatione animalium, and De plantis. (Newman’s translation)

Sennert’s impatience with contemporary Aristotelians (and even his own earlier Aristotelianism) was tied to their preference for the general over the particular.  In focusing on ESD and its history, I think Peter and his group are reminding us what Sennert and his followers knew; that physica particularis was where the action was in the early modern period.

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