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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Early modern x-phi: a genre free zone

Peter Anstey writes…

One feature of early modern experimental philosophy that has been brought home to us as we have prepared the exhibition entitled ‘Experimental Philosophy: Old and New’ (soon to appear online) is the broad range of disciplinary domains in which the experimental philosophy was applied in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the works on display are books from what we now call the history of science, some are works in the history of medicine, some are works of literature, others are works in moral philosophy, and yet they all have the unifying thread of being related in some way to the experimental philosophy.

Two lessons can be drawn from this. First – and this is a simple point that may not be immediately obvious – there is no distinct genre of experimental philosophical writing. Senac’s Treatise on the Structure of the Heart is just as much a work of experimental philosophy as Newton’s Principia or Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. To be sure, if one turns to the works from the 1660s to the 1690s written after the method of Baconian natural history, one can find a fairly well-defined genre. But, as we have already argued on this blog, this approach to the experimental philosophy was short-lived and by no means exhausts the works from those decades that employed the new experimental method.

Second, disciplinary boundaries in the 17th and 18th centuries were quite different from those of today. The experimental philosophy emerged in natural philosophy in the 1650s and early 1660s and was quickly applied to medicine, which was widely regarded as continuous with natural philosophy. By the 1670s it was being applied to the study of the understanding in France by Jean-Baptiste du Hamel and later by John Locke. Then from the 1720s and ’30s it began to be applied in moral philosophy and aesthetics. But the salient point here is that in the early modern period there was no clear demarcation between natural philosophy and philosophy as there is today between science and philosophy. Thus Robert Boyle was called ‘the English Philosopher’ and yet today he is remembered as a great scientist. This is one of the most important differences between early modern x-phi and the contemporary phenomenon: early modern x-phi was endorsed and applied across a broad range of disciplines, whereas contemporary x-phi is a methodological stance within philosophy itself.

What is it then that makes an early modern book a work of experimental philosophy? There are at least three qualities each of which is sufficient to qualify a book as a work of experimental philosophy:

  1. an explicit endorsement of the experimental philosophy and its salient doctrines (such as an emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge by observation and experiment, opposition to speculative philosophy);
  2. an explicit application of the general method of the experimental philosophy;
  3. acknowledgment by others that a book is a work of experimental philosophy.

Now, some of the books in the exhibition are precursors  to the emergence of the experimental philosophy (such as Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum). Some of them are comments on the experimental philosophy by sympathetic observers (Sprat’s History of the Royal Society), and others poke fun at the new experimental approach (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). But this still leaves a large number of very diverse works, which qualify as works of experimental philosophy. Early modern x-phi is a genre free zone.

Early Modern Philosophy at the AAP

The Annual Conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy will start in 10 days and the abstracts have just been published. We were very pleased to see that there are plenty of papers on early modern philosophy. We are re-posting the abstracts below.

As you will see, Juan, Kirsten, Peter, and I are presenting papers on early modern x-phi and the origins of empiricism. Come and say hi if you’re attending the conference. If you aren’t, but would like to read our papers, let us know and we’ll be happy to send you a draft. Our email addresses are listed here. We’d love to hear your feedback.

Peter Anstey, The Origins of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy
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.

Russell Blackford, Back to Locke: Freedom of Religion and the Secular State
For Locke, religious persecution was the problem – and a secular state apparatus was the solution. Locke argued that there were independent reasons for the state to confine its attention to “”civil interests”” or interests in “”the things of this world””. If it did so, it would not to motivated to impose a favoured religion or to persecute disfavoured ones. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach has implications that Locke would have found unpalatable. We, however, need not hesitate to accept them.

Michael Couch, Hume’s Philosophy of Education
Hume has rarely been considered a contributor to the philosophy of education, which is unsurprising as he did not write a dedicated treastise nor make large specific comment, and so educators and philosophers have focused their attention elsewhere. However, I argue that a more careful reading of his works reveals that education is a significant concern, specificially of enriching the minds of particular people. I argue that his educational ideas occupy an important, although not major, place in his writings, and also an important place in the history of ideas as Hume fills a gap after Locke, and provides the framework for the much more educationally influential Bentham and Mill.

Gillian Crozier, Feyerabend on Newton: A defense of Newton’s empiricist method
In “Classical Empiricism,” Paul Feyerabend draws an analogy between Isaac Newton’s empiricist methodology and the Protestant faith’s primary tenet sola scriptura. He argues that the former – which dictates that ‘experience’ or the ‘book of nature’ is the sole justified basis for all knowledge of the external world – and the latter – which dictates that the sole justified basis for all religious understanding is Scripture – are equally vacuous. Feyerabend contends that Newton’s empiricism, which postures that experience is the sole legitimate foundation of scientific beliefs, serves to disguise supplementary background assumptions that are not observer-neutral but are steeped in tradition, dogma, and socio-cultural factors. He focuses on Newton’s treatment of perturbations in the Moon’s orbit, arguing that this typifies how Newton supports his theory by cherry-picking illustrations and pruning them of anomalies through the incorporation of ad hoc assumptions. We defend Newton’s notion of empirical success, arguing that Newton’s treatment of the variational inequality in the lunar orbit significantly adds to the empirical success a rival hypothesis would have to overcome.

Simon Duffy, The ‘Vindication’ of Leibniz’s Account of the Differential. A Response to Somers-Hall
In a recent article in Continental Philosophy Review, entitled ‘Hegel and Deleuze on the metaphysical interpretation of the calculus,’ Henry Somers-Hall claims that ‘the Leibnizian interpretation of the calculus, which relies on infinitely small quantities is rejected by Deleuze’(Somers-Hall 2010, 567). It is important to clarify that this claim does not entail the rejection of Leibniz’s infinitesimal, which Leibniz considered to be a useful fiction, and which continues to play a part in Deleuze’s account of the metaphysics of the calculus. In order to further clarify the terms of this debate, I will take up two further issues with Somers-Hall’s presentation of Deleuze’s account of the calculus. The first is with the way that recent work on Deleuze’s account of the calculus is reduced to what Somers-Hall refers to as ‘modern interpretations of the calculus,’ by which he means set-theoretical accounts. The second is that this reduction by Somers-Hall of ‘modern interpretations of the calculus’ to set-theoretical accounts means that his presentation of Deleuze’s account of the calculus is only partial, and the partial character of his presentation leads him to make a number of unnecessary presumptions about the presentation of Deleuze’s account of the ‘metaphysics of the calculus’.

Sandra Field, Spinoza and Radical Democracy
Antonio Negri’s radical democratic interpretation of Benedictus de Spinoza’s political philosophy has received much attention in recent years. Its central contention is that Spinoza considers the democratic multitude to have an inherent ethical power capable of grounding a just politics. In this paper, I argue to the contrary that such an interpretation gets Spinoza back to front: the ethical power of the multitude is the result of a just and fair political institutional order, not its cause. The consequences of my argument extend beyond Spinoza studies. For Spinoza gives a compelling argument for his rejection of a politics relying on the virtue of a mass subject; for him, such a politics substitutes moral posturing for understanding, and fails to grasp the determinate causes of the pathologies of human social order. Radical democrats hoping to achieve effective change would do well to lay aside a romanticised notion of the multitude and pay attention to the more mundane question of institutional design.

Juan Gomez, Hume’s Four Dissertations: Revisiting the Essay on Taste
Sixteen years ago a number of papers and discussions considering Hume’s essay on taste emerged in various journals. They deal with a number of issues that have been commonly thought to arise from the argument of the essay: some authors take Hume to be proposing two different standards of taste, other think that his argument is circular, and other focus on the role the standard and the critics play in Hume’s theory. I believe that all the issues that have been identified arise from a reading of the essay that takes it out of its context of publication, and mistakes Hume’s purpose in the essay. In this paper I want to propose an interpretation of the essay on taste that takes into account two key aspects: the unity of the dissertations that were published along with the essay on taste in 1757, under the title of Four Dissertations, and Hume’s commitment to the Experimental Philosophy of the early modern period. I believe that these two contextual aspects of the essay provide a reading of the essay on taste that besides solving the identified issues, gives us a good idea of its aim and purposes.

Jack MacIntosh, Models and Methods in the Early Modern Period: 4 case studies
In this paper I consider the various roles of models in early modern natural philosophy by looking at four central cases: Marten on the germ theory of disease. Descartes, Boyle and Hobbes on the spring of the air; The calorific atomists, Digby, Galileo, et al. versus the kinetic theorists such as Boyle on heat and cold; and Descartes, Boyle and Hooke on perception. Did models in the early modern period have explanatory power? Were they taken literally? Did they have a heuristic function? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, consideration of these four cases (along with a brief look at some others) leads to the conclusion that the answer to each of these questions is yes, no, or sometimes, depending on the model, and the modeller, in question. I consider briefly the relations among these different uses of models, and the role that such models played in the methodology of the ‘new philosophy.’ Alan Gabbey has suggested an interesting threefold distinction among explanatory types in the early modern period, and I consider, briefly, the way in which his classification scheme interacts with the one these cases suggest.

Kari Refsdal, Kant on Rational Agency as Free Agency
Kant argued for a close relationship between rational, moral, and free agency. Moral agency is explained in terms of rational and free agency. Many critics have objected that Kant’s view makes it inconceivable how we could freely act against the moral law – i.e., how we could freely act immorally. But of course we can! Henry Allison interprets Kant so as to make his view compatible with our freedom to violate the moral law. In this talk, I shall argue that Allison’s interpretation is anachronistic. Allison’s distinction between freedom as spontaneity and freedom as autonomy superimposes on Kant a contemporary conception of the person. Thus, Allison does not succeed in explaining how an agent can freely act against the moral law within a Kantian framework.

Alberto Vanzo, Rationalism and Empiricism in the Historiography of Early Modern Philosophy
According to standard histories of philosophy, the early modern period was dominated by the struggle between Descartes’, Spinoza’s, and Leibniz’s Continental Rationalism and Locke’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s British Empiricism. The paper traces the origins of this account of early modern philosophy and questions the assumptions underlying it.

Kirsten Walsh, Structural Realism, the Law-Constitutive Approach and Newton’s Epistemic Asymmetry
In his famous pronouncement, Hypotheses non fingo, Newton reveals a distinctive feature of his methodology: namely, he has asymmetrical epistemic commitments. He prioritises theories over hypotheses, physical properties over the nature of phenomena, and laws over matter. What do Newton’s epistemic commitments tell us about his ontological commitments? I examine two possible interpretations of Newton’s epistemic asymmetry: Worrall’s Structural Realism and Brading’s Law-Constitutive Approach. I argue that, while both interpretations provide useful insights into Newton’s ontological commitment to theories, physical properties and laws, only Brading’s interpretation sheds light on Newton’s ontological commitment to hypotheses, nature and matter.

Eric Watkins on Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Eric Watkins writes…

Having commented on two of Alberto Vanzo’s papers at the symposium recently held in Otago, I am happy to post an abbreviated version of my comments. The basic topic of Alberto’s papers is the extent to which one can see evidence of the experimental – speculative philosophy distinction (ESD) in two different periods in Germany, one from the 1720s through the 1740s, when Wolff was a dominant figure, and then another from the mid 1770s through the 1790s, when Tetens, Lossius, Feder, Kant, and Reinhold were all active. Alberto argues that though Wolff was aware of the works of many of the proponents of experimental philosophy and emphasized the importance of basing at least some principles on experience and experiments, he is not a pure advocate of either experimental or speculative philosophy. He then argues that some of the later figures, specifically Tetens, Lossius, Feder and various popular philosophers, undertook projects that could potentially be aligned with ESD, while others, such as Reinhold and later German Idealists, consciously rejected it, opting for the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) instead, which was better suited to their own agenda as well as to that of their German Idealist successors. As a result, Alberto concludes that ESD was an option available to many German thinkers, but that experimental philosophy was not a dominant intellectual movement, as it was in England and elsewhere.

I am in basic agreement with Alberto’s main claims, but I’d like to supplement the account he offers just a bit with a broader historical perspective. Two points about Wolff. First, when Wolff tries to address how the historical knowledge relates to the philosophical knowledge, which can be fully a priori, it is unclear how his account is supposed to go. As Alberto points out, Wolff thinks that data collection and theory building are interdependent, but he also thinks that we can have a priori knowledge. It’s simply not clear how these two positions are really consistent and Wolff does not, to my mind, ever address the issue clearly enough. So I am inclined to think that Wolff is actually ambiguous on a point that lies at the very heart of ESD.

Second, though Wolff was certainly a dominant figure in Germany, he is of course also not the only person of note. For one, throughout the course of the 18th century, experimental disciplines became much more widespread in Germany. So, in charting the shape and scope of ESD at the time, it would be useful to see what conceptions of knowledge and scientific methodology university professors in physics, physiology, botany, and chemistry had, if any. For another, after the resurrection of the Prussian Academy of Sciences by Frederick the Great in 1740, a number of very accomplished figures with reputations of European-wide stature, such as Leonhard Euler, Maupertuis, and Voltaire, came to ply their trade in Berlin. Virtually all of them were quite interested in experimental disciplines and several were extremely hostile towards Wolff. It would therefore be worth considering the full range of their activities to get a sense of their views on ESD.

Let me now turn to the later time period. As Alberto argued, Kant isn’t exactly the right figure to look to for the origin of the RED. Kant does not typically contrast empiricism with rationalism. Instead, when it comes to question of method and the proper use of reason, Kant’s clearest statements in the Doctrine of Method are that the fundamental views are that of dogmatism (Leibniz), skepticism (Hume), indifferentism (popular philosophers), and finally the critique of pure reason, positions that do not line up neatly with either RED or ESD.

However, it would be hasty to infer that there is no significant element of ESD in Kant. Kant dedicates the Critique of Pure Reason to Bacon, an inspiration to many of the British experimentalists. More importantly, one should keep in mind whom Kant is attacking in the first Critique, namely proponents of pure reason who use reason independently of the deliverances of the senses in their speculative endeavors. In many of these instances, the term “speculative” is synonymous with “theoretical” and is contrasted with “practical”. However, in many others Kant is indicating a use of reason that is independent of what is given through our senses, and on that issue, it is a major thrust of Kant’s entire Critical project to show that the purely speculative use of reason (pure reason) cannot deliver knowledge. In this sense, his basic project reveals fundamental similarities with experimental philosophers.

Now the British experimental philosophers would presumably object to synthetic a priori knowledge on the grounds that this is precisely the kind of philosophical speculation that one ought to avoid. But Kant would respond that he is attempting to show that experiments in particular, and experience in general, have substantive rational presuppositions, a possibility that cannot be dismissed out of hand, given its intimate connection to what the experimental philosophers hold dear. This is one of the novel and unexpected twists that make Kant’s position so interesting. So one could incorporate Kant into the ESD narrative by arguing that he is trying to save the spirit of the experimentalists against those who are overly enamored with speculation while still allowing for rational elements. On this account, then, Kant would be responding directly to the ESD, namely by trying to save it, albeit in an extremely abstract and fundamental way that original proponents of the view could never have anticipated.

Tim Mehigan on ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann’

Tim Mehigan writes…

Alberto Vanzo presented two papers for discussion at the recent Otago symposium on early modern experimental philosophy. There are two conclusions in the first paper (“Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany” [on which we’ll publish Eric Watkins’ comments next Monday]) that are important for the second paper: one, that experimental philosophy, as “observational philosophy”, was replaced in German historiography by the term “empiricism” (this occurred sometime before 1796 as a passage from an essay by Christian Garve indicates); two, as experimental/observational philosophy waned, so the historiographical distinction between rationalism and empiricism (RED) waxed. While the reasons for the waxing are not completely clear, there appear to be two ways of imagining how it occurred. The first view holds that Kant himself was responsible for legislating the RED into existence. The second argues that the distinction was not authorized by Kant but arose as a result of the way his philosophy was interpreted and explained by later Kantians such as Reinhold and Tennemann. Both explanations are considered and evaluated in Vanzo’s second paper “Empiricism vs. Rationalism.”

So this is what’s at stake: Vanzo needs to show how the RED can be read into Kant’s first Critique, even if it is not expressly established as a formal distinction on which other parts of the CPR depend. Given the strategy alluded to above – that Kant introduces a distinction under the guise of different terminology – Vanzo is obliged to consider whether we encounter a “mapping” problem when Kant’s contrasts are seen in the context of the RED. He immediately concedes that there is indeed such a mapping problem (as Gary Banham had noted here). The RED is introduced in two places in the CPR – the Antinomies of Pure Reason and the History of Pure Reason. In the first case, Kant contrasts empiricism with dogmatism (not rationalism), and in the second case, Kant contrasts empiricism with “noologism” (not rationalism). The question is: whether RED can “map onto” either or both of these contrasts and thus indicate compellingly that Kant operated with the RED in mind?

As it turns out, the occurrence of the RED in the History of Pure Reason is more readily answered than in the Antinomies. Vanzo establishes both that the contrast of “empiricism” and “noologism” in the History of Pure Reason can be regarded as a version of the RED and that the contrast established here was to become a standard part of the histories of early modern philosophy. The argument in the Antinomies follows a more circuitous route. Vanzo cannot directly show that “dogmatism” and “rationalism” are interchangeable terms, all the more so since Kant’s purpose in the Antinomies is to show that neither dogmatism nor empiricism on its own is able to offer satisfactory proofs of key statements about the world. So both dogmatism and empiricism come up short, and Kant, as a later self-identifying rationalist, is clearly not about to subscribe to the dogmatic variant of metaphysical rationalism. So a problem of mapping does appear here, and it is the more serious one for the RED distinction.

Was the RED introduced by Kant? Vanzo’s final answer is, “not really”. Kant does not have the “epistemological bias” in regard to the RED, i.e. he does not overestimate the importance of the RED on epistemological grounds. Neither does Kant have the “Kantian bias”, according to which the RED is important for his project in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant, finally, does not have the “classificatory bias” which classifies all philosophers prior to Kant into either empiricist or rationalist camps. When we consider the later Kantians, the picture is quite different. Both Reinhold and Tennemann are said to have the epistemological, the Kantian and the classificatory biases. Reinhold, I believe, did not initially have the classificatory bias, as it is not clearly in evidence in his first major work, the Essay on a New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation (1789). By the early 1790s, however, as Vanzo shows, Reinhold appears to have derived a historiographical framework based on the RED. Reinhold’s framework appears to have been important for philosophers such as Tennemann, who by the late 1790s had begun to craft a “methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy” in which the RED is amply applied to individual philosophers and where Kant takes his place as the author who successfully overcame the limits of these two schools.

In sum, Vanzo’s case for the establishment of the RED in Germany appears to ascribe great importance to the manner in which Kantian philosophy was received from the mid 1780s until the mid 1790s and how it was laid out against a background of historiographical assumptions. As happens so often, the background was to become foreground for a few brief years, and when it did so under Reinhold’s pen – this is the likely conclusion – the historiography became more important than the philosophy. Fortunately this situation has reversed itself and Kant’s philosophy has become a far more open proposition than it was taken to be in those years. This openness, in turn, makes room for different conceptualizations of the early modern period.

ESP: Is It Really Best?

Alberto Vanzo writes…

One of the mantras of our research team is: ESP is best. But is it?

As those of you who have been reading the blog for a while will know, we are not supporting Extra-Sensory Phenomena. We are claiming that we can make better sense of a number of episodes in the history of early modern thought by reading them in the light of the distinction between Experimental and Speculative Philosophy than in the light of the empiricism-rationalism distinction.

Keith Hutchison is less than convinced. If he is correct, we’d be better off putting away our early modern x-phi hats and start working on some other idea. Should we? We’d love to know what you think, so today I’m posting Keith’s comment along with a reply.

Keith says:

    Alberto’s paper told me something very helpful about the proposal to replace the RED [rationalism-empiricism distinction] with the ESP. For it is clear that Alberto interprets ‘experimentalism’ very widely, so widely indeed that he would count (say) the observational astronomy of the eighteenth-century as ‘experimental’. In fact, he seems to use the word to mean what I routinely call ‘empiricism’. Apparently there are two senses of ’empiricism’, one a very narrow conception endorsed by that coterie of historians of thought secluded within the halls of philosophy departments, and the other a more general one, as used widely within the thinking public. It is this second notion that the Otago team propose to call ‘experimentalism’. This seems to me a very dangerous practice, one that would generate much confusion if it spread. For it clashes with one of the key connotations of the word ‘experiment’, the idea that experiments constitute a special sub-class of empirical enquiries, those that involve an experimenter, who deliberately manipulates the entities under investigation. This is the way the word is used in modern English, and it is the way the word was used in seventeenth-century English – when such experimentalism became philosophically respectable. To start using it in a radically new sense, just to avoid a problem created by the way a tiny handful of writers have (mis-?)used the word ‘empirical’ is surely mischievous.

Keith is right when he points out that, in the expression “experimental philosophy”, the adjective “experimental” does not uniquely refer to experiments. But this is in line with seventeenth-century usage. When authors like Dunton (here) and Diderot (here), spoke of the experimental philosophy or the experimental method, they did not uniquely refer to experiments. They referred to a specific way of studying the nature of the world around us and our own human nature. To understand it, experimental philosophers claimed, we cannot rely on demonstrative reasonings from principles or hypotheses lacking a broad empirical support. Instead, we must make extensive and systematic recourse on experiments and observations.

When self-declared experimental philosophers studied the human mind, they were adamant that the observations on which they rely included introspection. Juan has showed this in a post on Reid. Indeed, although some early modern authors distinguished between experiments and observations, they performed the same role within Boyle’s or Hooke’s conception of knowledge acquisition. This is why German experimental philosophers could translate “experimental philosophy” as “observational philosophy”.

So as Keith points out, in the expression “experimental philosophy”, the term “experimental” has a broad meaning. However, this is not to say that the expression “experimental philosophy” is irremediably vague or identical to a broad notion of “empiricism”. First, the self-declared early modern experimental philosophers told us what the method of experimental philosophy was. Second, authors like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke put that method in practice in their natural-philosophical work. Third, experimental philosophy can be seen as a movement that people adhered to: they stated that they were part of that movement; they endorsed its rhetoric; they identified with its heroes (e.g., Bacon) and attacked its foes (e.g., Aristotle). When we trace the history of early modern x-phi, we are not applying notions that we have first introduced. We are taking seriously their statements on how they were studying the nature of the world and of our mind, and seeing if it is possible to better understand what they were doing by placing them within the movement that they were actually involved in than by using either the vague or the more technical notions of empiricism that can be found in the literature.

So what do you think: is ESP best? Or are we on a wrong track?