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:
- 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);
- an explicit application of the general method of the experimental philosophy;
- 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.