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Monthly Archives: August 2011

On the Origins of a Historiographical Paradigm

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    It came to pass that the earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the earth. And the creator saw that the darkness was evil, and he spoke out in the darkness, saying “Let there be light” and there was light, and he called the light “Renaissance”. But still the creator was not pleased, for there remained darkness, and hence he took from the Renaissance a rib, with which to fashion greater light. But the strain of his power broke the rib, and there did grow up two false lights, one Bacon, whose name meanteh “Father of the British Empiricists”, and one Descartes, whose name meaneth “Father of the Continental Rationalists”. […] 

    And thus it was that Bacon begat Hobbes, and Hobbes begat Locke, and Locke begat Berkeley, and Berkeley begat Hume. And thus it was that Descartes begat Spinoza, and Spinoza begat Leibniz, and Leibniz begat Wolff. And then it was that there arose the great sage of Königsberg, the great Immanuel, Immanuel Kant, who, though neither empiricist nor rationalist, was like unto both. […]

    And this too the creator saw, and he saw that it was good […]

In this parody, David Fate Norton has summarized a familiar account of the history of early modern philosophy — an account based on the antagonism of empiricism and rationalism. It has dominated histories of philosophy for most of the twentieth century, including Russell’s and Copleston’s histories.

In an earlier post, I argued that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was fleshed out into a fully-fledged history of philosophy by the Kantian historian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (To be sure, two other historians made use of the distinction roughly at the same time as Tennemann, but his hisory was by far the most influential.)

The question I’d like to discuss in this post is: how do we get from Tennemann to Copleston and Russell? At some point between the 1820s and 1940s, the account of early modern philosophy that can be found in Tennemann must have been exported from Germany to the English-speaking world. When and how did this happen?

Here are three hypotheses.

1. British philosophers around the 1830s?

The first English translation of Tennemann’s Manual was published in 1832. At that time, three British philosophers were interested in the history of philosophy: William Hamilton, Samuel Coleridge, and Dugald Stewart. None of them produced any substantial writing that made use of the rationalism-empiricism distinction. Thomas Morell had published in 1827 a History of Philosophy that would be reprinted many times, but he did not distinguish early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists. He split them into four groups:

  • sensualists like Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke;
  • idealists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Berkeley;
  • sceptics like Hume;
  • and mystics like Jacobi.

Morell’s notion of “sensualism” is similar to our notion of empiricism, but he does not group Locke, Berkeley, and Hume together as empiricists or sensualists. Nor does he create a rationalist category to contrast with sensualism.

2. English histories of philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Some of these were based on the distinction between empiricism and rationalism or similar distinctions, but many were not. For instance, the history written by F.D. Maurice followed a strictly chronological order, without grouping philosophers into movements. German Hegelians and British Idealists grouped together Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza, but not Leibniz. They claimed that these philosophers were criticized by two groups of thinkers: realists like Locke and Hume, but not Berkeley, and idealists like Leibniz and Berkeley. These distinctions cut across the traditional groupings of empiricists and rationalists.

3. Textbook writers at the turn of the twentieth century?

It was between 1895 and 1915 that the account of early modern thought based on the empiricism-rationalism distinction became standard in the English-speaking world. It can be found in many new introductions to philosophy, histories of philosophy, and lecture syllabi.

It is unclear to me why the standard account become standard between 1895 and 1915. I suspect that the answer has to do with two factors:

The first is the institutionalization of the study of early modern philosophy. The classificatory schema based on the contrast of empiricism and rationalism was simpler than the others and well suited for teaching.

The second factor (highlighted by Alex Klein) is the rise of philosopher-psychologists like William James. By grouping together Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as empiricists, the standard accounts of early modern philosophy provided a distinguished ancestry for the growing number of American philosophers and psychologists who, under the James’ influence, called themselves empiricists.

I’m keen to hear if you think that these explanations are persuasive and if you have any other suggestions.

A year on…

Hello, Readers!

One year ago today, we published our first post to present our research project to the world. We were new to blogging and we weren’t quite sure how effective it would be. After twelve months and 58 posts, there is no trace of those initial doubts. Forcing ourselves to publish a new piece on our work in progress (nearly) each week has been a good exercise. It has helped us to be productive, to keep each other abreast of each other’s research, and to grow as a team. Most of all, it has been great to receive the attention and feedback of our readers. Today we’d like to thank you for being on board, to look back at where we’ve come from, and to ask for a bit more of your helpful advice.

First of all, we are most grateful for our readers’ emails, comments and posts on our project elsewhere on the Net. You have taught us about the notion of experience in early modern Aristotelianism (1 to 8), outlined the evidence for Hume’s knowledge of Berkeley better than we possibly could, expanded on our reflections on the usefulness or uselessness of the notion of empiricism, alerted us to many sources that we had not taken into account, and provided plenty of other input that helped shaping the directions of our research. We may not have succeeded to persuade you all that ESP is best yet (it is just a matter of time), but we’re learning from your objections. Keep them coming! As you will have guessed, we are all working on research projects that are related to the topics of our posts. It’s helpful to get an early idea of the weak points and potential criticisms of the arguments we’re trying to articulate.

We are especially grateful to the many colleagues whose guest posts broadened and deepened our research on a number of fronts. They taught us about Galileo, De Volder, Sturm, seventeenth-century Dutch physicians, experiment and culture in the historiography of philosophy, in addition to providing critical discussions of many of our own ideas. Stay tuned for more stimulating guest-posts!

For our part, here’s a summary of our first year of blogging:

The Big Picture

We claimed that it’s much better to interpret early modern authors as early modern experimental philosophers than as empiricists. For the details, you can read our 20 theses, tour through our images of experimental philosophy, or head towards these posts:

Seventeenth Century Britain, plus a new find

In addition to providing the big picture in the above posts, Peter blogged on the origins of x-phi and its impact on seventeenth-century natural philosophy:

Newton’s Experimental Philosophy

Moving towards the eighteenth century, Kirsten has explored the new form of the experimental philosophy that took shape in Newton’s mathematical method and its impact on his natural philosophy, especially his optics:

X-phi in Eighteenth Century Scotland: Ethics and Aesthetics

Juan has traced the presence of experimental philosophy in Scottish philosophy throughout the eighteenth century, including Turnbull, Fordyce, Reid, and the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. He has focused especially on the experimental method in ethics and aesthetics:

German Thinkers from X-Phi to Empiricism

Alberto has looked at the influence of x-phi in Germany, especially on Leibniz, Wolff, Tetens, and Kant’s contemporaries. He then explored the development of the traditional narrative of early modern philosophy based on the distinction between empiricism an rationalism in Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann.

For those readers who have followed us from the early days, we hope that a coherent narrative has emerged. We’d love to hear if you think that we’re up to something interesting or that we’re going off track. What better way to celebrate our anniversary than to give us some more feedback! Also, please do let us know if you have any suggestions on topics to study and directions in which we could pursue our research. You can reach us via email, Facebook, and Twitter. As always, you can keep updated via the mailing list or the RSS feed. We still have much to study and to blog about. Thanks for coming along, and we hope you’ll enjoy our future posts.

The ESP distinction in the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh

Juan Gomez writes…

One of my areas of interest centres on Scottish Philosophical Societies of the Enlightenment. It is a shame that there hasn’t been much research on them, despite the fact that most of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were members of at least one of the many learned societies that emerged in the eighteenth century. Not only were many of their members prominent figures, but the societies played a role in the intellectual development of the Scottish literati and the development of Scotland as a nation. Such is the case of the Philosophical Society of Aberdeen where Thomas Reid, Alexander Gerard, James Beattie, George Campbell and John Gregory, among others, discussed early drafts of their most important works before they saw the light of day. But in this post I want to focus on the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh (PSE) and show the role that the experimental-speculative distinction (ESP) played in the society.

The PSE emerged from Alexander Monro’s Medical Society, when his good friend Colin MacLaurin proposed to him to expand it to include the discussion of natural philosophy. The Society was thus born in 1737 and in 1783 was granted a Royal charter and became the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In those 46 years the society held among its members the most influential figures of Edinburgh society. Besides Monro and MacLaurin we can count among its members Adam Smith, David Hume, Lord Kames, William Cullen, Hugh Blair, John Pringle, Andrew Plummer and Joseph Black. The PSE published three volumes of collected essays, and in them we find statements that show that the ESP distinction played an important role in the society.

The founding members wrote a document entitled ‘Proposals for the Regulation of a Society for Improving Arts and Sciences and particularly Natural Knowledge’. One passage shows their commitment to the experimental method and of course the rejection of speculation:

    Authority is to be held of no weight in their reasonings. The shew of Learning, and Quotation of Authors sparingly used in their Papers. Things to be minded not words. Arguments to be chiefly drawn from proper Experiments and clear Consequences deduced from them or from evident Propositions. Metaphysical Subtilties not be insisted on.

Twenty years after the founding of the society we find in the preface to the first volume of collection of essays a restatement of their attitude:

    The object of this society is the same with that of the other academies, which have been established in other parts of Europe, the promoting of natural philosophy, and of literature, by communicating to the public such dissertations as shall be transmitted to them, either by their own members or by others. ´Tis allowed, that these two branches of learning, especially the former, are more promoted by the observation of facts than by the most ingenious reasonings and disputations.

Not only do we find this sort of statement in the preface, but a number of essays mention at some point that the only way to proceed in philosophy is following the experimental method. Lord Kames wrote an essay on the laws of motion and in it he complains about speculative philosophy. It is a lengthy quote, but it shows clearly the anti-speculative attitude of the experimental philosophers:

    Nothing has more perplexed philosophy, than an unlucky propensity, which makes us grasp at principles, without due regard to facts and experiments… This bent of the mind is productive of manifold errors. Prepossessed once by a favourite principle, we are no longer open to conviction. Every phenomenon must be accommodated to that principle, and every opposite fact, however obstinate, must go for nothing.
    Even in Natural Philosophy, theory was introduced before experiment, and every philosopher urged his own notions, without regard to truth or reality. This produced a mass of undigested and contradictory theory; which at length could not fail to bring on the discovery, that the whole was a little better than a fancy and chimera.

Throughout the essay Kames goes on contrasting facts and observation with false hypotheses, constantly reminding us that his comments are based only on the former. Andrew Plummer also referred to the laws of motion in an essay on neutral salts. He concludes his essay with a clear example of use of the ESP distinction:

    These principles of motion in matter, are not the vain fictions of men merely speculative in philosophy, but evidently deduced from observations and experiments on a great variety of bodies in many different circumstances.

As I have mentioned, most of the essays show in some way their rejection of speculation and the commitment to the experimental method, but space has only allowed me to give the few examples here, however I would be happy to expand on the evidence if any reader is interested (contact me). A detailed look at the Scottish Philosophical Societies not only confirms the widespread use of the ESP distinction, but it can also help us shed light on the intellectual development and relations of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.

A Mutual Divide: Experiment vs. (Cartesian) Speculation in Mid-Seventeenth Century Dutch Medicine

This is a guest post by Evan Ragland.

In 1639, the Dutch anatomist and physician Franciscus Dele Boë Sylvius (1614-1672) thrust experimental physiology before the public eye when he demonstrated the Harveian circulation of the blood in the Leiden public gardens. These anatomical investigations unfolded within and partially constituted the growing controversy over the motion of the heart and blood. At some key moments, this controversy resembled the structure and rhetoric of the experimental-speculative distinction.

For the anatomists, Harvey’s description of a muscular heart contracting at systole to expel blood into the arteries was observationally and experimentally proven.  In contrast, many leading anatomists found Descartes’ anatomy to be fallacious and outmoded. Sylvius’ demonstrations convinced one critic, Johannes Walaeus (Jan de Wale, 1604-1649), who became an ardent supporter of the circulation. In 1645, Walaeus attacked the Cartesian explanation of the heart’s motion:

    Certain men with brilliant minds [ingenium praeclarum] judge that the blood is thrust out because it is immeasurably rarefied by the heat of the heart, and so demands a bigger place, and then dilates and lifts up the heart. […] [Yet] in truth the blood does not leap out from the heart on account of the rarefaction, as we have often seen in strong dogs with the tip of their hearts cut off. Because of the outflow of the blood, the heart is not half filled, but still erect: thus, it is not filled by rarefaction. In the subsequent constriction the portion of the blood in the heart was ejected more than four feet, so that we and our neighbors in the large crowd were befouled. From which it is evident that the blood is propelled by the part.

Strikingly, at least one of Descartes’ close friends and supporters, Cornelis van Hogelande (1590-1676), embraced the distinction between experimental and speculative approaches the anatomists propounded, but favored the speculative method.

“The Neoterics,” following after Harvey, added superfluous experimentation to already conclusive reasoning. They proceeded, “not only according to the manifest laws of mechanics […] but, instead, not having enough trust in the grace of reasoning [ratiocinatio], they turned themselves to girding and supplementing these laws with scrutinizing investigations or real and sensual disquisitions, and to dissecting living animals of every kind.”

For his own positive account, Van Hogelande relied on reasoning from mechanical principles. He could, though, throw a bone to the experimentalists:

    As a favor to those who are distrustful of ratiocination and believe experience alone, I will not be amiss in adding on the following easy experiment, in confirmation of the truth of the aforesaid [conclusion]. [Experiment dissecting an eel’s heart, and then adding blood when the motion has ceased, causing increasing motion.] [A]nd I even repeated this experiment in its particularities with similar success, while the printer hurried. Which I add lest anyone assume that I collected those preceding reasons a posteriori (that is, with the experiment having first been done).

This division lasted. In his later medical disputations from the late 1650s and early 1660s, Sylvius set out to resolve the dispute between Harvey and Descartes, “the two most brilliant Lights of this age.” Harvey taught “according to the custom of the Physicians, as well as the Sensible Philosophers, and according to the testimony of the external Senses.” Descartes, on the other hand, “trusting more in the laws of his own Mechanics, rather than in his external Senses, suspected and believed that the Ventricles of the Heart and the Arteries were Dilated and Contracted simultaneously.” Once again, the distinction between experimental anatomy and Cartesian speculation is crisp:

    For whatever even the most subtle and sagacious Genius [Ingenium] is able to think up that is most probable and plausible to the human Mind, every such thought, if it looks to the Medical Art, ought to be suspected as False by the Prudent, until Experience the Teacher of Truth has manifested that it is True, that is, that it has actually been observed in the things themselves as it has been imagined [fingitur].
    God forbid that among the legitimate Sons of Physicians anyone should be discovered who is so lazy, that they […] would rather delight in adhering to his own figments and Chimeras, and to those of others.

Shortly after, Sylvius freely admitted that Descartes was a “famous Mathematician and industrious Philosopher.” Drawing the lines of discipline and identity so that Descartes remained a successful mathematician and philosopher was the gentlest criticism, but one that barricaded him from a place among “the legitimate Sons of Physicians.”

There are, however, complications for this neat typology. Several Dutch anatomists at the time evinced some support for Cartesian philosophy, and later professors of medicine were staunchly Cartesian. And Sylvius repeatedly announced his support for something very like Cartesian mechanism as the preferred and future form of explanation and ontology, even in medicine. Yet a mutual division similar to the ESD remained at the heart of these early anatomical controversies.

A new Hume find

Peter Anstey writes…

While the ‘Experimental Philosophy: Old and New’ exhibition was under construction, the Special Collections Librarian at Otago, Dr Donald Kerr, happened to notice that the copy of George Berkeley’s An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (2nd edn, 1709) that we were about to display, had the bookplate of David Hume Esquire. It has long been known that this book was in the library of the philosopher David Hume’s nephew Baron David Hume, but until now its whereabouts have been unknown. We are very pleased to announce, therefore, that it is in the Hewitson Library of Knox College at the University of Otago, New Zealand (for full bibliographic details see the online exhibition).

The question naturally arises: did the book belong to the philosopher or the Baron? What complicates matters is that David Hume the philosopher left his library to his nephew of the same name and that the latter also used a David Hume bookplate.

Now the David Hume bookplate exists in two states, A and B. They are easily distinguished because State A has a more elongated calligraphic hood on the second stem of the letter ‘H’ than that of State B. Brian Hillyard and David Fate Norton have pointed out (The Book Collector, 40 [1991], 539–45) that all of the thirteen items that they have examined with State A are on laid paper and are in books that predate the death of David Hume the philosopher. This is not the case for books bearing the State B bookplate. They propose the plausible hypothesis that all books bearing the bookplate in State A belonged to Hume the philosopher. Happily, we can report that the bookplate that here at Otago is State A on laid paper. It is almost certain, therefore, that this copy of George Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision belonged to the philosopher David Hume.

The provenance of the book provides important additional evidence that Hume was familiar with Berkeley’s writings, something that was famously denied by the historian of philosophy Richard Popkin in 1959. Popkin claimed that ‘there is no actual evidence that Hume was seriously concerned about Berkeley’s views’. He was subsequently proven wrong and retracted his claim. However, until now there has been no concrete evidence that Hume owned a copy of a work by Berkeley, let alone one as important as the New Theory of Vision.

This volume came into the possession of the Hewitson Library in 1948. Its title page bears a stamp from the ‘Presbyterian Church of Otago & Southland Theological Library, Dunedin’. So far attempts to ascertain which other books were in this theological library and when and how it arrived in New Zealand have proven fruitless. (Though the copy of William Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth, 1722 on display bears the same stamp.) If any reader can supply further leads on these matters we would be most grateful. Meanwhile please take time to examine the images of the bookplate and title page, which are included in our online exhibition available here.