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Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Prehistory of Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As some of you will know, I have claimed for a while that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was first introduced by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. However, a quick search on Google Books reveals that there were many occurrences of “empiricism” and “rationalism” before Kant was even born. What is new about Kant’s use of these terms?

In this post I will survey early modern uses of “empiricism” and its cognates, “empiric” and “empirical”. I will argue that Kant’s new use of “empiricism” reflects a shift from the historical tradition of experimental philosophy to a new set of concerns.

Medical empiricism

Early modern authors often used “empiricism” and its cognates in medical contexts. Empirical physicians were said to depend “on experience without knowledge or art”. They did not have a good reputation. Shakespeare was expressing a common view when he wrote in All’s Well that Ends Well: “We must not corrupt our hope, To prostitute our past-cure malladie To empiricks”.

However, some defended empirical physicians. For instance, according to Johann Georg Zimmermann, the ancient physician Serapion of Alexandria was a good empiric. Why? Because he followed the method of experimental philosophy. He relied on experience and rejected idle hypotheses:

    Serapion and his followers rejected the inquiries of hidden causes and stuck to the visible ones […] So one can see that the founder of the sect of empirics had the noble purpose to band the love of hypotheses and useless quarrels from the medical art.

Political empiricism

Tetens wrote in 1777: “It has been asked in politics whether [politicians] should derive their maxims from the way the world goes, or whether they should derive them from rational insight.” Those who chose the first alternative were empirical politicians. Like empirical physicians, they were usually the target of criticism. Several writers throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century agreed that true politicians could not be “blind empirics”.

Who opposed empirical politicians? It was the dogmatic or — as a review from 1797 called them, speculative politicians. Speculative politicians relied on “philosophical hypotheses and unilateral [i.e., insufficient] observations”, from which they rashly derived general conclusions. Once again, empirical politicians and their adversaries are implicitly identified with experimental and speculative philosophers.

Empirical people

The term “empiric” was also used in a general sense to refer to people who “owe their cognition to the senses” and “steer their actions on the basis of experience“. Leibniz famously said that we are empirics in three quarters of our actions. Bacon called empirics those who perform experiment after experiment without ever reflecting on the causes and principles that govern what they experience.

At least two of Kant’s German predecessors, Baumgarten and Mayer, coined disciplines called “empiric” that deal with the origin of our cognitions from experience or introspection. Additionally, two German historians identified an “empirical philosophy” that they contrasted with “scientific philosophy”.

Kant: what’s new in his usage?

Kant built on these linguistic uses when he introduced a new notion of empiricism:

  1. Like the authors referred to by some historians, Kant’s empiricists are philosophers.
  2. Like empirical physicians, empirical politicians, and empirical people, Kant’s empiricists rely entirely on experience.

However, Kant’s empiricism is not a generic reliance on experience, nor is it primarily related to the rejection of hypotheses and speculative reasonings. Kant’s empiricists advocate specific epistemological views (taking “epistemology” in a broad sense), that is, views on the origins and foundations of our knowledge. They deny that we can have any substantive a priori knowledge and they claim that all of our concepts derive from experience.

What is new in Kant’s notion of empiricism is the shift from a generic reference to experience and to the methodological issues that were distinctive of early modern x-phi, to broadly epistemological issues. To be sure, Kant was not concerned with epistemology for its own sake. He aimed to answer ontological and moral questions. Nevertheless, the epistemological issues that Kant’s new notion of empiricism focuses on are the issues that post-Kantian histories of philosophy, based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism, would place at the centre of their narratives.

Do you think this is persuasive? I am collecting early modern uses of “empiricism” and “rationalism”, so if you know some interesting occurrence, please let me know. Also, if you are familiar with methods for performing quantitative analyses of early modern corpora, could you get in touch? I would appreciate your advice.

The Academy of Lagado and the usefulness of science

Juan Gomez writes…

In our recent book exhibition Experimental Philosophy: Old and New, there is a cabinet on literature, where we show how the experimental philosophy was depicted in the works of the literary figures of Voltaire, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. In this post I want to comment in a little bit more detail on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

In the first part of the third voyage, Captain Lemuel Gulliver travels to the island of Laputa. As the exhibition caption for Swift’s book says, this flying island is a satirical representation of the Royal Society, criticizing how detached their members were from the real world, being too concerned with their science. To begin with, Laputa is a flying island, symbolizing the separation between the world of science and the world of ordinary people, the real world. Swift’s description of the inhabitants of the island stresses this point:

    It seems, the Minds of these People are so taken up with intense Speculations, that they neither can speak, or attend to the Discourses of others, without being rouzed by some external Taction upon the Organs of speech and Hearing […]

Not only did they have a hard time communicating with each other, but they could not even understand things that were not presented in a mathematical or scientific manner. Gulliver relates that all their food was prepared in the form of geometrical figures; the mutton was cut in the form of an equilateral triangle, the beef in rhomboids, and the bread in cones and cylinders.

Though the island is a representation of both British science and the Court, the Academy of Lagado is a clear satire of the Royal Society. Swift’s description of the Academy questions the usefulness of the experiments carried out by the society. He mentions all sort of experiments that sound ridiculous: extracting sunbeams out of a cucumber, reducing human excrement to its original food, turning limestone into gunpowder, building houses by starting with the roof, and the list goes on. Some of these experiments might not sound that ridiculous to us, but they sure would to the eighteenth-century reader.

Island of Laputa(J.J Grandville)

Swift goes on with his criticism of members of the Royal Society, and even makes a reference to the Newton-Leibniz priority dispute over the calculus. The point I want to direct our attention to is the underlying criticism that questions the usefulness of the experiments of the Royal Society. Marjorie Nicholson and Nora Mohler wrote an excellent paper on Swift and science, where they show that the descriptions given by Gulliver were all inspired by actual experiments published in the Philosophical Transactions. Though Swift exaggerates and mixes some of the actual experiments, it is clear that his aim was to question their use and value for society.

This raises an interesting issue regarding Philosophical Societies and their commitment to the experimental method. Inspired by Bacon’s New Atlantis, the scientific academies adopted the experimental method in part because it was aimed at the improvement of society, unlike pure speculation. Swift’s criticisms highlight a possible tension between the aim of improving society and the focus on experiments. I think Swift is being too harsh in his satire, and some of the experiments he exaggerates and tinkers with actually had practical application to ordinary people. Not only do we see this with some of the experiments carried out by the Royal Society, but the Scottish philosophical societies provide an even clearer example of the applications of their experiments for the improvement of society.

Swift was just too impatient to wait longer for the results of the experiments he saw as ridiculous. Nevertheless, we can still question the usefulness of the experiments carried out by the experimental philosophers. As Peter Anstey commented on a previous post, after the last decade of the seventeenth-century experimental philosophers preferred Newton’s “mathematical natural philosophical method” to the Baconian method of natural histories. This change can lead to the worry that experimental philosophers would end up focusing excessively on the mathematical theory, thus detaching from the more practical side of their experiments.

I do not think this was the case. What the shift in method caused was a change from the collection of facts to the deduction of principles from facts and observation. The preference for the Newtonian method doesn’t require the neglect of observation. This being the case, the tension raised by Swift’s satire should not be a worry, since it still allows experimental philosophy to be directed towards the improvement of mankind. In fact, Swift’s criticism aimed towards the uselessness of science is exactly what experimental philosophers argued was one of the downfalls of speculative philosophy: it was detached from the real world.

Could it be the case the experimental philosophers were guilty of the very same thing they thought was a very negative aspect of their speculative counterparts? As I have mentioned here I don’t think this is the case; but I’m interested in the thoughts of our readers regarding this issue.

Thomas Sydenham, the experimental physician

Peter Anstey writes…

The London physician Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) is regarded today as one of the greatest physicians of the seventeenth century. He is even claimed to have had an influence on the philosophy of John Locke. But what exactly is the basis of Sydenham’s reputation?

A careful study of the appearance of Sydenham’s name in the medical writings of the latter decades of the seventeenth century and the correspondence of his friends and associates reveals that during his professional years he faced constant opposition and criticism. Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, said of him in a letter to Robert Boyle (24 December 1667): ‘with so mean and un-moral a Spirit I can not well associate’. Sydenham was never to become a Fellow of the Royal Society or of the College of Physicians.

However, his posthumous reputation is markedly different. After his death, Sydenham was praised for three things: his commitment to natural histories of disease; his decrying of hypotheses and speculation; and his Hippocratic emphasis on observation. Interestingly, these are the hallmarks of the experimental philosophy. Witness, for example, what Locke says of him in a letter to Thomas Molyneux of 1 November 1692:

    I hope the age has many who will follow his example, and by the way of accurate practical observation, as he has so happily begun, enlarge the history of diseases, and improve the art of physick, and not by speculative hypotheses fill the world with useless, tho’ pleasing visions.

By  the early eighteenth century Sydenham’s name could hardly be mentioned without effusive praise, such as that found in George Sewell’s ode to Sir Richard Blackmore:

    Too long have we deplor’d the Physick State, …
    Then vain Hypothesis, the Charm of Youth,
    Oppose’d her Idol Altars to the Truth: …
    Sydenham, at length, a mighty Genius, came,
    Who founded Medicine on a nobler Frame,
    Who studied Nature thro’, and Nature’s Laws,
    Nor blindly puzzled for the peccant Cause.
    Father of Physick He—Immortal Name!
    Who leaves the Grecian [Hippocrates] but a second Fame:
    Sing forth, ye Muses, in sublimer Strains
    A new Hippocrates in Britain reigns.

These comments are of the most general nature. There is nothing about the actual content of Sydenham’s medical theories or therapeutics, which were so harshly criticized while he was alive. It is all about his methodology and it is cashed out in terms of the experimental philosophy.

Thomas Sydenham, by a remarkable change in fortunes, came to be regarded as the archetypal experimental physician largely thanks to his posthumous promoters such as John Locke. Sydenham, for better or for worse, was the experimental physician that the promoters of the experimental philosophy had to have.

Newton’s Method in Three Minutes

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Last week I competed in the Otago University Three-Minute Thesis Competition.  I had to explain my PhD thesis in no longer than three minutes.  It was challenging indeed, in such a short length of time, to describe my research, communicate its significance and impart my enthusiasm for it – while pitching it at the level of an intelligent non-expert. Fortunately, I had great material to work with. There are so many interesting stories about Newton! Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to figure out which stories are true.

I opted to begin with the ‘approximately true’ story of Newton’s anni mirabilis, or miraculous years.  The general thrust of the story is true, even if some of the particulars are false: the plague years mark a significant turning point in Newton’s scientific work.  As Whiteside pointed out over forty years ago, we may

    “salute this first creative outburst – whether or not contained in one single marvelous year – of a man who twenty years afterwards was to construct a scientific Weltanschauung which is, in its essentials, still ours.”

So, with apologies to those of you with ‘historically sensitive’ ears, here is my script for the three-minute thesis competition:


It’s 1665.  Cambridge has been struck by Plague, and Newton has been sent home from University.  Summer is stretching out before him.  Nice!  What will he do on his extended summer holiday?  Well, he did what I imagine most Scarifies* do on their summer holidays: he invented calculus, discovered the composition of light, and (after watching an apple fall from a tree) conceived the laws of universal gravitation…  Okay, so perhaps Newton wasn’t quite your typical undergraduate student.  The story about the apple is controversial, but everyone agrees about the discoveries.  Scholars have called those years the ‘years of miracles’.

Why were they ‘miraculous’?  Well, these were revolutionary discoveries – and there were so many of them.  They provided the basic material for Newton’s Principia, and his Opticks. Enough material for a lifetime of publications!  And real publications.  Not just those ‘puff pieces’ that fill our journals nowadays.  All in just 2 years!

Furthermore, these discoveries seemed to come out of nowhere.  Newton was able to invent, discover and conceive things no one else could, because seemingly he had invented an entirely new scientific method.  He had come up with a whole new way of mathematising physics, and claimed to have achieved mathematical certainty!  Philosophers and scientists tried to emulate his method.  But no one was as successful as Newton.  Whatever Newton was doing, he was doing it right.  But what was he doing?

This is the central question of my PhD, and it’s a question that dominates discussions of scientific method even now, 300 years later.  But scholars still barely understand what Newton’s method was.  Did Newton really think his scientific theories were as certain as mathematical proofs?  Why did he think his theory of gravity was true, when he couldn’t even say for certain what gravity is?  And, at the centre of it all, the question that’s been keeping me up at nights (as it has kept up generations of Newton-scholars before me): what did Newton mean when he wrote that enigmatic sentence at the end of Principia: ‘Hypotheses non fingo’; ‘I do not feign hypotheses’?

I do not feign hypotheses.  What an odd thing to say.  What does it even mean?  ‘I haven’t invented these hypotheses’?  ‘I didn’t prove them’?  This sentence lies at the heart of my thesis.  Unlike other Newton scholars, I think it describes a crucial aspect of Newton’s method.  What it tells us is that Newton made a distinction.  On the one hand, theories: mathematical, certain, experimentally confirmed.  On the other hand, hypotheses: non-mathematical, uncertain, non-experimental, and speculative.  This distinction is a crucial feature of Newton’s spectacularly successful scientific method.  And I think it’s this distinction that explains Newton’s years of miracles.


The idea of anni mirabiles seems closely-related to the notion of a scientific revolution, which has been much discussed since Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.  Philosophers of science disagree philosophically over the importance of revolutions to science, and historically over the occurrence of any genuine scientific revolutions.  However, it is interesting to note that historians have recognised several anni mirabiles in the history of science.  For example, 1543, the year that Vesalius published De Humani Corporis Fabrica and Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.  And 1905, the year that Einstein published his three ground-breaking papers in the Annalen der Physik.  What role have these anni mirabiles played in the history of science?  What do they tell us about scientific progress?  Norwood R Hanson once said:

    “It is possible both to be driven by intuition and at the same time to reason carefully.  Most scientific discoveries, indeed, result from just such an intertwining of headwork and guesswork.”

What do you think?


*Otago Undergraduate Students