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.
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.
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.
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:
- Like the authors referred to by some historians, Kant’s empiricists are philosophers.
- 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.