The origins of the modern meaning of ‘empiricism’
Peter Anstey writes…
It is often supposed that the term ‘empiricism’ in its Kantian sense would have been entirely foreign to philosophers of the early modern period. For, throughout the seventeenth century the term ‘empiric’ had pejorative connotations. When used in medical contexts it normally referred to quacks: medical practitioners who are untutored, but who have pretentions to therapeutic medicine on the basis of experience alone. By extension, the term came to mean imposter or charlatan.
Yet when used as a name in the plural, ‘empirici’, it often referred to those ancient physicians who relied on observation over theory in their therapeutic medicine. Needless to say, those physicians in the early modern period who were associated with the experimental philosophy affirmed this emphasis on observation. It is worth inquiring, therefore, as to whether the term ‘empiric’ was ever used in a positive sense and whether physicians were proud to be labeled empirics?
One early use of the term ‘Empericism’ is in the chymical physician George Starkey’s Nature’s Explication (1657). But Starkey uses the term pejoratively in criticizing the Galenists who relied too heavily on theory. He says:
- the Chymistry of the Galenical Tribe is a ridiculous pardy [sic.], and partly dangerous Empericism, in stead of so commendable a Method and Art, as they with confidence and impudence sufficient boast it to be (p. 245)
Here Starkey is inverting the charge normally laid at the feet of the chymical physicians, namely that they were untutored quacks. Starkey implies that the Galenists were untutored in the chymical arts.
Interestingly, however, just over a decade later, the chymical physician George Thomson, when defending the chymical physicians against the charge of being empirics (made by Henry Stubbe), picks up the positive connotation of ‘empirici’ and aligns the chymical physicians, including himself, with empirics in so far as they are the true experimental physicians. In his Misochemias Elenchos or, A Check given to the insolent Garrulity of Henry Stubbe … With an Assertion of Experimental Philosophy (London, 1671), Thomson says the following:
- We shall examine the Original derivation of the word Empiricik, which arises from peirazo vel peirao experior, vel exploro, to try, assay, or prove, to review or find out any thing by diligent searching: so then empericos is but an Experimental Physician, one of a Sect very well allowed of by the Ancients: … who as Celsus delivers hath acquired the knowledge of Physick only by Use and Experiments, so he treats of it, not able to give a Natural Cause thereof. … I wish ye would be so Ingenious as your Tutor, to confess the greatest knowledge ye have obtained in the Iatrical part of late, hath been delivered to you by such Empiricks as ye abusively nominate me (p. 5).
Thomson goes on to liken the chymical physicians to ‘the poor Experimental Chymical Samaritane, carrying some Balsamical Remedy about him, poureth it in with his own fingers, taking care of the Patient to purpose. Such an one I profess my self, but yet not an Empyrick according to H[enry] St[ubbe]’ (p. 6).
Here in a book defending experimental philosophy, just as we find 100 years later in a book from 1771 by the German physician Georg Zimmermann, the term ‘empiric’ is explicitly aligned with the experimental philosophy as applied in physic, that is, therapeutic medicine. This, in turn, is suggestive of the origins of the positive association of ‘empiricism’ with an emphasis on observation. It may also reveal something of the origins of Kant’s use of the terms ‘Empirismus’ and ‘Empiristen’ to refer to those who emphasize the acquisition of knowledge by observation and experiment.
Von Haller on hypotheses in natural philosophy
Alberto Vanzo writes…
Typically, the experimental philosophers on whom we focus in this blog promoted experiments and observations, while decrying hypotheses and system-building. This is the case for several experimental physicians, to some of whom we have devoted the last two posts. Their Swiss colleague Albrecht von Haller thought otherwise. He published an apology of hypotheses and systems in 1751.
Von Haller was a novelist, a poet, and an exceptionaly prolific writer on nearly all aspects of human knowledge. He is said to have contributed twelve thousand articles to the Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen. However, von Haller was mainly employed as an anatomist, physiologist, and naturalist. Like his Scottish colleague Monro I, he had studied in Leyden under Boerhaave. Having achieved Europe-wide fame for his physiological and botanical discoveries, von Haller was called by George II of England, prince-elector of Hanover, to occupy the inaugural chair of medicine, anatomy, botany and surgery at the newly founded University of Göttingen. Göttingen was under the strong influence of British culture throughout the eighteenth century and would later be the main centre of German experimental philosophers. While in Göttingen, von Haller was mainly engaged in his physiological and botanical studies, besides organizing an anatomical theatre, a botanical garden, and other similar institutions.
Haller’s essay, entitled “On the Usefulness of Hypotheses”, was first published as a premise to the German edition of Buffon’s Natural History. It was reprinted posthumously in 1787. Throughout these years, several authors in the German speaking-world endorsed Newton’s radically negative attitude towards hypotheses. For instance, few years after von Haller’s essay the physician Gerard van Swieten — also a pupil of Boerhaave — published a discourse on medicine in which he cried “may hypotheses be banned!”. And in the 1780s, when von Haller’s essay was being reprinted, the anthropologist Johann Karl Wezel proclaimed in broadly Newtonian spirit: “I only relate facts”.
Von Haller was aware of this anti-hypothetical fashion. He starts his essay by describing how naturalists had come to despise hypotheses. With the success of mathematical natural philosophy (the Newtonian form of experimental philosophy that had replaced Baconian natural histories), researchers started to rely (or at least, to claim that they were only relying) on what had been mathematically proven. This happened first in England with Newton, then in Holland with Boerhaave, then in Germany and France with Maupertuis and others.
For Haller, this was not a positive development. Peopled shifted from one excess, namely abusing of hypotheses, to an other, namely rejecting them altogether, while ignoring the virtuous middle way. Yet, while researchers were despising hypotheses, they were relying heavily on them:
- The great advantage of today’s higher mathematics, this dazzling art of measuring the unmeasurable, rests on a mere hypothesis. Newton, the destroyer of arbitrary opinions, was unable to avoid them completely. […] His universal matter, the medium of light, of sound, of the senses, of elasticity — was it not a hypothesis?
Von Haller makes other examples of natural-philosophical hypotheses, in order to highlight
- the true use of hypotheses. They are certainly not the truth, but they lead to it, and I say even more: humans have not found any way that is more successful in leading them to the truth [than hypotheses], and I cannot think of any inventor who did not make use of hypotheses.
What is this “true use of hypotheses”? It is their heuristic use. Hypotheses are claims to be tested by means of experiments and observations. Sets of hypotheses form large-scale systematic pictures that provide purpose and direction to our research. Think for instance of the heuristic value of the corpuscular hypothesis for the experimental activity of the early Royal Society (this is not von Haller’s example). Additionally, hypotheses make possible a public discussion of problems that scientists could not even mention if they were only allowed to talk about were facts, as some experimental philosophers hoped.
These experimental philosophers may reply to von Haller that they do not need to employ hypotheses to achieve those aims. All that is needed are queries. Von Haller would reply that queries are nothing else than hypotheses in disguise. “In fact, Hypotheses raise questions, whose answer we demand from experience, questions that we would not have raised if we did not formulate hypotheses”.
Von Haller was not the only author in the German-speaking world to provide a qualified defense of hypotheses. Christian Wolff before him and Immanuel Kant after him made similar points. However, von Haller was much more engaged in empirical research than either of them. His work seems to me to have been very much in the spirit of experimental philosophy. Finding such an explicit and detailed defense of hypotheses by such an author reminds us that the methodological views of early modern experimentalists were not monolithic and that, even in a strongly anti-hypothetical age, some authors were aware of the benefits of a careful use of hypotheses in the study of nature.
Experimental medicine and the Monro dynasty
Juan Gomez writes…
Following Peter Anstey’s post on 17th-century experimental medicine I want to continue shedding light on the topic, but I will be focusing on 18th-century experimental medicine. In particular, I want to examine the Monro dynasty and the role they played in the instruction of medicine in Edinburgh for more than a hundred years.
From 1726 until 1846 the chair of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh was held by the members of the Monro family. Alexander Monro Primus (1697-1767) held it from 1726 until 1754; his son Alexander Monro Secundus (1733-1817) succeeded him in 1758; and Alexander Monro Tertius (1773-1859) held the chair from 1817 until 1846. While Tertius’ relevance lies on the fact that he continued the work of his father and grandfather, Primus and Secundus are one of the main reasons why the medical school at Edinburgh was considered the best of its time. Of course, the experimental method applied by the Monro’s was one of the reasons for their success.
Monro Primus studied at Leiden under Herman Boerhaave in 1718, and by in 1720 he was back at Edinburgh giving public lectures on anatomy. In 1726 he published his Anatomy of the Humane Bones, which was widely read throughout the eighteenth century. The book was intended to be used by those students attending Monro’s lectures, where he demonstrated on corpses to illustrate the theory. In fact, the Professor’s insistence on the importance of performing dissections on corpses for his lectures was such that it was suspected that Monro and his students were grave robbing. In the preface to the second edition of his book Monro claims that all the facts included in his book, even those he has taken from other authors have been confirmed by experiments:
- In executing these [parts I and II of his book], I have taken all the assistance I could from Books, but have never asserted any anatomical Fact on their Authority without consulting the Life, from which all the Descriptions are made; and therefore the Quotations from such Books, serve only to do Justice to the Authors… Besides anatomists, I have also named several other Authors [for example Boyle] to confirm my reasoning by practical Cases.
Monro Primus was a very active figure in the Edinburgh enlightenment. As the editor of the volumes of essays published by his Medical Society of Edinburgh, he calls for the emphasis on facts and observation of the experimental method to be applied in Medicine. He tells us that he ‘principal part of medicine is:
- The Knowledge and Cure of Diseases, which chiefly depend on Observations of Facts that ought to be frequently repeated before any certain Axiom in Physick can be built on them.
Monro Primus’ work was continued by his son. Though Secundus continued using the text written by his father in his anatomy lectures, he published and contributed to the knowledge of the brain and the nervous system. All his texts contain detailed descriptions of the experiments he performed, besides the constant use of the rhetoric of the experimental philosophy and methodological statements confirming the use of experimental methods in medicine. A lot of his work stems from experiments performed on animals, notably a number of essays published in the collection of essays of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and his 1793 book Experiments on the nervous system, with opium and metalline substances, made chiefly with the view of determining the nature and effects of animal electricity. The way such book is structured is typical of experimental philosophy. Monro begins by giving some observations on the nervous system of frogs (which he used for his experiments); this is followed by a detailed description of the experiments and then he deduces “Corollaries from the above Facts and Experiments.”
In an earlier book, where he describes in some detail his main claim to fame (the discovery of the interventricular foramen of the brain), he calls for a stop to speculation and focus instead on facts and experiments. He refers to an experiment carried out by Dr. Albrecht von Haller which he describes and then tells us:
- But instead of speculating farther, let us learn the effects of experiments and endeavour from these to draw plain conclusions.
The contrast between speculative and experimental approaches is also stated in his last major work, Three Treatises. On the Brain, the Eye and the Ear (1797):
- An anatomist, reasoning a priore, would be apt to suppose, that the Water, in the Hydrocephalus Internus, should be as often found immediately within the Dura Matter, between it and the Outer-side of the Brain, Cerebellum, and Spinal Marrow, as within the Ventricles of the Brain. Experience, however, proves that it is generally collected within the ventricles; and, as I have not met with a single instance in which the Water was entirely on the Outer-side of the Brain, (although I am far from doubting the possibility of the fact), I cannot help suspecting that this happens much more rarely than it is supposed by Authors.
We can see then that the call for the application of the experimental method in medicine that started in the seventeenth century was characteristic of the medical school at Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. With the Monro dynasty in charge, the methodology promoted by Herman Boerhaave (Primus’ teacher) became the preferred for the training and practice of physicians in Scotland, with the Edinburgh medical school rising to its reputation of the best school in the world.
Experimental medicine in mid-17th-century England
Peter Anstey writes …
In my last post I claimed that the London physician Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) faced much opposition during his professional career, and yet his posthumous reputation was that of the experimental physician par excellence. But was Sydenham the first experimental physician, the first English Hippocrates?
This question raises, in turn, the further issue of the extent to which the experimental philosophy, which emerged in England in the late 1650s and early 1660s, influenced English medicine. The hallmarks of Sydenham’s method – at least as championed by John Locke, the Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave and the Italian Giorgio Baglivi – were his commitment to natural histories of disease, his strident opposition to hypotheses and speculation, and his strong emphasis on observation. Interestingly, each of these methodological tenets can be found in the writings of physicians, and especially the chymical physicians (who opposed the Galenists of the College of Physicians), in England from the late 1650s.
Opposition to dogmatism and speculation was focused on the Galenists who, as the polemicist Marchamont Nedham claimed:
- in a manner after their own Phantasie, framed the Art of Physick into a general Method, after the fashion of some Speculative Science; and so by this means, a copious form of Doctrin, specious enough, but fallacious and instable, was built’ (Medela medicinae, London, 1665, p. 238)
By contrast, there was a strong emphasis on observation and experiment amongst the chymical physicians. George Starkey, the American émigré, whose chymical medicine had a profound influence on Boyle, but who died of the plague in 1665, opens his Nature’s Explication (London, 1657, p. 1), which is dedicated to Boyle, with the following claim:
- What profit is there of curious speculations, which doe not lead to real experiments? to what end serves Theorie, if not appplicable unto practice.
In 1665 in his Galeno-Pale, the chymical physician George Thomson entitled his tenth chapter ‘An Expostulation why the Dogmatists will not come to the touchstone of true Experience’. Thomson explicitly identifies himself as an experimental physician in his Misochymias elenchos … with an assertion of experimental philosophy, London, 1671.
Moreover, very early in the life of the Royal Society there were calls for natural histories of disease. Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle both set this as a desideratum for medicine and saw it as part of the broader program of Baconian natural history that the Society was pursuing. And in the 1660s Bacon’s method of natural history was affirmed and practised by physicians of the likes of Timothy Clarke and Daniel Coxe. Clarke had been involved in the exciting blood transfusion experiments of the mid-1660s and Coxe was a chymical physician, who even tried, though without much success, to get Sydenham interested in chymistry.
It is pretty clear then that Sydenham was not the first English physician to adopt and employ the new method of the experimental philosophers. Indeed, from the time that it first emerged, the experimental philosophy was applied in medicine. Why is it then, that Sydenham and not Clarke, Coxe or Thomson is hailed as the English Hippocrates? Part of the answer must lie in the fact that the chymical physicians were decimated by the plague in 1665, for they stayed in London in the belief that they could cure it. Part of the answer also lies in the politics of Restoration medicine and the mixed fortunes of the College of Physicians and its vexed relations with the Royal Society. And yet there must have been other factors involved. I have documented the emergence of Sydenham’s posthumous reputation in ‘The creation of the English Hippocrates’ which appears in Medical History this month. But I am not satisfied that I have a full understanding of the Sydenham phenomenon and I look forward to hearing insights that others might have.
Newton and the Case of the Missing Calculus
Kirsten Walsh writes…
The case of the missing calculus is well-known. Newton (co-)invented calculus in the late 1660s, and he wrote Principia in the late 1680s. It would be natural to expect that Newton used the calculus in Principia. But it seems that he didn’t. Instead, Newton wrote Principia in the style of Euclid’s Elements, that is, using Classical Greek geometry. This is surprising indeed, given the powerful new tool he had at his disposal. What should we make of this?
Almost thirty years after the publication of Principia, Newton explained that he had used algebraic calculus to discover the propositions of Principia, but used classical geometry to demonstrate them:
- “By the help of the new Analysis [i.e. algebraic calculus] Mr. Newton found out most of the Propositions in his Principia Philosophiae: but because the Ancients for making things certain admitted nothing into Geometry before it was demonstrated synthetically, he demonstrated the Propositions synthetically, that the System of the Heavens might be founded upon good Geometry. And this makes it now difficult for unskilful men to see the Analysis by which those Propositions were found out.”
But Newton was lying. Scholars have found no evidence that he wrote or developed Principia in any other way than the published form. Moreover, few, if any, of the propositions in Principia can even be presented in the form of algebraic calculus.
This raises two questions:
- Why did Newton lie?
- Why did Newton eschew modern algebraic calculus in favour of classical geometry?
These questions have been discussed by numerous scholars including A. Rupert Hall and I. Bernard Cohen. The answer to (1) can be found in Newton’s priority dispute with Leibniz. The answer to (2) was summarised neatly by Thony Christie last year:
- “Put simply Newton had serious doubts about the reliability of the new analytical mathematics and that is why he didn’t use it for his magnum opus.”
But what caused these doubts?
In 1714, Newton wrote that the algebraic calculus is “arithmetic applied to geometrical matters… Its operations are complicated and excessively susceptible to errors, and can be understood by the learned in algebra alone”. Whereas geometry “may be appreciated by the great majority and thus most impress the mind with [its] clarity”. One might wonder why Newton bothered to invent algebraic calculus at all!
Well it seems that Newton wasn’t always so anti-algebra, nor was he always so interested in classical geometry. In fact, as an undergraduate, Newton didn’t read the ancients. Rather, he read a few modern summaries of the ancient texts, building his own mathematics on the algebraic work of mathematicians such as Descartes, Wallis and Barrow.
Newton seems to have become interested in classical geometry in the late 1670s, after re-reading Descartes’ La Géométrie. La Géométrie was an attempt to unite algebra and geometry – Descartes aimed to show how symbolic algebra could be applied to the study of plane curves. Guiccardini writes:
- “[Descartes’] tract could be read as a deliberate proof of the superiority of the new analytical method, uniting symbolic algebra and geometry, over the purely geometrical ones of the ancients.”
Newton was very critical of Descartes’ text, writing comments such as “error” and “I hardly approve” in the margins. He even drafted a paper entitled ‘Errors in Descartes’ Geometry’. To find support for his position, Newton began to read the ancient texts, including Pappus.
- “To be sure, [the ancients’] method is more elegant by far than the Cartesian one. For [Descartes] achieved the result by an algebraic calculus which, when transposed into words (following the practice of the Ancients in their writings), would prove to be so tedious and entangled as to provoke nausea, nor might it be understood. But they accomplished it by certain simple propositions, judging that nothing written in a different style was worthy to be read, and in consequence concealing the analysis by which they found their constructions.”
Newton was neither the first, nor the only, philosopher to equate algebra and geometry with the ancient methods of analysis and synthesis respectively. But he was the first to reject modern algebraic calculus in favour of ancient geometry. (If only because he was the first to invent it!) Does Newton’s rejection of algebraic calculus stem from his anti-Cartesian stance? What if Newton had never re-read Descartes’ Géométrie? Could his priority dispute with Leibniz have been avoided?