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Yearly Archives: 2011

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:

  1. Why did Newton lie?
  2. 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 GéométrieLa 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.

Newton wrote:

    “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?

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

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.