Teaching Moral Philosophy: Bentham and the Speculative Method
Juan Gomez writes…
In my last post I commented on a text by Edward Bentham that defended the use if the syllogistic in logic, in particular for education. Following Peter Anstey’s interesting posts on teaching experimental philosophy (one on Desaguilers, one on Adams) I will focus on a text by Bentham regarding the teaching of moral philosophy.
I have already posted on this blog regarding the teaching of moral education, in particular in eighteenth century Aberdeen under George Turnbull and David Fordyce. However, they both were promoters of the use of the experimental method within moral philosophy. It appears that Edward Bentham had a different opinion. His An Introduction to Moral Philosophy was published in 1745, five years after Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy and Hume’s Treatise, and three years before the first version of Fordyce’s Elements of Moral Philosophy. The texts by the Scottish thinkers all explicitly claimed to be attempts to apply the experimental method of natural philosophy to moral inquiries. Bentham, on the other hand, objected to this method for moral philosophy and prefers the scholastic method:
- I have had a general regard to the Plan usually received in the Schools, because I think it the most commodious; and because the new, and seemingly more scientifical, method attended with all the Mathematical formalities of Definitions, Postulatums, Axioms, Lemmas, Theorems, and Corollaries (all very astonishing to a young Reader) seems to me forced and affected upon this subject; and not so likely to answer the good purpose of clearing up any doubtful proposition, as to perplex Him in the apprehension of those that are confessedly true.
This is the opposite of what the experimental moral philosophers (Turnbull, Hume, Fordyce, etc.) claim! They specifically choose to apply the experimental method because morality is a part of human nature, it is an inquiry into fact just like any other science and therefore the same method should be applied. Bentham seems to be alluding in the passage to a more Newtonian experimental method referring only to the mathematical side of the method and not on the emphasis on facts and observation.
In the paragraph following the passage quoted above Bentham seems to go against Scholastic philosophy, but he only manages to go half-way about it. He tells us that he is discarding “many of the Scholastick terms of Art and Distinction,” because they are misleadings and characterizes them as “the husks of Science.” Simultaneously, he has also decided to keep “several of them” (!) since they are “very useful to those, whose studies are likely to carry them into the reading of philosophical treatises and moral discourses.”
Confusing as this may be, his condition as a speculative philosopher is clear from the text itself. It consists in a definition of human nature, our faculties, and virtue all relating to God. However, there is no sort of proof for the concept of human nature and morality he is proposing. It is just a collection of statements of what he thinks morality amounts to, of course in accordance to Christianity and revelation.
Most experimental moral philosophers appealed to some form of natural religion, and in specific cases (like Turnbull) allowed revelation to play a very minor role. Bentham once again represents the opposite position, placing revealed religion in centre stage:
- Christianity contains a revelation of a particular dispensation of things not at all discoverable by reason…And in consequence of this revelation being made, several obligations of duty, unknown before, are revealed.
Our moral duties are not something that we can discover by reason and experience alone. Natural religion only plays a role in confirming the morality discovered through revelation.
It seems that from this text, and in particular from the methodological statement quoted at the beginning of the post, we can safely infer that Edward Bentham was on the speculative side of the ESD, at least as far as moral philosophy is concerned. Not only did he claim that the “new” method was not appropriate for morals, but as we explored in the post on his thoughts on logic, he was not very comfortable with the idea of giving way to experimental philosophy, especially not in education.
Peter Anstey posted here last year on one of the main objections our project has faced, known as the Straw-man problem. Bentham’s texts can help us reply to such objection by showing that speculative philosophers were not just a creation of the promoters of experimental philosophy, but there were some who made the claim that the method of experimental philosophy was not the appropriate method, at least not outside natural philosophy.
Teaching experimental philosophy: the case of George Adams Jr
Peter Anstey writes…
Around 100 works were published in the eighteenth century that bore the term ‘Experimental Philosophy’ in their title. Of these more than 80 were works designed for the teaching of experimental philosophy. In my last post I examined one of the earliest of these course books, J. T. Desaguliers’ Lectures of Experimental Philosophy of 1719. In this post we turn to one of the last of the course books published in the century, namely George Adams Junior’s 5 volume Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philososphy, first published in 1794.
Before turning to the contents of this work, however, it is worth noting that 48 of the 100 works, that is nearly half of them, were published in the last 15 years of the century. So Adams’ volumes were very much part of a publishing trend and they can only be properly understood by a comparison with the spate of other publications around them.
Nevertheless, these volumes contain some interesting surprises. The first thing to note is that Adams takes a decidedly historical approach to his subject, describing the origins of, say, experiments on air pressure with Torricelli and Pascal and tracing them through Boyle and others. These historical surveys serve to highlight just how important developments in seventeenth-century experimental philosophy were to those writing toward the end of the following century.
The second thing to note is the surprisingly high profile of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. The many references to Boyle and the esteem in which Adams clearly held him is perhaps explained in part by the fact that Adams’ work has a theological agenda similar that of some of Boyle’s natural philosophical output. The subtitle to Adams’ book is ‘Describing, in a familiar and easy manner, the Principal Phenomena of Nature; and Shewing, that they all co-operate in Displaying the Goodness, Wisdom, and Power of God’. However, it’s a little over the top when Adams says of Boyle,
- He seems to have been a heavenly spirit in a human form descending from above, to survey the wonders of this lower frame … (vol. 1, p. 10)
This sort of praise is more often associated with Newton in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, Adams seems not to have acquiesced in the over-exuberant praise of Newton. In fact, his view of Newton is far more measured. He does regard Newton as the greatest practitioner of Bacon’s experimental philosophy
- Among those who have pursued the path pointed out in the
- , Sir Isaac Newton holds the first rank (vol. 2, p. 133)
But when earlier warning against overdependence upon authority he criticizes those who have ‘an implicit faith in the opinions they have adopted’ (vol. 2, p. 104) providing the example of someone who had claimed ‘Newton … is henceforth to be considered as our only sure guide and instructor’.
Thirdly, and most interestingly, Adams includes a 40-page chapter on ‘On the method of reasoning in natural philosophy’ and here we find an enthusiastic endorsement of Bacon’s method of natural philosophy as developed in his Novum organum of 1620. It contains, among other things, a full exposition of the idols of the mind, though Adams shows no interest in Baconian natural history, alluding to it only once and then in passing (vol. 2, p. 136). It is interesting to note, in conclusion, his allusion to Bacon’s comments on the ‘empirical philosophers’. They are,
- those, who labour with great diligence and accuracy, in a few experiments; and then venture to deduce theories and build up systems, strangely wresting every thing else to these experiments. … the opinions produced by these are more deformed and monstrous than those of the sophistical kind.
There is no evidence of the post-Kantian rationalism–empiricism distinction here!
Conflating the Experimental and Mechanical Philosophies
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Recently I read Alan Shapiro’s paper, ‘Newton’s “Experimental Philosophy”’, in which he argues that
- the apparent continuity between Newton’s usage [of the term ‘experimental philosophy’] and that of the early Royal Society is, however, largely an illusion.
To support this claim, Shapiro argues that, whereas ‘experimental philosophy’ was used as a synonym for ‘mechanical philosophy’ by the early Royal Society, for Newton, the two terms had different meanings. This is demonstrated by the fact that Newton adopted the experimental philosophy, but not the mechanical philosophy.
Shapiro explains that the mechanical philosophy is characterised by adherence to some or all of the following theses:
- the world and its components behave like a machine; or, more strongly, the world can be described solely by the mathematical laws of mechanics; all causation is by contact action so that the immaterial, spiritual agents are banished; matter is composed of invisible corpuscles; and hypotheses about the properties and motions of these invisible corpuscles may be formulated to explain visible effects.
Here Shapiro is conflating mechanism and corpuscularianism. However, Peter Anstey explains in his recent book, John Locke and Natural Philosophy, that these are distinct (but related) philosophies. The leading idea of the mechanical philosophy is that natural phenomena should be explained by analogy with the functioning of machines. The corpuscularian philosophy is primarily a philosophy about the underlying nature of matter, whereby explanations of natural phenomena are constrained by appeal to the invisible corpuscles which constitute all material bodies. Thus, the former is a theory of explanation; the latter, a theory of matter. There is a significant amount of overlap between the mechanical and corpuscularian philosophies, for example the focus on shape, size, motion and texture. But, they are not interchangeable. For example, Anstey points out that it wasn’t the case that everyone who held a corpuscularian theory of matter was a mechanical philosopher.
In contrast, the experimental philosophy emphasises that we can only acquire knowledge of nature by first accumulating observations and experiments and then turning to theory and hypotheses. Thus, the experimental philosophy is a theory of method, which can be viewed as placing epistemic constraints on philosophical endeavours, as opposed to the explanatory constraints of the mechanical philosophy, or the ontological constraints of the corpuscularian philosophy. So, at least notionally, these are three distinct philosophical positions.
Shapiro argues that, in practice, the early Royal Society didn’t distinguish between these philosophical positions. As evidence, he cites a passage from the preface to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in which Hooke runs together “the real, the mechanical, the experimental philosophy”. But if we look at Hooke’s other work for uses of the term ‘mechanical’, we find that he can and does distinguish the mechanical from the experimental.
When Hooke explicitly discusses experimental philosophy, he emphasises the importance of constructing natural histories. For example, in his ‘General Scheme’, where he sets out his “Method of Improving Natural Philosophy”, Hooke explains that the best way to proceed is according to the Baconian method of natural history. He says there are three “ways of discovering the Properties and Powers [of bodies]”:
- I. By the Help of the Naked Senses.
- II. By the Senses assisted with Instruments, and arm’d with Engines.
- III. By Induction, or comparing the collected Observations, by the two preceding Helps, and ratiocinating from them.
When he discusses III, Hooke explains that an understanding of mathematics and mechanics “will most assist the Mind in making, examining, and ratiocinating from Experiments”:
- Mechanicks also being partly Physical, and partly Mathematical, do bring the Mind more closely to the business it designs, and shews it a Pattern of Demonstration, in Physical Operations, manifests the possible Ways, how Powers may act in the moving resisting Bodies: Gives a Scheme of the Laws and Rules of Motion, and as it were enters the Mind into a Method of accurate and demonstrative Inquiry and Examination of Physical Operations. For though the Operations of Nature are more secret and abstruse; and hid from our discerning, or discovering of them, than those more gross and obvious ones of Engines, yet it seems most probable, by the Effects and Circumstances; that most of them may be as capable of Demonstration and Reduction to a certain Rule, as the Operations of Mechanicks or Arts.
Later in the same discussion, Hooke enumerates the different kinds of observations one should make when constructing natural histories:
- 25ly, To enquire and try how many Mechanical Ways there may be of working on, or altering the Proprieties of several Bodies; such as hammering, pounding, grinding, rowling, steeping, soaking, dissolving, heating, burning, freezing, melting, &c.
Hooke is using the term ‘mechanical’ in (at least) two different senses. In the first sense, the term describes the processes of machines; in the second sense, the term describes manual work. But he conflates neither of these with the experimental philosophy. They are distinct, albeit related, philosophies.
Previously on this blog we have claimed that some features of Newton’s early methodology, for example his early use of queries, suggest that he was influenced by the new experimental philosophy of the early Royal Society. I do not claim that Newton’s experimental philosophy is continuous with the experimental philosophy of the early Royal Society, so I do not take issue with Shapiro’s main claim. But I do take issue with his claim that the ‘mechanical philosophy’ and ‘experimental philosophy’ were considered by the early Royal Society to be synonymous.
CFP: Early Modern Medicine and Natural Philosophy
Center for the Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
2-4 November 2012
The aim of the conference is to bring to the fore the medical context of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ and to explore the complex connections between medicine and natural philosophy in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. Medicine and natural philosophy interacted on many levels, from the practical imperative to restore and maintain the health of human bodies to theoretical issues on the nature of living matter and the powers of the soul to methodological concerns about the appropriate way to gain knowledge of natural things. And issues of life, generation, ageing, medicine, and vital activity were important topics of investigation for canonical actors of the Scientific Revolution, from Boyle, Hooke and Locke to Descartes and Leibniz. Recent efforts to recover the medical content and contexts of their projects have already begun to reshape our understanding of these key natural philosophers. Putting medical interests in the foreground also reveals connections with a wide variety of less canonical but historically important scientists, physicians, and philosophers, such as Petrus Severinus, Fabricius ab Aquapendente, Lodovico Settala, William Harvey, Richard Lower, Thomas Willis, Louis de la Forge, and Georg Ernst Stahl. This interdisciplinary conference will bring together scholars of Renaissance and Early Modern science, medicine and philosophy to examine the projects of more and less canonical figures and trace perhaps unexpected interactions between medicine and other approaches to studying and understanding the natural world.
Submission of extended abstracts for individual paper presentations (limit 30 minutes) are invited. More information is available here.
Confirmed speakers include:
Domenico Bertoloni Meli (Indiana University)
Antonio Clericuzio (University of Cassino)
Dennis Des Chene (Washington University)
Patricia Easton (Claremont Graduate University)
Cynthia Klestinec (Miami University, Ohio)
Gideon Manning (Caltech)
Jole Shackelford (University of Minnesota)
Justin E. H. Smith (Concordia University, Montreal)
Degérando’s Experimental History of Philosophy
Alberto Vanzo writes...
So far, on this blog, we have focused on a philosophical movement and a historiographical tradition. Of course, the movement was experimental philosophy. The historiographical tradition was based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism and was first developed by Kantian and post-Kantian authors, like Reinhold and Tennemann, who did not belong to the movement of experimental philosophy. This post is on a historian who was an adherent of experimental philosophy and who endeavoured to employ its methodology in his history of philosophy. He is Joseph-Marie Degérando, who published a Comparative History of the Philosophical Systems, relatively to the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1804. Interestingly, this text is also influenced by the new post-Kantian historiography based on the rationalism-empiricism distinction.
Degérando intends to apply the method of natural history to the history of philosophy. Natural histories were large structured collections of facts about natural phenomena and they were to form the basis for the identification of theories and principles. Degérando’s history of philosophy is a structured collection of facts about past philosophies which will help us identify which philosophical outlook is the best.
Before starting to collect the facts, we must determine the organizing principles of the collection. Philosophers should
- imitate naturalists, who, before entering into the vast regions of natural history, give us regular and simple nomenclatures and they seek the principle of these nomenclatures in the essential characters of each production.
The “nomenclatures” that form the basis for Degérando’s natural history of past philosophers are three dichotomies: scepticism vs dogmatism, empiricism (or sensualism) vs rational (or speculative or contemplative) philosophy; and materialism vs idealism.
Armed with these nomenclatures, historians of philosophy should free themselves of all prejudices and collect historical facts in an unbiased way. Only after having completed this task should historians start philosophizing. Degérando claims to have ascertained “facts as if” he were “foreign to every opinion” and he has “later established an opinion on the basis of the sole testimony of facts”.
In doing this, Degérando does not aim to write a “simple narrative history, to use Bacon’s expression”, but an “inductive or comparative history that converts the facts into “experiences in the path of human spirit.”
- […] the work that we set out to do can be considered as the essay of a treatise of philosophy, […] a treatise conceived of according to the most cautious, albeit most neglected method, the method of experiences. Hence, we dare to offer this essay as an essay of experimental philosophy.
Degérando is strongly influenced by the post-Kantian historiography of Tennemann and other German historians. Like Tennemann, he focuses on epistemological issues concerning “the certainty of human cognitions”, “their origin” and their reality. Degérando uses the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. Like the Kantians, he criticizes them as two unilateral points of view that should be overcome by a higher philosophical standpoint. This is a form of experimental philosophy that is inspired by Bacon and Condillac and is superior to empiricism which as criticized by German historians. Empiricism stops at the facts. The philosophy of experience “transforms them” and identifies general laws.
- Empiricism does not see anything else than the exterior of the temple of nature; experience enters into its sanctuary. Empiricism is an instinct; experience is an art. Empiricism does not see anything else than phenomena, experience ascends from effects to causes. Empiricism is confined to the present; experience learns the future from the past. Empiricism obeys blindly, experience interrogates with method. Everything is mobile, fugitive for empiricism; experience discovers regular and constant combinations underneath the variable appearances. But what need is there to insist on this distinction? He who opens [a book by] Bacon will see it standing out in every page.
The philosophical upshot of Degérando’s experimental history of philosophy
- is spelled out by Bacon’s words, when he said in his preface to the Advancement of Learning: in this way we believe that we are combining, in a manner that is as stable as legitimate, the empirical and rational methods […]
According to Degérando, experimental philosophy, and not Kant’s Critical philosophy is the true, higher synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.
Defending the Scholastics
One of the features of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy was the rejection of the ‘old ways,’ the Scholastic system of philosophy in particular. We have shown in this blog ample evidence of the attack on the Scholastics by those who promoted Experimental Philosophy. We have been showing how the ESD plays an important role in the early modern period, but we have focused mainly on the work of experimental philosophers. In this post I want to present a text that defends the usefulness of the logic of the Scholastics (the use of syllogistic logic in particular). The text is by Edward Bentham (1707-1776), a teacher of divinity in Oxford for twenty years. In 1740 he published Reflections upon the nature and usefulnes of logick as it has been commonly taught in the schools.
In this text, Bentham does not explicitly attack the “new philosophy.” In fact, at some points he recognizes some of the flaws that the promoters of experimental philosophy found in the Scholastics. But his general claim is that those who reject Scholastic logic are making a huge mistake. In the first couple of pages Bentham tells us that most of the treatises in Logic were “wrote in abstruse Scholastic Language,” and these lead the “moderns” to reject “the dry Systematical method of delivering rules.” But these thinkers end up doing more damage by their rejection of Scholastic logic:
- They launch out into various disquisitions upon abstruse subjects; and often draw the illustration of their rules from the depth of other sciences. And by this means, while they seem to enrich the mind with new discoveries, and therefore entertain the Fancy, they perplex the Judgment; While they promise to give the understanding more activity and freedom, they really rob it of that balast, by which in prudence it should be kept steady, and be prevented from being hasty and precipitant in its determinations. Thus enquiries into the nature of our Souls, our Sensations, our Passions and Prejudices, with other springs of wring judgment, make a part of the natural History of Man, rather than a part of Logick, and are of too mixed a nature to fall under general rules.
Bentham seems to be arguing that Scholastic logic should be learnt before exploring any of the other sciences, but this is not to say that the former is all that is needed and the rest of the sciences are useless. On the contrary, they are at the same level: “At the same time that we admire the ingenuity and great learning of later Philosophers, let the exact method and accuracy of the Scholastick Systematical Logicians be entitled to our praise and imitation.” Bentham does admit that there are some flaws in the Scholastic system, but they have nothing to do with the logic. He goes over the different parts of Scholastic logic, and when discussing syllogisms he tells us:
- Now it must be own’d, that in discourse upon ordinary matters, we have no occasion, either to put ourselves to the trouble of continually applying a common standard, or to tie ourselves up to the strictness of Scholastick form, in order to perceive the agreement or disagreement above mentioned [Syllogisms]: Nor can it be any great edification to an inquisitive Student to be told in such variety of form, as sometimes he is in treatises of Scholastick Logick, that Man is Animal. But yet he may find his account in learning those general rules, which are applicable, as a test, to all reasoning, however varied or disguised by the advantage of witty turns and good Language.
Bentham considers Syllogisms to be of great use, and in the final pages of his text he confirms the importance of Scholastic Logic and attacks the moderns who reject it:
- Since the decline of Scholastick learning, though Science of every kind has received prodigious improvements by the labour and sagacity of exalted Genius’s, yet we find the common run of reasoners as bad as ever; –not more knowing, but much more conceited; –not so ambitious as to improve their knowledge, as to conceal their ignorance; –determining magisterially upon points, without knowing or considering the first principles, of what they are discoursing of; –taking themselves to be masters of every subject, upon which they can raise an objection…
In a previous post, Peter Anstey commented on the Straw Man problem for the ESD. But this text by Bentham shows that there was still some appreciation for Scholastic Logic, especially the use of syllogism. Despite all the criticisms of the Scholastic system made by the promoters of experimental philosophy Bentham defended their logic. As Kenneth Winkler points out in his chapter (Lockean logic) in The Philosophy of John Locke: New Perspectives, Bentham was one of the thinkers who attempted to adopt a kind of Lockean logic but without giving up syllogistic. Determining if Bentham was after all (beyond logic) a speculative philosopher requires a lot more than a blog post, but I will keep working on it and follow up on this issue in the near future.