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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Open conversation on HPS: Program options for September’s conference

John Schuster writes …

We are faced with the problem, obvious from the beginning, that packing talks at 3 per hour (with discussion) into the one session planned is going to present serious obstacles.  Here is a compromise proposal skeleton.

Let’s consider, first, the 4 themes into which I parsed the potential field for conference presentations on ‘early modern hps’ in Oz. They were:

1. Recent Research Programs:  Recent Concrete Products [recently published material only]

2. The Big Interpretative/Historiographical Issues

3. Work-in-progress reports [reports on material not yet published]

4. Institutional Sites and Prospects: Sydney, Queensland, Campion, Melbourne, UNSW

I make the following points:

If our ‘one shot’, following a suggestion by Alan Chalmers, is to be on ‘how we actually do this stuff’, then some selection from [1] and/or [3] would be presented. In that case, one does doubt that six quick paper/discussions will be very satisfying – we’d need more expansive papers and discussions. Hence, additional expansion into the concurrent AAHPSSS Conference would be the recommended strategy.

If something like [2] or [4] were decided upon, that would appear to be it, a nice two hours could probably be designed, staying entirely within the National Committee allocation. But, is that all we’d wish to do?  Why not expand into some AAHPSSS time slots by pre-planning and bidding now?

Hence, compromise: we work out on this blog what activity will take up the ‘granted’ two hours; but we do that planning to put in for at least one more session at AAHPSSS 26 to 28 September, University of Sydney (at any time except at the appointed two hours with the National Committee Session). The purposes of expanding into AAHPSSS are to fill out whatever our intended program turns out to be, and to ‘bring Early Modern HPS back to AAHPSSS‘ – and the latter surely is one outcome envisioned by those who created and offered the initial 2 hour National Committee slot.  The strategy in this paragraph is my preference.

Experimental Philosophy in Spain

Juan Gomez writes…

We have presented plenty of evidence in this blog to support our claim that the experimental/speculative distinction (ESD) provides the best terms of reference to interpret early modern philosophy. One of the worries we’ve had was that the ESD seemed to be a strictly British phenomenon. However as we have shown in this blog, the distinction is also present in the work of philosophers in other parts of Europe (France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands). In this post I want to further expand on the use of the ESD in continental Europe by exploring the case of Spain. It is a particularly interesting case due to the influence the church (the Inquisition in particular) had on the development of the country. Many of the influential books in natural philosophy (like the work of Descartes and Bacon) were banned by the Catholic Church, which also meant that the “new philosophy” was not taught at universities. Foreigners believed that the Spanish were not at all acquainted with the new philosophy and had the image that Spain was far behind the rest of Europe. Francis Willughby had travelled with his friend and botanist John Ray through Europe and decided to return via Spain in 1666. His opinion of the “backwardness of the country” was published posthumously in a book where Ray and Willughby’s travels are documented (Observations, Topographical, Moral and Physical) (1673)

    I heard a Professor read Logick. The scholars are sufficiently insolent and very disputatious… None of them understood any thing about the New Philosophy, or had so much as heard of it. None of the new books to be found in any of their Bookseller shops: In a word the University of Valencia is just where our universities were 100 years ago… In all kind of good learning the Spaniards are behind the rest of Europe, understanding nothing at all but a little of the old wrangling Philosophy and School-divinity.

However, Willughby’s comment is not accurate. There were several circles and professors that not only knew about the “new philosophy” but actually promoted it and applied it in their works. The first field that vouched for the experimental method was medicine, but in the eighteenth century this philosophy expanded to all areas. As early as 1650 there are references to Bacon and to the new philosophy in Sebastian Izquierdo’s Pharus Scientiarium, a book about the proper way to do science. At the end of the century we find clear expression of the praise for the method of the new philosophy associated with Bacon. The following quote is from Juan de Cabriada’s 1687 Carta Philosophica (English translation is mine):

    Es regla asentada, y máxima cierta en toda medicina, que ninguna cosa se ha de admitir por verdad en ella, ni en el conocimiento de las cosas naturales, sino es aquello, que ha mostrado la experiencia mediante los sentidos exteriores: Asimismo es cierto, que el médico ha de estar instruido en tres géneros de observaciones, y experimentos, como son: anatómicos, prácticos, y chymicos.
    It is an established rule, and true maxim in all of medicine, and in the knowledge of natural things, that nothing is to be admitted as true, if it is not what has been shown by experience through the external senses: it is also certain, that the physician must be instructed in three kinds of observations, and experiments: anatomical, practical, and chymical.

The emphasis on experience and observation is clear, and de Cabriada goes on to discuss how the discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey is of great advantage to science and opposes it to the Galenic theory of the blood used by the scholastics.

Diego Mateo Zapata, a doctor trained in Galenic medicine, actually published against de Cabriada and his method, but in 1690 he had embraced the new science and discarded the Galenic method. Zapata became one of the main promoters of the new philosophy in Spain. In 1701 he published his Crisis Medica, dedicated to the newly established Regia Sociedad Médica de Sevilla (Royal Medical Society of Sevilla). He tells us that the aim of the society is to show medicine

    In its full splendor, which it deserves, getting rid of the shadows that either make it stop at the theoretical, or don’t let it shine in the practical with such experimental clarity, of which it can’t be doubted if it is shadow or light… This society is useful, because it does not rely on the adornments of speech, or on authority, but on the examinations of experience… nothing is more worthy of laughter, of tears, than a drawn curation, like those the Prince (Galen) achieved through the lines of speculation, tinged only with the colors of his own opinion, regardless of whether it was shown to be contrary to experience, like the ancient doctors did.

Zapata continued the attack on the scholastics and speculative philosophy and in 1745 a posthumous publication came out titled Ocaso de las formas Aristotelicas (Twilight of Aristotelian Forms). Zapata and de Cabriada are just two examples that show that Spain was not as backwards as Willughby thought. Further, Spanish intellectuals were very much acquainted with the new philosophy and its contribution to science. Both thinkers that I have quoted today were identified by the term ‘Novatores’ that was used at the time to refer to those thinkers that opposed the scholastic way of doing philosophy. In my next post I will examine the work of the Novatores in the eighteenth century.

An Open Conversation about Early Modern History and Philosophy of Science in Australia

Peter Anstey writes …

In a new venture for this blog we are hosting a conversation about the discipline of History and Philosophy of Science.

The aim of this exchange of ideas is to review the discipline and to come up with ideas and strategies that will reinvigorate it within Australia.

The more specific aim is to formulate a two-hour session on Early Modern HPS at the forthcoming What is this thing called History and Philosophy of Science? to be held at the University of Sydney on 26–28 September 2012.



It is expected that this conversation will last for 4 months.

Anyone is welcome to contribute.

Contributions are by post, comment or reply.

Please send new posts to Peter Anstey at

New posts will appear on Thursdays.

Moderators of the conversation are Peter Anstey (Otago) and Alberto Vanzo (Birmingham).


Leading Question

What is distinctive and important about early modern HPS in Australia and what is worth preserving and developing?

It seems that an adequate answer this question will address some or all of the following issues:

1. Its historiographical orientation and contribution

2. Its historical methods and focuses

3. Its philosophical profile and influences

4. Its research methodology

5. Its recent and current institutional manifestations

6. Let us show you how we do it! (lead by example of cutting-edge research)


We invite contributions!

Locke’s proofs

Peter Anstey writes…

Many experimental philosophers were committed to the view that a science of nature would ultimately be a demonstrative science. In other words, natural philosophy should be a form of scientia based upon propositional axioms or first principles and derived via demonstrative reasoning using syllogistic logic.

This feature of much early modern experimental philosophy provides a problem for those who interpret it through the rationalism/empiricism distinction. For, it seems to be a characteristic of rationalist philosophers that they aim for the demonstrative ideal whereas the so-called empiricists, it is claimed, opted for a form of probablism. And yet many so-called empiricists were committed to the demonstrative ideal.

One such philosopher was John Locke. Interestingly, however, Locke developed his own theory of demonstration that was based upon his theory of ideas and not upon the Aristotelian conception of scientia. Locke claimed that demonstrative knowledge is not knowledge derived from true propositions but rather the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas with the assistance of a third, intermediate, idea (Essay II. xvii). As such Locke’s theory of demonstration was pre-linguistic (that is, it doesn’t have to do with statements that are capable of truth or falsity), even though he freely admitted that the transition to verbal expression of these thoughts is irresistible (Essay IV. v. 3–4).

Blundeville The Art of Logick (Title Page)

Now, Locke called his intermediate ideas proofs (Essay IV. xvii. 2). This seems to be a rather odd use of the term ‘proof’ in early modern English. It does not appear in the OED and it may be thought to typify a theory that was unusual or even idiosyncratic. It seems, however, that there might have been a precedent for this in English logic.

When we turn to Thomas Blundeville’s The Art of Logick (London, 1599, 2nd edition 1617), we find that the middle or mean term in a syllogism is called a proof. Blundeville claims that the major term and the minor term in a syllogism

are made to agree by helpe of a third Terme, called the Meane terme or proofe. (p. 137)

It is interesting to note here not only the use of the term ‘proofe’ for the mean term, but also the claim that the major and minor terms of the premises are made to ‘agree’ by the mean term. Locke’s terminology parallels this very closely, only he applies it to individual ideas like black and white rather than to propositions. For Locke it is the ideas that agree rather than the terms and the proof is the intermediate idea rather than the middle term.

Now, there is, to my knowledge, no evidence that Locke read Blundeville’s Logick and yet Blundeville’s is the only English logic text in which I have found this meaning of the term ‘proof’. So what is the origin of Locke’s terminology? If any readers can shed some light on this I’d be most grateful.

Workshop in Ghent: “Matter and Nature in Early Modern Philosophy”

Thursday, June 7, 2012
Blandijnberg 2, Ghent, room 2.16

13:45-15:00 Marleen Rozemond (Toronto):
Mills can’t think: Leibniz’ approach to the mind-body problem

15:15-16:30 Katherine Dunlop (Brown):
Newton on conservation and the activity of matter

16:45-18:00 Herman De Dijn (Leuven):
Reading the book of nature and reading the Bible

More information is available here.

Is Newton’s Explanation of Gravity a Hypothesis?

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In the General Scholium to Book 3 of Principia, Newton wrote:

    “Thus far I have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the force of gravity, but I have not yet assigned a cause to gravity.”

He went on to explain that such a cause would be a hypothesis,

    “and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.”

It might appear that Newton’s methodological statements don’t reflect his real attitude to causal explanations. He explained all the motions of bodies and the sea by the force of gravity. So in some sense, gravity was the cause of those motions. But if gravity was a cause, then wasn’t it a hypothesis? Was Newton’s famous statement “Hypotheses non fingo” a lie?

In this post, I’ll have a closer look at the role of causal explanations in Newton’s method of natural philosophy.

To begin, consider this statement from Query 28 of Opticks:

    “Whereas the main Business of natural Philosophy is to argue from Phaenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical…”

Here, Newton outlined two central tasks for natural philosophers:

  1. To argue from phenomena without relying on, or giving credence to, hypotheses; and
  2. To infer causes from effects until you arrive at the first cause.

The first task is methodological, and it places a constraint on the kinds of inferences one may make from effect to cause. The second task is epistemological: it tells the philosopher what kind of knowledge to seek, and when to stop. Newton shed a little more light on this second task in Query 31:

    “By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general.”

Perhaps recognising that, once constrained by task 1, task 2 would be too difficult for any single philosopher to complete, Newton wrote in Query 28:

    “And though every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.”

Furthermore, in Query 31, he writes:

    “And therefore I scruple not to propose the Principles of motion above-mention’d, they being of very general Extent, and leave their Causes to be found out.”

And so, in Principia, Newton inferred causes from effects as far as he was able to, while still following the advice of task 1. He stopped short of assigning a cause for gravity, because he could not deduce it from the phenomena. So as he wrote in the General Scholium of Principia:

    “It is enough [i.e. for the purposes of his argument] that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea.”

To conclude, Newton doesn’t rail against causes per se, only against causes that cannot be proved by, or inferred from, experiment. I have argued that Newton was working with a clear distinction between theories and hypotheses, where a hypothesis is:

H1.   Something that is, at best, only highly probable;
H2.   A conjecture or speculation – something not based on empirical evidence; or
H3.   A causal explanation – something concerning the nature of the phenomenon, rather than its physical properties.

I have changed the wording of H1 slightly from the definition I have given in previous posts. Now it looks like I might need to alter H3. What do you think?

Teaching Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth-century Germany: Christoph Meiners

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    Since I am convinced that experience and history are the sole authentic sources of knowledge in all sciences, apart from pure mathematics, the choice and order of the works that I recommend to the young friends of wisdom must necessarily deviate from the works that would be recommended by the men for whom pure reason or pure intellect appear to be the most reliable guides and teachers in philosophy.

These are the words with which Christoph Meiners, a German experimental philosopher, introduced his reading tips for young students in the Preface to his Foundations of Psychology, a manual that he published in 1786. In this post I will draw from Meiners’ Preface to highlight his views on the relation between natural science, philosophy, and psychology and his reading tips for young students of psychology.

Natural science, philosophy, and psychology

We have already explained in his blog how experimental philosophy saw the light as a natural-philosophical methodology and was extended to psychology by Locke and Hume and moral philosophy by Scottish thinkers. Meiners is one of the many German authors who applied the Baconian method of natural history to the field of psychology. Interestingly, in Meiners’ preface, empirical or experimental psychology expels natural history and physics [Naturkunde or Physik] from the field of philosophy. Meiners follows Hume in defining philosophy as “a science of man or a sum of cognitions that inquires into human nature not only insofar as man senses, thinks and talks, desires and hates, but also insofar as he, through his feeling and thinking, desiring and acting, becomes or makes others happier or unhappier in manifold domestic and civil contexts.” Since natural history and the experimental study of nature are not specifically about man, Meiners might have reason to deny that, as a whole, they are parts of philosophy as he understands it.

This is precisely what he does. Meiners suggest that, if one wanted to include natural history and the study of nature within philosophy, one should also include medicine and its branches within philosophy. This would have two unacceptable consequences. First, it would make the domain of philosophy so enormously large “that no human mind could encompass it”. Second, one would lose “the whole purpose for which one orders together certain sums of cognitions into sciences” distinct from one another. For Meiners, philosophy on the one hand, natural science and natural history on the other, are distinct sciences. By distinguishing the study of nature from the study of man, Meiners draws a division between natural science and philosophy that would become common only in the nineteenth century. (If you know of anyone else who explicitly denied that natural science is part of philosophy before Meiners, please get in touch.)

Meiners distinguishes between theoretical and practical philosophy. “Theoretical [philosophy] studies man preeminently as a sensing, thinking and talking being”. And Meiners “designate[s] the theory of man […], considered as a sensing, thinking, and talking creature, with the name of doctrine of the soul or psychology”. Theoretical philosophy is empirical psychology. Predictably, practical philosophy should unfold naturalistically on the foundations of empirical psychology. To Meiners, philosophy is experimental philosophy and its core is Humean empirical psychology.

Meiners’ Reading Tips

Given Meiners’ outlook, it is unsurprising that he advises young students to read works like Bonnet’s Essay de Psychologie, Condillac’s Traité des sensations, Beattie’s Philosophical Essays and Locke’s Essay, which “must remain the principal book for students of the soul”.

Somewhat surprisingly, Meiners also recommends the largely Wolffian logic of Herman Samuel Reimarus and Leibniz’s New Essays, to be read alongside Locke’s Essay. But the main reason why his students should read the New Essays is to better know the enemy. From the New Essays,

    one will not only learn the still remarkable hypotheses of one of the greatest philosophers, but also at the same time the principles and doctrine of all those men who choose not experience and history, but so-called pure reason as their first guide in philosophy.

As the reference to pure reason suggests, Meiners recommends his young students to read Leibniz to better understand Kant. He is well aware that Kantianism represented the major threat to his Humean outlook. By grouping together Kant and Leibniz as speculative enemies of Humean experimental philosophy, Meiners was employing the experimental/speculative distinction that Kant and his followers would soon eclipse and replace with the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism.