©The Royal Society/Richard Valencia.

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.

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