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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.

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