Juan Gomez writes…
In my previous post I reviewed some texts from Spanish authors in the 17th century to show that, contrary to common opinion, intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula were in fact acquainted with the progress and achievements of the new experimental philosophy. They did not just know of it, but actually advocated its application and called for the rejection of the old method of the scholastics. In this post I will conclude this overview of the ESD in Spain by looking at the work of the Novatores in the eighteenth century.
The texts we examined in my last post were both written by physicians. In the eighteenth century medicine remained as the forum for the promotion of experimental philosophy. The first author I will examine is Doctor Martín Martínez. He was a physician and professor of anatomy in Madrid, and royal physican to Phillip V. Besides a number of medical writings, in 1730 he published Filosofía Escéptica which consisted in a dialogue between an Aristotlian, a Cartesian, a Gassendist, and a Sceptic. In the preliminaries to this book he tells us that
- The spirit of this book is to give to the Curious Romantics an idea of the most famous philosophies that today run through Europe, relegating that Aristotle just for theological studies.
Even in the 1730’s books in Spain still included a statement of approval made by a priest or friar that confirmed that there was nothing in the book to be censured. The censorship for Filosofía Escéptica was written by Friar Agustín Sanchez and in it we find a statement in the spirit of experimental philosophy. Speaking of the account Martínez gives of the Aristotelian, Cartesian, and Gassendist positions he tells us that the Doctor
- Is determined not to follow any of them, but is inclined towards what he judges more plausible; he does not believe in what experience cannot confirm, based on the fact that words cannot reach the truth of physical and material things, nor their natures and properties; what experience cannot testify, and persuade, cannot be known by words.
Martínez begins his dialogue by giving a brief history of philosophy in Spain, blaming the Arabians for the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy,
- From which that contentious and vociferous philosophy we call Scholastic, as opposed to Experimental, has been derived.
A few lines later Martínez comments that he shares the same opinion held by Bacon:
- The most judicious Verulam also held, that of all the philosophies that have been invented, and received, so many were but fables, and Comical Scenes, each of them making the world to their liking, amassing the Elements to the measure of their palate, and arbitrarily establishing hypotheses as difficult to believe, as they are to prove.
In the case of Martín Martínez we can see the experimental philosophy and the rejection of mere speculation clearly represented. But to show that this was not an isolated case I turn now to another doctor, Andrés Piquer. Out of all the Novatores that practices medicine, Piquer was the one that published most on other topics. He published a book on logic, one on moral philosophy, and one on physics. This last one was published in 1745 under the title Física Moderna Racional, y Experimental (Modern Physics, Rational and Experimental). Piquer begins this book by giving some preliminaries about the state and history of physics and the method to follow. In his historical account he tells us that
- Physics was wrongly cultivated for many centuries, until Francis Bacon Lord Verulam, Great Chancellor of England, towards the end of the sixteenth century, started to renew it, freeing it form the superfluity of reasoning, and manifesting, that the true way to advance in it is through the path of experience.
Speaking about the proper method Piquer sets up a distinction that illustrates the presence of the ESD (in some form) in Spain:
- Modern physicists, are either Systematic, or Experimental. The former explain nature according to some system; the latter discover it through the way of experience. The Systematic form in the imagination some idea, or drawing of the principal parts of the World, of its connections, and mutual correspondence; and holding such idea, that sometimes is strictly willed, as a principle, and foundation of their Philosophy, try to explain everything that occurs in the universe according to it. This has been done by Descartes, and Newton. The Experimental work to collect many experiments, combine them, and use them as the basis of their reasonings. This is how Robert Boyle, Boerhaave, and many other philosophers of these times treat physics.
One of the interesting features of this passage is that Piquer groups Descartes and Newton together under systematic philosophers! However, I don’t have the space or time to discuss this very interesting issue in this post, but Piquer’s distinction between systematic and experimental is something worth looking into. For now, I believe I have provided some very interesting passages from early modern Spanish authors that show that they were acquainted with experimental philosophy and opposed and rejected mere speculation.
N.B. The English translation of the quotes presented here is mine
Peter Anstey writes…
John Locke’s commitment to the experimental philosophy was extraordinary. In the 1690s, arguably the busiest decade of his life, Locke continued to make daily detailed records of the prevailing weather conditions at Oates, the house of Francis Masham where he resided from 1691.
Each day he would enter the day of the month, the hour, the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind direction and speed, and the overall weather conditions. Sometimes he recorded three or four sets of data within a single day. Of course, Locke was not the only one in England who was collecting such data. He was merely a small part in a larger loosely connected project that aimed to construct a natural history of the air. The inspiration here was his mentor Robert Boyle whose A General History of the Air Locke had seen through the press in 1692 after Boyle’s death. Indeed Locke included a set of his own weather records from the 1660s in that work and perhaps it was the self-confessed incomplete nature of Boyle’s history that spurred Locke on to resume his weather charts in December 1691 (the very month in which Boyle died). The incompleteness of Boyle’s history is also the explanation of the fact that Locke had his own copy of the work interleaved and began to add new observations on the air.
One particularly interesting set of records is that for the month of September 1694. Here are the readings for the 4th of that month:
Day Hour Temp Barom Hygrom Wind Weather
|4||∙9||5o—||15.||2436||WS 3||covered, a shower at 21|
|24||1 ∙ 7||29∙10.||2233||very fair|
The small dot to the left of the hour indicates that the first reading was made around 9.45am. There was no standard of temperature in Locke’s day, so he provides a relative reading of 5 marks above the zero mark, which was set at temperate rather then freezing. The morning wind from the WSW was evidently quite strong: Locke’s scale is from 0 to 4. And he was up late recording that there was a rain shower at 9pm and taking another set of readings at midnight. (It is interesting to note too that he used a 24-hour clock and records made at midnight are not uncommon.)
After this entry, Locke makes the following observation:
SWALLOWS. No Swallow or Martins this day plying about the house or Moat as they used to be but every now & then 3 or 4 or more appeared & after 2 or 3 turns were gone again out of sight they generally flew very high and seemed to be passengers & to take their course southward as far as I could observe whether they were plying about the house yesterday or not I did not observe.
Then on the 19th of the month he reflects back on the swallows:
SWALLOWS The observation made 4° Sept will need some further experiments to confirm it. It being hard to take notice of their flight so as to be sure they doe not return again. But this I am certain that after that day neither SWALLOWS nor Martins were so many nor so busy as before. But yet some of them though not so frequent were to be seen till the 19th & then I went to London.
Notice the talk of the need for further experiments. Here, within a project for the systematic collection of data for a Baconian natural history, a project that involves the daily use of newly invented meteorological instruments, Locke makes a further observation and conceives of it in terms of the application of the experimental method.
So thorough are Locke’s records that, by his own admission, ‘there seldom happen’d any Rain, Snow, or other remarkable change, which I did not set down’. And what was it all for? He told Hans Sloane that with enough meteorological data ‘many things relating to the Air, Winds, Health, Fruitfulness, &c. might by a sagacious man be collected from them, and several Rules and Observations concerning the extent of Winds and Rains, &c. be in time establish’d to the great advantage of Mankind.’
Kirsten Walsh writes…
- the apparent continuity between Newton’s usage [of the term ‘experimental philosophy’] and that of the early Royal Society is, however, largely an illusion.
I examined his claim that ‘experimental philosophy’ was used as a synonym for ‘mechanical philosophy’ by the early Royal Society, whereas for Newton, the two terms had different meanings.
Today I’ll address another argument Shapiro makes in that paper.
Shapiro claims that Newton’s adoption of the experimental philosophy occurred quite late – while preparing the 2nd edition of Principia, published in 1713. To support this claim, Shapiro argues that, in the 1713 edition of Principia, Newton uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ for the first time in public. Moreover, the methodology Newton describes in this context is very different to the methodology he describes in his early optical papers. Shapiro writes:
- At this time  for Newton confirmation is by mathematical demonstration and secondarily – only if you think it is worth the bother – by experiment. He clearly believed that a mathematical deductive approach would lead to great certainty and that experiment could provide the requisite certain foundations for such a science, but until the eighteenth century he did not assign experiment a primary place in his methodology.
If Newton’s ‘experimental philosophy’ is a late development, then this provides additional support for Shapiro’s claim that Newton’s experimental philosophy is not continuous with the methodology of his predecessors, the early members of the Royal Society.
In this post, I’ll argue that (1) experiment is a prominent theme in Newton’s methodological statements between 1672 and 1713, and (2) Newton’s methodology has features that suggest the influence of the early Royal Society.
1. Experiment is a prominent theme between 1672 and 1713
There is a strong experimental theme in Newton’s early optical papers (1672-1675). For example, he says:
- the proper Method for inquiring after the properties of things is to deduce them from Experiments.
- I drew up a series of such Experiments on designe to reduce the Theory of colours to Propositions & prove each Proposition from one or more of those Experiments by the assistance of common notions set down in the form of Definitions & Axioms in imitation of the Method by which Mathematicians are wont to prove their doctrines.
- Now the evidence by which I asserted the Propositions of colours is in the next words expressed to be from Experiments & so but Physicall: Whence the Propositions themselves can be esteemed no more then Physicall Principles of a Science.
In the opening paragraph of De Gravitatione (date of composition unknown), Newton says:
- in order, moreover, that … the certainty of its principles perhaps be confirmed, I shall not be reluctant to illustrate the propositions abundantly from experiments as well…
In the 1st edition of Principia (1686), Newton says:
- The principles I have set forth are accepted by mathematicians and confirmed by experiments of many kinds.
And in the 1st edition of Opticks (1704), Newton says:
- My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments…
Experiment doesn’t seem secondary to me!
2. Newton’s methodology suggests the influence of the early Royal Society
As we have said before, the Royal Society adopted the experimental philosophy in a Baconian form – according to the Baconian method of natural history. There is good evidence that Newton was familiar with the work of the Royal Society by the time he wrote his first optical paper in 1672: his notebooks show that he took notes from many issues of the Philosophical Transactions and he took careful notes on Boyle’s work. Newton never adopted the Baconian method of natural history. However, other features of Newton’s methodology suggest the influence of the early Royal Society. For example, he made use of queries, he adopted the familiar distinction between theory and hypothesis, he was concerned with experiments, and he rejected speculation and speculative systems.
Shapiro notices that Newton rejected speculative systems, but fails to recognise that Newton wasn’t the first member of the Royal Society to take this stance. On this blog we have provided ample evidence that the early members of the Royal Society railed against speculation. Newton’s anti-speculation and anti-hypothetical stance, while extreme, was still inside the spectrum of acceptable experimental positions. Consider this passage from Hooke’s Micrographa, addressed to the Royal Society:
- The Rules YOU have prescrib’d YOUR selves in YOUR Philosophical Progress do seem the best that have ever yet been practis’d. And particularly that of avoiding Dogmatizing, and the espousal of any Hypothesis not sufficiently grounded and confirm’d by Experiments. This way seems the most excellent, and may preserve both Philosophy and Natural History from its former Corruptions.
Whether or not Newton explicitly identified himself as such, we have good reason to think that Newton’s first optical paper in 1672 was written by an experimental philosopher.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
An interesting aspect of Kant’s use of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) is that he does not only apply it to the moderns, but also to the ancients. Kant portrays Leibniz as an adherent to Plato’s rationalism and Locke as a follower of Aristotle’s empiricism. Could Leibniz’s New Essays be a source of Kant’s distinction between empiricism and rationalism?
Here is one of Leibniz’s comments on his disagreements with Locke in the Preface of the New Essays:
- Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which nothing has been written (tabula rasa), as Aristotle and the author of the Essay [Locke] maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato and even with the Schoolmen […]
Here, Leibniz pits Plato and himself against Aristotle and Locke with regard to the existence of innate ideas (“several notions…”) and a priori truths (“… and doctrines”). These are precisely the issues around which Kant frames his distinction between empiricists and rationalists (or, as he sometimes calls them, dogmatists and noologists). However, Kant holds that a third issue divides ancient empiricists like Aristotle from ancient rationalists like Plato. It is the existence or inexistence of objects of which we cannot have sensations. According to Kant, ancient rationalists claim that there are non-sensible objects (Platonic ideas). Ancient empiricists, like Aristotle and Epicurus, deny this. Leibniz does not focus on this issue, but Christian Garve (who would later become one of Kant’s early critics) did. Like Kant, Garve divided ancient philosophers into two camps based on whether they admitted substantive a priori truths, innate ideas, and non-sensible objects. He drew this distinction in a dissertation that he published in 1770, eleven years before Kant’s first Critique and five years after Leibniz’s New Essays. Let me summarize Garve’s statements on each of the three points.
A priori knowledge
After they learned to distinguish between appearance and reality and between the senses and the intellect, philosophers took two opposed paths:
- Some [like Heraclitus] devoted themselves to exploring the nature of the senses with great care and they subtly searched in the senses the mark and sign of truth. Others [like Parmenides], having ignored and set aside the senses, devoted themselves entirely to the faculty of intellect and to contemplating with their mind the thoughts that they had gathered in themselves.
This epistemological divide gave rise to an ontological divide:
- [T]hose that sought the foundation of the truth to be discovered in the senses were forced to refer [only] to the things that are subjected to the senses […]; and those claiming that true cognition is distinctive of the mind, not of the senses, denied the name and almost the rank of things […] to sensible items. They ascribed it only to [merely] intelligible things […]
On the one hand, we have Protagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and even the sceptics. On the other hand, we have Plato.
Those who denied “the truth of the senses” did not only have to posit a realm of non-sensible beings. They also had to defend the existence of innate ideas. This is because, if there is no truth in the senses, we cannot derive “true notions” from the senses (where true notions appears to be, in some sense, notions that map onto reality). We must claim that they are “innate in the soul and prior to every sensation”. “And thus were born Plato’s famous ideas, on which he says various, inconsistent things”, like those who are forced to embrace a conclusion, “although they do not understand well enough what it may be or how it could be true”.
Garve does not use the terms “empiricists” and “rationalists”, which would take on their now-common meanings only with Kant. However, the way in which Garve carves the two opposed camps of ancient philosophers maps neatly onto Kant’s distinction between ancient empiricists and rationalists. Garve also suggests that Locke and Berkeley followed Aristotle, whereas Leibniz followed Plato. This is because, in the antiquity, “nearly the whole territory of all opinions which may be held on this matter had been explored; all matter for supposition and invention had been used”.
Kant too thought that modern empiricists and rationalists followed the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. This brief survey of Leibniz’s and Garve’s statements suggests that their historiography of ancient philosophy may have been a source of Kant’s influential distinction between empiricism and rationalism.