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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Politics and the Origins of Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In earlier posts, I claimed that the now-familiar notion of empiricism was first introduced by Immanuel Kant and that it was not in use in the early modern time. However, Kant contrasts “rationalists” and “empirics” in one area in which it was customary for German writers to distinguish people who relied on experience with those who relied on reason, namely, politics. Dozens of early modern German authors distinguished between empirical politicians and rational, dogmatic, or speculative politicians. Did the pre-Kantian distinction between empirical and rational politicians provide a significant source of the Kantian distinction between empiricist and rationalist philosophers? To answer this question, let us look at the contexts in which early modern German writers typically mentioned empirical politicians.

It is only in the first decades of the seventeenth century that politics appeared as an autonomous academic discipline in the German faculties of arts. Its early exponents were preoccupied with establishing its importance and autonomy against those jurists, like Jean Bodin, who regarded it as a part of jurisprudence, identified the good politician with the good legal expert, and denied that there was any need to introduce the study of politics within the arts faculty, in addition to what one could learn in the course of legal study. To this end, academic writers on politics stressed that it is more than a mere set of practical precepts. Politics is a doctrina based on general principles which one must learn to acquire the political virtue par excellence, political prudence. In this context, the phrase “empirical politician” was used to designate and criticize those politicians as pseudo-politicians who rely only on experience, without knowing the doctrine of politics.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the discipline of politics experienced a transformation that placed empirical politicians in a far better light. What used to be the theoretical and general part of politics was now dealt with within the discipline of universal public law (ius publicum universale). Politics became mostly concerned with identifying the best ways to govern and the most effective practical means to achieve aims established by universal public law. The necessity of being versed in a demonstrative philosophical doctrine for being a good politician was no longer obvious and discussions of the requirements for political prudence had largely been supplanted by discussions of the more fashionable and pragmatic topic of reason of State. It is in this context that Kant contrasts empirics and rationalists in politics, criticizing the former and stressing the importance for politics to be conducted in light of the philosophical foundations of public law.

Kant’s references to empirics and rationalists in politics show that the distinction between these two kinds of politicians and the notion of political empiricism were well known when the distinction between empiricist and rationalist philosophers was first introduced. However, there are only tenuous similarities between these distinctions.

Empiricists and rationalists take opposite stances on the origins of cognitions and foundations of knowledge, the former appealing to experience and the latter appealing to the a priori. Empirical politicians too relied on experience. However, their reliance on experience was not contrasted with the reliance on the a priori, whether in the form of a priori reasonings or of non-empirical cognitive faculties such as rational insight. It was contrasted with the «precepts of doctrine and rules derived from the learned schools» (Faber), on whose basis dogmatic or rational politicians justified their views and actions.

Dogmatic politicians would bear a significant resemblance with rationalist philosophers if the doctrines on which they rely were established a priori, independently from experience. However, the role of experience in the establishment of principles was the object of significant divergences between early modern authors, including the Aristotelians. According to some authors, principles could not be warranted independently from experience. Additionally, what role experience had in the establishment of political doctrine was never at stake in the characterizations of dogmatic politicians. Politicians qualified as dogmatic if their views, actions, and political prudence relied on a doctrine, regardless of its empirical or non-empirical origin. Empirical politicians relied on practice and experience as opposed not to a priori cognitions or faculties, but to a systematic theoretical apparatus of any sort.

I conclude that, although the early modern contrast between empirical and rational politicians bears some resemblance with the distinction between rationalists and empiricists, it cannot be a significant source of the latter distinction. Do you find this claim plausible? Let me know by posting a comment.

Looking back: PATS workshop on Interdisciplinarity

Juan Gomez writes…

A few weeks ago the Early Modern Thought Research Theme here at Otago hosted a colloquium on “Practical Knowledges and Skill in Early Modern England.” After two days of great talks postgraduate students were able to take part in an ANZAMEMS sponsored workshop on “Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Research.” I took part in the workshop and in today’s post I want to share my thoughts on what turned out to be an outstanding event.

The main purpose of the workshop was to give postgraduate students tools to enhance current and future research projects. With this in mind the speakers shared how they had each in their own way been engaged with this interdisciplinary aspect of the Early Modern period. The talks were followed by practical sessions where we had the opportunity to think about and develop our research projects from an interdisciplinary perspective. The whole workshop was a huge success and I am sure I am not the only one that now has a better idea of how beneficial it is for research in the early modern period to look at/borrow from/collaborate with other disciplines.

Of special interest to me were the talks given by Peter Harrison on “Disciplinary boundaries in intellectual history: science, religion & philosophy” and Andrew Bradstock on “Religious language in early modern texts.” Harrison’s talk was a very clear and nice example of the interdisciplinary nature of the Early Modern period. It highlighted how the three disciplines that to our modern eyes seem very distinct drew on each other constantly. As readers of this blog know, I have done some research on George Turnbull’s work on Jesus Christ and miracles that exemplify this interaction between science, religion, and philosophy in the eighteenth century.

Andrew Bradstock’s talk made me think about how my research on Turnbull can me tremendously enhanced by drawing on the purely religious context of the time. For example,Turnbull’s Principles of Christian Philosophy draws heavily on passages from the bible, some of them that I am not that familiar with or might not know it’s significance at the time. By working with someone working on the history of religion or acquiring knowledge of it I can add another layer to my research that will enrich our understanding of Turnbull’s thought.

The workshop made it clear that crossing the boundaries of a particular discipline is not only fruitful but even necessary when engaged in early modern research. Given that there is a natural characteristic of interdisciplinarity to the early modern period we must leave the comfort zone of our own discipline if we want to carry out our research projects properly. Most of us have actually done this without noticing that we are engaged in interdisciplinary research. The workshop brought this to my attention and I started thinking about the many ways in which my research would have been improved if I had consciously made an effort to enrich my understanding of any given topic by allowing myself to explore what other disciplines have to offer. And this enrichment of knowledge works both ways; there are projects stationed in other disciplines that would be enhanced by what I have to offer as a researcher from a specific discipline, with a specific skill set.

This is not to say that early modern research cannot be carried out other than in an interdisciplinary manner, but rather that through interdisciplinarity we can enhance tremendously the research projects we are all developing from our specific discipline. Borrowing a phrase by Michael Cop at the Early Modern at Otago blog, the workshop showed that through interdisciplinarity “the future of early modern and medieval research looks promising indeed.”

Early Modern HPS Session Details

History and Philosophy of Science in Australia: Looking Forward

National Committee for History and Philosophy of Science workshop, University of Sydney, New Law School Annexe 342


27 September 2012: University of Sydney
8.50    Peter Anstey (Otago/Sydney) Introductory comment

8.50    Luciano Boschiero (Campion): History of science in the liberal arts: its tradition and future

9.08    Peter Harrison (Queensland): Early Modern HPS at UQ: Current Projects and Future Prospects

9.26    Gerhard Wiesenfeldt (Melbourne): Back to the basics? Changing perspectives in the digital age

9.45    Ofer Gal (Sydney): Passionate knowledge

10.04  John Schuster (Sydney/Campion): Descartes Studies / Scientific Revolution Studies: The Historiographical Imperatives

10.23  Alan Chalmers (Sydney): Mechanical philosophy, experimental philosophy and Descartes

10.41  Peter Anstey: Concluding remarks

Reflections on HPS

Peter Anstey writes…

It is time to restart the conversation about early modern HPS as we lead up to the Sydney conference which commences in two week’s time.

I am currently in Cambridge and have had a number of talks with philosophers and people working in HPS here and in Paris. A common theme has been that they don’t believe that there is anything particularly unique about HPS in terms of methodology and the sorts of outputs of its practitioners. They are happy to work in HPS departments and hope that the discipline continues, but they are noticing changes in the disciplinary mix with a clear shift towards the social sciences and to sciences studies.

I should like to propose a tentative historical explanation of the current situation of HPS as a disciplinary division with the university sector. I raise it for discussion rather than as my own position statement.

It is very hard to do new, innovative research on a historical period, particularly one as rich as the early modern period, without doing interdisciplinary research. In the 1950s and 1960s and there was little institutional recognition of interdiciplinary research in Anglophone universities. At the same time the philosophy of science was undergoing very exciting developments. There was the hotbed at the LSE in London and Kuhn was nearing his peak in Princeton, to choose just two obvious examples. Now what is striking about these developments in the philosophy of science is that they were inextricably bound to historical episodes in the history of science – Kuhn’s paradigm shifts needed actual examples from the history of science. The combination of these two factors, and perhaps others, led to a new form of interdisciplinary research output – a hybrid if you will – that could not be written without the intersecting of history of science and philosophy. Soon institutional niches opened up to accommodate groups of researchers who were working in this overtly interdisciplinary way. (We could add another paragraph on how sociology of science and the study of technology were soon grafted on, but you get the general picture.)

That was then. It appears that today, by contrast, there is a widespread recognition of the value and the almost ineliminable need for interdisciplinary research in the traditional disciplines themselves: history, philosophy, literature, languages, music, theology. Interdisciplinarity is everywhere and is not merely tolerated but celebrated and funded. At the same time the philosophy of and the history of science have become far more specialized and diffuse. There is no unified set of problems or approaches or dominant players that provide the fulcrum around which HPS is practised. Koyré, Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc. are now part of the history itself.

The result of this higher tolerance of and wider practice of interdisciplinary research, combined with the veritable explosion of and diversification of the history of science and the philosophy of science, is that there is now far less pressure for scholars to find a separate, interdisciplinary, institutional niche within which to work and there is far less of a sense that the methodology of those who do HPS is really all that different from someone studying, say, early modern theology or literature.

A positive consequence of this for HPSers is that we can now celebrate the fact that scholars in other disciplines are working in the way we always have. A negative consequence is that it’s now harder to point out what is unique to HPS either in terms of its methodology or its research outputs. It is, therefore, harder to justify the existence of institutional niches set up for HPS on methodological grounds or in terms of research outputs. The upshot of all of this is that HPS is both in a stronger position and a weaker position. It is now better understood and appreciated because its methods are widely practised by others. Yet it is less unique, less distinctive within the disciplinary matrix in which it is situated.

Denis Diderot: the last true Baconian?

Peter Anstey writes…

There were many types of Baconianism in the eighteenth century and many philosophers and natural philosophers traced their lineage from Bacon or regarded Bacon as the progenitor of views that they espoused. And yet most of these self-proclaimed ‘Baconians’ held views that Bacon himself would hardly recognize or they adhered to what, at best, could be described as a truncated form of Baconianism. A nice example is George Adams Jr whose views on the method of reasoning in natural philosophy in his Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy (1794) (discussed previously on this blog) amount to little more than a summary of the first book of Bacon’s Novum organum (1620).

What would it take then for someone to be a true Baconian? Of course, the question itself is problematic because there is no principled way of determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that would settle the issue. But let us run with the question nonetheless.

Given the prominence of Bacon’s method of natural history in his conception of how we are to acquire knowledge of nature – that is, given the quality and quantity of writings that he devoted to natural history and the efforts he expended in assembling his own exemplar histories in the last years of his life – I suggest that to be a true Baconian one must (at least) be an advocate of the Baconian method of natural history. If this is right, then as far as I am aware, the last true Baconian was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713–1784).

Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784)

Diderot’s ‘Prospectus’ for the Encyclopédie, was first published in 1750 and then appended in a modified form to the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ of the first volume of the Encyclopédie itself in 1751. It presents an overtly Baconian scheme of the sciences set within a tripartite faculty psychology à la Bacon, but more importantly, it shows a clear understanding and acceptance of the structure and content of Bacon’s account of the overall project of natural history. Drawing heavily on Bacon’s De augmentis scientiarum he tells us that:

The history of uniform nature is divided, following its principal objects, into: celestial history or history of the stars, of their movements, sensible appearances, etc., without explaining their cause by systems, hypotheses, etc. (It is a matter here only of pure phenomena.) Into meteorological history such as winds, rains, tempests, thunder, aurora borealis, etc. Into the history of the earth and the sea, or of mountains, rivers, streams, currents, tides, sands, soils, forests, islands, configurations of the earth, continents, etc. Into history of minerals, into history of vegetables, into history of animals. Whence results a history of the elements, of the apparent nature, sensible effects, movements, etc., of fire, air, earth, and water. (Preliminary Discourse, Chicago, 1995, 147)

(Regular readers of this blog will note the decrying of systems and hypotheses as hallmarks of a commitment to the experimental philosophy.)

Yet Diderot does not merely reproduce the structure and content of Bacon’s method of natural history, he also appreciated the heuristic structure of these histories and the fact that they needed to be subject to what Bacon called interpretatio naturae, the interpretation of nature. For, in 1754 Diderot published a work entitled On the Interpretation of Nature which, as many scholars have recognized, is very Baconian in character. It is, in effect, Diderot’s own version of Book Two of Bacon’s Novum organum. To be sure it lacks any extended discussion of Baconian induction and prerogative instances, but it is written in aphoristic form and contains many Baconian themes including advice on experimenting, the use of queries and conjectures and concrete natural philosophical examples. Surely on this evidence Diderot must qualify as a true Baconian. Was he the last?

Emilie du Châtelet on Hypotheses

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Emilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749) is best known in the popular literature as one of Voltaire’s lovers, but among her contemporaries, she was considered to be a brilliant mathematician, physicist and philosopher, whom Voltaire once described as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.  Her work on heat and light predicted infrared radiation, and her translation and commentary of Newton’s Principia, published ten years after her death, is still considered to be the standard French translation.  Today I’m interested in Du Châtelet’s views on hypotheses.

Emilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749)

Du Châtelet’s lengthiest discussion of the use of hypotheses in natural philosophy is found in her Institutions de Physique* (1740), which she wrote as a textbook for her thirteen year old son.  Here, Du Châtelet explicitly set up her position on hypotheses in opposition to both Descartes and the Newtonians.  She saw both positions as too extreme; and neither position as correct or useful.  On the one hand:

    “Descartes, who had established much of his philosophy on hypotheses, … gave the whole learned world a taste for hypotheses; and it was not long before one fell into a taste for fictions.  Thus, the books of philosophy, which should have been collections of truths, were filled with fables and reveries.”

But on the other hand, those who follow Newton “have fallen into the opposite excess”:

    “…he alone, who was able to assign and demonstrate the causes of all that we see, would be entitled to banish hypotheses from physics; but, as for us, who do not seem to be cut out for such knowledge, and who can only arrive at the truth by crawling from probability to probability, it is not for us to pronounce so boldly against hypotheses.”

Du Châtelet advocated a more moderate position.  She thought that hypotheses performed several important functions:

Firstly, hypothesising is a good way to get the proverbial ball rolling.  She wrote:

    “There must be a beginning in all researches, and this beginning must almost always be a very imperfect, often unsuccessful attempt.  There are unknown truths just as there are unknown countries to which one can only find the good route after having tried all the others.  Thus, some must run the risk of losing their way in order to mark the good path for others; so it would be doing the sciences great injury, infinitely delaying their progress, to banish hypotheses as some modern philosophers have.”

Secondly, hypotheses can provide useful explanations of the phenomena:

    “When certain things are used to explain what has been observed, and though the truth of what has been supposed is impossible to demonstrate, one is making a hypothesis.  Thus, philosophers frame hypotheses to explain the phenomena, the cause of which cannot be discovered either by experiment or by demonstration.”

So, unlike Newton, Du Châtelet thought that, if we couldn’t obtain certainties, then we should make do with probabilities:

    “The true causes of natural effects and of the phenomena we observe are often so far from the principles on which we can rely and the experiments we can make that one is obliged to be content with probable reasons to explain them.  Thus, probabilities are not to be rejected in the sciences, not only because they are often of great practical use, but also because they clear the path that leads to truth.”

Thirdly, hypotheses suggest new experiments:

    “Hypotheses must then find a place in the sciences, since they promote the discovery of truth and offer new perspectives; for when a hypothesis is once posed, experiments are often done to ascertain if it is a good one, experiments which would never have been thought of without it.”

Moreover, Du Châtelet thought that experimental results could increase the probability of the hypothesis:

    “If it is found that these experiments confirm it, and that it not only explains the phenomenon that one had proposed to explain with it, but also that all the consequences drawn from it agree with observations, its probability grows to such a point that we cannot refuse our assent to it, and that is almost equivalent to a demonstration.”

However, Du Châtelet warned her readers that, when hypothesising, one must proceed with caution:

    “Without a doubt there are rules to follow and pitfalls to avoid in hypotheses.  The first is, that it not be in contradiction with the principle of sufficient reason, nor with any principles that are the foundations of our knowledge.  The second rule is to have certain knowledge of the facts that are within our reach, and to know all the circumstances attendant upon the phenomena we want to explain.”


    “Since hypotheses are only made in order to discover the truth, they must not be passed off as the truth itself, before one is able to give irrefutable proofs.”

So finally:

    “With this precaution one does not run the danger of taking for certain that which is not; and one inspires those who follow us to correct the faults in our hypotheses and to provide what they lack to make them certain.”

Du Châtelet greatly admired the British philosophers, Locke and Newton in particular.  But her views on hypotheses have much more in common with her fellow Continental philosophers, Leibniz and Wolff.


*Translations are quoted from Du Châtelet, E. (2009), Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, J. P. Zinsser (ed.), I. Bour & J. P. Zinsser (trans.), University of Chicago Press.