Kirsten Walsh writes …
As 2012 draws to a close, we’d like to announce some minor changes to our blog. While our Marsden funding has ended and we are gradually moving onto other new projects, our interest in early modern experimental philosophy continues and so will this blog.
Peter Anstey has moved to the University of Sydney, where he is about to begin a project on ‘The nature and status of principles in early modern philosophy’. His book John Locke and Natural Philosophy has recently been awarded the Journal of the History of Philosophy Book Prize for the best book on the history of Western philosophy published in 2011.
And Alberto Vanzo has moved to the University of Birmingham, where he is a Marie Curie research fellow. He is working on developments in the history of the rationalism and empiricism distinction.
We still have much to study and to blog about – so we will all continue to make regular posts on this blog, along with the occasional guest-blogger. But in the New Year, we will post fortnightly instead of weekly. We value your interest in our blog, and we hope you will continue reading, commenting and criticizing and contributing to our research next year. Our first post of 2013 will appear on 7 January.
We at Early Modern Experimental Philosophy wish you a happy festive season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013!
On a final note, since tomorrow marks 370 years since Newton was born*, I couldn’t resist adding this picture. My apologies to those of you with historically-sensitive eyes!
*Actually, Newton was born on 25 December 1642 on the Julian (‘Old Style’) calendar, which adjusts to 4 January 1643 on the Gregorian (‘New Style’) calendar.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In 1718, Newton published the second edition of Opticks. Query 23 was renamed Query 31, and in this query Newton expanded on his method of analysis. He wrote:
- “If no Exception occur from Phænomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur.”
At first glance, this passage suggests that Newton adopted the hypothetico-deductive method, in that the epistemic status of a theory is sensitive to new evidence. However, if we consider how Newton put this methodology into practice, in Principia book III, we will get a different reading of this passage.
In the 3rd edition of Principia, Newton introduced a 4th rule of philosophising:
- “In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from phenomena by induction should be considered either exactly or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses, until yet other phenomena make such propositions either more exact or liable to exceptions.”
The similarities between this rule and the earlier passage from Query 31 are striking: that new evidence can make a proposition “either more exact or liable to exceptions” is similar to pronouncing the conclusion either “more generally” or “with such Exceptions as occur”. So looking at how this rule was employed should tell us a lot about how to interpret the earlier passage.
In Principia, Newton only explicitly employed rule 4 once: in proposition 5 book III. In this proposition, Newton made his argument for universal gravitation by generalising step-by-step from the motions of the planets around the sun, and the satellites of Saturn and Jupiter around their respective centres, to the forces producing those motions. Newton introduced three corollaries, the third of which states that “all planets gravitate towards one another”.
In the scholium following this corollary, Newton said:
- “Hitherto we have called ‘centripetal’ that force by which celestial bodies are kept in their orbits. It is now established that this force is gravity, and therefore we shall call it gravity from now on. For the cause of the centripetal force by which the moon is kept in its orbit ought to be extended to all the planets, by rules 1, 2, and 4.”
Rules 1 and 2 tell us not to postulate more causes than necessary, and that we should assume that effects of the same kind have causes of the same kind. In this context, rule 4 tells us that, if exceptions to universal gravitation occur, then instead of reducing our credence in the theory, we should reduce the scope of the theory: it is still true, but true of less instances. De-generalising a theory doesn’t reduce its certainty; rather, it reduces the scope of the theory while maintaining its certainty. So according to rule 4:
- In the absence of exceptions, we should take gravity to be universal.
- If exceptions to universal gravitation are found, we should infer that the domain of gravity is limited (i.e. not universal).
- We should not allow our assumptions about matter theory (e.g. the improbability of action at a distance) to have any influence on our epistemic attitude towards universal gravitation.
Instead of reading rule 4 and the passage from Query 31 as accounts of hypothetico-deductivism, we should read them as accounts of what I Bernard Cohen called the ‘Newtonian Style’: a way of modelling the world in a series of increasingly complex and increasingly accurate idealisations (i.e. approximations that would hold exactly in certain specifiable circumstances).
On this blog, I have often discussed Newton’s aim of certainty and his corresponding claims to have achieved this aim. Newton’s youthful aim of certainty places him in a position that is quite isolated from his contemporaries. Most of the experimental philosophers of the Royal Society thought it epistemically irresponsible to make such bold claims. Instead, they had more modest aims: obtaining highly probable theories. Rule 4, and the passage from Query 31, suggest that Newton eventually adopted a version of the hypothetico-deductivism preferred by his contemporaries. I have argued, however, that this is a misleading way of reading these passages. Newton uses rule 4, not to update the epistemic warrant of the theory, but its scope.
Peter Anstey writes…
It is not uncommon for very minor contributors to early modern thought to go unnoticed, but every now and then they turn out to be worth investigating. One such person is Robert Saint Clair. A Google search will not turn up much on Saint Clair, and yet he was a servant of Robert Boyle and a signatory to and named in Boyle’s will. He promised twice to supply the philosopher John Locke with some of Boyle’s mysterious ‘red earth’ after his master’s death, and a letter from Saint Clair to Robert Hooke was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (vol. 20, 1698, pp. 378–81).
What makes Saint Clair interesting for our purposes is his book entitled The Abyssinian Philosophy Confuted which appeared in 1697. For in that book, which contains his own translation of Bernardino Ramazzini’s treatise on the waters of Modena, Saint Clair attacks Thomas Burnet’s highly speculative theory of the formation of the earth. I quote from the epistle to the reader:
I shall not care for the displeasure of these men of Ephesus [Burnet and others], whose trade it is to make Shrines to this their Diana of Hypothetical Philosophy, I mean who in their Closets make Systems of the World, prescribe Laws of Nature, without ever consulting her by Observation and Experience, who (to use the Noble Lord Verulams words) like the Spider … spin a curious Cob-web out of their Brains … (sig. a4)
The rhetoric of experimental philosophy could hardly be more obvious. Burnet and the other ‘world-makers’ are criticized for being adherents of ‘Hypothetical Philosophy’, for making ‘Systems of the World’, and for not consulting nature by ‘Observation and Experience’. He also praises Ramazzini’s work for being ‘the most admirable piece of Natural History’ (sig. a2). Saint Clair rounds off this passage with a reference to Bacon’s famous aphorism (about which we have commented before) from the New Organon comparing the spider, the ant and the bee to current day natural philosophers (I. 95).
What can we glean from Saint Clair’s critique here? First, it provides yet another piece evidence of the ubiquity of the ESD in late seventeenth-century England: the terms of reference by which Saint Clair evaluated Burnet were clearly those of experimental versus speculative philosophy.
Second, it is worth noting the term ‘Hypothetical Philosophy’. This expression was clearly ‘in the air’ in the late 1690s in England. For instance, it is found in John Sergeant’s Solid Philosophy Asserted which was also published in 1697. Indeed, it is the very term that Newton used in a draft of his letter of 28 March 1713 to Roger Cotes to describe Leibniz and Descartes years later. Clearly the term was in use as a pejorative before Newton’s attack on Leibniz.
Saint Clair has been almost invisible to early modern scholarship on English natural philosophy and yet his case is a nice example of the value of inquiring into the plethora of minor figures surrounding those canonical thinkers who still capture most of our attention. I would be grateful for suggestions as to names of others whom I might explore.
Incidentally, Saint Clair obviously thought that John Locke might be interested in his book, for we know from Locke’s Journal that he sent him a copy.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
Early modern experimental philosophy was not only a British phenomenon. On this blog, we have documented its influence in France, Germany, and Italy. Many studies on natural philosophy in early modern Italy seem in line with this suggestion. They portray the Florentine Accademia del Cimento as one of the first groups “to adopt an experimental method free of speculative theoretical arguments and contentions”. However, appearances can be deceiving. As Luciano Boschiero has argued, Italian natural philosophers in the Accademia del Cimento and elsewhere did not attempt to create a merely factual, “theory-free knowledge of nature”. They all endorsed theories and hypotheses which deeply shaped their experimental activity not unlike Boyle and Hooke, self-declared experimental philosophers who also developed speculative natural philosophies. Does this mean that Italian natural philosophers had a merely verbal allegiance to the experimental philosophy? Did they live a double life, designing and interpreting their experiments in the contest of natural-philosophical speculations and concerns, but then hiding them to portray their results as authoritative and trustworthy because based purely on matters of fact, independent from any theoretical assumptions?
To address these questions, it is useful to consider the case of Geminiano Montanari, one of the most prominent natural philosophers in late seventeenth-century Italy. It is easy to find the rhetoric of experimental philosophy in his works. He explicitly praises “experimental philosophy”, the academies that practice it, and especially experience, which “alone has the privilege of being teacher”. It is from experience that we must “derive” our natural-philosophical “maxims by anatomizing, so to say, the operations of nature”. Observations and experiments must be collected in a “universal and veridical history” of the world, which will be the basis for developing natural-philosophical theories. Does this mean that, for Montanari, we should rely only on empirical facts, reason inductively on their basis, and refrain from embracing hypotheses or making speculations?
Montanari’s extensive discussions of the existence of atoms and the void indicate otherwise. According to Montanari, those questions were not settled by the experimental or observational evidence which was available at the time. However, he did not claim that we should refrain from speculating on them until we have found enough empirical evidence. Montanari speculated on those questions, but he seems to place three limits on our speculation. First, he only speculated on on what we cannot experience. As long as we can, we must rely on experiments and observations as the basis for our natural-philosophical claims. Second, we should be aware that speculations are risky, uncertain, and difficult. Only experience can give us “light”. Montanari compares discussions on the vacuum to walking in the dark. Speculative reasonings can allow us to make some cautious steps into that obscure territory. Finally, there is a good way and bad way of speculating. The bad way is that of the Aristotelians, who hastily embraced natural-philosophical principles and made demonstrative reasonings on their basis. The good way is starting from what we know on the basis of experience and reasoning from it with the aid of the principles of mechanics and geometry (which Montanari takes to be innate). Proceeding in this way, we may be establish whether the invisible corpuscles that make visible bodies are ever at rest, or whether they move continuously, even though we lack empirical evidence of their movements.
In conclusion, Montanari’s approach to speculative reasoning seems to me to be compatible with his experimentalist stance. Montanari did not refrain from speculating and framing hypotheses, but in a cautious, controlled way, always granting pre-eminence to the deliverances of the senses. His pronouncements on the vacuum and on atoms were not a betrayal of experimental philosophy.