Early Modern Baconians: Science, Politics and Philosophy
This special issue of SOCIETY AND POLITICS aims to gather together articles dealing with the formation, evolution and influence of Francis Bacon’s thought. We are particularly interested in articles exploring the influence of Francis Bacon’s ideas upon seventeenth and eighteenth century European thought: from science to politics, and from religion to the evolution of literary forms and genres. Our purpose is to accommodate a diversity of approaches, coming from different fields. We welcome articles on experiment and experimental science, natural history, medicine of the mind, the Baconian ‘method’, the advancement of learning, religion and theology, politics and the reformation of law, fables and projects for ‘scientific’ or ‘esoteric’ societies (inspired by Francis Bacon’s writings). SOCIETY AND POLITICS welcomes research coming from different fields and strongly encourages cross-disciplinary approaches.
SOCIETY AND POLITICS is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal published by “Vasile Goldiș” Western University of Arad, Romania. Papers no longer than 8,000 words and book reviews no longer than 800 words should be submitted by email to Dana Jalobeanu and Oana Matei by the 10th of February 2013. Guidelines for authors here.
Dr Dana Jalobeanu
University of Bucharest
Faculty of Philosophy
Splaiul Independentei 204
Juan Gomez writes…
In my last two posts I commented on an essay by Benito Feijoo. First we examined how he pictures the history of philosophy as the contest between two ladies —Solidína (experience) and Idearia (imagination) — to conquer the world. He sides with experience, and we also examined some of the arguments he gives to support the adoption of the experimental method and the rejection of mere speculation. In today’s post I want to follow Feijoo further, examining in particular his thought that just as we must abandon speculation when it is unaided by experience, we must also be cautious and keep in mind that experience without reasoning can also lead us astray in our quest for knowledge.
After spending most of his essay showing (through examples) that the proper path to knowledge is to follow the experimental method, Feijoo concludes with 3 capital errors that frequently take place in our experimental observations:
- We shall conclude this discourse, by pointing out three capital errors, which stem from lack of reflection in experimental observations. The first is that of taking for the effect that which is cause, and for cause that which is effect. The second is to take for cause something that only happens accidentally and has no influence at all. The third is, between two effects of the same cause, to take one as the cause of the other. I shall show examples of these three errors in observations pertaining to Medicine.
Of the first type of mistake Feijoo gives us a case where someone drinks water excessively to quench an overwhelming thirst. A few hours later such person suffers a fever, and it is commonly thought that the cause of the fever is the excessive consumption of water. However this is a false conclusion due to the lack of reflection when observing. If we reason, we can see that the sickness is the cause of the thirst that leads to the excessive consumption of water.
Feijoo warns us that this kind of mistake is very dangerous in medicine, since the lack of reflection and reasoning leads the physician to err in his diagnosis and prevent him from curing the disease.
The second kind of mistake takes place when we assign as the cause something that only happens accidentally. Feijoo tells us that this mistake is committed frequently by ‘superstitious souls’ that constantly assign to their diseases causes that have nothing to do with it. The most common mistaken cause in these cases is the weather. Patients frequently blame their disease on the weather: If during summer the weather is hot, the disease is taken to be caused by the excessive heat, but if summer is not hot enough, then this is also taken to be the cause of the disease.
Finally, the third kind of mistake happens when between two effects of the same cause we take one to be the cause of the other. Feijoo’s example is that of a man that performs an intense physical exercise or activity, then drinks alcohol in excess, and later suffers a fever. While most men would take the excessive drinking to be the cause of the fever, the truth is that intense exercise is more likely to cause a fever than excessive drinking.
This account of capital errors in experimental observation concludes Feijoo’s essay. So what are we to make of his thoughts on the ‘Lessons of Experience’? Well I believe that in Feijoo we have a clear example of the dispersion of the experimental method across the Iberian Peninsula in the first half of the eighteenth century. Feijoo might be the most influential figure of this period in Spain, but he certainly was not alone in the adoption and promotion of the experimental method: Andres Piquer, Manuel Martinez, Juan de Cabriada, and the circles of doctors in Seville and Valencia all shared the beliefs Feijoo expresses in his text. As we have seen in Feijoo’s work, the novatores believed that the correct path towards knowledge was the one taken by Bacon, Boyle, and Newton.
Peter Anstey writes …
In March 2011 we posted 20 core theses about the emergence and fate of early modern experimental philosophy. After two years of further research we have found that a number of them needed updating. We take this as a sign of progress and want to thank our readers for their hand in developing our thinking. Here is the revised set.
1. The distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESD) provided the most widespread terms of reference for philosophy from the 1660s until Kant.
2. The ESD emerged in England in the late 1650s, and while a practical/speculative distinction in philosophy can be traced back to Aristotle, the ESD cannot be found in the late Renaissance or the early seventeenth century.
3. The main way in which the experimental philosophy was practised from the 1660s until the 1690s was according to the Baconian method of natural history.
4. The Baconian method of natural history fell into serious decline in the 1690s and is all but absent in the eighteenth century. The Baconian method of natural history was superseded by an approach to natural philosophy that emulated Newton’s mathematical experimental philosophy.
5. The ESD is operative in Newton’s work, from his early work on optics in the 1670s to the final editions of Opticks and Principia published in the 1720s.
6. In his optical work, Newton’s use of queries represents both a Baconian influence and (conversely) a break with Baconian experimental philosophy.
7. While Newton’s anti-hypothetical stance was typical of Fellows of the early Royal Society and consistent with their methodology, his mathematization of optics and claims to certainty were not.
8. In his early work, Newton’s use of the terms ‘hypothesis’ and ‘query’ are Baconian. However, as Newton’s distinctive methodology develops, these terms take on different meanings.
9. Unlike natural philosophy, where a Baconian methodology was supplanted by a Newtonian one, moral philosophers borrowed their methods from both traditions. This is revealed in the range of different approaches to moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment, approaches that were all unified under the banner of experimental philosophy.
10. Two distinctive features of the texts on moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment are: first, the appeal to the experimental method; and second, the explicit rejection of conjectures and unfounded hypotheses.
11. Experimental philosophy provided learned societies (like the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh) with an approach to knowledge that placed an emphasis on the practical outcomes of science.
12. The ESD is evident in the methodological writings of the French philosophes associated with Diderot’s Encyclopédie project, including the writings of Condillac, d’Alembert, Helvétius and Diderot himself.
13. German philosophers in the first decades of the eighteenth century knew the main works of British experimental philosophers, including Boyle, Hooke, other members of the Royal Society, Locke, Newton, and the Newtonians.
14. Christian Wolff emphasized the importance of experiments and placed limitations on the use of hypotheses. Yet unlike British experimental philosophers, Wolff held that data collection and theory building are simultaneous and interdependent and he stressed the importance of a priori principles for natural philosophy.
15. Most German philosophers between 1770 and 1790 regarded themselves as experimental philosophers (in their terms, “observational philosophers”). They regarded experimental philosophy as a tradition initiated by Bacon, extended to the study of the mind by Locke, and developed by Hume and Reid.
16. Friends and foes of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies in the 1780s and early 1790s saw them as examples of speculative philosophy, in competition with the experimental tradition.
From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism
17. Kant coined the now-standard epistemological definitions of empiricism and rationalism, but he did not regard them as purely epistemological positions. He saw them as comprehensive philosophical options, with a core rooted in epistemology and philosophy of mind and consequences for natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics.
18. Karl Leonhard Reinhold was the first philosopher to outline a schema for the interpretation of early modern philosophy based (a) on the opposition between Lockean empiricism (leading to Humean scepticism) and Leibnizian rationalism, and (b) Kant’s Critical synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.
19. Johann Gottlieb Buhle and Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann were the first historians to craft a detailed, historically accurate, and methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy based on Reinhold’s schema.
20. Tennemann’s direct and indirect influence is partially responsible for the popularity of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy based on the conflict between empiricism and rationalism.
Any comments on or tweaks to these 20 theses would be most welcome.