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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Newton and the ESD

Kirsten Walsh writes…

We rang in 2013 by reconsidering our set of 20 core theses on the emergence and fate of early modern experimental philosophy.  While our general theses regarding the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESD) were unchanged, I altered several of the specific claims about Newton’s methodology.  In this post, I’ll focus on thesis 5 and why I changed it.

In 2011, I claimed that:

5.    The ESD is operative in Newton’s early optical papers.

By ‘operative’, I mean that Newton appears to frame his methodology in terms of the ESD and aligns himself with the experimental philosophers of the Royal Society.  While Newton’s methodology differed from his contemporaries in important ways (for example, unlike his contemporaries, Newton emphasised quasi-mathematical reasoning), it nevertheless reflects some of the key ideas and preferences of the Royal Society.  Previously, I have discussed Newton’s early anti-hypothetical stance and Newton’s early use of queries as evidence of this his preference for the experimental philosophy of the Royal Society.

I now have enough evidence to broaden the scope of thesis 5.  The ESD is operative in all of Newton’s scientific work; not just his early work:

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.

Let’s start with Newton’s Opticks.  This book is widely recognised as a work of experimental philosophy.  Newton’s experimental focus is made explicit by the opening sentence (which appears in every edition):

    “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…”

Moreover, the presence of queries and the absence of hypotheses reflect the epistemic commitments of the experimental philosophy.

Commentators often notice that, in later editions of Opticks, Newton’s queries become increasingly speculative.  This suggests that, despite his use of ESD-jargon, Newton was not following the experimental philosophy after all.  In response to this kind of objection, I have argued that these later queries perform a role that is distinct to that of hypotheses, and that this role is consistent with Newton’s methodology.  Moreover, the general features of Newton’s methodology reflect his commitment to experimental philosophy in opposition to speculative philosophy.  In short, the ESD is operative in every edition of the Opticks.

Now consider Newton’s Principia.  This book is often seen as less a work of experimental philosophy and more a work of mathematics.  However, I have argued that the methodological passages in the first edition of Principia, though sparse, make it clear that experiment is an important theme of this work.  Moreover, in the ‘General Scholium’, which was introduced in the 2nd edition in 1713, Newton makes his commitment to the experimental philosophy explicit.

Commentators often notice that Newton’s use of hypotheses in Principia, and their changing roles between the three editions, suggest that his methodology changes over time.  However, I have argued that, in all three editions, Newton’s use of hypotheses is consistent with his experimental method.  Moreover, the late introduction of Rule 4 in 1726 demonstrates that this commitment to experimental philosophy, in opposition to speculative philosophy, is long-lasting.  In short, the ESD is operative in every edition of the Principia.

To summarise, the notions of experiment, queries and a decrying of speculative hypotheses that are enduring themes in Newton’s work, from the 1670s to his death in 1727, support my broader thesis 5.  Commentators often see Newton’s use of these notions as rhetorical and argue that he failed to follow his own methodology.  However, I argue that Newton’s methodology is internally consistent.  Moreover, these methodological statements are more than ‘mere’ rhetoric.  Rather, to some extent they track his epistemic and ontological commitments.

Do you think my argument is convincing?  I’d love to hear what you think about my conclusion.

Empiricism and innate ideas

Alberto Vanzo writes…

The empiricism/rationalism distinction (RED) is still often characterized, at least in part, in terms of the rejection or endorsement of innate ideas. Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are said to deny that we have innate ideas, whereas rationalists are said to have endorsed innatism. Empiricists are also said to have rejected, and rationalists to have endorsed, substantive a priori truths. However, I will only focus on innate ideas in this post. Is it plausible to distinguish early modern empiricists from early modern rationalists on the basis of their attitude toward innate ideas? Here are five reasons to doubt that this is plausible.

1. Spinoza. As Luis Loeb noted, “Spinoza is completely silent on the subject of innateness”. He never claimed that we have innate ideas. However, he famously denied that mind and body interact. This may be taken to imply that our ideas, rather than deriving from sense experience, are innate.

2. Berkeley. In his most famous writings, Berkeley did not claim that all of our ideas have sensory origin, nor did he reject innate ideas. He only rejected abstract ideas. But the greatest difficulties for enrolling the “empiricist” Berkeley among the enemies of innatism come from his personal notes. Not only did he write that Locke was “tedious about innate ideas” (Luce/Jessop, 9:153), but he also wrote in his Notebooks (649) that “[t]here are innate ideas i.e. Ideas created with us.” (1, 2).

3. Malebranche. The “rationalist” Malebranche attacked, rather than endorsed, innate ideas. As Nicholas Jolley noted, Malebranche’s rejection of innatism derives from his anti-psychologism. Ideas, “according to Malebranche, are not in the mind at all; indeed, they are not the sort of entities which could be in a mind. So if there are, and could be, no ideas in a mind at any time, a fortiori there are no innate ideas.”

Descartes can reply that ideas are only innate in us in

    the same sense as that in which we say that generosity is “innate” in certain families, or that certain diseases such as gout or stones are innate in others: it is not so much that the babies of such families suffer from these diseases in their mother’s womb, but simply that they are born with a certain “faculty” or tendency to contract them. (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet)

Malebranche rebuts that this form of innatism is trivial and vacuous. Saying that our ideas are innate because our mind has the capacity to form or bring them to consciousness under appropriate circumstances is like saying that we fall asleep because we have a dormitive virtue. What we need to know are the categorical, non-dispositional properties that ground these dispositions.

4. Leibniz. Leibniz was aware of Malebranche’s criticism. When he defends the doctrine of innate ideas (most notably, in the New Essays), he is fighting a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, he counters Locke’s rejection of innatism in the first book of the Essay. On the other hand, he responds to Malebranche, because he too endorses the dispositional account of innate ideas attacked by Malebranche: “This is how ideas and truths are innate in us – as inclinations, dispositions, tendencies, or natural potentialities and not as actions”. So, the standard account of Leibniz’s innatism as a rationalist reply to Locke’s concept-empiricism is too simplistic. Leibniz is opposing the “rationalist” Malebranche as well as the “empiricist” Locke. (As Nicholas Jolley explains in The Light of the Soul, Leibniz replies to Malebranche by identifying the categorical basis of the relevant dispositions with unconscious petites perceptiones).

5. Boyle and the Cimento. Things become even more complicated if we consider less-known authors like Robert Boyle or the Italian natural philosophers who were associated with the Accademia del Cimento. They are usually regarded as empiricists. Yet Boyle mentions “inbred notions” or endorses innatism in various passages (e.g. The Christian Virtuoso, in The Works of Robert Boyle, eds. Hunter/Davis, 11:300-301). The opening of the Cimento’s Saggi di naturali esperienze mentions innate notizie that God has planted in our soul and that we recollect in the course of experience. Passages like these are hard to reconcile with the tendency to take the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as a criterion to distinguish between early modern empiricists and rationalists.

I agree with Loeb that the empiricism/rationalism distinction is broken-backed. However, if one still wants to use it, one cannot appeal to the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as scholars have often done. Do you think that this conclusion is convincing? I would love to hear your views in the comments.