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Defining early modern experimental philosophy (1)

Alberto Vanzo writes…

At the recent Bucharest conference on experiments in early modern philosophy, Mordechai Feingold warned against the attempt to characterize experimental philosophy in atemporal terms. The risk is losing sight of the different ways in which experimental philosophy was practised and understood in the course of time and ending up with a characterization which only applies to some experimental philosophers, or is too general to be helpful. To borrow an expression from Bas Van Fraassen’s book The Empirical Stance, Feingold (as I understood him) warned us not to claim that

    To be an (early modern) experimental philosopher = to believe that E+ (the experimentalist’s dogma).

I agree that being an early modern experimental philosopher did not simply amount to endorsing a certain philosophical claim. I tend to think of early modern experimental philosophy as a movement. We can identify the members of this movement based on at least three features which do not involve the commitment to specific philosophical claims:

1. Self-descriptions: experimental philosophers typically called themselves such. At the very least, they professed their sympathy towards experimental philosophy.

2. Friends and foes: experimental philosophers saw themselves as part of a tradition whose patriarch was Bacon, whose prominent members included Boyle, Locke, later Newton and Hume, and whose opponents were Aristotle and the Scholastics, later Descartes, even later (at least in some quarters) Leibniz.

3. Rhetoric: like the members of many movements, experimental philosophers endorsed a distinctive rhetoric. They praised experiments and observations and they criticized hypotheses and speculations (or certain uses and forms thereof). They called them fictions, romances, or castles in the air.

By conceiving of early modern experimental philosophy as a movement, we can accommodate Feingold’s invitation to take its evolution into account. The identity of movements can evolve in the course of time. This happened to experimental philosophy too. It broadened its scope from the study of nature and medicine to ethics and aesthetics (Hume, for instance, advocated the “application of experimental philosophy to moral subjects”). Its list of friends and foes were progressively extended. Its seventeenth-century members regarded the construction of Baconian natural histories as being central to the success of experimental philosophers. Its eighteenth-century exponents no longer took this to be an important or even useful endeavour.

However, experimental philosophers were also, crucially, committed to a certain method. This is why they placed so much emphasis on experiments and observations, while attacking hypotheses and speculations. They believed that the key to success in the study of the natural world (and, later, of ethics and aesthetics) was the endorsement of a method that involved reliance on experiments and observation and rejection of (certain forms of) hypotheses and speculations.

Of course, I am happy to grant that there were differences among the methods adopted by experimental philosophers. Newton’s method differed in several respects from those of Boyle and other experimental philosophers. However, it would be interesting if we could identify a specific methodological view that was shared by all or most experimental philosophers. To paraphrase Van Fraassen once again, it would interesting if we could state that

    To endorse the method of (early modern) experimental philosophy = to believe that E+ (the experimentalists’ methodical dogma).

But how should we define “E+”? Is there a single statement that we can identify “E+” with and that applies to all or most experimental philosophers? If so, then there still is an “atemporal” component of the commitment to experimental philosophy (in the early modern sense). Otherwise, we might be better off claiming, to quote again Van Fraassen, that the method of experimental philosophy is best seen as a “a stance (attitude, commitment, approach, a cluster of such […])” that, albeit related to belief in propositions like E+ (whatever that may be), will involve “a good deal more, will not be identifiable through the beliefs involved, and can persist through changes of belief”.

What should we identify E+, the the experimentalists’ methodical dogma, with? I will address this question in my next post. In the meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Please leave a comment or send me an email.

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