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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Newton the empiricist?

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Recently, Zvi Biener and Eric Schliesser’s long-awaited volume, Newton and Empiricism, appeared on the shelves. The book is an excellent collection of papers, which makes a significant new contribution to the field. Today I want to focus on one aspect of this volume: the decision to frame the collection in terms of empiricism rather than experimental philosophy.

Over the last four years, we have provided many arguments for the superiority of the ESD over the RED. An important line of argument has been to show that ‘experimental philosophy’ and ‘speculative philosophy’ were the key terms of reference used by the actors themselves, and that they characterised their own work in terms of this division. For example, I have argued here, here, here and here that Newton is best understood as an experimental philosopher.

In their introduction, Biener and Schliesser explain their decision. They acknowledge the ‘Otago School’, and argue that, while in general there may be some good reasons to prefer the ESD to the RED, they see various problems with labelling Newton an ‘experimental philosopher’. Their concerns amount to the following: labelling Newton an ‘experimental philosopher’ obscures the idiosyncrasies of his approach to natural philosophy. They argue, firstly, that the label belies the significant influence of non-experimental philosophers on Newton’s methodology, for example those who influenced his mathematical focus. Secondly, that the label unhelpfully groups Newton with Boyle and Locke, when many features of his work support a different grouping. For example, Newton’s mathematical-system building suggests that his work should be grouped with Descartes’. Thirdly, they argue that the fact that Newton did not employ the label himself until after the publication of the first edition of the Principia suggests that he did not fully identify with the label.

These are important issues about the ESD and Newton’s place in it. So today I want to reflect on the broad problem of Newton’s idiosyncratic position. I argue that Newton’s divergence from Baconian tradition of the Royal Society is best seen as a development of experimental philosophy.

On this blog, I have sketched many features of Newton’s natural philosophical methodology. I have argued that, if we look at Newton from within the framework of the ESD, he can be neatly and easily identified as an experimental philosopher. His use of queries, his cautious approach to hypotheses, and his many methodological statements decrying the construction of metaphysical systems, suggest that this is a label that Newton would have been comfortable with. However, there is an important caveat to note: while Newton was clearly influenced by the Baconian experimental tradition, he did not consider himself a Baconian experimental philosopher.

In the earliest statements of his mathematico-experimental approach, Newton set up his position in opposition to the Baconian experimental philosophers. In these passages, one feature of Newton’s methodology stands out in explicit rejection of the Baconian method: his claims to certainty. This feature, in itself, is not very significant – many experimental philosophers believed that, in the end, natural philosophy would be a form of scientia, i.e. a system of knowledge demonstrated from certain axioms. Indeed, Bacon shared this ideal of certainty. He thought that his method of induction could get around the problems usually associated with ampliative inference and deliver knowledge of the essences of things. Thus, Bacon’s method of natural history was ultimately supposed to provide the axioms on which scientia could be founded. The challenge, which everyone agreed on, was to discover those axioms on which the system would be built.

Newton and the Baconians seem to diverge on their responses to this challenge. Baconian experimental philosophers recommended that one should have all the facts before formulating generalisations or theories. In contrast, Newton thought that a few, or even just one, well-constructed experiment might be enough – provided you used it in the right way. This shows that Newton took a different view of the role of evidence in natural philosophy. This divergence amounts to three key differences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers:

  1. Where the Baconian experimental philosophers advocated a two-stage model, in which construction of natural histories preceded theory construction, Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Newton commenced theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.
  2. Related to (1), the Baconian experimental philosophers conceived of phenomena as immediate facts, acquired via observation, and hence pre-theoretic. In contrast, Newton’s phenomena were generalised regularities, acquired via mediation between observation and theory.
  3. For the Baconian experimental philosophers, queries were used to give direction and define the scope of the inquiry. But Newton’s queries were more focussed on individual experiments.

There is strong textual evidence that the ESD was operative in Newton’s early natural philosophical work. We have good reason to suppose that Newton regarded his natural philosophical pursuits as experimental philosophy. This becomes clearer in Newton’s later work. For instance, in the General Scholium to the Principia (1713), Newton explicitly described his work as ‘experimental philosophy’ – indeed, Peter Anstey has noted that Roger Cotes also recognised this feature of Newton’s work. We also have good reason to suppose that, in important ways, Newton saw his work as aligned with the Royal Society and, by extension, with the Baconian movement. But Newton was also a mathematician, and he saw a role for mathematical reasoning in experimental philosophy. In many ways, it was this mathematical approach that led to his divergence from the Baconian experimental philosophy.

Biener and Schliesser are right to draw attention to the ways in which Newton’s position diverged from the experimental tradition of the Royal Society. However, they fail to recognise that Newton’s position diverged in a way that should be viewed as a development of this tradition. Indeed, the ‘Newtonian experimental philosophy’ eventually replaced the experimental philosophy of Boyle, Hooke and the other early members of the Royal Society.  The label ’empiricism’ has no such historical relevance.  But, more on this another time…