Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map

The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain

In my last post I considered the benefits of applying the ESD framework to our interpretation of the history and philosophy of science in early modern Spain. We saw that, in spite of the appearance of the terms “empiric” and “rationalist” in the work of some of the Spanish intellectual figures of the period, the ESD framework had a lot more to offer than the traditional RED framework. Today I want to introduce a particular controversy that highlights the advantages of working with the ESD in our examination of science and philosophy in early modern Spain.

The whole controversy began with the publication of a book by a scholastic figure: Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo (1662-1714), librarian to the king. In 1713 he published Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), a book in which he gives an interpretation of Genesis consistent with the theory of atomism. The book stands at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide and as such it offers us a great insight into the uniqueness of the development of philosophy in early modern Spain. The book is an attempt to adopt the ideas of the new science within a scholastic framework. Alvarez begins his chapter on the creation of the sensible world with a presentation of his atomism:

At the beginning, the matter of the Sensible World was a tangled mass of imperceptible small bodies, which were the primitive state of the creative action, of the material Substance. These tiny bodies differed in their form, and due to them, through movement were capable of creating the various compositions that make this Fabric, which is as varied as it is beautiful. Each tiny body had its own place, and in this way they had extension, though this does not mean that they were subject of division, given that the principle of them was Creation, dividing them would be annihilating them.

Here we have a case where a scholastic figure attempts to adopt the new science into his scholastic system, explaining the creation of the world through the union and separation of corpuscles of various kinds. Alvarez adds a note to the passage quoted above where he explains how his account of the creation based on corpuscles and the indivisibility of matter is consistent with the power and wisdom of God. First he explains that God created all things independent of each other, giving each corpuscle its individuality, and that this is not contrary to the process of Creation, since compound bodies are nothing but united corpuscles, whether these bodies are created already as compounds or not. Regarding the indivisibility of the corpuscles, Alvarez explains that, being the result of simple Creation, corpuscles cannot be divided, since this would entail that each of the divided parts would have to exist either through creation or generation, and neither of these options is possible.  He goes on to say that the heterogeneity in form, and the extension of these corpuscles is clear, and he finishes the note with a caution which highlights the care taken by the scholastics who adopted theories from the new science. One way of preventing any suspicion of heresy was to claim that the theory was not certain, but rather that it was a probable hypothesis. This is what Alvarez does to conclude his note, saying that “…we do not propose our maxims as evident, but we are satisfied to leave it in terms of probable”.

However cautious Alvarez was, the scholastics still saw his book as a threat to their beliefs and set out to criticize it. This was the beginning of a controversy that would involve the leading intellectual figures of the time. Two scholastic thinkers, Fransisco Palanco and Juan Martin de Lessaca set out to attack Alvarez´s book and the new science, while Diego Mateo Zapata and Juan de Najera replied defending the Novatores and calling for the replacement of the old, scholastic science with the new.

We will look at the details of each of the texts in forthcoming posts. For now, I want to conclude by commenting on the nature of the experimental/speculative divide in early modern Spain. The Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy shows that the experimental and speculative ideals stand at two opposite ends of a whole spectrum. While the scholastic Palanco and Lessaca stand clearly closer to the speculative end, Alvarez, a scholastic intellectual, stands closer to the middle, with Zapata and Najera standing at the experimental end. In fact, both Zapata and Najera began their intellectual life closer to the speculative end, but went on to fully embrace the methodology of experimental philosophy as time went by. To complicate the scene even further, during the final years of his life Najera gave up on experimental philosophy and went back to defend the scholastic, speculative way of thinking. This highlights the complexity of the Spanish intellectual landscape, while at the same time providing us with the opportunity to shed light on such a landscape by examining it from the ESD framework.

Comments are closed.