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The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain 3

Juan Gomez writes…

It has been a while since my previous post, so I will begin by recapping my series on early modern Spain up to the point where we left off. This series focuses on an interesting debate between scholastics and novatores in Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, a debate which revolves around natural philosophy and methodology. The origins of the debate can be found in a book by Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo, Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), where he tries to give an account of the book of Genesis which is consistent with the theory of atomism. This attempt to combine elements of the scholastic tradition with the new science was seen as a threat from the scholastic camp, which set out to criticize the book. Fransisco Palanco took advantage of this opportunity to go beyond a criticism of Alvarez’ book and set out to attack the novatores and the new science. The novatores quickly replied to Palanco, Juan de Najera and Diego Mateo Zapata responding with an attack on Aristotelianism and the scholastic ways. This exchange was the topic of our previous post, but it was not the end of the debate.

In 1717, a year after de Najera and Zapata’s comments, the response from the scholastic camp appeared. Juan Martin de Lessaca, a doctor from Toledo who was loyal to Aristotelianism, published Formas ilustradas a la luz de la razón (Forms enlightened through the light of reason [redundant as it is]). Lessaca claims that his book is a vindication of Aristotelianism in response to Najera and Zapata. The book consists of two parts: first a response to Zapata’s review, and then a response to Najera’s text. Lessaca begins his criticism by confirming a claim already made by Palanco, namely, that the novatores were guilty of heresy, based on their appeal to the new science.

Aside from the justification of the connection between heresy and new science, Lessaca offers a picture of the new philosophy that can shed some light on the way the scholastics viewed the doctrines of the novatores:

The Atomists claim that their Philosophy is the best, since it is founded on experience itself, and what the senses perceive; and so they call their Philosophy experimental, and sensible. Such is the Chemical Course, so highly praised by the Author of the Review [Zapata] who says: And so Chemistry being a demonstrative science, accepts as a foundation only what is palpable, and demonstrative. It is truly of great advantage to have such sensible principles which can be ascertained with more reason. The elevated imaginations of other Philosophers, who hold on to their Physical principles by lifting their spirits to the level of great ideas, but never prove anything demonstratively. This being so, it is why it is called Experimental Philosophy…

Here we have a clear contrast between the two movements: the scholastics found their research on ideas and the use of reason alone, while the novatores focus on experimental observation and the perception of the senses. Lessaca uses the distinction to point out that the novatores can be referred to as being “crude”, given that the senses are cruder than reason. Lessaca refers to those maxims held by the novatores to show the baseness of their methodology.

Lessaca continues to criticize the novatores‘ emphasis on experience. He accepts that they might have an adequate knowledge of the human body, thanks to their attention to sensible experience, but they cannot rely on the latter “to discern those parts that cannot be seen, or touched, or accessed through sensible experience, and of this kind is all of the internal part of man, all that concerns spirits, their movement, nutrition, augmentation, etc”. The strategy here is not to attack the novatores on grounds of the faults of their method, but rather to point out that their method falls short when it comes to the knowledge of what cannot be experienced through the senses.

Lessaca’s comments are of great interest to us because they give us specific arguments against the methodology of experimental philosophy. Beyond the charges of heresy, Lessaca does point out that experimental philosophy, though not completely useless, is too limited; the emphasis on experience and observation entails, from Lessaca’s viewpoint, that experimental philosophers were not capable of studying anything that went beyond the senses. And with this he flips the situation around: if experience and observation are our guides, then whatever we say about anything which escapes these guides becomes mere conjecture.

In our research we have found many instances of the way experimental philosophers criticize and oppose speculative philosophers and their methodology. But examples from the other side of the ESD divide attacking experimental philosophy are scarce. This is where Lessaca’s work stands out, giving us some insight into the arguments adopted and promoted by speculative philosophers to defend their movement within the ESD.

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