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Martin Martin, experimental philosophy and Baconian natural history

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes we can appreciate the impact of a new way of thinking or a new movement by examining the views and writings of those on the periphery or of minor, lesser-known figures. Such is the case with the Scotsman Martin Martin. His A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland published in 1703 is written as a Baconian natural history, and in its short preface Martin very self-consciously situates his work as a contribution to experimental philosophy.

It is well known that the book gained some renown in the eighteenth century for its discussion of the phenomenon of second sight –– a discussion that is literally matter of fact and which accords with the methodology of experimental philosophy in so far as he refrains from entertaining any speculations concerning causes of this phenomenon.

The book also gained some notoriety from the fact that Boswell and Johnson used it as a kind of travel guide for their tour of the western Scottish isles in 1773. Yet it is Martin’s brief but poignant methodological comments that are of interest to students of early modern experimental philosophy.

Martin views his book as something of a supplement to the leading histories of Scotland, especially that of George Buchanan, whose History of Scotland (Rerum Scoticarum historia, Edinburgh) appeared back in 1582. Martin tells us:

since his [Buchanan’s] time, there’s a great Change in the Humour of the World, and by consequence in the way of Writing. Natural and Experimental Philosophy has been much improv’d since his days, and therefore Descriptions of Countries without the Natural History of ’em, are now justly reckon’d to be defective. (sig. a4r)

This comment signals Martin’s understanding of the place of natural history in the methodology of experimental philosophy and the requirement that histories of countries have a natural historical component. He goes on to list some of the topics that he covers in order to render his account of the western isles of Scotland such a natural history:

the Nature of the Climate and Soil, of the Produce of the Places by Sea and Land, and of the Remarkable Cures perform’d by the Natives meerly by the use of Simples, and that in such variety as I hope will make amends for what Defects may be found in my Stile and way of Writing. (sig. a5v)

These topics or heads or articles of inquiry are typical of this genre of natural history, and much of the actual content of the book covers Robert Boyle’s desiderata for the natural history of a country set out as early as 1666 (‘General Heads for a Natural History of a Country, Great or Small’) in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. 1, pp. 86–9) and republished in 1692.

Martin mentions experimental philosophy a second time:

Humane Industry has of late advanc’d useful and experimental Philosophy very much, Women and illiterate Persons have in some measure contributed to it by the discovery of some useful Cures. (sig. a5v–a6r)

Now, from a 21st century perspective the comment on women and the illiterate might seem condescending, nevertheless, Martin’s is making the very Baconian point that not just the learned, but everyone can contribute to the project of the history of nature. He then goes on to stress the importance of observation:

the Field of Nature is large, and much of it wants still to be cultivated by an ingenious and discreet application; and the Curious by their Observations might daily make further advances in the History of Nature. (sig. a6r)

It is worth noting that the inspiration for his natural history derived from some within the Royal Society itself, probably including Hans Sloane. For, we are told in the Preface to his earlier A Late Voyage to St. Kilda, London, 1698 (dedicated to the then President of the Royal Society, Charles Montagu), that he had had the

honour of Conversing with some of the Royal Society, who raised his natural Curiosity to survey the Isles of Scotland more exactly than any other; in prosecution of which design he as already brought along with him several curious Productions of Nature, both rare and beautiful in their kind (sig. A4v)

It might be thought, therefore, that Martin’s text is one of many such natural histories from the early eighteenth century; however, I have argued elsewhere that from the 1690s this approach to experimental philosophy actually began to decline. Not only had the program of experimental natural history not delivered much by way of new natural philosophy, but also a rival mathematical form of experimental philosophy was emerging in the wake of Newton’s Principia (1687). If this thesis concerning the decline of Baconian natural history is correct, Martin’s work should be viewed as one of the final installments of an approach to experimental philosophy that was soon to be superseded, even if it never completely disappeared.

Moreover, Martin seems to have had few like-minded natural historians around him in Scotland. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, Scotland wrote to John Locke in October 1701 and had the letter hand delivered by Martin. Fletcher recommends him to Locke and, after mentioning Martin’s materials for his natural history of ‘westerne isles of Scotland’ says,

Their is so little encouragement for such a man herre, that if he can meete with any in England, he thincks of staying their or going further abroad (Correspondence of John Locke, Oxford, vol. 7, p. 471)

I would be most interested in hearing from readers about other examples of Baconian natural histories in Britain in the early years of the eighteenth century that might complement that of Martin Martin and round out my own understanding of this very fascinating manifestation of experimental natural philosophy.

One thought on “Martin Martin, experimental philosophy and Baconian natural history

  1. I have never heard of Martin Martin and to my dismay I can’t answer your question. ( While searching on the Web, I have discovered by chance that Martin described early modern Scotch liquor so strong that more than two spoonfuls could be harmful. This reminds me of the “Philosophers’ Drinking Song” in Monty Python.)
    However, by association with Scotland, I have recalled Michał Wiszniewski, Polish philosopher and historian of literature, who studied in Edinburgh much later (there he attended lectures of John Wilson and also made acquaintance with William Hamilton and others). He is the author “Bacon’s Method of Explaining Nature” (1834) a paraphrase of Novum Organum, full of interesting reflections on the history of natural philosophy. In the introduction, Wiszniewski characterises his method: he didn’t translate Bacon word for word because of the obscurity of scholastic Latin but rather paraphrased him having replaced outdated examples with state-of-the-art ones. Wiszniewski also sets his work against that of other historians of philosophy, e.g. he criticises Brucker for overlooking inner connections between philosophical systems and evidently doesn’t recognise Brucker’s contribution to the concept ‘system of philosophy’.
    In the light of this it is clear that my comment belongs to a different genre: it is not about the history of philosophy but about the history of the history of philosophy.
    Wiszniewski, influenced by Kant sees the development of ’empirical philosophy’ as progress, one of whose stages is Bacon’s method (natural histories followed by the stage of Newtonian mathematisation). Bacon’s mathematical knowledge was clearly insufficient and his mind – lacking depth. However, Wiszniewski admits that natural history may be still of use but its usefulness is limited to some branches of physics (e.g. we can resort to it if we know nothing about forces applied).
    I have also found an interesting thought about crude data collectors after Bacon on page 148 (unfortunately, no names are mentioned): Wiszniewski complains that with time, natural philosophy degenerated into simple empiricism, a dictionary of technical terms, heaps of details without connection (one could say a pure taxonomy) and only mathematicians (e.g. Newton, Jan Śniadecki) met Baconian standards. It is worth noting how Wiszniewski places the accents: data gatheres that despised hypotheses and confided in sense perception prevailed while mathematicians were in the minority. It was Kant who gave natural philosophy a new lease of life.

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