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Locke’s earliest use of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’

Peter Anstey writes…

It is well known that the leading English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) had much exposure to the writings and practice of experimental philosophers within his ambit from the early 1660s. For example, Locke was involved in some of Boyle’s natural historical projects and read most of Boyle’s writings as they came off the press. Likewise, he read Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy which appeared in 1664.

It is hardly surprising then that Locke’s early medical essays, ‘Anatomia’ (1668) and ‘De arte medica’ (1669) contain many of the leading methodological ideas of the English experimental philosophers, not least the decrying of hypotheses and the endorsement of natural history. Nevertheless, Locke seems not to have used the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in any of his medical writings from the 1660s nor in the early drafts of the Essay dating from c. 1671.

The earliest use of the term in his own writings that I have found appears in a journal entry from 8 February 1677 written while Locke visited Montpelier during his long sojourn in France. The entry has various marginal headings indicating the subject. It opens with the heading ‘Understanding’ followed by ‘Knowledg its extent & measure’, ‘End of Knowledg’ and then simply ‘Knowledg’. Here is what Locke says:

we need no other knowledge for the attainment of those ends [being happy in this world and the next] but of the history and observation of the effects and operations of natural bodies within our power, and of our duties in the management of our own actions as far as they depend on our wills, i.e. as far also as they are in our power. One of those is the proper enjoyment of our bodies and the highest perfection of that, and the other our souls, and to attain both those we are fitted with faculties both of body and soul. Whilst then we have abilities to improve our knowledge in experimentall naturall philosophy, whilst we want not principles whereon to establish moral rules, nor light … to distinguish good from bad actions, … we have no reason to complain if we meet with difficulties in other things. (Cited from Locke: Political Essays, ed. M. Goldie, Cambridge, 1997, p. 264, with modifications)

The sentiments of this passage certainly appear in the published Essay. And, in fact, there are verbal parallels between the whole entry and Essay IV, chapter 3, called ‘Of the extent of human knowledge’. The subjects broadly overlap and so does some of the terminology. For example, Locke uses terms such as ‘canton’ (which only appears once in the Essay) and ‘abyss’ in both passages in similar ways.

So what are we to make of this early appearance of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’? Well first, it is worth pointing out that it is accompanied in the entry with other comments that suggest that Locke was thinking about our knowledge of nature from the perspective of experimental philosophy. We note in the above extract the reference to ‘history and observation’ of the ‘effects and operations of natural bodies within our power’. It is almost certain that Locke has natural history in mind here. This is because Locke claims earlier in the entry that we need only trouble ourselves with ‘the history of nature and an enquiry into the qualities of the things in this mansion of the universe’. Likewise, we find Locke expressing the standard warning against hypotheses:

They might well spare themselves the trouble of looking any further, they need not concern or perplex themselves about the original, frame or constitution of the universe, drawing this great machine into systems of their own contrivance and building hypotheses obscure, perplexed, and of no other use but to raise disputes and continue wrangling. (Locke: Political Essays, p. 262)

There is, therefore, no doubt that Locke has imbibed the methodology of the experimental philosophers and that this is informing his musings on the nature and extent of human knowledge in the winter of 1677.

A second point is just how naturally Locke deploys the term. Its first appearance in Locke is as an obiter dicta: Locke seems to use the term quite naturally with no special focus or emphasis. If the evidence of Locke’s early medical essays is not enough, it is clear that by the time of his travels in France Locke had come to conceive of the acquisition of knowledge of nature in the terms of the new experimental natural philosophy.

Is this Locke’s earliest use of the term? I would be most grateful to any reader who could direct me to an earlier usage.

3 thoughts on “Locke’s earliest use of the term ‘experimentall naturall philosophy’

  1. It doesn’t quite count, and I bet you already know about the passage, but “chemistry or experimental learning” occurs in letter #175 written to Boyle from Cleves in 1665:
    There is one Dr. Scardius, who, I am told, is not altogether a stranger to chemistry. I intend to visit him as soon as I can get an handsom opportunity. The rest of their physicians go the old road, I am told, and also easily guess by their apothecary’s shops, which are unacquainted with chemical remedies. This, I suppose, makes this town so ill furnished with books of that kind, there being few here curious enough to enquire after chemistry or experimental learning.

  2. Ha ha ha, “I bet you already know about the passage”, yes, I have found it here (I can’t give a link): “John Locke and Helmontian Medicine,” in The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in Early …, p. 102.

    But it reads ‘chymistry.’

  3. Thanks Mike. Yes, Richard Yeo also mentioned this letter to me in email correspondence and I had thought about referring to it in the original post. Certainly the term ‘experimental learning’ is used in close association with experimental philosophy. It is found in Boyle and others. And I doubt that it would have appeared in the absence of experimental philosophy. However, as you intimate, it’s not really specific enough to qualify.

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