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Author Archives: Alberto Vanzo

Politics and the Origins of Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In earlier posts, I claimed that the now-familiar notion of empiricism was first introduced by Immanuel Kant and that it was not in use in the early modern time. However, Kant contrasts “rationalists” and “empirics” in one area in which it was customary for German writers to distinguish people who relied on experience with those who relied on reason, namely, politics. Dozens of early modern German authors distinguished between empirical politicians and rational, dogmatic, or speculative politicians. Did the pre-Kantian distinction between empirical and rational politicians provide a significant source of the Kantian distinction between empiricist and rationalist philosophers? To answer this question, let us look at the contexts in which early modern German writers typically mentioned empirical politicians.

It is only in the first decades of the seventeenth century that politics appeared as an autonomous academic discipline in the German faculties of arts. Its early exponents were preoccupied with establishing its importance and autonomy against those jurists, like Jean Bodin, who regarded it as a part of jurisprudence, identified the good politician with the good legal expert, and denied that there was any need to introduce the study of politics within the arts faculty, in addition to what one could learn in the course of legal study. To this end, academic writers on politics stressed that it is more than a mere set of practical precepts. Politics is a doctrina based on general principles which one must learn to acquire the political virtue par excellence, political prudence. In this context, the phrase “empirical politician” was used to designate and criticize those politicians as pseudo-politicians who rely only on experience, without knowing the doctrine of politics.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the discipline of politics experienced a transformation that placed empirical politicians in a far better light. What used to be the theoretical and general part of politics was now dealt with within the discipline of universal public law (ius publicum universale). Politics became mostly concerned with identifying the best ways to govern and the most effective practical means to achieve aims established by universal public law. The necessity of being versed in a demonstrative philosophical doctrine for being a good politician was no longer obvious and discussions of the requirements for political prudence had largely been supplanted by discussions of the more fashionable and pragmatic topic of reason of State. It is in this context that Kant contrasts empirics and rationalists in politics, criticizing the former and stressing the importance for politics to be conducted in light of the philosophical foundations of public law.

Kant’s references to empirics and rationalists in politics show that the distinction between these two kinds of politicians and the notion of political empiricism were well known when the distinction between empiricist and rationalist philosophers was first introduced. However, there are only tenuous similarities between these distinctions.

Empiricists and rationalists take opposite stances on the origins of cognitions and foundations of knowledge, the former appealing to experience and the latter appealing to the a priori. Empirical politicians too relied on experience. However, their reliance on experience was not contrasted with the reliance on the a priori, whether in the form of a priori reasonings or of non-empirical cognitive faculties such as rational insight. It was contrasted with the «precepts of doctrine and rules derived from the learned schools» (Faber), on whose basis dogmatic or rational politicians justified their views and actions.

Dogmatic politicians would bear a significant resemblance with rationalist philosophers if the doctrines on which they rely were established a priori, independently from experience. However, the role of experience in the establishment of principles was the object of significant divergences between early modern authors, including the Aristotelians. According to some authors, principles could not be warranted independently from experience. Additionally, what role experience had in the establishment of political doctrine was never at stake in the characterizations of dogmatic politicians. Politicians qualified as dogmatic if their views, actions, and political prudence relied on a doctrine, regardless of its empirical or non-empirical origin. Empirical politicians relied on practice and experience as opposed not to a priori cognitions or faculties, but to a systematic theoretical apparatus of any sort.

I conclude that, although the early modern contrast between empirical and rational politicians bears some resemblance with the distinction between rationalists and empiricists, it cannot be a significant source of the latter distinction. Do you find this claim plausible? Let me know by posting a comment.

On the Early Modern Meanings of “Rationalism”

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In last week’s post, Juan noted that the Encyclopedia Britannica first recorded the philosophical meaning of the term “rationalism” in the early twentieth century. As Juan states, this lends support to the view that “rationalism” started to be “used to refer to early modern philosophy” in “the first decades of the twentieth century”. I am sympathetic to this view. In this post, I will defend it from two objections.

The first objection is that Bacon himself used used the term “rationalist” in a philosophical sense, for instance when he wrote:

    Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves (Cogitata et visa; see Novum Organum, I, 95)

This objection can be dispensed with rather quickly, as Peter did on this blog some time ago. Bacon did not use the term “rationalists”. He referred to those who “spin threads out of themselves” as “rationals” (rationales) and to their philosophy as philosophia rationalis (rational philosophy, e.g. in Novum Organum, I, 42, 64), not as rationalism. One cannot find a philosophical use of the English terms “rationalist” or “rationalism” in Bacon’s texts.

The second objection notes that, nevertheless, the translation of Bacon’s “rationales” as rationalists is an early modern one. Shaw’s 1733 English translation of the Novum Organum states: “Those who have treated the Sciences, were either Empirics, or Rationalists. […] the Rationalists [are] like Spiders […]”. Although this use of “Rationalist” is not recorded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is recorded in other reference texts, such as the 1740 edition of Dyche’s and Pardon’s New General English Dictionary, the 1755-1756 edition of Johnson’s English Dictionary, and this entry from the 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language:

    RATIONALIST, n. One who proceeds in his certain disquisitions and practice wholly upon reason. – Bacon.

(I owe these references to Li Ling.) Webster’s entry recalls a passage by Shaftesbury, to whom, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we owe the first recorded use of the term “empiricist” (1705). Shaftersbury characterizes rationalists as those “who walk by Reason in every thing”. This statement may sound rather similar to one that can be found in an early twentieth-century edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: according to rationalists, «reason is in and by itself a source of knowledge» which «has superior authority over knowledge acquired through sensation».

How can we respond to this objection? It is true that there are early modern uses of the term “rationalist” in relation to philosophers. However, the term was used for philosophers in the broad early modern sense of all those who pursue scientia, especially for natural philosophers, and has a methodological connotation: it designates their (reflected or unreflected) reliance on reason. By contrast, the twentieth-century philosophical use of “rationalism” designates the endorsement of a specific epistemological view. In the terms of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “philosophical rationalism” is a “theory of knowledge”.

Additionally, the existence of early modern philosophical uses of the adjective “rationalist” does not entail that the noun “rationalism” was used in a philosophical sense too. The term was mostly used in a theological sense to designate those who stressed the importance of reason not over the sense, but over faith or revelation. Whereas Webster’s dictionary records a philosophical use of “rationalist” with a reference to Bacon, it does not record any philosophical use of “rationalism”. For Webster, rationalism is “[t]he practice or tenets of certain latitudinarian divines”. Shaftesbury contrasts the attitude of the rationalists, who “exalted Reason above Faith“, with the prominence that he accords to faith above reason: “We for our parts know nothing, and believe all”.

Finally, pre-Kantian writers nearly did not associate the term “rationalism” with the textbook rationalists of twentieth-century texts, namely Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Indeed, the only pre-Kantian text of which I am aware which groups together Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz is Account of Sir Newton’s Discoveries, but it does not use the term “rationalism”. One can find the association of “rationalism” with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in nineteenth-century translations of German texts, but the English term “rationalism” started to be routinely associated with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz only around the turn of the twentieth century. It is only in this period that, as is witnessed by the changes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica highlighted by Juan, the now-standard epistemological usage of “rationalism” to refer to early modern philosophers became established.

Daunou and the Fate of Experimental Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century France

Alberto Vanzo writes…

On this blog, we have often stressed the importance of the movement of experimental philosophy between the 1660s and ca. 1800. What happened to this movement in the nineteenth century? Last week Juan noted that, after 1823, the entry “experimental philosophy” in the Encyclopedia Britannica was substantially shortened and then removed. This suggests that that notion may have disappeared from the British philosophical scene. Something similar had happened in Germany, where the tradition of experimental or, as it was mostly called, observational philosophy was eclipsed by Kantian and post-Kantian systems around 1800. The expression “observational philosophy” seems to have disappeared from the German philosophical vocabulary in the early nineteenth century.

In this post, I will highlight an exception to this trend: Pierre-Claude-François Daunou’s Recherches sur les systèmes philosophiques applicables à l’historie. This is the text of the lectures on the history of philosophy that Daunou gave at the Collège de France in 1829-1830. It was published posthumously in 1849. In this work, as late as in the mid-nineteenth century, we find a wholehearted defense of experimental philosophy and its application to philosophical historiography.

Daunou aims to outline a philosophical history of philosophy. What renders the history of philosophy philosophical? Daunou’s answer is: “history is philosophy, when it consists in a methodical series of facts that are carefully verified and presented as experimental instructions”. In fact, “only the experimental school provides the true method in the historical studies”.

Like Degérando before him, Daunou draws on the historical facts to develop a natural history of philosophy: a classification of the various types of philosophical systems which we can use to establish which is the best. To this end, “the classifications must resemble those of naturalists, that is, they must only summarize the facts. Pretending that they are given and established a priori by the nature of things is a Platonic illusion, that has introduced many prejudices and errors into the sciences”.

In 1829, Daunou could chose between plenty of alternative classifications: for instance, the old division of philosophers into sects to be found in Brucker’s manual, praised by Daunou; the empiricism/rationalism distinction used by the Kantians and by Degérando; and Cousin’s fourfold distinction between idealism, sensualism, scepticism and mysticism. Rejecting all of these classifications, Daunou follows Diderot, Condillac and Condorcet in relying on the good old division between experimental and speculative (or in his terms, contemplative) systems. On the one hand, we have the experimental approach of Aristotle, Bacon, Gassendi, Locke, and Condillac. On the other hand, we have the Platonic attempt to develop philosophical systems a priori. Kant, far from synthesizing these two trends as his disciples claimed, was responsible for perpetuating the Platonic, contemplative illusion. He “delayed the progress of science” and he induced French thinkers to accept the mistaken principle that “the abstract precedes the concrete, sheds light on it and dominates upon it”.

Given Daunou’s assumptions, it is easy to guess what moral he draws from his history of philosophy: we must abandon the Platonic “picture of an idea or imaginary world” and acknowledge that “we owe all progress of physical and moral sciences” to experimental philosophers.

What is surprising, or at least interesting, is that we find these claims in a text published as late as in 1849. Was Daunou a historian attardé, a living fossil in his own time, as Gregorio Piaia states in his very informative survey of Daunou’s work (to which this post owes much) in the Storia delle storie generali della filosofia? It is hard to deny that he was, at least to some extent. However, Daunou’s speculative-experimental distinction was paralleled in Saint-Simon’s contrast between Plato’s and Descartes’ vague speculations on the one hand, Aristotle’s and Bacon’s positive philosophy on the other. The term used by Saint-Simon is “positive”, not “experimental”. However, Saint-Simon’s positive philosophy was based on the experimental method. And in the first volume of Comte’s Course of Positive Philosophy we find the same contrast between the metaphysical spirit, to be rejected, and the positive spirit of those that Daunou regarded as experimental philosophers.

Let’s go back to our initial question on the fate of experimental philosophy in the nineteenth century. Daunou’s work, together with Saint-Simon’s and Comte’s statements, suggests that the notion of experimental philosophy was not simply abandoned in nineteenth century France. Instead, it morphed into the new notion of positive philosophy, or at least it contributed to the definition of this new important movement in the French philosophical scene. I am no expert in nineteenth century French philosophy though. I would love to hear if you find this suggestion plausible.

Empirical Physicians vs Experimental Physicians

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As we have already noted on this blog, “empiricism” was mainly used as a medical term in the early modern period. It referred to empirical physicians, a movement that had its origins in ancient Greece. Greek empirical physicians claimed that our knowledge of medical cures derives entirely from experience and derives its justification from experience. It does not derive from any insight into “hidden natures, causes, and actions, not open to observation, but only accessible to reason, e.g., atoms, invisible pores, functions of organs, or essences” (Michael Frede).

These views of ancient empirical physicians were remarkably close to those of the early modern physicians who were associated with the experimental philosophy. They too rejected reasonings from principles and speculations on hidden essences and claimed to derive their cures from experience alone. The early moderns were conscious of this similarity between ancient empirical physicians and modern experimental physicians. They acknowledged that, since empirical physicians relied on “experiments” (that is, experience), their teachings contain “something that is certaine & experimentall” (Hartlib Papers).

In the light of this, it is puzzling that the upholders of the “experimentall” approach to medicine used to criticize medical empiricism and empirical physicians. They generally accepted the then common association of empirical physicians with “Mountebanks, pretended Chymists, Apothecaries, Chirurgeons, Midwives, &c. in which piece of Folly the English surpass all the Nations of Christendom.”

To be sure, there were some cases in which early modern experimental physicians praised ancient medical empiricism, portraying it as a forerunner of experimental medicine. But as far as I know, these were rare exceptions. Why were they exceptions and not the rule? Why did experimental physicians see themselves as opponents, rather than followers, of medical empiricism?

I have found some answers to these questions in the writings of two prominent eighteenth-century physicians. They are the German physician Friedrich Hoffman, a leading systematist of the early eighteenth-century, and the Scottish physician John Gregory, who taught at Edinburgh in the latter half of the century. They both associate medical empiricism with the application of medicines that happened to work in past cases to patients which display similar symptoms. This approach was epitomized in the “empirical books” that were compilations of medical recipes and cures for all sorts of diseases. According to Gregory, this approach raises two problems.

Firstly, it relies on experience in the wrong way. Empirical physicians rely on the recipes that have been shown to work by experience, but true physicians should also rely on experience to improve their remedies and practice.

Secondly and more interestingly, empirical physicians did not pay sufficient attention to experience. They did not carefully inquire into the circumstances of individual patients. Instead, having noted few symptoms, they hastily prescribed a familiar remedy. As Hoffmann pointed out, this “obtuse and most dangerous empiria” was deeply flawed because the “efficacy of a cure” does not reside in the nature of a remedy, but in the way in which the remedy interacts with the specific circumstances of a patient. In Gregory’s words, since “empirics” paid insufficient attention to those circumstances, “notwithstanding their pretensions of relying upon experience alone, have in truth abandoned it”.

Gregory’s preferred alternative to this flawed medical empiricism was what appears to be, broadly speaking, an application of the Newtonian experimental method to medicine. Gregory praised a medical theory that “is produced by practice, is founded on facts alone, and constantly appeals to them for its truth”. He rejected the use of hypotheses, considered as principles devoid of “proof from experience”. He advocated their use, as long as they were “proposed in the modest and diffident manner that becomes mere suppositions or conjectures”, that is, queries. Used in this way, hypotheses “are not only harmless but even necessary in establishing a just theory in medicine”. Gregory portrayed this experimental method as an alternative to medical empiricism. Only one century later, after “empiricism” took on a new meaning, did it come to be regarded as a positive stance even within medicine.

Ancient Philosophy and the Origins of the Rationalism-Empiricism Distinction

Alberto Vanzo writes…

An interesting aspect of Kant’s use of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) is that he does not only apply it to the moderns, but also to the ancients. Kant portrays Leibniz as an adherent to Plato’s rationalism and Locke as a follower of Aristotle’s empiricism. Could Leibniz’s New Essays be a source of Kant’s distinction between empiricism and rationalism?

Here is one of Leibniz’s comments on his disagreements with Locke in the Preface of the New Essays:

    Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which nothing has been written (tabula rasa), as Aristotle and the author of the Essay [Locke] maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato and even with the Schoolmen […]

Here, Leibniz pits Plato and himself against Aristotle and Locke with regard to the existence of innate ideas (“several notions…”) and a priori truths (“… and doctrines”). These are precisely the issues around which Kant frames his distinction between empiricists and rationalists (or, as he sometimes calls them, dogmatists and noologists). However, Kant holds that a third issue divides ancient empiricists like Aristotle from ancient rationalists like Plato. It is the existence or inexistence of objects of which we cannot have sensations. According to Kant, ancient rationalists claim that there are non-sensible objects (Platonic ideas). Ancient empiricists, like Aristotle and Epicurus, deny this. Leibniz does not focus on this issue, but Christian Garve (who would later become one of Kant’s early critics) did. Like Kant, Garve divided ancient philosophers into two camps based on whether they admitted substantive a priori truths, innate ideas, and non-sensible objects. He drew this distinction in a dissertation that he published in 1770, eleven years before Kant’s first Critique and five years after Leibniz’s New Essays. Let me summarize Garve’s statements on each of the three points.

A priori knowledge

After they learned to distinguish between appearance and reality and between the senses and the intellect, philosophers took two opposed paths:

    Some [like Heraclitus] devoted themselves to exploring the nature of the senses with great care and they subtly searched in the senses the mark and sign of truth. Others [like Parmenides], having ignored and set aside the senses, devoted themselves entirely to the faculty of intellect and to contemplating with their mind the thoughts that they had gathered in themselves.

Non-sensible beings

This epistemological divide gave rise to an ontological divide:

    [T]hose that sought the foundation of the truth to be discovered in the senses were forced to refer [only] to the things that are subjected to the senses […]; and those claiming that true cognition is distinctive of the mind, not of the senses, denied the name and almost the rank of things […] to sensible items. They ascribed it only to [merely] intelligible things […]

On the one hand, we have Protagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and even the sceptics. On the other hand, we have Plato.

Innate ideas

Those who denied “the truth of the senses” did not only have to posit a realm of non-sensible beings. They also had to defend the existence of innate ideas. This is because, if there is no truth in the senses, we cannot derive “true notions” from the senses (where true notions appears to be, in some sense, notions that map onto reality). We must claim that they are “innate in the soul and prior to every sensation”. “And thus were born Plato’s famous ideas, on which he says various, inconsistent things”, like those who are forced to embrace a conclusion, “although they do not understand well enough what it may be or how it could be true”.

Garve does not use the terms “empiricists” and “rationalists”, which would take on their now-common meanings only with Kant. However, the way in which Garve carves the two opposed camps of ancient philosophers maps neatly onto Kant’s distinction between ancient empiricists and rationalists. Garve also suggests that Locke and Berkeley followed Aristotle, whereas Leibniz followed Plato. This is because, in the antiquity, “nearly the whole territory of all opinions which may be held on this matter had been explored; all matter for supposition and invention had been used”.

Kant too thought that modern empiricists and rationalists followed the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. This brief survey of Leibniz’s and Garve’s statements suggests that their historiography of ancient philosophy may have been a source of Kant’s influential distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

Workshop in Ghent: “Matter and Nature in Early Modern Philosophy”

Thursday, June 7, 2012
Blandijnberg 2, Ghent, room 2.16

13:45-15:00 Marleen Rozemond (Toronto):
Mills can’t think: Leibniz’ approach to the mind-body problem

15:15-16:30 Katherine Dunlop (Brown):
Newton on conservation and the activity of matter

16:45-18:00 Herman De Dijn (Leuven):
Reading the book of nature and reading the Bible

More information is available here.

Teaching Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth-century Germany: Christoph Meiners

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    Since I am convinced that experience and history are the sole authentic sources of knowledge in all sciences, apart from pure mathematics, the choice and order of the works that I recommend to the young friends of wisdom must necessarily deviate from the works that would be recommended by the men for whom pure reason or pure intellect appear to be the most reliable guides and teachers in philosophy.

These are the words with which Christoph Meiners, a German experimental philosopher, introduced his reading tips for young students in the Preface to his Foundations of Psychology, a manual that he published in 1786. In this post I will draw from Meiners’ Preface to highlight his views on the relation between natural science, philosophy, and psychology and his reading tips for young students of psychology.

Natural science, philosophy, and psychology

We have already explained in his blog how experimental philosophy saw the light as a natural-philosophical methodology and was extended to psychology by Locke and Hume and moral philosophy by Scottish thinkers. Meiners is one of the many German authors who applied the Baconian method of natural history to the field of psychology. Interestingly, in Meiners’ preface, empirical or experimental psychology expels natural history and physics [Naturkunde or Physik] from the field of philosophy. Meiners follows Hume in defining philosophy as “a science of man or a sum of cognitions that inquires into human nature not only insofar as man senses, thinks and talks, desires and hates, but also insofar as he, through his feeling and thinking, desiring and acting, becomes or makes others happier or unhappier in manifold domestic and civil contexts.” Since natural history and the experimental study of nature are not specifically about man, Meiners might have reason to deny that, as a whole, they are parts of philosophy as he understands it.

This is precisely what he does. Meiners suggest that, if one wanted to include natural history and the study of nature within philosophy, one should also include medicine and its branches within philosophy. This would have two unacceptable consequences. First, it would make the domain of philosophy so enormously large “that no human mind could encompass it”. Second, one would lose “the whole purpose for which one orders together certain sums of cognitions into sciences” distinct from one another. For Meiners, philosophy on the one hand, natural science and natural history on the other, are distinct sciences. By distinguishing the study of nature from the study of man, Meiners draws a division between natural science and philosophy that would become common only in the nineteenth century. (If you know of anyone else who explicitly denied that natural science is part of philosophy before Meiners, please get in touch.)

Meiners distinguishes between theoretical and practical philosophy. “Theoretical [philosophy] studies man preeminently as a sensing, thinking and talking being”. And Meiners “designate[s] the theory of man […], considered as a sensing, thinking, and talking creature, with the name of doctrine of the soul or psychology”. Theoretical philosophy is empirical psychology. Predictably, practical philosophy should unfold naturalistically on the foundations of empirical psychology. To Meiners, philosophy is experimental philosophy and its core is Humean empirical psychology.

Meiners’ Reading Tips

Given Meiners’ outlook, it is unsurprising that he advises young students to read works like Bonnet’s Essay de Psychologie, Condillac’s Traité des sensations, Beattie’s Philosophical Essays and Locke’s Essay, which “must remain the principal book for students of the soul”.

Somewhat surprisingly, Meiners also recommends the largely Wolffian logic of Herman Samuel Reimarus and Leibniz’s New Essays, to be read alongside Locke’s Essay. But the main reason why his students should read the New Essays is to better know the enemy. From the New Essays,

    one will not only learn the still remarkable hypotheses of one of the greatest philosophers, but also at the same time the principles and doctrine of all those men who choose not experience and history, but so-called pure reason as their first guide in philosophy.

As the reference to pure reason suggests, Meiners recommends his young students to read Leibniz to better understand Kant. He is well aware that Kantianism represented the major threat to his Humean outlook. By grouping together Kant and Leibniz as speculative enemies of Humean experimental philosophy, Meiners was employing the experimental/speculative distinction that Kant and his followers would soon eclipse and replace with the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

CFP: Early Modern Medicine and Natural Philosophy

Center for the Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
2-4 November 2012

The aim of the conference is to bring to the fore the medical context of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ and to explore the complex connections between medicine and natural philosophy in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. Medicine and natural philosophy interacted on many levels, from the practical imperative to restore and maintain the health of human bodies to theoretical issues on the nature of living matter and the powers of the soul to methodological concerns about the appropriate way to gain knowledge of natural things. And issues of life, generation, ageing, medicine, and vital activity were important topics of investigation for canonical actors of the Scientific Revolution, from Boyle, Hooke and Locke to Descartes and Leibniz. Recent efforts to recover the medical content and contexts of their projects have already begun to reshape our understanding of these key natural philosophers. Putting medical interests in the foreground also reveals connections with a wide variety of less canonical but historically important scientists, physicians, and philosophers, such as Petrus Severinus, Fabricius ab Aquapendente, Lodovico Settala, William Harvey, Richard Lower, Thomas Willis, Louis de la Forge, and Georg Ernst Stahl. This interdisciplinary conference will bring together scholars of Renaissance and Early Modern science, medicine and philosophy to examine the projects of more and less canonical figures and trace perhaps unexpected interactions between medicine and other approaches to studying and understanding the natural world.

Submission of extended abstracts for individual paper presentations (limit 30 minutes) are invited. More information is available here.

Confirmed speakers include:
Domenico Bertoloni Meli (Indiana University)
Antonio Clericuzio (University of Cassino)
Dennis Des Chene (Washington University)
Patricia Easton (Claremont Graduate University)
Cynthia Klestinec (Miami University, Ohio)
Gideon Manning (Caltech)
Jole Shackelford (University of Minnesota)
Justin E. H. Smith (Concordia University, Montreal)

Degérando’s Experimental History of Philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes...

So far, on this blog, we have focused on a philosophical movement and a historiographical tradition. Of course, the movement was experimental philosophy. The historiographical tradition was based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism and was first developed by Kantian and post-Kantian authors, like Reinhold and Tennemann, who did not belong to the movement of experimental philosophy. This post is on a historian who was an adherent of experimental philosophy and who endeavoured to employ its methodology in his history of philosophy. He is Joseph-Marie Degérando, who published a Comparative History of the Philosophical Systems, relatively to the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1804. Interestingly, this text is also influenced by the new post-Kantian historiography based on the rationalism-empiricism distinction.

Degérando intends to apply the method of natural history to the history of philosophy. Natural histories were large structured collections of facts about natural phenomena and they were to form the basis for the identification of theories and principles. Degérando’s history of philosophy is a structured collection of facts about past philosophies which will help us identify which philosophical outlook is the best.

Before starting to collect the facts, we must determine the organizing principles of the collection. Philosophers should

    imitate naturalists, who, before entering into the vast regions of natural history, give us regular and simple nomenclatures and they seek the principle of these nomenclatures in the essential characters of each production.

The “nomenclatures” that form the basis for Degérando’s natural history of past philosophers are three dichotomies: scepticism vs dogmatism, empiricism (or sensualism) vs rational (or speculative or contemplative) philosophy; and materialism vs idealism.

Armed with these nomenclatures, historians of philosophy should free themselves of all prejudices and collect historical facts in an unbiased way. Only after having completed this task should historians start philosophizing. Degérando claims to have ascertained “facts as if” he were “foreign to every opinion” and he has “later established an opinion on the basis of the sole testimony of facts”.

In doing this, Degérando does not aim to write a “simple narrative history, to use Bacon’s expression”, but an “inductive or comparative history that converts the facts into “experiences in the path of human spirit.”

    […] the work that we set out to do can be considered as the essay of a treatise of philosophy, […] a treatise conceived of according to the most cautious, albeit most neglected method, the method of experiences. Hence, we dare to offer this essay as an essay of experimental philosophy.

Degérando is strongly influenced by the post-Kantian historiography of Tennemann and other German historians. Like Tennemann, he focuses on epistemological issues concerning “the certainty of human cognitions”, “their origin” and their reality. Degérando uses the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. Like the Kantians, he criticizes them as two unilateral points of view that should be overcome by a higher philosophical standpoint. This is a form of experimental philosophy that is inspired by Bacon and Condillac and is superior to empiricism which as criticized by German historians. Empiricism stops at the facts. The philosophy of experience “transforms them” and identifies general laws.

    Empiricism does not see anything else than the exterior of the temple of nature; experience enters into its sanctuary. Empiricism is an instinct; experience is an art. Empiricism does not see anything else than phenomena, experience ascends from effects to causes. Empiricism is confined to the present; experience learns the future from the past. Empiricism obeys blindly, experience interrogates with method. Everything is mobile, fugitive for empiricism; experience discovers regular and constant combinations underneath the variable appearances. But what need is there to insist on this distinction? He who opens [a book by] Bacon will see it standing out in every page.

The philosophical upshot of Degérando’s experimental history of philosophy

    is spelled out by Bacon’s words, when he said in his preface to the Advancement of Learning: in this way we believe that we are combining, in a manner that is as stable as legitimate, the empirical and rational methods […]

According to Degérando, experimental philosophy, and not Kant’s Critical philosophy is the true, higher synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.

Edward Caird on the history of early modern philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

By researching the history of early modern experimental philosophy, my fellow bloggers and I are attempting to provide an alternative to the standard narrative of early modern thought as a prolonged conflict between the empiricist school of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume and the rationalist school of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Who was responsible for coining and popularizing that standard narrative?

Several scholars suggested that British Idealists in particular, played an important role in this process. I recently tested this suggestion by doing some research on Edward Caird, one of the main first-generation British Idealists.

Caird did not write any history of philosophy, but he provided extended accounts of early modern thought in his widely read Kant books. The quotes below are from the first volume of The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889).

Caird sees his own idealism as a completion of the philosophical revolution initiated by Kant. Kant’s Critical philosophy opened the doors to an “idealistic interpretation of the universe” (44) by synthesizing “the different tendencies of his time” and going “beyond their one-sidedness, and thereby lifted philosophical discussion to a new level” (44).

“How are we to describe” this “great change”, initiated by Kant? (46) “In general terms we may say that it was a change from division to reconciliation, from Individualism and Atomism to a renewed perception that the whole is prior to the parts, and that individual independence must rest on social unity” (46, see 70). Individualism is the guiding principle of the whole “history of [early] modern philosophy” (72).

“The history of modern thought begins with” Martin Luther’s “declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual, and the rejection of the principle of authority” (72). Along similar lines, modern science and “Bacon’s empiricism” placed a strong emphasis on individual, first-hand knowledge. Luther and Bacon attempted to go beyond mere subjectivity to achieve “the unity of thought with its object” (74). They failed, giving rise to the scepticism with which Descartes grappled at the beginning of the Meditations. Descartes overcame it by relying on God’s veracity. To Descartes, “our consciousness of God” is prior even to “our consciousness of ourselves” (76).

Malebranche and Spinoza developed Descartes’ theocentric approach to unify subject and object, but they failed and gave way to the individualist assumption that “we must see all things” not in God, but “in ourselves”, either “through the sensations which outward objects have produced in our minds, or through the ideas which spring directly out of our own consciousness, that we come to a knowledge of other things” (83). Locke’s and Hume’s empiricism explored the first alternative, Leibniz’s and Wolff’s rationalism the second. They all failed, leading “the progress of Individualism to its necessary consummation in Scepticism” (86). Only Kant managed to synthesize subject and object, mind and world by realizing that the latter is mind-dependent and placing “the idea of a self-determining subject” (85) at the centre of his philosophy. Thus ends Caird’s account of early modern thought.

How much of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy can we find in this account? The emphasis on the individualism of the Reformation may have struck a familiar chord. The account of Kant’s Critical philosophy as a synthesis of Lockean and Leibnizian ideas and an antidote to scepticism sounds familiar too. But these are precisely the elements of Caird’s account that are not distinctive of Idealist accounts of early modern thought, such as Schwegler‘s and Erdmann’s. Their distinctive traits are others, like the following:

  1. an emphasis on individualism as a distinctive feature of the entire early modern period,
  2. a theo-centric interpretation of Descartes, Malebranche and Spinoza (but not Leibniz) as members of a single school,
  3. the teleological reading of early modern thinkers as struggling to reach an adequate understanding of the unity of subject and object, mind and world — something that only Hegel would fully achieve.

Besides having these rather unfamiliar features, Idealist histories of early modern thought do not spell out the standard triumvirates. They sever the theocentric philosophies of Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza from Leibniz’s and Wolff’s philosophy. They read Berkeley as an idealist rather than an intermediate step in the progress from Locke to Hume. On the whole, then, Caird’s account of early modern thought is much less similar to standard histories of early modern philosophies than Tennemann’s earlier, Kant-inspired History of Philosophy. This leads me to doubt that British Idealism is key to understanding how the standard narrative of early modern thought came to the fore.