In my last post, I started thinking about the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work—his chymistry, theology and Church history—in order to learn more about his methodology. In particular, I wondered what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are across his many projects. In this post, I’ll focus on a tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, from Newton’s alchemical corpus. Newton probably wrote this piece in 1672—the year that he wrote his ‘New Theory of Light and Colour’. The piece represents Newton’s attempt to give a synopsis of his early alchemical reading and to come up with, essentially, a ‘theory of everything’.
There is a great deal to interest us in this tract, including an early mechanical-æthereal theory of gravity and a discussion of the nature of God. But here, I’ll focus on one idea: Newton’s distinction between mechanical processes and vegetative processes. Where ‘vegetation’ is the generative process through which animals, plants and minerals grow, putrefy and regenerate themselves, ‘mechanical’ processes involve adding, subtracting and rearranging parts (described as “a gross mechanical transposition of parts” (5r)). Newton considers these processes to be exhaustive: “Natures actions are either vegetable or purely mechanical” (5r).
Newton’s discussion of this idea highlights several methodological continuities. I’ll discuss two of them here.
The first concerns the way Newton infers physical processes from observed phenomenal patterns. Drawing comparisons across the ‘three kingdoms of nature’—animal, vegetable and mineral—Newton notes that some metals grow, putrefy and regenerate within the Earth, much in the way that trees grow out of the earth, suggesting that some metals and minerals ‘vegetate’. In contrast, some salts and minerals appear to generate by the simple combining and arranging of parts. And so Newton proposes that there are two distinct processes at work in nature: vegetative and mechanical. The postulated distinction in turn guides further exploration of natural phenomena, enabling him to unify some patterns of generation and to differentiate others. The phenomena he explores go well beyond the initial cluster of metals and salts, eventually including organic life, heat and flame, and gravitation. And these phenomena, in turn, offer further clues about nature’s hidden processes. In short, observed phenomena illuminate underlying processes, which, in turn, guide further exploration of phenomena.
We see Newton engaging in similar inferential patterns in both the Principia and the Opticks. In the Principia, from the observed Keplerian orbits of the planets, Newton infers the inverse-square centripetal force. The inverse-square force, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration of other celestial phenomena, allowing him to calculate the motions of comets, the shapes of planets, and also to correct for perturbations of orbits. Similarly, in the Opticks, from the phenomena of the unequal refraction of light, Newton infers the heterogeneity of white light. The heterogeneity of white light, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration and theorising of other optical phenomena, including the colours of thin plates, thick plates and coloured fringes. In other words, this inferential feedback loop between phenomena and processes appears to be a standard feature of Newton’s methodology. In Query 31 of his Opticks, Newton describes this in terms of the joint methods of ‘analysis’ and ‘composition’. ‘Of Natures obvious laws’ might be considered an early manifestation of this method.
A second feature worth considering is the way Newton operationalised the concept of vegetation in order to develop a quantitative test for such processes. The term ‘vegetative’ was familiar to those concerned with the study of life and vitalism, and Newton was happy to speculate on the nature of this process:
The principles of her vegetable actions are noe other than the seeds or seminal vessels of things those are her onely agents, her fire, her soule, her life (5r).
But such a qualitative description of the process wasn’t very helpful for establishing which phenomena were generated by which processes. Especially since, as he noted, some natural phenomenon might appear to have been generated through vegetative processes, but in fact be produced mechanically. The way to distinguish between the two kinds of effects was to analyse them—i.e. break the entity down into its parts—and then try to put it back together again. If the recomposition was successful, then this indicated mechanical processes, if it wasn’t, then vegetative processes were operative. And so the methods of resolution and composition, or analysis and synthesis, provided him with a way of testing for vegetative processes. And thus ‘vegetation’ was effectively operationalised: the concept was defined through the operations which tested for it.
We see Newton engaging in a similar practice in his study of interference phenomena. His hypothesis on the nature of light postulated a hypothetical cause for the observed pattern of coloured rings: an æthereal ‘pulse’. Operationalising the concept of a pulse gave Newton a unit of measurement and, eventually, a way of formalising and abstracting the explanation. I have argued that Newton’s hypotheses played sophisticated supporting roles in his optical investigations. The role performed by the hypothesis of vegetation in this alchemical tract, and the way Newton links it to observation and experiment, looks similarly rich and sophisticated.
This feature helps me to say something more specific about, what I have termed, Newton’s ‘rhetorical style’. As I have noticed in previous posts, Newton took familiar terms and stretched them to fit his methodology. It is well-known that he did this with physical concepts such as ‘force’ and ‘mass’, and I have shown, on this blog, that he did this with methodological concepts such as ‘query’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘principle’. Bill Newman has demonstrated that Newton also borrowed the concepts of ‘analysis’, ‘synthesis’ and ‘redintegration’ from chymistry and adapted them to his optical work—massaging them to fit his own needs. But Newton’s use of ‘vegetation’ highlights a particular feature of his rhetorical style: Newton took common terms with imprecise, qualitative meanings and defined them in terms of methods which measure, quantify or detect certain processes. And so what was really innovative in this case wasn’t that Newton used analysis and synthesis to investigate salts and metals, but rather, that he defined mechanical and vegetative processes in terms of that kind of intervention. In other words, Newton’s rhetorical style involved operationalising concepts—turning them into tools of measurement.
I closed my last post by pointing out that Newton’s efforts to pass off his published work as experimental philosophy may well have been politically motivated: by describing his work as ‘experimental philosophy’, he was signalling his commitment as much to the Royal Society as to observation- and experiment-based theorising. Newton’s chymical papers were circulated much more privately and so, presumably, the same political motivations didn’t apply. Moreover, Newton did not describe himself as an ‘experimental philosopher’ in his published work until 1713. So it is not surprising that we find no explicit mention of experimental philosophy or the methods of the Royal Society in this tract, which predates that explicit declaration by at least 40 years. However, the two features I’ve identified highlight Newton’s commitment to observation- and experiment-based theorising. That this commitment is evident, absent of any political pressure, suggests that it was genuine.
Call for Papers: Causa sive ratio: causality and reason in modernity between metaphysics, epistemology and science
14-16 November 2017, Università degli Studi di Milano
Submission deadline: 15 June 2017
Confirmed keynote Speakers
Jeffrey Mcdonough (Harvard U.)
Katherine Brading (Duke U.),
Angela Breitenbach (Cambridge U.)
Walter Ott (U. of Virginia)
Ansgar Lyssy (LMU München)
Hylarie Kochiras (IAS Bologna)
Andrea Sangiacomo (U. Groningen)
Organizers : Tzuchien Tho, Stefano Di Bella
The very advent of modernity in philosophy could be interpreted through the lens of the fundamental redefinition of causality in the ontological, epistemological and logical separation of cause from reason. From the rejection of formal and final causes in the generation of Descartes and Gassendi, the debates on these questions in the period of Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz, to the phenomenalization of causation in Hume and its subsequent idealization in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, we can see the definitive conceptual separation between logical implication, epistemic explanation and physical causation. It is this historical conceptual transformation and its present consequences that is the object of this conference.
What does this separation between cause and reason mean for the role of rationality, the property of intelligibility and the ontology of grounding in the development of metaphysics and the foundations of science in the 17th and 18th century? How do the emergent concepts of the general laws of nature and universally conserved physical magnitudes harmonize the rationality of nature and the uniqueness of causes in a new cosmology? What becomes the status of the self-caused? How does the early modern rejection of formal and final causes return, in other guises, and transform the semantic content of physical theories? How does the identity or distinction of reason and cause continue to inform contemporary philosophy?
The aim of this conference is to explore the distinction (and relation) of cause and reason from a historical examination of early modern philosophy and science while engaging with the contemporary debates surrounding grounding, causation and scientific explanation. Aside from paper presentations by invited and selected speakers, short reading groups of primary source texts (relevant to the presentations) will be led by conference organizers and invited speakers.
We invite papers addressing these problems of reason and cause based on historical studies and contemporary problems. We are particularly interested in papers that are able to connect 17th and 18th century thinkers with contemporary issues in metaphysics and philosophy of science. However, papers focusing on these issues contextually based in the 17th and 18th century are also enthusiastically welcomed.
Presentations are planned to be 45 minutes, leaving 15-20 minutes for discussion.
Please submit an abstract of 500 words, including the title of the presentation, to easychair. The abstract should be prepared for blind review. We welcome Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars as well as more established colleagues.
Newton is often taken to have spawned two important, but different, sciences: an experimental science exemplified in the Opticks, and a mathematical science exemplified in the Principia. I. Bernard Cohen and George Smith, for example, write:
There is, perhaps, no greater tribute to the genius of Isaac Newton than that he could thus engender two related but rather different traditions of doing science.
Like many commentators, they emphasise the differences between the austere, formal mathematism of Newton’s so-called ‘rational mechanics’ and the complex and sophisticated experimentalism of his work on light and colour. And so, the two works are typically taken to exemplify very different methodologies.
In contrast, on this blog, I have emphasised the common features, rather than the differences—presenting a more integrated account of Newton’s methodology. For example, I have argued that his claim, that the Principia is a work of experimental philosophy, is something we should take seriously. And so the mathematico-experimental method is a feature of both the Opticks and the Principia. Moreover, I have argued that Newton’s mathematico-experimental method can be broadly characterised by an epistemic triad: a three-way epistemic division between theories, hypotheses and queries. The epistemic triad drives Newton’s optical work and his rational mechanics in a trajectory from experiment to certainty, using mathematical reasoning.
While the Opticks and the Principia represent two fields to which Newton made important contributions, these impressive tomes do not signify the entirety of his research output—nor even the bulk. During his lifetime, Newton produced vast quantities of written work on chymistry, theology and Church history, as well as mathematics. Over several posts, I plan to explore some of this less well-known work in order to learn more about Newton’s methodology. In particular, I want to see what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are between his many projects.
This may seem like a fool’s errand. Indeed, these lesser-known parts of Newton’s research have a poor reputation. One idea, floated by Jean-Baptiste Biot in his 1829 biography, was that Newton’s intellectual life divided naturally in two: prior to his mental breakdown in 1692, Newton’s life was sane, rational and scientific, but afterwards was mad, irrational and religious. And so Newton’s alchemical and theological manuscripts are often dismissed as the half-baked musings of an old man. In more recent times, however, commentators such as Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, William R. Newman, Rob Iliffe and Sarah Dry (to name just a few!) have aimed to redress this situation. They have demonstrated that Newton’s alchemical and theological pursuits were as much a part of his intellectual life as the optics, rational mechanics and mathematics, for which he is famous. So, firstly, if there was any kind of cleavage, it was not along disciplinary lines, and secondly, these intellectual pursuits should be counted as serious scholarship—not simply to be swept under the proverbial rug.
So what sorts of continuities should we expect to find? In the remainder of this post, I’ll offer a few preliminary suggestions.
One striking feature of Newton’s published scientific work is how methodologically reflective it was. Perhaps we should expect similar reflections in his manuscripts on chymistry, theology or Church history. Indeed, a cursory look at the collection shows that Newton approached chymistry, theology and Church history with the same persistence and vigour that we find in his other work. Moreover, we can recognise several of the same methodological and foundational concerns. For example, Newton’s interest in the restoration of an ancient tradition of knowledge that has been lost or corrupted, and the view that reason, hard work and disciplined empirical research are always preferable to speculation.
Another feature of Newton’s work that I have discussed on this blog is what I call his ‘rhetorical style’: Newton borrowed familiar terms and bent them to his own needs. He is, moreover, best characterised as a methodological omnivore—he read widely on different methodologies and approaches, and selected from among them the best tools for the job. We might expect to find the same thing in his chymistry and theology. Again, my preliminary reading offers some support. Newton appears to have been interested in all aspects of chymistry—a heavily experimental discipline, often with a pragmatic eye to profit, as much about developing chemical technologies and pharmaceuticals as it is about turning base metals into gold. However, while Newton worked on the typical alchemist’s project of deciphering ancient myths, he doesn’t seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid. He appears to have been much more concerned with linking his chymical research to his more mainstream science—for example, his matter theory. In short, in these manuscripts, we can recognise the same desire to penetrate appearances and arrive at the fundamental truths of nature that we find in his physics.
Following on from this, we might also expect to find a concern for unification: the idea that Newton’s many topics of investigation are in fact part of a larger project. For example, in Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton argues for both ontological and methodological unification. Again, looking briefly at some of his alchemical manuscripts, we see a similar preoccupation. Newton’s discussions of the ‘vegetative spirit’, for example, offer insight into the ways in which the various strands of his scholarly endeavours, including chymistry and theology, were united under one grand scheme.
When understanding the development of Newton’s thought, I often find it helpful to distinguish between Public-Newton and Private-Newton. I have argued that there are important methodological differences between the work that Newton published (and hence, was willing to assert and defend) and the work he kept private. While the former conforms, in some sense, to the experimental philosophy, the latter is typically much more speculative. The distinction is particularly useful when considering Newton’s optical work, where we find stark differences between draft material and the final published version. But I suspect it won’t be so useful once we turn to his chymistry, theology and Church history, where many of Newton’s unpublished manuscripts were in circulation—some only among his closest circle of like-minded friends, and others, much more widely. And yet, this raises one final issue. Newton’s efforts to pass off his published work as experimental philosophy may well have been politically motivated: by describing his work as ‘experimental philosophy’, he was signalling his commitment as much to the Royal Society as to observation- and experiment-based theorising. His chymical, theological and Church history manuscripts were circulated much more privately—and presumably the same political motivations did not apply. When working outside the jurisdiction of the Royal Society, did Newton conform to the experimental philosophy?
Call for Abstracts: Conceptions of Experience in the German Enlightenment between Wolff and Kant
University of Leuven, February 24-25, 2017
Submission deadline: October 15, 2016
Confirmed keynote Speakers
Christian Leduc (Montréal)
Arnaud Pelletier (Brussels)
Anne-Lise Rey (Lille)
Udo Thiel (Graz)
Organized by Karin de Boer (University of Leuven) and Tinca Prunea-Bretonnet (University of Bucharest)
The purpose of this conference is to analyze the various conceptions of experience at play in eighteenth-century German philosophy between Leibniz’s death in 1716 and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. During this period, the classical Aristotelian definition of experience as cognition of singulars – to some extent still present in Wolff – became confronted with the Baconian and Newtonian accounts of empirical knowledge. In the decades before the mid-century, the views of Locke and Hume, as well as French sensualism and materialism, complicated the prevailing German perspective on experience even more: the notion of empirical or ‘historical’ knowledge became linked to experiment and observation, investigations into perception and sensation took center stage, and ‘inner experience’ grew into a widely discussed topic.
The Berlin Academy, through the prize-essay contests it organized and the writings of its members, importantly contributed to the dissemination of Newtonianism and empiricism. Yet while most philosophers acknowledged the fundamental role of experience, they tried to accomodate the modern notions of experience to a view of cognition and science influenced by Wolffian metaphysics. The question as to the contribution of foundational metaphysical principles and empirical data to scientific knowledge was much discussed, as was the relationship between inner and outer experience, experience and thought, experience and judgment, experience and facts, experience and perception, experience and experiment, and perception and apperception.
Challenging the historiographical opposition between empiricism and rationalism, the conference aims to explore the often ambivalent or fluid conceptions of experience at work in these debates, as well their influence on disciplines such as psychology and aesthetics. Whereas all contributions relevant to these topics are welcome, we are particularly interested in contributions on the conceptions of experience elaborated by members of the Berlin Academy and by participants in the contests initiated by this institution.
The conference aims at stimulating fruitful exchanges between established scholars, junior researchers, and PhD students. Presentation time will be 25 minutes + 20 minutes for discussion.
Abstracts should be prepared for double-blind review by removing any identification details. The author’s name, paper title, institutional position and affiliation, as well as contact information, should be included in the body of the e-mail.
In the Principia, Newton claimed to be doing experimental philosophy. Over my last three posts, I’ve wondered whether we can interpret his so-called ‘experimental philosophy’ as Baconian. In the first two posts, I identified methodological similarities between Bacon and Newton: first, the use of crucial instances; second, the use of Baconian induction. In each case, I concluded that, without some sort of textual evidence clearly tying Newton’s method to Bacon’s, such similarities don’t demonstrate influence. In my third post, I tried a different approach: I considered Mary Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia should be considered Baconian because members of the Royal Society recognised, and responded to, it as part of the Baconian tradition. While Domski’s argument was fruitful in helping us better to understand what’s at stake in discussions of influence, I raised several concerns with her narrative. In this post, I shall address those concerns in more detail.
Let’s focus on Domski’s account of how Locke reacted to Newton’s Principia. Domski argues that Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program. That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes. In short, Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. Last time, I expressed two concerns with this account. Firstly, ‘speculative naturalist’ looks like a contradiction in terms (I have discussed the concept of ‘speculative experimental science’ here), and surely neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with the label. Secondly, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. Domski’s discussion of the reception of the Principia establishes the former, but not necessarily the latter.
We can get more traction on both of these concerns by considering Peter Anstey’s account of how the Principia influenced Locke. Anstey argues that Newton’s achievement forced Locke to revise his views on the role of principles in natural philosophy. In the Essay, Locke offers a theory of demonstration—the process by which one can reason from principles to certain truths via the agreement and disagreement of ideas. In the first edition, Locke argued that this method of reasoning was only possible in mathematics and moral philosophy, where one could reason from certain principles. Due to limitations of human intellect, such knowledge was not possible in natural philosophy. Instead, one needed to follow the Baconian method of natural history which provided, at best, probable truths. However, Anstey shows us that, by the late 1690s, Locke had revised his account of natural philosophy to admit demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’ (that is, principles that were discovered by observation and experiment).
I now draw your attention to two features of this account. Firstly, Newton’s scientific achievement—his theory of universal gravitation—as opposed to his successful development of a new natural philosophical method per se forced Locke to revise his position on demonstration from principles. (A while ago, Currie and I noted that this situation is to be expected, if we take the ESD seriously.) This feature should make us suspicious of Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia was taken to exemplify the speculative stage of Baconian natural philosophy. Locke did not see Newton’s achievement as a system of speculative hypotheses, but as genuinely empirical knowledge, demonstrated from principles that are justified by observation and experiment. Newton had not constructed a Baconian natural history, but nor had he constructed a speculative system. Rather, Locke recognised Newton’s achievement as something akin to a mathematical result—one which his epistemological story had better accommodate. This forced him to extend his theory of demonstration to natural philosophy. And so, by the late 1690s, we find passages like the following:
“in all sorts of reasoning, every single argument should be managed as a mathematical demonstration; the connection and dependence of ideas should be followed, till the mind is brought to the source on which it bottoms, and observes the coherence all along” (Of the Conduct of the Understanding).
Secondly, Anstey emphasises that Locke didn’t regard Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as Baconian, but only as consistent with his, Locke’s, theory of demonstration. (Anstey also claims that Locke never fully integrated the revisions required to his view of natural philosophy in the Essay.) On this blog, we have suggested that, in the 18th century, a more mathematical experimental natural philosophy displaced the natural historical approach. And Anstey has offered a sustained argument for this position here. He argues that the break was not clean cut, but in the end in Britain mathematical experimental philosophy trumped experimental natural history. That this break was not clean cut helps to explain why experimental moral philosophers, such as Turnbull, thought they were pursuing both a Baconian and a Newtonian project, and were quite comfortable with this.
Notice that I’ve shifted from the vexed question of the extent to which Bacon influenced Newton, to a perhaps more fruitful line of enquiry: how Newton influenced Locke and others. This is no non sequitur. The members of the Royal Society strove to understand Newton in their terms—namely, in terms of Baconianism and the experimental philosophy. Here, it seems that two conclusions confront us. Firstly, we (again) find that Newton was taken as legitimately developing experimental philosophy by emphasising both the role of experimentally-established principles of natural philosophy and the capacity of mathematics to carry those principles forward. These aspects are, at best, underemphasised in Bacon and certainly missing from the Baconian experimental philosophy adopted by many members of the Royal Society. Secondly, we see that Newton’s influence on Locke was due, at least in part, to his scientific achievements. Newton did not argue directly with Locke’s epistemology or method, nor did Locke take Newton’s methodology as a replacement for his own. Rather, Locke took Newton’s scientific success as an example of demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’. This, in turn, necessitated modifications of his own account.
Workshop: Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Religion
University of Warwick, 10-11 May 2016
Keith Allen (York), Cavendish on Colour and Experimental Philosophy
Peter Anstey (Sydney), Experimental Philosophy and Corpuscular Philosophy
Philippe Hamou (Paris-Ouest Nanterre), John Locke and the Experimental Philosophy of the Human Mind
Dana Jalobeanu (Bucharest), Francis Bacon’s ‘Perceptive’ Instruments
Dmitri Levitin (Oxford), Metaphysics, Natural Philosophy, and the Soul: Rethinking Kenelm Digby’s Philosophical Project
Elliot Rossiter (Concordia), From Natural Philosophy to Natural Religion: Teleology and the Theologia Rationalis
Tom Sorell (Warwick), Experience in Hobbes’ Science of Politics
Alberto Vanzo (Warwick), Experimental Philosophy and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Italy
Koen Vermeir (Paris-Diderot), Magnetic Theology
Catherine Wilson (York), What was Behind the Rejection of Hypotheses in Newtonian Science
– Full fee excluding workshop dinner (includes two buffet lunches and coffee breaks): £20
– Discounted fee excluding workshop dinner: £10
– Full fee including workshop dinner: £49
– Discounted fee including workshop dinner: £39
The discounted fee is available to students, under-employed recent postgraduates and unemployed.
To register, please email firstname.lastname@example.org first to ensure that spaces are still available and, if so, please send a cheque, payable to the University of Warwick, to Dr Alberto Vanzo, Department of Philosophy, Social Sciences Building, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL.
Registration closes on Monday 25th April. You are advised to register early as space is limited.
Childcare support We hope to provide some financial support to those who would like to attend, but require childcare. If you are interested, please email email@example.com.
CFP: ‘Feeding on the nectar of the gods’: Appropriations of Isaac Newton’s thought, ca. 1700-1750
Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 5-6 July 2016
University Foundation Egmontstraat 11 Rue d’Egmont B-1000 Brussels, Belgium
The conference theme is the diffusion of Newton’s thought during the first half of the eighteenth century across Europe. The seeming ease with which Newton’s ideas were diffused has long been described as self-evident. State-of-the-art research has, however, shown that the spread and success of Newton’s corpus was far from obvious. More particularly, it has been suggested that the successful diffusion of Newton’s ideas was not merely determined by the obvious merits of the scientific claims which Newton developed in his two major works, the Principia (first edition: 1687) and the Opticks (first edition: 1704), but also by local factors and contexts, such as inter alia: (a) already established scholarly and educationally dominant traditions or systems; (b) theological and religious fractions, sensibilities, and worldviews; and (c) metaphysical and methodological orientations. Seen from this perspective, if we want to fully understand the successful spread of Newton’s ideas, we need to take into account the multifarious ways in which his ideas were appropriated in order to meet local ‘needs’. At the same time, we need to pinpoint the characteristics of those very ideas in virtue of which they could be successfully ‘exported’ to different intellectual and scientific hubs across Europe. The scientific committee welcomes presentations that contribute to our understanding of the spread of Newton’s thought across Europe from approximately 1700 to 1750.
Abstracts of approximately 500 words should be sent to the conference chair Prof. Dr. Steffen Ducheyne by 24 April 2016. Decisions will be made shortly thereafter. There will be room for 12 contributed presentations (20-22 minutes for the actual presentation + 10-8 minutes for Q&A). Abstracts will be evaluated anonymously by the scientific committee according to the following criteria: 1. quality, 2. relevance to the conference theme, and 3. capacity to engender a diverse coverage of the diffusion of Newton’s thought.
Marta Cavazza (Universita di Bologna)
Tamas Demeter (Hungarian Academy of Science)
Steffen Ducheyne (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Mordechai Feingold (Caltech)
Niccolo Guicciardini (Universita degli Studi di Bergamo)*
Rob Iliffe (University of Oxford)
Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge)
Stephen D. Snobelen (University of King’s College)
* Lecture sponsored by Belgian Society for Logic and Philosophy of Science.
Lately I have been examining Baconian interpretations of Newton’s Principia. First, I demonstrated that Newton’s Moon test resembles a Baconian crucial instance. And then, I demonstrated that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Bacon’s method of gradual induction. This drew our attention to some interesting features of Newton’s approach, bringing the Principia’s experimental aspects into sharper focus. But they also highlighted a worry: Newton’s methodology resembling Bacon’s isn’t enough to establish that Newton was influenced by Bacon. Bacon and Newton were gifted methodologists—they could have arrived independently at the same approach. One way to distinguish between convergence and influence is to see if there’s anything uniquely or distinctively Baconian in Newton’s use of crucial experiments and gradual induction. Another way would be if we could find some explicit references to Bacon in relation to these methodological tools. Alas, so far, my search in these areas has produced nothing.
In this post, I’ll consider an alternative way of understanding Baconianism in the Principia. I began this series by asking whether we should regard Newton’s methodology as an extension of the Baconian experimental method, or as something more unique. In answering, I have hunted for evidence that the Principia is Baconian insofar as Newton applied Baconian methodological tools in the Principia. But you might think that whether Newton was influenced by Bacon isn’t so relevant. Rather, what matters is how the Principia was received by Newton’s contemporaries. So in this post, I’ll examine Mary Domski’s argument that the Principia is part of the Baconian tradition because it was recognised, and responded to, as such by members of the Royal Society.
Domski begins by dispelling the idea that there was no place for mathematics in the Baconian experimental tradition. Historically, Bacon’s natural philosophical program, centred on observation, experiment and natural history, was taken as fundamentally incompatible with a mathematical approach to natural philosophy. And Bacon is often taken to be deeply distrustful of mathematics. Domski argues, however, that Bacon’s views on mathematics are both subtler and more positive. Indeed, although Bacon had misgivings about how mathematics could guide experimental practice, he gave it an important role in natural philosophy. In particular, mathematics can advance our knowledge of nature by revealing causal processes. However, he cautioned, it must be used appropriately. To avoid distorting the evidence gained via observation and experiment, one must first establish a solid foundation via natural history, and only then employ mathematical tools. In short, Bacon insisted that the mathematical treatment of nature must be grounded on, and informed by, the findings of natural history.
Domski’s second move is to argue that seventeenth-century Baconians such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke understood and accepted this mathematical aspect of Bacon’s methodology. Bacon’s influence in the seventeenth century was not limited to his method of natural history, and Baconian experimental philosophers didn’t dismiss speculative approaches outright. Rather, they emphasised that there was a proper order of investigation: metaphysical and mathematical speculation must be informed by observation and experiment. In other words, there is a place for speculative philosophy after the experimental stage has been completed.
Domski then examines the reception of Newton’s Principia by members of the Royal Society—focusing on Locke. For Locke, natural history was a necessary component of natural philosophy. And yet, Locke embraced the Principia as a successful application of mathematics to natural philosophy. Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. She writes:
[O]n Locke’s reading, Newton used a principle—the fundamental truth of universal gravitation—that was initially ‘drawn from matter’ and then, with evidence firmly in hand, he extended this principle to a wide store of phenomena. By staying mindful of the proper experimental and evidentiary roots of natural philosophy, Newton thus succeeded in producing the very sort of profit that Sprat and Boyle anticipated a proper ‘speculative’ method could generate (p. 165).
In short, Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program. That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes.
In summary, Domski makes a good case for viewing the mathematico-experimental method employed in the Principia as part of the seventeenth-century Baconian tradition. I have a few reservations with her argument. For one thing, ‘speculative naturalist’ is surely a term that neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with. And for another thing, although Domski has provided reasons to view Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as related to, and a development of, the experimental philosophy of the Royal Society, I’m not convinced that this shows that they viewed the Principia as Baconian. That is to say, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. I’ll discuss these issues in my next post, and for now, I’ll conclude by discussing some important lessons that I think arise from Domski’s position.
Firstly, we can identify divergences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers. And these could be surprising. It’s not, in itself, his use mathematics and generalisations that makes Newton different—Domski has shown that even the hard-out Baconians could get on board with these features of the Principia. The differences are subtler. For example, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, Boyle, Sprat and Locke advocated a two-stage approach to natural philosophy, in which construction of natural histories precedes theory construction. But Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Indeed, in the Principia, we find that Newton commences theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.
Secondly, the account highlights the fact that early modern experimental philosophy was a work in progress. There was much variation in its practice, and room for improvement and evolution. Moreover, its modification and development was, to a large extent, the result of technological innovation and the scientific success of works like the Principia. Indeed, it was arguably the ability to recognise and incorporate such achievements that allowed experimental philosophy to become increasingly dominant, sophisticated and successful in the eighteenth century.
Thirdly, the account suggests that, already in the late-seventeenth century, the ESD framework was being employed to guide, and also to distort, the interpretation and uptake of natural philosophy. By embracing the Principia as their own, the early modern experimental philosophers intervened on and shaped its reception, and hence, the kind of influence the Principia had. This raises an interesting point about influence.
As I have already noted, it is difficult to establish a direct line of influence stretching from Bacon to Newton. But, by focusing on how Bacon’s program for natural philosophy was developed by figures such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke, we can identify a connection between Bacon’s natural philosophical program and Newton’s mathematico-experimental methodology. That is, we can distinguish between influence in terms of actual causal connections—Newton having read Bacon, for instance—and influence insofar as some aspect of Newton’s work is taken to be related to Bacon’s by contemporary (or near-contemporary) thinkers. Indeed, Newton could have been utterly ignorant of Bacon’s actual views on method, but the Principia might nonetheless deserve to be placed alongside Bacon’s work in the development of experimental philosophy. Sometimes what others take you to have done is more important than what you have actually done!
A one-day conference at New York University on February 20, 2016
Contemporary work in experimental philosophy investigates the relationship between empirical methods and philosophical questions. However, there is a rich history of thinking through the general issues surrounding armchair and experimental approaches to philosophy; for instance, such projects can be found in 19th century philosophy, early modern philosophy, and classical Chinese philosophy.
To explore these topics and philosophical questions at the intersection of experimental philosophy and history of philosophy, we will host a one-day conference. The conference will be held at New York University on February 20th, from 10:00 AM to 6:15 PM. The conference features six presentations, each with a paired commentary. Further information can be found here. Please direct any questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Anstey (The University of Sydney)
discussion by Stephen Darwall (Yale University)
Scott Edgar (Saint Mary’s University)
discussion by John Richardson (New York University)
Alex Klein (California State University)
discussion by Henry Cowles (Yale University)
Hagop Sarkissian (Baruch College, CUNY)
discussion by Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University)
Kathryn Tabb (Columbia University)
discussion by Don Garrett (New York University)
Alberto Vanzo (University of Warwick)
discussion by Alison McIntyre (Wellesley College)
An Interdisciplinary Master class on the Nature and Status of Principles in Western Thought
15–18 March 2016
Eligibility: Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers Maximum attendance: 15 (selected by application) Organisers: Dr Dana Jalobeanu (Director, IRH-UB) and Prof Peter Anstey (Sydney University) Invited speakers: Dr Vincenzo de Risi (Max Planck Institute, Berlin) and Dr Aza Goudriaan (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam)
The purpose of this interdisciplinary master class is to examine the nature and status of principles across a variety of disciplinary domains and a variety of historical periods. The concept of principles is almost ubiquitous in Western thought: it is used in philosophy, natural philosophy, ethics, art, mathematics, politics and theology. One only needs to cite some of the canonical works of early modern philosophy, natural philosophy or art to appreciate the centrality of the notion: for example, Descartes’ Principia philosophiae (1644), Newton’s Principia (1687) and Taylor’s New Principles of Linear Perspective (1719). Yet to date there are few if any systematic treatments of the subject. This master class will address the following questions in relation to classical, Hellenistic, Renaissance and early modern thought:
Which disciplines appealed to principles?
What sorts of principles did they deploy?
How does one get epistemic access to these principles?
And what roles did principles play in the period and discipline under scrutiny?
How does the use of principles vary across disciplines and across historical periods?
Is the principles concept stable or subject to change?
Is there a typology of principles?
What is the relation between principles, axioms, hypotheses and laws?
The master class will include lectures, reading groups and seminars, as well as more informal activities (tutorials, and discussions). The master class will be set within the interdisciplinary environment of the Institute of Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest. It aims to bring together up to fifteen post-docs and postgraduate students from different fields and willing to spend four days working together within the premises of the Institute, and under the supervision of experts in the field. The master class will also benefit from logistical support of CELFIS (Center for the Logic, History and Philosophy of Science), Faculty of Philosophy. Each student attending the master class will have the opportunity to give a twenty-minute presentation on the final day. Student contributions are voluntary.
How to apply
In order to apply for the master class send a CV (maximum 2 pages) and a short letter of intention to Dr Mihnea Dobre (email@example.com) by 30 January 2016. The final list of participants will be announced on the website of the institute by 5 February 2016.