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Buffon and the Experimental Philosophy

Peter Anstey writes …

The historiography of the Enlightenment over the last fifty years has focused heavily on the influence of the natural philosophy of Bacon and Newton and the philosophy of Locke on the French philosophes.

Surprisingly, however, the thought of Bacon, Locke and Newton has rarely been seen as part of the broader impact of the experimental philosophy movement: the focus has been on individuals and their thought and experimental philosophy has been regarded as an expression of the ‘empiricism’ of these thinkers. See for example, Jonathan Israel’s monumental Radical Enlightenment and Democratic Enlightenment, neither of which lists ‘experimental philosophy’ in its index and which tend to subordinate English experimental philosophy to empiricism. (The term gets a mere 4 entries in the index of his 983-page Enlightenment Contested.)

Now, one text that has been repeatedly cited as early evidence of the important impact of Newton is Buffon’s Translator’s Preface to his 1735 French translation of Stephen Hales’ Vegetable Staticks of 1727. But when we turn to the text itself it’s pretty clear that Newton is merely an exemplar of a broader phenomenon.

As we have argued many times on this blog, the experimental philosophy that emerged in England in the 1660s was characterized by an emphasis on observation and experiment, an aversion to theoretical systems and especially its decrying of hypotheses and principles. Let us look at Buffon’s Preface and see what he has to say about Hales’ book. He says:

    The novelty of the discoveries and the majority the ideas [of Hales’ book] will no doubt surprise natural philosophers. I know nothing better of its kind, and the genre itself is excellent, for it is only experiment and observation.
    … works founded on experiment, merit more than others. I can even say that in natural philosophy, one ought to search out experiments as much as one ought to be afraid of systems. I admit that there is nothing so good as to establish first a single principle, and then to explain the universe, and I am convinced that if one were so happy to divine it, all the pain that it takes to make experiments would be unnecessary. But sensible people see rather how much this idea is vain and chimerical: the system of nature probably depends upon several principles, principles that are unknown to us and their combination even less so.
    … It is by choice experiments, reasoned and followed, that one forces nature to reveal its secret. All the other methods have never succeeded.
    … Collections of experiments and observations are therefore the only books that can augment our understanding. Being a natural philosopher is not a matter of knowing what follows from this or that hypothesis, in supposing, for example, a subtle matter, vortices, an attractive force, etc. It is to know well that by which it comes and to understand that which is presented to our eyes. The understanding of effects will conduct us insensibly to that of their causes and will not trip us up into the absurdities that seem to characterize all systems.
    … It is this method that my author [Hales] has followed. It is that of the great Newton; that which Bacon, Galileo, Boyle, Stahl recommended and embraced; that which the Académie of Sciences has made it a law to adopt … (pp. iii–vi)

Notice the underlined words here: ‘experiment and observation’, ‘systems’, ‘vain and chimerical’, ‘hypothesis’. This passage bears all the hallmarks of an expression of the central doctrines of the experimental philosophy. This is reinforced by the gallery of greats that is listed: Bacon, Galileo, Boyle, Stahl.

The focus is not on individuals such as Newton at all, nor is it on empiricism. It is on the méthode of the experimental philosophy. This is what Voltaire had referred to just one year earlier in 1734 in his letter ‘On the Lord Bacon’ in his Letters concerning the English Nation, where he claimed that Bacon ‘is the Father of experimental philosophy’ and that ‘no one before the Lord Bacon was acquainted with experimental Philosophy’.

It is the experimental philosophy, and not Bacon or Newton, that Buffon is praising and advocating. The experimental philosophy, as discussed by Buffon, Voltaire, d’Alembert and Diderot, needs to become a central notion in our historiography of the Enlightenment.


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