Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last post, I explained how Newton’s theory of the tides relied on empirical data drawn from all over the world. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to coordinate information gathering along trade routes, and thus construct a Baconian natural history. I pointed out that although the theory of the tides is considered a major theoretical achievement for Newtonian physics it was also a major empirical project and as such it is one of the major achievements of Baconian experimental philosophy. This case, however, also highlights how the Royal Society exploited its connections with politics and economics in pursuit of knowledge to benefit an elite monied class. In this post, I’m interested in exploring the connections between the Royal Society’s epistemic achievements and its being embedded within the political structures of the early modern world, particularly the rise of large trading empires.
If Bacon is considered to be the ‘Father of Modern Science’, then it’s worth reflecting on the nature of his legacy, and the role Baconianism played in shaping modern science. It is often tempting to split the objectivity and purity of science from the often complex, difficult, morally ambiguous world. In the same vein, reflections on the Royal Society and the birth of modern science often ignore the essential enabling role played by other of the British Empire’s activities: exploitative trade and slaving. Present-day philosophers of science increasingly reject the ‘value-free ideal’, recognising that scientific practice is best understood within its social, institutional and political context. If what are traditionally conceived of as non-epistemic values play an inextricable role in, say, modern medicine, then they likely do here as well. In this post, I’ll apply these ideas to the case of the tides, suggesting that it highlights a darker side of Baconianism.
The collection of tidal data was carried out by the Royal Society in cooperation with the Royal African Company and the East India Company. (When he discusses the Tonkin tides, for example, Newton appeals to data obtained by Francis Davenport, Commander of the Eagle—an East India Company vessel.) Both the Royal African and East India Companies engaged in extractive behaviours in their respective localities; extractive behaviours we now consider morally abhorrent (most strikingly the slave trade in Africa). While the Royal Society cannot be considered responsible for these acts, we might say that it played a role in legitimising, normalising and even celebrating them.
Indeed, these close ties between science and trade were present from the very inception of the Royal Society. The Royal Society and the Royal African Company received their second royal charters in the same year (1663) and were often thought of as sister companies. Thomas Sprat highlights these ties in his History of the Royal Society:
[I]f Gentlemen ‘condescend to engage in commerce, and to regard the Philosophy of Nature. The First of these since the King’s return has bin carry’d on with great vigour, by the Foundation of the Royal Company: to which as to the Twin-Sister of the Royal Society, we have reason as we go along, to wish all Prosperity. In both these Institutions begun together, our King has imitated the two most famous Works of the wisest of antient Kings: who at the same time sent to Ophir for Gold, and compos’d a Natural History, from the Cedar to the Shrub (Sprat, 1667: 407).
The two companies received their royal charters very soon after Charles II’s coronation. And both were held up as symbols of the Restoration—promises of prosperity to come. Sprat measures the success of the Royal Society largely in terms of its ability to exploit the trade network, praising the “Noble, and Inquisitive Genius” of English merchants (Sprat, 1667: 88). He writes:
But in forein, and remote affairs, their [i.e. the Royal Society Fellows’] Intentions, and their Advantages do farr exceed all others. For these, they have begun to settle a correspondence through all Countreys; and have taken such order, that in short time, there will scarce a Ship come up the Thames, that does not make some return of Experiments, as well as of Merchandize (Sprat, 1667: 86).
Sprat links the success of the Royal Society to its ability to exploit the trade networks; rhetoric which might have lent legitimacy and integrity to other actions carried out in the name of British supremacy.
Further, the direction of research reflected the economic and political interests of these trading companies. A history of tides was one of the projects suggested by Bacon in the appendix to his Novum organum, and as such, it is not surprising that the Royal Society committed resources to this project. However, the Royal Society could not have carried out this project without the support of British trade. A Baconian history of tides was necessarily a large-scale affair: information needed to be gathered from all over the globe. It wasn’t until the 17th century, when British trading companies sent ships all around the world, creating networks of merchants, priests and scholars, that such a project was even possible. But the knowledge that was produced was facilitated by, and in service of, those interests.
As global trade increased, knowledge of world-wide tidal patterns became increasingly important. European trading companies vied with one another for footholds in Africa and Asia and engaged in sea battles to gain political control in these regions (most notably the Anglo-Dutch Wars). Knowledge of tidal patterns was important both at sea, where failure to account for tidal flow could lead to navigation errors, and in narrower rivers and harbours—approaching a harbour with a shallow bar at low tide could mean a costly delay or worse. And so, the increasing importance of the tide problem and its increasing tractability stemmed from the same cause. Or, to put it another way, the direction of research was both enabled by, and carried out in the service of, the economic and political aspirations of British trade. In short, the trading empires did not merely enable the success of Newton’s work on the tides and other Royal Society projects; rather, they often directed and shaped them.
What conclusions should we draw from this? It comes as no surprise to historians, philosophers and sociologists of science that knowledge-production and the rest of society—including its exploitative, oppressive activities—are interwoven. However, the connection between natural philosophy and exploitative trade is only rarely made in presentations of the Royal Society’s work or Baconianism generally. Instead, science is often viewed as floating serenely and objectively above the darker aspects of early modern society. (This is surprising, given such rhetoric as Sprat’s.) But this case suggests that the Baconian requirement of information-gathering on a massive scale was enabled by—and perhaps itself worked to legitimate—the systems of trade which, often, represented the darkest parts of Western Europe. This is not to say that the Royal Society explicitly endorsed these features of the early modern world. Rather, the success of such large-scale Baconian projects may have tacitly whitewashed the social and political context.
What value is there in this sort of project? You might worry that, by casting a morally critical eye on the period, I lose my historian’s objectivity, believing myself to be coming from a position of superiority and moral maturity: a dangerous way to do historiography. Regardless of what objectivity might amount to in this context, I think it would be a mistake to couch the project in these terms. Rather, I am interested in what such cases can teach us about the nature of science, the value-free ideal and the role of value in science more generally. As such, this initial analysis leaves me with a few questions: Firstly, was the tidal data sullied, morally and/or epistemically, by the context of its collection? Secondly, if this data was morally sullied, were Newton and the others morally wrong to use it? Finally, what effect should this case have on our lauding of the early Royal Society as an exemplar of good science? How we eventually answer these questions at least partly depends on whether we think that the context of inquiry undermines the epistemic value of the project. In my next post, I’ll explore the idea that the epistemic injustice committed by the Royal Society in the name of Baconianism should undermine its status as exemplary.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Newton’s work on the tides. In the Principia Book 3, Newton identified the physical cause of the tides as a combination of forces: the Moon and Sun exert gravitational pulls on the waters of the ocean which, together, cause the sea levels to rise and fall in regular patterns. This theory of the tides has been described as one of the major achievements of Newtonian natural philosophy. Most commentators have focussed on the fact that Newton extended his theory of universal gravitation to offer a physical cause for the tides—effectively reducing the problem of tides to a mathematical problem, the solution of which, in turn, provided ways to establish various physical features of the Moon, and set the study of tides on a new path. But in this post, I want to focus on the considerable amount of empirical evidence concerning tidal phenomena that underwrites this work.
Let’s begin with the fact that, while Newton’s empirical evidence of tidal patterns came from areas such as the eastern section of the Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic Sea, and the Chilean and Peruvian shores of the Pacific Ocean, Newton never left England. So where did these observational records come from?
Newton’s data was the result of a collective effort on a massive scale, largely coordinated by the Royal Society. For example, one of the earliest issues of the Philosophical Transactions published ‘Directions for sea-men bound for far voyages, drawn up by Master Rook, late geometry professour of Gresham Colledge’ (1665: 140-143). Mariners were instructed “to keep an exact Diary [of their observations], delivering at their return a fair Copy thereof to the Lord High Admiral of England, his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and another to Trinity-house to be perused by the R. Society”. With respect to the tides, they were asked:
“To remark carefully the Ebbings and Flowings of the Sea, in as many places as they can, together with all the Accidents, Ordinary and Extraordinary, of the Tides; as, their precise time of Ebbing and Flowing in Rivers, at Promontories or Capes; which way their Current runs, what Perpendicular distance there is between the highest Tide and lowest Ebb, during the Spring-Tides and Neap-Tides; what day of the Moons age, and what times of the year, the highest and lowest Tides fall out: And all other considerable Accidents, they can observe in the Tides, cheifly neer Ports, and about Ilands, as in St. Helena’s Iland, and the three Rivers there, at the Bermodas &c.”
This is just one of many such articles published in the early Philosophical Transactions that articulated lists of queries concerning sea travel, on which mariners, sailors and merchants were asked to report. In its first 20 years, the journal published scores of lists of queries relating to the tides, and many more reports responding to such queries. This was Baconian experimental philosophy at its best. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to construct a Baconian natural history of tides: using the method of queries, they gathered observational data on tides from all corners of the globe which was then collated and ordered into tables.
Newton’s engagement with these observational records is revelatory of his attitudes and practices relating to Baconian experimental philosophy. Firstly, especially in his later years, Newton was regarded as openly hostile towards natural histories. However, here we see Newton explicitly and approvingly engaging with natural histories. For example, in his discussion of proposition 24, he drew on observations by Samuel Colepresse and Samuel Sturmy, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1668, explicitly offered in response to queries put forward to John Wallis and Robert Boyle in 1665:
“Thus it has been found by experience that in winter, morning tides exceed evening tides and that in summer, evening tides exceed morning tides, at Plymouth by a height of about one foot, and at Bristol by a height of fifteen inches, according to the observations of Colepress and Sturmy” (Newton, 1999: 838).
I have argued previously that Newton was more receptive to natural histories than is usually thought. The case of the tides offers additional support for my argument. Newton’s notes and correspondence show that, from as early as 1665, he was heavily engaged in the project of generating a natural history of the tides, although he never contributed data. And eventually, he was able to use these empirical records to theorise about the cause of the tides. This suggests that Newton didn’t object to using natural histories as the basis for theorising. Rather, he objected to treating natural histories as the end goal of the investigation.
Secondly, I have previously discussed the fact that Newton seldomly reported ‘raw data’. The evidence he provided for Phenomenon 1, for example, included calculated average distances, checked against the distances predicted by the theory. Newton’s empirical evidence on the tides, as reported in the Principia, was similarly manipulated and adjusted with reference to his theory. Commentators have largely either condemned or ignored this ‘fudge factor’, but such adjustments are ubiquitous in Newton’s work, suggesting that they were a key aspect of his practice. Newton recognised that ‘raw data’ had limited use: to be useful, data needed to be analysed and interpreted. In short, it needed to be turned into evidence. The Baconians appear to have recognised this: queries guide the collection of data, which is then ordered into tables in order to reveal patterns in the data. As this case makes clear, however, Newton’s theory-mediated manipulation of the data went beyond basic ordering, drawing on causal assumptions to reveal phenomena from the data.
Thirdly, this case emphasises Newton’s science as embedded in rich social, cultural and economic networks. The construction of this natural history of tides was an organised group effort. That Newton had access to data collected from all over the world was the result of hard work from natural philosophers, merchants, mariners and priests who participated in the accumulation, ordering and dissemination of this data. Further, the capacities of that data to be collected itself followed the increasingly global trade networks reaching to and from Europe. Newton’s work on the tides was the very opposite of a solitary effort.
On this blog, we have noted in passing, but not explored in depth, the crucial roles played by travellers’ reports and information networks in Baconian experimental philosophy. Newton’s study of the tides is revelatory of the attitudes and practices of early modern experimental philosophers with respect to such networks. I shall discuss these in my next post.
Peter Anstey writes…
Until now the earliest evidence for Locke making Boyle’s acquaintance is a letter from Dr Ayliffe Ivye to Locke of 20 May 1660. This letter implies that Locke knew Boyle by this time and Ivye recommends to Locke that he ‘lett slippe no occasion’ to develop his acquaintance with Boyle (Locke Correspondence, ed. E. S. de Beer, vol. 1, p. 146). New evidence has now emerged that strongly suggests that Locke knew Boyle at least two years earlier, in 1658.
Locke’s earliest surviving medical notebook, Bodleian Library MS Locke e. 4, was in use in the 1650s. There appears to be no indication from its contents that Locke used it after 1658. In this notebook there are a number of entries deriving from a person called M. B. Could this refer to M[r] B[oyle]? The content of one of these entries confirms that it does.
On page 59 Locke made the following entry under the marginal title ‘Obstructio’:
A lady that had been sick a great while of the * & used very much physic to noe purpose was curd presently by useing her owne water M. B.
Locke almost certainly heard this from Boyle, because in Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663), which he was composing in the late 1650s, Boyle relates:
I knew an ancient Gentlewoman, who being almost hopeless to recover of divers Chronical Distempers (and some too of these abstruse enough) was at length advised, instead of more costly Physick, to make her Morning-draughts of her own Water; by the use of which she strangely recovered, and is, for ought I know, still well. (Boyle Works, eds Hunter & Davis, vol. 3, p. 385)
It is unlikely that this entry was made before 1658 because in this notebook, apart from some very early entries at the end, Locke seems to have made entries in chronological order and ‘Obstructio’ is preceded by references to Marin Cureau de la Chambre’s A Discourse on the Principles of Chiromancy (London, 1658) on pages 25–6.
There is an entry derived from M. B. that precedes the one quoted above (MS Locke e. 4, p. 43), it occurs after the entry from de la Chambre. So, there are no grounds on the basis of this notebook for claiming that Locke had met Boyle before 1658.
What all of this shows is that Locke met Boyle at the very time when the latter was formulating his new approach to natural philosophy that he came to call experimental philosophy.
A guest post by Kenny Pearce.
Kenny Pearce writes …
It is by now well-known that Locke intentionally sets his Essay in the context of Baconian natural history, the project of the Royal Society. This can be seen in Locke’s mention of several prominent members of the Society in the Epistle to the Reader, and his description of his own role as that of an “Under-Labourer … removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way of Knowledge” (Essay, Nidditch p. 10). It can also be seen in Locke’s explicit description of his project as following the “Historical, plain Method” (§1.1.2), and in his assertion to Stillingfleet that “if [his ‘way of ideas’] be new, it is but a new history of an old thing [i.e., human understanding]” (Works, 4: 134–135). Further, it is clear that the Essay was received as a contribution to Baconian natural history in the decades following its publication. For instance, in a footnote to his 1732 translation of William King’s Essay on the Origin of Evil, Edmund Law refers to the Essay concerning Human Understanding as “Mr. Locke’s excellent History of the human mind” (vol. 2, p. 308), and in his 1734 Philosophical Letters, Voltaire writes, “After so many thinkers had written the romance of the soul, there came a wise man [Locke] who modestly described its history” (Steiner p. 42).
But what exactly is this Baconian project, and what bearing should it have on our reading of Locke’s Essay? Thomas Sprat, the earliest historian of the Royal Society, describes its methods as follows:
The Society has reduc’d its principal observations, into one common-stock; and laid them up in publique Registers, to be nakedly transmitted to the next Generation of Men; and so from them, to their Successors. And as their purpose was, to heap up a mixt Mass of Experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model: so to this end they confin’d themselves to no order of subjects; and whatever they have recorded they have done it, not as compleat Schemes of opinions, but as bare unfinish’d Histories … For it is certain, that a too sudden striving to reduce the Sciences, in their first beginnings, into Method, and Shape, and Beauty; has very much retarded their increase … By their fair, and equal, and submissive way of Registring nothing, but Histories, and Relations; they have left room for others, that shall succeed, to change, to augment, to approve, to contradict them, at their discretion (Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society , pp. 115–116).
According to Sprat, the key to the method of natural history is to “heap up a mixt Mass of Experiments” and observations (or ‘instances’ as Bacon liked to call them) without working them into a system. This is important because it will allow future generations of natural philosophers “to change, to augment, to approve, to contradict” the conclusions drawn by those who made the observations.
Law and Voltaire were, I believe, perfectly correct in regarding Locke’s Essay as a natural history of the human understanding, working within the Baconian methodological paradigm. This is not merely supported by Locke’s occasional uses of the words ‘history’ and ‘historical’, quoted above. It is also supported by Locke’s explicit descriptions of his methodology. For instance:
This, therefore, being my Purpose to enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent; I shall not at present meddle with the Physical Consideration of the Mind; or trouble my self to examine, wherein its Essence consists, or by what Motions of our Spirits, or Alterations of our Bodies, we come to have any Sensation by our Organs, or any Ideas in our Understandings; and whether those Ideas do in their Formation, any, or all of them, depend on Matter, or no (Essay 1.1.2).
for [my account of the origin of ideas] I shall appeal to every one’s own observation and experience (Essay 2.1.1)
my design being, as well as I could, to copy nature, and to give an account of the operations of the mind in thinking, I could look into nobody’s understanding but my own, to see how it wrought … All therefore that I can say of my book is, that it is a copy of my own mind, in its several ways of operation. And all that I can say for the publishing of it is, that I think the intellectual faculties are made, and operate alike in most men (Works, 4: 138–139).
Further, in the actual text of the Essay, Locke does indeed appear to follow this method: he aims to describe, in an orderly fashion, the phenomena revealed by introspection. The case against innate knowledge and innate ideas in book one focuses primarily on arguing that no example of an innate idea or item of innate knowledge has yet been produced: there is no true specimen of such a thing in our register. Book two is then a detailed catalogue or register of ideas, and book four is a catalogue of instances of assent (knowledge and belief). (Book three, on language, was apparently an afterthought, not fitting neatly into the ‘method’ Locke originally proposed; see Essay 2.23.19.)
This line of interpretation has consequences for how we must understand Locke’s account of ideas. If Locke is following this kind of Baconian methodology then, although he does at various points seek to explain various phenomena, his ‘ideas’ cannot be understood as theoretical posits aiming to explain how we perceive external objects. Locke makes no attempt to explain “by what Motions of our Spirits, or Alterations of our Bodies, we come to have any Sensation by our Organs, or any Ideas in our Understandings” (Essay 1.1.2), and frequently admits that, although we can give mechanical explanations of the transmission of information from objects to the brain, the mind-brain interface remains utterly mysterious. Instead of attempting to solve this mystery, Locke aims simply to describe the ideas of which we are aware.
If this is correct, then, although there is a sense in which the Essay is a systematic treatment of the human mind, there is another sense in which Locke is an intentionally, self-consciously unsystematic thinker and the Essay is an intentionally unsystematic work. The Essay, as a natural history of the human understanding, is systematic in that Locke’s observations and the generalizations he draws from them are laid out in a reasonably orderly fashion, intending to be of use to future natural historians. But it also exhibits a Baconian skepticism about ‘grand systems’. The human understanding, Locke has observed, is (like most natural phenomena) messy and complex and, in Locke’s view, it would be a serious methodological error to try to massage this messiness out of the data. A neat and clean, elegant and systematic account of the human understanding would be a ‘romance’ and not a modest history.
(This post is based on a portion of a paper in progress, “Ideas and Explanation in Early Modern Philosophy.” You can read a draft here. Many thanks to Kirsten Walsh for the invitation to share these thoughts in this forum. Comments welcome below!)
Locke Studies makes Vols 14–16 freely accessible online
We are pleased to announce that Vols 8, 9 and 14–16 of Locke Studies are now freely available on the Locke Studies website<https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/XhIpCD1jy9tMoolwflPWVy?domain=thejohnlockesociety.us15.list-manage.com>. The editorial team of the journal will continue to add back issues to the website as quickly as they are able to prepare them. Eventually the entire series of Locke Studies and The Locke Newsletter will be digitized and freely available. Hyperlinks to each article will be added to the entries in the Locke Bibliography<https://protect-au.mimecast.com/s/xX-0CE8kz9tnll5OiQruGS?domain=thejohnlockesociety.us15.list-manage.com> as they are published online.
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2017 Issue of Locke Studies
The table of contents is available via the website, but the PDFs of the articles will not be made available until Jan 2019. Beginning with the 2018 issue, all new content will be open access immediately upon publication. Here is the table of contents for the 2017 issue of Locke Studies:
Recent Publications, pp. 5–38
JOHN C. ATTIG
Locke’s Orthography and the Dating of his Writings, pp. 39–47
J. R. MILTON
A Puzzle in the Print History of Locke’s Essay, pp. 49–60
PATRICK J. CONNOLLY
Locke’s Ontology of Relations, pp. 61–86
SAMUEL C. RICKLESS
Locke on Individuation and Kinds, pp. 87–116
Toland and Locke in the Leibniz-Burnett Correspondence, pp. 117–141
Shaftesbury, Locke, and their Revolutionary Letter?, pp. 143–171
D. N. DELUNA
Locke and Hate Speech Law: A Critical Review, pp. 173–196
J. K. NUMAO
Locke’s Political Theology and the ‘Second Treatise’, pp. 197–232
Locke and the Churchill Catalogue Revisited, pp. 233–241
JOHN SAMUEL HARPHAM
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last few posts, I’ve discussed some of the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work. In my first post on this topic, I talked generally about how we might consider Newton’s chymistry, theology and Church history to be methodologically continuous with the experimental philosophy of the Principia and the Opticks. And in my second post I considered Newton’s alchemical tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, and identified several features that seem to highlight Newton’s early (albeit tacit) commitment to experimental philosophy.
In today’s post, I’ll begin to discuss an important but relatively understudied aspect of Newton’s work: his theological methodology. Since this blog is primarily concerned with early modern experimental philosophy, I’m going to start with the famous passage from the General Scholium to the Principia: “to treat of God from phenomena is certainly a part of natural philosophy”. The meaning of the first part of the statement is clear: we have epistemic access to God via our observations of the world. And so, from the phenomena, we can learn about God’s nature and divine will—in the same way that we can learn about, say, gravity. But in what sense is this ‘a part of natural philosophy’? That is, how does this statement fit with Newton’s stated views regarding that topic?
In the General Scholium, Newton explains that, while the laws of motion explain why celestial bodies move in Keplerian orbits, they cannot explain how celestial bodies come to be in their present orbits. And so, he writes, “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being”. Prima facie, examples such as this don’t fit with Newton’s natural philosophical method. He seems to employ non-empirical background assumptions about the nature of God’s intervention to plug gaps in his theory. This looks dangerously close to feigning hypotheses. Moreover, from these assumptions, he seems to leap right to the first cause, blocking further scientific inquiry, and contradicting the ‘satis est’ attitude he adopts in his natural philosophy.
I think, however, that Newton’s treatment of God from phenomena is more consistent with his method of natural philosophy than it first appears. But to recognise this, we need to look more closely at how Newton approaches God from the phenomena. In fact, Newton treats of God from phenomena in several different ways. One approach is to move directly from the phenomena to the nature of God’s interactions with the world. For example, in the General Scholium, Newton notes that all celestial bodies move in regular orbits, which tells us that neither planets nor comets encounter any kind of resistance in their orbits. Newton uses the lack of resistance to argue that celestial bodies do not move through vortices but through empty space. However, this phenomenon also reveals that, while God is omnipresent and substantial, he is not material:
God is one and the same God always and everywhere. He is omnipresent not only virtually but also substantially; for action requires substance. In him all things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they on him. God experiences nothing from the motions of bodies; the bodies feel no resistance from God’s omnipresence (Principia, Cohen & Whitman translation, pp. 941-942).
Another way Newton approaches God is to ask after the nature of his interventions. Here, Newton identifies explanatory gaps between phenomena and theory, and asks whether God could be acting, and if so, what is the nature of that action? For example, in a letter to Bentley Newton notes that that his theory of universal gravitation can explain the motions of the planets, but not their original sizes or positions in the solar system. The latter, he concludes, can only be explained by divine intervention. That God works to achieve such perfect balance in the system of the world tells us that he is “not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry”. Here, the insight is that gravity can destabilise the system of the world—and so the physical world constantly tends towards decay. Thus, God is required to use his skills of design and maintenance to prevent this from happening.
Neither approach looks like ‘feigning hypotheses’. For one thing, Newton doesn’t allow his thinking about God to justify or constrain his theorising. Rather, God is introduced after the physical theory has been established to see what it can teach us about the nature of his intervention. And for another thing, Newton’s ideas about God don’t result from speculation, but from rigorous study of both scripture and the natural world, and the careful application of reason. It is from our post-Enlightenment perspective that rigorous study of scripture seems to fall outside of natural philosophy.
Moreover, Newton’s introduction of God doesn’t stop inquiry. Rather, it raises further questions about how and why God intervenes on the system of the world. And these, in turn, lead back to physical inquiry. For example, Newton’s discussions about God’s role in the sizing and positioning of the planets leads to a fruitful inquiry about the specific compositions of the planets and why the biggest planets are furthest from the Sun. That the inquiry continues highlights the fact that Newton doesn’t view the cause of a given phenomenon as either natural or supernatural: every phenomenon is generated by both natural and supernatural causes. That is, physical objects act on one another as natural causes, subject to physical and mathematical laws, but God is the first-cause, and hence, behind all actions. And so, when Newton treats of God from phenomena, the inquiry doesn’t end there.
Finally, as a good experimental philosopher, Newton knows that we only have direct epistemic access to the evidence of our senses, so our knowledge of God is necessarily limited. However, as he makes clear in query 28 of the Opticks, we mustn’t be put off by our inability to discover the first cause directly. Instead, we must work to uncover intermediate causes—proximate causes—and work slowly to uncover deeper and deeper levels of causes until we come to the first cause. And, importantly, these intermediate causes can also reveal the nature of God:
And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite Space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself… And though every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued (Optics, Dover edition, p. 370).
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.
Juan Gomez writes…
In this post I want to take a break from sharing my research on the ESD in early modern Spain. I want to talk about the current application of the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) by philosophers in Latin America.
A few days ago, Sociedad de Filosofia Aplicada (Society for Applied Philosophy), an organization in Spain, posted on their Facebook page a link to a blog written by a philosopher in Mexico. The blog entry is titled “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo.” I had to check out the post, and what I found led me to do a bit of research on the current use of the RED distinction in the Spanish-speaking world. In this post I want to focus on two examples to illustrate both the dangers of the RED and the benefits of adopting the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD).
In Spanish speaking countries, we are taught in philosophy classes in high school and university that the rationalism-empiricism debate frames the history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that such debate was brought to an end by Kant. This assumption leads us to think of rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical schools or movements. This is where the RED starts giving us problems. The author of the blog mentioned above has two posts on rationalism and empiricism: “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo” and “Apunte critico: la metafísica dentro del empirismo.” In the former, the author presents rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical theories, although his description of them reflects that they are two opposing epistemological viewpoints. As we have already mentioned in this blog, the fact that the RED is an epistemological distinction means that it is not at all appropriate when it comes to our interpretation of the breadth history of philosophy of that period. This same problem arises in the author’s other post, where he presents empiricism as a whole movement which pretends to “eliminate metaphysics.” There are two issues here: the author uses the term empiricism to refer to logical positivism and the verification principle, and he takes empiricism as more than an epistemological theory. Regarding the first issue, we can see that the use of the term ’empiricism’ itself is unclear, given that it is used to describe both the Vienna Circle and eighteenth-century empiricists; at best, this would lead us to distinguish different kinds of empiricism which, as we have already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is troublesome. The second issue reiterates the problem of adopting the RED as much more than an epistemological distinction. The author runs into trouble when trying to describe Hume’s thought: “Hume admits, to a certain degree, the value of reason…” Labeling Hume as an empiricist and then claiming that he admits the value of reason raises doubts regarding the usefulness and accuracy of the label.
For a second example I want to refer to a blog entry by a Brazilian philosopher. On the blog for filovida.org, she has an entry titled “Sobre o Empirismo e o Racionalismo de John Locke.” She acknowledges the difficulty of labeling a philosopher under either rationalism or empiricism, and then sets out to explain how John Locke cannot be labelled under any of these terms. She explains that Locke in some sense has a foothold in each of the so-called philosophical schools: “Locke’s starting point is an empirical method while at the same time he is committed to a rationalist project…” “This is how Locke’s philosophy encompasses, admirably and sui generis, not rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but rather a rationality which follows a rigid, reasonable, and novel empiricist method.” The author here acknowledges the issues that arise when considering the work of Locke under the RED framework, but her thought can be finessed by switching to the ESD framework. The apparent ambiguity of Locke’s work —sitting between rationalism and empiricism— vanishes when his thought is viewed under the ESD lens. Locke can be more comfortably labelled an experimental philosopher, providing us with a more accurate description of his work and a clearer insight into his thought.
The two examples mentioned here just serve the purpose of illustrating the current situation when doing early modern philosophy with the RED framework. Though there has been some talk among Spanish-speaking philosophical circles of the suitability of the RED, most philosophers in the region still take the rationalist–empiricist distinction for granted and work within such framework, unaware of the issues (like in the first example) or the advantages (like in the second example) of an alternative framework. Historians of philosophy in the region can enhance their work and understanding of early modern philosophy by adopting the ESD framework. The switch is a difficult but very rewarding one, one that needs to take place across the whole curriculum in the region; from introductory classes in high school, to advanced research projects in universities.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
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.
Peter Anstey writes…
Sometimes we can appreciate the impact of a new way of thinking or a new movement by examining the views and writings of those on the periphery or of minor, lesser-known figures. Such is the case with the Scotsman Martin Martin. His A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland published in 1703 is written as a Baconian natural history, and in its short preface Martin very self-consciously situates his work as a contribution to experimental philosophy.
It is well known that the book gained some renown in the eighteenth century for its discussion of the phenomenon of second sight –– a discussion that is literally matter of fact and which accords with the methodology of experimental philosophy in so far as he refrains from entertaining any speculations concerning causes of this phenomenon.
The book also gained some notoriety from the fact that Boswell and Johnson used it as a kind of travel guide for their tour of the western Scottish isles in 1773. Yet it is Martin’s brief but poignant methodological comments that are of interest to students of early modern experimental philosophy.
Martin views his book as something of a supplement to the leading histories of Scotland, especially that of George Buchanan, whose History of Scotland (Rerum Scoticarum historia, Edinburgh) appeared back in 1582. Martin tells us:
since his [Buchanan’s] time, there’s a great Change in the Humour of the World, and by consequence in the way of Writing. Natural and Experimental Philosophy has been much improv’d since his days, and therefore Descriptions of Countries without the Natural History of ’em, are now justly reckon’d to be defective. (sig. a4r)
This comment signals Martin’s understanding of the place of natural history in the methodology of experimental philosophy and the requirement that histories of countries have a natural historical component. He goes on to list some of the topics that he covers in order to render his account of the western isles of Scotland such a natural history:
the Nature of the Climate and Soil, of the Produce of the Places by Sea and Land, and of the Remarkable Cures perform’d by the Natives meerly by the use of Simples, and that in such variety as I hope will make amends for what Defects may be found in my Stile and way of Writing. (sig. a5v)
These topics or heads or articles of inquiry are typical of this genre of natural history, and much of the actual content of the book covers Robert Boyle’s desiderata for the natural history of a country set out as early as 1666 (‘General Heads for a Natural History of a Country, Great or Small’) in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. 1, pp. 86–9) and republished in 1692.
Martin mentions experimental philosophy a second time:
Humane Industry has of late advanc’d useful and experimental Philosophy very much, Women and illiterate Persons have in some measure contributed to it by the discovery of some useful Cures. (sig. a5v–a6r)
Now, from a 21st century perspective the comment on women and the illiterate might seem condescending, nevertheless, Martin’s is making the very Baconian point that not just the learned, but everyone can contribute to the project of the history of nature. He then goes on to stress the importance of observation:
the Field of Nature is large, and much of it wants still to be cultivated by an ingenious and discreet application; and the Curious by their Observations might daily make further advances in the History of Nature. (sig. a6r)
It is worth noting that the inspiration for his natural history derived from some within the Royal Society itself, probably including Hans Sloane. For, we are told in the Preface to his earlier A Late Voyage to St. Kilda, London, 1698 (dedicated to the then President of the Royal Society, Charles Montagu), that he had had the
honour of Conversing with some of the Royal Society, who raised his natural Curiosity to survey the Isles of Scotland more exactly than any other; in prosecution of which design he as already brought along with him several curious Productions of Nature, both rare and beautiful in their kind (sig. A4v)
It might be thought, therefore, that Martin’s text is one of many such natural histories from the early eighteenth century; however, I have argued elsewhere that from the 1690s this approach to experimental philosophy actually began to decline. Not only had the program of experimental natural history not delivered much by way of new natural philosophy, but also a rival mathematical form of experimental philosophy was emerging in the wake of Newton’s Principia (1687). If this thesis concerning the decline of Baconian natural history is correct, Martin’s work should be viewed as one of the final installments of an approach to experimental philosophy that was soon to be superseded, even if it never completely disappeared.
Moreover, Martin seems to have had few like-minded natural historians around him in Scotland. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, Scotland wrote to John Locke in October 1701 and had the letter hand delivered by Martin. Fletcher recommends him to Locke and, after mentioning Martin’s materials for his natural history of ‘westerne isles of Scotland’ says,
Their is so little encouragement for such a man herre, that if he can meete with any in England, he thincks of staying their or going further abroad (Correspondence of John Locke, Oxford, vol. 7, p. 471)
I would be most interested in hearing from readers about other examples of Baconian natural histories in Britain in the early years of the eighteenth century that might complement that of Martin Martin and round out my own understanding of this very fascinating manifestation of experimental natural philosophy.