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A response to Anstey’s ‘Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration’

A guest post by Mordechai Feingold.

Mordechai Feingold writes …

I thank Peter Anstey for drawing attention to my ‘“Experimental Philosophy”: Invention and Rebirth of a Seventeenth-Century Concept’, and for giving me the opportunity to correct certain misunderstandings of my argument.

Anstey begins: ‘Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term “experimental philosophy” in them.’ The unsuspecting reader of the blog may conclude that the paper is devoted in its entirety to such minute study; in fact, only a third is given over to the Hartlib papers. More serious, however, is Anstey’s insinuation that on the basis of such a survey I conclude: ‘there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660’. I make no such claim. As both the title and the content of my article make abundantly clear, I argue explicitly that it was the concept of ‘experimental philosophy’, not the practices that would be identified later under such term, that was absent before the Restoration.

Anstey pivots to my claim that when John Aubrey, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood described, two decades and more after the events, the activities carried out at Oxford during the 1650s, they anachronistically projected the term ‘experimental philosophy’ onto such activities—thereby leading historians to assume that the term had been in use already back then. Anstey disagrees. ‘As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love’, he writes, ‘Boyle had been described by the anonymous author … of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’. I was aware of this reference. However, since the first edition of Seraphic Love was published in late September 1659, and since it is not at all clear whether the anonymous second advertisement was actually included in the initial printing of the book, I considered the following statement sufficient to denote Boyle’s centrality to the revamping of the concept: ‘By early 1660 Boyle added “experimental philosophy” to his rhetorical repertoire, thereby becoming intimately involved in refitting the meaning of the phrase’. I documented the statement by citing the very expressions from New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air that Anstey cites against my interpretation. In particular, Anstey claims, the context in which Boyle referred to John Wilkins as the ‘Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’ is ‘entirely experimental’—thereby implying that I denied the existence of experimental activity before 1660. Anstey further contends that ‘Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood’. I don’t see the problem here. The reference to Wilkins was obviously added to the discussion of the twentieth experiment when Boyle prepared the manuscript for press in early 1660. Thus, the inclusion of the term coheres perfectly with the other references to ‘experimental philosophy’ in the book.

Ultimately, whether Boyle started using the term in late 1659 or in early 1660 is of no great matter. What is important, and this is the point I insist on, is that Boyle and other members of the Royal Society—with the notable exception of William Petty whom I discuss at some length in my article—had previously used terms other than ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their scientific activities. And in view of my pronounced aim to probe the changing fortunes of a concept, I’m puzzled by Anstey’s characterization of my undertaking as a denial of the historical relations furnished by Aubrey, Wallis, Wood, and Boyle concerning the existence of a flourishing experimental activity at Oxford during the 1650s. My intent was to show why it was only around 1660 that Boyle and his Royal Society colleagues decide to appropriate the term ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their activities, thereby imbuing it with a fixed conceptual and polemical meaning. Given Anstey’s divergent understanding of the meaning and fortunes of ‘experimental philosophy’, it is understandable why he is reluctant to accept my argument or my periodization. This divergence notwithstanding, however, ultimately Anstey and I share much more in common than we disagree.

Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration

In a recent article, Mordechai Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in them. His conclusion after surveying them all is that the term was used without a common determinate referent. This raises the question: Did experimental philosophy exist in England before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660? Feingold argues that there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660 and that those in later years who claimed that there was were being anachronistic: they were projecting the experimental philosophy of the 1660s or even the 1670s back into the late 1650s.

What evidence does he adduce for his claim of anachronism? First, there is the comment by John Aubrey from the 1680s which describes John Wilkins in the 1650s as ‘the principal reviver of experimental philosophy … at Oxford, where he had weekly an experimentall philosophy clubbe …’. Second, there are the comments of Anthony Wood from later years, such as his description of Lawrence Rooke moving to Oxford because he was ‘much addicted to experimental philosophy’. Third, there is John Wallis’ defense of himself in 1678 against the charges of William Holder. Like Aubrey, Wallis refers to the meetings at Oxford in the 1650s. Wallis is concerned to correct Holder’s own recollection of events in 1659 and so is almost certainly trying to recollect accurately. He claims, correcting Holder:

the Set Meetings for such a purpose (which had before been there [i.e. at Wadham College]) were then dis-used, and had been for a good while. And, what was of this nature at Oxford (about Experimental Philosophy) in those days, was rather at Mr. Boyl’s Lodgings, than at Wadham-Colledge. (Wallis, Defence of the Royal Society, London, 1678, p. 5)

So we have (1) Aubrey in the 1680s mentioning an experimental philosophy club and describing Wilkins as the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’; (2) Wood many years after the event describing Rooke as moving to Oxford because he was addicted to experimental philosophy; (3) Wallis in 1678 describing the Oxford meetings as being held at Boyle’s lodgings and being ‘about Experimental Philosophy’. Taken at face value, these might all be backward projections onto the meetings of the late 1650s in Boyle’s lodgings.

However, when these comments are juxtaposed with a contemporaneous account they look quite different. As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love Boyle had been described by the anonymous author (perhaps Boyle himself) of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’ (Boyle, Works, 1: 60). But the most interesting uses of the term appear in his Spring of the Air. The experiments in Boyle’s Spring of the Air were begun in 1657 and the work was completed by 20 December 1659. He tells us as much in the work itself. Negotiations with the printer were well underway as early as 26 January 1660 (Robert Sharrock to Boyle, 26 Jan 1660, Boyle, Correspondence, 1: 399). In Spring of the Air Boyle uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ three times. For example, he speaks of ‘my grand Design of promoting Experimental and Useful Philosophy’ and he makes the following comment in passing when discussing Experiment 20 on the question as to whether, like the air, water has a kind of spring:

And, on this occasion, it will not perhaps be amiss to acquaint Your Lordship here (though we have already mention’d it in another Paper, to another purpose) with another Expedient that we made use of two or three years ago, to try whether or no Water had a Spring in it. About that time then, That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy Dr. Wilkins, doing me the Honor to come himself, and bring some of his inquisitive Friends to my Lodging … (Boyle, Works, 1: 207)

The context of the recollection from c. 1657 is entirely experimental. Note the reference to Wilkins as ‘That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’. This is similar to Aubrey’s claim that Wilkins was the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’. Note too the claim that the meeting was in Boyle’s lodging, the same location, indeed the same term as used by Wallis. Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood.

Where does this leave Feingold’s case for anachronism? In my view Boyle’s contemporaneous comments provide persuasive corroborating evidence that the claims of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood are accurate recollections of the pre-Restoration Oxford meetings. That is, Boyle’s comments should be used to shed light on what Aubrey, Wallis and Wood meant by the term in the decades following the Oxford meetings rather than the other way around. According to Boyle in 1659, those meetings were in his lodgings and concerned experimental philosophy, just as the others later claimed. The case for the anachronistic reading is, therefore, seriously weakened in the light of Boyle’s testimony. It seems far more likely that there was an activity carried out by a small group in the late 1650s in Boyle’s Oxford rooms that was and still is aptly described as experimental philosophy.

The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain

In my last post I considered the benefits of applying the ESD framework to our interpretation of the history and philosophy of science in early modern Spain. We saw that, in spite of the appearance of the terms “empiric” and “rationalist” in the work of some of the Spanish intellectual figures of the period, the ESD framework had a lot more to offer than the traditional RED framework. Today I want to introduce a particular controversy that highlights the advantages of working with the ESD in our examination of science and philosophy in early modern Spain.

The whole controversy began with the publication of a book by a scholastic figure: Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo (1662-1714), librarian to the king. In 1713 he published Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), a book in which he gives an interpretation of Genesis consistent with the theory of atomism. The book stands at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide and as such it offers us a great insight into the uniqueness of the development of philosophy in early modern Spain. The book is an attempt to adopt the ideas of the new science within a scholastic framework. Alvarez begins his chapter on the creation of the sensible world with a presentation of his atomism:

At the beginning, the matter of the Sensible World was a tangled mass of imperceptible small bodies, which were the primitive state of the creative action, of the material Substance. These tiny bodies differed in their form, and due to them, through movement were capable of creating the various compositions that make this Fabric, which is as varied as it is beautiful. Each tiny body had its own place, and in this way they had extension, though this does not mean that they were subject of division, given that the principle of them was Creation, dividing them would be annihilating them.

Here we have a case where a scholastic figure attempts to adopt the new science into his scholastic system, explaining the creation of the world through the union and separation of corpuscles of various kinds. Alvarez adds a note to the passage quoted above where he explains how his account of the creation based on corpuscles and the indivisibility of matter is consistent with the power and wisdom of God. First he explains that God created all things independent of each other, giving each corpuscle its individuality, and that this is not contrary to the process of Creation, since compound bodies are nothing but united corpuscles, whether these bodies are created already as compounds or not. Regarding the indivisibility of the corpuscles, Alvarez explains that, being the result of simple Creation, corpuscles cannot be divided, since this would entail that each of the divided parts would have to exist either through creation or generation, and neither of these options is possible.  He goes on to say that the heterogeneity in form, and the extension of these corpuscles is clear, and he finishes the note with a caution which highlights the care taken by the scholastics who adopted theories from the new science. One way of preventing any suspicion of heresy was to claim that the theory was not certain, but rather that it was a probable hypothesis. This is what Alvarez does to conclude his note, saying that “…we do not propose our maxims as evident, but we are satisfied to leave it in terms of probable”.

However cautious Alvarez was, the scholastics still saw his book as a threat to their beliefs and set out to criticize it. This was the beginning of a controversy that would involve the leading intellectual figures of the time. Two scholastic thinkers, Fransisco Palanco and Juan Martin de Lessaca set out to attack Alvarez´s book and the new science, while Diego Mateo Zapata and Juan de Najera replied defending the Novatores and calling for the replacement of the old, scholastic science with the new.

We will look at the details of each of the texts in forthcoming posts. For now, I want to conclude by commenting on the nature of the experimental/speculative divide in early modern Spain. The Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy shows that the experimental and speculative ideals stand at two opposite ends of a whole spectrum. While the scholastic Palanco and Lessaca stand clearly closer to the speculative end, Alvarez, a scholastic intellectual, stands closer to the middle, with Zapata and Najera standing at the experimental end. In fact, both Zapata and Najera began their intellectual life closer to the speculative end, but went on to fully embrace the methodology of experimental philosophy as time went by. To complicate the scene even further, during the final years of his life Najera gave up on experimental philosophy and went back to defend the scholastic, speculative way of thinking. This highlights the complexity of the Spanish intellectual landscape, while at the same time providing us with the opportunity to shed light on such a landscape by examining it from the ESD framework.

Experimental Philosophy and Early Modern Ethics: Turnbull and Fordyce

Alberto Vanzo writes …

Experimental philosophy is often portrayed as an exciting or controversial new development in philosophy. Yet, some have claimed that the practice of experimental philosophy is traditional and that it ‘began to flourish’ in the early modern period. Is it true that the practices and methods of current-day experimental philosophy is a traditional philosophical practice?

To shed light on this question, I will focus on George Turnbull, David Fordyce and (in my next post) David Hume. As Juan has shown (e.g. here and here), these authors stressed that their ethics derives from ‘plain uncontroverted Experiments’ and ‘reasoning from experiment’. Do Turnbull and Fordyce ethics adopt the practices and methods of current-day experimental philosophers?

Two practices are especially relevant to this question:

  • Experimental philosophers object to the practice of developing philosophical arguments on the basis of intuitions, without assessing how widely those intuitions are shared and whether they are influenced by factors such as ethnic background, gender, or philosophical training. Accordingly, experimental philosophers engage in systematic investigations of people’s intuitions.
  • More broadly, experimental philosophy can be characterised as the practice of systematically relying on empirical evidence in attempting to answer philosophical questions.

There are two reasons to think that Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s ethics is not an early instance of experimental philosophy.

1. The buck-passing strategy

Much of Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s ethics depends on their account of people’s feelings and behaviour. For instance, Fordyce outlines the passions that people experience at various stages of their lives: infants’ affection for their parents, children’s ‘Love of Action, of Imitation’, and so on. In support of his portrayal of human passions, Fordyce writes:

Whether this historic Draught of Man … be just or not, is a Matter, not so much of Reasoning, as common Sense and common Experience. Therefore let every one consult his Experience of what he feels within, and his Knowledge of what is transacted abroad, in the … World in which he lives; and by that Experience, and that Knowledge, let the Picture be acknowledged Just, or pronounced the Contrary.

Here and elsewhere, instead of detailing their observations, Turnbull and Fordyce appeal to a generic ‘common experience’ and pass the buck to their readers, inviting them to consult their own experience. This may be construed as a merely rhetorical move, or as an appeal to their readers’ intuitions. Either way, it is a far cry from experimental philosophers’ systematic provision of actual, specific experiences in support of their claims.

2. Thought Experiments

Turnbull and Fordyce often rely on intuitions elicited by thought experiments. They invite their readers to imagine a scenario and ponder a question, to elicit a judgement that is used as evidence for a philosophical claim. For instance, Turnbull asks his readers to imagine that someone paid them to have a sentiment of approbation for an instance of ‘villany’ or ‘treachery’. Would this bribery be successful? Turnbull expects his readers to answer that it wouldn’t, because they cannot bring themselves to have sentiments of approbation for such actions.

This is the procedure that armchair philosophers adopt when they appeal to intuitions in support of their claims. Like armchair philosophers, Turnbull and Fordyce take it for granted that, by reflecting on given cases, readers will elicit the very same judgements that their own reflection has elicited. They assume that people’s moral intuitions are uniform. They never suggest that an empirical inquiry might be necessary to confirm this assumption. In fact, Turnbull and Fordyce display little interest for cross-cultural moral divergences.

In sum, Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s appeals to a generic common experience and their armchair reliance on intuitions make them unlikely predecessors of current-day experimental philosophers. In my next post I will turn to Hume. Which other early modern moral philosophers should I focus on to establish if experimental philosophy is a traditional philosophical practice? I would appreciate your suggestions in the comments or via email.

Understanding Newton’s Principia as part of the Baconian Tradition

Kirsten Walsh writes…

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!

Voltaire: Experimental Philosopher

Voltaire, détail du visage (château de Ferney)

Voltaire, détail du visage (château de Ferney)

Peter Anstey writes …

The French Philosophe Voltaire played an important role in the transmission of experimental natural philosophy to France in the 1730s. That Voltaire regarded the emergence of experimental philosophy as a pivotal moment in history is seen in his history of The Age of Louis XIV (1751). In the Introduction to this work he speaks of the Italians of the Renaissance being ‘in possession of everything that was beautiful, excepting music, which was then in but a rude state, and experimental philosophy, which was everywhere unknown’.

The decisive moment came in the early seventeenth century in the writings of Francis Bacon. For, in his Letters Concerning the English Nation (Oxford, 1994) that appeared in English and French in 1734, Voltaire credits Bacon with being the first experimental philosopher:

He is the Father of experimental philosophy … no one, before the Lord Bacon, was acquainted with experimental Philosophy, nor with the several physical Experiments which have been made since his Time. (pp. 51–2)

But did Voltaire himself take up experimental philosophy or was he merely a herald and conduit for this movement to the French reading public?

Two works suggest that Voltaire fully embraced the new experimental philosophy that he had encountered in England in the 1720s. The first is his Treatise on Metaphysics that he wrote in 1734, the year in which his Letters appeared but which was published posthumously. This work bears the marks of someone who had imbibed the methodological position of the new experimental philosophy both in its rejection of speculative philosophy and hypotheses and the priority it gives to observation and experiment. For example, he says:

It is clear that one should not make hypotheses. We ought not to say ‘Let us begin by inventing some principles with which we will try to explain everything’, but we ought to say, ‘Make an exact analysis of things and then we will try with great diffidence whether they are related to certain principles’.

He goes on to claim ‘when we can help ourselves with neither the compass of mathematics, nor the torch of experiment and natural philosophy, it is certain that we are not able to do anything’ (ibid., p. 301).

The second work is his ‘Essay on the nature of fire and its propagation’, an essay he submitted for the Académie des sciences prize in 1738. As things turned out Leonhard Euler’s essay won the prize, but Voltaire’s submission and that of Madame du Châtelet were published alongside Euler’s winning essay in the Recueil des pieces qui ont remporté le prix de l’Académie royale des sciences in 1739. This is Voltaire’s only serious foray into experimental natural philosophy.

In the Part One of the essay, the part that addresses the nature of heat, he uses the experiments of others to argue for an Aristotelian theory of heat as an element. In doing so he cites the experimental work of Boyle, Newton and Boerhaave. However, in the second article of Part Two of the essay, on the subject of how fire acts on other bodies, Voltaire relates a whole series of experiments that he had performed himself. This is with a view to establishing certain laws by which fire acts, the second of which purported laws is an inverse square law analogous to Newton’s law of gravitational attraction! (p. 201) At one point he tells us:

the comparative degrees of heat of fluids of minerals and of vegetables can, I believe, be known with the aid of a single thermometer constructed on the principles of Mr de Réaumur.

There is only one precaution to take, and this is that the spirit of wine should not boil in the thermometer. To achieve this I plunged only up to half of the ball of the thermometer in the boiling liquors. (p. 207)

Much more could be said about this fascinating essay, but the key point of interest here is that it is a demonstration of Voltaire’s commitment to and practice of experimental natural philosophy.

He may never have experimented again, yet he continued to refer to experimental philosophy, alluding to his essay on heat in his Metaphysics of Newton (La métaphysique de Neuton, Amsterdam, 1740, p. 49) and, most famously, referring to experimental philosophy in his literary works, including Candide (1759) and Micromégas (1752).

 

The ESD in early modern Spain: taking stock

Juan Gomez writes…

As readers of this blog know, I have been exploring the application of the ESD framework for interpreting the history of philosophy and science in early modern Spain. Throughout the past 18 months or so I have been sharing my research and thought on the experimental/speculative divide in Spain, the application of the experimental method in medicine and natural philosophy by the Novatores, and the attacks on the “new philosophy” by Spanish scholastic thinkers. It is time to take stock on the ESD in early modern Spain, and I want to begin by focusing on one particular issue in this post.

One of the purported advantages of applying the ESD framework is that, unlike the terms “rationalist” and “empiricist,” the terms “experimental” and “speculative” were in fact the terms used by early modern philosophers. However, as is evident in a number of my posts, it seems that in early modern Spain the rationalist/empiricist distinction is used by the players in the debate. Could this perhaps mean that the ESD framework is not that appropriate for the Spanish context? I don’t believe this is the case. Let’s start by examining the use of the empiric/rationalist distinction I have referred to in previous posts.

Almost all of the figures involved in the intellectual debates in early modern Spain were either within or had some connection to the medical context. It is in this context where we see the terms “empirico” (empiric) and “racional” (rational) in use. The terms appear opposed to each other, where the empiric doctors are those that focus on experience and observation and the rational doctors those who follow the teachings of Galen and Aristotle. This being the case, we could perhaps claim that the ESD has no clear advantage over the RED framework. In fact, we could even think that the RED is better, since the figures involved in the debate were using “empirico” and “racional.”

It is important here to remember that the frameworks have two dimensions: a historical and a historiographic one. In the Spanish case, the presumed advantage of the RED would hold at the historical level, but it is yet to be seen if this carries over to the historiographical level.

However, even at the historical level the RED framework’s advantage is doubtful. As we have explained, there is a very important difference between the two frameworks: while the ESD highlights a methodological distinction, the RED highlights an epistemic one. As we examined in my last post, while Boix uses “empirico” and “racional”, he uses those terms to refer to a methodological distinction, not an epistemic one. So the use of the terms by Boix does not line up with the way they appear within the RED framework.

In fact, the fact that the way Boix uses the terms differs from the RED way actually points to the advantages of the ESD at the historiographical level. Even if the figures within the debate were not using “experimental” and “speculative”, the fact that the ESD focuses on a methodological distinction makes it a more appropriate framework for our interpretation of the period.

There is another consideration that can shed light on our present discussion. As I mentioned earlier, the empiric/rational distinction is rooted in the medical context. In other contexts, as in astrology and natural philosophy, the debate is not phrased in those terms. The Novatores, guided by the work of Benito Feijoo, phrase the methodological distinction in terms of the systemic/experimental divide, where “the former explain nature according to some system; the latter discover it through the way of experience.”

So it seems that, in spite of the empiric/rationalist distinction that appears within the medical context in early modern Spain, the ESD is still a more appropriate framework for our interpretation of the intellectual development in the Iberian Peninsula. This being said, there is still a lot of work to do in order to give a fuller account of the use of “empiric” and “rational” by early modern Spanish figures and their relation to the experimental/speculative divide.

Baconian Induction in the Principia

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Recently, I have been looking for clear cases of Baconianism in the Principia. In my last post, I offered Newton’s ‘moon test’ as an example of a Baconian crucial instance, ending with a concern about establishing influence between Bacon and Newton. Newton used his calculations of the accelerations of falling bodies to provide a crucial instance which allowed him to choose between two competing explanations. However, one might argue that this was simply a good approach to empirical support, and not uniquely Baconian. In this post, I’ll consider another possible Baconianism: Steffen Ducheyne’s argument that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Baconian induction.

Let’s begin with Baconian induction (this account is based on Ducheyne’s 2005 paper). Briefly, Bacon’s method of ampliative inference involved two broad stages. The first was a process of piecemeal generalisation. That is, in contrast to simple enumerative induction, shifting from the particular to the general in a single step, Bacon recommended moving from particulars to general conclusions via partial or mediate generalisations. Ducheyne refers to this process as ‘inductive gradualism’. The second stage was a process of testing and adjustment. That is, having reached a general conclusion, Bacon recommended deducing and testing its consequences, adjusting it accordingly.

Ducheyne argues that, in the Principia, Newton’s argument for universal gravitation proceeded according to Baconian induction. In the first stage, Newton’s argument proceeded step-by-step from the motion of the moon with respect to the Earth, the motions of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn with respect to Jupiter and Saturn, and the motions of the planets with respect to the Sun, to the forces producing those motions. He inferred that the planets and moons maintain their motions by an inverse square centripetal force, and concluded that this force is gravity—i.e. the force that causes an apple to fall to the ground. And, in a series of further steps (still part of the first stage), Newton established that, as the Sun exerts a gravitational pull on each of the planets, so the planets exert a gravitational pull on the Sun. Similarly, the moons exert a gravitational pull on their planets. And finally, the planets and moons exert a gravitational pull on each other. He concluded that every body attracts every other body with a force that is proportional to its mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between them: universal gravitation. Moving to the second stage, Newton took his most general conclusion—that gravity is universal—and examined its consequences. He demonstrated that the irregular motion of the Moon, the tides and the motion of comets can be deduced from his theory of universal gravitation.

Ducheyne notes that Newton didn’t attribute this method of inference to Bacon. Instead, he labelled the two stages ‘analysis’ and ‘synthesis’ respectively, and attributed them to the Ancients. However, Ducheyne argues that we should recognise this approach as Baconian in spirit and inspiration.

This strikes me as a plausible account, and it illuminates some interesting features of Newton’s approach. For one thing, it helps us to make sense of ‘Rule 4’:

In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from phenomena by induction should be considered either exactly or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses, until yet other phenomena make such propositions either more exact or liable to exceptions.

Newton’s claim that, in the absence of counter-instances, we should take propositions inferred via induction to be true seems naïve when interpreted in terms of simple enumerative induction. However, given Newton’s ‘inductive gradualism’, Rule 4 looks less epistemically reckless.

Moreover, commentators have often been tempted to interpret this rule as an expression of the hypothetico-deductive method, in which the epistemic status of Newton’s theory is sensitive to new evidence. Previously, I have argued that, when we consider how this rule is employed, we find that it’s not the epistemic status of the theory, but its scope, that should be updated. Ducheyne’s Baconian interpretation supports this position—and perhaps offers some precedent for it.

Ducheyne’s suggestion also encourages us to re-interpret other aspects of Newton’s argument for universal gravitation in a Baconian light. Consider, for example, the ‘phenomena’. Previously, I have noted that these are not simple observations but observed regularities, generalised by reference to theory. They provide the explananda for Newton’s theory. In Baconian terms, we might regard the phenomena as the results of a process of experientia literata—they represent the ‘experimental facts’ to be explained. This, I think, ought to be grist for Ducheyne’s mill.

Interpreting Newton’s argument for universal gravity in terms of Baconian induction brings the experimental aspects of the Principia into sharper focus. These aspects have often been overlooked for two broad reasons. The first is that the mathematical aspects of the Principia have distracted people from the empirical focus of book 3. I plan to examine this point in more detail in my next post. The second is that the Baconian method of natural history has largely been reduced to a caricature, which has made it difficult to recognise it when it’s being used. Dana Jalobeanu and others have challenged the idea that a completed Baconian natural history is basically a large storehouse of facts. Bacon’s Latin natural histories are complex reports containing, not only observations, but also descriptions of experiments, advice and observations on the method of experimentation, provisional explanations, questions, and epistemological discussions. We don’t find such detailed observation reports in the Principia, but we do find some of the features of Baconian natural histories.

So, Ducheyne’s interpretation of Newton’s argument for universal gravitation in terms of Bacon’s gradualist inductive method proves both fruitful and insightful. However, recall that, in my last post, I worried that the resemblance of Newton’s methodology to Bacon’s isn’t enough to establish that Newton was influenced by Bacon’s methodology. If Bacon was just describing a good, general, epistemic method, couldn’t Newton have simply come up with it himself? He was, after all, an exceptional scientist who gave careful thought to his own methodology. Is Ducheyne’s discussion sufficient to establish influence? What do you think?

“Secta Empírica y Dogmáticos Racionales”: medicine and the ESD in early modern Spain II

Juan Gomez writes…

I have been discussing the reception and development of experimental philosophy in early modern Spain in a number of posts in our blog. In my previous entry, I introduced a 1711 text by Marcelino Boix which presents an interesting sketch of the relationship between natural philosophy and medicine. In particular, we saw that Boix sets out to defend empiric doctors from the attacks of rational dogmatists. However, I did not examine in detail Boix’s conception of empiric doctors. It is to Boix’s description of the empiric sect that I want to turn to now.

Boix establishes his definition of the empiric sect by placing it in relation to what he calls “the three main sects of natural philosophy”: sceptics, academics, and rational dogmatists. While all three sects are driven by the search for truth, they differ in the accounts of their results:

Rational dogmatists brag that they have found the truth, in contrast to the Sceptics, which have not been able to find it, in spite of the fact that they have never lost hope of finding it…The Academics have completely despaired in finding it. While Rational dogmatists insist on giving an answer to every question in nature, Academics and Sceptics suspend their judgment.

Boix wants the reader to think that out of the three sects, the Academic one is the best. This is made evident in his description of the way the three sects have made an impact on the history of medicine. Boix comments that medicine up to the eighteenth century was founded on the rational dogmatist philosophy, which has Aristotle and Chrysippus as its leading figures, since “they were the first who taught Dogmatists and Scholastics to talk loud when it comes to the search for truth.”

The academics are discarded quickly, since they have given up in the search for the truth. The sceptics are considered in a more favorable light, since they are the foundation for the empiric doctors, who Boix sides with. He mentions that the Sceptics had Pyrrho for their guide, who “acquired the knowledge, solely through the light of nature, that Philosophy and Medicine were not learnt through disputes and useless questions.”  Boix starts his defense of the empiric sect and finds support in the work of Robert Boyle. He quotes a passage from Boyle’s Certain Physiological Essays in order to show that the way rational dogmatists conduct their research does not yield results:

If a physician be asked, why rhubarb does commonly cure looseness, he will probably tell you as a reason, that rhubarb is available in such diseases, because it hath both a laxative virtue, whereby it evacuates choler, and such other bad humours as are wont, in such cases, to be the peccant matter; and an astringent quality, whereby it afterwards arrests the flux. But if you further ask him the reason, why rhubarb purges, and why it purges choler more than any other humour; it is ten to one he will not be able to give you a satisfactory answer.

Boix uses the quote to prove a point: that the rational dogmatists (focusing their accounts on occult and secondary qualities) cannot explain why rhubarb purges choler more than any other humour. He comments that not even Robert Boyle, “the Prince of philosophy in our time”, can explain why rhubarb purges choler more than any other humour. The point is that those partial to the empiric sect know when to abstain from giving an answer, unlike the rational dogmatists who make up their explanations.

This brings Boix to ask an interesting question to his sketch: If none of the sects can give us answers, what is the difference between them? Boix reiterates his suggestion that while rational dogmatists claim to know certain truths, without proof, sceptics focus on the plausibility of their explanations based on experience:

If, like Valles says, a doctrine is more probable than another, because it has better foundations both ab extrinseco and ab intrinseco, then in Philosophy the Sceptics will make it more probable than the Rational dogmatists, the latter make doctrines plausible based on the authority of many, which is ab extrinseco, and on reason, which is ab intrinseco. But the Sceptics laugh at all this, since with experience they prove both reason and authority wrong. The same can be said of the Empiric doctors, given that, despising useless questions they search for experience, because they know that it will bring them closer to the truth (even though they lose hope in ascertaining it), and in this way Sceptics and Empirics make their doctrine more plausible than the Rational dogmatists do: since opposed to experience there can be no disputes, especially when it is accompanied by reason.

Boix’s description of the distinction between rational dogmatists and sceptics/empiric doctors closely resembles the speculative-experimental divide: rational dogmatists, just like speculative philosophers, turn to authority, syllogisms, and occult qualities to ground their doctrines; sceptics/empiric doctors rely solely on experience in their search for truth, just like experimental philosophers. Boix’s references to Boyle and Sydenham also suggest that his empiric doctors are committed to the same methodology the experimental physicians promoted. In this sense, Boix’s work can help us decipher the way in which Spanish philosophers received and interpreted experimental philosophy, giving way to the philosophy of the Novatores, a group that would shape the development of early modern Spanish philosophy.

Leibniz’s early reflections on natural history and experiment

Peter Anstey writes…

G. W. Leibniz visited England in late October 1676. While there he renewed his acquaintance with Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, and showed him his calculating device. After a week’s visit he boarded a ship bound for the Continent on 29 October, but for various reasons the ship was delayed and he used his time while moored in the Thames to write a dialogue about the nature of motion.

This dialogue, recently translated in full for the first time, has a very interesting preamble about natural philosophical methodology. This preamble may well have been stimulated by his recent visit to London, for it mentions some of the leading ideas of the new experimental philosophy that was practised there and promoted by many Fellows of the Royal Society of which Leibniz was a foreign member.

The dialogue is between Pacidius, aka Leibniz, Gallantius, Theophilus and Charinus. Pacidius opens with a comment about the danger of looking for causes when one does natural history. (I am quoting from the translation of Richard Arthur, G.W. Leibniz: The Labyrinth of the Continuum: Writings on the Continuum Problem, 1672–1686, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.) We take it up from Gallantius’ reply:

GALLANTIUS: I have certainly often wished that observations of nature, especially histories of diseases, could be presented to us unadorned and free from opinions, as are those of Hippocrates, and not accommodated to the opinions of Aristotle or Galen or somebody more recent. For we will only be able to revive philosophy when we have solid foundations for it. (p. 133)

Gallantius focuses on natural histories of disease, but his point applies more generally to the project of Baconian natural history (described here) which, as Oldenburg repeatedly claimed, was to provide solid foundations for natural philosophy. Theophilus replies:

THEOPHILUS: I do not doubt that the royal road is through experiments, but unless it is levelled out by reasoning we will make slow progress, and will still be stuck at the beginning after many generations. (p. 133)

Theophilus here raises the issue of the relation between the gleanings from observation and experiments, which is the focus of natural history, and the need to theorise in order to get an understanding of nature. The comment about being ‘stuck at the beginning after many generations’ is prescient because, as we have pointed out before on this blog, one of the reasons that the Baconian program of natural history faltered in the late seventeenth century was because it had delivered so little in the way of stimulus to new natural philosophy. Robert Hooke was sensitive to this very point in his ‘Discourse of Earthquakes’:

tho’ the things so collected [by our natural historians] may of themselves seem but like a rude heap of unpolish’d and unshap’d Materials, yet for the most part they are so qualified as that they may be fit for the beginning, at least of a solid, firm and lasting Structure of Philosophy. (Posthumous Works, London, 1705, p. 329)

Theophilus continues:

… I am amazed at how many excellent observations we have …, at how many elegant experiments the chemists have performed, at what an abundance of things the botanists or anatomists have provided, which philosophers have not made use of, nor deduced from them whatever can be deduced.

PACIDIUS: But there does not yet exist a technique in natural philosophy for deducing whatever can be deduced from the data, as is done according to a definite order in Arithmetic and Geometry. … Once people have learnt to do this in natural philosophy … they will perhaps be surprised that many things were unknown to them for so long––which should not be put down to the laziness of the true method, which alone sheds light. (pp. 133/135)

Here Leibniz reveals that he was aware of the significant progress of the new experimental philosophy as applied in disciplines, such as chemistry, anatomy and botany, and at the same time the lack of progress in using this for developing a philosophy of nature. He puts it down to the lack of a method that is analogous to that in mathematics. The same lack of progress had been noticed by other critics of the new experimental philosophy, particularly the English wits, but rather than viewing this as a methodological deficiency they simply mocked the new natural philosophers in works such as Thomas Shadwell’s play The Virtuoso which appeared in 1676, the very same year as Leibniz’s visit.

Charinus, who speaks next in the dialogue, uses Pacidius’ observations as a segue into a discussion of the nature of motion, and so the methodological reflections tail off at this point. However, the little we do have gives us a fascinating window onto Leibniz’s views of the state and prospects of the new experimental philosophy with its emphasis on natural history in the mid-1670s.