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ESP: Is It Really Best?

Alberto Vanzo writes…

One of the mantras of our research team is: ESP is best. But is it?

As those of you who have been reading the blog for a while will know, we are not supporting Extra-Sensory Phenomena. We are claiming that we can make better sense of a number of episodes in the history of early modern thought by reading them in the light of the distinction between Experimental and Speculative Philosophy than in the light of the empiricism-rationalism distinction.

Keith Hutchison is less than convinced. If he is correct, we’d be better off putting away our early modern x-phi hats and start working on some other idea. Should we? We’d love to know what you think, so today I’m posting Keith’s comment along with a reply.

Keith says:

    Alberto’s paper told me something very helpful about the proposal to replace the RED [rationalism-empiricism distinction] with the ESP. For it is clear that Alberto interprets ‘experimentalism’ very widely, so widely indeed that he would count (say) the observational astronomy of the eighteenth-century as ‘experimental’. In fact, he seems to use the word to mean what I routinely call ‘empiricism’. Apparently there are two senses of ’empiricism’, one a very narrow conception endorsed by that coterie of historians of thought secluded within the halls of philosophy departments, and the other a more general one, as used widely within the thinking public. It is this second notion that the Otago team propose to call ‘experimentalism’. This seems to me a very dangerous practice, one that would generate much confusion if it spread. For it clashes with one of the key connotations of the word ‘experiment’, the idea that experiments constitute a special sub-class of empirical enquiries, those that involve an experimenter, who deliberately manipulates the entities under investigation. This is the way the word is used in modern English, and it is the way the word was used in seventeenth-century English – when such experimentalism became philosophically respectable. To start using it in a radically new sense, just to avoid a problem created by the way a tiny handful of writers have (mis-?)used the word ‘empirical’ is surely mischievous.

Keith is right when he points out that, in the expression “experimental philosophy”, the adjective “experimental” does not uniquely refer to experiments. But this is in line with seventeenth-century usage. When authors like Dunton (here) and Diderot (here), spoke of the experimental philosophy or the experimental method, they did not uniquely refer to experiments. They referred to a specific way of studying the nature of the world around us and our own human nature. To understand it, experimental philosophers claimed, we cannot rely on demonstrative reasonings from principles or hypotheses lacking a broad empirical support. Instead, we must make extensive and systematic recourse on experiments and observations.

When self-declared experimental philosophers studied the human mind, they were adamant that the observations on which they rely included introspection. Juan has showed this in a post on Reid. Indeed, although some early modern authors distinguished between experiments and observations, they performed the same role within Boyle’s or Hooke’s conception of knowledge acquisition. This is why German experimental philosophers could translate “experimental philosophy” as “observational philosophy”.

So as Keith points out, in the expression “experimental philosophy”, the term “experimental” has a broad meaning. However, this is not to say that the expression “experimental philosophy” is irremediably vague or identical to a broad notion of “empiricism”. First, the self-declared early modern experimental philosophers told us what the method of experimental philosophy was. Second, authors like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke put that method in practice in their natural-philosophical work. Third, experimental philosophy can be seen as a movement that people adhered to: they stated that they were part of that movement; they endorsed its rhetoric; they identified with its heroes (e.g., Bacon) and attacked its foes (e.g., Aristotle). When we trace the history of early modern x-phi, we are not applying notions that we have first introduced. We are taking seriously their statements on how they were studying the nature of the world and of our mind, and seeing if it is possible to better understand what they were doing by placing them within the movement that they were actually involved in than by using either the vague or the more technical notions of empiricism that can be found in the literature.

So what do you think: is ESP best? Or are we on a wrong track?

One thought on “ESP: Is It Really Best?

  1. I’m not worried about the broad use of “experimental”. Hutchison’s proposed restriction of the term to enquiries that involve “manipulation” of the objects being investigated, does not agree even with current usage, and certainly not with 17th-century usage (in French and Latin, expérience and experimentum are used perhaps even more broadly than the English word). For an idea of current use, see the entries listed in this search ( at NASA. Experiments require instruments, perhaps, but not manipulation.

    I would be more worried about hitching the EM Experimental Philosophy wagon to the currently trendy X-Phi. That will date quickly.