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.