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Experimental philosophy in France

Peter Anstey writes…

When did the French embrace experimental philosophy? There is no doubt that the early Académie des Sciences was committed to the use of experimental methods in natural philosophy from its inception in 1666. But there is little evidence of French natural philosophers self-identifying as experimental philosophers, of the teaching of experimental philosophy or of institutional recognition of experimental philosophy before the 1730s.

In 1735 Abbé Nollet offered the first course in experimental philosophy in France and two years later he published Programme ou idée générale d’un cours de physique expérimentale which was strongly influenced by John Theophilus Desaguliers whom he had met in England around 1734. By the late 1730s, however, it is not hard to find explicit endorsements of experimental philosophy and the deployment of the experimental/speculative distinction. The reviewer of Abbé Pluche’s Spectacle de la Nature in 1739 claims that Pluche rightly prefers experimental natural philosophy to speculative (Physique spéculative à laquelle il préfére avec raison la Physique) and that experimental philosophy is ‘so à la mode today’ (qui est aujourd’hui si à la mode).

By the early 1750s experimental philosophy is part and parcel of French natural philosophy. We have discussed this before on this blog in relation to Denis Diderot, but the following nice, clear, anonymous dictionary entry reinforces the point. In the Dictionnaire philosophique ou Introduction à la connoisance de l’homme, London (?), 1751 we find the following entry under ‘Physique’:

Natural philosophy is the knowledge of causes and effects of nature. It is experimental or conjectural. Experimental natural philosophy is certain knowledge; conjectural natural philosophy is often only ingenious. The one leads us to the truth, the other leads to error.

La Physique est la connoissance des causes & des effets de la nature: elle est expérimentale, or conjecturale. La Physique expérimentale est une connoissance certaine; la Physique conjecturale n’est souvent qu’ingénieuse: l’une nous conduit à la vérité, & l’autre nous mene à l’erreur.

The parallels with our oft-cited passage from John Dunton’s student manual in 1692 are striking:

Philosophy may be consider’d under these two Heads, Natural and Moral: The first of which, by Reason of the strange Alterations that have been made in it; may be again Subdivided into Speculative and Experimental.

… we must consider, the distinction we have made of Speculative and Experimental, and, as much as possible, Exclude the first, for an indefatigable and laborious Search into Natural Experiments, they being only the Certain, Sure Method to gather a true Body of Philosophy, for the Antient Way of clapping up an entire building of Sciences, upon pure Contemplation, may make indeed an Admirable Fabrick, but the Materials are such as can promise no lasting one.

(The Young-Students-Library, London, 1692, vi–vii)

And yet the two passages are six decades apart. Why did it take so long for the French to take up experimental philosophy? Why is it, for example, that the first chair in experimental philosophy in England was the Cambridge Plumian Chair in Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy founded in 1708 and first held by Roger Cotes, whereas the first chair of experimental philosophy in France was held by Abbé Nollet who was appointed as Professeur Royal de Physique Expérimentale au College de Navarre in 1753?

Any light that our readers can shed on these questions would be most welcome.


4 thoughts on “Experimental philosophy in France

  1. I think the questions like those which mentioned in this post do not have purely philosophical answers. They must trace back to the sociological parameters like religion or other social effects. In the France case, I can see the impact of the contention between Catholics and Protestants. It seems that Protestantism is more sooth with evolutionary movements like experimental philosophy. The contradicted example took place in England where Protestants made the Baconian experimental philosophy ready to be elaborated.

  2. Thanks for your comment Mahdi. I agree that there must be some social factors at play in France. One factor might have been their general deference to Descartes and the reluctance that many French natural philosophers had to give up the Cartesian vortex theory which many in Britain regarded as the archetypal speculative theory. I think that the recent work of Mihnea Dobre on what he calls Cartesian empiricism of the late seventeenth century may bear on this question.

  3. Many thanks for this text. It is rather difficult to give a short answer in the commentary section, but I’ll try to sketch a reply to Mahdi’s comment as well as to raise a problem about the main post. For Mahdi, I would recommend to look at the various chapters from the upcoming volume on “Cartesian Empiricisms” (a brief description can be found on this blog at At the same time, I would say that context is indeed important for the way experiment is discussed, but this does not mean at all that one will find some clear cut divisions between geographical regions or religious orders. And this brings me to a general comment on the entry on “Experimental Philosophy in France,” which I find to exclude experimental activity that was performed in rather informal circles (e.g., the private academies of Paris, but also from the provinces). Among these circles were some Cartesian philosophers and they valued experiment not only for its entertaining purposes, but as a method fully integrated in their natural philosophies. Should these Cartesian philosophers be excluded from the story of experimental philosophy in France? I certainly do not think so.

  4. PS. This might be a good place to mention a precursor to the exciting work on “Cartesian Empiricisms” mentioned in the above comment by Mihnea Dobre. The precursor is the last chapter of Larry Laudan’s 1975 thesis “The Idea of a Physical Theory from Galileo to Newton.” I don’t have the text in front of me, but I recall that Laudan surveyed the methodological views of a number of mid-late 17thC French authors, including Régis, Rohault, and Mariotte. He concluded that, in the minds of those thinkers, experiment and observation were the ultimate arbiters of theories, many and varied observations were required to support a theory, and even the most well-supported theories were probable rather than certain. Is there a case for retrospectively attributing to Laudan the thesis that ENP flourished in France in the mid-late 17thC? If so, was his case for that thesis a persuasive one?