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Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy in Early Modern Italy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

So far, we have argued in many posts that British philosophers from the 1660s onwards worked in the tradition of experimental philosophy and criticized speculative philosophy. However, the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy was also widely employed outside the British isles. In this post, I will document the presence of the experimental-speculative distinction in Italian natural philosophy between 1667 and 1716.

The Accademia del Cimento, founded by 1657 by Prince Leopoldo de Medici in Florence, was one of the first scientific societies in Europe. In 1667 the Accademia published a collection of experimental reports with the title Saggi di naturali esperienze. The preface to this work ends with a caveat:

    We would not like anyone to believe that we presume to give to the light a complete work, or even only a perfect scheme of a great experimental history, because we know well that more time and strengths are required for such an enterprise […] if, sometimes, an even minimal allusion to anything speculative has been made, […] always take it to be a specific idea or intuition of [some] academics, but never one of the Accademia, whose only aim is to experiment and to narrate.

Note the emphasis on experiments, the references to natural histories, and the refrain from endorsing any speculation. These are all indications that the Academy was presenting its work in terms of the then nascent distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy.

Not everyone was endorsing experimental philosophy in late seventeenth-century Italy. However, some of the authors who expressed reservations towards it did so in terms of the experimental-speculative distinction. For instance, Daniello Bartoli distinguished in 1677

    the two manners of natural philosophy which nowadays are very rumored, because they fight over the glory of primacy […]: the Theoretical and the Experimental […]

On the one hand, theoretical or “purely speculative” philosophy “needs experimental [philosophy] to “see [things] by means of the senses”. On the other hand, “purely experimental” philosophy must seek the help of speculative philosophy to proceed from particular experiences to their causes.

    [E]ither [philosophy], by itself, can be defeated if the other does not help and rescue it when it may fall down. But if both are united and if they fight side by side, although they may not always win, surely they will never be defeated.

Among the Aristotelians, Giovanni Battista de Benedictis (writing under the pseudonym of Benedetto Aletino) criticized experimental philosophy for its inability to proceed from facts to causes. He claimed that experimenters were not philosophers, but mere empirics, because they failed to establish any evident, undisputed premises as the basis for a deductive scientia of nature.

    Indeed, if our Peripatetics, who only paid attention to speculative subtleties, had followed Aristotle’s teachings by directing their efforts towards experience, I have no doubt that they would have unfailingly attained the glory that the Atomists [i.e., experimental philosophers] are now seizing, not because of their knowledge, but because of the neglicence of others [the Peripetetics].

While Aletino defends the Aristotelians, he categorizes them as speculative philosophers and he rejects experimental philosophy.

Antonio Conti was a Venetian abbot who acted as intermediary in the epistolary exchange between Leibniz and Newton. He published a discussion of the relation between experimental and speculative philosophy in 1716. For Conti, experimental philosophy alone “is truly science” because it rely on experience to prove the truth of its claims. By contrast, speculative or conjectural philosophy can only establish the probability or truth-likeliness of hypotheses. Due to the endless variety of nature and the limitations of our senses, Conti did not think that experimental philosophy could eventually supplant all speculations. His fallibilism concerning hypotheses sounds rather modern:

    One makes hypotheses to establish [new] ideas and experiences; but hypotheses last only until phenomena modify or destroy them, or until a more perfect art of comparing truth-likely [statements] proves their uselessness or their imprudence.

Like Bartoli, Conti endorsed experimental philosophy without wholly rejecting the speculative approach. Bartoli and Conti, like Aletino and the compiler of the Saggi di naturali esperienze, thought of natural philosophy in terms of the experimental-speculative distinction. As in the British isles, so also in Italy the experimental-speculative distinction provided important terms of reference for thinking about nature in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

In this post, I have not discussed to what extent the experimental-speculative distinction shaped the contents, besides the rhetoric and methodology, of Italian natural philosophy. I must do more work to answer that question. In the meanwhile, let me know what you think in the comments.

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