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Experimental and Speculative Philosophy in Kant’s Age

Alberto Vanzo writes…

We saw in earlier posts that experimental-speculative distinction was widely present within early modern philosophy, including eighteenth century Germany. The distinction was clearly drawn in Tetens’ essay from 1775, six years before Kant published the first Critique. With that work, another distinction entered the scene. It was the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. The rationalism-empiricism distinction, developed and popularized in widespread works by Reinhold, Tennemann, and later Kuno Fischer, would eventually become the standard way of classifying early modern philosophers. The experimental-speculative distinction would fall into the almost total oblivion in which it lies today.

How did this process take place? It would be surprising if, with the publication of Kant’s first Critique in 1781, philosophers suddenly dropped the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy altogether.

In fact, the lively debates surrounding the emergence of Critical philosophy in the late 1780s and 1790s were still framed, at least at times, in terms of the speculative-experimental distinction. In this post, I will present some evidence for this claim.

J.G.H. Feder published one of the first attacks on the first Critique in 1787, claiming that it was full “of the most abstract speculations of logic and metaphysics” (italics, here and below, are mostly mine). In Feder’s view, Kant was “too much a friend of the most abstract and profound speculations in Scholastic form”. One year earlier, Christoph Meiners criticized Kant’s “transcendentish [sic] speculations”, “independent from any experience” in the preface to a successful book.

Why did Feder and Meiners attack Kant? Because, in Feder’s words, Kant humiliated

    empirical philosophy, that is, the philosophy which is based only on observations and on the agreement of all of most human experiences, and on inferences based on the analogy between them, and fully renounces [to employ] demonstration[s] based on concepts in the study of nature […]

In other words, the philosophy that Kant allegedly humiliated was the same experimental (or as the Germans preferred to call it, observational) philosophy that Tetens had described in his essay of 1775. Feder and Meiners defended observational philosophy. By associating Kant’s name with speculation, they were categorizing Kant as an example of a speculative philosopher.

Kant’s followers accepted the classification of their philosophy as speculative. Replying to Feder in 1789, the Kantian J.C.G. Schaumann had no hesitation in calling Kant’s disciples “friends of speculation and critique”. In the same year, Reinhold opened his New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation by claiming, against observational philosophers: “neither common understanding [scil. common sense], nor healthy understanding, but only reason guided by principles and trained through speculation could succeed in the study of experience”.

These quotes show that the experimental-speculative distinction was very much alive in Germany during the first reception of Kant’s Critical philosophy. The experimental-speculative distinction contributed to the self-understanding of the parties involved in the dispute.

The dichotomy of experiment and speculation was not the only way of categorizing the debates between Kant and experimental philosophers. A gifted Kant scholar, C.C.E. Schmid, published in 1788 “Some Remarks on Empiricism and Purism in Philosophy” to defend Kant from the criticisms of an experimental philosopher, C.G. Selle. The debate continued, with the term “empiricism” being often used to designate Kant’s opponents. The term that Schmid used to refer to Kant’s philosophy was the rather unusual term “purism”. Kant, instead, was classifying his philosophy as a form of rationalism in those very years. Clearly, the terminology was still rather fluid.

We all know who won the confrontation between anti-Kantian experimental philosophy on the one hand, Kantian and post-Kantian speculation on the other. The terms “speculation” and “speculative” soon acquired a new range of connotations in the philosophies of Schelling and Hegel. Observative or experimental philosophy lost popularity and its name was replaced by “empiricism”. Christian Garve was referring to the early stages of this process, when he wrote in 1796:

    it seems that in our time observation, which was formerly regarded as one of the first accomplishments of the philosophical spirit and the foundation of our scientific cognitions, since its object has been designated with the name of empirical, has fallen in discredit with some people.

Garve’s adjective “empirical” refers to the new term “empiricism”. “With some people” is clearly an understatement, reflecting Garve’s preference for the observational approach over Kantianism. While the historical notion of experimental or observational philosophy was falling into discredit, the historiographical dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism was on the rise. I will discuss this process in one of the next posts.

Next Monday, we’ll go back to Newton with a new post by Kirsten. Stay tuned!

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