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Feijoo and his ‘Magisterio de la experiencia’ (lessons of experience)

Juan Gomez writes…

I have posted on this blog regarding early modern experimental philosophy in Spain (here and here). Contrary to the common opinion that Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a ‘backwards’ nation when compared to France and England, I have pointed out how many Spanish thinkers were aware of and advocated for the application of the ‘new’ science. In today’s post I want to focus on a text by the thinker who is arguably one of the most influential figures in Spanish thought, Benito Jerónimo Feijoo.

Feijoo was born in 1676 and ordained under the order of Saint Benedict in 1690 after studying in the monastery of San Vicente de Salamanca. He moved to Oviedo in 1709 where he taught and developed his philosophical work. The most influential of his texts was the Teatro Crítico Universal, a nine volume work published between 1726 and 1740. Each of the volumes contains a number of essays on a variety of topics including natural philosophy, history, medicine, women, education, transubstantiation, and religion. I want to focus on a discourse from the fifth volume (1733) titled ‘El gran magisterio de la experiencia’ (The great lessons of experience).

The piece is an essay on the danger of pure speculation (‘reason unaided by experience’) and calls for the emphasis on experience and observation in all our inquiries. Feijoo begins by recounting a fable that was read to him from a French book by a foreign traveller. The story begins with the arrival of two ladies, Solidína and Ideária, in the Kingdom of Cosmósia with the intention of taking dominion over the Kingdom. Solidína was ´wise but simple,’ and her strategy for conquering the empire was the following:

    She went from house to house, making herself acquainted with everyone, teaching with clear and common voices true and useful doctrines… since everywhere she found sensible objects that examined through the ministry of the sense became the books for her lessons. Far from inspiring an indiscreet presumption among her disciples, she told them with humbleness that what she could teach was very little compared to the infinite amount there is to learn, and that to achieve even just an average knowledge of things immense work and discipline was necessary.

Ideária on the other hand was ‘ignorant but charlatan’ and had a very different strategy:

    She tried to establish an absolute despotism over her disciples, expediting an edict so that no one would believe what their eyes saw or what their hands felt… their disciples started to believe many maxims that used to be seen as impediments to knowledge: that truth can only be known through fiction; that there is a way of knowing things that a boy can learn in four days; that there is one man, that is all man (the same goes for all species), so that if one is known, all are known; that non-sensitive and inanimate things have their appetites, ears, and loves no less than sensitive and animate things… that all living beings are composed by a considerable degree of fire, not even excluding fishes, even though they are always under water.

Ideária ruled for a long time until there was a schism among her disciples. A subject named Papyráceo separated himself and introduced new dogmas:

    That all living beings (except men) are nothing but corpses; that even in man only a small part of the body entertains the presence of the soul; that the world is infinitely extended; that the movement of sub-lunar and celestial bodies is perennial; that imaginary space is a true and real body… that in all things imagination must be believed, and never the senses; and the latter deceive in all their representations; that the swan is not white, nor the crow black, nor fire hot, nor snow cold &c.

But fortunately the story does not end with Ideária’s rule. People found out that the maxims both her and Papyráceo defended were at most probable, so they remembered Solidína and brought her back to the city:

    They established her as the magnificent of the teaching rooms, where she teaches with more and more credit each day, contributing immensely to the favour of some great heroes, especially the two princes, Galindo and Anglosio, who are very fond of Solidína.

Feijoo goes on to explain the themes and characters the story alludes to, which are not that difficult to discern. Cosmósia is the world, coming from the Greek cosmos. Solidína is experience, since it ‘explains solidly its maxims with sensible demonstrations.’ Ideária is imagination, since it ‘founds its opinions on the vain representation of its ideas.’ The triumph of this kind of philosophy is represented by Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, out of whom came an ‘ideal physics instead of a solid and experimental one.’ The character of Papyráceo alludes to Descartes, since the former comes from the Latin word Papyrus, which is equivalent to the French ‘Carte’. Finally,

    experimental observation, which was only used before by the farmers for the cultivation of the crops, the due care of the fields and the propagation of livestock, was recently brought back pompously by some institutions set up to examine nature in this way. Among them, the most famous being the Royal Academy of the Sciences in Paris and the Royal Society of London chartered under the Monarchs of France and England, respectively, which are alluded by the princes Galindo and Anglosio, derived from the Latin terms for those nations, Gallia and Anglia.

It is clear from this introduction to Feijoo’s essay that he is promoting this picture of the history of philosophy as a very long and detrimental period where the way of doing philosophy without consideration for experiment and observation was superseded by the new method in the seventeenth century, as it is exemplified by the Royal institutions of France and England. And this just sets the scene for the rest of what Feijoo wants to say. In my next post I will explore Feijoo’s more detailed objections to the use of pure speculation and his call for experimental observation as the foundation of all knowledge.

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