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From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As those of you who’ve been following us since our first post will know well by now, we claim that the most common and important distinction in early modern philosophy is the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESP). Among others, Bacon, Boyle, Locke, Newton, Turnbull, Hutcheson, Hume, and Reid all employ the ESP. They see themselves as belonging to the tradition of experimental philosophy. They contributed in various ways to the shaping and the evolving of this tradition.

However, if you open any history of philosophy which has been written in the last 150 years or so (say, Kuno Fischer’s, Frederick Copleston’s, or my high school manual), you will find the claim that another distinction was central to the development of early modern philosophy. This is the distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

The ESP and the empiricism-rationalism distinction are far from equivalent. In fact, ESP is best. While the ESP is absent from the histories of philosophy, the rationalism-empiricism distinction is absent from the writings of early modern philosophers – the so-called empiricists and rationalists. The rationalism-empiricism distinction was first adumbrated in Kant’s first Critique (B882). It was later developed in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century in the histories of philosophy of several authors influenced by Kant (Reinhold and Tennemann are two examples).

This fact raises some questions:

  • Did Kant or his followers intentionally obliterate the ESP?
  • Did they introduce the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism as a replacement for the historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy?
  • Did they know the ESP in the first place?

To answer these questions, I started studying the influence of British experimental philosophers in Germany between the beginning of the eighteenth century and the publication of Kant’s first Critique in 1781.

I then want to follow the development of the empiricism-rationalism distinction in the histories of philosophy which were written in Germany from 1781 to the mid-nineteenth century. That’s the period in which some of the basic narratives that we still read today in many histories of philosophy first took shape. The way late eighteenth century and nineteenth century authors articulated and developed the empiricism-rationalism distinction is hardly agenda-free. It reflects their philosophical views and assumptions. I’m curious to learn more about that.

So far, I’ve discovered some interesting texts, especially those by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and Johann Nicolaus Tetens (1736-1807). Next time I’ll tell you about Wolff’s criticism of Newton’s hypotheses non fingo. Next Monday Juan will tell us about Turnbull’s explicit rejection of hypotheses and his endorsement of the application of the experimental method beyond natural philosophy.

I’d love to hear what you think about my research plans.

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