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Gleanings from the symposium

Peter Anstey writes…

Two weeks ago about a dozen scholars assembled in Dunedin to discuss the nature and role of the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy in early modern thought. The focus of our attention was a group of six pre-circulated papers on topics ranging from the origins of the experimental/speculative distinction (ESD) in the early seventeenth century to the emergence of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) in the late eighteenth century. Two important issues arose that I would like to report on here. Both of them raise potential problems for the ESD. Let us examine them in turn.

The first is the issue of demarcation: just how different is the ESD from the RED? When push comes to shove, doesn’t the experimental philosophy really just collapse into empiricism? And isn’t speculative philosophy merely a rebranding of rationalism? Furthermore, given that the RED is so entrenched in early modern scholarship and philosophical pedagogy, there really must be some significant advantages that accrue to the ESD before philosophers of today abandon the RED in favour of the ESD.

The second issue is closely related to the first. It is the problem of classification: does the ESD really do a better job at classifying early modern philosophers than the RED? Is it not the case that Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz end up being speculative philosophers and Locke, Berkeley and Hume are experimental philosophers? If the ESD categorises along the same fault-line as the RED what advantages accrue to the ESD on the issue of classification?

It is not enough to respond to these two issues by claiming that the great advantage of the ESD is that it is an actors’ category, that is, it is the very distinction that the early moderns themselves used. For, it may be that, in spite of its historical relevance, the RED has more explanatory power and pedagogical utility than the actors’ categories. What are needed are some concrete answers to the issues of demarcation and classification. Happily, I believe that such answers are not too difficult to find.

In response to the issue of demarcation, it is important to note that the early moderns developed the ESD as a means of characterising two very different methodologies in the acquisition of knowledge of nature. (Later it came to have wider application than natural philosophy and medicine, but we will ignore that development here.) As such, it was concerned with the nature and role of experiment, of instruments, of hypotheses, of demonstrative reasoning, and of the faculties of the mind, in the acquisition of knowledge of nature. The RED, by contrast, when it is given a clear definition, is almost always presented as a distinction between two very different theories of knowledge: rationalism being the acceptance of both innate ideas (and principles) and the efficacy of demonstrative reasoning based upon them, independent of experience; empiricism being the denial of innate ideas and the claim that all knowledge of the natural world derives from experience.

Therefore, the ESD encompasses some of the features of the RED, such as the role of demonstrative reasoning and the senses, but it embraces much more. As a result it has greater explanatory range. In particular, it enables us to account for the views of many who were not strictly philosophers (in the modern sense of the word) because it was developed in a period when disciplinary boundaries were quite different from today. For example, it enables us to give a clear and persuasive explanation of Newton’s attitude to hypotheses. It also enables us to explain why Thomas Sydenham was regarded as the archetypal Hippocratic physician. He was not a philosopher and certainly did not have a theory of knowledge, but he did promote most of the salient doctrines of the experimental philosophy in the late seventeenth century, such as decrying hypotheses and promoting natural histories of disease.

In response to the issue of classification, it is important to stress that the ESD was not developed with a view to classifying philosophers, natural philosophers or physicians, so it should not worry us if a philosopher does not fit into either category. It is also important to stress that so successful was the experimental philosophy that by the early eighteenth century the speculative philosopher became something of a straw man. Nevertheless, significant advantages do accrue to the ESD on the question of classification. First, some experimental philosophers were partial to innate ideas. One example is Robert Boyle, yet no one would want to classify him as a rationalist. Second, Thomas Hobbes has proven notoriously difficult to classify as either a rationalist or an empiricist. But given that he was openly opposed to the experimental philosophy, it is both natural and historically accurate to classify him as a speculative philosopher.

I conclude that a careful consideration of both the demarcation problem and the classification problem provides further reasons for accepting the superiority of the ESD. But not all are convinced. Stay tuned for Gideon Manning’s post on Monday in which he expresses reservations about some aspects of our project.

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