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Locke’s Master-Builders were Experimental Philosophers

Peter Anstey says…

In one of the great statements of philosophical humility the English philosopher John Locke characterised his aims for the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) in the following terms:

    The Commonwealth of Learning, is not at this time without Master-Builders, whose mighty Designs, in advancing the Sciences, will leave lasting Monuments to the Admiration of Posterity; But every one must not hope to be a Boyle, or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such Masters, as the Great – Huygenius, and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some other of that Strain; ’tis Ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge (Essay, ‘Epistle to the Reader’).

Locke regarded his project as the work of an under-labourer, sweeping away rubbish so that the ‘big guns’ could continue their work. But what is it that unites Boyle, Sydenham, Huygens and Newton as Master-Builders? It can’t be the fact that they are all British, because Huygens was Dutch. It can’t be the fact that they were all friends of Locke, for when Locke penned these words he almost certainly had not even met Isaac Newton. Nor can it be the fact that they were all eminent natural philosophers, after all, Thomas Sydenham was a physician.

In my book John Locke and Natural Philosophy, I contend that what they had in common was that they all were proponents or practitioners of the new experimental philosophy and that it was this that led Locke to group them together. In the case of Boyle, the situation is straightforward: he was the experimental philosopher par excellence. In the case of Newton, Locke had recently reviewed his Principia and mentions this ‘incomparable book’, endorsing its method in later editions of the Essay itself. Interestingly, in his review Locke focuses on Newton’s arguments against Descartes’ vortex theory of planetary motions, which had come to be regarded as an archetypal form of speculative philosophy.

In the case of Huygens, little is known of his relations with Locke, but he was a promoter of the method of natural history and he remained the leading experimental natural philosopher in the Parisian Académie. In the case of Sydenham, it was his methodology that Locke admired and, especially those features of his method that were characteristic of the experimental philosophy. Here is what Locke says of Sydenham’s method to Thomas Molyneux:

    I hope the age has many who will follow [Sydenham’s] example, and by the way of accurate practical observation, as he has so happily begun, enlarge the history of diseases, and improve the art of physick, and not by speculative hypotheses fill the world with useless, tho’ pleasing visions (1 Nov. 1692, Correspondence, 4, p. 563).

Note the references to ‘accurate practical observation’, the decrying of ‘speculative hypotheses’ and the endorsement of the natural ‘history of diseases’ – all leading doctrines of the experimental philosophy in the late seventeenth century. So, even though Sydenham was a physician, he could still practise medicine according to the new method of the experimental philosophy. In fact, many in Locke’s day regarded natural philosophy and medicine as forming a seamless whole in so far as they shared a common method. It should be hardly surprising to find that Locke held this view, for he too was a physician.

If it is this common methodology that unites Locke’s four heroes then we are entitled to say ‘Locke’s Master-Builders were experimental philosophers’. I challenge readers to come up with a better explanation of Locke’s choice of these four Master-Builders.

5 thoughts on “Locke’s Master-Builders were Experimental Philosophers

  1. It can’t be the fact that they were all friends of Locke, for when Locke penned these words he almost certainly had not even met Isaac Newton

    Locke’s Epistle to the Reader was almost certainly written when the book was finished and by that time Locke had probably met Newton. Westfall dates their personal acquaintance to early 1689 based on good evidence and unusual for Newton it was intimate friendship at first sight. Having said that, Locke’s admiration for Newton was based on the Principia, which he had read and even reviewed before he had met the author, his enthusiasm for which was the reason for his desire to make Newton’s acquaintance upon his return to England.

  2. Did Locke write the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ before he met Newton? Here is the evidence that I am aware of that bears on this question. First, Locke signed a contract with his publisher on 24 May 1689 indicating that the Essay was written by that date. Second, printing of the book was completed on 3 December 1689, and Locke probably made minor changes while it was being printed. Third, a letter from Fatio de Duillier to Newton of 24 February 1690 indicates that they had met by mid-February 1690. (Surprisingly Westfall overlooks this evidence, see Never at Rest, p. 488.) Fourth, Locke included Newton on his distribution list for the first edition of the Essay, though we don’t know when his name was added to the list. I conclude from this evidence: first, that we don’t know exactly when the Master-Builder passage was written, though it was most likely completed by late May 1689; second that we don’t know exactly when Locke met Newton, but it was mid-February 1690 at the latest; third, that the most plausible inference given the evidence as it currently stands is that the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ was written before they met.

    Now there is a tradition, stemming from David Brewster’s 1855 biography of Newton which claims, though without evidence, that Newton met Locke in early 1689 at the house of the Earl of Pembroke (vol. 2, p. 115). This claim, or some variant of it, is still quite commonly found in biographies of Locke and Newton.

  3. There’s a similar passage where Boyle calls himself an ‘underbuilder’ in the proemial essay to Certain Physiological Essays:

    By the way of Writing to which I have condemn’d my self, I can hope for little better among the more daring and less considerate sort of men, should you shew them these Papers, than to pass for a Drudge of greater Industry than Reason, and fit for little more than to collect Experiments for more rational and Philosophical heads to explicate and make use of. But I am content, provided Experimental Learning be really promoted, to contribute ev’n in the least plausible Way to the Advancement of it, and had rather not only be an Underbuilder, but ev’n dig in the Quarries for Materials towards so useful a Structure, as a solid body of Natural Philosophy, than not do something towards the Erection of it (Boyle Works 2.20)

    (‘considerate’ mean thoughtful here, and ‘plausible’ means pleasing) The project to which Boyle thought he was contributing to was ‘experimental learning’

  4. Yes, that’s very helpful in showing that Locke was really just picking up on some common tropes in use among the promoters of the experimental philosophy. Another such reference, one which speaks of removing rubbish is from Joseph Glanvill’s _Plus Ultra_ (1668, 192) which says

    true knowledge of general Nature … must proceed slowly, by degrees almost insensible: and what one Age can do in so immense an Undertaking is that, wherein all the generations of Men are concerned, can be little more than to remove the Rubbish, lay in Materials, and put things in order for the Building.

  5. I feel like the Glanvill text makes the Boyle passage less special. Such are the perils of scholarship.