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Maupertuis and Experimental Philosophy

A guest post by Marco Storni.

Marco Storni writes …

Was Maupertuis an experimental philosopher? In a recent post on this blog, Peter Anstey pointed out the many ambiguities one encounters when one raises such a question. The perplexity concerns in particular the seemingly contradictory nature of Maupertuis’ contributions to the Berlin Academy: a forward-looking Newtonian in the 1730s, after he takes over the presidency of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1746, Maupertuis’ writings deal with stricto sensu scientific topics no more. Although an Experimental Philosophy and a Mathematics class existed in the Berlin Academy, “Maupertuis didn’t publish a single article in the Experimental Philosophy memoirs […] nor did he publish anything in the Mathematics section” (Anstey, The Ambiguous Status of Maupertuis), but only in the memoirs for Speculative Philosophy. This remark can be further generalized for, after 1746, also Maupertuis’ non-academic writings also deal with non-scientific subjects, including theodicy, the origin of language, and ethics. How can we explain such a change of perspective?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand what Maupertuis actually means by “experimental philosophy” and “speculative philosophy”. A key text is the academic address Des devoirs de l’académicien (1750), where Maupertuis discusses one by one the nature and the tasks of the Berlin Academy classes. Whereas experimental philosophy, Maupertuis says, studies natural bodies with all their sensible properties, and mathematics deals with bodies “deprived of the large majority of those properties” (Les œuvres de Maupertuis (ed. 1768), 3, p. 293), speculative philosophy is rather concerned with all the objects that have no sensible properties. In this sense,

The Supreme Being, the human soul, and everything relating the mind are the object of this science. The nature of bodies too, as they are represented in our perceptions, even if they are something else than these very perceptions, falls within its scope (Ibid., p. 293-294).

Speculative philosophy is thus concerned with all the areas experimental philosophy and mathematics do not cover. In fact, speculative philosophy studies the very same objects experimental philosophy and mathematics are concerned with (e.g., natural bodies), but from a different perspective (in the case of natural bodies, from the perspective of the experience of such bodies). Therefore, in Maupertuis’ view, speculative philosophy and experimental philosophy are not necessarily opposed but rather complementary. This is well displayed in his studies on the principle of least action, first formulated as a physical principle (in the academic paper Accord de différentes lois de la nature qui avaient jusqu’ici paru incompatibles, 1744), and then given a metaphysical interpretation (in the Essai de cosmologie, 1750).

Maupertuis says something more on the relationship between “speculative philosophy” and “experimental philosophy” in another text of the 1750s, namely the Lettre sur le progrès des sciences (1752). Here, Maupertuis introduces the notion of “metaphysical experience” that turns out to be interesting for our present concern. If physical experiences have to do with bodies—and in the first half of his career Maupertuis focused on physical experiences—metaphysical experiences deal with the spiritual world. Would it not be possible, Maupertuis asks himself, to operate on the soul by means of physiological modifications on the brain? Likewise, would it not be possible to find out how languages are formed by isolating some children and seeing how they manage to communicate? However quaint all this might seem, it nonetheless indicates that speculative philosophy is for Maupertuis essentially intertwined with experimental philosophy. Ultimately, a large part of Maupertuis’ activity in Berlin might be described as the attempt to construct an “experimental metaphysics”.

On my analysis, Maupertuis’ status as an experimental philosopher turns out to be less ambiguous than it might prima facie seem. In fact, according to Maupertuis, “over so many centuries […] our metaphysical knowledge has made no progress” (Les œuvres de Maupertuis, 2, p. 430) precisely because the method of speculative philosophy was too abstract and arbitrary. Grounding metaphysics on experiences, as he argues, might actually help to stimulate such progress: and this is the objective Maupertuis strives for in his works of speculative philosophy. On the whole, therefore, I incline to read Maupertuis’ mature position as the attempt to reform speculative philosophy out of an experimental approach. I would nonetheless be glad to hear other thoughts on Maupertuis’ experimentalism.

4 thoughts on “Maupertuis and Experimental Philosophy

  1. Marco,

    many thanks for a helpful post.
    I wonder if you could provide some clarifications on Maupertuis’ view of speculative philosophy. You write that, according to Maupertuis, speculative philosophy is concerned with objects that lack sensible properties, as well as with the nature of bodies. Presumably, he has in mind physical bodies. But these do not lack sensible properties. Does he think that, whereas sensible objects have sensible properties, their natures lack them?

    Also, if speculative philosophy is concerned with objects that lack sensible properties, but experimental philosophy is concerned with sensible objects, how can they study the same objects?

  2. Many thanks for your comment, Alberto.

    When you speak of “the nature of bodies”, you’re certainly referring to the quote from Œuvres, 3, p. 293-294. There, Maupertuis says that speculative philosophy is concerned with the nature of bodies “as they are represented in our perceptions”. So, he’s not referring to physical bodies “as they are”—that which is studied by the experimental philosopher—, but to physical bodies from the point of view of the experience we have of them. This means that speculative philosophy is interested in things that are not “out there” in the world, but are either in our spirit (our experience of the world, the moral sphere, etc.) or concern a higher dimension than the physical one (God).

    This makes clear, I hope, how experimental philosophy and speculative philosophy might study the same objects. If we’re interested in physical bodies endowed with all their sensible properties, then we’re doing the experimental philosopher’s job; if we study physical objects considering only the mental images we have of them, or the way in which they are given to us in our experience, then we’re doing the speculative philosopher’s job.

    I know, all this might sound a bit vague and imprecise. But Maupertuis’ philosophy, I think, is not that developed to allow for a more satisfactory answer: unfortunately, we have to comply with the aporetic nature of his philosophical formulations.

  3. Marco,

    your reasoning seems very cogent to me but I have one question concerning terminology. I have a sneaking suspicion that when you write ‘metaphysical experience’ you mean ‘metaphysical experiment’. E.g. isolating children was supposed to be carefully planned. I am asking because this is one of my old mistakes as a non-native speaker. I think Maupertuis uses expérience in the sense:

    [L’expérience est un fait observé]
    1. Épreuve destinée à vérifier une hypothèse ou à étudier des phénomènes.
    a) Observation de faits naturels. Si l’univers est infini, nous ne saurions en avoir jamais la preuve par l’observation et l’expérience, lesquelles ne pourront jamais atteindre que le fini (E. BOREL, Paradoxes infini, 1946, p. 8).
    b) Observation de faits provoqués. Expérience de chimie; verre à expérience. Les expériences faites sur les animaux vivans (CABANIS, Rapp. phys. et mor., t. 1, 1808, p. 145). L’expérience est une observation provoquée dans le but de faire naître une idée (C. BERNARD, Introd. ét. méd. exp., 1865, p. 36).
    Expr. Mettre en expérience. Mettre en observation. Il mit le pendule simple en expérience les 27, 28 et 29 août, et il observa le nombre des oscillations dans un temps limité pour déterminer la force de gravitation des corps aux différentes latitudes (Voy. La Pérouse, t. 2, 1797, p. 17).
    2. P. ext. Mise à l’essai de tout ce qui est nouveau dans son usage et dans sa pratique :

    4. Je n’ai pas pu me rendre compte de ce que ce climat, par ailleurs le plus salutaire pour moi que je sache, pourrait donner au point de vue travail. J’en ferai l’expérience l’an prochain…
    DU BOS, Journal, 1926, p. 90.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Hanna.

    Indeed, the French “expérience” may stand for both “experience” and “experiment”. Isolating children looks much like an experiment, you’re right. I chose to use “experience” (thus choosing to simply transliterate “expérience”) just because Maupertuis’ notion of speculative philosophy seems to be very broad, as it also includes the study e.g. of perception and of morals — fields in which is more difficult to make experiments such as the children one, but where it might still be possible to make experiences.

    As for the entry you quoted, that sounds a bit misleading if applied to our case study. In that text, “observation” and “expérience” are more or less taken as synonymes (“… par l’observation et l’expérience”), whereas for people like Maupertuis this might not be that obvious. For them, I think, an experience is rather a reasoned collection of observations, where the theoretical element (“reasoned”) is quite fundamental.

    But thanks for your remark. Being more used to write in French, I didn’t pay much attention to these terminological questions, that are indeed of the utmost importance.