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Oldenburg and Newton on ‘Experimental Philosophy’

Kirsten Walsh writes…

During the debate following the publication of Newton’s first paper, Newton provided a set of eight queries, in an attempt to steer the debate towards a satisfactory conclusion.  When Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society and Editor of the Philosophical Transactions, published Newton’s queries, he added the following introduction:

    A Serie’s of Quere’s propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be determin’d by Experiments, positively and directly concluding his new Theory of Light and Colours; and here recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they were generously imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the said Mr. Newtons of July 8. 1672.

However, Newton didn’t describe his own work as ‘experimental philosophy’ until 1713, when he added the General Scholium to the Principia.  He wrote:

    … and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.  In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction.

In 1672, would Newton have been comfortable with Oldenburg’s label ‘experimental philosopher’?  Or did he consciously avoid the label, as Alan Shapiro suggests, in order to distance himself from the methodology of the early Royal Society?

Oldenburg on ‘Experimental Philosophy’

Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677)

To begin, what did Oldenburg mean by ‘experimental philosophy’?  Let’s look at his prefaces to each issue of the Philosophical Transactions.

Firstly, Oldenburg was talking about the Baconian experimental philosophy.  In the 1672 Preface, Oldenburg chose to adopt Bacon’s term, ‘Operative Philosophy’, which he used interchangeably with the term ‘Experimental Philosophy’.  And he wrote:

    But, when our renowned Lord Bacon had demonstrated the Methods for a perfect Restauration of all parts of Real knowledge … The success became on a sudden stupendious, and Effective philosophy began to sparkle, and even to flow into beams of bright-shining Light, all over the World.

Moreover, in 1671, Oldenburg advocated Abraham Cowley’s Baconian-vision for the Royal Society.  In his book, Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy, Cowley proposed that the Royal Society appoint professors who were:

    bound to study and teach all sorts of Natural, Experimental Philosophy, to consist of the Mathematicks, Mechanicks, Medicine, Anatomy, Chymistry, the History of Animals, Plants …. and briefly all things contained in the Catalogue of Natural Histories annexed to My Lord Bacon’s Organon.

(Incidentally, in a previous post on this blog, Peter Anstey has identified this as the first English book to use the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in its title.)

Secondly, Oldenburg had in mind an experimental philosophy that emphasised the construction of natural histories.  For example, in 1669, Oldenburg wrote:

    …we then made an Attempt of laying some Foundation for the Improvement of real Philosophy, and for the spreading of Useful knowledge; in publishing Advices and Directions for the writing of an Experimental Natural History…

Thirdly, Oldenburg had in mind an experimental philosophy that attempted to recover ancient knowledge.  For example, in 1671, responding to critics of the experimental philosophy, Oldenburg wrote:

    they call it contemptuously the New Philosophy; when as yet perhaps themselves are not ignorant, that ‘tis so old as to have been the Discipline in Paradise; and from the First of Mankind … to have been practised and countenanced by the Best of Men…


    … we may not lay aside the other expedient, which is so helpful to explicate the Old Wonders of Art, and Old Histories of Nature; namely, To inquire diligently The things that are; What Rarities of Nature, and what Inventions of Men are now extant in any parts of the World.

To summarise, Oldenburg had in mind an experimental philosophy that:

  1. Followed Bacon’s method;
  2. Constructed natural histories; and
  3. Investigated ancient knowledge.

Newton on ‘Experimental Philosophy’

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Would Newton have approved of this way of describing his work?

Certainly Newton would have approved of being broadly aligned with the experimentalist philosophers, as opposed to the speculative philosophers.  In his ‘Queries Paper’, he wrote:

    … the Theory … was evinced to me … not by deducing it only from a confutation of contrary suppositions, but by deriving it from Experiments concluding positively and directly.

And in the first paper, he wrote: “And I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties”.

While Newton didn’t construct natural histories, he may have approved of the Baconian overtones of the label.  For, as I’ve discussed previously, Newton’s 1672 queries resemble Baconian queries.

Newton may even have approved of the suggestion that his method had ties to the Ancients.  For example, as early as 1686, in his Preface to Principia, Newton emphasised the influence of the Ancients:

    Since the Ancients (according to Pappus) considered mechanics to be of the greatest importance in the investigation of nature and science and since the moderns – rejecting substantial forms and occult qualities – have undertaken to reduce the phenomena of nature of mathematical laws, it has seemed best in this treatise to concentrate on mathematics as it relates to natural philosophy.

So, I think Newton would have approved of Oldenburg’s label, even though later on, when he came to describe his own experimental philosophy, the emphasis was quite different.  For example, in Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton wrote:

    This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths.  For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy.

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