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On the Proliferation of Empiricisms

Peter Anstey writes…

One sign that a historiographical category no longer earns its keep is that it needs to be redefined in each new context of use. Another is that it leads to a proliferation of taxonomies of meaning. Such is the case with the term ’empiricism’. I have commented in a previous post that this term is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down: that Don Garrett gives us 5 empiricisms; Michael Ayers gives us 2; Jonathan Lowe gives us 3 and so on. In his recent post on the New APPS Blog Eric Schliesser gives us 4 and refers us to a recent article by Charles Wolfe which provides 3. If we throw into the mix Feyerabend’s 3 and Ernan McMullin’s 2 forms of ‘classical empiricism’ and allow for overlap, we have around 15 different forms of empiricism! And this is only a sampling of the field. It’s a field that is too crowded for anyone’s liking and provides one of the main arguments for letting go of the whole Kantian/post-Kantian historiographical category and for exploring the experimental/speculative distinction as a positive alternative.

The claim here is not that each of these 15 or so empiricisms is without value in so far as they might give us some insight into a particular thinker or trend within early modern thought. It is rather that the term ’empiricism’ is being called upon to do too much work to the point that its semantic domain is too fluid for it to have a determinate meaning. It is simply bad history to flog a term this hard.

This is where the experimental/speculative distinction can help. The fact that it is a historical distinction, that is easy to locate in early modern natural philosophers and philosophers alike, makes it easy to track. Restricting ourselves to Anglophone works, searches in EEBO and ECCO for ’empiricism’ (in any of the 15 senses) and ‘Rationalism’ yield very meagre results, but similar searches using ‘experimental’, ‘experimental philosophy’, ‘speculative’, ‘speculative philosophy’ and their cognates (e.g. ‘speculation’) are enormously fruitful.

What we claim is that it is now time to work through early modern thought using these terms and this distinction and to determine what the results are. We do not claim that ‘experimental philosophy’ has one determinate meaning (see my last post on Baconian vs Newtonian Experimental Philosophy). So it’s not as if we ourselves might never face a proliferation problem (though so far it seems to us that the usage of the terms is relatively consistent). It’s rather that the heuristic value of such a research program is enormous, whereas the rationalism/empiricism distinction is nearing its ‘use-by date’. We are not in competition with those who hang on to rationalism and empiricism. Rather we have a complementary and, in our view, far more promising research program.

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