Kirsten Walsh writes…
In the Principia, Newton claimed to be doing experimental philosophy. Over my last three posts, I’ve wondered whether we can interpret his so-called ‘experimental philosophy’ as Baconian. In the first two posts, I identified methodological similarities between Bacon and Newton: first, the use of crucial instances; second, the use of Baconian induction. In each case, I concluded that, without some sort of textual evidence clearly tying Newton’s method to Bacon’s, such similarities don’t demonstrate influence. In my third post, I tried a different approach: I considered Mary Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia should be considered Baconian because members of the Royal Society recognised, and responded to, it as part of the Baconian tradition. While Domski’s argument was fruitful in helping us better to understand what’s at stake in discussions of influence, I raised several concerns with her narrative. In this post, I shall address those concerns in more detail.
Let’s focus on Domski’s account of how Locke reacted to Newton’s Principia. Domski argues that Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program. That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes. In short, Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. Last time, I expressed two concerns with this account. Firstly, ‘speculative naturalist’ looks like a contradiction in terms (I have discussed the concept of ‘speculative experimental science’ here), and surely neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with the label. Secondly, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. Domski’s discussion of the reception of the Principia establishes the former, but not necessarily the latter.
We can get more traction on both of these concerns by considering Peter Anstey’s account of how the Principia influenced Locke. Anstey argues that Newton’s achievement forced Locke to revise his views on the role of principles in natural philosophy. In the Essay, Locke offers a theory of demonstration—the process by which one can reason from principles to certain truths via the agreement and disagreement of ideas. In the first edition, Locke argued that this method of reasoning was only possible in mathematics and moral philosophy, where one could reason from certain principles. Due to limitations of human intellect, such knowledge was not possible in natural philosophy. Instead, one needed to follow the Baconian method of natural history which provided, at best, probable truths. However, Anstey shows us that, by the late 1690s, Locke had revised his account of natural philosophy to admit demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’ (that is, principles that were discovered by observation and experiment).
I now draw your attention to two features of this account. Firstly, Newton’s scientific achievement—his theory of universal gravitation—as opposed to his successful development of a new natural philosophical method per se forced Locke to revise his position on demonstration from principles. (A while ago, Currie and I noted that this situation is to be expected, if we take the ESD seriously.) This feature should make us suspicious of Domski’s claim that Newton’s Principia was taken to exemplify the speculative stage of Baconian natural philosophy. Locke did not see Newton’s achievement as a system of speculative hypotheses, but as genuinely empirical knowledge, demonstrated from principles that are justified by observation and experiment. Newton had not constructed a Baconian natural history, but nor had he constructed a speculative system. Rather, Locke recognised Newton’s achievement as something akin to a mathematical result—one which his epistemological story had better accommodate. This forced him to extend his theory of demonstration to natural philosophy. And so, by the late 1690s, we find passages like the following:
“in all sorts of reasoning, every single argument should be managed as a mathematical demonstration; the connection and dependence of ideas should be followed, till the mind is brought to the source on which it bottoms, and observes the coherence all along” (Of the Conduct of the Understanding).
Secondly, Anstey emphasises that Locke didn’t regard Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as Baconian, but only as consistent with his, Locke’s, theory of demonstration. (Anstey also claims that Locke never fully integrated the revisions required to his view of natural philosophy in the Essay.) On this blog, we have suggested that, in the 18th century, a more mathematical experimental natural philosophy displaced the natural historical approach. And Anstey has offered a sustained argument for this position here. He argues that the break was not clean cut, but in the end in Britain mathematical experimental philosophy trumped experimental natural history. That this break was not clean cut helps to explain why experimental moral philosophers, such as Turnbull, thought they were pursuing both a Baconian and a Newtonian project, and were quite comfortable with this.
Notice that I’ve shifted from the vexed question of the extent to which Bacon influenced Newton, to a perhaps more fruitful line of enquiry: how Newton influenced Locke and others. This is no non sequitur. The members of the Royal Society strove to understand Newton in their terms—namely, in terms of Baconianism and the experimental philosophy. Here, it seems that two conclusions confront us. Firstly, we (again) find that Newton was taken as legitimately developing experimental philosophy by emphasising both the role of experimentally-established principles of natural philosophy and the capacity of mathematics to carry those principles forward. These aspects are, at best, underemphasised in Bacon and certainly missing from the Baconian experimental philosophy adopted by many members of the Royal Society. Secondly, we see that Newton’s influence on Locke was due, at least in part, to his scientific achievements. Newton did not argue directly with Locke’s epistemology or method, nor did Locke take Newton’s methodology as a replacement for his own. Rather, Locke took Newton’s scientific success as an example of demonstration from ‘principles that matter of fact justifie’. This, in turn, necessitated modifications of his own account.
A guest post by Mordechai Feingold.
Mordechai Feingold writes …
I thank Peter Anstey for drawing attention to my ‘“Experimental Philosophy”: Invention and Rebirth of a Seventeenth-Century Concept’, and for giving me the opportunity to correct certain misunderstandings of my argument.
Anstey begins: ‘Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term “experimental philosophy” in them.’ The unsuspecting reader of the blog may conclude that the paper is devoted in its entirety to such minute study; in fact, only a third is given over to the Hartlib papers. More serious, however, is Anstey’s insinuation that on the basis of such a survey I conclude: ‘there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660’. I make no such claim. As both the title and the content of my article make abundantly clear, I argue explicitly that it was the concept of ‘experimental philosophy’, not the practices that would be identified later under such term, that was absent before the Restoration.
Anstey pivots to my claim that when John Aubrey, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood described, two decades and more after the events, the activities carried out at Oxford during the 1650s, they anachronistically projected the term ‘experimental philosophy’ onto such activities—thereby leading historians to assume that the term had been in use already back then. Anstey disagrees. ‘As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love’, he writes, ‘Boyle had been described by the anonymous author … of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’. I was aware of this reference. However, since the first edition of Seraphic Love was published in late September 1659, and since it is not at all clear whether the anonymous second advertisement was actually included in the initial printing of the book, I considered the following statement sufficient to denote Boyle’s centrality to the revamping of the concept: ‘By early 1660 Boyle added “experimental philosophy” to his rhetorical repertoire, thereby becoming intimately involved in refitting the meaning of the phrase’. I documented the statement by citing the very expressions from New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air that Anstey cites against my interpretation. In particular, Anstey claims, the context in which Boyle referred to John Wilkins as the ‘Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’ is ‘entirely experimental’—thereby implying that I denied the existence of experimental activity before 1660. Anstey further contends that ‘Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood’. I don’t see the problem here. The reference to Wilkins was obviously added to the discussion of the twentieth experiment when Boyle prepared the manuscript for press in early 1660. Thus, the inclusion of the term coheres perfectly with the other references to ‘experimental philosophy’ in the book.
Ultimately, whether Boyle started using the term in late 1659 or in early 1660 is of no great matter. What is important, and this is the point I insist on, is that Boyle and other members of the Royal Society—with the notable exception of William Petty whom I discuss at some length in my article—had previously used terms other than ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their scientific activities. And in view of my pronounced aim to probe the changing fortunes of a concept, I’m puzzled by Anstey’s characterization of my undertaking as a denial of the historical relations furnished by Aubrey, Wallis, Wood, and Boyle concerning the existence of a flourishing experimental activity at Oxford during the 1650s. My intent was to show why it was only around 1660 that Boyle and his Royal Society colleagues decide to appropriate the term ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their activities, thereby imbuing it with a fixed conceptual and polemical meaning. Given Anstey’s divergent understanding of the meaning and fortunes of ‘experimental philosophy’, it is understandable why he is reluctant to accept my argument or my periodization. This divergence notwithstanding, however, ultimately Anstey and I share much more in common than we disagree.
In a recent article, Mordechai Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in them. His conclusion after surveying them all is that the term was used without a common determinate referent. This raises the question: Did experimental philosophy exist in England before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660? Feingold argues that there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660 and that those in later years who claimed that there was were being anachronistic: they were projecting the experimental philosophy of the 1660s or even the 1670s back into the late 1650s.
What evidence does he adduce for his claim of anachronism? First, there is the comment by John Aubrey from the 1680s which describes John Wilkins in the 1650s as ‘the principal reviver of experimental philosophy … at Oxford, where he had weekly an experimentall philosophy clubbe …’. Second, there are the comments of Anthony Wood from later years, such as his description of Lawrence Rooke moving to Oxford because he was ‘much addicted to experimental philosophy’. Third, there is John Wallis’ defense of himself in 1678 against the charges of William Holder. Like Aubrey, Wallis refers to the meetings at Oxford in the 1650s. Wallis is concerned to correct Holder’s own recollection of events in 1659 and so is almost certainly trying to recollect accurately. He claims, correcting Holder:
the Set Meetings for such a purpose (which had before been there [i.e. at Wadham College]) were then dis-used, and had been for a good while. And, what was of this nature at Oxford (about Experimental Philosophy) in those days, was rather at Mr. Boyl’s Lodgings, than at Wadham-Colledge. (Wallis, Defence of the Royal Society, London, 1678, p. 5)
So we have (1) Aubrey in the 1680s mentioning an experimental philosophy club and describing Wilkins as the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’; (2) Wood many years after the event describing Rooke as moving to Oxford because he was addicted to experimental philosophy; (3) Wallis in 1678 describing the Oxford meetings as being held at Boyle’s lodgings and being ‘about Experimental Philosophy’. Taken at face value, these might all be backward projections onto the meetings of the late 1650s in Boyle’s lodgings.
However, when these comments are juxtaposed with a contemporaneous account they look quite different. As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love Boyle had been described by the anonymous author (perhaps Boyle himself) of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’ (Boyle, Works, 1: 60). But the most interesting uses of the term appear in his Spring of the Air. The experiments in Boyle’s Spring of the Air were begun in 1657 and the work was completed by 20 December 1659. He tells us as much in the work itself. Negotiations with the printer were well underway as early as 26 January 1660 (Robert Sharrock to Boyle, 26 Jan 1660, Boyle, Correspondence, 1: 399). In Spring of the Air Boyle uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ three times. For example, he speaks of ‘my grand Design of promoting Experimental and Useful Philosophy’ and he makes the following comment in passing when discussing Experiment 20 on the question as to whether, like the air, water has a kind of spring:
And, on this occasion, it will not perhaps be amiss to acquaint Your Lordship here (though we have already mention’d it in another Paper, to another purpose) with another Expedient that we made use of two or three years ago, to try whether or no Water had a Spring in it. About that time then, That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy Dr. Wilkins, doing me the Honor to come himself, and bring some of his inquisitive Friends to my Lodging … (Boyle, Works, 1: 207)
The context of the recollection from c. 1657 is entirely experimental. Note the reference to Wilkins as ‘That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’. This is similar to Aubrey’s claim that Wilkins was the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’. Note too the claim that the meeting was in Boyle’s lodging, the same location, indeed the same term as used by Wallis. Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood.
Where does this leave Feingold’s case for anachronism? In my view Boyle’s contemporaneous comments provide persuasive corroborating evidence that the claims of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood are accurate recollections of the pre-Restoration Oxford meetings. That is, Boyle’s comments should be used to shed light on what Aubrey, Wallis and Wood meant by the term in the decades following the Oxford meetings rather than the other way around. According to Boyle in 1659, those meetings were in his lodgings and concerned experimental philosophy, just as the others later claimed. The case for the anachronistic reading is, therefore, seriously weakened in the light of Boyle’s testimony. It seems far more likely that there was an activity carried out by a small group in the late 1650s in Boyle’s Oxford rooms that was and still is aptly described as experimental philosophy.
Workshop: Early Modern Experimental Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Religion
University of Warwick, 10-11 May 2016
Keith Allen (York), Cavendish on Colour and Experimental Philosophy
Peter Anstey (Sydney), Experimental Philosophy and Corpuscular Philosophy
Philippe Hamou (Paris-Ouest Nanterre), John Locke and the Experimental Philosophy of the Human Mind
Dana Jalobeanu (Bucharest), Francis Bacon’s ‘Perceptive’ Instruments
Dmitri Levitin (Oxford), Metaphysics, Natural Philosophy, and the Soul: Rethinking Kenelm Digby’s Philosophical Project
Elliot Rossiter (Concordia), From Natural Philosophy to Natural Religion: Teleology and the Theologia Rationalis
Tom Sorell (Warwick), Experience in Hobbes’ Science of Politics
Alberto Vanzo (Warwick), Experimental Philosophy and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Italy
Koen Vermeir (Paris-Diderot), Magnetic Theology
Catherine Wilson (York), What was Behind the Rejection of Hypotheses in Newtonian Science
The full programme is available on the workshop webpage: http://bit.ly/EMExper
– Full fee excluding workshop dinner (includes two buffet lunches and coffee breaks): £20
– Discounted fee excluding workshop dinner: £10
– Full fee including workshop dinner: £49
– Discounted fee including workshop dinner: £39
The discounted fee is available to students, under-employed recent postgraduates and unemployed.
To register, please email email@example.com first to ensure that spaces are still available and, if so, please send a cheque, payable to the University of Warwick, to Dr Alberto Vanzo, Department of Philosophy, Social Sciences Building, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL.
Registration closes on Monday 25th April. You are advised to register early as space is limited.
We hope to provide some financial support to those who would like to attend, but require childcare. If you are interested, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Available at http://bit.ly/EMExper.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Aristotelian Society, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the British Society for the History of Science.
CFP: ‘Feeding on the nectar of the gods’: Appropriations of Isaac Newton’s thought, ca. 1700-1750
Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 5-6 July 2016
Egmontstraat 11 Rue d’Egmont
B-1000 Brussels, Belgium
The conference theme is the diffusion of Newton’s thought during the first half of the eighteenth century across Europe. The seeming ease with which Newton’s ideas were diffused has long been described as self-evident. State-of-the-art research has, however, shown that the spread and success of Newton’s corpus was far from obvious. More particularly, it has been suggested that the successful diffusion of Newton’s ideas was not merely determined by the obvious merits of the scientific claims which Newton developed in his two major works, the Principia (first edition: 1687) and the Opticks (first edition: 1704), but also by local factors and contexts, such as inter alia: (a) already established scholarly and educationally dominant traditions or systems; (b) theological and religious fractions, sensibilities, and worldviews; and (c) metaphysical and methodological orientations. Seen from this perspective, if we want to fully understand the successful spread of Newton’s ideas, we need to take into account the multifarious ways in which his ideas were appropriated in order to meet local ‘needs’. At the same time, we need to pinpoint the characteristics of those very ideas in virtue of which they could be successfully ‘exported’ to different intellectual and scientific hubs across Europe. The scientific committee welcomes presentations that contribute to our understanding of the spread of Newton’s thought across Europe from approximately 1700 to 1750.
Abstracts of approximately 500 words should be sent to the conference chair Prof. Dr. Steffen Ducheyne by 24 April 2016. Decisions will be made shortly thereafter. There will be room for 12 contributed presentations (20-22 minutes for the actual presentation + 10-8 minutes for Q&A). Abstracts will be evaluated anonymously by the scientific committee according to the following criteria: 1. quality, 2. relevance to the conference theme, and 3. capacity to engender a diverse coverage of the diffusion of Newton’s thought.
Marta Cavazza (Universita di Bologna)
Tamas Demeter (Hungarian Academy of Science)
Steffen Ducheyne (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Mordechai Feingold (Caltech)
Niccolo Guicciardini (Universita degli Studi di Bergamo)*
Rob Iliffe (University of Oxford)
Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge)
Stephen D. Snobelen (University of King’s College)
* Lecture sponsored by Belgian Society for Logic and Philosophy of Science.
More information here.
In my last post I considered the benefits of applying the ESD framework to our interpretation of the history and philosophy of science in early modern Spain. We saw that, in spite of the appearance of the terms “empiric” and “rationalist” in the work of some of the Spanish intellectual figures of the period, the ESD framework had a lot more to offer than the traditional RED framework. Today I want to introduce a particular controversy that highlights the advantages of working with the ESD in our examination of science and philosophy in early modern Spain.
The whole controversy began with the publication of a book by a scholastic figure: Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo (1662-1714), librarian to the king. In 1713 he published Historia de la Iglesia y del Mundo (History of the Church and the World), a book in which he gives an interpretation of Genesis consistent with the theory of atomism. The book stands at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide and as such it offers us a great insight into the uniqueness of the development of philosophy in early modern Spain. The book is an attempt to adopt the ideas of the new science within a scholastic framework. Alvarez begins his chapter on the creation of the sensible world with a presentation of his atomism:
At the beginning, the matter of the Sensible World was a tangled mass of imperceptible small bodies, which were the primitive state of the creative action, of the material Substance. These tiny bodies differed in their form, and due to them, through movement were capable of creating the various compositions that make this Fabric, which is as varied as it is beautiful. Each tiny body had its own place, and in this way they had extension, though this does not mean that they were subject of division, given that the principle of them was Creation, dividing them would be annihilating them.
Here we have a case where a scholastic figure attempts to adopt the new science into his scholastic system, explaining the creation of the world through the union and separation of corpuscles of various kinds. Alvarez adds a note to the passage quoted above where he explains how his account of the creation based on corpuscles and the indivisibility of matter is consistent with the power and wisdom of God. First he explains that God created all things independent of each other, giving each corpuscle its individuality, and that this is not contrary to the process of Creation, since compound bodies are nothing but united corpuscles, whether these bodies are created already as compounds or not. Regarding the indivisibility of the corpuscles, Alvarez explains that, being the result of simple Creation, corpuscles cannot be divided, since this would entail that each of the divided parts would have to exist either through creation or generation, and neither of these options is possible. He goes on to say that the heterogeneity in form, and the extension of these corpuscles is clear, and he finishes the note with a caution which highlights the care taken by the scholastics who adopted theories from the new science. One way of preventing any suspicion of heresy was to claim that the theory was not certain, but rather that it was a probable hypothesis. This is what Alvarez does to conclude his note, saying that “…we do not propose our maxims as evident, but we are satisfied to leave it in terms of probable”.
However cautious Alvarez was, the scholastics still saw his book as a threat to their beliefs and set out to criticize it. This was the beginning of a controversy that would involve the leading intellectual figures of the time. Two scholastic thinkers, Fransisco Palanco and Juan Martin de Lessaca set out to attack Alvarez´s book and the new science, while Diego Mateo Zapata and Juan de Najera replied defending the Novatores and calling for the replacement of the old, scholastic science with the new.
We will look at the details of each of the texts in forthcoming posts. For now, I want to conclude by commenting on the nature of the experimental/speculative divide in early modern Spain. The Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy shows that the experimental and speculative ideals stand at two opposite ends of a whole spectrum. While the scholastic Palanco and Lessaca stand clearly closer to the speculative end, Alvarez, a scholastic intellectual, stands closer to the middle, with Zapata and Najera standing at the experimental end. In fact, both Zapata and Najera began their intellectual life closer to the speculative end, but went on to fully embrace the methodology of experimental philosophy as time went by. To complicate the scene even further, during the final years of his life Najera gave up on experimental philosophy and went back to defend the scholastic, speculative way of thinking. This highlights the complexity of the Spanish intellectual landscape, while at the same time providing us with the opportunity to shed light on such a landscape by examining it from the ESD framework.
Alberto Vanzo writes …
Experimental philosophy is often portrayed as an exciting or controversial new development in philosophy. Yet, some have claimed that the practice of experimental philosophy is traditional and that it ‘began to flourish’ in the early modern period. Is it true that the practices and methods of current-day experimental philosophy is a traditional philosophical practice?
To shed light on this question, I will focus on George Turnbull, David Fordyce and (in my next post) David Hume. As Juan has shown (e.g. here and here), these authors stressed that their ethics derives from ‘plain uncontroverted Experiments’ and ‘reasoning from experiment’. Do Turnbull and Fordyce ethics adopt the practices and methods of current-day experimental philosophers?
Two practices are especially relevant to this question:
- Experimental philosophers object to the practice of developing philosophical arguments on the basis of intuitions, without assessing how widely those intuitions are shared and whether they are influenced by factors such as ethnic background, gender, or philosophical training. Accordingly, experimental philosophers engage in systematic investigations of people’s intuitions.
- More broadly, experimental philosophy can be characterised as the practice of systematically relying on empirical evidence in attempting to answer philosophical questions.
There are two reasons to think that Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s ethics is not an early instance of experimental philosophy.
1. The buck-passing strategy
Much of Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s ethics depends on their account of people’s feelings and behaviour. For instance, Fordyce outlines the passions that people experience at various stages of their lives: infants’ affection for their parents, children’s ‘Love of Action, of Imitation’, and so on. In support of his portrayal of human passions, Fordyce writes:
Whether this historic Draught of Man … be just or not, is a Matter, not so much of Reasoning, as common Sense and common Experience. Therefore let every one consult his Experience of what he feels within, and his Knowledge of what is transacted abroad, in the … World in which he lives; and by that Experience, and that Knowledge, let the Picture be acknowledged Just, or pronounced the Contrary.
Here and elsewhere, instead of detailing their observations, Turnbull and Fordyce appeal to a generic ‘common experience’ and pass the buck to their readers, inviting them to consult their own experience. This may be construed as a merely rhetorical move, or as an appeal to their readers’ intuitions. Either way, it is a far cry from experimental philosophers’ systematic provision of actual, specific experiences in support of their claims.
2. Thought Experiments
Turnbull and Fordyce often rely on intuitions elicited by thought experiments. They invite their readers to imagine a scenario and ponder a question, to elicit a judgement that is used as evidence for a philosophical claim. For instance, Turnbull asks his readers to imagine that someone paid them to have a sentiment of approbation for an instance of ‘villany’ or ‘treachery’. Would this bribery be successful? Turnbull expects his readers to answer that it wouldn’t, because they cannot bring themselves to have sentiments of approbation for such actions.
This is the procedure that armchair philosophers adopt when they appeal to intuitions in support of their claims. Like armchair philosophers, Turnbull and Fordyce take it for granted that, by reflecting on given cases, readers will elicit the very same judgements that their own reflection has elicited. They assume that people’s moral intuitions are uniform. They never suggest that an empirical inquiry might be necessary to confirm this assumption. In fact, Turnbull and Fordyce display little interest for cross-cultural moral divergences.
In sum, Turnbull’s and Fordyce’s appeals to a generic common experience and their armchair reliance on intuitions make them unlikely predecessors of current-day experimental philosophers. In my next post I will turn to Hume. Which other early modern moral philosophers should I focus on to establish if experimental philosophy is a traditional philosophical practice? I would appreciate your suggestions in the comments or via email.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Lately I have been examining Baconian interpretations of Newton’s Principia. First, I demonstrated that Newton’s Moon test resembles a Baconian crucial instance. And then, I demonstrated that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Bacon’s method of gradual induction. This drew our attention to some interesting features of Newton’s approach, bringing the Principia’s experimental aspects into sharper focus. But they also highlighted a worry: Newton’s methodology resembling Bacon’s isn’t enough to establish that Newton was influenced by Bacon. Bacon and Newton were gifted methodologists—they could have arrived independently at the same approach. One way to distinguish between convergence and influence is to see if there’s anything uniquely or distinctively Baconian in Newton’s use of crucial experiments and gradual induction. Another way would be if we could find some explicit references to Bacon in relation to these methodological tools. Alas, so far, my search in these areas has produced nothing.
In this post, I’ll consider an alternative way of understanding Baconianism in the Principia. I began this series by asking whether we should regard Newton’s methodology as an extension of the Baconian experimental method, or as something more unique. In answering, I have hunted for evidence that the Principia is Baconian insofar as Newton applied Baconian methodological tools in the Principia. But you might think that whether Newton was influenced by Bacon isn’t so relevant. Rather, what matters is how the Principia was received by Newton’s contemporaries. So in this post, I’ll examine Mary Domski’s argument that the Principia is part of the Baconian tradition because it was recognised, and responded to, as such by members of the Royal Society.
Domski begins by dispelling the idea that there was no place for mathematics in the Baconian experimental tradition. Historically, Bacon’s natural philosophical program, centred on observation, experiment and natural history, was taken as fundamentally incompatible with a mathematical approach to natural philosophy. And Bacon is often taken to be deeply distrustful of mathematics. Domski argues, however, that Bacon’s views on mathematics are both subtler and more positive. Indeed, although Bacon had misgivings about how mathematics could guide experimental practice, he gave it an important role in natural philosophy. In particular, mathematics can advance our knowledge of nature by revealing causal processes. However, he cautioned, it must be used appropriately. To avoid distorting the evidence gained via observation and experiment, one must first establish a solid foundation via natural history, and only then employ mathematical tools. In short, Bacon insisted that the mathematical treatment of nature must be grounded on, and informed by, the findings of natural history.
Domski’s second move is to argue that seventeenth-century Baconians such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke understood and accepted this mathematical aspect of Bacon’s methodology. Bacon’s influence in the seventeenth century was not limited to his method of natural history, and Baconian experimental philosophers didn’t dismiss speculative approaches outright. Rather, they emphasised that there was a proper order of investigation: metaphysical and mathematical speculation must be informed by observation and experiment. In other words, there is a place for speculative philosophy after the experimental stage has been completed.
Domski then examines the reception of Newton’s Principia by members of the Royal Society—focusing on Locke. For Locke, natural history was a necessary component of natural philosophy. And yet, Locke embraced the Principia as a successful application of mathematics to natural philosophy. Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. She writes:
[O]n Locke’s reading, Newton used a principle—the fundamental truth of universal gravitation—that was initially ‘drawn from matter’ and then, with evidence firmly in hand, he extended this principle to a wide store of phenomena. By staying mindful of the proper experimental and evidentiary roots of natural philosophy, Newton thus succeeded in producing the very sort of profit that Sprat and Boyle anticipated a proper ‘speculative’ method could generate (p. 165).
In short, Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program. That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes.
In summary, Domski makes a good case for viewing the mathematico-experimental method employed in the Principia as part of the seventeenth-century Baconian tradition. I have a few reservations with her argument. For one thing, ‘speculative naturalist’ is surely a term that neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with. And for another thing, although Domski has provided reasons to view Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as related to, and a development of, the experimental philosophy of the Royal Society, I’m not convinced that this shows that they viewed the Principia as Baconian. That is to say, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. I’ll discuss these issues in my next post, and for now, I’ll conclude by discussing some important lessons that I think arise from Domski’s position.
Firstly, we can identify divergences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers. And these could be surprising. It’s not, in itself, his use mathematics and generalisations that makes Newton different—Domski has shown that even the hard-out Baconians could get on board with these features of the Principia. The differences are subtler. For example, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, Boyle, Sprat and Locke advocated a two-stage approach to natural philosophy, in which construction of natural histories precedes theory construction. But Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Indeed, in the Principia, we find that Newton commences theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.
Secondly, the account highlights the fact that early modern experimental philosophy was a work in progress. There was much variation in its practice, and room for improvement and evolution. Moreover, its modification and development was, to a large extent, the result of technological innovation and the scientific success of works like the Principia. Indeed, it was arguably the ability to recognise and incorporate such achievements that allowed experimental philosophy to become increasingly dominant, sophisticated and successful in the eighteenth century.
Thirdly, the account suggests that, already in the late-seventeenth century, the ESD framework was being employed to guide, and also to distort, the interpretation and uptake of natural philosophy. By embracing the Principia as their own, the early modern experimental philosophers intervened on and shaped its reception, and hence, the kind of influence the Principia had. This raises an interesting point about influence.
As I have already noted, it is difficult to establish a direct line of influence stretching from Bacon to Newton. But, by focusing on how Bacon’s program for natural philosophy was developed by figures such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke, we can identify a connection between Bacon’s natural philosophical program and Newton’s mathematico-experimental methodology. That is, we can distinguish between influence in terms of actual causal connections—Newton having read Bacon, for instance—and influence insofar as some aspect of Newton’s work is taken to be related to Bacon’s by contemporary (or near-contemporary) thinkers. Indeed, Newton could have been utterly ignorant of Bacon’s actual views on method, but the Principia might nonetheless deserve to be placed alongside Bacon’s work in the development of experimental philosophy. Sometimes what others take you to have done is more important than what you have actually done!
Experimental Philosophy Through History
A one-day conference at New York University on February 20, 2016
Contemporary work in experimental philosophy investigates the relationship between empirical methods and philosophical questions. However, there is a rich history of thinking through the general issues surrounding armchair and experimental approaches to philosophy; for instance, such projects can be found in 19th century philosophy, early modern philosophy, and classical Chinese philosophy.
To explore these topics and philosophical questions at the intersection of experimental philosophy and history of philosophy, we will host a one-day conference. The conference will be held at New York University on February 20th, from 10:00 AM to 6:15 PM. The conference features six presentations, each with a paired commentary. Further information can be found here. Please direct any questions to: email@example.com.
Peter Anstey (The University of Sydney)
discussion by Stephen Darwall (Yale University)
Scott Edgar (Saint Mary’s University)
discussion by John Richardson (New York University)
Alex Klein (California State University)
discussion by Henry Cowles (Yale University)
Hagop Sarkissian (Baruch College, CUNY)
discussion by Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University)
Kathryn Tabb (Columbia University)
discussion by Don Garrett (New York University)
Alberto Vanzo (University of Warwick)
discussion by Alison McIntyre (Wellesley College)