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Baconian versus Newtonian experimental philosophy

Peter Anstey writes…

Eric Schliesser’s comments about the utility of the experimental/speculative distinction, provide an opportunity for me to lay out a distinction that is absolutely central to our project. But let’s hear from Eric first: I quote from his blog post on It’s Only a Theory:

    It ignores at least one other group of philosophers, namely those that believed in (mathematical) theory mediated measurement. I am thinking of Galileo, Huygens, and Newton, among the best known. These are not best described as experimental, although all were accomplished experimentalists (and Newton’s Optics is often assimilated to experimental traditions), but their work has very different character from say, Bacon or Boyle. (They are also not best described as speculative, because all three practiced a self-restraint on published speculation.) Certainly after the Principia this approach created standing challenge to all other forms of philosophizing. So the Otago framework will run into big trouble in 18th century.

We’ve already shown that, in fact, the terminology of the experimental philosophy is very prevalent in the 18th century and, moreover, that the experimental philosophy was extended beyond natural philosophy into moral philosophy and even aesthetics. See, for example, the works of George Turnbull which are a good example of experimental moral philosophy.

But the important issue Eric raises has to do with those who practised ‘theory mediated measurement’ such as Galileo, Huygens and Newton. What our research has shown is that the experimental philosophy was practised in two quite different ways. Up until the 1690s, Boyle, Hooke and the early Royal Society practised experimental philosophy according to the method of Baconian natural history. However, from the last decade of the seventeenth century Newton’s new mathematical natural philosophical method came to be seen as the preferred method of experimental philosophy. The Baconian natural history program started to run out of steam in the 1690s and it soon came to be replaced by the Newtonian method. This is, in fact, the explanation of Newton’s common refrain ‘Natural philosophy is not natural history’. And Newton himself had a large hand in the demise of the Baconian approach to experimental philosophy both through criticism and through his own positive alternative. Far from providing an exception to our framework, Newton, the self-confessed experimental philosopher, is one of the central players!

7 thoughts on “Baconian versus Newtonian experimental philosophy

  1. Thanks for this illuminating distinction. I wonder if the distinction may be paraphrased as a distinction between the Baconian qualitative experimentalism and the Newtonian quantitative (mathematical) experimentalism. If yes, would this have some consequences of deliniating 17th-century, more precisely Baconian natural history/philosophy?
    Thanks again!

  2. I don’t think it’s a difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches, but rather it’s a distinction between viewing natural philosophy as comprising a (Baconian) fact gathering stage before theorizing, and Newton’s method of ‘deducing’ principles and laws of nature from which one derives new knowledge. Thus, Boyle’s discovery of Boyle’s Law was quantitative and done under the auspices of the method of natural history.

  3. Thanks! Surely you are right in this respect, but does this approach not all too rashly classify Bacon’s methodology as inductive–which it was not, at least not in the Aristotelian, modern sense of the term. As his ‘theories’ were supposed to point at other facts, or there followed new facts from them, as discoveries which were in turn recycled into the formation of more abstract theories, which again revealed or created facts, which facts again lead to new abstractions etc.

    I understand that labelling Bacon’s method as inductive does not follow from your description, but may follow. And I think the avoidance of this fallacy is almost as important as avoiding the wrong empiricist versus rationalist distinction.

  4. One interesting feature of the experimental philosophy in its Baconian guise that lasted up until the 1690s is that hardly anyone who practised it mentions Baconian induction. It’s as if Bacon’s inductive stage as spelt out in Book II of the New Organon was ignored along with his own speculative natural philosophy.

  5. This is most fascinating: in what respect could they be defined as Baconian, then? Can it be that they did not like the term “induction” because of its counterproductive logical connotations? Or was Bacon used only as a label fashioning the British identity through a British “forerunner”?

  6. Bacon’s natural historical works were far more popular than his methodological writings in the seventeenth century and the subject of induction is only a relatively minor focus in Bacon’s works overall. It is, in my view, the 20th century preoccupation with inductive reasoning in science that has led scholars to overstate the importance of induction in Bacon and, more importantly, to overstate the role of induction in early modern natural philosophy. Michael Hunter and I have discussed Boyle’s Baconian method of natural history in a recent article in Early Science and Medicine (13, 2008) and this gives something of an introduction to what Bacon meant to the members of the early Royal Society.

  7. Thanks for the reference to the article, I’ll try to abtain a copy of it.

    My interest in Bacon’s induction is not related to the history of scientific methodology, but I fancy to see it in the context of Bacon’s efforts to fashion himself and natural philosophy so that both could be acceptable in the intellectual-cultural environment he was caught up in, and that both could be advanced. So this perspective rather looks at him from what has happened before him and around him. And I think his methodological considerations reveal the tension between what nowadays we call humanities/social sciences and science. And his tragedy lies in his not being able to give up the one for the other. This tension was not so pressing for the very next generations of natural philosophers, which may in a way explain some of the tendencies that you have described above. Can it then be that the shift in interests was due partly to the cultural environment and partly to strictly speaking scientific considerations?