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Understanding Newton’s Principia as part of the Baconian Tradition

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!

Crucial Instances in the Principia

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In the General Scholium, which concluded later editions of Principia, Newton described the work as ‘experimental philosophy’:

In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from phenomena and are made general by induction. The impenetrability, mobility, and impetus of bodies, and the laws of motion and the law of gravity have been found by this method.

On this blog, I have argued that we should take this statement at face value. In support, I have emphasised similarities between Newton’s work in optics and mechanics. For example, I have considered the kind of evidence provided in each work, arguing that both the Principia’s ‘phenomena’ and the Opticks’s ‘experiments’ are idealisations based on observation, and that they perform the same function: isolating explananda. I have also emphasised Newton’s preoccupation in the Principia with establishing his principles empirically. Finally, I have suggested that this concern with experimental philosophy, in combination with his use of mathematics, made Newton’s method unique.

In my last blog post, I wondered if we should regard Newton’s methodology as an extension of the Baconian experimental method, or as something more unique. I have written many blog posts discussing the Baconian aspects of Newton’s optical work (for example, here, here and here), but the Baconian aspects of the Principia are less well-established. I can identify at least three possible candidates for Baconianism in the Principia. The first, suggested by Daniel Schwartz in recent conversation, is that book 3 contains what might be interpreted as Baconian ‘crucial instances’. The second, discussed by Steffen Ducheyne, is that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Bacon’s method of induction. The third, discussed by Mary Domski, is that the mathematical method employed in the Principia should be viewed as part of the seventeenth-century Baconian tradition. In this post, I’ll focus on Schwartz’s suggestion—the possibility there is a crucial instance in book 3 of the Principia—I’ll address the rest in future posts.

To begin, what is a ‘crucial instance’? For Bacon, crucial instances (instantiae crucis) were a subset of ‘instances with special powers’ (ISPs). When constructing a Baconian natural history, ISPs were experiments, procedures, and instruments that were held to be particularly informative or illuminative of aspects of the inquiry. These served a variety of purposes. Some functioned as ‘core experiments’, introduced at the very beginning of a natural history, and serving as the basis for further experiments. Others played a role later in the process. This included experiments that were supposed to be especially representative of a certain class of experiments, tools and experimental procedures that provided interesting investigative shortcuts, and model examples that came close to providing theoretical generalisations.

Crucial instances are part of a subset of ISPs that were supposed to aid the intellect by “warning against false forms or causes”. When two possible explanations seemed equally good, then the crucial instance was employed to decide between them. To this end, it performed two functions: the negative function was to eliminate all possible explanations except the correct one; the positive function was to affirm the correct explanation.

According to Claudia Dumitru, Bacon’s crucial instances have a clear structure:

  1. Specify the explanandum;
  2. Consider the competing explanations (these are assumed to exhaust the possibilities);
  3. Derive a consequence from one explanation that is incompatible with the other explanation(s);
  4. Test that consequence.

Are there any arguments in the Principia that look like crucial instances? I think there’s at least one: Newton’s famous ‘Moon test’. Let’s have a look at it.

In proposition 4 book 3, Newton used his Moon test to establish that “The moon gravitates toward the earth and by the force of gravity is always drawn back from rectilinear motion and kept in its orbit”. Here, Newton argued that the inverse-square centripetal force, keeping the moon in orbit around the Earth, is the same force that, say, makes an apple fall to the ground, namely, gravity. I think we can tease out the features of a Baconian crucial instance from Newton’s reasoning here.

Firstly, there is an explanandum: what kind of force keeps the Moon in its orbit and prevents it from flying off into space? Secondly, two possible explanations are provided: the force is either (a) the same force that that acts on terrestrial objects, namely, gravity; or (b) a different force. Thirdly, we have a consequence of (a) that is incompatible with (b): if the moon were deprived of rectilinear motion, and allowed to fall towards Earth, it would begin falling at the rate of 15 1/12 Paris feet in the space of one minute, accelerating so that at the Earth’s surface it would fall 15 1/12 Paris feet in a second. Finally, we see a test of that consequence: the calculations based on the size and motion of the Moon, and its distance from the Earth. The results are taken to support (a) and refute (b).

I have three concluding remarks to make.

Firstly, interpreting the Moon test as a crucial instance involves ‘rational reconstruction’. In the text, Newton starts by calculating the rate at which the Moon would fall, and shows that this supports proposition 4. But I think my reading of this as a crucial instance is supported by Newton’s concluding remarks:

For if gravity were different from this force, then bodies making for the earth by both forces acting together would descend twice as fast, and in the space of one second would by falling describe 301/6 Paris feet, entirely contrary to experience.

Here, Newton described the Moon test as a crucial instance: he used an observation to choose between two competing explanations of the explanandum.

Secondly, when looking for crucial instances in the Principia, it might be tempting to start with the phenomena, listed at the beginning of book 3. Elsewhere, I have argued that these resemble Newton’s experiments in the Opticks, which function as instances with special powers. But the label ‘crucial instance’ describes the function, not the content, of an empirical claim. And so, to see if they provide crucial instances, we need to consider how the phenomena are used. In fact, I think they do provide crucial instances for Newton’s rejection of Cartesian vortex theory in favour of universal gravitation, found at the end of book 2. But again, this requires rational reconstruction.

Finally, there is the issue of historical influence. I have shown that Newton employed the Moon test to decide between two competing explanations, and that this argument resembles one of Bacon’s crucial instances. However, one might think that this was simply a good approach to empirical support, and that Newton was using his common-sense. So perhaps we shouldn’t take this to indicate (direct or indirect) influence. And so I have a question for our readers: was this style of reasoning uniquely Baconian?


Understanding Newton’s Experiments as Instances of Special Power

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In my last few posts, I have been discussing the nature of observations and experiments in Newton’s Opticks.  In my first post on this topic, I argued that Newton’s distinction between observation and experiment turns on their function.  That is, the experiments introduced in book 1 offered individual, and crucial, support for particular propositions, whereas the observations introduced in books 2 and 3 only supported propositions collectively.  In my next post, I discussed the observations in more detail, arguing that they resemble Bacon’s ‘experientia literata’, the method by which natural histories were supposed to be generated.  At the end of that post, I suggested that, in contrast to the observations, Newton’s experiments look like Bacon’s ‘instances of special power’, which are particularly illuminating cases introduced to provide support for specific propositions.  Today I’ll develop this idea.

Note, before we continue, that there are two issues here that can be treated independently of one another.  One is establishing the extent of Bacon’s historical influence on Newton; the other is establishing the extent to which Bacon’s methodology can illuminate Newton’s.  In this post I am doing the latter – using Bacon’s view only as an interpretive tool.

Identifying ‘instances of special power’ (ISPs) was an important step in the construction of a Baconian natural history.  ISPs were experiments, procedures, and instruments that were held to be particularly informative or illuminative.  These served a variety of purposes.  Some functioned as ‘core experiments’, introduced at the very beginning of a natural history, and serving as the basis for further experiments.  Others played a role later in the process.  They included experiments that were supposed to be especially representative of a certain class of experiments, tools and experimental procedures that provided interesting shortcuts in the investigation, and model examples that came very close to providing theoretical generalisations.  In some cases, a collection of ISPs constituted a natural history.

The following features were typical of ISPs.  Firstly, they were considered to be particularly illuminating experiments, procedures or tools.  For example, a crucial instance, or a particularly clear or informative experiment, or experimental procedure.  Secondly, they were supposed to be replicated.  On Bacon’s view, replication was not merely an exercise for verifying evidence; it was an exercise for the mind, ensuring that one had truly grasped the phenomenon.  Thirdly, they were versatile, in that they could be used in several different ways.  As we shall see, the experiments of book 1 display these essential features.

In book 1 of the Opticks, Newton employed a method of ‘proof by experiments’ to support his propositions.  Each experiment was introduced to reveal a specific property of light, which in turn proved a particular proposition.  We know that Newton conducted many experiments in his optical investigations, so why did he present the experiments as he did, when he did?  When we consider Newton’s experiments alongside Bacon’s instances of special power, common features start to emerge.

Firstly, for each proposition he asserted, Newton introduced a small selection of experiments in support – those that he considered to be particularly illuminating or, in his own words, “necessary to the Argument”.  Unlike in his first paper, in the Opticks, Newton did not label any experiments experimentum crucis.  But his use of terms such as ‘necessary’ and ‘proof’ make it clear that these experiments were supposed to provide strong support: just like ISPs.

Secondly, Newton usually provided more than one experiment to support each proposition.  These were listed in order of increasing complexity and were carefully described and illustrated.  That Newton took this approach, as opposed to just reporting on their results, suggests that these experiments were supposed to be an exercise for the reader: they were about more than just proof or confirmation of the proposition.  The reader was supposed either to be able to replicate the experiment, or at least to understand its replicability.  Starting with the simplest experiment, Newton led his reader by the hand through the relevant properties of light, to ensure that they were properly grasped.  Like Bacon’s ISPs, then, Newton’s experiments were intended to be replicated.

Thirdly, Newton’s experiments were recycled in a variety of roles in the Opticks.  For example, the experiments he used to support proposition 2 part II were experiments 12 and 14 from part I.  Newton introduced and developed these experiments in several different contexts to illuminate and support different propositions.  Again, this is typical of Bacon’s ISPs.

And so, Newton’s experiments in the Opticks play a role analogous to Bacon’s instances of special power, and thinking of them as such explains why they are presented as they are.  They are particularly illuminating cases that are introduced to provide support for specific propositions.  Newton selected the experiments which best functioned as ISPs for inclusion in the Opticks.  Moreover, seen in this light, the seemingly disparate set of experiments start to look like a far more cohesive collection, or a natural history.

Many commentators have emphasised the ways that Newton deviated from Baconian method.  Through this sequence of posts, I have argued that the Opticks provides a striking example of conformity to the Baconian method of natural history.

Denis Diderot: the last true Baconian?

Peter Anstey writes…

There were many types of Baconianism in the eighteenth century and many philosophers and natural philosophers traced their lineage from Bacon or regarded Bacon as the progenitor of views that they espoused. And yet most of these self-proclaimed ‘Baconians’ held views that Bacon himself would hardly recognize or they adhered to what, at best, could be described as a truncated form of Baconianism. A nice example is George Adams Jr whose views on the method of reasoning in natural philosophy in his Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy (1794) (discussed previously on this blog) amount to little more than a summary of the first book of Bacon’s Novum organum (1620).

What would it take then for someone to be a true Baconian? Of course, the question itself is problematic because there is no principled way of determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that would settle the issue. But let us run with the question nonetheless.

Given the prominence of Bacon’s method of natural history in his conception of how we are to acquire knowledge of nature – that is, given the quality and quantity of writings that he devoted to natural history and the efforts he expended in assembling his own exemplar histories in the last years of his life – I suggest that to be a true Baconian one must (at least) be an advocate of the Baconian method of natural history. If this is right, then as far as I am aware, the last true Baconian was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713–1784).

Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784)

Diderot’s ‘Prospectus’ for the Encyclopédie, was first published in 1750 and then appended in a modified form to the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ of the first volume of the Encyclopédie itself in 1751. It presents an overtly Baconian scheme of the sciences set within a tripartite faculty psychology à la Bacon, but more importantly, it shows a clear understanding and acceptance of the structure and content of Bacon’s account of the overall project of natural history. Drawing heavily on Bacon’s De augmentis scientiarum he tells us that:

The history of uniform nature is divided, following its principal objects, into: celestial history or history of the stars, of their movements, sensible appearances, etc., without explaining their cause by systems, hypotheses, etc. (It is a matter here only of pure phenomena.) Into meteorological history such as winds, rains, tempests, thunder, aurora borealis, etc. Into the history of the earth and the sea, or of mountains, rivers, streams, currents, tides, sands, soils, forests, islands, configurations of the earth, continents, etc. Into history of minerals, into history of vegetables, into history of animals. Whence results a history of the elements, of the apparent nature, sensible effects, movements, etc., of fire, air, earth, and water. (Preliminary Discourse, Chicago, 1995, 147)

(Regular readers of this blog will note the decrying of systems and hypotheses as hallmarks of a commitment to the experimental philosophy.)

Yet Diderot does not merely reproduce the structure and content of Bacon’s method of natural history, he also appreciated the heuristic structure of these histories and the fact that they needed to be subject to what Bacon called interpretatio naturae, the interpretation of nature. For, in 1754 Diderot published a work entitled On the Interpretation of Nature which, as many scholars have recognized, is very Baconian in character. It is, in effect, Diderot’s own version of Book Two of Bacon’s Novum organum. To be sure it lacks any extended discussion of Baconian induction and prerogative instances, but it is written in aphoristic form and contains many Baconian themes including advice on experimenting, the use of queries and conjectures and concrete natural philosophical examples. Surely on this evidence Diderot must qualify as a true Baconian. Was he the last?

On the Early Modern Meanings of “Rationalism”

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In last week’s post, Juan noted that the Encyclopedia Britannica first recorded the philosophical meaning of the term “rationalism” in the early twentieth century. As Juan states, this lends support to the view that “rationalism” started to be “used to refer to early modern philosophy” in “the first decades of the twentieth century”. I am sympathetic to this view. In this post, I will defend it from two objections.

The first objection is that Bacon himself used used the term “rationalist” in a philosophical sense, for instance when he wrote:

    Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves (Cogitata et visa; see Novum Organum, I, 95)

This objection can be dispensed with rather quickly, as Peter did on this blog some time ago. Bacon did not use the term “rationalists”. He referred to those who “spin threads out of themselves” as “rationals” (rationales) and to their philosophy as philosophia rationalis (rational philosophy, e.g. in Novum Organum, I, 42, 64), not as rationalism. One cannot find a philosophical use of the English terms “rationalist” or “rationalism” in Bacon’s texts.

The second objection notes that, nevertheless, the translation of Bacon’s “rationales” as rationalists is an early modern one. Shaw’s 1733 English translation of the Novum Organum states: “Those who have treated the Sciences, were either Empirics, or Rationalists. […] the Rationalists [are] like Spiders […]”. Although this use of “Rationalist” is not recorded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is recorded in other reference texts, such as the 1740 edition of Dyche’s and Pardon’s New General English Dictionary, the 1755-1756 edition of Johnson’s English Dictionary, and this entry from the 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language:

    RATIONALIST, n. One who proceeds in his certain disquisitions and practice wholly upon reason. – Bacon.

(I owe these references to Li Ling.) Webster’s entry recalls a passage by Shaftesbury, to whom, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we owe the first recorded use of the term “empiricist” (1705). Shaftersbury characterizes rationalists as those “who walk by Reason in every thing”. This statement may sound rather similar to one that can be found in an early twentieth-century edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: according to rationalists, «reason is in and by itself a source of knowledge» which «has superior authority over knowledge acquired through sensation».

How can we respond to this objection? It is true that there are early modern uses of the term “rationalist” in relation to philosophers. However, the term was used for philosophers in the broad early modern sense of all those who pursue scientia, especially for natural philosophers, and has a methodological connotation: it designates their (reflected or unreflected) reliance on reason. By contrast, the twentieth-century philosophical use of “rationalism” designates the endorsement of a specific epistemological view. In the terms of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “philosophical rationalism” is a “theory of knowledge”.

Additionally, the existence of early modern philosophical uses of the adjective “rationalist” does not entail that the noun “rationalism” was used in a philosophical sense too. The term was mostly used in a theological sense to designate those who stressed the importance of reason not over the sense, but over faith or revelation. Whereas Webster’s dictionary records a philosophical use of “rationalist” with a reference to Bacon, it does not record any philosophical use of “rationalism”. For Webster, rationalism is “[t]he practice or tenets of certain latitudinarian divines”. Shaftesbury contrasts the attitude of the rationalists, who “exalted Reason above Faith“, with the prominence that he accords to faith above reason: “We for our parts know nothing, and believe all”.

Finally, pre-Kantian writers nearly did not associate the term “rationalism” with the textbook rationalists of twentieth-century texts, namely Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Indeed, the only pre-Kantian text of which I am aware which groups together Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz is Account of Sir Newton’s Discoveries, but it does not use the term “rationalism”. One can find the association of “rationalism” with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in nineteenth-century translations of German texts, but the English term “rationalism” started to be routinely associated with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz only around the turn of the twentieth century. It is only in this period that, as is witnessed by the changes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica highlighted by Juan, the now-standard epistemological usage of “rationalism” to refer to early modern philosophers became established.

Experimental Philosophy in Spain Part II

Juan Gomez writes…

In my previous post I reviewed some texts from Spanish authors in the 17th century to show that, contrary to common opinion, intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula were in fact acquainted with the progress and achievements of the new experimental philosophy. They did not just know of it, but actually advocated its application and called for the rejection of the old method of the scholastics. In this post I will conclude this overview of the ESD in Spain by looking at the work of the Novatores in the eighteenth century.

The texts we examined in my last post were both written by physicians. In the eighteenth century medicine remained as the forum for the promotion of experimental philosophy. The first author I will examine is Doctor Martín Martínez. He was a physician and professor of anatomy in Madrid, and royal physican to Phillip V. Besides a number of medical writings, in 1730 he published Filosofía Escéptica which consisted in a dialogue between an Aristotlian, a Cartesian, a Gassendist, and a Sceptic. In the preliminaries to this book he tells us that

    The spirit of this book is to give to the Curious Romantics an idea of the most famous philosophies that today run through Europe, relegating that Aristotle just for theological studies.

Even in the 1730’s books in Spain still included a statement of approval made by a priest or friar that confirmed that there was nothing in the book to be censured. The censorship for Filosofía Escéptica was written by Friar Agustín Sanchez and in it we find a statement in the spirit of experimental philosophy. Speaking of the account Martínez gives of the Aristotelian, Cartesian, and Gassendist positions he tells us that the Doctor

    Is determined not to follow any of them, but is inclined towards what he judges more plausible; he does not believe in what experience cannot confirm, based on the fact that words cannot reach the truth of physical and material things, nor their natures and properties; what experience cannot testify, and persuade, cannot be known by words.

Martínez begins his dialogue by giving a brief history of philosophy in Spain, blaming the Arabians for the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy,

    From which that contentious and vociferous philosophy we call Scholastic, as opposed to Experimental, has been derived.

A few lines later Martínez comments that he shares the same opinion held by Bacon:

    The most judicious Verulam also held, that of all the philosophies that have been invented, and received, so many were but fables, and Comical Scenes, each of them making the world to their liking, amassing the Elements to the measure of their palate, and arbitrarily establishing hypotheses as difficult to believe, as they are to prove.

In the case of Martín Martínez we can see the experimental philosophy and the rejection of mere speculation clearly represented. But to show that this was not an isolated case I turn now to another doctor, Andrés Piquer. Out of all the Novatores that practices medicine, Piquer was the one that published most on other topics. He published a book on logic, one on moral philosophy, and one on physics. This last one was published in 1745 under the title Física Moderna Racional, y Experimental (Modern Physics, Rational and Experimental). Piquer begins this book by giving some preliminaries about the state and history of physics and the method to follow. In his historical account he tells us that

    Physics was wrongly cultivated for many centuries, until Francis Bacon Lord Verulam, Great Chancellor of England, towards the end of the sixteenth century, started to renew it, freeing it form the superfluity of reasoning, and manifesting, that the true way to advance in it is through the path of experience.

Speaking about the proper method Piquer sets up a distinction that illustrates the presence of the ESD (in some form) in Spain:

    Modern physicists, are either Systematic, or Experimental. The former explain nature according to some system; the latter discover it through the way of experience. The Systematic form in the imagination some idea, or drawing of the principal parts of the World, of its connections, and mutual correspondence; and holding such idea, that sometimes is strictly willed, as a principle, and foundation of their Philosophy, try to explain everything that occurs in the universe according to it. This has been done by Descartes, and Newton. The Experimental work to collect many experiments, combine them, and use them as the basis of their reasonings. This is how Robert Boyle, Boerhaave, and many other philosophers of these times treat physics.

One of the interesting features of this passage is that Piquer groups Descartes and Newton together under systematic philosophers! However, I don’t have the space or time to discuss this very interesting issue in this post, but Piquer’s distinction between systematic and experimental is something worth looking into. For now, I believe I have provided some very interesting passages from early modern Spanish authors that show that they were acquainted with experimental philosophy and opposed and rejected mere speculation.

N.B. The English translation of the quotes presented here is mine

Early modern x-phi: a genre free zone

Peter Anstey writes…

One feature of early modern experimental philosophy that has been brought home to us as we have prepared the exhibition entitled ‘Experimental Philosophy: Old and New’ (soon to appear online) is the broad range of disciplinary domains in which the experimental philosophy was applied in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the works on display are books from what we now call the history of science, some are works in the history of medicine, some are works of literature, others are works in moral philosophy, and yet they all have the unifying thread of being related in some way to the experimental philosophy.

Two lessons can be drawn from this. First – and this is a simple point that may not be immediately obvious – there is no distinct genre of experimental philosophical writing. Senac’s Treatise on the Structure of the Heart is just as much a work of experimental philosophy as Newton’s Principia or Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. To be sure, if one turns to the works from the 1660s to the 1690s written after the method of Baconian natural history, one can find a fairly well-defined genre. But, as we have already argued on this blog, this approach to the experimental philosophy was short-lived and by no means exhausts the works from those decades that employed the new experimental method.

Second, disciplinary boundaries in the 17th and 18th centuries were quite different from those of today. The experimental philosophy emerged in natural philosophy in the 1650s and early 1660s and was quickly applied to medicine, which was widely regarded as continuous with natural philosophy. By the 1670s it was being applied to the study of the understanding in France by Jean-Baptiste du Hamel and later by John Locke. Then from the 1720s and ’30s it began to be applied in moral philosophy and aesthetics. But the salient point here is that in the early modern period there was no clear demarcation between natural philosophy and philosophy as there is today between science and philosophy. Thus Robert Boyle was called ‘the English Philosopher’ and yet today he is remembered as a great scientist. This is one of the most important differences between early modern x-phi and the contemporary phenomenon: early modern x-phi was endorsed and applied across a broad range of disciplines, whereas contemporary x-phi is a methodological stance within philosophy itself.

What is it then that makes an early modern book a work of experimental philosophy? There are at least three qualities each of which is sufficient to qualify a book as a work of experimental philosophy:

  1. an explicit endorsement of the experimental philosophy and its salient doctrines (such as an emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge by observation and experiment, opposition to speculative philosophy);
  2. an explicit application of the general method of the experimental philosophy;
  3. acknowledgment by others that a book is a work of experimental philosophy.

Now, some of the books in the exhibition are precursors  to the emergence of the experimental philosophy (such as Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum). Some of them are comments on the experimental philosophy by sympathetic observers (Sprat’s History of the Royal Society), and others poke fun at the new experimental approach (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). But this still leaves a large number of very diverse works, which qualify as works of experimental philosophy. Early modern x-phi is a genre free zone.

Images of Experimental Philosophy (and a request for help!)

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Over the last few weeks, we have been organizing a rare book exhibition* on the history of experimental philosophy.  It has been a privilege to handle dozens of antique books such as a 2nd edition of Newton’s Principia, Bacon’s Opuscula and Kepler’s Epitome.  One of the striking features of early modern books is their ornate frontispieces and detailed illustrations.  They give the impression that publishers spent a lot of money to acquire and print these images.  This got us thinking about what images really capture the spirit of the experimental philosophy.  So this week, we thought we’d do a special post on images of experimental philosophy.

One of my favourite images is Wright’s 1768 ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’.  It combines several aspects of the 18th century scientific pursuit: the experimenter as a ‘show man’, natural philosophy as ‘family entertainment’, and Boyle’s air pump centre stage.  If you want to see some of the experiments that Wright’s subjects might have seen, have a look at the video on air pressure over at Discovering Science.

Wright (1768), An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Wright (1768), 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump'

Another wonderful image is Stradanus’ (1580), ‘Lapis Polaris Magnes’, also known as ‘The Philosopher in his Chamber Studying a Lodestone’.

    “the scholar in his study is surrounded by the new instruments of navigation, drafting, and surveying. An armillary sphere, a compass, an octant, several books, and other measuring tools sit on the table at left. In the left foreground, a lodestone floats on a raft of wood in a wine cooler. The model galleon suspended from the ceiling contrasts to the single-masted, oared Mediterranean vessel that can be seen through the window. The juxtaposition of instruments and books on the scholar’s desk indicates the coming together of the hitherto generally separate traditions of practice and theory. Out of their union, the new experimental philosophy emerged.”  (From Experience and Experiment in Early Modern Europe.)
(1580), ‘Lapis Polaris Magnes’ a.k.a. Philosopher in his Chamber Studying a Lodestone

Stradanus (1580), ‘Lapis Polaris Magnes’

Another gallon is represented in the frontispice of Bacon’s De augmentis.  It has passed through the Pillars of Hercules, venturing into the unknown and increasing our knowledge.  The line beneath the ship explains: “Many shall pass through and learning shall be increased” (“Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia”).  How shall learning be increased?  By overcoming a series of oppositions: between reason and experience (the motto at the top reads “Reason and Experience have been allied together”); between the visible world and the intelligible world (the two globes at the top); between science and philosophy (the two terms at the bottom of the pillars); and even between Oxford and Cambridge (“Oxonium” and “Cantabrigia”)!

Bacon (1640), De Augmentis Scientiarum

Bacon (1640), 'De Augmentis Scientiarum'

The frontispiece to Voltaire’s (1738) Elemens is not a good representation of the experimental philosophy, but it is a lovely illustration. Voltaire sits at his desk, translating Newton’s Principia.  Heavenly light seems to come from Newton himself, representing his divine inspiration.  The light is reflected downwards to illuminate Voltaire’s work by Voltaire’s lover and muse Émilie du Châtelet (but it was really she who translated Principia and helped Voltaire to make sense of the work).

Voltaire (1738), Elemens de la philosophie de Neuton

Voltaire (1738), 'Elemens de la philosophie de Neuton'

West’s (1816) painting depicts Benjamin Franklin’s famous (or infamous) kite experiment.  In 1752, Franklin flew a kite in a storm to demonstrate that lightning is a form of electricity.  He almost electrocuted himself!

    “As soon as any of the thunder clouds come over the kite, the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them, and the kite, with all the twine, will be electrified, and the loose filaments of the twine, will stand out every way, and be attracted by an approaching finger. And when the rain has wetted the kite and twine, so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it stream out plentifully from the key on the approach of your knuckle. At this key the phial may be charged: and from electric fire thus obtained, spirits may be kindled, and all the other electric experiments be performed, which are usually done by the help of a rubbed glass globe or tube, and thereby the sameness of the electric matter with that of lightning completely demonstrated.” (Written by Benjamin Franklin to Peter Collinson, October 19, 1752.)

You can read more about Franklin’s work on electricity at Skulls in the Stars.

Painting Of Benjamin Franklin Touching Key Attached To Kite String In Lightning Storm

West (1816), 'Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky'

Many of the books we looked at contain beautiful illustrations of instruments and experiments.  These nicely capture the experimental natural philosophy.

Adams (1787), Essays on the Microscope

Adams (1787), 'Essays on the Microscope'

Boyle (1744), The Works of the Honourrable Robert Boyle in five volumes

Boyle (1744), 'The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle in five volumes'

Hooke (1665), Micrographia

Hooke (1665), 'Micrographia'

(1616) Comfortable Bones, the Skeletons of Adam and Eve

Swanenburgh (1616) 'Comfortable Bones, the Skeletons of Adam and Eve'

But we claim that experimental philosophy went beyond natural philosophy.  Are there any images that capture its wider application?

Finally, I couldn’t resist adding the burning arm chair, which has special significance for our team: it is at once both a nice image of the shift from speculative to experimental philosophy, and a nod to the local ‘scarfie’ (Otago undergraduate) population of Dunedin.  A favourite pastime for scarfies, here in Dunedin, is to burn couches outside their houses!

Burning the proverbial Philosophers Armchair

Burning the proverbial 'Philosopher's Armchair'

We’re looking for an image for our exhibition poster, and we’d like your help.  Have you seen an image that captures the spirit of early modern experimental philosophy?  We’d love to hear from you.  (We’re giving away a one-year subscription to our blog for the reader who provides the best image!)

*The exhibition will be at the Special Collections, Central Library, University of Otago in Dunedin.  It will open in early July at the annual conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP).  So don’t forget to have a look at it, if you are coming to Dunedin in July.  For those who cannot come, don’t miss the online version of the exhibition.  We’ll be sure to let you know as soon as it is available.

Lost in translation

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes our historiographical categories can so dominate the way we approach the texts of great dead philosophers that we project them onto the texts themselves. Unhappily this is all too common among historians of early modern philosophy who take as their terms of reference the distinction between rationalism and empiricism.

For example, Stephen Priest, in The British Empiricists (2nd ed. 2006, p. 8) claims:

    Although historians of philosophy claim that Kant invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction and retrospectively imposed it on his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, this is a historical mistake. The distinction was explicitly drawn using the words “empiricists” and “rationalists” at least as early as 1607, when the British empiricist Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote: “Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves” and: 

    Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.

    […] Leaving aside the use of the words “rationalism” and “empiricism” (or similar) the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy is as old as philosophy itself. It is true that many rationalist and empiricists do not describe themselves as rationalists or empiricists but that does not matter. Calling oneself “x” is neither necessary nor sufficient for being x.

However, a careful reading of Bacon’s Latin reveals that he is not using the Latin equivalents of ‘empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’, but rather empirici and rationales, terms that have quite different meanings in Bacon. For Bacon, the empirici are those who focus too much on observation and the works of their hands (New Organon, I, 117). Quacks who prescribe chemical remedies without any knowledge of medical theory are commonly called empirici and the term is usually a pejorative in the early seventeenth century (see De augmentis scientiarum, Bk IV, chapter 2). By contrast rationales are those who ‘wrench things various and commonplace from experience… and leave the rest to meditation and intellectual agitation’ (New Organon, I, 62).

Another example of projecting the rationalism/empiricism distinction onto a text is found in the recent English edition of Diderot’s Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature. Diderot’s work contains a very interesting discussion of philosophical methodology. Article XXIII says,

    Nous avons distingué deux sortes de philosophies, l’expérimentale et la rationnelle.

The translation in the Clinamen Press (1999, p. 44) edition reads:

    We have identified two types of philosophy – one is empirical and the other rationalist.

But Diderot doesn’t contrast empirical with rationalist. Rather the contrast is between experimental philosophy (la philosophie expérimentale) and rational and the context makes it clear that rationnelle here is used to refer to what the English called speculative philosophers. The terminology and the content of Diderot’s discussion makes far more sense when read in the light of the experimental/speculative distinction. Yet this is lost in the English translation.

Having pointed out two examples of reading the traditional historiography into the texts themselves, I should like to end with a note of caution. Those of us who regard the experimental/speculative distinction as having more explanatory value than the traditional post-Kantian terms of reference also need to be aware that we too can fall into the same trap of reading the ESD into the texts under study and not allow the texts to speak for themselves.

Who invented the Experimental Philosophy?

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes the question ‘Who invented X?’ has no determinate answer, in spite of claims of particular individuals. One thinks of questions like ‘Who invented the internet?’ and the various dubious claims to this honour. Christoph Lüthy has argued quite convincingly that ‘the microscope was never invented’ (Early Science and Medicine, 1, 1996, p. 2). I suggest that the same probably goes for the experimental philosophy: there is no single person or group of people who created it, rather it somehow ‘emerged’ in Europe sometime between the death of Francis Bacon in 1626 and the founding of the Royal Society in 1660. One place to look for answers is to trace the early uses of the term ‘experimental philosophy’.

Here is the evidence that I am aware of for the emergence of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in early modern England. The first English work  to use the term ‘experimental philosophy’ according to EEBO was Robert Boyle’s Spring of the Air in 1660. Interestingly, the term philosophia experimentalis had already appeared in the title of Nicola Cabeo’s Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology of 1646 and Boyle cites Cabeo’s book twice in Spring of the Air. The first English book to use the term in its title was Abraham Cowley’s A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy of 1661. From then on, however, books about experimental philosophy start to roll off the presses of England. Boyle’s Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy and Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy, both published in 1663, got the ball rolling. (Incidentally, Cabeo’s book was reprinted in Rome in 1686 under the title Philosophia experimentalis.) As for manuscript sources, the earliest use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ that I have found is in Samuel Hartlib’s Ephemerides in 1635.

Another place to look for evidence for the inventor of the experimental philosophy is in discussions of natural philosophy and of experiment. It appears that Francis Bacon never used the term ‘experimental philosophy’, but he did develop a conception of experientia literata (learned experience), which might be thought to be a precursor of the experimental philosophy. This appears in Book 5 of his De augmentis scientiarum of 1623, where it is distinguished from interpretatio naturae (interpretation of nature). The experientia literata is a method of discovery proceeding from one experiment to another, whereas interpretatio naturae involves the transition from experiments to theory. But this doesn’t resemble the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy very closely. For example, the experimental philosophy was, on the whole, opposed to speculation and hypotheses and there is no sense of opposition or tension in Bacon’s distinction.

Furthermore, a distinction between operative (or practical) and speculative philosophy was commonplace in scholastic divisions of knowledge in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and this, no doubt provided the basic dichotomy on which the experimental/speculative distinction was based. But the operative/speculative distinction doesn’t map very well onto the experimental/speculative distinction, not least because by ‘operative sciences’ the scholastics meant ethics, politics and oeconomy (that is, management of society) and not observation and experiment.

Who invented the experimental philosophy? I don’t think that there is a determinate answer to this question, but I’m happy to be corrected and am keen for suggestions as to where to look for more evidence.