The Darker Side of Baconianism
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last post, I explained how Newton’s theory of the tides relied on empirical data drawn from all over the world. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to coordinate information gathering along trade routes, and thus construct a Baconian natural history. I pointed out that although the theory of the tides is considered a major theoretical achievement for Newtonian physics it was also a major empirical project and as such it is one of the major achievements of Baconian experimental philosophy. This case, however, also highlights how the Royal Society exploited its connections with politics and economics in pursuit of knowledge to benefit an elite monied class. In this post, I’m interested in exploring the connections between the Royal Society’s epistemic achievements and its being embedded within the political structures of the early modern world, particularly the rise of large trading empires.
If Bacon is considered to be the ‘Father of Modern Science’, then it’s worth reflecting on the nature of his legacy, and the role Baconianism played in shaping modern science. It is often tempting to split the objectivity and purity of science from the often complex, difficult, morally ambiguous world. In the same vein, reflections on the Royal Society and the birth of modern science often ignore the essential enabling role played by other of the British Empire’s activities: exploitative trade and slaving. Present-day philosophers of science increasingly reject the ‘value-free ideal’, recognising that scientific practice is best understood within its social, institutional and political context. If what are traditionally conceived of as non-epistemic values play an inextricable role in, say, modern medicine, then they likely do here as well. In this post, I’ll apply these ideas to the case of the tides, suggesting that it highlights a darker side of Baconianism.
The collection of tidal data was carried out by the Royal Society in cooperation with the Royal African Company and the East India Company. (When he discusses the Tonkin tides, for example, Newton appeals to data obtained by Francis Davenport, Commander of the Eagle—an East India Company vessel.) Both the Royal African and East India Companies engaged in extractive behaviours in their respective localities; extractive behaviours we now consider morally abhorrent (most strikingly the slave trade in Africa). While the Royal Society cannot be considered responsible for these acts, we might say that it played a role in legitimising, normalising and even celebrating them.
Indeed, these close ties between science and trade were present from the very inception of the Royal Society. The Royal Society and the Royal African Company received their second royal charters in the same year (1663) and were often thought of as sister companies. Thomas Sprat highlights these ties in his History of the Royal Society:
[I]f Gentlemen ‘condescend to engage in commerce, and to regard the Philosophy of Nature. The First of these since the King’s return has bin carry’d on with great vigour, by the Foundation of the Royal Company: to which as to the Twin-Sister of the Royal Society, we have reason as we go along, to wish all Prosperity. In both these Institutions begun together, our King has imitated the two most famous Works of the wisest of antient Kings: who at the same time sent to Ophir for Gold, and compos’d a Natural History, from the Cedar to the Shrub (Sprat, 1667: 407).
The two companies received their royal charters very soon after Charles II’s coronation. And both were held up as symbols of the Restoration—promises of prosperity to come. Sprat measures the success of the Royal Society largely in terms of its ability to exploit the trade network, praising the “Noble, and Inquisitive Genius” of English merchants (Sprat, 1667: 88). He writes:
But in forein, and remote affairs, their [i.e. the Royal Society Fellows’] Intentions, and their Advantages do farr exceed all others. For these, they have begun to settle a correspondence through all Countreys; and have taken such order, that in short time, there will scarce a Ship come up the Thames, that does not make some return of Experiments, as well as of Merchandize (Sprat, 1667: 86).
Sprat links the success of the Royal Society to its ability to exploit the trade networks; rhetoric which might have lent legitimacy and integrity to other actions carried out in the name of British supremacy.
Further, the direction of research reflected the economic and political interests of these trading companies. A history of tides was one of the projects suggested by Bacon in the appendix to his Novum organum, and as such, it is not surprising that the Royal Society committed resources to this project. However, the Royal Society could not have carried out this project without the support of British trade. A Baconian history of tides was necessarily a large-scale affair: information needed to be gathered from all over the globe. It wasn’t until the 17th century, when British trading companies sent ships all around the world, creating networks of merchants, priests and scholars, that such a project was even possible. But the knowledge that was produced was facilitated by, and in service of, those interests.
As global trade increased, knowledge of world-wide tidal patterns became increasingly important. European trading companies vied with one another for footholds in Africa and Asia and engaged in sea battles to gain political control in these regions (most notably the Anglo-Dutch Wars). Knowledge of tidal patterns was important both at sea, where failure to account for tidal flow could lead to navigation errors, and in narrower rivers and harbours—approaching a harbour with a shallow bar at low tide could mean a costly delay or worse. And so, the increasing importance of the tide problem and its increasing tractability stemmed from the same cause. Or, to put it another way, the direction of research was both enabled by, and carried out in the service of, the economic and political aspirations of British trade. In short, the trading empires did not merely enable the success of Newton’s work on the tides and other Royal Society projects; rather, they often directed and shaped them.
What conclusions should we draw from this? It comes as no surprise to historians, philosophers and sociologists of science that knowledge-production and the rest of society—including its exploitative, oppressive activities—are interwoven. However, the connection between natural philosophy and exploitative trade is only rarely made in presentations of the Royal Society’s work or Baconianism generally. Instead, science is often viewed as floating serenely and objectively above the darker aspects of early modern society. (This is surprising, given such rhetoric as Sprat’s.) But this case suggests that the Baconian requirement of information-gathering on a massive scale was enabled by—and perhaps itself worked to legitimate—the systems of trade which, often, represented the darkest parts of Western Europe. This is not to say that the Royal Society explicitly endorsed these features of the early modern world. Rather, the success of such large-scale Baconian projects may have tacitly whitewashed the social and political context.
What value is there in this sort of project? You might worry that, by casting a morally critical eye on the period, I lose my historian’s objectivity, believing myself to be coming from a position of superiority and moral maturity: a dangerous way to do historiography. Regardless of what objectivity might amount to in this context, I think it would be a mistake to couch the project in these terms. Rather, I am interested in what such cases can teach us about the nature of science, the value-free ideal and the role of value in science more generally. As such, this initial analysis leaves me with a few questions: Firstly, was the tidal data sullied, morally and/or epistemically, by the context of its collection? Secondly, if this data was morally sullied, were Newton and the others morally wrong to use it? Finally, what effect should this case have on our lauding of the early Royal Society as an exemplar of good science? How we eventually answer these questions at least partly depends on whether we think that the context of inquiry undermines the epistemic value of the project. In my next post, I’ll explore the idea that the epistemic injustice committed by the Royal Society in the name of Baconianism should undermine its status as exemplary.
Natural Histories and Newton’s Theory of the Tides
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Newton’s work on the tides. In the Principia Book 3, Newton identified the physical cause of the tides as a combination of forces: the Moon and Sun exert gravitational pulls on the waters of the ocean which, together, cause the sea levels to rise and fall in regular patterns. This theory of the tides has been described as one of the major achievements of Newtonian natural philosophy. Most commentators have focussed on the fact that Newton extended his theory of universal gravitation to offer a physical cause for the tides—effectively reducing the problem of tides to a mathematical problem, the solution of which, in turn, provided ways to establish various physical features of the Moon, and set the study of tides on a new path. But in this post, I want to focus on the considerable amount of empirical evidence concerning tidal phenomena that underwrites this work.
Let’s begin with the fact that, while Newton’s empirical evidence of tidal patterns came from areas such as the eastern section of the Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic Sea, and the Chilean and Peruvian shores of the Pacific Ocean, Newton never left England. So where did these observational records come from?
Newton’s data was the result of a collective effort on a massive scale, largely coordinated by the Royal Society. For example, one of the earliest issues of the Philosophical Transactions published ‘Directions for sea-men bound for far voyages, drawn up by Master Rook, late geometry professour of Gresham Colledge’ (1665: 140-143). Mariners were instructed “to keep an exact Diary [of their observations], delivering at their return a fair Copy thereof to the Lord High Admiral of England, his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and another to Trinity-house to be perused by the R. Society”. With respect to the tides, they were asked:
“To remark carefully the Ebbings and Flowings of the Sea, in as many places as they can, together with all the Accidents, Ordinary and Extraordinary, of the Tides; as, their precise time of Ebbing and Flowing in Rivers, at Promontories or Capes; which way their Current runs, what Perpendicular distance there is between the highest Tide and lowest Ebb, during the Spring-Tides and Neap-Tides; what day of the Moons age, and what times of the year, the highest and lowest Tides fall out: And all other considerable Accidents, they can observe in the Tides, cheifly neer Ports, and about Ilands, as in St. Helena’s Iland, and the three Rivers there, at the Bermodas &c.”
This is just one of many such articles published in the early Philosophical Transactions that articulated lists of queries concerning sea travel, on which mariners, sailors and merchants were asked to report. In its first 20 years, the journal published scores of lists of queries relating to the tides, and many more reports responding to such queries. This was Baconian experimental philosophy at its best. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to construct a Baconian natural history of tides: using the method of queries, they gathered observational data on tides from all corners of the globe which was then collated and ordered into tables.
Newton’s engagement with these observational records is revelatory of his attitudes and practices relating to Baconian experimental philosophy. Firstly, especially in his later years, Newton was regarded as openly hostile towards natural histories. However, here we see Newton explicitly and approvingly engaging with natural histories. For example, in his discussion of proposition 24, he drew on observations by Samuel Colepresse and Samuel Sturmy, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1668, explicitly offered in response to queries put forward to John Wallis and Robert Boyle in 1665:
“Thus it has been found by experience that in winter, morning tides exceed evening tides and that in summer, evening tides exceed morning tides, at Plymouth by a height of about one foot, and at Bristol by a height of fifteen inches, according to the observations of Colepress and Sturmy” (Newton, 1999: 838).
I have argued previously that Newton was more receptive to natural histories than is usually thought. The case of the tides offers additional support for my argument. Newton’s notes and correspondence show that, from as early as 1665, he was heavily engaged in the project of generating a natural history of the tides, although he never contributed data. And eventually, he was able to use these empirical records to theorise about the cause of the tides. This suggests that Newton didn’t object to using natural histories as the basis for theorising. Rather, he objected to treating natural histories as the end goal of the investigation.
Secondly, I have previously discussed the fact that Newton seldomly reported ‘raw data’. The evidence he provided for Phenomenon 1, for example, included calculated average distances, checked against the distances predicted by the theory. Newton’s empirical evidence on the tides, as reported in the Principia, was similarly manipulated and adjusted with reference to his theory. Commentators have largely either condemned or ignored this ‘fudge factor’, but such adjustments are ubiquitous in Newton’s work, suggesting that they were a key aspect of his practice. Newton recognised that ‘raw data’ had limited use: to be useful, data needed to be analysed and interpreted. In short, it needed to be turned into evidence. The Baconians appear to have recognised this: queries guide the collection of data, which is then ordered into tables in order to reveal patterns in the data. As this case makes clear, however, Newton’s theory-mediated manipulation of the data went beyond basic ordering, drawing on causal assumptions to reveal phenomena from the data.
Thirdly, this case emphasises Newton’s science as embedded in rich social, cultural and economic networks. The construction of this natural history of tides was an organised group effort. That Newton had access to data collected from all over the world was the result of hard work from natural philosophers, merchants, mariners and priests who participated in the accumulation, ordering and dissemination of this data. Further, the capacities of that data to be collected itself followed the increasingly global trade networks reaching to and from Europe. Newton’s work on the tides was the very opposite of a solitary effort.
On this blog, we have noted in passing, but not explored in depth, the crucial roles played by travellers’ reports and information networks in Baconian experimental philosophy. Newton’s study of the tides is revelatory of the attitudes and practices of early modern experimental philosophers with respect to such networks. I shall discuss these in my next post.
Locke and the Newtonian Achievement
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.
Baconian Induction in the Principia
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Recently, I have been looking for clear cases of Baconianism in the Principia. In my last post, I offered Newton’s ‘moon test’ as an example of a Baconian crucial instance, ending with a concern about establishing influence between Bacon and Newton. Newton used his calculations of the accelerations of falling bodies to provide a crucial instance which allowed him to choose between two competing explanations. However, one might argue that this was simply a good approach to empirical support, and not uniquely Baconian. In this post, I’ll consider another possible Baconianism: Steffen Ducheyne’s argument that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Baconian induction.
Let’s begin with Baconian induction (this account is based on Ducheyne’s 2005 paper). Briefly, Bacon’s method of ampliative inference involved two broad stages. The first was a process of piecemeal generalisation. That is, in contrast to simple enumerative induction, shifting from the particular to the general in a single step, Bacon recommended moving from particulars to general conclusions via partial or mediate generalisations. Ducheyne refers to this process as ‘inductive gradualism’. The second stage was a process of testing and adjustment. That is, having reached a general conclusion, Bacon recommended deducing and testing its consequences, adjusting it accordingly.
Ducheyne argues that, in the Principia, Newton’s argument for universal gravitation proceeded according to Baconian induction. In the first stage, Newton’s argument proceeded step-by-step from the motion of the moon with respect to the Earth, the motions of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn with respect to Jupiter and Saturn, and the motions of the planets with respect to the Sun, to the forces producing those motions. He inferred that the planets and moons maintain their motions by an inverse square centripetal force, and concluded that this force is gravity—i.e. the force that causes an apple to fall to the ground. And, in a series of further steps (still part of the first stage), Newton established that, as the Sun exerts a gravitational pull on each of the planets, so the planets exert a gravitational pull on the Sun. Similarly, the moons exert a gravitational pull on their planets. And finally, the planets and moons exert a gravitational pull on each other. He concluded that every body attracts every other body with a force that is proportional to its mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between them: universal gravitation. Moving to the second stage, Newton took his most general conclusion—that gravity is universal—and examined its consequences. He demonstrated that the irregular motion of the Moon, the tides and the motion of comets can be deduced from his theory of universal gravitation.
Ducheyne notes that Newton didn’t attribute this method of inference to Bacon. Instead, he labelled the two stages ‘analysis’ and ‘synthesis’ respectively, and attributed them to the Ancients. However, Ducheyne argues that we should recognise this approach as Baconian in spirit and inspiration.
This strikes me as a plausible account, and it illuminates some interesting features of Newton’s approach. For one thing, it helps us to make sense of ‘Rule 4’:
In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from phenomena by induction should be considered either exactly or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses, until yet other phenomena make such propositions either more exact or liable to exceptions.
Newton’s claim that, in the absence of counter-instances, we should take propositions inferred via induction to be true seems naïve when interpreted in terms of simple enumerative induction. However, given Newton’s ‘inductive gradualism’, Rule 4 looks less epistemically reckless.
Moreover, commentators have often been tempted to interpret this rule as an expression of the hypothetico-deductive method, in which the epistemic status of Newton’s theory is sensitive to new evidence. Previously, I have argued that, when we consider how this rule is employed, we find that it’s not the epistemic status of the theory, but its scope, that should be updated. Ducheyne’s Baconian interpretation supports this position—and perhaps offers some precedent for it.
Ducheyne’s suggestion also encourages us to re-interpret other aspects of Newton’s argument for universal gravitation in a Baconian light. Consider, for example, the ‘phenomena’. Previously, I have noted that these are not simple observations but observed regularities, generalised by reference to theory. They provide the explananda for Newton’s theory. In Baconian terms, we might regard the phenomena as the results of a process of experientia literata—they represent the ‘experimental facts’ to be explained. This, I think, ought to be grist for Ducheyne’s mill.
Interpreting Newton’s argument for universal gravity in terms of Baconian induction brings the experimental aspects of the Principia into sharper focus. These aspects have often been overlooked for two broad reasons. The first is that the mathematical aspects of the Principia have distracted people from the empirical focus of book 3. I plan to examine this point in more detail in my next post. The second is that the Baconian method of natural history has largely been reduced to a caricature, which has made it difficult to recognise it when it’s being used. Dana Jalobeanu and others have challenged the idea that a completed Baconian natural history is basically a large storehouse of facts. Bacon’s Latin natural histories are complex reports containing, not only observations, but also descriptions of experiments, advice and observations on the method of experimentation, provisional explanations, questions, and epistemological discussions. We don’t find such detailed observation reports in the Principia, but we do find some of the features of Baconian natural histories.
So, Ducheyne’s interpretation of Newton’s argument for universal gravitation in terms of Bacon’s gradualist inductive method proves both fruitful and insightful. However, recall that, in my last post, I worried that the resemblance of Newton’s methodology to Bacon’s isn’t enough to establish that Newton was influenced by Bacon’s methodology. If Bacon was just describing a good, general, epistemic method, couldn’t Newton have simply come up with it himself? He was, after all, an exceptional scientist who gave careful thought to his own methodology. Is Ducheyne’s discussion sufficient to establish influence? What do you think?
Newton the empiricist?
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Recently, Zvi Biener and Eric Schliesser’s long-awaited volume, Newton and Empiricism, appeared on the shelves. The book is an excellent collection of papers, which makes a significant new contribution to the field. Today I want to focus on one aspect of this volume: the decision to frame the collection in terms of empiricism rather than experimental philosophy.
Over the last four years, we have provided many arguments for the superiority of the ESD over the RED. An important line of argument has been to show that ‘experimental philosophy’ and ‘speculative philosophy’ were the key terms of reference used by the actors themselves, and that they characterised their own work in terms of this division. For example, I have argued here, here, here and here that Newton is best understood as an experimental philosopher.
In their introduction, Biener and Schliesser explain their decision. They acknowledge the ‘Otago School’, and argue that, while in general there may be some good reasons to prefer the ESD to the RED, they see various problems with labelling Newton an ‘experimental philosopher’. Their concerns amount to the following: labelling Newton an ‘experimental philosopher’ obscures the idiosyncrasies of his approach to natural philosophy. They argue, firstly, that the label belies the significant influence of non-experimental philosophers on Newton’s methodology, for example those who influenced his mathematical focus. Secondly, that the label unhelpfully groups Newton with Boyle and Locke, when many features of his work support a different grouping. For example, Newton’s mathematical-system building suggests that his work should be grouped with Descartes’. Thirdly, they argue that the fact that Newton did not employ the label himself until after the publication of the first edition of the Principia suggests that he did not fully identify with the label.
These are important issues about the ESD and Newton’s place in it. So today I want to reflect on the broad problem of Newton’s idiosyncratic position. I argue that Newton’s divergence from Baconian tradition of the Royal Society is best seen as a development of experimental philosophy.
On this blog, I have sketched many features of Newton’s natural philosophical methodology. I have argued that, if we look at Newton from within the framework of the ESD, he can be neatly and easily identified as an experimental philosopher. His use of queries, his cautious approach to hypotheses, and his many methodological statements decrying the construction of metaphysical systems, suggest that this is a label that Newton would have been comfortable with. However, there is an important caveat to note: while Newton was clearly influenced by the Baconian experimental tradition, he did not consider himself a Baconian experimental philosopher.
In the earliest statements of his mathematico-experimental approach, Newton set up his position in opposition to the Baconian experimental philosophers. In these passages, one feature of Newton’s methodology stands out in explicit rejection of the Baconian method: his claims to certainty. This feature, in itself, is not very significant – many experimental philosophers believed that, in the end, natural philosophy would be a form of scientia, i.e. a system of knowledge demonstrated from certain axioms. Indeed, Bacon shared this ideal of certainty. He thought that his method of induction could get around the problems usually associated with ampliative inference and deliver knowledge of the essences of things. Thus, Bacon’s method of natural history was ultimately supposed to provide the axioms on which scientia could be founded. The challenge, which everyone agreed on, was to discover those axioms on which the system would be built.
Newton and the Baconians seem to diverge on their responses to this challenge. Baconian experimental philosophers recommended that one should have all the facts before formulating generalisations or theories. In contrast, Newton thought that a few, or even just one, well-constructed experiment might be enough – provided you used it in the right way. This shows that Newton took a different view of the role of evidence in natural philosophy. This divergence amounts to three key differences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers:
- Where the Baconian experimental philosophers advocated a two-stage model, in which construction of natural histories preceded theory construction, Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Newton commenced theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.
- Related to (1), the Baconian experimental philosophers conceived of phenomena as immediate facts, acquired via observation, and hence pre-theoretic. In contrast, Newton’s phenomena were generalised regularities, acquired via mediation between observation and theory.
- For the Baconian experimental philosophers, queries were used to give direction and define the scope of the inquiry. But Newton’s queries were more focussed on individual experiments.
There is strong textual evidence that the ESD was operative in Newton’s early natural philosophical work. We have good reason to suppose that Newton regarded his natural philosophical pursuits as experimental philosophy. This becomes clearer in Newton’s later work. For instance, in the General Scholium to the Principia (1713), Newton explicitly described his work as ‘experimental philosophy’ – indeed, Peter Anstey has noted that Roger Cotes also recognised this feature of Newton’s work. We also have good reason to suppose that, in important ways, Newton saw his work as aligned with the Royal Society and, by extension, with the Baconian movement. But Newton was also a mathematician, and he saw a role for mathematical reasoning in experimental philosophy. In many ways, it was this mathematical approach that led to his divergence from the Baconian experimental philosophy.
Biener and Schliesser are right to draw attention to the ways in which Newton’s position diverged from the experimental tradition of the Royal Society. However, they fail to recognise that Newton’s position diverged in a way that should be viewed as a development of this tradition. Indeed, the ‘Newtonian experimental philosophy’ eventually replaced the experimental philosophy of Boyle, Hooke and the other early members of the Royal Society. The label ’empiricism’ has no such historical relevance. But, more on this another time…
Observation and Experiment in the Opticks: A Baconian Interpretation
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In a recent post, I considered Newton’s use of observation and experiment in the Opticks. I suggested that there is a functional (rather than semantic) difference between Newton’s ‘experiments’ and ‘observations’. Although both observations and experiments were reports of observations involving intervention on target systems and manipulation of independent variables, experiments offered individual, and crucial, support for particular propositions, whereas observations only supported propositions collectively.
At the end of the post, I suggested that, if we view them as complex, open ended series’ of experiments, the observations of books 2 and 3 look a lot like what Bacon called ‘experientia literata’, the method by which natural histories were supposed to be generated. In this post, I’ll discuss this suggestion in more detail, following Dana Jalobeanu’s recent work on Bacon’s Latin natural histories and the art of ‘experientia literata’.
The ‘Latin natural histories’ were Bacon’s works of natural history, as opposed to his works about natural history. A notable feature of Bacon’s Latin natural histories is that they were produced from relatively few ‘core experiments’. By varying these core experiments, Bacon generated new cases, observations and facts. The method by which this generation occurs is called the art of ‘experientia literata’. Experientia literata (often referred to as ‘learned experience’) was a late addition to Bacon’s program, developed in De Augmentis scientiarum (1623). It is a tool or technique for guiding the intellect. By following this method, discoveries will be made, not by chance, but by moving from one experiment to the next in a guided, systematic way.
The following features were typical of the experientia literata:
- The series of observations was built around a few core experiments;
- New observations were generated by the systematic variation of experimental parameters;
- The variation could continue indefinitely, so the observation sequence was open-ended;
- The experimental process itself could reveal things about the phenomena, beyond what was revealed by a collection of facts;
- The trajectory of the experimental series was towards increasingly general facts about the phenomena; and
- The results of the observations were collated and presented as tables. These constituted the ‘experimental facts’ to be explained.
Now let’s turn to Newton’s observations. For the sake of brevity, my discussion will focus on the observations in book 2 part I of the Opticks, but most of these features are also found in the observations of book 2 part IV, and in book 3 part I.
The Opticks book 2 concerned the phenomenon now known as ‘Newton’s Rings’: the coloured rings produced by a thin film of air or water compressed between two glasses. Part I consisted of twenty-four observations. Observation 1 was relatively simple: Newton pressed together two prisms, and noticed that, at the point where the two prisms touched, there was a transparent spot. The next couple of observations were variations on that first one: Newton rotated the prisms and noticed that coloured rings became visible when the incident rays hit the prisms at a particular angle. Newton progressed, step-by-step, from prisms to convex lenses, and then to bubbles and thin plates of glass. He varied the amount, colour and angle of the incident light, and the angle of observation. The result was a detailed, but open ended, survey of the phenomena. Part II consisted of tables that contained the results of part I. These constituted the experimental facts to be explained in propositions in part III. In part IV, Newton described a new set of observations, which built on the discussions of propositions from part III.
When we consider Newton’s observations alongside Bacon’s experientia literata, we notice some common features.
Firstly, the series of observations was built around the core experiment involving pressing together two prisms to observe the rings that appeared.
Secondly, new observations were generated by the variation of experimental parameters: i.e. new observations were generated, first by varying the obliquity of the incident rays, then by varying the glass instruments, then by varying the colour of the incident light, and so on.
Thirdly, the sequence of observations was open-ended. Newton could have extended the sequence by varying the medium, or some other experimental parameter. Moreover, at the end of the sequence, Newton noted further variations to be carried out by others, which might yield new or more precise observations.
Fourthly, the experimental process itself revealed things about the phenomenon, beyond what was revealed by a collection of facts. For example, in observation 1, Newton noticed that increasing the pressure on the two prisms produced a transparent spot. The process of varying the pressure, and hence the thickness of the film of air between the two prisms, suggested to Newton a way of learning more about the phenomenon of thin plates. He realised he could quantify the phenomenon by introducing regularly curved object glasses, which would make the variation in thickness regular, and hence, calculable.
Fifthly, the trajectory of the experimental series was towards increasingly general facts about the phenomenon. Newton began by simply counting the number of rings and describing the sequence of colours under specific experimental parameters. But eventually he showed that the number of rings and their colours was a function of the thickness and density of the film. Thus, he was able to give a much broader account of the phenomenon.
Finally, these general results were collated and presented as tables in part II. Thus, the tables in part II constituted the facts to be explained by propositions in part III.
Many commentators have emphasised the ways that Newton deviated from Baconian method. However, when viewed in this light, book 2 of the Opticks provides a striking example of conformity to the Baconian method of natural history: Newton led the reader from observations in part I, to tables of facts in part II, to propositions in part III. Moreover, it ended with a further series of observations in part IV, emphasising the open-endedness of the art of experientia literata.
In contrast to the observations in book 2, Newton’s experiments in book 1 look like Bacon’s ‘instances of special power’, which are particularly illuminating cases introduced to provide support for specific propositions. I’ll discuss this next time. For now, I’d like to hear what our readers think of my Baconian interpretation of Newton’s observations.
Borrowed Terms and Innovative Concepts in Newton’s Natural Philosophy
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last two posts, I have discussed my alterations to the 20 theses of our project. In this post, I’ll continue to discuss thesis 8.
In 2011, I claimed that:
- 8. The development of Newton’s method from 1672 to 1687 appears to display a shift in emphasis from experiment to mathematics.
But at the start of this year, I replaced this thesis with a new thesis 8:
- 8. In his early work, Newton’s use of the terms ‘hypothesis’ and ‘query’ are Baconian. However, as Newton’s distinctive methodology develops, these terms take on different meanings.
In my last post, I told you that I decided to remove my original thesis 8 because the methodological differences between Newton’s early papers and Principia aren’t as great as I initially thought. This isn’t to say that I now think that the methodology of the 1672 paper is precisely the same as the methodology displayed in Principia. Rather, I don’t think my original thesis 8 captures what is important about these differences.
In today’s post, I’ll tell you about my new thesis 8.
On this blog, we have argued that the early members of the Royal Society adopted the new experimental philosophy in a Baconian form. Newton initially encountered the experimental philosophy in the early- to mid-1660s through his reading of Boyle, Hooke and the Philosophical Transactions. While he never adopted the Baconian method of natural history, other features of his early methodology resemble the Baconian approach. For example, in Newton’s 1672 paper and the debate that followed, his use of experiment and queries, and his anti-hypothetical stance, were recognised and accepted by the Baconian experimental philosophers. Moreover, his 1675 paper, in which he explored his hypothesis of the nature of light, was recognised by his contemporaries as an acceptable use of a hypothesis.
In Newton’s later work, however, hypotheses and queries look quite different.
Firstly, consider Newton’s Opticks. When the Opticks was published in 1704, it contained no hypotheses, and the introduction explicitly stated that:
- “My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments.”
Book III ended with a series of queries, which provided directions for further research, in the style of Baconian queries. E.g.:
- “Query 2. Do not the Rays which differ in Refrangibility differ also in Flexibility…?”
However, in the 1706 and 1718 editions, Newton introduced new queries, which explore the nature of light. E.g.:
- “Qu. 29. Are not the Rays of Light very small Bodies emitted from shining Substances?”
Like the earlier queries, these ones set out a new research program. But they are much more speculative than was acceptable according to the Baconian method.
Now consider Newton’s Principia. There are hypotheses in every edition of Principia, but they look nothing like Newton’s 1675 hypothesis. In particular, they do not explore the nature of things. For example:
- “Hypothesis 1. The centre of the system of the world is at rest.”
I have argued that the hypotheses in Principia provide a specific supportive role to theories. These propositions are temporarily assumed in order to draw out the observational consequences of Newton’s theory of gravitation. They are simplifying assumptions; not assumptions about the nature of gravity.
Previously, I have argued that Newton’s methodology should be seen as a three-way epistemic distinction between theories, hypotheses and queries. I call this an ‘epistemic triad’. I claim that Newton took these, already familiar, terms and massaged them to fit his own three-way epistemic distinction. It is important to recognise, therefore, that the triad is a three-way epistemic division, rather than the juxtaposition of three terms of reference. The terms ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘query’ are simply labels for these epistemic categories.
In fact, this is a feature of many of Newton’s innovative concepts. He borrowed familiar terms and massaged them to fit his own needs. I have shown that he did this with his key methodological terms: ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘query’. Steffen Ducheyne has argued that Newton did this in other aspects of his methodology, such as his dual-methods of analysis and synthesis. This suggests that Newton’s labeling and naming of things was very much post hoc. It seems that, when discussing Newton’s methodology, we should emphasize divisions and functions over definitions.
Geminiano Montanari on Natural History and Explanations
Alberto Vanzo writes…
A while ago, I wrote a post on the late seventeenth-century Italian natural philosopher, Geminiano Montanari. I argued that his stints of speculative reasoning were, after all, compatible with his allegiance to the experimental philosophy. In this post, I will focus on another aspect of Montanari’s experimentalism that appears to clash with his natural-philosophical practice: his view that, before even attempting to explain natural phenomena, we should compile a universal natural history.
The problem: disagreements and errors in natural philosophy
Montanari sees the compilation of a universal natural history as way of overcoming disagreements among philosophers. Having noted the many competing views on what “the first principles of natural things” may be, Montanari explains that this variety is due to the excessive self-confidence of “nearly all great minds”. Instead of jumping to first principles,
- It was necessary to start philosophy from particular things, examining the whole of nature one piece after another, and to amass a rich capital of experiences so as to prepare the historical matter on whose basis one should later speculate about the reasons [of those experiences].
The solution: building a universal natural history
We can avoid errors and reach agreement on the principles of things by following Francis Bacon’s suggestion of building a natural history including “all experiences and other certain information that one could get from faithful sources”.
How much information should be gathered before we can discover the first principles of natural things?
- [I]n order to find what the true, first and most universal principles of all things may be, it is not sufficient to make an induction from few terms, but it is necessary first to cognize all natural effects, so that one can later find a common reason which satisfies all experiences. But who can already boast to possess such an universal information?
Montanari’s answer is: nobody. It is still too early to make an induction from the observation of everything to its first cause. We must postpone the task of explaining the whole of nature and focus our strengths on the task of compiling natural histories.
Did Montanari do what he says?
He certainly collected many experiments and observations on manifold phenomena, from the capillary behaviour of liquids to the comets and celestial bodies. But he did not refrain from developing explanations of those phenomena, even though he was aware that his experiences were limited and many phenomena had not yet been observed. It is tempting to conclude that Montanari did not do what he says, that his allegiance to the Baconian view that a comprehensive data collection must precede natural-philosophical explanations was merely verbal, and that he was merely paying lip-service to the Baconian fashion of the time.
I do not think that this is the case. Montanari claims that completing a universal natural history is necessary to establish the “true, first and most universal principles of all things”. However, he does not claim that completing a universal natural history is necessary to explain specific natural phenomena, nor does he think that we must first establish the first principles of all things in order to explain specific phenomena. On the contrary, Montanari thinks that, upon completing a universal natural history, we will have to to advance piecemeal toward the first principles, by formulating explanations of specific phenomena and proceeding to increasingly higher levels of generality.
Montanari’s two-part discussions of specific phenomena follow, on a small scale, his favoured Baconian method that for establishing first principles. Regardless of whether he is discussing the capillary action, the behaviour of hot spheres of glass in water, or the position of a comet, Montanari starts by providing a natural history of the phenomenon at hand in the form of a list of observations and experiments. He then proceeds from the “historical matter” to its “reasons”, that is, he provides natural-philosophical explanations of the phenomena.
These explanations are fallible. Natural histories are inescapably incomplete and it is always possible that future experiments or observations invalidate his explanations. However, Montanari holds that it is possible to “deduce” explanations “with physico-mathematical evidence” from a suitable, even if limited, natural-historical basis. What warrants his explanations is the fact that they “explain all the other effects we have observed.”
In conclusion, Montanari does not violate his claim that we should build a universal natural history before identifying the very first principles of the whole nature. The magnitude of the task suggests that this may be only a regulative ideal and may even warrant a certain scepticism on whether we will ever be able to discover the first principles. However, discovering these principles is not necessary to do science for Montanari. What drives Montanari’s natural philosophy is the fact that he allows for fallible natural-philosophical explanations which are based on small-scale, necessarily incomplete, subject-specific natural histories.
Cartesian Empiricisms – a Reply
Peter Anstey writes …
The forthcoming book Cartesian Empiricisms edited by Mihnea Dobre and Tammy Nyden promises to extend our knowledge of the experimental practices and philosophy of experiment amongst many of Descartes’ followers.
Dobre, however, claims that the book will offer more than a study of these writers. He says in his recent post that what we find in these neo-Cartesians ‘seems to escape the ESD’ (experimental–speculative distinction, my italics). In what sense might it be true that Cartesians doing experiments might escape the ESD? Is it that the ESD cannot explain them? Or, more strongly, is it that their experimental practices contradict the central tenets of the actors’ categories of experimental philosophy and speculative philosophy? And what is the value of persisting with the term ‘empiricism’ to describe the neo-Cartesians’ engagement with experiment?
In my view, the fact that some Cartesians performed experiments is of great interest, but it is also grist for our mill: it actually enriches the evidential base for the claims that we have made on this blog and in recent publications. For it shows that, like all other speculative systems, Cartesian natural philosophy was also subject to the court of experiment.
We have never claimed that proponents of speculative systems like Cartesianism were necessarily opposed to experimental verification of their theories. Nor have we ever claimed that all experimental philosophers were adamantly opposed to speculation: some were, but others, like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, were not.
We have claimed that the Cartesian vortex theory came to be regarded by many as the archetypal speculative theory in natural philosophy. Indeed, this was the virtually the standard view in England from the late 1690s when the term ‘our vortex’ starts to disappear and Newton’s arguments against the Cartesian system began to be widely appreciated. But none of this implies that our claims about the ESD need somehow to be modified. In fact, there is evidence that distaste for speculative system building and a belief in the need for the construction of Baconian natural histories were constituents of the general methodological background to mid-seventeenth-century Parisian natural philosophy. The first article of the constitution of the Montmor academy, which met in Paris from the mid-1650s to around the time of the formation of the Académie des Sciences, says:
The purpose of the company shall not be the vain exercise of the mind on useless subtleties (subtiltés inutiles), but the company shall set before itself always the clearer knowledge of the works of God, and the improvement of the conveniences of life, in the Arts and Sciences which seek to establish them.
The anti-speculative element here is hard to miss. (Interestingly, none of the articles mention experiment.) Furthermore, it is well known that Christiaan Huygens recommended to Colbert that the newly formed Adadémie construct natural histories after the manner of Verulam.
What I am hoping to glean from Cartesian Empiricisms is an answer to the following question:
Did the Cartesians practise a form of experimental philosophy analogous to that of the Fellows of the early Royal Society?
This question is important for a number of reasons. The work of Trevor McClaughlin on Rohault, for example, has shown that early Cartesians carried out experiments. Yet we still lack a detailed assessment of the nature, theory and practice of experiments amongst the neo-Cartesians in the three decades after Descartes’ death. There is no doubt that they performed experiments for illustrative purposes and repeated many classic experiments for pedagogical purposes. But did they engage in experimental programs with a view to acquiring new knowledge of nature and to modifying and developing natural philosophical knowledge?
What makes this issue particularly pressing is that there is evidence from the late 1650s and early 1660s that the natural philosophers who met in the Parisian academies, such as the Montmor academy which included several prominent Cartesians, performed experiments, but were not really practising experimental natural philosophy. Henry Oldenburg reported to Michaelis in April 1659 that the philosophical academies in Paris: ‘are rich in promises, few in performance’ (Corresp. of Oldenburg, 1: 241). Three months later Oldenburg wrote to Boyle from Paris saying:
we have severall meetings here of philosophers and statists which I carry your nevew to, for to study men as well as books; though the French naturalists are more discursive, than active or experimentall. (Corresp. of Oldenburg, 1: 287)
My hope, therefore, is that Cartesian Empiricisms will answer this very pressing question.
Shapiro and Newton on Experimental Philosophy
Kirsten Walsh writes…
In a recent post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s paper, ‘Newton’s “Experimental Philosophy”‘, where he argues that
- the apparent continuity between Newton’s usage [of the term ‘experimental philosophy’] and that of the early Royal Society is, however, largely an illusion.
I examined his claim that ‘experimental philosophy’ was used as a synonym for ‘mechanical philosophy’ by the early Royal Society, whereas for Newton, the two terms had different meanings.
Today I’ll address another argument Shapiro makes in that paper.
Shapiro claims that Newton’s adoption of the experimental philosophy occurred quite late – while preparing the 2nd edition of Principia, published in 1713. To support this claim, Shapiro argues that, in the 1713 edition of Principia, Newton uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ for the first time in public. Moreover, the methodology Newton describes in this context is very different to the methodology he describes in his early optical papers. Shapiro writes:
- At this time  for Newton confirmation is by mathematical demonstration and secondarily – only if you think it is worth the bother – by experiment. He clearly believed that a mathematical deductive approach would lead to great certainty and that experiment could provide the requisite certain foundations for such a science, but until the eighteenth century he did not assign experiment a primary place in his methodology.
If Newton’s ‘experimental philosophy’ is a late development, then this provides additional support for Shapiro’s claim that Newton’s experimental philosophy is not continuous with the methodology of his predecessors, the early members of the Royal Society.
In this post, I’ll argue that (1) experiment is a prominent theme in Newton’s methodological statements between 1672 and 1713, and (2) Newton’s methodology has features that suggest the influence of the early Royal Society.
1. Experiment is a prominent theme between 1672 and 1713
There is a strong experimental theme in Newton’s early optical papers (1672-1675). For example, he says:
- the proper Method for inquiring after the properties of things is to deduce them from Experiments.
- I drew up a series of such Experiments on designe to reduce the Theory of colours to Propositions & prove each Proposition from one or more of those Experiments by the assistance of common notions set down in the form of Definitions & Axioms in imitation of the Method by which Mathematicians are wont to prove their doctrines.
- Now the evidence by which I asserted the Propositions of colours is in the next words expressed to be from Experiments & so but Physicall: Whence the Propositions themselves can be esteemed no more then Physicall Principles of a Science.
In the opening paragraph of De Gravitatione (date of composition unknown), Newton says:
- in order, moreover, that … the certainty of its principles perhaps be confirmed, I shall not be reluctant to illustrate the propositions abundantly from experiments as well…
In the 1st edition of Principia (1686), Newton says:
- The principles I have set forth are accepted by mathematicians and confirmed by experiments of many kinds.
And in the 1st edition of Opticks (1704), Newton says:
- My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments…
Experiment doesn’t seem secondary to me!
2. Newton’s methodology suggests the influence of the early Royal Society
As we have said before, the Royal Society adopted the experimental philosophy in a Baconian form – according to the Baconian method of natural history. There is good evidence that Newton was familiar with the work of the Royal Society by the time he wrote his first optical paper in 1672: his notebooks show that he took notes from many issues of the Philosophical Transactions and he took careful notes on Boyle’s work. Newton never adopted the Baconian method of natural history. However, other features of Newton’s methodology suggest the influence of the early Royal Society. For example, he made use of queries, he adopted the familiar distinction between theory and hypothesis, he was concerned with experiments, and he rejected speculation and speculative systems.
Shapiro notices that Newton rejected speculative systems, but fails to recognise that Newton wasn’t the first member of the Royal Society to take this stance. On this blog we have provided ample evidence that the early members of the Royal Society railed against speculation. Newton’s anti-speculation and anti-hypothetical stance, while extreme, was still inside the spectrum of acceptable experimental positions. Consider this passage from Hooke’s Micrographa, addressed to the Royal Society:
- The Rules YOU have prescrib’d YOUR selves in YOUR Philosophical Progress do seem the best that have ever yet been practis’d. And particularly that of avoiding Dogmatizing, and the espousal of any Hypothesis not sufficiently grounded and confirm’d by Experiments. This way seems the most excellent, and may preserve both Philosophy and Natural History from its former Corruptions.
Whether or not Newton explicitly identified himself as such, we have good reason to think that Newton’s first optical paper in 1672 was written by an experimental philosopher.