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Tag Archives: Baconian

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.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism: 20 Theses for Discussion

Before our recent symposium, we decided to imitate our early modern heroes by preparing a set of queries or articles of inquiry. They are a list of 20 claims that we are sharing with you below. They summarize what we take to be our main claims and findings so far in our study of early modern experimental philosophy and the genesis of empiricism.

After many posts on rather specific points, hopefully our 20 theses will give you an idea of the big picture within which all the topics we blog about fit together, from Baconian natural histories and optical experiments to moral inquiries or long-forgotten historians of philosophy.

Most importantly, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you find any of our claims unconvincing, inaccurate, or plainly wrong? Do let us know in the comments!

Is there some important piece of evidence that you’d like to point our attention to? Please get in touch!

Are you working on any of these areas and you’d like to share your thoughts? We’d like to hear from you (our contacts are listed here).

Would you like to know more on some of our 20 claims? Please tell us, we might write a post on that (or see if there’s anything hidden in the archives that may satisfy your curiosity).

Here are our articles, divided into six handy categories:


1. The distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESD) provided the most widespread terms of reference for philosophy from the 1660s until Kant.

2. The ESD emerged in England in the late 1650s, and while a practical/speculative distinction in philosophy can be traced back to Aristotle, the ESD cannot be found in the late Renaissance or the early seventeenth century.

3. The main way in which the experimental philosophy was practised from the 1660s until the 1690s was according to the Baconian method of natural history.

4. The Baconian method of natural history fell into serious decline in the 1690s and is all but absent in the eighteenth century. The Baconian method of natural history was superseded by an approach to natural philosophy that emulated Newton’s mathematical experimental philosophy.


5. The ESD is operative in Newton’s early optical papers.

6. In his early optical papers, Newton’s use of queries represents both a Baconian influence and (conversely) a break with Baconian experimental philosophy.

7. While Newton’s anti-hypothetical stance was typical of Fellows of the early Royal Society and consistent with their methodology, his mathematisation of optics and claims to absolute certainty were not.

8. The development of Newton’s method from 1672 to 1687 appears to display a shift in emphasis from experiment to mathematics.


9. Unlike natural philosophy, where a Baconian methodology was supplanted by a Newtonian one, moral philosophers borrowed their methods from both traditions. This is revealed in the range of different approaches to moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment, approaches that were all unified under the banner of experimental philosophy.

10. Two distinctive features of the texts on moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment are: first, the appeal to the experimental method; and second, the explicit rejection of conjectures and unfounded hypotheses.

11. Experimental philosophy provided learned societies (like the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh) with an approach to knowledge that placed an emphasis on the practical outcomes of science.


12. The ESD is prominent in the methodological writings of the French philosophes associated with Diderot’s Encyclopédie project, including the writings of Condillac, d’Alembert, Helvétius and Diderot himself.


13. German philosophers in the first decades of the eighteenth century knew the main works of British experimental philosophers, including Boyle, Hooke, other members of the Royal Society, Locke, Newton, and the Newtonians.

14. Christian Wolff emphasized the importance of experiments and placed limitations on the use of hypotheses. Yet unlike British experimental philosophers, Wolff held that data collection and theory building are simultaneous and interdependent and he stressed the importance of a priori principles for natural philosophy.

15. Most German philosophers between 1770 and 1790 regarded themselves as experimental philosophers (in their terms, “observational philosophers”). They regarded experimental philosophy as a tradition initiated by Bacon, extended to the study of the mind by Locke, and developed by Hume and Reid.

16. Friends and foes of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies in the 1780s and 1790s saw them as examples of speculative philosophy, in competition with the experimental tradition.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism

17. Kant coined the now-standard epistemological definitions of empiricism and rationalism, but he did not regard them as purely epistemological positions. He saw them as comprehensive philosophical options, with a core rooted in epistemology and philosophy of mind and consequences for natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics.

18. Karl Leonhard Reinhold was the first philosopher to outline a schema for the interpretation of early modern philosophy based (a) on the opposition between Lockean empiricism (leading to Humean scepticism) and Leibnizian rationalism, and (b) Kant’s Critical synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.

19. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann was the first historian to craft a detailed, historically accurate, and methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy based on Reinhold’s schema. [Possibly with the exception of Johann Gottlieb Buhle.]

20. Tennemann’s direct and indirect influence is partially responsible for the popularity of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy based on the conflict between empiricism and rationalism.

That’s it for now. Come back next Monday for Gideon Manning‘s comments on the origins of the experimental-speculative distinction.

(in their terms, “observational philosophers”)

Newton’s Early Queries are not Hypotheses

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In an earlier post I demonstrated that, in his early optical papers, Newton is working with a clear distinction between theory and hypothesis.  Newton takes a strong anti-hypothetical stance, giving theories higher epistemic status than hypotheses.  Newton’s corpuscular hypothesis appears to challenge his commitment to this anti-hypothetical position.  Today I will discuss a second challenge to this anti-hypotheticalism: Newton’s use of queries.

Newton’s queries have often been interpreted as hypotheses-in-disguise.  But in his early optical papers, Newton’s queries are not hypotheses.  In fact, he is building on the method of queries prescribed by Francis Bacon, for whom assembling queries is a specific step in the acquisition and development of natural philosophical knowledge.

To begin, what is Newton’s method of queries?  In a letter to Oldenburg, Newton explains that

    “the proper Method for inquiring after the properties of things is to deduce them from Experiments.”

Having obtained a theory in this way, one should proceed as follows: (1) specify queries that suggest experiments that will test the theory; and (2) carry out those experiments.

He then lists eight queries relating to his theory of light and colours, e.g.:

    “4. Whether the colour of any sort of rays apart may be changed by refraction?
    “5. Whether colours by coalescing do really change one another to produce a new colour, or produce it by mixing onely?”

He ends the letter, saying:

    “To determin by experiments these & such like Queries which involve the propounded Theory seemes the most proper & direct way to a conclusion.  And therefore I could wish all objections were suspended, taken from Hypotheses or any other Heads than these two; Of showing the insufficiency of experiments to determin these Queries or prove any other parts of my Theory, by assigning the flaws & defects in my Conclusions drawn from them; Or of producing other Experiments which directly contradict me, if any such may seem to occur.  For if the Experiments, which I urge be defective it cannot be difficult to show the defects, but if valid, then by proving the Theory they must render all other Objections invalid.”

While Newton’s method of queries is experimental, it does not appear to be strictly Baconian.  For the Baconian-experimental philosopher, queries serve “to provoke and stimulate further inquiry”.  Thus, for the Baconian-experimental philosopher, queries are part of the process of discovery.  However, for Newton, queries serve to test the theory and to answer criticisms.  Thus, they are part of the process of justification.

Newton uses queries to identify points of difference between his theory and its opponents.  For example, in a letter to Hooke he writes:

    “I shall now in the last place proceed to abstract the difficulties involved in Mr Hooks discourse, & without having regard to any Hypothesis consider them in general termes.  And they may be reduced to these three Queries.  [1] Whether the unequal refractions made without respect to any inequality of incidence, be caused by the different refrangibility of several rays, or by the splitting breaking or dissipating the same ray into diverging parts; [2] Whether there be more then two sorts of colours; & [3] whether whitenesse be a mixture of all colours.”

And in a letter to Huygens, Newton says:

    “Meane time since M. Hu[y]gens seems to allow that white is a composition of two colours at least if not of more; give me leave to rejoyn these Quæres.
    “1. Whether the whiteness of the suns light be compounded of the like colours?
    “2. Whether the colours that emerg by refracting that light be those component colours separated by the different refrangibility of the rays in which they inhere?”

In both cases, Newton is using queries to steer the debate towards claims that can be tested and resolved by experiment.  On both occasions, Newton devotes a considerable amount of space to discussing the experiments that might determine these queries.

These early queries are not hypotheses.  Rather, they are empirical questions that may be resolved by experiment.  This is not merely a matter of semantics. In the same letter to Hooke, Newton demonstrates this by distinguishing between philosophical queries and hypothetical queries.  A philosophical query is one that can be determined by experiment, a hypothetical query cannot.  Newton argues that philosophical queries are the only acceptable queries.  He equates hypothetical queries with begging the question.

In his later work, Newton’s queries become increasingly speculative, suggesting that they function as de facto hypotheses.  Does Newton ultimately reject his early ‘method of queries’?

Next Monday we’ll have a guest post from Greg Dawes on Galileo and the Experimental Philosophy.

On the Proliferation of Empiricisms

Peter Anstey writes…

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

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

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

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