Peter Anstey writes …
What is the precise relation between experimental philosophy and mechanical philosophy in the seventeenth century? In my last post I showed how neither Henry More nor Henry Stubbe were particularly clear about this. In this post I examine the view of Robert Boyle.
Boyle is sometimes credited with coining the English term ‘mechanical philosophy’* and he was certainly the first person to use the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in a book title. In 1663 he published Of the Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy which was soon followed by Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy of 1664.
If we look at frequencies of use in Boyle’s writings, it turns out that he used the term ‘experimental philosophy’ roughly twice as often as ‘mechanical philosophy’ or ‘mechanical hypothesis’. This raw fact is in itself rather telling for those recent historiographical debates over the nature and status of mechanical philosophy in early modern philosophy that almost entirely ignore experimental philosophy. However, the key question is: Were the terms synonyms for Boyle or did they denote two different things?
The best early statement of Boyle’s view of the content of experimental philosophy is in the ‘Proemial Essay’ to Certain Physiological Essays first published in 1661. He starts with a criticism of previous natural philosophers such as Aristotle and Campanella:
they have too hastily, and either upon a few Observations, or at least without a competent number of Experiments, presum’d to establish Principles, and deliver Axioms. (Works of Robert Boyle, 1999–2000, 2: 13)
What experimental philosophers should do instead is:
set themselves diligently and industriously to make Experiments and collect Observations, without being over-forward to establish Principles and Axioms, believing it uneasie to erect such Theories as are capable to explicate all the Phaenomena of Nature, before they have been able to take notice of the tenth part of those Phaenomena that are to be explicated. (Works of Robert Boyle, 2: 14)
This clearly has to do with the role of observation and experiment in relation to theory in the acquisition of knowledge about nature. Now let’s see how Boyle defines the mechanical philosophy. In The Excellency and Grounds of the Mechanical Hypothesis (aka the mechanical or corpuscular philosophy) Boyle states the kernel of the view as follows:
the Universe being once fram’d by God, and the Laws of Motion being setled and all upheld by His incessant concourse and general Providence; the Phænomena of the World thus constituted, are Physically produc’d by the Mechanical affections of the parts of Matter, and what they operate upon one another according to Mechanical Laws. (Boyle Works, 8: 104)
The mechanical affections referred to here are the shape, size, motion and texture of corporeal bodies.
Now this is really quite different from experimental philosophy. For, it is the sort of theory that one should arrive at as a result of practising experimental philosophy. This is why Boyle’s book The Origin of Forms and Qualities has a ‘speculative part’, which outlines the theoretical content of the mechanical philosophy, and a ‘historical (or experimental) part’, which provides experimental support for the speculative theory. Here is how he describes the relation between the two parts:
it was very much wish’d, that the Doctrines of the new Philosophy (as tis call’d) [i.e. mechanical philosophy] were back’d by particular Experiments; the want of which I have endeavour’d to supply, by annexing some, whose Nature and Novelty I am made believe will render them as well Acceptable as Instructive.
Thus, for Boyle, experimental philosophy and mechanical philosophy are entirely distinct: the former provides the evidential grounds of the latter. This is why, as Dmitri Levitin has shown, Boyle prefers Democritus to Epicurus. In Boyle’s view, the former based his atomism on experimental philosophy, the latter on speculative philosophy. (Levitin, ‘The experimentalist as humanist: Robert Boyle on the history of philosophy’, Annals of Science, 71, 2014, 149–82).
It may be that some philosophers and even natural philosophers conflated experimental philosophy with mechanical philosophy, but in Boyle’s mind they were distinct.
* Actually, the question turns out to be slightly more complicated than it looks because Henry More used the term ‘mechanical hypothesis’ in 1653 (An Antidote against Atheism, 44) and when Boyle first introduces the term in 1661 in Certain Physiological Essays, he uses ‘Mechanical Hypothesis or Philosophy’ (Boyle Works, 2: 87).
Peter Anstey writes …
Two years ago on this blog I addressed the ‘Straw Man Problem‘ for the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy. The apparent problem, according to some critics of the ESD, is that there were no speculative philosophers in the early modern period. In my response to that problem I listed The Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, as one of the few advocates of speculative philosophy in seventeenth-century England and in this post I want to explore her views in a little more depth.
Cavendish wrote the most sustained critique of experimental philosophy in the seventeenth century. Her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, comprising 318 pages, was first published in 1666 and went into a second edition in 1668. In this work Cavendish gives a critical reading of many works of the new experimental philosophy in order to justify her own speculative natural philosophy. Within her sights are Robert Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist (1661), Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy (1664) and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665).
It is interesting to compare Cavendish’s views in this work with those of the young Robert Boyle a decade earlier. As I pointed out in my last post, in his ‘Of Naturall Philosophie’ of c. 1654, Boyle claims that there are two principles of natural philosophy, the senses and reason. He plumps for the senses. Cavendish in her Observations acquiesces in the very same principles, but takes the opposing line: for her, reason trumps the senses.
What is important for our interests here is not only the direct contrast with Boyle’s embryonic experimental philosophy, but the manner in which, for Cavendish, the terms of reference for the choice are between experimental and speculative philosophy. The following extracts give a feel for her position:
I say, that sense, which is more apt to be deluded than reason, cannot be the ground of reason, no more than art can be the ground of nature: … For how can a fool order his understanding by art, if nature has made it defective? or, how can a wise man trust his senses, if either the objects be not truly presented according to their natural figure and shape, or if the senses be defective, either through age, sickness, or other accidents … And hence I conclude, that experimental and mechanic philosophy cannot be above the speculative part, by reason most experiments have their rise from the speculative, so that the artist or mechanic is but a servant to the student. (Cavendish, Observations, ed. O’Neill (Cambridge), p. 49, emphasis added)
experimental philosophy has but a brittle, inconstant, and uncertain ground. And these artificial instruments, as microscopes, telescopes, and the like, which are now so highly applauded, who knows but they may within a short time have the same fate; and upon a better and more rational enquiry, be found deluders, rather than true informers (ibid., p. 99)
And toward the end of a long discussion of chemistry and chemical principles she reiterates her conclusion:
if reason be above sense, then speculative philosophy ought to be preferred before the experimental, because there can no reason be given for anything without it (ibid., p. 241)
Cavendish’s Observations first appeared at a very sensitive time for the Royal Society, for it had been the subject of much criticism from without and was in the process of securing an apologetical History of the Royal-Society by Thomas Sprat.
Now, there is no doubt that some of the more prominent Fellows of the Society are in view in her critique. Yet, it is important that we do not over-extend the target of the Observations, for, it is very much aimed at experimental philosophy and hardly makes reference to the Royal Society at all. Within a year of its publication the Duchess was to make a famous visit to the Society and the correspondence that ensued does not suggest that Henry Oldenburg and others regarded her as a hostile critic of the Society. This reinforces the view that her focus was more specific, namely, experimental philosophy.
Interestingly, after Cavendish’s death the following lines appeared in A Collection of Letters and Poems (London, 1678) written in her honour:
Philosophers must wander in the dark;
Now they of Truth can find no certain mark;
Since She their surest Guide is gone away,
They cannot chuse but miserably stray.
All did depend on Her, but She on none,
For her Philosophy was all her own.
She never did to the poor Refuge fly
Of Occult Quality or Sympathy.
She could a Reason for each Cause present,
Not trusting wholly to Experiment,
No Principles from others she purloyn’d,
But wisely Practice she with Speculation joyn’d. (A Collection, p. 166, emphasis added)
This poem in which these lines appear was penned by the poet Thomas Shadwell, author of The Virtuoso. Shadwell presents the Duchess as holding to a more balanced view of the relative value of practice and speculation than is warranted from her writings. But the fact that he has singled this out is indicative of just how central was this issue to thinkers of the day.
Peter Anstey writes …
It is not entirely clear when Robert Boyle (1627–1691) first used the term ‘experimental philosophy’, but what is clear is that his views on this new approach to natural philosophy began to form in the early 1650s, some years before the term came into common use.
Boyle’s earliest datable use of the term is from his Spring of the Air published in 1660. The reason for the lack of clarity about Boyle’s first use of the term arises from the fact that what appears to be a very early usage survives only in a fragment published by Thomas Birch in his ‘Life of Boyle’ in 1744: no manuscript version is extant. The context of Boyle’s reference to experimental philosophy in this text suggests that this fragment is associated with his ‘Essay of the Holy Scriptures’ composed in the mid-1650s. Boyle speaks of:
those excellent sciences, the mathematics, having been the first I addicted myself to, and was fond of, and experimental philosophy with its key, chemistry, succeeding them in my esteem and applications …
(Works of Robert Boyle, eds Hunter and Davis, London, vol. 12, p. 356)
However, the question of the precise dating of Boyle’s use of the term is hardly as significant as the formation of his views on his distinctive form of natural philosophy. And on this point we have some fascinating and chronologically unambiguous evidence, namely, Boyle’s outline of a work ‘Of Naturall Philosophie’ which dates from around 1654. This short manuscript in Boyle’s early hand survives among the Royal Society Boyle Papers in volume 36, folios 65–6. (It is transcribed in full in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle 1627–1691: Scrupulosity and Science (Woodbridge, 2000), 30–1.)
In it Boyle outlines the two ‘Principles of naturall Philosophie’. They are Sense and Reason. As for Sense, in addition to its fallibility, Boyle stresses that:
it is requisite to be furnished with observations and Experiments.
Boyle then proceeds to give a set of seven ‘Directions concerning Experiments’. These directions provide an early adumbration of his later experimental methodology. They include the following:
1. Make all your Experiments if you can your selfe [even] though you be satisfyed beforehand of the Truth of them.
3. Be not discouraged from Experimentinge by haveing now & then your Expectation frustrated
5. Get acquainted with Experimentall Books & Men particularly Tradesmen.
7. After you have made any Experiment, not before, reflect upon the uses & Consequences of it either to establish truths, detect Errors, or improve some knowne or give hints of some new Experiment
As for the principle of Reason, Boyle gives five considerations concerning it. What is striking here is that each of them concerns the relation between Reason and experiments:
- That we consult nature to make her Instruct us what to beleeve not to confirme what we have beleeved
- That a perfect account of noe Experiment is to be looked for from the Experiment it selfe
- That it is more difficult then most men are aware of to find out the Causes of knowne effects
- That it is more difficult then men thinke to build principles upon or draw Consequences from Experiments
- That therefore Reason is not to be much trusted when she wanders far from Experiments & Systematical Bodyes of naturall Philosophie are not for a while to be attempted
Note here the caution about the difficulty of building natural philosophical principles from experiments and the warning about wandering from experiments and premature system building, points that were to become key motifs of the experimental philosophy that blossomed in the 1660s.
It may well be that the movement of experimental philosophy did not emerge until the early 1660s, but the conceptual foundations of its most able exponent were laid nearly a decade before.
Are there any parallel cases of natural philosophers who worked out an experimental philosophy in the early 1650s or was Boyle the first?
Peter Anstey writes …
In two previous posts I examined an early teacher of experimental philosophy, John Theophilus Desaguliers and a later one, George Adams. In this post I turn to a third teacher of experimental philosophy, Francis Hauksbee the Elder (1660–1713). (He was called ‘the Elder’ to differentiate him from his nephew of the same name who also taught experimental philosophy.) Hauksbee was one of the two most important first-generation pedagogues. (We will examine the other, John Keill, in my next post.)
He was a gifted instrument maker who not only developed a new much improved design of Robert Boyle’s air-pump, but also conducted a series of very important new experiments using this instrument. Many of these were published in the Philosophical Transactions. As a result of his proficiency with experimental apparatus he became a kind of de facto curator of experiments at the Royal Society in c. 1704 after Robert Hooke’s death. In addition he seconded James Hodgson FRS to carry out public lectures on experimental philosophy in London while he acted as the demonstrator.
By 1709 he himself was lecturing on experimental philosophy and continued this until his death in 1713. In 1709 he published a compilation volume of his air-pump experiments entitled Physico-Mechanical Experiments … touching Light and Electricity. This volume, in many ways, mimicked Boyle’s ground-breaking New Experiments Physico-mechanical touching the Spring of the Air (1660). (Even the titles are similar.) Hauksbee clearly saw himself as working in a tradition of experimental natural philosophy that extended back to Boyle.
The work gives us an interesting insight into how he viewed natural philosophy. He begins by telling us that:
The Learned World is now almost generally convinc’d, that instead of amusing themselves with Vain Hypotheses, which seem to differ little from Romances, there’s no other way of Improving Natural Philosophy, but by Demonstrations and Conclusions founded upon Experiments judiciously and accurately made. (Preface)
By now our readers should recognize the standard tropes of the experimental philosopher: the decrying of hypotheses; the likening of them to romances; the appeal to the necessity of experiment for the improving of natural philosophy.
Hauksbee goes on in the Preface to mention ‘The Honourable and most Excellent Mr. Boyle’ and ‘the … Incomparable Sir Isaac Newton’ implying that he himself is engaged in the same natural philosophical project. It is interesting to note, however, that there is no mention of the method of natural history as practised and promoted by Boyle in the Preface or in Hauksbee’s work. Hauksbee’s experimental practice was a natural extension of Boyle’s work, but at the same time methodologically discontinuous with it.
Hauksbee was also much quicker than Boyle to draw natural philosophical conclusions from his experiments. He did not, however, apply mathematics to his discoveries and he was later criticized by Desaguliers in his Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734) in so far as his experiments
were only shewn and explain’d as so many curious Phaenomena, and not made Use of as Mediums to prove a Series of philosophical Propositions in a mathematical Order, they laid no such Foundation for true Philosophy. (vol. 1, Preface)
Hauksbee may not have had developed views on the methodology of natural philosophy or much aptitude in mathematics, but he was a gifted experimenter and a keen promoter of experimental philosophy.
Peter Anstey writes…
It is not uncommon for very minor contributors to early modern thought to go unnoticed, but every now and then they turn out to be worth investigating. One such person is Robert Saint Clair. A Google search will not turn up much on Saint Clair, and yet he was a servant of Robert Boyle and a signatory to and named in Boyle’s will. He promised twice to supply the philosopher John Locke with some of Boyle’s mysterious ‘red earth’ after his master’s death, and a letter from Saint Clair to Robert Hooke was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (vol. 20, 1698, pp. 378–81).
What makes Saint Clair interesting for our purposes is his book entitled The Abyssinian Philosophy Confuted which appeared in 1697. For in that book, which contains his own translation of Bernardino Ramazzini’s treatise on the waters of Modena, Saint Clair attacks Thomas Burnet’s highly speculative theory of the formation of the earth. I quote from the epistle to the reader:
I shall not care for the displeasure of these men of Ephesus [Burnet and others], whose trade it is to make Shrines to this their Diana of Hypothetical Philosophy, I mean who in their Closets make Systems of the World, prescribe Laws of Nature, without ever consulting her by Observation and Experience, who (to use the Noble Lord Verulams words) like the Spider … spin a curious Cob-web out of their Brains … (sig. a4)
The rhetoric of experimental philosophy could hardly be more obvious. Burnet and the other ‘world-makers’ are criticized for being adherents of ‘Hypothetical Philosophy’, for making ‘Systems of the World’, and for not consulting nature by ‘Observation and Experience’. He also praises Ramazzini’s work for being ‘the most admirable piece of Natural History’ (sig. a2). Saint Clair rounds off this passage with a reference to Bacon’s famous aphorism (about which we have commented before) from the New Organon comparing the spider, the ant and the bee to current day natural philosophers (I. 95).
What can we glean from Saint Clair’s critique here? First, it provides yet another piece evidence of the ubiquity of the ESD in late seventeenth-century England: the terms of reference by which Saint Clair evaluated Burnet were clearly those of experimental versus speculative philosophy.
Second, it is worth noting the term ‘Hypothetical Philosophy’. This expression was clearly ‘in the air’ in the late 1690s in England. For instance, it is found in John Sergeant’s Solid Philosophy Asserted which was also published in 1697. Indeed, it is the very term that Newton used in a draft of his letter of 28 March 1713 to Roger Cotes to describe Leibniz and Descartes years later. Clearly the term was in use as a pejorative before Newton’s attack on Leibniz.
Saint Clair has been almost invisible to early modern scholarship on English natural philosophy and yet his case is a nice example of the value of inquiring into the plethora of minor figures surrounding those canonical thinkers who still capture most of our attention. I would be grateful for suggestions as to names of others whom I might explore.
Incidentally, Saint Clair obviously thought that John Locke might be interested in his book, for we know from Locke’s Journal that he sent him a copy.
Peter Anstey writes…
In a recent article Peter Harrison has drawn our attention to the phenomenon of experimental Christianity in seventeenth-century England (‘Experimental religion and experimental science in early modern England’, Intellectual History Review, 21 (2011)). In this post I would like to take up where Harrison left off and discuss one proponent of experimental religion whom Harrison does not mention, namely Francis Bampfield (1614–1684). Bampfield provides an interesting case study because while he was a promoter of experimental Christianity, he was also a harsh critic of the new experimental natural philosophy.
In two works from 1677, All in One and SABBATIKH, Bampfield lays out his case against experimental natural philosophy. In his view the source of all useful and certain knowledge is the Scriptures.
Practical Christianity, and experimental Religion is the highest Science, and the noblest Art, and the most honourable Profession, which gives light to all inferiour knowledges, and would admit into the Royalest Society, and draw nearest in resemblance and conformity, to the glorified Fellowship in the Heavenly College above, where their knowledge is perfected in visional intuitive light. Here is the prime Truth, the original Verity, as to the manifestativeness of it in legible visible ingravings, which would carry progressively into other Learning contained therein: all here is reducible to practice and use, to life and conversation; here existences and realilties are contemplated and proved, not mere Ideas and conceits speculated as elsewhere. (All in One, p. 12)
It is the mere ideas and conceits of the new experimental philosophy of the Royal Society, or the Fellows of Gresham College, that Bampfield is concerned to expose:
How many thousands have by their wandring after such misguiders left and lost their way in the dark, where their Souls have been filled with troublesome doubts, and with tormenting fears, exposing them to violent temptations of Atheism and Unbelief? and what wonder, that it is thus with the Scholar, when some of the learnedest of the Masters themselves have resolved upon this, as the conclusion of all their knowledge, that, All things are matter of doubtful questionings, and are intricated with knotty difficulties, and do pass into amazing uncertainties, and resolve into cosmical suspicions? And this, not only is the deliberate Judgement of particular Virtuoso’s in our day, but has been the publick determination of an whole University. (All in one, p. 3)
What are these ‘knotty difficulties’ that pass into ‘amazing uncertainties’ resolving into ‘cosmical suspicions’? The alert reader will no doubt see here a direct allusion to Robert Boyle’s Tracts of 1670 in which he discusses cosmical qualities that seem to have ‘such a degree of probability, as is want to be thought sufficient to Physicall Discourses’ (Works of Robert Boyle, eds Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 6, p. 303). Boyle appended to his essay on cosmical qualities another on cosmical suspicions which contains just the sort of speculative reflections that Bampfield is alluding to here. (As far as I can determine, Boyle’s is the first work in English that uses the term ‘cosmical suspicions’.) That Bampfield was a close reader of Boyle’s writings comes out in a later passage which I quote in extenso:
There is an honourable Virtuosus, who has travelled far in Natures way, and has made some of the deepest inquiries into Experimental, Corpuscular, or Mechanical Philosophy, that in the requisites of a good Hypothesis amongst others of them, doth make this to be one of its conditions, that it fairly comport not only with all other truths, but with all other Phaenomena of Nature, as well as those ’tis fram’d to explicate, and that, not only none of the Phaenomena of Nature, which are already taken notice of do contradict it at the present, but that, no Phaenomena that may be hereafter discovered, shall do it for the future. Let it therefore from hence be considered, whether seeing, that History of Nature, which is but of human indagation and compiling, is so incomplete and uncertain, and many things may be discovered in after-times by industry, or in some other way by providential dispensing, which are not now so much as dreamed of, and which may yet overthrow Doctrines speciously enough accommodated to the Observations, that have been hitherto made (as is by himself fore-seen and acknowledged) whether now, the only prevention and remedy in this case (which is otherwise so full of just fears, of real doubts, of endless dissatisfaction, and of perplexing difficulties) be not, to bring all sorts of necessary knowledges to the Pan-sophie, the Alness of Wisdom, in the Scriptures of Truth, where none of the forementioned Scriptures have any ground to set their foot on, in regard that Word-Revelations about Natures Secrets, are the unerring products of infinite Wisdom, and of universal fore seeingness, which are always uniform and the same, in their well-established order, and stated ordinary course without any variation, by an unchangeable Law of the All-knowing Truthful Creator, and Governour, and Redeemer. (All in One, pp. 56-7)
Bampfield is, of course, referring to Boyle’s Excellency of Theology (Works, 8, p. 89) and while he is cautious not to be overtly critical of Boyle here, the thrust of his comments is to undermine the epistemic status of the experimental philosophy, calling it ‘incomplete and uncertain’. For, as he says in his sequel SABBATIKH:
the unscriptural way they take in their researches into natural Histories and experimental Philosophy, will never so attain its useful end for the true advance of profitable Learning, till more studied in the Book of Scriptures, and suiting all experiments unto this word-knowledge. (SABBATIKH, p. 53)
It is ‘word knowledge’ and not knowledge of the world that Bampfield is defending. What Boyle himself made of all of this, if it even came to his attention, we will never know. He never mentions Bampfield in any of his works or correspondence.
Peter Anstey writes…
According to ECCO there were one hundred books published in the eighteenth century with the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in their title. What is surprising about these books is that the majority of them are courses in or lectures on experimental philosophy: they are pedagogical works rather than works in natural philosophy per se.
One of the earliest of these works was Lectures of Experimental Philosophy by John Theophilus Desaguliers published in 1719. This work gives the principles of mechanics, hydrostatics and optics, explaining them with descriptions of experiments that had recently been used in these disciplines.
The work is written in the spirit of the experimental philosophy and before Desaguliers launches into his exposition of mechanics, the first discipline that he discusses, he provides the reader with a sketch of the ‘principles’ of natural philosophy. What is interesting is that much of this derives without acknowledgment from Robert Boyle’s Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666/7). Thus, Desaguliers tells us that:
- 1. That the Matter of Natural Bodies is the same; namely, a Substance extended, divisible, and impenetrable. (p. 7)
In Forms and Qualities Boyle says,
- The Matter of all Natural Bodies is the Same, namely a Substance extended and impenetrable. (Works of Robert Boyle, eds Hunter & Davis, 5: 333)
If one were to quibble that Desaguliers has left out the word ‘divisible’, we need only to turn to an earlier passage in Forms and Qualities where Boyle says:
- there is one catholic or universal matter common to all bodies, by which I mean a substance extended, divisible, and impenetrable. (Works, 5: 305)
That Desaguliers read this passage is evident from his third claim:
- 3. That Local Motion is the chief Principle amongst second Causes, and the chief Agent of all that happens in Nature. (p. 8)
Boyle says in the very next paragraph,
- that Local Motion seems to be indeed the Principl amongst Second Causes, and the Grand Agent of all that happens in Nature. (Works, 5: 306)
There are other borrowings from Forms and Qualities, but space prevents me from listing them here. Two points are worth noting, however. First, it is very interesting to see concrete evidence of the influence of Boyle’s Forms and Qualities in the latter years of the second decade of the eighteenth century. Until now there has been little recognition of the impact of this specific work by Boyle, though few would doubt his enormous impact on British experimental philosophy in general.
Second, the text that Desaguliers lifts from Boyle appears in the speculative part of Forms and Qualities: it is speculative natural philosophy and is supported in the ‘historical part’ of that work by experimental observations. There is no sense of this division in Desaguliers’ treatment of these ‘principles’, though he does bring some experimental evidence to bear against the Cartesian materia subtilis. After dismissing various other speculative theories, such as Aristotelianism, Desaguliers simply introduces Boyle’s speculative theory with the following words:
- That Philosophy therefore is the most reasonable, which teaches …
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:
- 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);
- an explicit application of the general method of the experimental philosophy;
- 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.
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.
Peter Anstey says…
In one of the great statements of philosophical humility the English philosopher John Locke characterised his aims for the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) in the following terms:
- The Commonwealth of Learning, is not at this time without Master-Builders, whose mighty Designs, in advancing the Sciences, will leave lasting Monuments to the Admiration of Posterity; But every one must not hope to be a Boyle, or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such Masters, as the Great – Huygenius, and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some other of that Strain; ’tis Ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge (Essay, ‘Epistle to the Reader’).
Locke regarded his project as the work of an under-labourer, sweeping away rubbish so that the ‘big guns’ could continue their work. But what is it that unites Boyle, Sydenham, Huygens and Newton as Master-Builders? It can’t be the fact that they are all British, because Huygens was Dutch. It can’t be the fact that they were all friends of Locke, for when Locke penned these words he almost certainly had not even met Isaac Newton. Nor can it be the fact that they were all eminent natural philosophers, after all, Thomas Sydenham was a physician.
In my book John Locke and Natural Philosophy, I contend that what they had in common was that they all were proponents or practitioners of the new experimental philosophy and that it was this that led Locke to group them together. In the case of Boyle, the situation is straightforward: he was the experimental philosopher par excellence. In the case of Newton, Locke had recently reviewed his Principia and mentions this ‘incomparable book’, endorsing its method in later editions of the Essay itself. Interestingly, in his review Locke focuses on Newton’s arguments against Descartes’ vortex theory of planetary motions, which had come to be regarded as an archetypal form of speculative philosophy.
In the case of Huygens, little is known of his relations with Locke, but he was a promoter of the method of natural history and he remained the leading experimental natural philosopher in the Parisian Académie. In the case of Sydenham, it was his methodology that Locke admired and, especially those features of his method that were characteristic of the experimental philosophy. Here is what Locke says of Sydenham’s method to Thomas Molyneux:
- I hope the age has many who will follow [Sydenham’s] example, and by the way of accurate practical observation, as he has so happily begun, enlarge the history of diseases, and improve the art of physick, and not by speculative hypotheses fill the world with useless, tho’ pleasing visions (1 Nov. 1692, Correspondence, 4, p. 563).
Note the references to ‘accurate practical observation’, the decrying of ‘speculative hypotheses’ and the endorsement of the natural ‘history of diseases’ – all leading doctrines of the experimental philosophy in the late seventeenth century. So, even though Sydenham was a physician, he could still practise medicine according to the new method of the experimental philosophy. In fact, many in Locke’s day regarded natural philosophy and medicine as forming a seamless whole in so far as they shared a common method. It should be hardly surprising to find that Locke held this view, for he too was a physician.
If it is this common methodology that unites Locke’s four heroes then we are entitled to say ‘Locke’s Master-Builders were experimental philosophers’. I challenge readers to come up with a better explanation of Locke’s choice of these four Master-Builders.