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Martin Martin, experimental philosophy and Baconian natural history

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes we can appreciate the impact of a new way of thinking or a new movement by examining the views and writings of those on the periphery or of minor, lesser-known figures. Such is the case with the Scotsman Martin Martin. His A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland published in 1703 is written as a Baconian natural history, and in its short preface Martin very self-consciously situates his work as a contribution to experimental philosophy.

It is well known that the book gained some renown in the eighteenth century for its discussion of the phenomenon of second sight –– a discussion that is literally matter of fact and which accords with the methodology of experimental philosophy in so far as he refrains from entertaining any speculations concerning causes of this phenomenon.

The book also gained some notoriety from the fact that Boswell and Johnson used it as a kind of travel guide for their tour of the western Scottish isles in 1773. Yet it is Martin’s brief but poignant methodological comments that are of interest to students of early modern experimental philosophy.

Martin views his book as something of a supplement to the leading histories of Scotland, especially that of George Buchanan, whose History of Scotland (Rerum Scoticarum historia, Edinburgh) appeared back in 1582. Martin tells us:

since his [Buchanan’s] time, there’s a great Change in the Humour of the World, and by consequence in the way of Writing. Natural and Experimental Philosophy has been much improv’d since his days, and therefore Descriptions of Countries without the Natural History of ’em, are now justly reckon’d to be defective. (sig. a4r)

This comment signals Martin’s understanding of the place of natural history in the methodology of experimental philosophy and the requirement that histories of countries have a natural historical component. He goes on to list some of the topics that he covers in order to render his account of the western isles of Scotland such a natural history:

the Nature of the Climate and Soil, of the Produce of the Places by Sea and Land, and of the Remarkable Cures perform’d by the Natives meerly by the use of Simples, and that in such variety as I hope will make amends for what Defects may be found in my Stile and way of Writing. (sig. a5v)

These topics or heads or articles of inquiry are typical of this genre of natural history, and much of the actual content of the book covers Robert Boyle’s desiderata for the natural history of a country set out as early as 1666 (‘General Heads for a Natural History of a Country, Great or Small’) in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. 1, pp. 86–9) and republished in 1692.

Martin mentions experimental philosophy a second time:

Humane Industry has of late advanc’d useful and experimental Philosophy very much, Women and illiterate Persons have in some measure contributed to it by the discovery of some useful Cures. (sig. a5v–a6r)

Now, from a 21st century perspective the comment on women and the illiterate might seem condescending, nevertheless, Martin’s is making the very Baconian point that not just the learned, but everyone can contribute to the project of the history of nature. He then goes on to stress the importance of observation:

the Field of Nature is large, and much of it wants still to be cultivated by an ingenious and discreet application; and the Curious by their Observations might daily make further advances in the History of Nature. (sig. a6r)

It is worth noting that the inspiration for his natural history derived from some within the Royal Society itself, probably including Hans Sloane. For, we are told in the Preface to his earlier A Late Voyage to St. Kilda, London, 1698 (dedicated to the then President of the Royal Society, Charles Montagu), that he had had the

honour of Conversing with some of the Royal Society, who raised his natural Curiosity to survey the Isles of Scotland more exactly than any other; in prosecution of which design he as already brought along with him several curious Productions of Nature, both rare and beautiful in their kind (sig. A4v)

It might be thought, therefore, that Martin’s text is one of many such natural histories from the early eighteenth century; however, I have argued elsewhere that from the 1690s this approach to experimental philosophy actually began to decline. Not only had the program of experimental natural history not delivered much by way of new natural philosophy, but also a rival mathematical form of experimental philosophy was emerging in the wake of Newton’s Principia (1687). If this thesis concerning the decline of Baconian natural history is correct, Martin’s work should be viewed as one of the final installments of an approach to experimental philosophy that was soon to be superseded, even if it never completely disappeared.

Moreover, Martin seems to have had few like-minded natural historians around him in Scotland. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, Scotland wrote to John Locke in October 1701 and had the letter hand delivered by Martin. Fletcher recommends him to Locke and, after mentioning Martin’s materials for his natural history of ‘westerne isles of Scotland’ says,

Their is so little encouragement for such a man herre, that if he can meete with any in England, he thincks of staying their or going further abroad (Correspondence of John Locke, Oxford, vol. 7, p. 471)

I would be most interested in hearing from readers about other examples of Baconian natural histories in Britain in the early years of the eighteenth century that might complement that of Martin Martin and round out my own understanding of this very fascinating manifestation of experimental natural philosophy.

A response to Anstey’s ‘Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration’

A guest post by Mordechai Feingold.

Mordechai Feingold writes …

I thank Peter Anstey for drawing attention to my ‘“Experimental Philosophy”: Invention and Rebirth of a Seventeenth-Century Concept’, and for giving me the opportunity to correct certain misunderstandings of my argument.

Anstey begins: ‘Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term “experimental philosophy” in them.’ The unsuspecting reader of the blog may conclude that the paper is devoted in its entirety to such minute study; in fact, only a third is given over to the Hartlib papers. More serious, however, is Anstey’s insinuation that on the basis of such a survey I conclude: ‘there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660’. I make no such claim. As both the title and the content of my article make abundantly clear, I argue explicitly that it was the concept of ‘experimental philosophy’, not the practices that would be identified later under such term, that was absent before the Restoration.

Anstey pivots to my claim that when John Aubrey, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood described, two decades and more after the events, the activities carried out at Oxford during the 1650s, they anachronistically projected the term ‘experimental philosophy’ onto such activities—thereby leading historians to assume that the term had been in use already back then. Anstey disagrees. ‘As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love’, he writes, ‘Boyle had been described by the anonymous author … of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’. I was aware of this reference. However, since the first edition of Seraphic Love was published in late September 1659, and since it is not at all clear whether the anonymous second advertisement was actually included in the initial printing of the book, I considered the following statement sufficient to denote Boyle’s centrality to the revamping of the concept: ‘By early 1660 Boyle added “experimental philosophy” to his rhetorical repertoire, thereby becoming intimately involved in refitting the meaning of the phrase’. I documented the statement by citing the very expressions from New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air that Anstey cites against my interpretation. In particular, Anstey claims, the context in which Boyle referred to John Wilkins as the ‘Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’ is ‘entirely experimental’—thereby implying that I denied the existence of experimental activity before 1660. Anstey further contends that ‘Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood’. I don’t see the problem here. The reference to Wilkins was obviously added to the discussion of the twentieth experiment when Boyle prepared the manuscript for press in early 1660. Thus, the inclusion of the term coheres perfectly with the other references to ‘experimental philosophy’ in the book.

Ultimately, whether Boyle started using the term in late 1659 or in early 1660 is of no great matter. What is important, and this is the point I insist on, is that Boyle and other members of the Royal Society—with the notable exception of William Petty whom I discuss at some length in my article—had previously used terms other than ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their scientific activities. And in view of my pronounced aim to probe the changing fortunes of a concept, I’m puzzled by Anstey’s characterization of my undertaking as a denial of the historical relations furnished by Aubrey, Wallis, Wood, and Boyle concerning the existence of a flourishing experimental activity at Oxford during the 1650s. My intent was to show why it was only around 1660 that Boyle and his Royal Society colleagues decide to appropriate the term ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their activities, thereby imbuing it with a fixed conceptual and polemical meaning. Given Anstey’s divergent understanding of the meaning and fortunes of ‘experimental philosophy’, it is understandable why he is reluctant to accept my argument or my periodization. This divergence notwithstanding, however, ultimately Anstey and I share much more in common than we disagree.

Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration

In a recent article, Mordechai Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in them. His conclusion after surveying them all is that the term was used without a common determinate referent. This raises the question: Did experimental philosophy exist in England before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660? Feingold argues that there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660 and that those in later years who claimed that there was were being anachronistic: they were projecting the experimental philosophy of the 1660s or even the 1670s back into the late 1650s.

What evidence does he adduce for his claim of anachronism? First, there is the comment by John Aubrey from the 1680s which describes John Wilkins in the 1650s as ‘the principal reviver of experimental philosophy … at Oxford, where he had weekly an experimentall philosophy clubbe …’. Second, there are the comments of Anthony Wood from later years, such as his description of Lawrence Rooke moving to Oxford because he was ‘much addicted to experimental philosophy’. Third, there is John Wallis’ defense of himself in 1678 against the charges of William Holder. Like Aubrey, Wallis refers to the meetings at Oxford in the 1650s. Wallis is concerned to correct Holder’s own recollection of events in 1659 and so is almost certainly trying to recollect accurately. He claims, correcting Holder:

the Set Meetings for such a purpose (which had before been there [i.e. at Wadham College]) were then dis-used, and had been for a good while. And, what was of this nature at Oxford (about Experimental Philosophy) in those days, was rather at Mr. Boyl’s Lodgings, than at Wadham-Colledge. (Wallis, Defence of the Royal Society, London, 1678, p. 5)

So we have (1) Aubrey in the 1680s mentioning an experimental philosophy club and describing Wilkins as the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’; (2) Wood many years after the event describing Rooke as moving to Oxford because he was addicted to experimental philosophy; (3) Wallis in 1678 describing the Oxford meetings as being held at Boyle’s lodgings and being ‘about Experimental Philosophy’. Taken at face value, these might all be backward projections onto the meetings of the late 1650s in Boyle’s lodgings.

However, when these comments are juxtaposed with a contemporaneous account they look quite different. As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love Boyle had been described by the anonymous author (perhaps Boyle himself) of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’ (Boyle, Works, 1: 60). But the most interesting uses of the term appear in his Spring of the Air. The experiments in Boyle’s Spring of the Air were begun in 1657 and the work was completed by 20 December 1659. He tells us as much in the work itself. Negotiations with the printer were well underway as early as 26 January 1660 (Robert Sharrock to Boyle, 26 Jan 1660, Boyle, Correspondence, 1: 399). In Spring of the Air Boyle uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ three times. For example, he speaks of ‘my grand Design of promoting Experimental and Useful Philosophy’ and he makes the following comment in passing when discussing Experiment 20 on the question as to whether, like the air, water has a kind of spring:

And, on this occasion, it will not perhaps be amiss to acquaint Your Lordship here (though we have already mention’d it in another Paper, to another purpose) with another Expedient that we made use of two or three years ago, to try whether or no Water had a Spring in it. About that time then, That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy Dr. Wilkins, doing me the Honor to come himself, and bring some of his inquisitive Friends to my Lodging … (Boyle, Works, 1: 207)

The context of the recollection from c. 1657 is entirely experimental. Note the reference to Wilkins as ‘That Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’. This is similar to Aubrey’s claim that Wilkins was the ‘principal reviver of experimental philosophy’. Note too the claim that the meeting was in Boyle’s lodging, the same location, indeed the same term as used by Wallis. Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood.

Where does this leave Feingold’s case for anachronism? In my view Boyle’s contemporaneous comments provide persuasive corroborating evidence that the claims of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood are accurate recollections of the pre-Restoration Oxford meetings. That is, Boyle’s comments should be used to shed light on what Aubrey, Wallis and Wood meant by the term in the decades following the Oxford meetings rather than the other way around. According to Boyle in 1659, those meetings were in his lodgings and concerned experimental philosophy, just as the others later claimed. The case for the anachronistic reading is, therefore, seriously weakened in the light of Boyle’s testimony. It seems far more likely that there was an activity carried out by a small group in the late 1650s in Boyle’s Oxford rooms that was and still is aptly described as experimental philosophy.

Understanding Newton’s Principia as part of the Baconian Tradition

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Lately I have been examining Baconian interpretations of Newton’s Principia. First, I demonstrated that Newton’s Moon test resembles a Baconian crucial instance. And then, I demonstrated that Newton’s argument for universal gravitation resembles Bacon’s method of gradual induction. This drew our attention to some interesting features of Newton’s approach, bringing the Principia’s experimental aspects into sharper focus. But they also highlighted a worry: Newton’s methodology resembling Bacon’s isn’t enough to establish that Newton was influenced by Bacon. Bacon and Newton were gifted methodologists—they could have arrived independently at the same approach. One way to distinguish between convergence and influence is to see if there’s anything uniquely or distinctively Baconian in Newton’s use of crucial experiments and gradual induction. Another way would be if we could find some explicit references to Bacon in relation to these methodological tools. Alas, so far, my search in these areas has produced nothing.

In this post, I’ll consider an alternative way of understanding Baconianism in the Principia. I began this series by asking whether we should regard Newton’s methodology as an extension of the Baconian experimental method, or as something more unique. In answering, I have hunted for evidence that the Principia is Baconian insofar as Newton applied Baconian methodological tools in the Principia. But you might think that whether Newton was influenced by Bacon isn’t so relevant. Rather, what matters is how the Principia was received by Newton’s contemporaries. So in this post, I’ll examine Mary Domski’s argument that the Principia is part of the Baconian tradition because it was recognised, and responded to, as such by members of the Royal Society.

Domski begins by dispelling the idea that there was no place for mathematics in the Baconian experimental tradition. Historically, Bacon’s natural philosophical program, centred on observation, experiment and natural history, was taken as fundamentally incompatible with a mathematical approach to natural philosophy. And Bacon is often taken to be deeply distrustful of mathematics. Domski argues, however, that Bacon’s views on mathematics are both subtler and more positive. Indeed, although Bacon had misgivings about how mathematics could guide experimental practice, he gave it an important role in natural philosophy. In particular, mathematics can advance our knowledge of nature by revealing causal processes. However, he cautioned, it must be used appropriately. To avoid distorting the evidence gained via observation and experiment, one must first establish a solid foundation via natural history, and only then employ mathematical tools. In short, Bacon insisted that the mathematical treatment of nature must be grounded on, and informed by, the findings of natural history.

Domski’s second move is to argue that seventeenth-century Baconians such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke understood and accepted this mathematical aspect of Bacon’s methodology. Bacon’s influence in the seventeenth century was not limited to his method of natural history, and Baconian experimental philosophers didn’t dismiss speculative approaches outright. Rather, they emphasised that there was a proper order of investigation: metaphysical and mathematical speculation must be informed by observation and experiment. In other words, there is a place for speculative philosophy after the experimental stage has been completed.

Domski then examines the reception of Newton’s Principia by members of the Royal Society—focusing on Locke. For Locke, natural history was a necessary component of natural philosophy. And yet, Locke embraced the Principia as a successful application of mathematics to natural philosophy. Domski suggests that we read Locke’s Newton as a ‘speculative naturalist’ who employed mathematics in his search for natural causes. She writes:

[O]n Locke’s reading, Newton used a principle—the fundamental truth of universal gravitation—that was initially ‘drawn from matter’ and then, with evidence firmly in hand, he extended this principle to a wide store of phenomena. By staying mindful of the proper experimental and evidentiary roots of natural philosophy, Newton thus succeeded in producing the very sort of profit that Sprat and Boyle anticipated a proper ‘speculative’ method could generate (p. 165).

In short, Locke regarded Newton’s mathematical inference as the speculative step in the Baconian program. That is, building on a solid foundation of observation and experiment, Newton was employing mathematics to reveal forces and causes.

In summary, Domski makes a good case for viewing the mathematico-experimental method employed in the Principia as part of the seventeenth-century Baconian tradition. I have a few reservations with her argument. For one thing, ‘speculative naturalist’ is surely a term that neither Locke nor Newton would have been comfortable with. And for another thing, although Domski has provided reasons to view Newton’s mathematico-experimental method as related to, and a development of, the experimental philosophy of the Royal Society, I’m not convinced that this shows that they viewed the Principia as Baconian. That is to say, there’s a difference between being part of the experimental tradition founded by Bacon, and being Baconian. I’ll discuss these issues in my next post, and for now, I’ll conclude by discussing some important lessons that I think arise from Domski’s position.

Firstly, we can identify divergences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers. And these could be surprising. It’s not, in itself, his use mathematics and generalisations that makes Newton different—Domski has shown that even the hard-out Baconians could get on board with these features of the Principia. The differences are subtler. For example, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, Boyle, Sprat and Locke advocated a two-stage approach to natural philosophy, in which construction of natural histories precedes theory construction. But Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Indeed, in the Principia, we find that Newton commences theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.

Secondly, the account highlights the fact that early modern experimental philosophy was a work in progress. There was much variation in its practice, and room for improvement and evolution. Moreover, its modification and development was, to a large extent, the result of technological innovation and the scientific success of works like the Principia. Indeed, it was arguably the ability to recognise and incorporate such achievements that allowed experimental philosophy to become increasingly dominant, sophisticated and successful in the eighteenth century.

Thirdly, the account suggests that, already in the late-seventeenth century, the ESD framework was being employed to guide, and also to distort, the interpretation and uptake of natural philosophy. By embracing the Principia as their own, the early modern experimental philosophers intervened on and shaped its reception, and hence, the kind of influence the Principia had. This raises an interesting point about influence.

As I have already noted, it is difficult to establish a direct line of influence stretching from Bacon to Newton. But, by focusing on how Bacon’s program for natural philosophy was developed by figures such as Boyle, Sprat and Locke, we can identify a connection between Bacon’s natural philosophical program and Newton’s mathematico-experimental methodology. That is, we can distinguish between influence in terms of actual causal connections—Newton having read Bacon, for instance—and influence insofar as some aspect of Newton’s work is taken to be related to Bacon’s by contemporary (or near-contemporary) thinkers. Indeed, Newton could have been utterly ignorant of Bacon’s actual views on method, but the Principia might nonetheless deserve to be placed alongside Bacon’s work in the development of experimental philosophy. Sometimes what others take you to have done is more important than what you have actually done!

Experimental Philosophy and Mechanical Philosophy II: The Case of Robert Boyle

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).


Margaret Cavendish: speculative philosopher

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).

Newcastle_Margaret_Cavendish-Observations_upon_experimental-Wing-N857-1532_17-p1to319 (dragged)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.

The formation of Boyle’s experimental philosophy

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:

  1. That we consult nature to make her Instruct us what to beleeve not to confirme what we have beleeved
  2. That a perfect account of noe Experiment is to be looked for from the Experiment it selfe
  3. That it is more difficult then most men are aware of to find out the Causes of knowne effects
  4. That it is more difficult then men thinke to build principles upon or draw Consequences from Experiments
  5. 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?



Teaching Experimental Philosophy III: the case of Francis Hauksbee the Elder

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.

Robert Saint Clair

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.

Francis Bampfield: an early critic of experimental philosophy

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.