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Tag Archives: Cartesianism

Cartesianism, experimentalism, and the experimental-speculative distinction

A guest post by Tammy Nyden and Mihnea Dobre.

Tammy Nyden and Mihnea Dobre write…

A while ago, we published an announcement on this blog of our forthcoming edited volume, Cartesian Empiricisms (Springer 2013). A claim in that post – that some Cartesians “seem to escape the ESD distinction” – has been questioned by Peter Anstey in another post. We thank him for the intervention and would like to push forward our claim and discuss it in more detail as this will reveal some of our concerns with the ESD (experimental-speculative distinction).

In his reply, Peter Anstey asked, “Did the Cartesians practise a form of experimental philosophy analogous to that of the Fellows of the early Royal Society?” We would argue that the question itself is problematic, as there are not two practices or worldviews to compare. There is variation among the Cartesians as well as among the fellows of early Royal Society.  In order to gain a nuanced understanding of these historical actors, we suggest a rather different question: “What role did Cartesian philosophy play in the acceptance and spread of experimental practices in late seventeenth-century philosophy?” When we ask this question, we recognize the experiments of Robert Desgabets on blood transfusion, Henricus Regius on liquids, Burchard de Volder’s with air-pumps, etc., and consider how their work improved experimental technologies, influenced a theoretical reflection on the role of experiments and the senses in natural philosophy, and influenced institutional change that was favorable to experimental science.

Because Cartesians took various aspects of Descartes’ system and merged it with various aspects of experimentalism, there is not one ‘Cartesian’ use of experiment, but several. For example, both Regius and de Volder promoted experiment, but Regius rejects Descartes’ theory of innate ideas while de Volder defends it. Many Cartesians came to reject hyperbolic doubt, some defended vortex theory, some did not. Cartesian Empiricisms is not a complete inventory of such views expressed by Descartes’ followers. Rather our goal was to encourage the discussion of the above-mentioned question and to reveal some aspects that have been unfortunately neglected so far by both historians of philosophy and science.

Readers of this blog are familiar with the objection that traditional historiography of science was built on the Rationalist-Empiricist distinction (RED). A consequence is the exclusion of so-called “rationalists” from the histories of science, particularly history of the use, development and acceptance of experiment. This is problematic because recent research (e.g., Ariew, Lennon and Easton, Easton, Schmaltz, Cook, Nyden, Dobre, etc.) shows that many so-called rationalists were deeply involved in the practice and spread of the acceptance of experiment in natural philosophy. Cartesian Empiricisms gives further emphasis to this issue, as it examines several philosophers who identified as committed Cartesians who were deeply involved in experiment. According to historiographies that divide the period into two mutually exclusive epistemologies or methodologies these philosophers either do not exist (i.e., they are overlooked by histories of philosophy and science) or are seen as “not really Cartesian” or “not really experimentalist,” as it would be needed by that particular narrative. Thus, we do share the concern of the authors of this blog, that such binaries as RED force us to fit philosophers into categories that they would not themselves recognize and causes us to misrepresent seventeenth-century natural philosophy. Moreover, we acknowledge that this blog importantly shows the anachronism of the RED, a way of viewing the period that is constructed later by what may be called Kantian propaganda. However, we would like to raise now some of our concerns with the distinction promoted by this blog, the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD) and explain why some Cartesians would escape the ESD. Our worries cover two important aspects of the ESD: the label “speculative” and the actor-category problem.

(1) In a very recent post, Peter Anstey argued that eighteenth-century Newtonians pointed out Cartesian vortex theory as a prime representative of speculative philosophy (our emphasis). We caution against letting eighteenth-century Newtonian propaganda color a historical interpretation of seventeenth-century natural philosophy. Voltaire, d’Alembert and others took great pains to contrast Newtonianism from Cartesianism as two mutually exclusive worldviews who battled it out, with Newton’s natural philosophy as the victor. But the reality is that after Descartes’ death (1650) and before the victory of Newtonianism in the middle of the eighteenth century, followers of both Descartes and Newton had more in common than we are led to believe. More importantly, both “camps” had more diversity than we were ready to accept in the traditional histories. Cartesian Empiricisms draws attention to that diversity within Cartesianism. Perhaps the one thing Cartesians discussed in the chapters of this volume do have in common is that they do both experimental and speculative philosophy, as these two categories are sometimes defined on this blog. But this last claim leads to our second concern with the ESD.

(2) A reader of this blog will find that when ESD is compared to RED, the first advantage highlighted over the latter is that “the ESD distinction provided the actual historical terms of reference that many philosophers and natural philosophers used from the 1660s until late into the 18th century.” While there is no doubt that many early modern philosophers were using this language (i.e., “experimental” and “speculative”) in their writings, it is equally true that such language is not in use by the Cartesians. If one would be very strict with picking up “the actual historical terms of reference,” one will see another pair of terms keep mentioned by various Cartesians, “experience” and “reason.” Of course, one can read this pair as another form of the ESD, but that would be an interpretation, and a problematic one at that. Both the Cartesians and the so-called “experimentalists” were trying to determine the proper relationship between reason and experience and when one looks at their attempts, it becomes even more difficult to draw a clear line between speculative philosophers and experimentalist philosophers.

Our concern is the possible danger of transforming ESD into a new RED. Experimental and speculative may be useful adjectives to describe aspects of a particular philosophy or particular commitments of a philosopher (especially when the two terms are clearly stated in one’s writings). However, they are not useful for dividing philosophers or their natural philosophies, particularly when they are not already conceived as falling within the “experimental philosophy” camp, as is the case for Cartesians at the end of the seventeenth century.