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Tag Archives: Diderot

Denis Diderot: the last true Baconian?

Peter Anstey writes…

There were many types of Baconianism in the eighteenth century and many philosophers and natural philosophers traced their lineage from Bacon or regarded Bacon as the progenitor of views that they espoused. And yet most of these self-proclaimed ‘Baconians’ held views that Bacon himself would hardly recognize or they adhered to what, at best, could be described as a truncated form of Baconianism. A nice example is George Adams Jr whose views on the method of reasoning in natural philosophy in his Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy (1794) (discussed previously on this blog) amount to little more than a summary of the first book of Bacon’s Novum organum (1620).

What would it take then for someone to be a true Baconian? Of course, the question itself is problematic because there is no principled way of determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that would settle the issue. But let us run with the question nonetheless.

Given the prominence of Bacon’s method of natural history in his conception of how we are to acquire knowledge of nature – that is, given the quality and quantity of writings that he devoted to natural history and the efforts he expended in assembling his own exemplar histories in the last years of his life – I suggest that to be a true Baconian one must (at least) be an advocate of the Baconian method of natural history. If this is right, then as far as I am aware, the last true Baconian was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713–1784).

Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784)

Diderot’s ‘Prospectus’ for the Encyclopédie, was first published in 1750 and then appended in a modified form to the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ of the first volume of the Encyclopédie itself in 1751. It presents an overtly Baconian scheme of the sciences set within a tripartite faculty psychology à la Bacon, but more importantly, it shows a clear understanding and acceptance of the structure and content of Bacon’s account of the overall project of natural history. Drawing heavily on Bacon’s De augmentis scientiarum he tells us that:

The history of uniform nature is divided, following its principal objects, into: celestial history or history of the stars, of their movements, sensible appearances, etc., without explaining their cause by systems, hypotheses, etc. (It is a matter here only of pure phenomena.) Into meteorological history such as winds, rains, tempests, thunder, aurora borealis, etc. Into the history of the earth and the sea, or of mountains, rivers, streams, currents, tides, sands, soils, forests, islands, configurations of the earth, continents, etc. Into history of minerals, into history of vegetables, into history of animals. Whence results a history of the elements, of the apparent nature, sensible effects, movements, etc., of fire, air, earth, and water. (Preliminary Discourse, Chicago, 1995, 147)

(Regular readers of this blog will note the decrying of systems and hypotheses as hallmarks of a commitment to the experimental philosophy.)

Yet Diderot does not merely reproduce the structure and content of Bacon’s method of natural history, he also appreciated the heuristic structure of these histories and the fact that they needed to be subject to what Bacon called interpretatio naturae, the interpretation of nature. For, in 1754 Diderot published a work entitled On the Interpretation of Nature which, as many scholars have recognized, is very Baconian in character. It is, in effect, Diderot’s own version of Book Two of Bacon’s Novum organum. To be sure it lacks any extended discussion of Baconian induction and prerogative instances, but it is written in aphoristic form and contains many Baconian themes including advice on experimenting, the use of queries and conjectures and concrete natural philosophical examples. Surely on this evidence Diderot must qualify as a true Baconian. Was he the last?

Lost in translation

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes our historiographical categories can so dominate the way we approach the texts of great dead philosophers that we project them onto the texts themselves. Unhappily this is all too common among historians of early modern philosophy who take as their terms of reference the distinction between rationalism and empiricism.

For example, Stephen Priest, in The British Empiricists (2nd ed. 2006, p. 8) claims:

    Although historians of philosophy claim that Kant invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction and retrospectively imposed it on his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, this is a historical mistake. The distinction was explicitly drawn using the words “empiricists” and “rationalists” at least as early as 1607, when the British empiricist Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote: “Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves” and: 

    Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.

    […] Leaving aside the use of the words “rationalism” and “empiricism” (or similar) the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy is as old as philosophy itself. It is true that many rationalist and empiricists do not describe themselves as rationalists or empiricists but that does not matter. Calling oneself “x” is neither necessary nor sufficient for being x.

However, a careful reading of Bacon’s Latin reveals that he is not using the Latin equivalents of ‘empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’, but rather empirici and rationales, terms that have quite different meanings in Bacon. For Bacon, the empirici are those who focus too much on observation and the works of their hands (New Organon, I, 117). Quacks who prescribe chemical remedies without any knowledge of medical theory are commonly called empirici and the term is usually a pejorative in the early seventeenth century (see De augmentis scientiarum, Bk IV, chapter 2). By contrast rationales are those who ‘wrench things various and commonplace from experience… and leave the rest to meditation and intellectual agitation’ (New Organon, I, 62).

Another example of projecting the rationalism/empiricism distinction onto a text is found in the recent English edition of Diderot’s Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature. Diderot’s work contains a very interesting discussion of philosophical methodology. Article XXIII says,

    Nous avons distingué deux sortes de philosophies, l’expérimentale et la rationnelle.

The translation in the Clinamen Press (1999, p. 44) edition reads:

    We have identified two types of philosophy – one is empirical and the other rationalist.

But Diderot doesn’t contrast empirical with rationalist. Rather the contrast is between experimental philosophy (la philosophie expérimentale) and rational and the context makes it clear that rationnelle here is used to refer to what the English called speculative philosophers. The terminology and the content of Diderot’s discussion makes far more sense when read in the light of the experimental/speculative distinction. Yet this is lost in the English translation.

Having pointed out two examples of reading the traditional historiography into the texts themselves, I should like to end with a note of caution. Those of us who regard the experimental/speculative distinction as having more explanatory value than the traditional post-Kantian terms of reference also need to be aware that we too can fall into the same trap of reading the ESD into the texts under study and not allow the texts to speak for themselves.