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Tag Archives: Education

History: “a school of morality to mankind”

Juan Gomez writes…

Throughout the last few years we have presented a number of posts on education and experimental philosophy in the Early Modern period. Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo have commented on teaching experimental philosophy (Desaguliers, Adams, and Meiners), Gerard Wiesenfelt delighted us with two posts on universities in seventeenth-century Europe (Sturm and de Volder), and I have discussed education in Aberdeen (Fordyce and Gerard) and England (Bentham). Today I want to contribute to our research on education by discussing Turnbull’s ideas on learning and virtue.

Even though scholars have recognized that there were significant developments in educational theory in the Early Modern Period, almost all of their accounts are French-centred and the only British author they refer to is Locke, due to his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Of course, the bulk of the educational treatises of the eighteenth century were produced by French authors (Voltaire, Rollins, Diderot, Condorcet, etc.), but this does not mean that important works on education were not being produced outside of France. Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education (1742) is a salient example here. Turnbull (with the exception of a recent article by Tal Gilead) is hardly even mentioned in scholarly accounts of education in the eighteenth-century, despite the fact that his book on education had a considerable impact at the time. Besides having a clear influence on Alexander Gerard and the educational reforms in the Aberdeen universities after 1750, Turnbull also appears as a major influence in Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of the Youth in Pennsylvania (1749). Further, even though many of the ideas in Turnbull’s Education also appear in Locke and Rollins’ work, Turnbull’s commitment to the experimental methodology gives his text a unique feature among the educational works of the time.

Turnbull, like Locke and Rollins before him, firmly believes that the main goal of education is the teaching of virtue. This popular idea of the time takes on a unique development in Education, where Turnbull applies the experimental method to his pedagogical theory:

    …as with regard to the culture of plants or flowers, sure rules can only be drawn from experiment; so for the same reason, there can be no sure rules concerning education but those which are founded on the experimental knowledge of human nature.

So where are we to find the experiments Turnbull hints at? If the aim of education is the achievement of virtue, then those experiments must contribute to this same purpose. We have already discussed that paintings can take on this role. However, in Education the role of experiments is taken up by the example of teachers and of historical characters. Turnbull refers to Horace to illustrate this method of educating:

    For ’tis by examples that good and bad conduct, with their various effects and consequences, the strength and grace to which men, by proper diligence, may arrive, and the baseness and misery into which vice plunges, most strongly appear…This, indeed, is the moral lesson every more exalted example in the records of human affairs presents to us in the most striking light, and to which cannot be too early or too forcibly inculcated from fact and experience… The characters of the more considerable personages of moral history, will afford, to a judicious instructor, excellent opportunities of enforcing, of deeply riveting this important lesson upon young minds.

History takes a primary role in Turnbull’s theory of education, given that it furnishes us with the experiments that allow us to direct the mind towards virtue. In another of his texts, a preliminary discourse to a translation of Justin’s History of the world (1742), Turnbull paraphrases Rollin to illustrate the priority of teaching history:

    History therefore, when it is well taught, becomes a school of morality to mankind, of all conditions and ranks. It discovers the deformity and fatal consequences of vices, and unmasks false virtues; it disabuses men of their popular errors and prejudices; and despoiling riches of all its enchanting and dazzling pomp and magnificence, demonstrates by a thousand examples, which are more persuasive than reasonings, that there is nothing truly great or praise-worthy, but untainted honour and probity.

Rollin and Turnbull share this belief in the supreme importance of history for teaching virtue, but unlike the former’s, Turnbull’s theory stands on his belief that the experimental method is the proper way of gaining any kind of knowledge. One of Turnbull’s original and interesting contributions to eighteenth-century educational theory is his interpretation of historical accounts as proper examples that provides us with adequate facts and observations for the instruction of virtue, in the same way experiments allow us to construct our conclusions in natural philosophy. Of course, the question of the accuracy of historical reports springs up; can inaccurate or false historical reports still contribute to the instruction of virtue? For example, an historical account that somehow illustrates that greed leads to happiness and the progress of society would not, presumably, be of service to the goal of education that Turnbull wishes. However, by insisting on the importance of the experimental method Turnbull has a way out: only those historical accounts that are founded on facts and observations are to be considered in the education of our youth. Turnbull did not deal with this issue in enough detail in Education, but he did discuss the issue of the reliability of historical reports in another context (religious testimony) which we will explore in my next post.

Teaching Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth-century Germany: Christoph Meiners

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    Since I am convinced that experience and history are the sole authentic sources of knowledge in all sciences, apart from pure mathematics, the choice and order of the works that I recommend to the young friends of wisdom must necessarily deviate from the works that would be recommended by the men for whom pure reason or pure intellect appear to be the most reliable guides and teachers in philosophy.

These are the words with which Christoph Meiners, a German experimental philosopher, introduced his reading tips for young students in the Preface to his Foundations of Psychology, a manual that he published in 1786. In this post I will draw from Meiners’ Preface to highlight his views on the relation between natural science, philosophy, and psychology and his reading tips for young students of psychology.

Natural science, philosophy, and psychology

We have already explained in his blog how experimental philosophy saw the light as a natural-philosophical methodology and was extended to psychology by Locke and Hume and moral philosophy by Scottish thinkers. Meiners is one of the many German authors who applied the Baconian method of natural history to the field of psychology. Interestingly, in Meiners’ preface, empirical or experimental psychology expels natural history and physics [Naturkunde or Physik] from the field of philosophy. Meiners follows Hume in defining philosophy as “a science of man or a sum of cognitions that inquires into human nature not only insofar as man senses, thinks and talks, desires and hates, but also insofar as he, through his feeling and thinking, desiring and acting, becomes or makes others happier or unhappier in manifold domestic and civil contexts.” Since natural history and the experimental study of nature are not specifically about man, Meiners might have reason to deny that, as a whole, they are parts of philosophy as he understands it.

This is precisely what he does. Meiners suggest that, if one wanted to include natural history and the study of nature within philosophy, one should also include medicine and its branches within philosophy. This would have two unacceptable consequences. First, it would make the domain of philosophy so enormously large “that no human mind could encompass it”. Second, one would lose “the whole purpose for which one orders together certain sums of cognitions into sciences” distinct from one another. For Meiners, philosophy on the one hand, natural science and natural history on the other, are distinct sciences. By distinguishing the study of nature from the study of man, Meiners draws a division between natural science and philosophy that would become common only in the nineteenth century. (If you know of anyone else who explicitly denied that natural science is part of philosophy before Meiners, please get in touch.)

Meiners distinguishes between theoretical and practical philosophy. “Theoretical [philosophy] studies man preeminently as a sensing, thinking and talking being”. And Meiners “designate[s] the theory of man […], considered as a sensing, thinking, and talking creature, with the name of doctrine of the soul or psychology”. Theoretical philosophy is empirical psychology. Predictably, practical philosophy should unfold naturalistically on the foundations of empirical psychology. To Meiners, philosophy is experimental philosophy and its core is Humean empirical psychology.

Meiners’ Reading Tips

Given Meiners’ outlook, it is unsurprising that he advises young students to read works like Bonnet’s Essay de Psychologie, Condillac’s Traité des sensations, Beattie’s Philosophical Essays and Locke’s Essay, which “must remain the principal book for students of the soul”.

Somewhat surprisingly, Meiners also recommends the largely Wolffian logic of Herman Samuel Reimarus and Leibniz’s New Essays, to be read alongside Locke’s Essay. But the main reason why his students should read the New Essays is to better know the enemy. From the New Essays,

    one will not only learn the still remarkable hypotheses of one of the greatest philosophers, but also at the same time the principles and doctrine of all those men who choose not experience and history, but so-called pure reason as their first guide in philosophy.

As the reference to pure reason suggests, Meiners recommends his young students to read Leibniz to better understand Kant. He is well aware that Kantianism represented the major threat to his Humean outlook. By grouping together Kant and Leibniz as speculative enemies of Humean experimental philosophy, Meiners was employing the experimental/speculative distinction that Kant and his followers would soon eclipse and replace with the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

Teaching Moral Philosophy: Bentham and the Speculative Method

Juan Gomez writes…

In my last post I commented on a text by Edward Bentham that defended the use if the syllogistic in logic, in particular for education. Following Peter Anstey’s interesting posts on teaching experimental philosophy (one on Desaguilers, one on Adams) I will focus on a text by Bentham regarding the teaching of moral philosophy.

I have already posted on this blog regarding the teaching of moral education, in particular in eighteenth century Aberdeen under George Turnbull and David Fordyce. However, they both were promoters of the use of the experimental method within moral philosophy. It appears that Edward Bentham had a different opinion. His An Introduction to Moral Philosophy was published in 1745, five years after Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy and Hume’s Treatise, and three years before the first version of Fordyce’s Elements of Moral Philosophy. The texts by the Scottish thinkers all explicitly claimed to be attempts to apply the experimental method of natural philosophy to moral inquiries. Bentham, on the other hand, objected to this method for moral philosophy and prefers the scholastic method:

    I have had a general regard to the Plan usually received in the Schools, because I think it the most commodious; and because the new, and seemingly more scientifical, method attended with all the Mathematical formalities of Definitions, Postulatums, Axioms, Lemmas, Theorems, and Corollaries (all very astonishing to a young Reader) seems to me forced and affected upon this subject; and not so likely to answer the good purpose of clearing up any doubtful proposition, as to perplex Him in the apprehension of those that are confessedly true.

This is the opposite of what the experimental moral philosophers (Turnbull, Hume, Fordyce, etc.) claim! They specifically choose to apply the experimental method because morality is a part of human nature, it is an inquiry into fact just like any other science and therefore the same method should be applied. Bentham seems to be alluding in the passage to a more Newtonian experimental method referring only to the mathematical side of the method and not on the emphasis on facts and observation.

In the paragraph following the passage quoted above Bentham seems to go against Scholastic philosophy, but he only manages to go half-way about it. He tells us that he is discarding “many of the Scholastick terms of Art and Distinction,” because they are misleadings and characterizes them as “the husks of Science.” Simultaneously, he has also decided to keep “several of them” (!) since they are “very useful to those, whose studies are likely to carry them into the reading of philosophical treatises and moral discourses.”

Confusing as this may be, his condition as a speculative philosopher is clear from the text itself. It consists in a definition of human nature, our faculties, and virtue all relating to God. However, there is no sort of proof for the concept of human nature and morality he is proposing. It is just a collection of statements of what he thinks morality amounts to, of course in accordance to Christianity and revelation.

Most experimental moral philosophers appealed to some form of natural religion, and in specific cases (like Turnbull) allowed revelation to play a very minor role. Bentham once again represents the opposite position, placing revealed religion in centre stage:

    Christianity contains a revelation of a particular dispensation of things not at all discoverable by reason…And in consequence of this revelation being made, several obligations of duty, unknown before, are revealed.

Our moral duties are not something that we can discover by reason and experience alone. Natural religion only plays a role in confirming the morality discovered through revelation.

It seems that from this text, and in particular from the methodological statement quoted at the beginning of the post, we can safely infer that Edward Bentham was on the speculative side of the ESD, at least as far as moral philosophy is concerned. Not only did he claim that the “new” method was not appropriate for morals, but as we explored in the post on his thoughts on logic, he was not very comfortable with the idea of giving way to experimental philosophy, especially not in education.

Peter Anstey posted here last year on one of the main objections our project has faced, known as the Straw-man problem. Bentham’s texts can help us reply to such objection by showing that speculative philosophers were not just a creation of the promoters of experimental philosophy, but there were some who made the claim that the method of experimental philosophy was not the appropriate method, at least not outside natural philosophy.

Aberdeen’s 1755 Plan of Education

Juan Gomez writes …

One of the topics we have covered in this blog is education. I have commented on David Fordyce’s ideas, and Gerhard Wiesenfeldt contributed to the blog with two very interesting posts on Speculative and Experimental Philosophy in Universities (Post-Cartesianism and Eclecticism). In this post I want to expand on this topic and tell you about Alexander Gerard‘s Plan of Education.

As we have mentioned throughout various posts in this blog, one of the features of those allied with experimental philosophy was their disdain for the scholastic school of thought and the rejection of mere speculation. This led the regents and teachers in Colleges and Universities to revolt against the scholastic teaching system and promote a change in the way education was structured. In Aberdeen, the first stages of this project of reformation started with the teachings of George Turnbull and Colin MacLaurin in the 1720’s, but we had to wait until the 1750’s for the reform of the curriculum. It was written by Alexander Gerard and published in 1755. It gives us a good overview of what the members of the faculty found wrong with the scholastic mode of thinking and the central role experimental philosophy (and the experimental method) should take in the colleges and universities.

Gerard begins by explaining why the faculty members at Marischal college have decided to reform the method of education. The method used in most European universities, Gerard tells us, was that of the Peripatetic Philosophy ‘espoused by the Scholastics’. This is his description:

    The chief business of that Philosophy, was, to express opinions in hard and unintelligible terms; the student needed a dictionary or nomenclature of the technical words and authorized distinctions; experiment was quite neglected, science was to be reasoned out from general principles, either taken for granted, or deduced by comparison of general ideas, or founded on very narrow and inadequate observation: Ontology, which explained these terms and distinctions, and laid down these principles, was therefore introduced immediately after logic. By these two, the student was sufficiently prepared for the verbal, or at best, ideal inquiries of the other parts.

Fortunately, the state of philosophy had changed:

    [Philosophy] is become an image, not of human phantasies and conceits, but of the reality of nature, and truth of things. The only basis of Philosophy is now acknowledged to be an accurate and extensive history of nature, exhibiting an exact view of the various Phenomena for which Philosophy is to account, and on which it is to found its reasonings.

This change in Philosophy posed a problem for a system that was based on Scholastic methods. If philosophy is founded on facts and observation, from which we then derive the terms or notions, the system of education was flawed by teaching first the notions and principles without any experience of the facts they refer to. The teachers at Marischal proposed to restructure the order in which the different subjects were taught. Instead of starting with Logic and Ontology, the students “after being instructed in languages and classical learning, be made acquainted with the Elements of History, Natural and Civil, of Geography and Chronology, accompanied with the Elements of Mathematics; that they should then proceed to Natural Philosophy, and, last of all, to Morals, Politics, Logic and Metaphysics.” This new curriculum was much better suited for the pursuit of knowledge and the aims and methods of the new philosophy.

Most of the pamphlet is an attack on the scholastic system that justifies the decision of the Masters of the college to leave the teaching of Logic to the final year. There are constant references made to the importance of facts, experiments, and observations as the sole foundation of knowledge. Any sort of purely speculative way of thinking was not to be included in education. But the promoters of this reform were not claiming that logic and metaphysics were of no use at all; what we need to understand is that they are entirely dependent on all the other sciences, and if they are to contribute in our search for knowledge, then they must come after all the other sciences. The attack of the promoters of the methods of the experimental philosophy was not against speculative subjects themselves, but against the scholastic methods of education that considered speculation to be more important than our knowledge of the natural world.

David Fordyce’s advice to students

Juan Gomez writes…

I have mentioned the name ‘David Fordyce’ a couple of times in my previous posts. The influence this thinker had in the second half of the eighteenth century (Benjamin Franklin was impresed by his works, though he mistakenly credited them to Hutcheson) usually goes unnoticed, despite the success of his main works. He is also a very good example of the adoption of the rhetoric and methodology of experimental philosophy in the field of moral philosophy.

Fordyce (1711-1751) studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen, in the 1720s (the same decade George Turnbull was a regent there). He came back to his alma mater in 1742 to become a regent himself. During this period he taught, as most regents did, “all the Sciences, Logics, Metaphysics, Pneumatics, Ethics strictly so called & the Principles of the Law of Nature and Nations with natural and experimental Philosophy.” (David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 6 June 1743. Quoted in the Liberty Fund edition of his Elements of Moral Philosophy). This was also the period when he published his main works, the Dialogues Concerning Education (1745) and The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1748). The latter was first published as section nine of Robert Dodsley’s The Preceptor (1748), anonymously, and then published posthumously in 1754. The essay had such a good reception that it was used as the text book for moral philosophy lectures in North American universities, and it was used almost in full (only the conclusion was ommitted) for the entry on moral philosophy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from its first edition until well into the nineteenth century.

A recent edition of the Elements also includes a speech he gave to his students at the start of the year of lectures on moral philosophy, which is the text I want to focus on. The speech is entitled A brief Account of the Nature, Progress, and Origin of Philosophy delivered by the late Mr. David Fordyce, P. P. Marish. Col: Abdn to his Scholars, before they begun their Philosophical course. Besides the explicit use of the terminology of the experimental method in his Elements (induction, hypotheses, deduction of rules from observation, etc.), his speech shows the traits that characterize the methodology of the experimental philosophy. For example:

    “It is evident that setting aside sovreign instruction, true knowledge must be acquired by slow degrees from experience & observation, & that it will always be proportionate to the largeness & extent of our Experience.”
    “The knowledge then of the nature, laws & connections of things is, as has been observed, Philosophy; and they who apply to the study of these, & from thence deduce rules for the conduct & improvement of human life, are Philosophers. They who consider things as they are or as they exist, & draw right conclusions from thence, are true Philosophers. But they who without regard to fact or nature indulge themselves in framing systems to which they afterwards reduce all appearances, are, notwithstanding their ingenuity & subtilty, to be reckoned only the corrupters & enemies of true learning.”
    “Now there is a natural & proper method of attaining to true knowledge as well as any other accomplishment, which if neglected must occasion error & contradiction. It cannot be too often repeated, that there is no real knowledge, nor any that can answer a valuable End, but what is gathered or Copyed from nature or from things themselves. That the knowledge of Nature is nothing else than the knowledge of facts or realities & their established connections. That no Rules or Precepts of life Can be given or any Scheme of Conduct prescribed, but what must suppose a settled Course of things conducted in a regular uniform manner. That in order to denominate those Rules just, & to render those Schemes successful, the Course of things must be understood & observed. & that all Philosophy, even the most didactic & practical parts of it, must be drawn from the Observation of things or at least resolved into it; Or which is the same thing, that the knowledge of truth is the knowledge of Fact, & whatever Speculations are not reduceable to the one or the other of these are Chimerical, Vague & uncertain.”

The previous are just the most telling quotes, but the whole overview Fordyce gives of the history of philosophy embodies the anti-Aristotelian, anti-hypothetical attitude of the experimental philosophy. Such was the message Fordyce delivered as a regent to his students in the 1740s, highlighting the relevance of the experimental/ speculative distinction, with the former being the only appropriate method for the progress of knowledge.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned to our blog. Pretty soon we will have a guest post by Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt on a topic closely related to Fordyce’s speech: early modern universities and experimental philosophy.