Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map

Tag Archives: empiricism

Review of the rationalism-empiricism distinction in Latin America

Juan Gomez writes…

In this post I want to take a break from sharing my research on the ESD in early modern Spain. I want to talk about the current application of the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) by philosophers in Latin America.

A few days ago, Sociedad de Filosofia Aplicada (Society for Applied Philosophy), an organization in Spain, posted on their Facebook page a link to a blog written by a philosopher in Mexico. The blog entry is titled “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo.” I had to check out the post, and what I found led me to do a bit of research on the current use of the RED distinction in the Spanish-speaking world. In this post I want to focus on two examples to illustrate both the dangers of the RED and the benefits of adopting the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD).

In Spanish speaking countries, we are taught in philosophy classes in high school and university that the rationalism-empiricism debate frames the history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that such debate was brought to an end by Kant. This assumption leads us to think of rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical schools or movements. This is where the RED starts giving us problems. The author of the blog mentioned above has two posts on rationalism and empiricism: “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo” and “Apunte critico: la metafísica dentro del empirismo.” In the former, the author presents rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical theories, although his description of them reflects that they are two opposing epistemological viewpoints. As we have already mentioned in this blog, the fact that the RED is an epistemological distinction means that it is not at all appropriate when it comes to our interpretation of the breadth history of philosophy of that period. This same problem arises in the author’s other post, where he presents empiricism as a whole movement which pretends to “eliminate metaphysics.” There are two issues here: the author uses the term empiricism to refer to logical positivism and the verification principle, and he takes empiricism as more than an epistemological theory. Regarding the first issue, we can see that the use of the term ’empiricism’ itself is unclear, given that it is used to describe both the Vienna Circle and eighteenth-century empiricists; at best, this would lead us to distinguish different kinds of empiricism which, as we have already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is troublesome. The second issue reiterates the problem of adopting the RED as much more than an epistemological distinction. The author runs into trouble when trying to describe Hume’s thought: “Hume admits, to a certain degree, the value of reason…” Labeling Hume as an empiricist and then claiming that he admits the value of reason raises doubts regarding the usefulness and accuracy of the label.

For a second example I want to refer to a blog entry by a Brazilian philosopher. On the blog for, she has an entry titled “Sobre o Empirismo e o Racionalismo de John Locke.” She acknowledges the difficulty of labeling a philosopher under either rationalism or empiricism, and then sets out to explain how John Locke cannot be labelled under any of these terms. She explains that Locke in some sense has a foothold in each of the so-called philosophical schools: “Locke’s starting point is an empirical method while at the same time he is committed to a rationalist project…” “This is how Locke’s philosophy encompasses, admirably and sui generis, not rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but rather a rationality which follows a rigid, reasonable, and novel empiricist method.” The author here acknowledges the issues that arise when considering the work of Locke under the RED framework, but her thought can be finessed by switching to the ESD framework. The apparent ambiguity of Locke’s work —sitting between rationalism and empiricism— vanishes when his thought is viewed under the ESD lens. Locke can be more comfortably labelled an experimental philosopher, providing us with a more accurate description of his work and a clearer insight into his thought.

The two examples mentioned here just serve the purpose of illustrating the current situation when doing early modern philosophy with the RED framework. Though there has been some talk among Spanish-speaking philosophical circles of the suitability of the RED, most philosophers in the region still take the rationalist–empiricist distinction for granted and work within such framework, unaware of the issues (like in the first example) or the advantages (like in the second example) of an alternative framework. Historians of philosophy in the region can enhance their work and understanding of early modern philosophy by adopting the ESD framework. The switch is a difficult but very rewarding one, one that needs to take place across the whole curriculum in the region; from introductory classes in high school, to advanced research projects in universities.

The ESD in early modern Spain: taking stock

Juan Gomez writes…

As readers of this blog know, I have been exploring the application of the ESD framework for interpreting the history of philosophy and science in early modern Spain. Throughout the past 18 months or so I have been sharing my research and thought on the experimental/speculative divide in Spain, the application of the experimental method in medicine and natural philosophy by the Novatores, and the attacks on the “new philosophy” by Spanish scholastic thinkers. It is time to take stock on the ESD in early modern Spain, and I want to begin by focusing on one particular issue in this post.

One of the purported advantages of applying the ESD framework is that, unlike the terms “rationalist” and “empiricist,” the terms “experimental” and “speculative” were in fact the terms used by early modern philosophers. However, as is evident in a number of my posts, it seems that in early modern Spain the rationalist/empiricist distinction is used by the players in the debate. Could this perhaps mean that the ESD framework is not that appropriate for the Spanish context? I don’t believe this is the case. Let’s start by examining the use of the empiric/rationalist distinction I have referred to in previous posts.

Almost all of the figures involved in the intellectual debates in early modern Spain were either within or had some connection to the medical context. It is in this context where we see the terms “empirico” (empiric) and “racional” (rational) in use. The terms appear opposed to each other, where the empiric doctors are those that focus on experience and observation and the rational doctors those who follow the teachings of Galen and Aristotle. This being the case, we could perhaps claim that the ESD has no clear advantage over the RED framework. In fact, we could even think that the RED is better, since the figures involved in the debate were using “empirico” and “racional.”

It is important here to remember that the frameworks have two dimensions: a historical and a historiographic one. In the Spanish case, the presumed advantage of the RED would hold at the historical level, but it is yet to be seen if this carries over to the historiographical level.

However, even at the historical level the RED framework’s advantage is doubtful. As we have explained, there is a very important difference between the two frameworks: while the ESD highlights a methodological distinction, the RED highlights an epistemic one. As we examined in my last post, while Boix uses “empirico” and “racional”, he uses those terms to refer to a methodological distinction, not an epistemic one. So the use of the terms by Boix does not line up with the way they appear within the RED framework.

In fact, the fact that the way Boix uses the terms differs from the RED way actually points to the advantages of the ESD at the historiographical level. Even if the figures within the debate were not using “experimental” and “speculative”, the fact that the ESD focuses on a methodological distinction makes it a more appropriate framework for our interpretation of the period.

There is another consideration that can shed light on our present discussion. As I mentioned earlier, the empiric/rational distinction is rooted in the medical context. In other contexts, as in astrology and natural philosophy, the debate is not phrased in those terms. The Novatores, guided by the work of Benito Feijoo, phrase the methodological distinction in terms of the systemic/experimental divide, where “the former explain nature according to some system; the latter discover it through the way of experience.”

So it seems that, in spite of the empiric/rationalist distinction that appears within the medical context in early modern Spain, the ESD is still a more appropriate framework for our interpretation of the intellectual development in the Iberian Peninsula. This being said, there is still a lot of work to do in order to give a fuller account of the use of “empiric” and “rational” by early modern Spanish figures and their relation to the experimental/speculative divide.

“Secta Empírica y Dogmáticos Racionales”: medicine and the ESD in early modern Spain

A couple of months ago Peter Anstey directed me to a book by Miguel Marcelino Boix, a Spanish doctor and professor of surgery at the Universidad de Alcalá. The book, a defense and commentary on the first aphorism of Hippocrates, was published in 1711 and it contains some references to the experimental philosophy of the time. But what really caught my eye was the use Boix makes of the terms rationalism (racionalismo) and empiricism in medicine, and the connection of the latter term to experimental philosophy. In this and a couple of future posts I want to present Boix’s text and hopefully shed some light on the connection between experimental philosophy and empiricism (and the ESD) in early modern Spain.

Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.

This is Hippocrates’ first aphorism, the focus of Boix’s text. The Spanish doctor gives his analysis of the five phrases of the aphorism while criticizing various other interpretations of them. It is during his account of the fourth phrase, experimentum periculosum, that Boix contrasts the two sects, rational dogmatists (dogmáticos racionales) and empirics (empíricos), and begins to connect the latter with experimental philosophy.

Boix begins by offering his interpretation of the phrase, explaining that it says that doctors “never apply any medicine to the human body with absolute certainty that the desired effect will result.” In this sense, the phrase serves as warning to doctors, both rational and empiric, to be mindful of the limits of our knowledge and experience regarding medicine. However, Boix comments, some rational dogmatists have taken the phrase to mean that “experience is dangerous and false if it is not accompanied by reason.” This interpretation is used by rational dogmatists to attack the empirics, given that they follow experience blindly without any reference to reason. But Boix believes that this description of the empiric doctors, which is popular among people, is flawed. It is this mistaken account of the empirics that leads him to explain the differences between the two sects.

Given that the rational dogmatists attack the empirics for detaching reason from experience, Boix begins by examining the reasons the former give in their accounts.

They (rational dogmatists) say that their Medicine and Philosophy is founded on the four Elements, and the four humours; look at these four columns, these four strong pillars. And so they say, that knowing that there is heat, cold, wet and dry; blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile, they know all the effects they want, and that solely with the knowledge of these two quartets they have enough to defeat even the toughest questions contained in Natural philosophy and all of medicine. To this they add, that they are extremely happy, that Galen and Aristotle,their Princes, one in Medicine, the other in Philosophy, knew all they could, because neither to them or their disciples, has a problem been put forward, whether Physical or Medical, that they have not been able to solve solely by knowing that there are four qualities, and four humours.

By contrast, the popular opinion of the empirics is that they focus solely on experience and never give reasons for it; they “are those tricksters or scoundrels that come from Foreign Nations with half a dozen remedies, wanting to cure all kinds of diseases with them.” But this is a false depiction of the empiric sect. In order to explain what the empiric doctors are really about, Boix refers to the main sects in natural philosophy: sceptics, academics, and rational dogmatists. But we will get into that in my next post. I want to stop here to talk about the popular concept of the empiric doctors and the connection with experimental philosophy.

As Alberto Vanzo pointed out in a previous post, “experimental physicians” saw themselves as opponents of “empirical physicians.” But the text by Boix brings in a new scenario for our consideration. It seems that in Spain, rather than seeing themselves as opponents of the empirical physicians, experimental physicians felt that were indeed part of the empiric sect and opposed the rational dogmatists. However, the position of the Spanish doctors is not different from that of the physicians described by Alberto in his post. When doctors like John Gregory and Friederich Hoffman described themselves as opponents of the empirical physicians, they had in mind the popular concept of empiric that Boix points out in his text. The Spanish doctors, just like their Scottish and German counterparts, saw themselves as opponents of that specific kind of physician. The difference lies in the fact that Spanish physicians believed that the true empirical physicians were far from the popular depiction of empirics. In fact, the way they described the true empirical doctors is very similar to that of Gregory and Hoffman regarding experimental physicians. It is this description of the empiric sect that we will turn to in my next post.



Newton the empiricist?

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Recently, Zvi Biener and Eric Schliesser’s long-awaited volume, Newton and Empiricism, appeared on the shelves. The book is an excellent collection of papers, which makes a significant new contribution to the field. Today I want to focus on one aspect of this volume: the decision to frame the collection in terms of empiricism rather than experimental philosophy.

Over the last four years, we have provided many arguments for the superiority of the ESD over the RED. An important line of argument has been to show that ‘experimental philosophy’ and ‘speculative philosophy’ were the key terms of reference used by the actors themselves, and that they characterised their own work in terms of this division. For example, I have argued here, here, here and here that Newton is best understood as an experimental philosopher.

In their introduction, Biener and Schliesser explain their decision. They acknowledge the ‘Otago School’, and argue that, while in general there may be some good reasons to prefer the ESD to the RED, they see various problems with labelling Newton an ‘experimental philosopher’. Their concerns amount to the following: labelling Newton an ‘experimental philosopher’ obscures the idiosyncrasies of his approach to natural philosophy. They argue, firstly, that the label belies the significant influence of non-experimental philosophers on Newton’s methodology, for example those who influenced his mathematical focus. Secondly, that the label unhelpfully groups Newton with Boyle and Locke, when many features of his work support a different grouping. For example, Newton’s mathematical-system building suggests that his work should be grouped with Descartes’. Thirdly, they argue that the fact that Newton did not employ the label himself until after the publication of the first edition of the Principia suggests that he did not fully identify with the label.

These are important issues about the ESD and Newton’s place in it. So today I want to reflect on the broad problem of Newton’s idiosyncratic position. I argue that Newton’s divergence from Baconian tradition of the Royal Society is best seen as a development of experimental philosophy.

On this blog, I have sketched many features of Newton’s natural philosophical methodology. I have argued that, if we look at Newton from within the framework of the ESD, he can be neatly and easily identified as an experimental philosopher. His use of queries, his cautious approach to hypotheses, and his many methodological statements decrying the construction of metaphysical systems, suggest that this is a label that Newton would have been comfortable with. However, there is an important caveat to note: while Newton was clearly influenced by the Baconian experimental tradition, he did not consider himself a Baconian experimental philosopher.

In the earliest statements of his mathematico-experimental approach, Newton set up his position in opposition to the Baconian experimental philosophers. In these passages, one feature of Newton’s methodology stands out in explicit rejection of the Baconian method: his claims to certainty. This feature, in itself, is not very significant – many experimental philosophers believed that, in the end, natural philosophy would be a form of scientia, i.e. a system of knowledge demonstrated from certain axioms. Indeed, Bacon shared this ideal of certainty. He thought that his method of induction could get around the problems usually associated with ampliative inference and deliver knowledge of the essences of things. Thus, Bacon’s method of natural history was ultimately supposed to provide the axioms on which scientia could be founded. The challenge, which everyone agreed on, was to discover those axioms on which the system would be built.

Newton and the Baconians seem to diverge on their responses to this challenge. Baconian experimental philosophers recommended that one should have all the facts before formulating generalisations or theories. In contrast, Newton thought that a few, or even just one, well-constructed experiment might be enough – provided you used it in the right way. This shows that Newton took a different view of the role of evidence in natural philosophy. This divergence amounts to three key differences between Newton and the Baconian experimental philosophers:

  1. Where the Baconian experimental philosophers advocated a two-stage model, in which construction of natural histories preceded theory construction, Newton appeared to reject this two-stage approach. Newton commenced theory-building before his knowledge of the facts was complete.
  2. Related to (1), the Baconian experimental philosophers conceived of phenomena as immediate facts, acquired via observation, and hence pre-theoretic. In contrast, Newton’s phenomena were generalised regularities, acquired via mediation between observation and theory.
  3. For the Baconian experimental philosophers, queries were used to give direction and define the scope of the inquiry. But Newton’s queries were more focussed on individual experiments.

There is strong textual evidence that the ESD was operative in Newton’s early natural philosophical work. We have good reason to suppose that Newton regarded his natural philosophical pursuits as experimental philosophy. This becomes clearer in Newton’s later work. For instance, in the General Scholium to the Principia (1713), Newton explicitly described his work as ‘experimental philosophy’ – indeed, Peter Anstey has noted that Roger Cotes also recognised this feature of Newton’s work. We also have good reason to suppose that, in important ways, Newton saw his work as aligned with the Royal Society and, by extension, with the Baconian movement. But Newton was also a mathematician, and he saw a role for mathematical reasoning in experimental philosophy. In many ways, it was this mathematical approach that led to his divergence from the Baconian experimental philosophy.

Biener and Schliesser are right to draw attention to the ways in which Newton’s position diverged from the experimental tradition of the Royal Society. However, they fail to recognise that Newton’s position diverged in a way that should be viewed as a development of this tradition. Indeed, the ‘Newtonian experimental philosophy’ eventually replaced the experimental philosophy of Boyle, Hooke and the other early members of the Royal Society.  The label ’empiricism’ has no such historical relevance.  But, more on this another time…

Joseph Priestley on experimental philosophy and empiricism

Joseph Priestley Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Priestley
Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Anstey writes …

Joseph Priestley is one of the most celebrated chemists of all time because of his role in the discovery of oxygen. So highly was he regarded that in 1922 the American Chemical Society named their most prestigious medal ‘The Priestley Medal’.

Priestley was born in 1733 and died in 1804. Thus, he flourished in the latter decades of the era of early modern experimental philosophy and a survey of his writings reveals that he embraced experimental philosophy. Indeed, by the late eighteenth century the experimental approach to natural philosophy was virtually without a rival in Britain. When analysing his writings on natural philosophy there is no sense that he believed that experimental philosophy needed to be defended or justified at all. To be sure, one finds the usual rhetoric of experimental philosophy, such as his comment in his Experiments and Observations relating to various Branches of Natural Philosophy (London, 1779) that:

Speculation without experiment has always been the bane of true philosophy. (Preface, vii)

Yet when one turns to his Heads of Lectures on a Course of Experimental Philosophy (London, 1794) the term ‘Experimental Philosophy’ in the title is entirely unselfconscious. He opens Lecture I with a statement of the aim of the discipline:

The object of experimental philosophy is the knowledge of nature in general, or more strictly, that of the properties of natural substances, and of the changes of those properties in different circumstances. This knowledge can only be attained by experiment, or observation. (p. 1)

He goes on to mention one of the ‘rules of philosophizing’ in this discipline: ‘to admit no more causes than are necessary to account for the effects’ (p. 3). Of course, this is Newton’s first rule of philosophizing from the second edition of the Principia and it is hardly surprising that Priestley goes on to claim that given the ‘power of gravity’ ‘we are authorized to reject the Cartesian Vortices’ (ibid.).

One might, therefore, regard Priestley’s writings as not having anything to teach us about early modern experimental philosophy. And yet there is at least one point that is worth highlighting, for, Priestley was the second person to use the term ‘empiricism’ in the title of a book in English. The first was Francis Guybon in his An Essay concerning the Growth of Empiricism; or the Encouragement of Quacks, London, 1712 which was an attack on medical quacks.

Then in 1775 Priestley published a book entitled Philosophical Empiricism: containing Remarks on a Charge of Plagiarism respecting Dr H––. He had been attacked by the Irish physician Bryan Higgins who had accused him of plagiarism and Priestley defended himself, attacking many claims in Higgins’ lectures and concluding:

These and suchlike long-exploded, and crude notions (so many of which I believe were never thrown together into the same compass since the age of Aristotle or Cartesius) are delivered in a manner and phrase so quaint, and a tone so solemn and authoritative, as gives me an idea that I cannot express otherwise than by the term Philosophical Empiricism. (p. 59)

What is interesting here is that ‘empiricism’ is used as a pejorative and is loosely associated with Descartes! This all predates the Kantian Rationalism and Empiricism distinction –– the RED. It is even tempting to claim that it shows the inappropriateness of foisting the term ‘empiricism’ in its Kantian sense on eighteenth century thinkers when it already had strong currency in eighteenth-century English with an entirely different meaning.


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.

Empiricism and innate ideas

Alberto Vanzo writes…

The empiricism/rationalism distinction (RED) is still often characterized, at least in part, in terms of the rejection or endorsement of innate ideas. Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are said to deny that we have innate ideas, whereas rationalists are said to have endorsed innatism. Empiricists are also said to have rejected, and rationalists to have endorsed, substantive a priori truths. However, I will only focus on innate ideas in this post. Is it plausible to distinguish early modern empiricists from early modern rationalists on the basis of their attitude toward innate ideas? Here are five reasons to doubt that this is plausible.

1. Spinoza. As Luis Loeb noted, “Spinoza is completely silent on the subject of innateness”. He never claimed that we have innate ideas. However, he famously denied that mind and body interact. This may be taken to imply that our ideas, rather than deriving from sense experience, are innate.

2. Berkeley. In his most famous writings, Berkeley did not claim that all of our ideas have sensory origin, nor did he reject innate ideas. He only rejected abstract ideas. But the greatest difficulties for enrolling the “empiricist” Berkeley among the enemies of innatism come from his personal notes. Not only did he write that Locke was “tedious about innate ideas” (Luce/Jessop, 9:153), but he also wrote in his Notebooks (649) that “[t]here are innate ideas i.e. Ideas created with us.” (1, 2).

3. Malebranche. The “rationalist” Malebranche attacked, rather than endorsed, innate ideas. As Nicholas Jolley noted, Malebranche’s rejection of innatism derives from his anti-psychologism. Ideas, “according to Malebranche, are not in the mind at all; indeed, they are not the sort of entities which could be in a mind. So if there are, and could be, no ideas in a mind at any time, a fortiori there are no innate ideas.”

Descartes can reply that ideas are only innate in us in

    the same sense as that in which we say that generosity is “innate” in certain families, or that certain diseases such as gout or stones are innate in others: it is not so much that the babies of such families suffer from these diseases in their mother’s womb, but simply that they are born with a certain “faculty” or tendency to contract them. (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet)

Malebranche rebuts that this form of innatism is trivial and vacuous. Saying that our ideas are innate because our mind has the capacity to form or bring them to consciousness under appropriate circumstances is like saying that we fall asleep because we have a dormitive virtue. What we need to know are the categorical, non-dispositional properties that ground these dispositions.

4. Leibniz. Leibniz was aware of Malebranche’s criticism. When he defends the doctrine of innate ideas (most notably, in the New Essays), he is fighting a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, he counters Locke’s rejection of innatism in the first book of the Essay. On the other hand, he responds to Malebranche, because he too endorses the dispositional account of innate ideas attacked by Malebranche: “This is how ideas and truths are innate in us – as inclinations, dispositions, tendencies, or natural potentialities and not as actions”. So, the standard account of Leibniz’s innatism as a rationalist reply to Locke’s concept-empiricism is too simplistic. Leibniz is opposing the “rationalist” Malebranche as well as the “empiricist” Locke. (As Nicholas Jolley explains in The Light of the Soul, Leibniz replies to Malebranche by identifying the categorical basis of the relevant dispositions with unconscious petites perceptiones).

5. Boyle and the Cimento. Things become even more complicated if we consider less-known authors like Robert Boyle or the Italian natural philosophers who were associated with the Accademia del Cimento. They are usually regarded as empiricists. Yet Boyle mentions “inbred notions” or endorses innatism in various passages (e.g. The Christian Virtuoso, in The Works of Robert Boyle, eds. Hunter/Davis, 11:300-301). The opening of the Cimento’s Saggi di naturali esperienze mentions innate notizie that God has planted in our soul and that we recollect in the course of experience. Passages like these are hard to reconcile with the tendency to take the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as a criterion to distinguish between early modern empiricists and rationalists.

I agree with Loeb that the empiricism/rationalism distinction is broken-backed. However, if one still wants to use it, one cannot appeal to the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as scholars have often done. Do you think that this conclusion is convincing? I would love to hear your views in the comments.

“Empirical Philosophy” before and after Kant

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In the late 1780s, few years after the Critique of Pure Reason was published, Kant’s followers engaged in a debate with German experimental philosophers on whose system was superior. Kant’s disciples and his adversaries published tables detailing the differences and comparative advantages of Kant’s rationalism (as it was then classed) over his adversaries’ empiricism, or vice versa. An example is the page of an article by Christian Gottlieb Selle, one of Kant’s early critics,
which you can see below.

In these debates, “empiricism” and “empirical philosophy” were actors’ categories, that is, categories used to single out certain positions within the then current debates. They were used to identify the positions that we too call empiricist, that is, positions claiming that experience provides the basis for all of our knowledge, knowledge of the world, or substantive knowledge, and that there are no innate ideas or substantive a priori principles.

However, the expressions “empirical philosophy” and “empiricism” were in use well before the debates on Kant’s Critique ensued. There are many occurrences these expressions in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts. Can we find the now-familiar, standard meanings of “empiricism” in any of them? Let us survey three pre-Kantian uses of “empiricism” or “empirical philosophy”.

Bacon’s empirical philosophers

Francis Bacon famously classes “empirical philosophy” as one of the three kinds false philosophy, alongside the superstitious and sophistic philosophies, in the Novum Organon. However, Bacon’s empirical philosophers are quite different from our familiar empiricists. Bacon identifies empirical philosophers with William Gilbert (the author of De magnete), “the chymists and the whole pack of mechanics”. According to Bacon, these are not empirical philosophers because they reject innate ideas or defend the empirical origins of our knowledge, but because derived “experiments from experiments”, without managing to “convert and digest” them properly so as to develop true theories on their basis (Novum Organon, I, 95). This characterization hardly maps onto our familiar notion of empiricism.

Priestley’s Philosophical Empiricism

Joseph Priestley wrote a pamphlet entitled Philosophical Empiricism. Commenting on the natural-philosophical pronouncements of his unnamed opponent, he writes:

      These and suchlike long-exploded, and crude notions (so many of which I believe were never thrown together into the same compass since the age of Aristotle or Cartesius) are delivered in a manner and phrase so quaint, and a tone so solemn and authoritative, as gives me an idea that I cannot express otherwise than by the term Philosophical Empiricism.

Here, “empiricism” is used to highlight the crudeness of the opponent’s notions. “Philosophical” may allude, somewhat
ironically, to the solemn tone with which they were presented. This is hardly the sense in which Locke, Hume, or Priestley himself would be later called empiricists.

Adam, the Patriarchs, and Empirical Philosophy

If we turn to German texts, we can find yet another use of “empirical philosophy”. Historians of philosophy, like Heumann and Brucker, were embarrassed as to how they should categorize the wisdom of Jewish Patriarchs and early Greek sages. Reports of their deeds, myths, and ancient rules of political prudence show that they made use of their God-given disposition to philosophize. However, it would seem wrong to put their wisdom on a par with the more recognizably philosophical reflections of Socrates or the Pre-Socratics. German historians found a compromise by classing the reflections of the Patriarchs and early Greek thinkers as forms of empirical philosophy, as opposed to scientific, demonstrative philosophical systems which alone are philosophy in a narrow, proper sense.

The “empirical philosophy” of the Patriarchs, just like Bacon’s “empirical philosophers” and Priestley’s “philosophical empiricism”, has little to do with the current notion of philosophical empiricism. This suggests that that notion saw the light only in late eighteenth-century Germany. Or did I miss any earlier, pre-Kantian uses of that notion? If you have any
suggestions, I would love to hear them. Please leave them in the comments or get in touch.

Cartesian empiricisms

Mihnea Dobre from the universities of Bucharest and Nijmegen writes…

As readers of this blog know, the classic division between continental Rationalists and British Empiricists fails to provide an accurate picture of the early modern period. The Otago team has already offered extensive evidence of the complexity of seventeenth-century natural philosophy. Replacing the traditional-historiographical distinction between Rationalism and Empiricism (RED) with actor-category division of experimental versus speculative philosophy (ESD) is one step ahead in getting a more meaningful image of the philosophical debates that marked the formation of modern philosophy and science.

However, in this post, I would like to focus on a different aspect, which seems to escape the ESD distinction and further complicates our image of the late-seventeenth century. At the same time, I take this opportunity to announce a forthcoming volume, Cartesian Empiricisms, which Tammy Nyden and I are co-editing in the Springer series on the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

While this juxtaposition between “Cartesianism” (which for a long time has been associated with rationalism, armchair philosophizing, speculative thinking, or a purely theoretically driven philosophical approach) and “Empiricism” (which besides its traditional opposition to “Rationalism” is still preferred by many to describe an approach based on experiment and experimentation) might look odd at first, it sheds, in fact, a completely new light upon the development of natural philosophy in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Descartes’s philosophy has been discussed, interpreted and revaluated constantly in our histories of both philosophy and science. Yet, a more in-depth study of what happens after Descartes’s death is missing. We hope Cartesian Empiricisms will fill this gap, contributing to the exploration of some now-forgotten philosophical figures, which were not only prime representatives of the philosophical debates of their time but were opening the possibility of a more experimentally oriented natural philosophy.

After Descartes’s death in 1650, his philosophy was challenged in various ways and one of the most common forms of attack was to disprove it with empirical evidence.  Take, for example, this curious case from the Philosophical Transactions, one of the first scientific journals. On June 3, 1667, an observational report described the puzzling case of a turtle that was still able to move even with her head missing:

there came a Letter from Florence, Written by M. Steno, which has also somewhat perplext the followers of Des Cartes. A Tortoise had its head cut off, and yet was found to move its foot three days after. Here was no Communication with the Conarium [i.e. the pineal gland]. As this seems to have given a sore blow to the Cartesian Doctrine, so the Disciples thereof are here endeavouring to heal the Wound (p. 480).

Such instances that do not cohere with Descartes’s natural philosophy can be found in various places in the new scientific journals, as well as in public debates and philosophical treatises. A well-known case is that of the collision rules that went through a number of critical evaluations during the 1660s. Physics, anatomy, and psychology are among the most heated areas of contestation for Descartes’s natural philosophy. Cartesians reacted to the new challenges by both trying to complement or correct Descartes’s philosophical corpus with needed additions, but also by incorporating into their practices new methods. Cartesian Empiricisms will highlight such attempts:


Ch. 1. Introduction

Section I: Cartesian Philosophy: Receptions and Context

Ch. 2. “Censorship, Condemnations, and the Spread of Cartesianism” by Roger Ariew

Ch. 3. “Was there a Cartesian Experimentalism in the 1660’s France?” by Sophie Roux

Ch. 4. “Dutch Cartesian Empiricism and the Advent of Newtonianism” by Wiep van Bunge

Ch. 5. “Heat, Action, Perception: Models of Living Beings in German Medical Cartesianism” by Justin Smith


Section II: Cartesian Disciplines

Ch. 6. “The Cartesian Psychology of Antoine Le Grand” by Gary Hatfield

Ch. 7. “Experimental Cartesianism and the Occult (1675-1720)” by Koen Vermeir

Ch. 8. “Rohault’s Cartesian Physics” by Mihnea Dobre

Ch. 9. “De Volder’s Cartesian Physics and Experimental Pedagogy” by Tammy Nyden

Ch. 10. “Empiricism without Metaphysics: Regius’ Cartesian Natural Philosophy” by Delphine Bellis

Ch. 11. “Robert Desgabets on the Physics and Metaphysics of Blood Transfusion” by Patricia Easton

Ch. 12. “Rohault, Regis and Cartesian Medicine” by Dennis Des Chene

Ch. 13. “Could a Practicing Chemical Philosopher be a Cartesian?” by Bernard Joly


It is particularly interesting how many of the individual Cartesians discussed in this volume blend theoretical and experimental elements. Experience and experimentation become – for some of them – constitutive parts of their Cartesian natural philosophies, thus making it harder to classify them with our current historiographical categories. We hope that our volume will open new discussions about such categories and will encourage the exploration of other branches of Cartesian philosophy.

Politics and the Origins of Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In earlier posts, I claimed that the now-familiar notion of empiricism was first introduced by Immanuel Kant and that it was not in use in the early modern time. However, Kant contrasts “rationalists” and “empirics” in one area in which it was customary for German writers to distinguish people who relied on experience with those who relied on reason, namely, politics. Dozens of early modern German authors distinguished between empirical politicians and rational, dogmatic, or speculative politicians. Did the pre-Kantian distinction between empirical and rational politicians provide a significant source of the Kantian distinction between empiricist and rationalist philosophers? To answer this question, let us look at the contexts in which early modern German writers typically mentioned empirical politicians.

It is only in the first decades of the seventeenth century that politics appeared as an autonomous academic discipline in the German faculties of arts. Its early exponents were preoccupied with establishing its importance and autonomy against those jurists, like Jean Bodin, who regarded it as a part of jurisprudence, identified the good politician with the good legal expert, and denied that there was any need to introduce the study of politics within the arts faculty, in addition to what one could learn in the course of legal study. To this end, academic writers on politics stressed that it is more than a mere set of practical precepts. Politics is a doctrina based on general principles which one must learn to acquire the political virtue par excellence, political prudence. In this context, the phrase “empirical politician” was used to designate and criticize those politicians as pseudo-politicians who rely only on experience, without knowing the doctrine of politics.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the discipline of politics experienced a transformation that placed empirical politicians in a far better light. What used to be the theoretical and general part of politics was now dealt with within the discipline of universal public law (ius publicum universale). Politics became mostly concerned with identifying the best ways to govern and the most effective practical means to achieve aims established by universal public law. The necessity of being versed in a demonstrative philosophical doctrine for being a good politician was no longer obvious and discussions of the requirements for political prudence had largely been supplanted by discussions of the more fashionable and pragmatic topic of reason of State. It is in this context that Kant contrasts empirics and rationalists in politics, criticizing the former and stressing the importance for politics to be conducted in light of the philosophical foundations of public law.

Kant’s references to empirics and rationalists in politics show that the distinction between these two kinds of politicians and the notion of political empiricism were well known when the distinction between empiricist and rationalist philosophers was first introduced. However, there are only tenuous similarities between these distinctions.

Empiricists and rationalists take opposite stances on the origins of cognitions and foundations of knowledge, the former appealing to experience and the latter appealing to the a priori. Empirical politicians too relied on experience. However, their reliance on experience was not contrasted with the reliance on the a priori, whether in the form of a priori reasonings or of non-empirical cognitive faculties such as rational insight. It was contrasted with the «precepts of doctrine and rules derived from the learned schools» (Faber), on whose basis dogmatic or rational politicians justified their views and actions.

Dogmatic politicians would bear a significant resemblance with rationalist philosophers if the doctrines on which they rely were established a priori, independently from experience. However, the role of experience in the establishment of principles was the object of significant divergences between early modern authors, including the Aristotelians. According to some authors, principles could not be warranted independently from experience. Additionally, what role experience had in the establishment of political doctrine was never at stake in the characterizations of dogmatic politicians. Politicians qualified as dogmatic if their views, actions, and political prudence relied on a doctrine, regardless of its empirical or non-empirical origin. Empirical politicians relied on practice and experience as opposed not to a priori cognitions or faculties, but to a systematic theoretical apparatus of any sort.

I conclude that, although the early modern contrast between empirical and rational politicians bears some resemblance with the distinction between rationalists and empiricists, it cannot be a significant source of the latter distinction. Do you find this claim plausible? Let me know by posting a comment.