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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Juan Gomez writes…
Some time ago I wrote a post regarding David Fordyce’s Elements. This text was used almost in its entirety as the entry for moral philosophy in the Encyclopædia Britannica from the first edition in 1771 and until the seventh edition where it was modified and the replaced by an essay on the topic by William Alexander. I want to refer to the Encyclopædia again, this time to trace the description of four terms, namely ‘empiric,’ ‘experimental philosophy,’ ‘rational’ and ‘rationalism,’ and ‘speculative.’ I will focus on the first two terms in today’s post.
The word ‘empiric’ appears in the first eight editions (1771 to 1898 when the ninth edition appeared). It is a very short entry and it restricts its use to method in medicine:
It is clear from the definition that the word had a different use than the one implied by the modern term ‘empiricism,’ which appeared for the first time in the eleventh edition(1910) of the Encyclopædia. In such editions the writer of the entry tells us that the term refers “in philosophy, [to] the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-given data. It is opposed to all forms of intuitionalism, and holds that the mind is originally an absolute blank.” The last paragraph of the entry refers to the restricted definition of the term ‘empiric’ given in previous editions that I quoted above.
This term can be found in the first eight editions as well and disappears from the ninth edition onwards. The following is the definition from the first edition of the Encyclopædia:
However, the definition for Experimental Philosophy was substantially expanded for editions two to six, and then reduced to one small paragraph in the eighth edition. From 1778 (second edition) to 1823 (sixth edition) the entry consists in a general description and refers to seventeen items that form “the foundations of the present system of experimental philosophy.” The items are basic definitions of the object of study of experimental philosophy: natural bodies and their properties, extension, arrangement of particles, law of gravity, properties of light, and so on. For the seventh edition the entry was reduced to this:
The entry is the same for the eighth edition but from the ninth edition onwards there is no entry for ‘experimental philosophy.’
As far as the Encyclopædia Britannica is concerned, we can see that the terms used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are better explained by using the ESD framework instead of the RED. The contrast between the meaning of the term ‘empiric’ in the medical context and the later twentieth century entry on ‘empiricism’ illustrates this nicely. As we will see in my next post, the way the terms ‘speculative’ and ‘rational’ were used gives us more evidence to prefer the ESD framework for interpreting the early modern period.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
As we have already noted on this blog, “empiricism” was mainly used as a medical term in the early modern period. It referred to empirical physicians, a movement that had its origins in ancient Greece. Greek empirical physicians claimed that our knowledge of medical cures derives entirely from experience and derives its justification from experience. It does not derive from any insight into “hidden natures, causes, and actions, not open to observation, but only accessible to reason, e.g., atoms, invisible pores, functions of organs, or essences” (Michael Frede).
These views of ancient empirical physicians were remarkably close to those of the early modern physicians who were associated with the experimental philosophy. They too rejected reasonings from principles and speculations on hidden essences and claimed to derive their cures from experience alone. The early moderns were conscious of this similarity between ancient empirical physicians and modern experimental physicians. They acknowledged that, since empirical physicians relied on “experiments” (that is, experience), their teachings contain “something that is certaine & experimentall” (Hartlib Papers).
In the light of this, it is puzzling that the upholders of the “experimentall” approach to medicine used to criticize medical empiricism and empirical physicians. They generally accepted the then common association of empirical physicians with “Mountebanks, pretended Chymists, Apothecaries, Chirurgeons, Midwives, &c. in which piece of Folly the English surpass all the Nations of Christendom.”
To be sure, there were some cases in which early modern experimental physicians praised ancient medical empiricism, portraying it as a forerunner of experimental medicine. But as far as I know, these were rare exceptions. Why were they exceptions and not the rule? Why did experimental physicians see themselves as opponents, rather than followers, of medical empiricism?
I have found some answers to these questions in the writings of two prominent eighteenth-century physicians. They are the German physician Friedrich Hoffman, a leading systematist of the early eighteenth-century, and the Scottish physician John Gregory, who taught at Edinburgh in the latter half of the century. They both associate medical empiricism with the application of medicines that happened to work in past cases to patients which display similar symptoms. This approach was epitomized in the “empirical books” that were compilations of medical recipes and cures for all sorts of diseases. According to Gregory, this approach raises two problems.
Firstly, it relies on experience in the wrong way. Empirical physicians rely on the recipes that have been shown to work by experience, but true physicians should also rely on experience to improve their remedies and practice.
Secondly and more interestingly, empirical physicians did not pay sufficient attention to experience. They did not carefully inquire into the circumstances of individual patients. Instead, having noted few symptoms, they hastily prescribed a familiar remedy. As Hoffmann pointed out, this “obtuse and most dangerous empiria” was deeply flawed because the “efficacy of a cure” does not reside in the nature of a remedy, but in the way in which the remedy interacts with the specific circumstances of a patient. In Gregory’s words, since “empirics” paid insufficient attention to those circumstances, “notwithstanding their pretensions of relying upon experience alone, have in truth abandoned it”.
Gregory’s preferred alternative to this flawed medical empiricism was what appears to be, broadly speaking, an application of the Newtonian experimental method to medicine. Gregory praised a medical theory that “is produced by practice, is founded on facts alone, and constantly appeals to them for its truth”. He rejected the use of hypotheses, considered as principles devoid of “proof from experience”. He advocated their use, as long as they were “proposed in the modest and diffident manner that becomes mere suppositions or conjectures”, that is, queries. Used in this way, hypotheses “are not only harmless but even necessary in establishing a just theory in medicine”. Gregory portrayed this experimental method as an alternative to medical empiricism. Only one century later, after “empiricism” took on a new meaning, did it come to be regarded as a positive stance even within medicine.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
An interesting aspect of Kant’s use of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) is that he does not only apply it to the moderns, but also to the ancients. Kant portrays Leibniz as an adherent to Plato’s rationalism and Locke as a follower of Aristotle’s empiricism. Could Leibniz’s New Essays be a source of Kant’s distinction between empiricism and rationalism?
Here is one of Leibniz’s comments on his disagreements with Locke in the Preface of the New Essays:
- Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which nothing has been written (tabula rasa), as Aristotle and the author of the Essay [Locke] maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato and even with the Schoolmen […]
Here, Leibniz pits Plato and himself against Aristotle and Locke with regard to the existence of innate ideas (“several notions…”) and a priori truths (“… and doctrines”). These are precisely the issues around which Kant frames his distinction between empiricists and rationalists (or, as he sometimes calls them, dogmatists and noologists). However, Kant holds that a third issue divides ancient empiricists like Aristotle from ancient rationalists like Plato. It is the existence or inexistence of objects of which we cannot have sensations. According to Kant, ancient rationalists claim that there are non-sensible objects (Platonic ideas). Ancient empiricists, like Aristotle and Epicurus, deny this. Leibniz does not focus on this issue, but Christian Garve (who would later become one of Kant’s early critics) did. Like Kant, Garve divided ancient philosophers into two camps based on whether they admitted substantive a priori truths, innate ideas, and non-sensible objects. He drew this distinction in a dissertation that he published in 1770, eleven years before Kant’s first Critique and five years after Leibniz’s New Essays. Let me summarize Garve’s statements on each of the three points.
A priori knowledge
After they learned to distinguish between appearance and reality and between the senses and the intellect, philosophers took two opposed paths:
- Some [like Heraclitus] devoted themselves to exploring the nature of the senses with great care and they subtly searched in the senses the mark and sign of truth. Others [like Parmenides], having ignored and set aside the senses, devoted themselves entirely to the faculty of intellect and to contemplating with their mind the thoughts that they had gathered in themselves.
This epistemological divide gave rise to an ontological divide:
- [T]hose that sought the foundation of the truth to be discovered in the senses were forced to refer [only] to the things that are subjected to the senses […]; and those claiming that true cognition is distinctive of the mind, not of the senses, denied the name and almost the rank of things […] to sensible items. They ascribed it only to [merely] intelligible things […]
On the one hand, we have Protagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and even the sceptics. On the other hand, we have Plato.
Those who denied “the truth of the senses” did not only have to posit a realm of non-sensible beings. They also had to defend the existence of innate ideas. This is because, if there is no truth in the senses, we cannot derive “true notions” from the senses (where true notions appears to be, in some sense, notions that map onto reality). We must claim that they are “innate in the soul and prior to every sensation”. “And thus were born Plato’s famous ideas, on which he says various, inconsistent things”, like those who are forced to embrace a conclusion, “although they do not understand well enough what it may be or how it could be true”.
Garve does not use the terms “empiricists” and “rationalists”, which would take on their now-common meanings only with Kant. However, the way in which Garve carves the two opposed camps of ancient philosophers maps neatly onto Kant’s distinction between ancient empiricists and rationalists. Garve also suggests that Locke and Berkeley followed Aristotle, whereas Leibniz followed Plato. This is because, in the antiquity, “nearly the whole territory of all opinions which may be held on this matter had been explored; all matter for supposition and invention had been used”.
Kant too thought that modern empiricists and rationalists followed the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. This brief survey of Leibniz’s and Garve’s statements suggests that their historiography of ancient philosophy may have been a source of Kant’s influential distinction between empiricism and rationalism.