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Tag Archives: empiricism

Tracking Terms in the Encyclopædia Britannica

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.

Experimental Philosophy
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.

Empirical Physicians vs Experimental Physicians

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.

Ancient Philosophy and the Origins of the Rationalism-Empiricism Distinction

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.

Non-sensible beings

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.

Innate ideas

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.

Degérando’s Experimental History of Philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes...

So far, on this blog, we have focused on a philosophical movement and a historiographical tradition. Of course, the movement was experimental philosophy. The historiographical tradition was based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism and was first developed by Kantian and post-Kantian authors, like Reinhold and Tennemann, who did not belong to the movement of experimental philosophy. This post is on a historian who was an adherent of experimental philosophy and who endeavoured to employ its methodology in his history of philosophy. He is Joseph-Marie Degérando, who published a Comparative History of the Philosophical Systems, relatively to the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1804. Interestingly, this text is also influenced by the new post-Kantian historiography based on the rationalism-empiricism distinction.

Degérando intends to apply the method of natural history to the history of philosophy. Natural histories were large structured collections of facts about natural phenomena and they were to form the basis for the identification of theories and principles. Degérando’s history of philosophy is a structured collection of facts about past philosophies which will help us identify which philosophical outlook is the best.

Before starting to collect the facts, we must determine the organizing principles of the collection. Philosophers should

    imitate naturalists, who, before entering into the vast regions of natural history, give us regular and simple nomenclatures and they seek the principle of these nomenclatures in the essential characters of each production.

The “nomenclatures” that form the basis for Degérando’s natural history of past philosophers are three dichotomies: scepticism vs dogmatism, empiricism (or sensualism) vs rational (or speculative or contemplative) philosophy; and materialism vs idealism.

Armed with these nomenclatures, historians of philosophy should free themselves of all prejudices and collect historical facts in an unbiased way. Only after having completed this task should historians start philosophizing. Degérando claims to have ascertained “facts as if” he were “foreign to every opinion” and he has “later established an opinion on the basis of the sole testimony of facts”.

In doing this, Degérando does not aim to write a “simple narrative history, to use Bacon’s expression”, but an “inductive or comparative history that converts the facts into “experiences in the path of human spirit.”

    […] the work that we set out to do can be considered as the essay of a treatise of philosophy, […] a treatise conceived of according to the most cautious, albeit most neglected method, the method of experiences. Hence, we dare to offer this essay as an essay of experimental philosophy.

Degérando is strongly influenced by the post-Kantian historiography of Tennemann and other German historians. Like Tennemann, he focuses on epistemological issues concerning “the certainty of human cognitions”, “their origin” and their reality. Degérando uses the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. Like the Kantians, he criticizes them as two unilateral points of view that should be overcome by a higher philosophical standpoint. This is a form of experimental philosophy that is inspired by Bacon and Condillac and is superior to empiricism which as criticized by German historians. Empiricism stops at the facts. The philosophy of experience “transforms them” and identifies general laws.

    Empiricism does not see anything else than the exterior of the temple of nature; experience enters into its sanctuary. Empiricism is an instinct; experience is an art. Empiricism does not see anything else than phenomena, experience ascends from effects to causes. Empiricism is confined to the present; experience learns the future from the past. Empiricism obeys blindly, experience interrogates with method. Everything is mobile, fugitive for empiricism; experience discovers regular and constant combinations underneath the variable appearances. But what need is there to insist on this distinction? He who opens [a book by] Bacon will see it standing out in every page.

The philosophical upshot of Degérando’s experimental history of philosophy

    is spelled out by Bacon’s words, when he said in his preface to the Advancement of Learning: in this way we believe that we are combining, in a manner that is as stable as legitimate, the empirical and rational methods […]

According to Degérando, experimental philosophy, and not Kant’s Critical philosophy is the true, higher synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.

Edward Caird on the history of early modern philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

By researching the history of early modern experimental philosophy, my fellow bloggers and I are attempting to provide an alternative to the standard narrative of early modern thought as a prolonged conflict between the empiricist school of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume and the rationalist school of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Who was responsible for coining and popularizing that standard narrative?

Several scholars suggested that British Idealists in particular, played an important role in this process. I recently tested this suggestion by doing some research on Edward Caird, one of the main first-generation British Idealists.

Caird did not write any history of philosophy, but he provided extended accounts of early modern thought in his widely read Kant books. The quotes below are from the first volume of The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889).

Caird sees his own idealism as a completion of the philosophical revolution initiated by Kant. Kant’s Critical philosophy opened the doors to an “idealistic interpretation of the universe” (44) by synthesizing “the different tendencies of his time” and going “beyond their one-sidedness, and thereby lifted philosophical discussion to a new level” (44).

“How are we to describe” this “great change”, initiated by Kant? (46) “In general terms we may say that it was a change from division to reconciliation, from Individualism and Atomism to a renewed perception that the whole is prior to the parts, and that individual independence must rest on social unity” (46, see 70). Individualism is the guiding principle of the whole “history of [early] modern philosophy” (72).

“The history of modern thought begins with” Martin Luther’s “declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual, and the rejection of the principle of authority” (72). Along similar lines, modern science and “Bacon’s empiricism” placed a strong emphasis on individual, first-hand knowledge. Luther and Bacon attempted to go beyond mere subjectivity to achieve “the unity of thought with its object” (74). They failed, giving rise to the scepticism with which Descartes grappled at the beginning of the Meditations. Descartes overcame it by relying on God’s veracity. To Descartes, “our consciousness of God” is prior even to “our consciousness of ourselves” (76).

Malebranche and Spinoza developed Descartes’ theocentric approach to unify subject and object, but they failed and gave way to the individualist assumption that “we must see all things” not in God, but “in ourselves”, either “through the sensations which outward objects have produced in our minds, or through the ideas which spring directly out of our own consciousness, that we come to a knowledge of other things” (83). Locke’s and Hume’s empiricism explored the first alternative, Leibniz’s and Wolff’s rationalism the second. They all failed, leading “the progress of Individualism to its necessary consummation in Scepticism” (86). Only Kant managed to synthesize subject and object, mind and world by realizing that the latter is mind-dependent and placing “the idea of a self-determining subject” (85) at the centre of his philosophy. Thus ends Caird’s account of early modern thought.

How much of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy can we find in this account? The emphasis on the individualism of the Reformation may have struck a familiar chord. The account of Kant’s Critical philosophy as a synthesis of Lockean and Leibnizian ideas and an antidote to scepticism sounds familiar too. But these are precisely the elements of Caird’s account that are not distinctive of Idealist accounts of early modern thought, such as Schwegler‘s and Erdmann’s. Their distinctive traits are others, like the following:

  1. an emphasis on individualism as a distinctive feature of the entire early modern period,
  2. a theo-centric interpretation of Descartes, Malebranche and Spinoza (but not Leibniz) as members of a single school,
  3. the teleological reading of early modern thinkers as struggling to reach an adequate understanding of the unity of subject and object, mind and world — something that only Hegel would fully achieve.

Besides having these rather unfamiliar features, Idealist histories of early modern thought do not spell out the standard triumvirates. They sever the theocentric philosophies of Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza from Leibniz’s and Wolff’s philosophy. They read Berkeley as an idealist rather than an intermediate step in the progress from Locke to Hume. On the whole, then, Caird’s account of early modern thought is much less similar to standard histories of early modern philosophies than Tennemann’s earlier, Kant-inspired History of Philosophy. This leads me to doubt that British Idealism is key to understanding how the standard narrative of early modern thought came to the fore.

The origins of the modern meaning of ‘empiricism’

Peter Anstey writes…

It is often supposed that the term ‘empiricism’ in its Kantian sense would have been entirely foreign to philosophers of the early modern period. For, throughout the seventeenth century the term ‘empiric’ had pejorative connotations. When used in medical contexts it normally referred to quacks: medical practitioners who are untutored, but who have pretentions to therapeutic medicine on the basis of experience alone. By extension, the term came to mean imposter or charlatan.

Yet when used as a name in the plural, ‘empirici’, it often referred to those ancient physicians who relied on observation over theory in their therapeutic medicine. Needless to say, those physicians in the early modern period who were associated with the experimental philosophy affirmed this emphasis on observation. It is worth inquiring, therefore, as to whether the term ‘empiric’ was ever used in a positive sense and whether physicians were proud to be labeled empirics?

One early use of the term ‘Empericism’ is in the chymical physician George Starkey’s Nature’s Explication (1657). But Starkey uses the term pejoratively in criticizing the Galenists who relied too heavily on theory. He says:

    the Chymistry of the Galenical Tribe is a ridiculous pardy [sic.], and partly dangerous Empericism, in stead of so commendable a Method and Art, as they with confidence and impudence sufficient boast it to be (p. 245)

Here Starkey is inverting the charge normally laid at the feet of the chymical physicians, namely that they were untutored quacks. Starkey implies that the Galenists were untutored in the chymical arts.

Interestingly, however, just over a decade later, the chymical physician George Thomson, when defending the chymical physicians against the charge of being empirics (made by Henry Stubbe), picks up the positive connotation of ‘empirici’ and aligns the chymical physicians, including himself, with empirics in so far as they are the true experimental physicians. In his Misochemias Elenchos or, A Check given to the insolent Garrulity of Henry Stubbe … With an Assertion of Experimental Philosophy (London, 1671), Thomson says the following:

    We shall examine the Original derivation of the word Empiricik, which arises from peirazo vel peirao experior, vel exploro, to try, assay, or prove, to review or find out any thing by diligent searching: so then empericos is but an Experimental Physician, one of a Sect very well allowed of by the Ancients: … who as Celsus delivers hath acquired the knowledge of Physick only by Use and Experiments, so he treats of it, not able to give a Natural Cause thereof. … I wish ye would be so Ingenious as your Tutor, to confess the greatest knowledge ye have obtained in the Iatrical part of late, hath been delivered to you by such Empiricks as ye abusively nominate me (p. 5).

Thomson goes on to liken the chymical physicians to ‘the poor Experimental Chymical Samaritane, carrying some Balsamical Remedy about him, poureth it in with his own fingers, taking care of the Patient to purpose. Such an one I profess my self, but yet not an Empyrick according to H[enry] St[ubbe]’ (p. 6).

Here in a book defending experimental philosophy, just as we find 100 years later in a book from 1771 by the German physician Georg Zimmermann, the term ‘empiric’ is explicitly aligned with the experimental philosophy as applied in physic, that is, therapeutic medicine. This, in turn, is suggestive of the origins of the positive association of ‘empiricism’ with an emphasis on observation. It may also reveal something of the origins of Kant’s use of the terms ‘Empirismus’ and ‘Empiristen’ to refer to those who emphasize the acquisition of knowledge by observation and experiment.

The Prehistory of Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As some of you will know, I have claimed for a while that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was first introduced by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. However, a quick search on Google Books reveals that there were many occurrences of “empiricism” and “rationalism” before Kant was even born. What is new about Kant’s use of these terms?

In this post I will survey early modern uses of “empiricism” and its cognates, “empiric” and “empirical”. I will argue that Kant’s new use of “empiricism” reflects a shift from the historical tradition of experimental philosophy to a new set of concerns.

Medical empiricism

Early modern authors often used “empiricism” and its cognates in medical contexts. Empirical physicians were said to depend “on experience without knowledge or art”. They did not have a good reputation. Shakespeare was expressing a common view when he wrote in All’s Well that Ends Well: “We must not corrupt our hope, To prostitute our past-cure malladie To empiricks”.

However, some defended empirical physicians. For instance, according to Johann Georg Zimmermann, the ancient physician Serapion of Alexandria was a good empiric. Why? Because he followed the method of experimental philosophy. He relied on experience and rejected idle hypotheses:

    Serapion and his followers rejected the inquiries of hidden causes and stuck to the visible ones […] So one can see that the founder of the sect of empirics had the noble purpose to band the love of hypotheses and useless quarrels from the medical art.

Political empiricism

Tetens wrote in 1777: “It has been asked in politics whether [politicians] should derive their maxims from the way the world goes, or whether they should derive them from rational insight.” Those who chose the first alternative were empirical politicians. Like empirical physicians, they were usually the target of criticism. Several writers throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century agreed that true politicians could not be “blind empirics”.

Who opposed empirical politicians? It was the dogmatic or — as a review from 1797 called them, speculative politicians. Speculative politicians relied on “philosophical hypotheses and unilateral [i.e., insufficient] observations”, from which they rashly derived general conclusions. Once again, empirical politicians and their adversaries are implicitly identified with experimental and speculative philosophers.

Empirical people

The term “empiric” was also used in a general sense to refer to people who “owe their cognition to the senses” and “steer their actions on the basis of experience“. Leibniz famously said that we are empirics in three quarters of our actions. Bacon called empirics those who perform experiment after experiment without ever reflecting on the causes and principles that govern what they experience.

At least two of Kant’s German predecessors, Baumgarten and Mayer, coined disciplines called “empiric” that deal with the origin of our cognitions from experience or introspection. Additionally, two German historians identified an “empirical philosophy” that they contrasted with “scientific philosophy”.

Kant: what’s new in his usage?

Kant built on these linguistic uses when he introduced a new notion of empiricism:

  1. Like the authors referred to by some historians, Kant’s empiricists are philosophers.
  2. Like empirical physicians, empirical politicians, and empirical people, Kant’s empiricists rely entirely on experience.

However, Kant’s empiricism is not a generic reliance on experience, nor is it primarily related to the rejection of hypotheses and speculative reasonings. Kant’s empiricists advocate specific epistemological views (taking “epistemology” in a broad sense), that is, views on the origins and foundations of our knowledge. They deny that we can have any substantive a priori knowledge and they claim that all of our concepts derive from experience.

What is new in Kant’s notion of empiricism is the shift from a generic reference to experience and to the methodological issues that were distinctive of early modern x-phi, to broadly epistemological issues. To be sure, Kant was not concerned with epistemology for its own sake. He aimed to answer ontological and moral questions. Nevertheless, the epistemological issues that Kant’s new notion of empiricism focuses on are the issues that post-Kantian histories of philosophy, based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism, would place at the centre of their narratives.

Do you think this is persuasive? I am collecting early modern uses of “empiricism” and “rationalism”, so if you know some interesting occurrence, please let me know. Also, if you are familiar with methods for performing quantitative analyses of early modern corpora, could you get in touch? I would appreciate your advice.

On the Origins of a Historiographical Paradigm

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    It came to pass that the earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the earth. And the creator saw that the darkness was evil, and he spoke out in the darkness, saying “Let there be light” and there was light, and he called the light “Renaissance”. But still the creator was not pleased, for there remained darkness, and hence he took from the Renaissance a rib, with which to fashion greater light. But the strain of his power broke the rib, and there did grow up two false lights, one Bacon, whose name meanteh “Father of the British Empiricists”, and one Descartes, whose name meaneth “Father of the Continental Rationalists”. […] 

    And thus it was that Bacon begat Hobbes, and Hobbes begat Locke, and Locke begat Berkeley, and Berkeley begat Hume. And thus it was that Descartes begat Spinoza, and Spinoza begat Leibniz, and Leibniz begat Wolff. And then it was that there arose the great sage of Königsberg, the great Immanuel, Immanuel Kant, who, though neither empiricist nor rationalist, was like unto both. […]

    And this too the creator saw, and he saw that it was good […]

In this parody, David Fate Norton has summarized a familiar account of the history of early modern philosophy — an account based on the antagonism of empiricism and rationalism. It has dominated histories of philosophy for most of the twentieth century, including Russell’s and Copleston’s histories.

In an earlier post, I argued that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was fleshed out into a fully-fledged history of philosophy by the Kantian historian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (To be sure, two other historians made use of the distinction roughly at the same time as Tennemann, but his hisory was by far the most influential.)

The question I’d like to discuss in this post is: how do we get from Tennemann to Copleston and Russell? At some point between the 1820s and 1940s, the account of early modern philosophy that can be found in Tennemann must have been exported from Germany to the English-speaking world. When and how did this happen?

Here are three hypotheses.

1. British philosophers around the 1830s?

The first English translation of Tennemann’s Manual was published in 1832. At that time, three British philosophers were interested in the history of philosophy: William Hamilton, Samuel Coleridge, and Dugald Stewart. None of them produced any substantial writing that made use of the rationalism-empiricism distinction. Thomas Morell had published in 1827 a History of Philosophy that would be reprinted many times, but he did not distinguish early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists. He split them into four groups:

  • sensualists like Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke;
  • idealists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Berkeley;
  • sceptics like Hume;
  • and mystics like Jacobi.

Morell’s notion of “sensualism” is similar to our notion of empiricism, but he does not group Locke, Berkeley, and Hume together as empiricists or sensualists. Nor does he create a rationalist category to contrast with sensualism.

2. English histories of philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Some of these were based on the distinction between empiricism and rationalism or similar distinctions, but many were not. For instance, the history written by F.D. Maurice followed a strictly chronological order, without grouping philosophers into movements. German Hegelians and British Idealists grouped together Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza, but not Leibniz. They claimed that these philosophers were criticized by two groups of thinkers: realists like Locke and Hume, but not Berkeley, and idealists like Leibniz and Berkeley. These distinctions cut across the traditional groupings of empiricists and rationalists.

3. Textbook writers at the turn of the twentieth century?

It was between 1895 and 1915 that the account of early modern thought based on the empiricism-rationalism distinction became standard in the English-speaking world. It can be found in many new introductions to philosophy, histories of philosophy, and lecture syllabi.

It is unclear to me why the standard account become standard between 1895 and 1915. I suspect that the answer has to do with two factors:

The first is the institutionalization of the study of early modern philosophy. The classificatory schema based on the contrast of empiricism and rationalism was simpler than the others and well suited for teaching.

The second factor (highlighted by Alex Klein) is the rise of philosopher-psychologists like William James. By grouping together Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as empiricists, the standard accounts of early modern philosophy provided a distinguished ancestry for the growing number of American philosophers and psychologists who, under the James’ influence, called themselves empiricists.

I’m keen to hear if you think that these explanations are persuasive and if you have any other suggestions.

A year on…

Hello, Readers!

One year ago today, we published our first post to present our research project to the world. We were new to blogging and we weren’t quite sure how effective it would be. After twelve months and 58 posts, there is no trace of those initial doubts. Forcing ourselves to publish a new piece on our work in progress (nearly) each week has been a good exercise. It has helped us to be productive, to keep each other abreast of each other’s research, and to grow as a team. Most of all, it has been great to receive the attention and feedback of our readers. Today we’d like to thank you for being on board, to look back at where we’ve come from, and to ask for a bit more of your helpful advice.

First of all, we are most grateful for our readers’ emails, comments and posts on our project elsewhere on the Net. You have taught us about the notion of experience in early modern Aristotelianism (1 to 8), outlined the evidence for Hume’s knowledge of Berkeley better than we possibly could, expanded on our reflections on the usefulness or uselessness of the notion of empiricism, alerted us to many sources that we had not taken into account, and provided plenty of other input that helped shaping the directions of our research. We may not have succeeded to persuade you all that ESP is best yet (it is just a matter of time), but we’re learning from your objections. Keep them coming! As you will have guessed, we are all working on research projects that are related to the topics of our posts. It’s helpful to get an early idea of the weak points and potential criticisms of the arguments we’re trying to articulate.

We are especially grateful to the many colleagues whose guest posts broadened and deepened our research on a number of fronts. They taught us about Galileo, De Volder, Sturm, seventeenth-century Dutch physicians, experiment and culture in the historiography of philosophy, in addition to providing critical discussions of many of our own ideas. Stay tuned for more stimulating guest-posts!

For our part, here’s a summary of our first year of blogging:

The Big Picture

We claimed that it’s much better to interpret early modern authors as early modern experimental philosophers than as empiricists. For the details, you can read our 20 theses, tour through our images of experimental philosophy, or head towards these posts:

Seventeenth Century Britain, plus a new find

In addition to providing the big picture in the above posts, Peter blogged on the origins of x-phi and its impact on seventeenth-century natural philosophy:

Newton’s Experimental Philosophy

Moving towards the eighteenth century, Kirsten has explored the new form of the experimental philosophy that took shape in Newton’s mathematical method and its impact on his natural philosophy, especially his optics:

X-phi in Eighteenth Century Scotland: Ethics and Aesthetics

Juan has traced the presence of experimental philosophy in Scottish philosophy throughout the eighteenth century, including Turnbull, Fordyce, Reid, and the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. He has focused especially on the experimental method in ethics and aesthetics:

German Thinkers from X-Phi to Empiricism

Alberto has looked at the influence of x-phi in Germany, especially on Leibniz, Wolff, Tetens, and Kant’s contemporaries. He then explored the development of the traditional narrative of early modern philosophy based on the distinction between empiricism an rationalism in Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann.

For those readers who have followed us from the early days, we hope that a coherent narrative has emerged. We’d love to hear if you think that we’re up to something interesting or that we’re going off track. What better way to celebrate our anniversary than to give us some more feedback! Also, please do let us know if you have any suggestions on topics to study and directions in which we could pursue our research. You can reach us via email, Facebook, and Twitter. As always, you can keep updated via the mailing list or the RSS feed. We still have much to study and to blog about. Thanks for coming along, and we hope you’ll enjoy our future posts.

Early Modern Philosophy at the AAP

The Annual Conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy will start in 10 days and the abstracts have just been published. We were very pleased to see that there are plenty of papers on early modern philosophy. We are re-posting the abstracts below.

As you will see, Juan, Kirsten, Peter, and I are presenting papers on early modern x-phi and the origins of empiricism. Come and say hi if you’re attending the conference. If you aren’t, but would like to read our papers, let us know and we’ll be happy to send you a draft. Our email addresses are listed here. We’d love to hear your feedback.

Peter Anstey, The Origins of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy
This paper investigates the origins of the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESP) in the mid-seventeenth century. It argues that there is a significant prehistory to the distinction in the analogous division between operative and speculative philosophy, which is commonly found in late scholastic philosophy and can be traced back via Aquinas to Aristotle. It is argued, however, the ESP is discontinuous with this operative/speculative distinction in a number of important respects. For example, the latter pertains to philosophy in general and not to natural philosophy in particular. Moreover, in the late Renaissance operative philosophy included ethics, politics and oeconomy and not observation and experiment – the things which came to be considered constitutive of the experimental philosophy. It is also argued that Francis Bacon’s mature division of the sciences, which includes a distinction in natural philosophy between the operative and the speculative, is too dissimilar from the ESP to have been an adumbration of this later distinction. No conclusion is drawn as to when exactly the ESP emerged, but a series of important developments that led to its distinctive character are surveyed.

Russell Blackford, Back to Locke: Freedom of Religion and the Secular State
For Locke, religious persecution was the problem – and a secular state apparatus was the solution. Locke argued that there were independent reasons for the state to confine its attention to “”civil interests”” or interests in “”the things of this world””. If it did so, it would not to motivated to impose a favoured religion or to persecute disfavoured ones. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach has implications that Locke would have found unpalatable. We, however, need not hesitate to accept them.

Michael Couch, Hume’s Philosophy of Education
Hume has rarely been considered a contributor to the philosophy of education, which is unsurprising as he did not write a dedicated treastise nor make large specific comment, and so educators and philosophers have focused their attention elsewhere. However, I argue that a more careful reading of his works reveals that education is a significant concern, specificially of enriching the minds of particular people. I argue that his educational ideas occupy an important, although not major, place in his writings, and also an important place in the history of ideas as Hume fills a gap after Locke, and provides the framework for the much more educationally influential Bentham and Mill.

Gillian Crozier, Feyerabend on Newton: A defense of Newton’s empiricist method
In “Classical Empiricism,” Paul Feyerabend draws an analogy between Isaac Newton’s empiricist methodology and the Protestant faith’s primary tenet sola scriptura. He argues that the former – which dictates that ‘experience’ or the ‘book of nature’ is the sole justified basis for all knowledge of the external world – and the latter – which dictates that the sole justified basis for all religious understanding is Scripture – are equally vacuous. Feyerabend contends that Newton’s empiricism, which postures that experience is the sole legitimate foundation of scientific beliefs, serves to disguise supplementary background assumptions that are not observer-neutral but are steeped in tradition, dogma, and socio-cultural factors. He focuses on Newton’s treatment of perturbations in the Moon’s orbit, arguing that this typifies how Newton supports his theory by cherry-picking illustrations and pruning them of anomalies through the incorporation of ad hoc assumptions. We defend Newton’s notion of empirical success, arguing that Newton’s treatment of the variational inequality in the lunar orbit significantly adds to the empirical success a rival hypothesis would have to overcome.

Simon Duffy, The ‘Vindication’ of Leibniz’s Account of the Differential. A Response to Somers-Hall
In a recent article in Continental Philosophy Review, entitled ‘Hegel and Deleuze on the metaphysical interpretation of the calculus,’ Henry Somers-Hall claims that ‘the Leibnizian interpretation of the calculus, which relies on infinitely small quantities is rejected by Deleuze’(Somers-Hall 2010, 567). It is important to clarify that this claim does not entail the rejection of Leibniz’s infinitesimal, which Leibniz considered to be a useful fiction, and which continues to play a part in Deleuze’s account of the metaphysics of the calculus. In order to further clarify the terms of this debate, I will take up two further issues with Somers-Hall’s presentation of Deleuze’s account of the calculus. The first is with the way that recent work on Deleuze’s account of the calculus is reduced to what Somers-Hall refers to as ‘modern interpretations of the calculus,’ by which he means set-theoretical accounts. The second is that this reduction by Somers-Hall of ‘modern interpretations of the calculus’ to set-theoretical accounts means that his presentation of Deleuze’s account of the calculus is only partial, and the partial character of his presentation leads him to make a number of unnecessary presumptions about the presentation of Deleuze’s account of the ‘metaphysics of the calculus’.

Sandra Field, Spinoza and Radical Democracy
Antonio Negri’s radical democratic interpretation of Benedictus de Spinoza’s political philosophy has received much attention in recent years. Its central contention is that Spinoza considers the democratic multitude to have an inherent ethical power capable of grounding a just politics. In this paper, I argue to the contrary that such an interpretation gets Spinoza back to front: the ethical power of the multitude is the result of a just and fair political institutional order, not its cause. The consequences of my argument extend beyond Spinoza studies. For Spinoza gives a compelling argument for his rejection of a politics relying on the virtue of a mass subject; for him, such a politics substitutes moral posturing for understanding, and fails to grasp the determinate causes of the pathologies of human social order. Radical democrats hoping to achieve effective change would do well to lay aside a romanticised notion of the multitude and pay attention to the more mundane question of institutional design.

Juan Gomez, Hume’s Four Dissertations: Revisiting the Essay on Taste
Sixteen years ago a number of papers and discussions considering Hume’s essay on taste emerged in various journals. They deal with a number of issues that have been commonly thought to arise from the argument of the essay: some authors take Hume to be proposing two different standards of taste, other think that his argument is circular, and other focus on the role the standard and the critics play in Hume’s theory. I believe that all the issues that have been identified arise from a reading of the essay that takes it out of its context of publication, and mistakes Hume’s purpose in the essay. In this paper I want to propose an interpretation of the essay on taste that takes into account two key aspects: the unity of the dissertations that were published along with the essay on taste in 1757, under the title of Four Dissertations, and Hume’s commitment to the Experimental Philosophy of the early modern period. I believe that these two contextual aspects of the essay provide a reading of the essay on taste that besides solving the identified issues, gives us a good idea of its aim and purposes.

Jack MacIntosh, Models and Methods in the Early Modern Period: 4 case studies
In this paper I consider the various roles of models in early modern natural philosophy by looking at four central cases: Marten on the germ theory of disease. Descartes, Boyle and Hobbes on the spring of the air; The calorific atomists, Digby, Galileo, et al. versus the kinetic theorists such as Boyle on heat and cold; and Descartes, Boyle and Hooke on perception. Did models in the early modern period have explanatory power? Were they taken literally? Did they have a heuristic function? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, consideration of these four cases (along with a brief look at some others) leads to the conclusion that the answer to each of these questions is yes, no, or sometimes, depending on the model, and the modeller, in question. I consider briefly the relations among these different uses of models, and the role that such models played in the methodology of the ‘new philosophy.’ Alan Gabbey has suggested an interesting threefold distinction among explanatory types in the early modern period, and I consider, briefly, the way in which his classification scheme interacts with the one these cases suggest.

Kari Refsdal, Kant on Rational Agency as Free Agency
Kant argued for a close relationship between rational, moral, and free agency. Moral agency is explained in terms of rational and free agency. Many critics have objected that Kant’s view makes it inconceivable how we could freely act against the moral law – i.e., how we could freely act immorally. But of course we can! Henry Allison interprets Kant so as to make his view compatible with our freedom to violate the moral law. In this talk, I shall argue that Allison’s interpretation is anachronistic. Allison’s distinction between freedom as spontaneity and freedom as autonomy superimposes on Kant a contemporary conception of the person. Thus, Allison does not succeed in explaining how an agent can freely act against the moral law within a Kantian framework.

Alberto Vanzo, Rationalism and Empiricism in the Historiography of Early Modern Philosophy
According to standard histories of philosophy, the early modern period was dominated by the struggle between Descartes’, Spinoza’s, and Leibniz’s Continental Rationalism and Locke’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s British Empiricism. The paper traces the origins of this account of early modern philosophy and questions the assumptions underlying it.

Kirsten Walsh, Structural Realism, the Law-Constitutive Approach and Newton’s Epistemic Asymmetry
In his famous pronouncement, Hypotheses non fingo, Newton reveals a distinctive feature of his methodology: namely, he has asymmetrical epistemic commitments. He prioritises theories over hypotheses, physical properties over the nature of phenomena, and laws over matter. What do Newton’s epistemic commitments tell us about his ontological commitments? I examine two possible interpretations of Newton’s epistemic asymmetry: Worrall’s Structural Realism and Brading’s Law-Constitutive Approach. I argue that, while both interpretations provide useful insights into Newton’s ontological commitment to theories, physical properties and laws, only Brading’s interpretation sheds light on Newton’s ontological commitment to hypotheses, nature and matter.