Peter Anstey writes…
When did the French embrace experimental philosophy? There is no doubt that the early Académie des Sciences was committed to the use of experimental methods in natural philosophy from its inception in 1666. But there is little evidence of French natural philosophers self-identifying as experimental philosophers, of the teaching of experimental philosophy or of institutional recognition of experimental philosophy before the 1730s.
In 1735 Abbé Nollet offered the first course in experimental philosophy in France and two years later he published Programme ou idée générale d’un cours de physique expérimentale which was strongly influenced by John Theophilus Desaguliers whom he had met in England around 1734. By the late 1730s, however, it is not hard to find explicit endorsements of experimental philosophy and the deployment of the experimental/speculative distinction. The reviewer of Abbé Pluche’s Spectacle de la Nature in 1739 claims that Pluche rightly prefers experimental natural philosophy to speculative (Physique spéculative à laquelle il préfére avec raison la Physique) and that experimental philosophy is ‘so à la mode today’ (qui est aujourd’hui si à la mode).
By the early 1750s experimental philosophy is part and parcel of French natural philosophy. We have discussed this before on this blog in relation to Denis Diderot, but the following nice, clear, anonymous dictionary entry reinforces the point. In the Dictionnaire philosophique ou Introduction à la connoisance de l’homme, London (?), 1751 we find the following entry under ‘Physique’:
Natural philosophy is the knowledge of causes and effects of nature. It is experimental or conjectural. Experimental natural philosophy is certain knowledge; conjectural natural philosophy is often only ingenious. The one leads us to the truth, the other leads to error.
La Physique est la connoissance des causes & des effets de la nature: elle est expérimentale, or conjecturale. La Physique expérimentale est une connoissance certaine; la Physique conjecturale n’est souvent qu’ingénieuse: l’une nous conduit à la vérité, & l’autre nous mene à l’erreur.
The parallels with our oft-cited passage from John Dunton’s student manual in 1692 are striking:
Philosophy may be consider’d under these two Heads, Natural and Moral: The first of which, by Reason of the strange Alterations that have been made in it; may be again Subdivided into Speculative and Experimental.
… we must consider, the distinction we have made of Speculative and Experimental, and, as much as possible, Exclude the first, for an indefatigable and laborious Search into Natural Experiments, they being only the Certain, Sure Method to gather a true Body of Philosophy, for the Antient Way of clapping up an entire building of Sciences, upon pure Contemplation, may make indeed an Admirable Fabrick, but the Materials are such as can promise no lasting one.
(The Young-Students-Library, London, 1692, vi–vii)
And yet the two passages are six decades apart. Why did it take so long for the French to take up experimental philosophy? Why is it, for example, that the first chair in experimental philosophy in England was the Cambridge Plumian Chair in Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy founded in 1708 and first held by Roger Cotes, whereas the first chair of experimental philosophy in France was held by Abbé Nollet who was appointed as Professeur Royal de Physique Expérimentale au College de Navarre in 1753?
Any light that our readers can shed on these questions would be most welcome.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
We rang in 2013 by reconsidering our set of 20 core theses on the emergence and fate of early modern experimental philosophy. While our general theses regarding the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESD) were unchanged, I altered several of the specific claims about Newton’s methodology. In this post, I’ll focus on thesis 5 and why I changed it.
In 2011, I claimed that:
5. The ESD is operative in Newton’s early optical papers.
By ‘operative’, I mean that Newton appears to frame his methodology in terms of the ESD and aligns himself with the experimental philosophers of the Royal Society. While Newton’s methodology differed from his contemporaries in important ways (for example, unlike his contemporaries, Newton emphasised quasi-mathematical reasoning), it nevertheless reflects some of the key ideas and preferences of the Royal Society. Previously, I have discussed Newton’s early anti-hypothetical stance and Newton’s early use of queries as evidence of this his preference for the experimental philosophy of the Royal Society.
I now have enough evidence to broaden the scope of thesis 5. The ESD is operative in all of Newton’s scientific work; not just his early work:
5. The ESD is operative in Newton’s work, from his early work on optics in the 1670s to the final editions of Opticks and Principia published in the 1720s.
Let’s start with Newton’s Opticks. This book is widely recognised as a work of experimental philosophy. Newton’s experimental focus is made explicit by the opening sentence (which appears in every edition):
- “My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments…”
Moreover, the presence of queries and the absence of hypotheses reflect the epistemic commitments of the experimental philosophy.
Commentators often notice that, in later editions of Opticks, Newton’s queries become increasingly speculative. This suggests that, despite his use of ESD-jargon, Newton was not following the experimental philosophy after all. In response to this kind of objection, I have argued that these later queries perform a role that is distinct to that of hypotheses, and that this role is consistent with Newton’s methodology. Moreover, the general features of Newton’s methodology reflect his commitment to experimental philosophy in opposition to speculative philosophy. In short, the ESD is operative in every edition of the Opticks.
Now consider Newton’s Principia. This book is often seen as less a work of experimental philosophy and more a work of mathematics. However, I have argued that the methodological passages in the first edition of Principia, though sparse, make it clear that experiment is an important theme of this work. Moreover, in the ‘General Scholium’, which was introduced in the 2nd edition in 1713, Newton makes his commitment to the experimental philosophy explicit.
Commentators often notice that Newton’s use of hypotheses in Principia, and their changing roles between the three editions, suggest that his methodology changes over time. However, I have argued that, in all three editions, Newton’s use of hypotheses is consistent with his experimental method. Moreover, the late introduction of Rule 4 in 1726 demonstrates that this commitment to experimental philosophy, in opposition to speculative philosophy, is long-lasting. In short, the ESD is operative in every edition of the Principia.
To summarise, the notions of experiment, queries and a decrying of speculative hypotheses that are enduring themes in Newton’s work, from the 1670s to his death in 1727, support my broader thesis 5. Commentators often see Newton’s use of these notions as rhetorical and argue that he failed to follow his own methodology. However, I argue that Newton’s methodology is internally consistent. Moreover, these methodological statements are more than ‘mere’ rhetoric. Rather, to some extent they track his epistemic and ontological commitments.
Do you think my argument is convincing? I’d love to hear what you think about my conclusion.