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Tag Archives: experiment

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.

The Experimental Role of Hypotheses in Newton’s Principia

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In the first edition of Principia (1687), book 3 contained nine hypotheses.  But in the second edition (1713), Newton re-structured book 3 so that it contained only two hypotheses.  All but one of the old hypotheses were simply re-labelled.  Those that specified explanatory constraints were called ‘Rules of Reasoning’, those that were simply unsupported generalisations were called ‘Phenomena’, and only the assumptions about nature were called ‘Hypotheses’.

1st edition 2nd edition
Hypothesis 1 Rule 1
Hypothesis 2 Rule 2
Hypothesis 3 Replaced by Rule 3
Hypothesis 4 Hypothesis 1
Hypothesis 5 Phenomenon 1
Hypothesis 6 Phenomenon 3
Hypothesis 7 Phenomenon 4
Hypothesis 8 Phenomenon 5
Hypothesis 9 Phenomenon 6
Lemma 3 Hypothesis 2

Table: Book 3 changes from 1st to 2nd editions.

These changes seem to indicate that Newton’s attitude to hypotheses changed dramatically between 1687 and 1713 – probably in response to Leibnizian criticisms and Cotes’ editorial comments.

On this blog, I have given you many reasons to suppose that, as early as 1672, Newton was working with a clear epistemic distinction between theories and hypotheses.  More recently, I have argued that in fact, Newton was working with a three-way epistemic distinction between theories, which are certain and experimentally confirmed, hypotheses, which are uncertain and speculative, and queries, which are not certain, but provide the proper means to establish the certainty of theories.  I call this division Newton’s ‘epistemic triad’.  I argued that hypotheses perform a distinctive and vital supporting role to theories and queries, and that this role is an enduring feature of Newton’s methodology.

Today I’ll compare the roles of hypotheses and rules of reasoning in book 3, and argue that Newton’s attitude to hypotheses c.1713 was a refinement of his attitude c.1687, but not a dramatic change.

To begin, consider hypothesis 1 (2nd edition): “The centre of the system of the world is at rest.”

Upon introducing this hypothesis, Newton explained that:

    “No one doubts this, although some argue that the earth, others that the sun, is at rest in the centre of the system.  Let us see what follows from this hypothesis.”

This is a simplifying assumption.  From this hypothesis, in conjunction with Corollary 4 of the Laws of Motion,

    “The common centre of gravity of two or more bodies does not change its state whether of motion or of rest as a result of the actions of the bodies upon one another; and therefore the common centre of gravity of all bodies acting upon one another (excluding external actions and impediments) either is at rest or moves uniformly straight forward”,

Newton derived Proposition 11:  “The common centre of gravity of the earth, the sun, and all the planets is at rest.”

This enabled him to calculate the motions of the planets – that is, to deduce the observational consequences of his theory.  I consider this to be the chief role of hypotheses, and it is experimental.

Now compare this with how Newton uses his rules of reasoning.

Rule 1 states:  “No more causes of natural things should be admitted than are both true and sufficient to explain their phenomena.”

And Rule 2 states:  “Therefore, the causes assigned to natural effects of the same kind must be, so far as possible, the same.”

In his discussion of Proposition 4, Newton explained:

    “And therefore that force by which the moon is kept in its orbit, in descending from the moon’s orbit to the surface of the earth, comes out equal to the force of gravity here on earth, and so (by rules 1 and 2) is that very force which we generally call gravity.”

These rules didn’t help Newton to deduce the observational consequences of his theory in the same way as his hypothesis 1.  They provide an important supporting role for his theory, but it is not an experimental role.

To the second edition, Newton also added the General Scholium, in which he (in)famously declared  “hypotheses non fingo”.  Recently I argued that, in this passage, Newton was not railing against hypotheses in general, but rather, against the use of ‘causal hypotheses’ to illustrate more abstract theories.  Given that the first edition did not contain any causal hypotheses, I consider this addition to indicate Newton’s increasing conviction in his method, rather than any dramatic change.

So finally, to summarise the developments between the first and second editions of Principia:

In the first edition:

  • Hypotheses are temporarily assumed, untestable propositions that provide a supportive role; and
  • There are no causal hypotheses.

In the second edition:

  • Hypotheses are temporarily assumed, untestable propositions that provide a supportive experimental role;
  • Other temporarily assumed, untestable propositions are given other labels to distinguish them from hypotheses; and
  • Emphatically, there are no causal hypotheses.

I see these changes as developments of Newton’s epistemic triad, rather than dramatic methodological changes.

Shapiro and Newton on Experimental Philosophy

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In a recent post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s paper, ‘Newton’s “Experimental Philosophy”‘, where he argues that

    the apparent continuity between Newton’s usage [of the term ‘experimental philosophy’] and that of the early Royal Society is, however, largely an illusion.

I examined his claim that ‘experimental philosophy’ was used as a synonym for ‘mechanical philosophy’ by the early Royal Society, whereas for Newton, the two terms had different meanings.

Today I’ll address another argument Shapiro makes in that paper.

Shapiro claims that Newton’s adoption of the experimental philosophy occurred quite late – while preparing the 2nd edition of Principia, published in 1713.  To support this claim, Shapiro argues that, in the 1713 edition of Principia, Newton uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ for the first time in public.  Moreover, the methodology Newton describes in this context is very different to the methodology he describes in his early optical papers.  Shapiro writes:

    At this time [1675] for Newton confirmation is by mathematical demonstration and secondarily – only if you think it is worth the bother – by experiment.  He clearly believed that a mathematical deductive approach would lead to great certainty and that experiment could provide the requisite certain foundations for such a science, but until the eighteenth century he did not assign experiment a primary place in his methodology.

If Newton’s ‘experimental philosophy’ is a late development, then this provides additional support for Shapiro’s claim that Newton’s experimental philosophy is not continuous with the methodology of his predecessors, the early members of the Royal Society.

In this post, I’ll argue that (1) experiment is a prominent theme in Newton’s methodological statements between 1672 and 1713, and (2) Newton’s methodology has features that suggest the influence of the early Royal Society.

1. Experiment is a prominent theme between 1672 and 1713

There is a strong experimental theme in Newton’s early optical papers (1672-1675).  For example, he says:

    the proper Method for inquiring after the properties of things is to deduce them from Experiments.


    I drew up a series of such Experiments on designe to reduce the Theory of colours to Propositions & prove each Proposition from one or more of those Experiments by the assistance of common notions set down in the form of Definitions & Axioms in imitation of the Method by which Mathematicians are wont to prove their doctrines.


    Now the evidence by which I asserted the Propositions of colours is in the next words expressed to be from Experiments & so but Physicall: Whence the Propositions themselves can be esteemed no more then Physicall Principles of a Science.

In the opening paragraph of De Gravitatione (date of composition unknown), Newton says:

    in order, moreover, that … the certainty of its principles perhaps be confirmed, I shall not be reluctant to illustrate the propositions abundantly from experiments as well…

In the 1st edition of Principia (1686), Newton says:

    The principles I have set forth are accepted by mathematicians and confirmed by experiments of many kinds.

And in the 1st edition of Opticks (1704), Newton says:

    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…

Experiment doesn’t seem secondary to me!

2. Newton’s methodology suggests the influence of the early Royal Society

As we have said before, the Royal Society adopted the experimental philosophy in a Baconian form – according to the Baconian method of natural history.  There is good evidence that Newton was familiar with the work of the Royal Society by the time he wrote his first optical paper in 1672: his notebooks show that he took notes from many issues of the Philosophical Transactions and he took careful notes on Boyle’s work.  Newton never adopted the Baconian method of natural history.  However, other features of Newton’s methodology suggest the influence of the early Royal Society.  For example, he made use of queries, he adopted the familiar distinction between theory and hypothesis, he was concerned with experiments, and he rejected speculation and speculative systems.

Shapiro notices that Newton rejected speculative systems, but fails to recognise that Newton wasn’t the first member of the Royal Society to take this stance.  On this blog we have provided ample evidence that the early members of the Royal Society railed against speculation.  Newton’s anti-speculation and anti-hypothetical stance, while extreme, was still inside the spectrum of acceptable experimental positions.  Consider this passage from Hooke’s Micrographa, addressed to the Royal Society:

    The Rules YOU have prescrib’d YOUR selves in YOUR Philosophical Progress do seem the best that have ever yet been practis’d.  And particularly that of avoiding Dogmatizing, and the espousal of any Hypothesis not sufficiently grounded and confirm’d by Experiments.  This way seems the most excellent, and may preserve both Philosophy and Natural History from its former Corruptions.

Whether or not Newton explicitly identified himself as such, we have good reason to think that Newton’s first optical paper in 1672 was written by an experimental philosopher.

Experiments in Early Modern Moral Philosophy

Juan Gomez writes…

As we have constantly argued for in this blog, experimental philosophy went beyond the boundaries of natural philosophy and was adopted in a number of other areas (ethics, aesthetics, theology, etc.) We have seen that this is particularly true in the case of Scotland (Turnbull, Hume, Fordyce, Reid, Hutcheson, Smith etc.), but we are yet to discuss the suitability of the experimental method of natural philosophy for enquiries into moral philosophy. In particular, we have not examined in any detail what those thinkers we have discussed would count as ‘experiments’ in formulating their moral theories. This is the topic of today’s post.

In a previous post I commented on Turnbull’s description of paintings as suitable samples or experiments for moral philosophy. But that discussion considered Turnbull’s Treatise on Ancient Painting instead of his main moral text, The Principles of Moral Philosophy. In the latter there is no explicit statement of what experiments for moral philosophy would look like, but we can get a picture of what they would amount to. Turnbull constantly writes statements where he tells us that the only method we should apply in all inquiries is one founded on experiment and observation:

    …we set about such an inquiry [moral] in the fair impartial way of experiment, and of reasoning from experiment alone… 

    …the whole of true natural philosophy is not, for that reason, no more than a system of facts discovered by experiment and observation; but it is a mixture of experiments, with reasonings from experiments: so in the same manner, in moral philosophy…

    In fine, the only thing in enquiries into any part of nature, moral or corporeal, is not to admit any hypothesis as the real solution of appearances, till it is found really to take place in nature, either by immediate experiment, or by necessary reasonings from effects, that unavoidably lead to it as their sole cause, law, or principle.

    It is only in the way of experiment, that either the science of the human mind, or of any material system can be acquired.

From these statements and the argument Turnbull develops in his book, it seems that he is using ‘experiment’ in a sense that is closer to the meaning of ‘experience’. This usage of the term is not surprising, since the French word ‘experience’ can mean both ‘experiment’ and ‘experience,’ and even in English and in Spanish the word can be used with both senses (the verb ‘experimentar’ in Spanish is used both to refer to ‘experience’ and to ‘experiment’). So it seems that ‘experiments’ in moral philosophy lose one of the connotations the term has in natural philosophy, namely the active, manipulation of nature. When Turnbull insists that in moral philosophy we can only reason by way of experiments, he is talking about observing and experiencing the way human beings behave, and founding our conclusions on such observations. So far we would have to say that there are no experiments per se in moral philosophy, but rather just experience and observation.

However, there is an aspect that does have some sort of parallel with experiments in natural philosophy. As I commented in a previous post, introspection is one of the aspects that the Scottish experimental moral philosophers used in their investigations, and this is the experimenting factor in their method. If we are to follow the methodology of experimental philosophy, then we must found all our theories on experience and observation, and completely disregard any sort of hypotheses and speculation. But when the subject of our inquiries is the human mind, our observations are limited. Yes, we can observe how other human beings behave, and that can give us some knowledge, but we cannot observe their minds. The only way anyone can observe the human mind and its operations is by looking into and experiencing their own mind, by introspection. By looking into our own minds we can construct an explanation of our constitution and behaviour based on such observations, and then we can observe others and compare experiences in order to enrich our moral theories. This is why Turnbull is constantly asking the reader not to take his word for the claims he makes, but rather experiment and look into their own minds to confirm such claims. He wasn’t the only one taking this stand: Thomas Reid also appeals to introspection and even Locke as early as Draft B of the Essay (1671) takes introspection to be a form of experiment.

So it seems that the term ‘experiment’ was tweaked for its application in moral philosophy. It is closer to what we mean by ‘experience,’ but it keeps an aspect of ‘experimenting’ that is limited to the each individual’s own mind. The question remains, however, as to whether we can actually count introspection as a proper experiment or not. The Scottish experimental moral philosophers certainly counted it just as they would count any experiment in natural philosophy.

CFP: Creative Experiments

From the Zeta Books website:

The Journal of Early Modern Studies is seeking contributions for its second issue (Spring 2013). It will be a special issue, devoted to the theme:

Creative experiments:
Heuristic and Exploratory Experimentation in Early Modern Science

Editor: Dana Jalobeanu

The past decade has seen a renewed interest in multiple aspects of early modern experimentation: in the cognitive, psychological and social aspects of experiments, in their heuristic and exploratory value and in the complex inter-relations between experience, observation and experiment. Meanwhile, comparatively little has been done towards a more detailed, contextual and specific study of what might be described, a bit anachronistically, as the methodology of early modern experimentation, i.e. the ways in which philosophers, naturalists, promoters of mixed mathematics and artisans put experiments together and reflected on the capacity of experiments to extend, refine and test hypotheses, on the limits of experimental activity and on the heuristic power of experimentation. So far, the sustained interest in the role played by experiments in early modern science has usually centered on ‘evidence’- related problems. This line of investigation favored examination of the experimental results but neglected the “methodology” that brought about the results in the first place. It has also neglected the more creative and exploratory roles that experiments could and did play in the works of sixteenth and seventeenth century explorers of nature.

This special issue of the Journal of Early Modern Studies aims to bring together articles devoted to the investigation of particular cases of early modern experiments or early modern discussions of experimental methodology. We aim to put together a selection of interesting and perhaps relevant case studies that would further what might prove to be an interesting line of research, namely the investigation of the heuristic, analogical and creative role of early modern experiments.

JEMS is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal of intellectual history, dedicated to the exploration of the interactions between philosophy, science and religion in Early Modern Europe. It is edited by the Research Centre “Foundations of Modern Thought”, University of Bucharest, and published and distributed by Zeta Books. For further information on JEMS, please visit

We are seeking for articles no longer than 10,000 words, in English or French, with an abstract and key-words in English. Please send your contribution by the 1st of October 2012 to

Hypotheses and Newton’s Rings

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In Ian Lawson’s recent post, he mentioned Hooke’s work on colours in thin films.  In this post, I’ll look at how Newton used his hypotheses on light to build on Hooke’s work in some interesting and important ways.

In his optical work of the early 1670s, while Newton prefers theories to hypotheses, he thinks that hypotheses are acceptable, even useful, for two purposes:

  1. To ‘illustrate’ (i.e. provide an intuitively plausible explanation of) the theory; and
  2. To ‘suggest’ experiments.

However, he insists that hypotheses should always be removed from the final version of the theory.  Recall Newton’s claim from his 1672 paper: “I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties”.

In December 1675, Newton wrote his paper, “An hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light”.  Here, he published his hypotheses on the nature of light for the first time.  To summarise them briefly:

  1. There is an ‘aethereal medium’;
  2. Aether vibrates, carrying sounds, smells and light;
  3. Aether penetrates and passes through the pores of solid substances;
  4. Light is neither the aether itself, nor the vibrations, but a substance that is propagated from ‘lucid’ bodies and travels through the aether;
  5. Light warms the aether and the aether refracts the light; and
  6. The rays (or bodies) of which light consists differ from one another physically.

In this paper, Newton claims that he is only discussing these hypotheses for the purposes of ‘illuminating’ his theory.  Moreover, he does not assert that these hypotheses are true, and emphatically does not use them to support his theory.  For example, when he discusses hypothesis (4), Newton is careful not to push too forcefully for any particular account of light.  He says one might suppose light to be “an aggregate of various peripatetic qualities”, or “unimaginably small and swift” corpuscles of various sizes, or “any other corporeal emanation or impulse or motion of any other medium diffused through the body of the aether”:

    Onely whatever Light be, I would suppose, it consists of Successive rayes differing from one another in contingent circumstances, as bignes, forme or vigour…  And further I would suppose it divers from the vibrations of the aether.

In this paper, there is a notable emphasis on experiment.  For example, when Newton discusses hypothesis (1), he gives an account of a new electrical experiment which seems to support his claim.  And when he discusses hypothesis (3), he discusses the implications for Boyle’s tadpole experiments.  But the most important experiments in this paper are his investigations on the colours that appear between two glass surfaces.

Alan Shapiro notes that Newton began these investigations while he was reading Hooke’s Micrographia.  But his experiments and mathematical descriptions quickly developed into something well beyond the scope of Hooke’s investigations.  Hooke described the colours that appear when two thin sheets of glass are placed one on top of the other.  When he made the thin film of air between the two sheets thicker or thinner by pressing the two sheets together with greater or lesser force, the colours changed.  He observed that different colours appeared at different thicknesses, but he was unable to quantify this observation as he was unable to measure accurately the thickness of the film at any given point.  Newton had the idea of placing a convex lens on top of a flat sheet of glass.  This enabled him to easily calculate the thickness of the film of air, and the colours appeared as a set of concentric coloured circles centred at the point of contact between the two surfaces.  These concentric circles are now known as ‘Newton’s Rings’.

Opticks, Book 2, Figure 3






Next Newton considered his hypotheses.  According to hypothesis (2) the vibrations of the aether vary in size, according to hypothesis (3) aether passes through the pores of solid substances, and according to hypothesis (6) rays of different colours will cause aethereal vibrations of different sizes.  If these hypotheses were correct, he argued, then light of a particular colour would be reflected either when the length of the vibration, or some multiple of the length of the vibration, matched the thickness of the film, and transmitted otherwise.  So he predicted that:

    if the Glasses in this posture be looked upon, there ought to appear at A [the centre], the contact of the Glasses, a black spott, & about that many concentric circles of light & darknesse, the squares of whose semidiameters are to sense in arithmetical progression.

Newton’s “Hypothesis” paper provides a good example of his method of hypotheses.  He remains carefully detached from his own hypothesis, using it only to ‘illustrate’ his theory and to suggest further experiments.  Newton was also careful to keep his hypotheses well separate from his theory; the paper ends with a series of ‘Observations’ that contain no reference to his hypotheses at all!

Kant on experiments, hypotheses, and principles in natural philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As we have often noted on this blog, early modern experimental philosophers typically praised observations and experiments, while rejecting natural-philosophical hypotheses and assumptions not derived from experience. Along similar lines, Larry Laudan claimed that aversion to the method of hypothesis characterized “most scientists and epistemologists” from the 1720s to the end of the eighteenth century. Laudan mentioned Kant as one of the authors for whom “the method of hypothesis is fraught with difficulties”.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

In this post, I will sketch a different reading of Kant. I will suggest that Kant, alongisde other German thinkers like von Haller, is an exception to the anti-hypothetical trend of the eighteenth century. Kant held that natural philosophers should embrace experiments and observations, but they are also allowed to formulate hypotheses and to rely on certain non-empirical assumptions. They should develop fruitful relationships between experiments and observations on the one hand, (some) hypotheses and speculations on the other.

I will illustrate Kant’s position by commenting on a sentence from the Pragmatic Anthropology: when we perform experiments,

    we must always first presuppose something here (begin with a hypothesis) from which to begin our course of investigation, and this must come about as a result of principles. (Ak. 7:223)

1. “[W]e must always first presuppose something here (begin with a hypothesis)…”

“For to venture forth blindly, trusting good luck until one stumbles over a stone and finds a piece of ore and subsequently a lode as well, is indeed bad advice for inquiry”. Even if we tried to perform experiments in a theoretical void, our activity would still be influenced by hypotheses and expectations. “Every man who makes experiments first makes hypotheses, in that he believes that this or that experiment will have these consequences” (24:889).

Like British experimental philosophers, Kant acknowledges that hypotheses and preliminary judgements may be “mere chimeras” (24:888), “romances” (24:220), castles in the air, or “empty fictions” (24:746). Hypotheses, like castles in the air, are fictions, but not all fictions must be rejected. The power of imagination, kept “under the strict oversight of reason” (A770/B798), can give rise to useful “heuristic fictions” (24:262). What is important is to be ready to reject or modify our hypotheses in the light of experimental results, so as to get closer and closer to the truth.

2. “…and this must come about as a result of principles.”

What principles are involved in our natural-philosophical investigations? As is well known, Kant holds that nature is constrained by a set of principles that we can establish a priori, like the causal law. In what follows, I will focus on three other principles that guide our experimental activity. They are the principles of homogeneity, specification, and affinity.

  • The principle of homogeneity states that “one should not multiply beginnings (principles) without necessity” (A652/B680). Kant takes it to mean that one must always search for higher genera for all the species that one knows. An example is the attempt to regard the distinction between acids and alkali “as merely a variety or varied expression of one and the same fundamental material” (A652-53/B680-81).
  • The principle of specification prohibits one from assuming that there are lowest species, that is, species which cannot in turn have sub-species. This led, for instance, to the discovery “[t]hat there are absorbent earths of different species (chalky earths and muriatic earths)” (A657/B685).
  • The principle of affinity derives from the combination of the principles of homogeneity and specification. It prompt us to look for intermediate specices between the species that we already know.

For Kant, the principles of homogeneity, specification, and affinity are not derived a posteriori from our experimental inquiries. They are a priori assumptions that guide them. We would not find higher genera, lower species, and intermediate species in the first place, unless we assumed that they exist and we tested that assumption with experiments and observations. For Kant, this is a non-empirical assumption that precedes and guides natural-philosophical inquiries. These do not unfold entirely a posteriori. They presuppose hypotheses and principles that are prior to experience and enable us to extend our knowledge of the world. Thus, rather than rejecting hypotheses and non-empirical assumptions as many experimental philosophers did, Kant holds that a guarded use of them is useful for our study of nature.

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.

Experimental Philosophy: Old and New

Over the last few months, we have been working with Dr Donald Kerr, the Special Collections Librarian at the University of Otago, to prepare a rare book exhibition on the history of experimental philosophy.  We have brought together classic works of the past and cutting-edge books of the present, to illustrate the theme of experimental philosophy as it was understood and practised 350 years ago and as it is understood today.

Our exhibition, ‘Experimental Philosophy: Old and New’, was launched a few weeks ago, to coincide with the annual conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP).  It will run until 23 September 2011, so if you are coming to Dunedin, be sure to stop by and see it.

The poster for our exhibition

For those who cannot come to Dunedin, we are thrilled to announce the launch of the online version of our exhibition.  Notable items on display include a second edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1713), Francis Bacon’s Of the Advancement Learning (1640), poet Abraham Cowley’s ‘A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy’ (1668), and an exciting new discovery* concerning the philosopher David Hume!

A couple of months ago, I requested your help: we needed an image for our exhibition poster.  We received some excellent feedback – so thank you everyone!  We eventually settled on a modified version of the frontispiece to 1640 translation of Bacon’s ‘De Augmentis Scientiarum’.

We hope you enjoy our exhibition!


* On Monday Peter Anstey will tell us all about this new discovery regarding Hume.

Experiment, Culture, and the History of Philosophy

This is a guest post by Justin E. H. Smith. 

Along with Mogens Laerke and Eric Schliesser, I am currently working on an edited volume for Oxford University Press (to appear in 2012) on the topic of methodology in history-of-philosophy scholarship. In some respects I have been thinking of this project as a redux of the influential 1984 volume, Philosophy in History, edited by Rorty, Schneewind, and Skinner.

One tremendous change over the past 27 years, which makes this redux not simply a repetition, has been the appearance, and reappearance, of experimental philosophy: that is, the emergence of experimental philosophy as a defining feature of the non-historical wing of the discipline, as well as a crucial focus of study (thanks in no small part to the work of the Otago group) for scholars studying the history of early modern philosophy.

A question of central methodological importance for the historian of philosophy concerns the appropriate relationship between the aspects of philosophy’s past that a scholar takes on, on the one hand, and on the other the current agenda of non-historical philosophy. Recently, in the results of a query launched by Mark Lance at the NewAPPS blog, my own deep worry about the state of the discipline was confirmed: a good many non-historian philosophers believe that, at the end of the day, history-of-philosophy scholarship should make itself relevant to the cluster of questions currently being investigated in philosophy. I could not disagree more strongly. To riff on John F. Kennedy’s famous line, I believe that we should not be asking what the history of philosophy can do for us, but rather what we can do for the history of philosophy. That is, we should be attempting to do justice to past thinkers by carefully reconstructing their own world of concerns. In doing so, we shall often have to move beyond the boundaries of what we consider philosophy (and even of what they considered philosophy).

I have argued in many fora that we should respect the historical usage of the term ‘philosophy’. Some have objected that it is a semantic issue –as in, a mere semantic issue– what might have been called by a certain name in another era. What is important, they say, is whether the activity so-called in fact has any continuity with what we are doing when we do philosophy. To some today, the discontinuity seems most evident when we consider early modern experimental philosophy. There simply is no meaningful sense, they maintain, in which we can think of meteorology as a proper part of philosophy, even if this is how it was conceived in the history of natural philosophy from Aristotle through (at least) Boyle.

We might suppose that this discontinuity is bridged to some extent by the recent appearance of an activity going by the name of ‘experimental philosophy’, but of course the scope of ‘experimental’ was very different for, e.g., Margaret Cavendish than for Joshua Knobe. Nonetheless, it is certainly worthwhile to reflect on what the 17th- and 21st-century versions of experimental philosophy share, and also on what they might someday share. For now, the new experimental philosophy sees itself as having common cause principally with experimental psychology. As some philosophers sympathetic to x-phi have argued, however, the concept of ‘experiment’ could be extended much further than has been done so far. Jesse Prinz, in particular, has suggested that ‘experiment’ could be understood broadly to include what we think of as ‘experience’: thereby reuniting it with its lexical ancestor, and also reconciling with the intuitions that x-phi initially came out against.

If experiment is (re-)broadened to include experience, then willy-nilly we arrive in a situation for philosophy in which, in effect, any source of information may be deemed of interest. Such a situation, I think, is one in which history-of-philosophy scholarship could thrive. It is one in which, moreover, this branch of scholarship would find common cause with historical anthropology. It might even open itself up to non-textual sources of information (e.g., instrument design, seed collections). The text would be dethroned as the exclusive source of information about what was motivating thinkers to come up with the ideas they had.

For a long time it has seemed unnecessary to historians of philosophy to move beyond texts, since philosophy is about ideas, and where else but in texts are ideas encoded? Certainly, texts are a useful source of ideas from the past, but seed collections and instrument design are also, so to speak, fossils of past intentions, and there is no reason why they should not complement texts of philosophy, just as the layout of graves complements hieroglyphic texts in an Egyptologist’s effort to reconstruct ancient Egyptian ideas about the afterlife.

But we tend to think of an Egyptologist’s work as having to do with culture, while we do not, today, think of historians of philosophy as specialists in culture at all. Historians of philosophy are supposed to be engaging with more-or-less timeless ideas, which are not supposed to be bound by the parameters of the culture inhabited by the thinker who had them. But let’s be serious. Is, say, Leibniz’s account of the fate of the soul of a dog after death (that is, shrinking down into a microscopic organic body and floating around in the air and in the scum of ponds for all eternity) really any more viable a candidate for the true theory of life after death than the account offered in The Egyptian Book of the Dead? I don’t believe so, and when I read Leibniz’s account it is not because I am considering adopting this account myself. It is because I am interested in the range of ways people in different times and places have conceptualized the irresolvable problem of the fate of the soul. I specialize in 17th-century Christian European approaches to this mystery, but I could just as easily have been an Egyptologist.

To acknowledge that we are studying culture –not all culture, but a particular manifestation of a certain culture: the European educated elite, which leaves its traces in texts, but not only in texts– is to make a move that is exactly parallel to the one practitioners of non-historical experimental philosophy are currently making relative to the discipline that houses them. Current x-phi is putting philosophy back into culture by empirically studying the culture-bound nature of intuitions, rather than resting content with the intuitions of self-appointed experts in intuition-having. This is a welcome development, but I believe it must be seen as just one small part of a broader project of re-embedding philosophy in culture, and I believe historians of philosophy have a particularly important role to play in this project. Philosophy in history is philosophy in culture.

Even if Boyle and Cavendish meant something different by ‘experimental philosophy’ than Knobe and Nichols do, to take an interest in Boyle and Cavendish’s conception of philosophy as extending to experimental science is to contribute in a specialized way, I believe, to the overall aim of current x-phi, which is to study how people in different times and places actually think. In pursuing this aim, current x-phi practitioners have found common cause with experimental psychologists. The parallel interdisciplinary move for the historian of philosophy should be one that brings us closer to the work of historical anthropologists.