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

Tag Archives: Feijoo

Scholasticism and natural science in early modern Spain

Juan Gomez writes…

One of the most exciting tasks of my research has been to track the introduction and reception of the ESD in early modern Spain. I have illustrated the adoption and praise of the spirit of experimental philosophy in various texts by the Spanish Novatores, and I looked in a bit more detail at the work of Benito Feijoo (posts 1, 2, and 3). In spite of the insistence to abandon scholastic and Aristotelian methods and science, the progress of natural philosophy in early modern Spain lagged in comparison to the rest of Europe. In fact, the Novatores themselves recognized this lack of progress, as is clear from a letter by Feijoo which I will be sharing with you today.

In 1745 Feijoo published a collection of letters, most of them responding to a range of criticisms directed against his Teatro Critico Universal. Letter 16 in the second volume of that collection is Causas del atraso que se padece en España en orden a las Ciencias Naturales (Causes for the backwardness of Spain regarding the Natural Sciences). Feijoo gives six reasons (causes) for this backwardness, in all of them placing the blame on the scholastic philosophers and their way of thinking.

The first cause is the narrowness of most of the teachers, whom Feijoo describes as “Everlasting ignorants, set on knowing only a few things, for no other reason that they think that there is nothing else to know, aside from those few things they know.” Feijoo goes on to describe this kind of teacher, who only knows scholastic logic and metaphysics, and laughs when hearing words like ‘new philosophy’ or ‘Descartes.’ However, when asked to explain the claims of the new philosophy or those held by Descartes, they stay silent because they have no knowledge of them. (Note: experimental philosophy and new philosophy are not identical, even though the former was sometimes referred to by the latter name. For example, Descartes was commonly regarded as a new philosopher, but not so much as an experimental philosopher.)

People like the teachers described above have spread throughout Spain a disdain for ‘the new’, the second cause identified by Feijoo. They think that, since every sacred doctrine labelled ‘new’ is rejected immediately for being suspicious, the same rule applies for theories about the natural world. So they must reject the teachings of Galileo, Huygens, and Harvey, as well as all the new instruments and machines developed in the seventeenth century, holding on to their scholastic and Aristotelian science as the one true system. Feijoo comments that this attitude backfires, since rejecting anything because it has been labelled ‘new’ entails that there could never have been any progress in natural science (the Aristotelian system was also ‘new’ at some point).

But aside from rejecting the new philosophy because it is ‘suspicious’, the Spanish scholastics also reject it because all it presents is “a few useless curiosities.” (This is the third cause given by Feijoo.) What the scholastics do not realize, Feijoo tells us, is that under this criterion their theories lose against those of the modern: “Which would be more useful: to explore in the physical world the works of the Author of Nature, or to investigate through large treatises derived from the Entity of Reason, and logical and metaphysical abstractions, the fictions of human understanding?” Feijoo also contrasts between the method of learning in the confines of the classroom of the scholastic, and that of the modern, based on experiments and observations.

The fourth cause rests on the mistaken notion held by the scholastics that the new philosophy is identical to Cartesian philosophy. Feijoo comments that although Cartesian philosophy might be new philosophy, new philosophy is not Cartesian philosophy, the same way men are animals but animals are not men. Highlighting the ESD, Feijoo goes on to divide philosophy into two kinds:

“Philosophy, taken in all its extension, can be divided into Systematic and Experimental. The Systematic has many different members, e.g. Pythagoric, Platonic, Peripatetic, Parascelsistic, or Chemical, that of Campanella, that of Descartes, that of Gassendi, etc.”

Feijoo clarifies that he advocates not that the Spaniards embrace one of the former systems, but rather that they do not close their eyes to “Experimental Physics”, which:

“without regard for any system, investigates the causes through the sensible effects; and where it cannot investigate the causes, it settles for the experimental knowledge of the effects… This is the physics that reigns in Nations: the one cultivated by many distinguished Academies as soon as it emerged in France, England, Holland, Etc.”

The achievements of this experimental physics are illustrated by the discoveries regarding our knowledge of the properties of air, of fluids and mechanics, all of them unattainable by relying on the physics of the schools.

Feijoo identifies as the last two causes the mistaken idea that the new philosophy clashes with religion, and the jealousy and pride of the scholastics in Spain that prevented them from accepting the triumphs of other men of science from different European nations. I will not examine them here. Instead I want to conclude the post by pointing out that, not only there is enough evidence to confirm the presence of the ESD (at least in some form) in early modern Spain, but also that it can provide us with an interesting framework to interpret the development of natural philosophy and science in early modern Spain.

Feijoo and his ‘Magisterio de la experiencia’ (lessons of experience), Part III

Juan Gomez writes…

In my last two posts I commented on an essay by Benito Feijoo. First we examined how he pictures the history of philosophy as the contest between two ladies —Solidína (experience) and Idearia (imagination) — to conquer the world. He sides with experience, and we also examined some of the arguments he gives to support the adoption of the experimental method and the rejection of mere speculation. In today’s post I want to follow Feijoo further, examining in particular his thought that just as we must abandon speculation when it is unaided by experience, we must also be cautious and keep in mind that experience without reasoning can also lead us astray in our quest for knowledge.

After spending most of his essay showing (through examples) that the proper path to knowledge is to follow the experimental method, Feijoo concludes with 3 capital errors that frequently take place in our experimental observations:

    We shall conclude this discourse, by pointing out three capital errors, which stem from lack of reflection in experimental observations. The first is that of taking for the effect that which is cause, and for cause that which is effect. The second is to take for cause something that only happens accidentally and has no influence at all. The third is, between two effects of the same cause, to take one as the cause of the other. I shall show examples of these three errors in observations pertaining to Medicine.

Of the first type of mistake Feijoo gives us a case where someone drinks water excessively to quench an overwhelming thirst. A few hours later such person suffers a fever, and it is commonly thought that the cause of the fever is the excessive consumption of water. However this is a false conclusion due to the lack of reflection when observing. If we reason, we can see that the sickness is the cause of the thirst that leads to the excessive consumption of water.

Feijoo warns us that this kind of mistake is very dangerous in medicine, since the lack of reflection and reasoning leads the physician to err in his diagnosis and prevent him from curing the disease.

The second kind of mistake takes place when we assign as the cause something that only happens accidentally. Feijoo tells us that this mistake is committed frequently by ‘superstitious souls’ that constantly assign to their diseases causes that have nothing to do with it. The most common mistaken cause in these cases is the weather. Patients frequently blame their disease on the weather: If during summer the weather is hot, the disease is taken to be caused by the excessive heat, but if summer is not hot enough, then this is also taken to be the cause of the disease.

Finally, the third kind of mistake happens when between two effects of the same cause we take one to be the cause of the other. Feijoo’s example is that of a man that performs an intense physical exercise or activity, then drinks alcohol in excess, and later suffers a fever. While most men would take the excessive drinking to be the cause of the fever, the truth is that intense exercise is more likely to cause a fever than excessive drinking.

This account of capital errors in experimental observation concludes Feijoo’s essay. So what are we to make of his thoughts on the ‘Lessons of Experience’? Well I believe that in Feijoo we have a clear example of the dispersion of the experimental method across the Iberian Peninsula in the first half of the eighteenth century. Feijoo might be the most influential figure of this period in Spain, but he certainly was not alone in the adoption and promotion of the experimental method: Andres Piquer, Manuel Martinez, Juan de Cabriada, and the circles of doctors in Seville and Valencia all shared the beliefs Feijoo expresses in his text. As we have seen in Feijoo’s work, the novatores believed that the correct path towards knowledge was the one taken by Bacon, Boyle, and Newton.