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Tag Archives: George Turnbull

History: “a school of morality to mankind”

Juan Gomez writes…

Throughout the last few years we have presented a number of posts on education and experimental philosophy in the Early Modern period. Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo have commented on teaching experimental philosophy (Desaguliers, Adams, and Meiners), Gerard Wiesenfelt delighted us with two posts on universities in seventeenth-century Europe (Sturm and de Volder), and I have discussed education in Aberdeen (Fordyce and Gerard) and England (Bentham). Today I want to contribute to our research on education by discussing Turnbull’s ideas on learning and virtue.

Even though scholars have recognized that there were significant developments in educational theory in the Early Modern Period, almost all of their accounts are French-centred and the only British author they refer to is Locke, due to his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Of course, the bulk of the educational treatises of the eighteenth century were produced by French authors (Voltaire, Rollins, Diderot, Condorcet, etc.), but this does not mean that important works on education were not being produced outside of France. Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education (1742) is a salient example here. Turnbull (with the exception of a recent article by Tal Gilead) is hardly even mentioned in scholarly accounts of education in the eighteenth-century, despite the fact that his book on education had a considerable impact at the time. Besides having a clear influence on Alexander Gerard and the educational reforms in the Aberdeen universities after 1750, Turnbull also appears as a major influence in Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of the Youth in Pennsylvania (1749). Further, even though many of the ideas in Turnbull’s Education also appear in Locke and Rollins’ work, Turnbull’s commitment to the experimental methodology gives his text a unique feature among the educational works of the time.

Turnbull, like Locke and Rollins before him, firmly believes that the main goal of education is the teaching of virtue. This popular idea of the time takes on a unique development in Education, where Turnbull applies the experimental method to his pedagogical theory:

    …as with regard to the culture of plants or flowers, sure rules can only be drawn from experiment; so for the same reason, there can be no sure rules concerning education but those which are founded on the experimental knowledge of human nature.

So where are we to find the experiments Turnbull hints at? If the aim of education is the achievement of virtue, then those experiments must contribute to this same purpose. We have already discussed that paintings can take on this role. However, in Education the role of experiments is taken up by the example of teachers and of historical characters. Turnbull refers to Horace to illustrate this method of educating:

    For ’tis by examples that good and bad conduct, with their various effects and consequences, the strength and grace to which men, by proper diligence, may arrive, and the baseness and misery into which vice plunges, most strongly appear…This, indeed, is the moral lesson every more exalted example in the records of human affairs presents to us in the most striking light, and to which cannot be too early or too forcibly inculcated from fact and experience… The characters of the more considerable personages of moral history, will afford, to a judicious instructor, excellent opportunities of enforcing, of deeply riveting this important lesson upon young minds.

History takes a primary role in Turnbull’s theory of education, given that it furnishes us with the experiments that allow us to direct the mind towards virtue. In another of his texts, a preliminary discourse to a translation of Justin’s History of the world (1742), Turnbull paraphrases Rollin to illustrate the priority of teaching history:

    History therefore, when it is well taught, becomes a school of morality to mankind, of all conditions and ranks. It discovers the deformity and fatal consequences of vices, and unmasks false virtues; it disabuses men of their popular errors and prejudices; and despoiling riches of all its enchanting and dazzling pomp and magnificence, demonstrates by a thousand examples, which are more persuasive than reasonings, that there is nothing truly great or praise-worthy, but untainted honour and probity.

Rollin and Turnbull share this belief in the supreme importance of history for teaching virtue, but unlike the former’s, Turnbull’s theory stands on his belief that the experimental method is the proper way of gaining any kind of knowledge. One of Turnbull’s original and interesting contributions to eighteenth-century educational theory is his interpretation of historical accounts as proper examples that provides us with adequate facts and observations for the instruction of virtue, in the same way experiments allow us to construct our conclusions in natural philosophy. Of course, the question of the accuracy of historical reports springs up; can inaccurate or false historical reports still contribute to the instruction of virtue? For example, an historical account that somehow illustrates that greed leads to happiness and the progress of society would not, presumably, be of service to the goal of education that Turnbull wishes. However, by insisting on the importance of the experimental method Turnbull has a way out: only those historical accounts that are founded on facts and observations are to be considered in the education of our youth. Turnbull did not deal with this issue in enough detail in Education, but he did discuss the issue of the reliability of historical reports in another context (religious testimony) which we will explore in my next post.

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.

Miracles and ‘Experimental Theism’

Juan Gomez writes…

Greg Dawes pointed out to me a passage in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion where we find the term ‘experimental theism.’ In this text, Hume seems to be referring to an argument given by one of the characters in the dialogue, Cleanthes, where the principle “like effects prove like causes” functions as a premise in an argument for a Deity. But what is really striking is that the term “experimental theism” nicely describes the approach George Turnbull takes in his religious texts, the Principles of Christian Philosophy (1749) and the earlier Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Connexion Between the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ (1731). In this post I want to look at the earlier religious text and examine Turnbull’s exposition of what I believe is his ‘experimental theism’.

Turnbull constantly refers to the way natural philosophy is practised in order to adopt the same methods in inquiries into any kind of knowledge at all, whether moral or natural (see my previous posts here and here). His text on the Doctrines and Miracles of Jesus Christ is no exception. The interesting aspect of this text is that Turnbull draws an analogy between experiments and miracles. His argument begins by explaining how we come to know the laws of matter and motion:

    It is by experiment, that the natural philosopher shews the properties of the air, for example, or of any other body. That is, the philosopher shews certain effects which infer certain qualities: or in other words, he shews certain proper samples of the qualities he pretends the air, or any other body that he is reasoning about, hath. Thus is it we know bodies gravitate, attract, that the air is ponerous and elastic. Thus it is, in one word, we come to the knowledge of the properties of any body, and of the general laws of matter and motion.

This is the same way we can know if someone possesses a particular, skill, power, knowledge, or character:

    ’Tis by proper samples or experiments only of power and knowledge, that we can be assured, one actually possesses a certain power of knowledge. Just so it is only by samples or experiments, that we can judge of one’s honesty, benevolence, or good intention.

In the same way, “It is from the works of the Supreme Being, that we infer his infinite wisdom, power and goodness; as from so many samples and experiments, by which we may safely judge of the whole.” This is way of proving through ‘samples and experiments’ is what allows Turnbull to draw the connection between the Doctrines and the miracles. The miracles are sufficient proof of the doctrines, since they are the samples and experiments that show that Jesus has the set of powers entailed by the three kinds of doctrines of Christianity Turnbull identifies: the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, of resurrection of the dead, and of the forgiveness of sins.

Turnbull begins by examinig the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. He tells us that Jesus has claimed that he has the power to raise the dead. How can we tell if this is the case or not? Well we need samples and experiments:

    It was necessary to give samples, or experiments, of this power he claimed. And accordingly he raised from the dead; and gave power to his apostles to raise from the dead. And to put his pretensions beyond all doubt, he himself submitted to death, that he might give an incontestible proof of his being actually possessed of that power, by rising himself from the dead the third day, according to his own prediction.

Within this theory, miracles are analogous to the experiments and facts that work as proof for theories about the natural world. Turnbull examines the other two kinds of doctrine in a similar manner and concludes that Jesus Christ has given proper proof of having the powers he has claimed to have, and as evidence Turnbull cites the many passages in the New Testament where we find anecdotes of the miracles performed by Jesus Christ. The analogy is further explained when Turnbull considers the fact that we cannot understand the nature of miracles. It is not necessary that we understand the nature of the miracle, since it is still proof of the power of performing such miracle. This is the case with attraction in natural philosophy:

    Attraction, say all the philosophers, is above our comprehension: they cannot explain how bodies attract: but experience or samples certainly prove that there is attraction. And proper experiments or samples, must equally prove the power of raising the dead, tho’ we do not understand, or cannot explain, that power.

There are many interesting aspects in Turnbull’s religious thought worth looking into, but for now I’ll leave you with the few snippets provided here. The most relevant feature of Turnbull’s explanation of miracles is that it shows how committed he was to applying the experimental method to any sort of inquiry. He did this in moral philosophy, and here he does it regarding religion. Besides the use of the rhetoric of the experimental philosophy and the consideration of miracles as experiments, he even concludes the text with a list of queries, providing us with some insight of what a work of ‘experimental Theism’ would look like.

The ESP distinction in the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh

Juan Gomez writes…

One of my areas of interest centres on Scottish Philosophical Societies of the Enlightenment. It is a shame that there hasn’t been much research on them, despite the fact that most of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were members of at least one of the many learned societies that emerged in the eighteenth century. Not only were many of their members prominent figures, but the societies played a role in the intellectual development of the Scottish literati and the development of Scotland as a nation. Such is the case of the Philosophical Society of Aberdeen where Thomas Reid, Alexander Gerard, James Beattie, George Campbell and John Gregory, among others, discussed early drafts of their most important works before they saw the light of day. But in this post I want to focus on the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh (PSE) and show the role that the experimental-speculative distinction (ESP) played in the society.

The PSE emerged from Alexander Monro’s Medical Society, when his good friend Colin MacLaurin proposed to him to expand it to include the discussion of natural philosophy. The Society was thus born in 1737 and in 1783 was granted a Royal charter and became the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In those 46 years the society held among its members the most influential figures of Edinburgh society. Besides Monro and MacLaurin we can count among its members Adam Smith, David Hume, Lord Kames, William Cullen, Hugh Blair, John Pringle, Andrew Plummer and Joseph Black. The PSE published three volumes of collected essays, and in them we find statements that show that the ESP distinction played an important role in the society.

The founding members wrote a document entitled ‘Proposals for the Regulation of a Society for Improving Arts and Sciences and particularly Natural Knowledge’. One passage shows their commitment to the experimental method and of course the rejection of speculation:

    Authority is to be held of no weight in their reasonings. The shew of Learning, and Quotation of Authors sparingly used in their Papers. Things to be minded not words. Arguments to be chiefly drawn from proper Experiments and clear Consequences deduced from them or from evident Propositions. Metaphysical Subtilties not be insisted on.

Twenty years after the founding of the society we find in the preface to the first volume of collection of essays a restatement of their attitude:

    The object of this society is the same with that of the other academies, which have been established in other parts of Europe, the promoting of natural philosophy, and of literature, by communicating to the public such dissertations as shall be transmitted to them, either by their own members or by others. ´Tis allowed, that these two branches of learning, especially the former, are more promoted by the observation of facts than by the most ingenious reasonings and disputations.

Not only do we find this sort of statement in the preface, but a number of essays mention at some point that the only way to proceed in philosophy is following the experimental method. Lord Kames wrote an essay on the laws of motion and in it he complains about speculative philosophy. It is a lengthy quote, but it shows clearly the anti-speculative attitude of the experimental philosophers:

    Nothing has more perplexed philosophy, than an unlucky propensity, which makes us grasp at principles, without due regard to facts and experiments… This bent of the mind is productive of manifold errors. Prepossessed once by a favourite principle, we are no longer open to conviction. Every phenomenon must be accommodated to that principle, and every opposite fact, however obstinate, must go for nothing.
    Even in Natural Philosophy, theory was introduced before experiment, and every philosopher urged his own notions, without regard to truth or reality. This produced a mass of undigested and contradictory theory; which at length could not fail to bring on the discovery, that the whole was a little better than a fancy and chimera.

Throughout the essay Kames goes on contrasting facts and observation with false hypotheses, constantly reminding us that his comments are based only on the former. Andrew Plummer also referred to the laws of motion in an essay on neutral salts. He concludes his essay with a clear example of use of the ESP distinction:

    These principles of motion in matter, are not the vain fictions of men merely speculative in philosophy, but evidently deduced from observations and experiments on a great variety of bodies in many different circumstances.

As I have mentioned, most of the essays show in some way their rejection of speculation and the commitment to the experimental method, but space has only allowed me to give the few examples here, however I would be happy to expand on the evidence if any reader is interested (contact me). A detailed look at the Scottish Philosophical Societies not only confirms the widespread use of the ESP distinction, but it can also help us shed light on the intellectual development and relations of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Paintings as Experiments in Natural and Moral Philosophy

Juan Gomez writes…

About a month ago I published a post on George Turnbull’s Treatise on ancient Painting. There I briefly commented that Turnbull thought that paintings could work as proper samples or experiments for natural and moral philosophy (understood as the ‘science of man’). I want to expand on this issue in this post.


Engraving by Camillo Paderni, first edition of Turnbull's 'Treatise'

The whole of Turnbull’s Treatise, as he comments at the beginning of chapter seven, is designed to show the usefulness of the imitative arts for philosophy and education in general. After a recollection of the thoughts of the ancient philosophers on these arts, Turnbull dedicates the last two chapters of the book to sketch the reasons for incorporating the arts in the Liberal education program. This is where paintings can serve as samples or experiments.

To understand the role of paintings, it is necessary to point out a general characteristic of Turnbull’s philosophy. He believed that human beings were made to contemplate and to imitate nature, and their happiness was mainly achieved through these two activities. If we take a look and examine all our faculties and powers, we will see that we are perfectly constituted for the study of nature. We acquire knowledge through the observation of nature, and the desire to imitate it leads us to perform experiments that will enhance our understanding of it.

Nature is also the source for the work of the artist:

    The Artist derives all his Ideas from Nature, and does not make Laws and Connexions agreeably to which he works in order to produce certain Effects, but conforms himself to such as he finds to be necessarily and unchangeably established in Nature. (Treatise on Ancient Painting, p. 137)

From this it follows that the paintings of an artist should represent (imitate) nature as it is in reality, following all its laws.  With this in mind Turnbull goes on to tell us that paintings in fact serve as samples or experiments for natural and moral philosophy:

    Philosophy is rightly divided into natural and moral; and in like manner, Pictures are of two Sorts, natural and moral: The former belong to natural, and the other to moral Philosophy. For if we reflect upon the End and Use of Samples or Experiments in Philosophy, it will immediately appear that Pictures are such, or that they must have the same Effect. What are Landscapes and Views of Nature, but Samples of Nature’s visible Beauties, and for that Reason Samples and Experiments in natural Philosophy? And moral Pictures, or such as represent parts of human Life, Men Manners, Affections, and Characters; are they not Samples of moral Nature, or of the Laws and Connexions of the moral World, and therefore Samples or Experiments in moral Philosophy? (Treatise, p. 145)

Since the paintings are supposed to represent nature, it is impossible to appreciate them without comparing them to the original (reality). In this sense paintings will provide us with a proper sample of nature that will enhance our knowledge of it. Turnbull’s theory relies on the artist making exact ‘copies’ of nature, and only then can they serve as proper samples. In the case of natural pictures, he allows two sorts of ‘copies’: either exact representations of nature (like a photograph), or imaginary scenes, as long as they conform to the Laws of Nature. If they are not in these categories, then they shouldn’t be taken as proper samples for the study of nature, and in Turnbull’s case, not even as good works of art. Those works of art that do not imitate nature do not give us the pleasure derived from those that do.

Turnbull prescribes a parallel form of realism for moral paintings. These pictures should depict human nature as it really is, and through them we can gain knowledge of our actions and characters:

    Moral Pictures, as well as moral Poems, are indeed Mirrours in which we may view our inward Features and Complexions, our Tempers and Dispositions, and the various Workings of our Affections. ‘Tis true, the Painter only represents outward Features, Gestures, Airs, and Attitudes; but do not these, by an universal Language, mark the different Affections and Dispositions of the Mind? (Treatise, p. 147)

As long as the sole purpose of the arts is to imitate nature, and all the works follow the laws of nature (even in cases of imaginary scenes), Turnbull can count them as having the same effect ‘real’ samples and experiments have.

Symposium on Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism

St Margaret’s College, University of Otago, 18-19 April 2011

Monday 18 April

9.00 Introductory Session (Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo)

9.30 Discussion of Peter Anstey, The Origins of the Experimental/Speculative Distinction
Discussant: Gideon Manning
Chair: Alberto Vanzo

11:30 Discussion of Juan Gomez, The Experimental Method and Moral Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment
Discussant: Charles Pigden
Chair: Kirsten Walsh

14:30 Discussion of Kirsten Walsh, De Gravitatione and Newton’s Mathematical Method
Discussant: Keith Hutchison
Chair: Philip Catton

20:00 European Panel of Experts (video conference)
Chair: Peter Anstey

Tuesday 19 April

9:30 Discussion of Peter Anstey, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and the Experimental Philosophy
Discussant: Anik Waldow
Chair: Juan Gomez

11:30 Discussion of Alberto Vanzo, Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann
Discussant: Tim Mehigan
Chair: Philip Catton

14:30 Discussion of Alberto Vanzo, Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany
Discussant: Eric Watkins
Chair: Peter Anstey

16:30 Final plenary session, led by Gideon Manning

17:00 Conclusion

Attendance at the symposium is free. However, space is limited, so we advise you to register early. To register and for information, please email

Abstracts of all papers are available here. If you cannot attend, but would like to read some of the papers, send us an email.

Turnbull’s Treatise on Ancient Painting and the Experimental/Speculative Distinction

Juan Gomez writes…

In my previous post on David Fordyce’s thoughts on education, I showed how his speech to students on the commencement of the studies embodies the commitment to the method of the experimental philosophy. This is hardly surprising given that his teacher at Marischal, George Turnbull, expressed the same commitment a year before Fordyce’s speech in his Observations upon Liberal Education (1742). In this post I want to focus on an earlier text, his Treatise on Ancient Painting (1740). In addition to trying to find out “wherein the Excellence of Painting consists,”  he wants to show the usefulness of this art and its essential role in education.

Treatise on Ancient Painting (1740) title page
Relying heavily on texts by ancient authors, Turnbull claims that painting, and the arts in general, have always been (and should always be) connected to the study of nature. In this sense, pictures or paintings, when they reflect and are created in accordance to the laws of nature, can serve as proper samples for the study of nature. By analogy, moral paintings (which showcase the true excellence of art: Virtue) work as proper samples and ‘experiments’ for the study of human nature. (But the topic of ‘experiments’ in moral philosophy will have to wait a couple of posts, since I’m focusing strictly on the education issue first.)

The ESP distinction can be seen at work in the passages where Turnbull commends the experimental method and rejects speculation. Like he did in his Principles of Moral Philosophy, Turnbull expresses antipathy towards hypotheses and praises an emphasis on experiments and observation as the only true method for acquiring knowledge. When discussing one of the main purposes of travelling (since the Treatise on Ancient Painting was supposed to serve as a guide for young British travelers) he tells us the following:

    The Ancients travelled to see different Countries, and to have thereby Opportunities of making solid Reflexions upon various Governments, Laws, Customs and Policies, and their Effects and Consequences with regard to the Happiness or misery of States, in order to import with them into their own Country, Knowledge founded on Fact and Observation, from which, as from a Treasure of Things new and old, sure and solid Rules and Maxims might be brought forth for their Country’s Benefit on every Emergency. For this is certain, that the real Knowledge of Mankind can no more be acquired by abstract Speculation without studying human Nature itself in its many various Forms and Appearances, than the real Knowledge of the material World by framing imaginary Hypotheses and Theories, without looking into nature itself: And no less variety of Observations is necessary to infer or establish general Rules and Maxims in the one than in the other Philosophy. (Emphasis added)

In the final chapters of the book Turnbull again reminds us about the ‘true philosophy,’ this time leaning on Socrates, Bacon, and Newton for support. Arguing for the unity of natural and moral philosophy in education, Turnbull discusses the pleasure derived from the study of nature:

    Socrates long ago found fault with those pretended Enquirers into Nature, who amused themselves with unmeaning Words, and thought they were more knowing in Nature, because they could give high sounding Names to its various Effects; and did not inquire after the wise and good general Laws of Nature, and the excellent Purposes to which these steadily and unerringly work. My Lord Verulam tells us, that true Philosophy consists in gathering the Knowledge of Nature’s Laws from Experience and Observation. And Sir Isaac Newton hath indeed carried that true Science of Nature to a great height of Perfection… I shall only observe farther on this Head, that if this be the right method of improving and pursuing natural Philosophy, it must necessarily follow, that the Knowledge of the moral World ought likewise to be cultivated in the same manner, and can only be attain’d to by the like Method of enquiry: By investigating the general Laws to which, if there is any order in the moral World, or if it can be the Object of Knowledge, its Effects and Appearances must in like manner be reducible, as those in the corporeal World to theirs […]

As we can see, the works of George Turnbull and David Fordyce show evidence of the use of the ESP distinction in fields outside of natural philosophy. Beyond this, they show that the moral philosophy taught by these gentlemen in Aberdeen in the first half of the eighteenth century was driven by the characteristic attitude of the experimental method, shedding light on the development and roots of the ‘science of man’ in the eighteenth century.

David Fordyce’s advice to students

Juan Gomez writes…

I have mentioned the name ‘David Fordyce’ a couple of times in my previous posts. The influence this thinker had in the second half of the eighteenth century (Benjamin Franklin was impresed by his works, though he mistakenly credited them to Hutcheson) usually goes unnoticed, despite the success of his main works. He is also a very good example of the adoption of the rhetoric and methodology of experimental philosophy in the field of moral philosophy.

Fordyce (1711-1751) studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen, in the 1720s (the same decade George Turnbull was a regent there). He came back to his alma mater in 1742 to become a regent himself. During this period he taught, as most regents did, “all the Sciences, Logics, Metaphysics, Pneumatics, Ethics strictly so called & the Principles of the Law of Nature and Nations with natural and experimental Philosophy.” (David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 6 June 1743. Quoted in the Liberty Fund edition of his Elements of Moral Philosophy). This was also the period when he published his main works, the Dialogues Concerning Education (1745) and The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1748). The latter was first published as section nine of Robert Dodsley’s The Preceptor (1748), anonymously, and then published posthumously in 1754. The essay had such a good reception that it was used as the text book for moral philosophy lectures in North American universities, and it was used almost in full (only the conclusion was ommitted) for the entry on moral philosophy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from its first edition until well into the nineteenth century.

A recent edition of the Elements also includes a speech he gave to his students at the start of the year of lectures on moral philosophy, which is the text I want to focus on. The speech is entitled A brief Account of the Nature, Progress, and Origin of Philosophy delivered by the late Mr. David Fordyce, P. P. Marish. Col: Abdn to his Scholars, before they begun their Philosophical course. Besides the explicit use of the terminology of the experimental method in his Elements (induction, hypotheses, deduction of rules from observation, etc.), his speech shows the traits that characterize the methodology of the experimental philosophy. For example:

    “It is evident that setting aside sovreign instruction, true knowledge must be acquired by slow degrees from experience & observation, & that it will always be proportionate to the largeness & extent of our Experience.”
    “The knowledge then of the nature, laws & connections of things is, as has been observed, Philosophy; and they who apply to the study of these, & from thence deduce rules for the conduct & improvement of human life, are Philosophers. They who consider things as they are or as they exist, & draw right conclusions from thence, are true Philosophers. But they who without regard to fact or nature indulge themselves in framing systems to which they afterwards reduce all appearances, are, notwithstanding their ingenuity & subtilty, to be reckoned only the corrupters & enemies of true learning.”
    “Now there is a natural & proper method of attaining to true knowledge as well as any other accomplishment, which if neglected must occasion error & contradiction. It cannot be too often repeated, that there is no real knowledge, nor any that can answer a valuable End, but what is gathered or Copyed from nature or from things themselves. That the knowledge of Nature is nothing else than the knowledge of facts or realities & their established connections. That no Rules or Precepts of life Can be given or any Scheme of Conduct prescribed, but what must suppose a settled Course of things conducted in a regular uniform manner. That in order to denominate those Rules just, & to render those Schemes successful, the Course of things must be understood & observed. & that all Philosophy, even the most didactic & practical parts of it, must be drawn from the Observation of things or at least resolved into it; Or which is the same thing, that the knowledge of truth is the knowledge of Fact, & whatever Speculations are not reduceable to the one or the other of these are Chimerical, Vague & uncertain.”

The previous are just the most telling quotes, but the whole overview Fordyce gives of the history of philosophy embodies the anti-Aristotelian, anti-hypothetical attitude of the experimental philosophy. Such was the message Fordyce delivered as a regent to his students in the 1740s, highlighting the relevance of the experimental/ speculative distinction, with the former being the only appropriate method for the progress of knowledge.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned to our blog. Pretty soon we will have a guest post by Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt on a topic closely related to Fordyce’s speech: early modern universities and experimental philosophy.

Anti-Newtonianism in moral philosophy?

Juan Gomez writes…

Peter Anstey recently posted a reply to Eric Schliesser’s criticisms of the experimental/speculative distinction we are proposing. Eric posted some comments on this topic in the New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog, where he expanded his criticisms by presenting a four-fold problem for our distinction. I quote the fourth point of criticism from Eric’s post:

    Fourth, and most important to the history of philosophy, when the “experimental” philosophy was introduced into moral areas (Turnbull, Hume, etc.) it was decidedly Baconian in character, and often quite hostile to Newton (but that story must await more detail later).

I am going to pitch in my reply before Eric gives us more details on this hostility to Newton. In my previous post on the ‘spirit’ of experimental philosophy, I attached a document with some quotes from Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy that illustrate the opposite of Eric’s claim.  The following are just the three most explicit quotes (you can check this document for more of them):

    Account for MORAL, as the great Newton has taught us to explain for NATURAL Appearances, (that is, by reducing them to good general laws) (Epistle dedicatory, i)
    The great Master [Newton], to whose truly marvelous (I had almost said more than human) sagacity and accuracy, we are indebted for all the greater improvements that have been made in Natural Philosophy, after pointing out in the clearest manner, the only way by which we can acquire real knowledge of any part of nature, corporeal or moral, plainly declares, that he looked upon the enlargement Moral Philosophy must needs receive, so soon as Natural Philosophy, in its full extent, being pursued in that only proper method of advancing it, should be brought to any considerable degree of perfection, to be the principal advantage mankind and human society would then reap from such science. (Preface, iii)
    It was by this important, comprehensive hint [Newton’s], I was led long ago to apply myself to the study of the human mind in the same way as to that of the human body, or any other part of Natural Philosophy: that is, to try whether due enquiry into moral nature would not soon enable us to account for moral, as the best of Philosophers teaches us to explain natural phenomena. (Preface, iii)

One last thought, and a preview of a post in the near future, regarding Eric’s comments: David Fordyce, regent at Marischal College for 10 years (1741-1751), studied in the same college in the 1720’s when Turnbull was a regent. His posthumous publication The Elements of Moral Philosophy might fall under Eric’s description of being ‘Baconian in character,’ but there is certainly no hostility to Newton, and it fits in nicely with our description of experimental philosophy. I leave you with a passage from Fordyce’s book. It is interesting to mention here that parts of Fordyce’s book were used by William Smellie’s for the entry on moral philosophy of his first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and were maintained in the following editions for decades.

    Moral Philosophy has this in common with Natural Philosophy, that it appeals to Nature or Fact; depends on Observation, and builds its Reasonings on plain uncontroverted Experiments, or upon the fullest Induction of Particulars of which the Subject will admit. We must observe, in both these Sciences, Quid faciat & ferat Natura; how Nature is affected, and what her Conduct is in such and such Circumstances. Or in other words, we must collect the Phaenomena, or Appearances of Nature in any given Instance; trace these to some General Principles, or Laws of Operation; and then apply these Principles or Laws to the explaining of other Phaenomena. (The Elements of moral Philosophy, 1754, p. 7-8)

Turnbull and the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method

Juan Gomez writes…

You will probably recognize the following phrase: ‘An attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into moral Subjects.’ It is the subtitle of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature of 1739-40, and the first explicit mention of the application of the experimental method in moral topics. Many scholars have pointed to it, and claimed that Hume was the first one to go forward with this attempt. However, others (Tom Beauchamp, Alexander Broadie) have also noticed that this idea did not originate with Hume. I will show here that the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method was very much alive at least 20 years before the publication of Hume’s Treatise. In fact, contrary to the most commonly held view, Hume should not be the reference point when studying the emergence of the “science of man”. Rather, we should look at the Aberdeen philosophers, in particular at George Turnbull and his lectures at Marischal College in the 1720’s.

I will make a prima facie case for this claim with only a few quotes (available in this document), but please do contact me if you are interested in the topic, since there is more than enough evidence that I would be happy to discuss with you.

To begin with, Hume was not the first to allude to the application of the experimental method in moral philosophy. Francis Hutcheson had already done this in his 1725 Inquiry. The subtitle of this work explains that it contains the following:

Turnbull's Principles of Moral Philosophy(1740)

Turnbull's Principles of Moral Philosophy(1740)

    the Principles of the late Earl of Shaftesbury are explained and defended against the Fable of the Bees; and the Ideas of Moral Good and Evil are established, according to the Sentiments of the Ancient Moralists, with an attempt to introduce a Mathematical Calculation on subjects of Morality. (emphasis added)

Hutcheson doesn’t use the words ‘experimental method’, but saying that he will give a ‘mathematical calculation on subjects of morality’ is perfectly in line with the spirit of the experimental method (specifically with the Newtonian method). To be fair to Hume, he does recognize Hutcheson as one of the philosophers who has “begun to put the science of man on a new footing.” (Treatise (1739), Introduction, p. 6-7) So Hume might have recognized that he was not the first, but a number of modern scholars have not.

Moving on to George Turnbull, whom I believe is mistakenly underrated as a figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, published his Principles of Moral Philosophy in 1740, the same year Hume published the third volume of his Treatise, which is on Morals. This would at least lead us to think that both Hume and Turnbull were working on the application of the experimental method in morality at the same time. But as Turnbull mentions in the introduction to his Principles, his book is based on the lectures he gave at Marischal College between 1721 and 1726, around the time when Hume was a student at the University of Edinburgh. Besides the numerous remarks in the Principles that show Turnbull’s devotion to the experimental method, there is a key document that shows that he was teaching the young Aberdeen students the moral philosophy he explains in the book he published 17 years later.  The document is the 1723 graduation thesis, which the graduating students (Thomas Reid among them) had to defend, titled De scientiae naturalis cum philosophia morali conjunctione (On the unity of natural science and moral philosophy).

I am currently working on the 1723 thesis, and at this moment I can let you know that it is strengthening my belief in the importance of Turnbull in the development of the ‘science of man.’ For now I’ll leave you with enough quotes from the Principles that show that if we want to study the development of the science of morals, we should start focusing more on Turnbull and Aberdeen, and less on Hume and Edinburgh.