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Tag Archives: German philosophy

Tennemann on Empiricism and Rationalism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann was a very influential Kantian historian of philosophy. His textbook on the history of philosophy had five German editions. Its two English translations were reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. As a result, many of Tennemann’s judgements and historiographical classifications ended up being accepted, more or less consciously, by generations of students, philosophers, and historians.

One of Tennemann’s classifications that became standard is the distinction of most early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists (RED). Tennemann’s lists of early modern empiricists and rationalists are now standard. His reading of Hume as bringing Locke’s empiricism to its sceptical consequences, or of Kant as synthesizing empiricism and rationalism, are still widely accepted.

At the basis of Tennemann’ historiography is an outlook that few, if any, would agree with today. Tennemann asks: what should the history of philosophy be, over and above the history of ideas? He answers:

    Wilhelm Gottlieb TennemannHistory of Philosophy […] can be neither history of philosophers, nor history of ideas [Philosopheme]. It includes both, but it subordinates them to a higher purpose and point of view. This is the exposition of the formation and development of philosophy as science.

According to Tennemann, Kant laid the foundations for philosophy as science. Thanks to the Kantian revolution, we know the one true philosophy.

Kant did not create this true philosophy ex nihilo. Kantian philosophy is the crowning of endless attempts to develop a true science. It is the synthesis of the best insights of Kant’s predecessors. According to Tennemann, historians of philosophy should trace the gradual development of those insights from ancient Greece to their Kantian epilogue.

This Kantian stance has several interesting consequences. Let me focus on two of them.

1. Kant’s philosophy sharply distinguishes a priori questions belonging to metaphysics and (what we now call) epistemology from the empirical inquiries of natural science. It focuses on the former and leaves the latter to (what we now call) working scientists. Consistent with his intent to trace the ancestry of philosophy in the Kantian sense, Tennemann makes only passing remarks on the development of natural philosophy. He repeats several times that Descartes was mainly interested in natural philosophy. However, Tennemann’s Descartes comes across as the “philosopher of pure inquiry” because, for Tennemann, “pure inquiry” was the truly philosophical part of his thought – philosophical in Kant’s sense of the term.

2. A history of early modern philosophy can be organized on the basis of various criteria: chronological and geographical factors, actor categories like experimental philosophy, or later notions like those of empiricism and rationalism. What criteria are the best? Tennemann answers as follows. History of philosophy should describe reason’s progress towards Kantian philosophy. To this end, it is best to group early modern authors on the basis of their views on two typically Kantian themes: whether there are non-empirical concepts and whether we can have substantive a priori knowledge. The results of these groupings are Tennemann’s accounts of the evolution of empiricism and rationalism, converging in Kant’s final synthesis.

Tennemann is conscious that the results of this choice are somewhat arbitrary. While he places Berkeley between Locke and Hume in his parade of empiricist philosophers, he acknowledges that Berkeley was also influenced by the rationalists Descartes and Malebranche.

Since the early 1980s, the fact that Descartes was more interested in natural philosophy than in “pure inquiry”, or the affinities between Berkeley and Malebranche, are adduced to claim that the narratives of early modern philosophy based on the RED are broken-backed. Tennemann, probably the first historian to develop such a narrative in detail, openly acknowledged those facts. Yet he based his historiography on the RED nevertheless. This is because that distinction was the most functional to his views on what philosophy is and what its history should accomplish.

Tennemann’s case teaches us that no amount of detailed historical excavations or textual analyses will suffice to tell us whether we should accept the RED, reform it, or replace it with some other master narrative of early modern philosophy. To make such a choice, we should have clear ideas on what we should identify this philosophy that we are studying with, and on what we take our tasks as historians of philosophy to be. Tennemann gave fully explicit answers and he was coherent with them in developing a historiography based on the RED. How should we answer those questions?

Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism: Symposium Abstracts

Hello, readers!

Below are the abstracts of the papers that we will discuss at the upcoming symposium on experimental philosophy and the origins of empiricism. The symposium will take place at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ, on the 18th and 19th of April and you can find the programme here.

If you would like to attend but have not registered yet, drop an email to Peter. Attendance is free, but we’d like to have an idea of how many people are coming. If you cannot attend, but are interested in some of the papers, let Alberto know. We are happy to circulate them in advance and would love to hear your comments. Also, check this blog in the weeks after the symposium. We will post discussions and commentaries on the papers. We’re looking forward to extend our discussions to the blog. We might also post the video of one of our sessions if we manage to.

Word cloud of our symposium abstracts

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

Related posts: Who invented the Experimental Philosophy?

Juan Gomez, The Experimental Method and Moral Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment
One of the key aspects, perhaps the most important one, of the enlightenment in Great Britain is the scientifically driven mind set of the intellectuals of the time. This feature, together with the emphasis of the importance of the study of human nature gave rise to the ‘science of man.’ It was characterized by the application of methods used in the study of the whole of nature to inquiries about our own human nature. This view is widely accepted among scholars, who constantly mention that the way of approaching moral philosophy in the eighteenth century was by considering it as much a science as natural philosophy, and therefore the methods of the latter should be applied to the former. Nowhere is this more evident than in the texts on moral philosophy by the Scottish intellectuals. But despite the common acknowledgement of this feature, the specific details and issues of the role of the experimental method within moral philosophy have not been fully explored. In this paper I will explore the salient features of the experimental method that was applied in the Scottish moral philosophy of the enlightenment by examining the texts of a range of intellectuals.

Related posts: Turnbull and the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method; David Fordyce’s advice to students.

Peter Anstey, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and the Experimental Philosophy
If the experimental/speculative distinction provided the dominant terms of reference for early modern philosophy before Kant, one would expect to find evidence of this in mid-eighteenth-century France amongst the philosophes associated with Diderot’s Encyclopédie project. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s ‘Preliminary Discourse’ to the Encyclopedie provides an ideal test case for the status of the ESP in France at this time. This is because it is a methodological work in its own right, and because it sheds light on d’Alembert’s views on experimental philosophy expressed elsewhere as well as the views of others among his contemporaries. By focusing on d’Alembert and his ‘Discourse’ I argue that the ESP was central to the outlook of this philosophe and some of his eminent contemporaries.

Kirsten Walsh, De Gravitatione and Newton’s Mathematical Method
Newton’s manuscript De Gravitatione was first published in 1962, but its date of composition is unknown. Scholars have attempted to date the manuscript, but they have not yet reached a consensus. There have been two main attempts to date De Gravitatione. Hall & Hall (1962) argue for an early date of 1664 to 1668, but no later than 1675. Dobbs (1991) argues for a later date of late-1684 to early-1685. Each side lists handwriting analysis and various conceptual developments as evidence.
In the first part of this paper, I examine the evidence provided by these two attempts. I argue that the evidence presented provides a lower limit of 1668 and an upper limit of 1684. In the second part of this paper, I compare De Gravitatione‘s two-pronged methodology with the mathematical method in Newton’s early optical papers composed between 1672 and 1673. I argue that the two-pronged methodology of De Gravitatione is a more sophisticated version of the mathematical method used in Newton’s early optical papers. Given this new evidence, I conclude that Newton probably composed De Gravitatione after 1673.

Related posts: Newton’s Method in ‘De gravitatione’

Alberto Vanzo, Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany
The history of early modern philosophy is traditionally interpreted in the light of the dichotomy between empiricism and rationalism. Yet this distinction was first developed by Kant and his followers in the late eighteenth century. Many early modern thinkers who are usually categorized as empiricists associated themselves with the research program of experimental philosophy and labelled their opponents speculative philosophers. Did Kant and his followers know the tradition of experimental philosophy and the historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy? If so, what prompted them to introduce the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism?
To answer these questions, the first part of the paper focuses on Christian Wolff, the most influential German philosopher of the first half of the eighteenth century. It is argued that Wolff developed his philosophy in a way that was orthogonal to the experimental-speculative distinction. The second part of the paper argues that the distinction experimental-speculative distinction was known and widely used by Kant’s contemporaries from the 1770s to the end of the century. It is concluded that Kant and his followers were well aware of experimental philosophy. Their choice not to focus on the ESD must have been a deliberate one.

Related posts: Experiment and Hypothesis, Theory and Observation: Wolff vs Newton; Tetens on Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy

Alberto Vanzo, Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann
Many scholars have criticized histories of early modern philosophy based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism. Among the reasons for their criticism are:

    The epistemological bias: histories of philosophy which give pride of place to the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) overestimate the importance of epistemological issues for early modern philosophers.
    The Kantian bias: histories of early modern philosophy that embrace the RED are often biased in favour of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. They portray Kant as the first author who uncovered the limits of rationalism and empiricism, rejected their mistakes, and incorporated their correct insights within his Critical philosophy.
    The classificatory bias: histories of philosophy based on the RED tend to classify all early modern philosophers prior to Kant into either the empiricist, or the rationalist camps. However, these classifications have proven far from convincing.

After summarizing Kant’s discussions of empiricism and rationalism, the paper argues that Kant did not have the classificatory, Kantian, and epistemological biases. However, he promoted a way of writing histories of philosophy from which those biases would naturally flow. It is argued that those biases can be found in the early Kant-inspired historiography of Karl Leonhard Reinhold and Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann.

Related posts: Kant, Empiricism, and Historiographical Biases; Reinhold on Empiricism, Rationalism, and the Philosophy without Nicknames

Thanks to Wordle for the word cloud above.

Reinhold on Empiricism, Rationalism, and the Philosophy without Nicknames

Alberto Vanzo writes…

There is a traditional way of narrating the development of early modern philosophy. I first studied it in high school and no doubt you are familiar with it. According to this narrative, the central dispute within early modern philosophy concerned epistemological matters:

  • Do we have a priori knowledge of the world?
  • Do we have innate concepts?

Rationalists answered that we do, whereas empiricists denied it. Eventually came Kant, who refuted empiricists and rationalists, sentenced the end of those movements, and embodied their insights within his own transcendental philosophy.

These days, this sort of narrative is regularly attacked for overstating the importance of epistemological matters and for being biased in favour of Kant’s philosophy. Who first framed that narrative? Some say it was Kant. Yet I argued in an earlier post that this is not the case. While Kant introduces the terms “empiricism” and “rationalism”, he does not view empiricism and rationalism as purely epistemological views. Moreover, he does not take his thought to be above empiricism and rationalism. He takes himself to be a rationalist.

Karl Leonhard Reinhold

Karl Leonhard Reinhold

Karl Leonhard Reinhold first spelled out the traditional historiographical framework in works from the early 1790s (such as On the Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge and the Contributions toward Correcting the Previous Misunderstandings of Philosophers, from which I will quote). In these years, Reinhold was articulating his own system, “Elementary Philosophy”. He distinguished it from Kant’s philosophy with these words:

    The Elementary Philosophy is therefore essentially different from the Critique of Pure Reason. And the philosophy of which it is a part […] can no more be called critical than it can empirical, rationalist or sceptical. It is philosophy without nicknames.

At this point, Reinhold makes some bold historiographical claims:

    The insufficiency of empiricism brought about rationalism, and the insufficiency of the latter sustained the other in turn. Humean scepticism unveiled the insufficiency of both of theses dogmatic systems, and thus occasioned Kantian criticism. The latter overturned one-sided dogmatism and dogmatic skepticism.

How did this all happen? First came Locke’s empiricism and Leibniz’s rationalism:

    The two philosophers laid down, one in the simple representations drawn from experience and the other in innate representations […], the only foundation of philosophical knowledge possible for the empiricists [on the one hand] and the rationalists [on the other.] And while their followers were busy disagreeing about the external details and the refinements of their systems, David Hume came along

and revealed their mistake. This was believing that we are able to know mind-independent things, either on the basis of simple mental representations drawn from experience (empiricism), or by means of innate concepts and principles (rationalism).

    Hume confronted this crucial issue about the conformity of impressions to their objects; this was what everybody had taken for granted without proof before his time, and he demonstrated that no proof can be offered that is without contradiction.

Hume’s mistake was assuming, like Locke and Leibniz, that the objects that impressions must conform to be true are mind-independent or, in Kant’s terms, things in themselves. Kant rejected that “groundless assumption by proving “that objective truth is entirely possible without knowledge of things in themselves”. Reinhold’s Kant takes objective truth to be the correspondence of our mental representations with mind-dependent, phenomenal objects. On the basis of this view, Kant answered the central question of what are the extension and limits of our cognitive powers. For Reinhold, answering this question enabled Kantians to solve the disputes in the fields of ethics and natural law, and even theology.

With his account, Reinhold places Kant above and beyond empiricism and rationalism. Reinhold takes epistemological issues on the foundation and limits of knowledge to be central to the whole philosophy of early modern age. In short, Reinhold has the epistemological and Kantian biases.

It is easy to see why Reinhold’s potted history of early modern philosophy was attractive for Reinhold’s contemporaries. From a historiographical point of view, it places four works that Reinhold’s contemporaries held in great esteem (Locke’s Essay, Leibniz’s New Essays, Hume’s Treatise, and Kant’s first Critique) within a single, coherent narrative. From a philosophical point of view, Reinhold places Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies that had become increasingly popular at the summit of the development of human reason.

Reinhold’s history of early modern philosophy is very sketchy. The first historian to flesh it out in great detail was Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann. Next time I will tell you about him.

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.

Experimental and Speculative Philosophy in Kant’s Age

Alberto Vanzo writes…

We saw in earlier posts that experimental-speculative distinction was widely present within early modern philosophy, including eighteenth century Germany. The distinction was clearly drawn in Tetens’ essay from 1775, six years before Kant published the first Critique. With that work, another distinction entered the scene. It was the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. The rationalism-empiricism distinction, developed and popularized in widespread works by Reinhold, Tennemann, and later Kuno Fischer, would eventually become the standard way of classifying early modern philosophers. The experimental-speculative distinction would fall into the almost total oblivion in which it lies today.

How did this process take place? It would be surprising if, with the publication of Kant’s first Critique in 1781, philosophers suddenly dropped the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy altogether.

In fact, the lively debates surrounding the emergence of Critical philosophy in the late 1780s and 1790s were still framed, at least at times, in terms of the speculative-experimental distinction. In this post, I will present some evidence for this claim.

J.G.H. Feder published one of the first attacks on the first Critique in 1787, claiming that it was full “of the most abstract speculations of logic and metaphysics” (italics, here and below, are mostly mine). In Feder’s view, Kant was “too much a friend of the most abstract and profound speculations in Scholastic form”. One year earlier, Christoph Meiners criticized Kant’s “transcendentish [sic] speculations”, “independent from any experience” in the preface to a successful book.

Why did Feder and Meiners attack Kant? Because, in Feder’s words, Kant humiliated

    empirical philosophy, that is, the philosophy which is based only on observations and on the agreement of all of most human experiences, and on inferences based on the analogy between them, and fully renounces [to employ] demonstration[s] based on concepts in the study of nature […]

In other words, the philosophy that Kant allegedly humiliated was the same experimental (or as the Germans preferred to call it, observational) philosophy that Tetens had described in his essay of 1775. Feder and Meiners defended observational philosophy. By associating Kant’s name with speculation, they were categorizing Kant as an example of a speculative philosopher.

Kant’s followers accepted the classification of their philosophy as speculative. Replying to Feder in 1789, the Kantian J.C.G. Schaumann had no hesitation in calling Kant’s disciples “friends of speculation and critique”. In the same year, Reinhold opened his New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation by claiming, against observational philosophers: “neither common understanding [scil. common sense], nor healthy understanding, but only reason guided by principles and trained through speculation could succeed in the study of experience”.

These quotes show that the experimental-speculative distinction was very much alive in Germany during the first reception of Kant’s Critical philosophy. The experimental-speculative distinction contributed to the self-understanding of the parties involved in the dispute.

The dichotomy of experiment and speculation was not the only way of categorizing the debates between Kant and experimental philosophers. A gifted Kant scholar, C.C.E. Schmid, published in 1788 “Some Remarks on Empiricism and Purism in Philosophy” to defend Kant from the criticisms of an experimental philosopher, C.G. Selle. The debate continued, with the term “empiricism” being often used to designate Kant’s opponents. The term that Schmid used to refer to Kant’s philosophy was the rather unusual term “purism”. Kant, instead, was classifying his philosophy as a form of rationalism in those very years. Clearly, the terminology was still rather fluid.

We all know who won the confrontation between anti-Kantian experimental philosophy on the one hand, Kantian and post-Kantian speculation on the other. The terms “speculation” and “speculative” soon acquired a new range of connotations in the philosophies of Schelling and Hegel. Observative or experimental philosophy lost popularity and its name was replaced by “empiricism”. Christian Garve was referring to the early stages of this process, when he wrote in 1796:

    it seems that in our time observation, which was formerly regarded as one of the first accomplishments of the philosophical spirit and the foundation of our scientific cognitions, since its object has been designated with the name of empirical, has fallen in discredit with some people.

Garve’s adjective “empirical” refers to the new term “empiricism”. “With some people” is clearly an understatement, reflecting Garve’s preference for the observational approach over Kantianism. While the historical notion of experimental or observational philosophy was falling into discredit, the historiographical dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism was on the rise. I will discuss this process in one of the next posts.

Next Monday, we’ll go back to Newton with a new post by Kirsten. Stay tuned!

Kant, Empiricism, and Historiographical Biases

Alberto Vanzo writes…

Many scholars have criticized histories of early modern philosophy based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism. Among the reasons for their criticism are:

  1. the epistemological bias: histories of philosophy which give pride of place to the rationalism-empiricism distinction overestimate the importance of epistemological issues for early modern philosophers.
  2. the Kantian bias: histories of early modern philosophy that embrace the empiricism-rationalism distinction are often biased in favour of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. They portray Kant as the first author who uncovered the limits of rationalism and empiricism, rejected their mistakes, and incorporated their correct insights within his Critical philosophy.

Since the introduction of the empiricism-rationalism distinction within philosophical historiography is due to Kant, scholars have charged him with both the historiographical and the Kantian biases. For instance, according to Anik Waldow, “Kant is impermissibly reductive in his attempt to present empiricism as a purely epistemological position”. For Hans-Jürgen Engfer, “Kant […] distinguishes both currents of empiricism and rationalism […] and want to reconcile and go beyond them with a third [position].”

I do not think that Kant should be charged with making the empiricism-rationalism distinction a merely epistemological one, or of placing his philosophy beyond and above the two currents of empiricism and rationalism.

To see why Kant does not have the epistemological bias or the Kantian bias, let us consider his two characterizations of empiricism in the Critique of Pure Reason.

I will start with the second characterization. It is contained in a section entitled The History of Pure Reason (A854/B882). Empiricists such as Aristotle claim that pure cognitions of reason “are derived from experience”. Noologists (elsewhere called rationalists) such as Plato claim that, “independent from [experience], [pure cognitions of reason] have their source in reason”.

The cognitions that Kant is referring to are concepts and judgements. As for concepts, empiricists “take all concepts of the understanding from experience” (Ak. 29:763). As for the judgements, empiricists claim that there are no synthetic judgements that can have an a priori justification. Kant’s proof that such judgements exist makes empiricism “completely untenable” (Ak. 20:275).

These characterizations of empiricism are cast in epistemological terms – especially if one takes epistemology to be concerned not only with what justifies beliefs, but also with issues concerning the origin of concepts.

Does Kant reject the epistemological views of empiricism and rationalism? The History of Pure Reason does not make this clear. However, elsewhere Kant places himself in the rationalist camp. For instance, in the second Critique he endorses the “rationalism of power of judgement” with regard to practical concepts (Ak. 5:71). In a metaphysics lecture from the 1790s, Kant qualifies his view that we have some non-empirical concepts (the categories) as a rationalist view.

Let us now look at Kant’s first characterization of empiricism in the Critique of Pure Reason. It is contained in the discussion of the antinomies. There, Kant does not characterize empiricism in epistemological terms, but in ontological terms. Empiricists are those natural philosophers who refuse to postulate entities whose existence, and phenomena whose occurrence, cannot be confirmed by sensory experience (B496-497): for instance, simple beings without extension or parts, a supernatural creator which caused the existence of the world, or contra-causal free actions that are undetermined by previous natural events. Empiricists adopt two attitudes toward those entities and phenomena:

  • Modest empiricists acknowledge their ignorance as to their existence.
  • Dogmatic or dogmatising empiricists deny their existence.

Kant rejects immodest or dogmatic empiricism because it “says more than it knows” (A472/B500). Interestingly, however, he endorses the attitude of modest empiricists in his solution of the antinomies.

What conclusions can we draw from this survey of Kant’s texts?

First, Kant operates with multiple notions of empiricism. The empiricism described in the History of Pure Reason is epistemological. The modest empiricism in the antinomies chapter, instead, is an ontological view concerning the existence of certain items. Immodest empiricism claims ignorance of their existence, modest empiricism claims knowledge of their non-existence. Hence, pace Anik Waldow and others, Kant does not consistently describe empiricism as “a purely epistemological position”.

Second, Kant does not consistently portray his position as an alternative to empiricism and rationalism. He sides with modest empiricists in the antinomies and with rationalists in other texts. He may have sown the seeds for a narrative of early modern philosophy based on the Critical Aufhebung of empiricism and rationalism. However, he can hardly be regarded as the first author to consistently develop such a narrative.

Speculative and Experimental Philosophy in Universities: Eclecticism

This is the first of two guest posts by Dr Gerhard Wiesenfeldt on speculative and experimental philosophy in late 17th century universities. Gerhard has published on early modern Dutch science, the visual culture of experiments, science in popular movies, biographies of ‘fameless’ scientists and romantic self-experiments. He is currently working on the different local cultures of science in the 17th and 18th centuries and their mutual interactions.

Gerhard Wiesenfeldt writes…

In late 17th century universities, experimental philosophy played a significant role, yet in a different manner to the role it played in the Royal Society. One of the traditional roles of universities had been to evaluate new knowledge and new knowledge systems and relate them to the existing sciences. In this context, the relation between experimental and traditional natural philosophy had to be addressed. Here, I want to discuss one of the various ways in which this relation was maintained, a way that became influential for the development of experimental philosophy in German speaking countries.

Johann Christoph Sturm, professor of mathematics and philosophy at the University of Altdorf in central Germany, was probably the leading university-based German natural philosopher of the late 17th century: he wrote the most widely read textbooks and many of his students went on to teach natural philosophy at other universities. He first taught a full course on experimental philosophy in 1672 and published its contents under the title Collegium experimentale sive curiosum in 1676. As the title suggests, the book presents a style of experimental philosophy similar to the experimental natural history of the early Royal Society. It is divided into a series of ‘tentamina’, which describe either one experiment, or a series of experiments, or an instrument. What is of particular interest, however, is Sturm’s concern with the way speculative natural philosophy ought to be taught.

A page from Sturm's <em>Collegium Experimentale</em> describing the Torricellian apparatus

Sturm's description of the Torricellian apparatus

He wrote three different books on this subject, which show a development of the manner that he related speculative philosophy to experimentation: the Physica conciliatrix (1684), the Physica electiva sive hypothetica (1697) and finally the Physicae modernae sanioris compendium (1704). In the Physica conciliatrix, Sturm argues for philosophical eclecticism: given the variety of philosophical schools, it was improbable that one was correct in all cases, so speculative philosophy should not be based on one particular school (whether Aristotelian, Cartesian or atomistic), but take all existing hypotheses into account. While experiments would give some guidance in the matter, they could not solve the issue, because experimentation could not explain the causes of the observed phenomena (his earlier discussion of Henry More’s hylarchic spirit in Collegium experimentale exemplifies this issue for him).

The Physica electiva (later re-edited by Christian Wolff) follows on from that position, the search for causes remains the domain of speculative philosophy and cannot be based on one school, precisely because all schools have been shown to be incomplete in their explanations. The eclecticism he develops in this book is one of methodological diversity. Just as mathematics has developed different and unrelated methods that can be applied to different mathematical problems, speculative philosophy needs a variety of methods that provide a way to choose from a range of hypotheses put forward to explain a particular phenomenon.

To achieve this it was necessary to establish the principles on which these methods can be derived and justified, something that had already been established in mathematics. Philosophical analysis had to start with an account of the phenomena in question that was precise and true, but also included all circumstances. Then, all existing hypotheses explaining the phenomena had to be taken into account and analysed. Accounting for all phenomena was to be considered an argument for the truth of the hypothesis, contradiction by a single phenomenon refutes the hypothesis. Yet, even false hypotheses should be discussed further, as their refutation would lead to improved knowledge of the subject matter (see Michael Albrecht’s Eklektik for details on these principles).

While the Physicae modernae compendium was intended as a textbook that would work out this form of natural philosophy, it contains an important methodological development. Whereas the Physica electiva presents the notion of a complete speculative natural philosophy, i.e. a discussion of all known phenomena and the selection of the most probable hypotheses for each phenomenon, the preface of the Physicae modernae compendium restricts the content of ‘textbook natural philosophy’ to those phenomena that can be predicted with certainty.

Not all university philosophers went the route of eclecticism. In my next post, I will discuss the radically different approach that was developed by someone who was acquainted with Sturm from their common student days at Leiden University and later became one of his critics, Burchard de Volder.

Tetens on Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Christian Wolff as an example of knowledge of experimental philosophy in Germany during the first half of the eighteenth century. Wolff knew, among others, Boyle’s, Hooke’s, and Locke’s works and he criticized Newton’s rejection of hypotheses in the field of natural philosophy.

However, the fact that Wolff knew leading experimental philosophers does not mean that he regarded them all as exponents of one and same the movement of experimental philosophy. Did eighteenth century German philosophers identify a continuous tradition of experimental philosophy? If so, what did they regard as the distinctive features of that tradition? What authors did they regard as its representatives?

Johann Nicolaus Tetens

Johann Nicolaus Tetens

Today I am going to sketch the answers that Johann Nicolaus Tetens gave to these questions. Tetens was one of the brightest minds in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century. The essay on which I am going to focus was published in 1775, six years before Kant’s first Critique. It is entitled On General Speculative Philosophy. It contrasts speculative philosophy [speculativische Philosophie] with observational philosophy [beobachtende Philosophie].

Observational philosophy is a philosophy which relies on observation. Observation, in the relevant sense, is a form of introspection. It takes place when we disregard the relation of our mental representations with the objects they are about and we regard our mental representations as “something subjective, modifications of ourselves”. Observation enables us to discover truths about God, the human soul, and the world, to which we have access

    without previous general speculations on substance, space and time, etc. […] Reid, Home, Beattie, Oswald, and also several German philosophers have proven this beyond doubt with their reasonings and with the proofs that they have put forward.

This passage makes clear that Tetens’ observational philosophy is actually Scottish common sense philosophy – a movement that had a great influence in Germany in the 1770s. Scottish common sense philosophy was an incarnation of experimental philosophy. Tetens’ contrast between observational and speculative philosophy is a version of the experimental-speculative distinction.

According to Tetens, common sense and introspection provide us with a stock of hypotheses and intuitions. These form “the terrain that one must cultivate when doing speculative philosophy.” Speculative philosophers must reformulate those intuitions in well-defined terms, look for systematic links between them, assess their truth, seek for reasons to believe them to be true, and so on. The philosophy that Tetens advocates in 1775 combines an initial observational stage with a later speculative stage.

According to Tetens, this means combining the virtues of British and German philosophy. Tetens regards observational philosophy as a distinctively British movement (with French and German followers) and speculative philosophy as a distinctively German tradition:

    British philosophers could be our models in observing; but they should not be our models in speculative philosophy. … New [British] philosophy was first shaped by Bacon and later by Locke. […] Bacon’s [New] Organon, regarded as a set of directions to perform observations and to extend empirical knowledge, is a masterwork … Locke’s books on the human understanding contain an excellent model for employing that method in the knowledge of our soul and its operations. Yet both of their logics are insufficient on the other side [scil. the speculative side] … British philosophy was nearly only an observational philosophy, an empirical physics of man.

Tetens identifies a continuous tradition of experimental (or in his terms, observational) philosophers stretching from Bacon to Reid, through Locke, Hume, and Condillac. This shows that the existence of a tradition of experimental philosophy and its opposition with speculative philosophy (ESP) were known to Kant’s contemporaries in the mid-1770s.

Over the following two decades, Kant adumbrated a new distinction between empiricism and rationalism. His followers (Reinhold, Tennemann) chose to privilege it over the ESP that they could find in Tetens’ text from 1775 (and elsewhere). Given their knowledge of the ESP, their choice to privilege the new distinction between empiricism and rationalism must have been a deliberate one. What reasons motivated that choice? Do let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Experiment and Hypothesis, Theory and Observation: Wolff vs Newton

Alberto Vanzo writes…

Looking for sources for knowledge of experimental philosophy in eighteenth century Germany, I found some interesting texts by relatively unknown authors (at least beyond the circle of specialists). Christian Wolff is one of them. He was the most famous German philosopher in the first half of the eighteenth century. His philosophy was taught in many universities and his works were very popular. For instance, his German Logic knew no less than 14 editions during Wolff’s life.

Wolff knew several British experimental philosophers. He cited works by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, he was the Locke reviewer for an important journal (the Acta eruditorum), and he polemized with the Newtonian John Keill on the existence of the vacuum. He is a good example of the fact that German thinkers were acquainted with the works and the methodological views of British experimental philosophers in the first half of the eighteenth century.

A number of Wolff’s statements might make us think that he was himself an adherent to the early modern version of x-phi. Like British experimental philosophers, Wolff criticizes Descartes’ attempt to explain a great variety of natural phenomena in the light of few general principles that he established a priori. Like Hume and Hutcheson, Wolff is eager to extend the dominion of experimental philosophy beyond the boundaries of physics. He projects the disciplines of experimental cosmology, experimental teleology, experimental theology, experimental politics, and even experimental ontology. For his philosophical system as a whole, he chooses the name of “universal experimental philosophy” (philosophia experimentalis universalis). How could Wolff have been a more enthusiastic adherent to the program of experimental philosophy?

Yet contrary to the appearances, Wolff’s views were quite different from those of his British counterparts. This can be seen by comparing him with Newton. Newton, like virtually every other early modern experimental philosopher, claimed that he did not feign any hypothesis (his famous hypotheses non fingo). Wolff rebuts that Newton

    indulges in hypotheses in those very areas in which they think he abstained from employing them […] In fact, what else is universal attraction or gravity, which is represented by a measure of attraction, if not a hypothesis which is assumed because of certain phenomena and then is extended to all matter?

According to Wolff, not only did Newton feign hypotheses, but he did well to do so. This is because natural philosophers must proceed like astronomers:

Christian Wolff

Christian Wolff

From some present events, they infer what they have to assume, in order for [the events] to follow [from it], and they posit that their hypothesis applies to all [similar] events […] To determine whether they did well to assume the hypothesis, they infer what follows from it on the basis of a correct reasoning, in order to compare it with the remaining events that they have either observed, or that they derive from observations. [They do this] in order to see whether what has been observed agrees with the hypothesis. If they find that [observations and hypothesis] are in contrast with one another, then they improve the hypothesis, and in this way they constantly move closer to the truth.

Wolff holds that there is a circular relationship between observation or experiment on the one hand, and theory on the other hand. He stresses

    how much theory owes to observations and how much, on the other hand, observations owe to theory, since observations perfect theory and theory in turn continuously perfects observations. He who is ignorant of any theory and does not have much ability to use the faculty of knowing will only discover obvious and mostly imprecise [truths] on the basis of observations. There would not be much progress, unless one could presuppose some theory; and the more [a theory] is developed, the more discoveries one will make by means of observation[s].

Unlike Newton, Wolff was no great scientist. However, the quotes above suggest that his methodology of science is worth a serious reading. His acknowledgments of the interaction between theory and observation sound modern. They sketch a version of the hypothetico-deductive method that might provide an interesting alternative to Newton’s strict inductivism.

In summary, Wolff is a good example of the Germans’ knowledge of British experimental philosophy in the first half of the eighteenth century. His views are also interesting in their own right. So are Johann Nicolaus Tetens’ comments on observational vs speculative philosophy or Johann Heinrich Lambert’s distinction between theory-testing experiments and experiments that have a life of their own – two hundred years before Ian Hacking. More on this another time.

In the next post, Kirsten will discuss Newton’s method, in particular his rejection of hypotheses and his use of queries. See you next Monday!

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism

Alberto Vanzo writes…

As those of you who’ve been following us since our first post will know well by now, we claim that the most common and important distinction in early modern philosophy is the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESP). Among others, Bacon, Boyle, Locke, Newton, Turnbull, Hutcheson, Hume, and Reid all employ the ESP. They see themselves as belonging to the tradition of experimental philosophy. They contributed in various ways to the shaping and the evolving of this tradition.

However, if you open any history of philosophy which has been written in the last 150 years or so (say, Kuno Fischer’s, Frederick Copleston’s, or my high school manual), you will find the claim that another distinction was central to the development of early modern philosophy. This is the distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

The ESP and the empiricism-rationalism distinction are far from equivalent. In fact, ESP is best. While the ESP is absent from the histories of philosophy, the rationalism-empiricism distinction is absent from the writings of early modern philosophers – the so-called empiricists and rationalists. The rationalism-empiricism distinction was first adumbrated in Kant’s first Critique (B882). It was later developed in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century in the histories of philosophy of several authors influenced by Kant (Reinhold and Tennemann are two examples).

This fact raises some questions:

  • Did Kant or his followers intentionally obliterate the ESP?
  • Did they introduce the historiographical distinction between empiricism and rationalism as a replacement for the historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy?
  • Did they know the ESP in the first place?

To answer these questions, I started studying the influence of British experimental philosophers in Germany between the beginning of the eighteenth century and the publication of Kant’s first Critique in 1781.

I then want to follow the development of the empiricism-rationalism distinction in the histories of philosophy which were written in Germany from 1781 to the mid-nineteenth century. That’s the period in which some of the basic narratives that we still read today in many histories of philosophy first took shape. The way late eighteenth century and nineteenth century authors articulated and developed the empiricism-rationalism distinction is hardly agenda-free. It reflects their philosophical views and assumptions. I’m curious to learn more about that.

So far, I’ve discovered some interesting texts, especially those by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and Johann Nicolaus Tetens (1736-1807). Next time I’ll tell you about Wolff’s criticism of Newton’s hypotheses non fingo. Next Monday Juan will tell us about Turnbull’s explicit rejection of hypotheses and his endorsement of the application of the experimental method beyond natural philosophy.

I’d love to hear what you think about my research plans.