Review of the rationalism-empiricism distinction in Latin America
Juan Gomez writes…
In this post I want to take a break from sharing my research on the ESD in early modern Spain. I want to talk about the current application of the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) by philosophers in Latin America.
A few days ago, Sociedad de Filosofia Aplicada (Society for Applied Philosophy), an organization in Spain, posted on their Facebook page a link to a blog written by a philosopher in Mexico. The blog entry is titled “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo.” I had to check out the post, and what I found led me to do a bit of research on the current use of the RED distinction in the Spanish-speaking world. In this post I want to focus on two examples to illustrate both the dangers of the RED and the benefits of adopting the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD).
In Spanish speaking countries, we are taught in philosophy classes in high school and university that the rationalism-empiricism debate frames the history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that such debate was brought to an end by Kant. This assumption leads us to think of rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical schools or movements. This is where the RED starts giving us problems. The author of the blog mentioned above has two posts on rationalism and empiricism: “Racionalismo y empirismo: el realismo” and “Apunte critico: la metafísica dentro del empirismo.” In the former, the author presents rationalism and empiricism as two opposing philosophical theories, although his description of them reflects that they are two opposing epistemological viewpoints. As we have already mentioned in this blog, the fact that the RED is an epistemological distinction means that it is not at all appropriate when it comes to our interpretation of the breadth history of philosophy of that period. This same problem arises in the author’s other post, where he presents empiricism as a whole movement which pretends to “eliminate metaphysics.” There are two issues here: the author uses the term empiricism to refer to logical positivism and the verification principle, and he takes empiricism as more than an epistemological theory. Regarding the first issue, we can see that the use of the term ’empiricism’ itself is unclear, given that it is used to describe both the Vienna Circle and eighteenth-century empiricists; at best, this would lead us to distinguish different kinds of empiricism which, as we have already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is troublesome. The second issue reiterates the problem of adopting the RED as much more than an epistemological distinction. The author runs into trouble when trying to describe Hume’s thought: “Hume admits, to a certain degree, the value of reason…” Labeling Hume as an empiricist and then claiming that he admits the value of reason raises doubts regarding the usefulness and accuracy of the label.
For a second example I want to refer to a blog entry by a Brazilian philosopher. On the blog for filovida.org, she has an entry titled “Sobre o Empirismo e o Racionalismo de John Locke.” She acknowledges the difficulty of labeling a philosopher under either rationalism or empiricism, and then sets out to explain how John Locke cannot be labelled under any of these terms. She explains that Locke in some sense has a foothold in each of the so-called philosophical schools: “Locke’s starting point is an empirical method while at the same time he is committed to a rationalist project…” “This is how Locke’s philosophy encompasses, admirably and sui generis, not rationalism as opposed to empiricism, but rather a rationality which follows a rigid, reasonable, and novel empiricist method.” The author here acknowledges the issues that arise when considering the work of Locke under the RED framework, but her thought can be finessed by switching to the ESD framework. The apparent ambiguity of Locke’s work —sitting between rationalism and empiricism— vanishes when his thought is viewed under the ESD lens. Locke can be more comfortably labelled an experimental philosopher, providing us with a more accurate description of his work and a clearer insight into his thought.
The two examples mentioned here just serve the purpose of illustrating the current situation when doing early modern philosophy with the RED framework. Though there has been some talk among Spanish-speaking philosophical circles of the suitability of the RED, most philosophers in the region still take the rationalist–empiricist distinction for granted and work within such framework, unaware of the issues (like in the first example) or the advantages (like in the second example) of an alternative framework. Historians of philosophy in the region can enhance their work and understanding of early modern philosophy by adopting the ESD framework. The switch is a difficult but very rewarding one, one that needs to take place across the whole curriculum in the region; from introductory classes in high school, to advanced research projects in universities.
The ESD in early modern Spain: taking stock
Juan Gomez writes…
As readers of this blog know, I have been exploring the application of the ESD framework for interpreting the history of philosophy and science in early modern Spain. Throughout the past 18 months or so I have been sharing my research and thought on the experimental/speculative divide in Spain, the application of the experimental method in medicine and natural philosophy by the Novatores, and the attacks on the “new philosophy” by Spanish scholastic thinkers. It is time to take stock on the ESD in early modern Spain, and I want to begin by focusing on one particular issue in this post.
One of the purported advantages of applying the ESD framework is that, unlike the terms “rationalist” and “empiricist,” the terms “experimental” and “speculative” were in fact the terms used by early modern philosophers. However, as is evident in a number of my posts, it seems that in early modern Spain the rationalist/empiricist distinction is used by the players in the debate. Could this perhaps mean that the ESD framework is not that appropriate for the Spanish context? I don’t believe this is the case. Let’s start by examining the use of the empiric/rationalist distinction I have referred to in previous posts.
Almost all of the figures involved in the intellectual debates in early modern Spain were either within or had some connection to the medical context. It is in this context where we see the terms “empirico” (empiric) and “racional” (rational) in use. The terms appear opposed to each other, where the empiric doctors are those that focus on experience and observation and the rational doctors those who follow the teachings of Galen and Aristotle. This being the case, we could perhaps claim that the ESD has no clear advantage over the RED framework. In fact, we could even think that the RED is better, since the figures involved in the debate were using “empirico” and “racional.”
It is important here to remember that the frameworks have two dimensions: a historical and a historiographic one. In the Spanish case, the presumed advantage of the RED would hold at the historical level, but it is yet to be seen if this carries over to the historiographical level.
However, even at the historical level the RED framework’s advantage is doubtful. As we have explained, there is a very important difference between the two frameworks: while the ESD highlights a methodological distinction, the RED highlights an epistemic one. As we examined in my last post, while Boix uses “empirico” and “racional”, he uses those terms to refer to a methodological distinction, not an epistemic one. So the use of the terms by Boix does not line up with the way they appear within the RED framework.
In fact, the fact that the way Boix uses the terms differs from the RED way actually points to the advantages of the ESD at the historiographical level. Even if the figures within the debate were not using “experimental” and “speculative”, the fact that the ESD focuses on a methodological distinction makes it a more appropriate framework for our interpretation of the period.
There is another consideration that can shed light on our present discussion. As I mentioned earlier, the empiric/rational distinction is rooted in the medical context. In other contexts, as in astrology and natural philosophy, the debate is not phrased in those terms. The Novatores, guided by the work of Benito Feijoo, phrase the methodological distinction in terms of the systemic/experimental divide, where “the former explain nature according to some system; the latter discover it through the way of experience.”
So it seems that, in spite of the empiric/rationalist distinction that appears within the medical context in early modern Spain, the ESD is still a more appropriate framework for our interpretation of the intellectual development in the Iberian Peninsula. This being said, there is still a lot of work to do in order to give a fuller account of the use of “empiric” and “rational” by early modern Spanish figures and their relation to the experimental/speculative divide.
What drives philosophical progress?
Kirsten Walsh and guest blogger Adrian Currie write…
A while ago, Peter Anstey argued that, while the traditional rationalist-empiricist distinction (RED) is primarily about epistemology, questioning the foundational sources of knowledge, evidence and justification from an a priori, first-person perspective, the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD) is primarily methodological, concerned with how knowledge is generated. In this highly speculative post, we consider a consequence of preferring one of these distinctions over the other, namely, its effect on our understanding of philosophical progress in the early modern period. Note that the ESD is just one way of providing a methodological (as opposed to epistemological) narrative about the history of ideas, and we think much of what we have to say is perfectly compatible with those who, for instance, take a non-traditional (specifically, methodological or technological) stance on empiricism (see, for instance, Newton and Empiricism).
We suspect that the RED and the ESD give very different answers to questions about what the main driver of change in early modern philosophy was. Insofar as the RED gives us an account of what mattered in early modern philosophy, it generates stories about foundational, a priori investigation into the nature of knowledge. In contrast, the ESD tells a story of philosophical progress driven by scientific achievement, technological development and methodological innovation. These are two very different narratives about the history of ideas. Moreover, they emphasise the contributions of different historical figures.
When the focus is epistemology, we fixate on theorists who provided accounts of knowledge and its justification—namely, the canonical seven: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant—to the exclusion of other historical figures. The early Royal Society, for instance, clearly influenced the direction of Western thought, i.e. Western philosophical thought, enormously. Yet its members are sidelined in favor of epistemologists.
The ESD’s methodological emphasis shifts our focus. Boyle, Hooke and Newton, for example, did not produce new theories of knowledge, but they made strides in terms of methodology. Their inquiries yielded original ideas about how to produce knowledge and utilise new technologies (e.g. experimental apparatuses and mathematics). On this view, Newton made an enormous contribution to (anachronistically) philosophy as well as science. Newton synthesized Baconian experimental philosophy with the mathematical rigour of geometric methods—as we have argued on this blog, this methodology was influential beyond natural philosophy. Newton didn’t tell us what it is to know, but he did tell us how to go about generating knowledge. On the RED, scientific advancement is at best a side-show, on the ESD it is (to misquote Newton) the main business of philosophy.
This bit of speculation raises some questions.
Firstly, presumably it is a mistake to think that any one factor has played a privileged role in shaping history, intellectual or otherwise. Thus, arguing that the history of ideas is methodology-driven, rather than epistemology-driven, creates far too stark a dichotomy. If our speculation holds water, then the upshot is that the role of epistemology is over-emphasized. But how much, and how might we go about attributing blame?
Secondly, it is not clear to what extent frameworks such as the RED and the ESD should be read as hypotheses about historical forces. We might simply interpret them as handy heuristics—giving direction to various legitimate research interests. Moreover, they might bring out narratives relevant for understanding other parts of history. For example, one might argue that the RED is important for examining how later philosophers understood and were influenced by the early moderns (something like this view is defended here). So, how should we understand the content and role of such frameworks?
Thirdly, historians these days don’t often go in for ‘grand narratives’—and with good reason. Human history is messy and, typically, simplistic, one-size-fits-all explanations are inapplicable. Moreover, it’s not clear what difference such macro-scale frameworks make at the coalface of academic history, where historians and philosophers must engage with complex ideas and even more complex individuals. Prima facie, seeing Newton as an experimental philosopher rather than an empiricist won’t affect our interpretation of query 31. It might seem that the business of academic history is far too fine-grained for those differences to matter often. So, how much do such frameworks effect the day-to-day work of philosophers and historians?
Regardless of our answer to that question, we think these grand narratives do matter. They help decide the direction of research, and what counts as a good question for serious academic history of philosophy. Moreover, they influence pedagogy: how and what we teach (see our discussion here). Finally, they might play a role in how we, as contemporary philosophers, see ourselves and our field’s development.
This thought raises a further question: what role has the RED’s historical narrative played in vindicating and perpetuating the idea that ‘core’ epistemology targets questions about the nature of knowledge and its justification from a first-person a priori perspective?
So far, these speculations have raised more questions than answers. We’d love to hear your thoughts on them.
Defining Early Modern Experimental Philosophy (2)
Alberto Vanzo writes…
In my last post, I raised the question as to whether there is any methodological view that was shared by all or most early modern experimental philosophers. To paraphrase Bas Van Fraassen, is there any statement E+ such that
- To endorse the method of (early modern) experimental philosophy = to believe that E+ (the experimentalists’ methodical dogma)?
As those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know, early modern experimental natural philosophers claimed that we should reject hypotheses and speculations (that is, roughly, natural-philosophical claims and theories) and rely instead on experiments and observations. In this post, I will discuss whether this claim, suitably understood, is the experimentalists’ methodical dogma. What does their rejection of hypotheses amount to?
The statement that we should reject hypotheses does not mean that we should avoid learning natural-philosophical claims and theories. On the contrary, according to Robert Hooke, learning hypotheses is beneficial because it helps us to devise new explanations and raise questions:
- the Mind will be somewhat more ready at guessing at the Solution of many Phenomena almost at first Sight, and thereby be much more prompt at making Queries, and at tracing the Subtilty of Nature, and in discovering and searching into the true Reason of things […]
Experimental philosophers also allow us to entertain claims and theories for the sake of testing them. Robert Boyle states in a letter to Oldenburg that natural histories should include “Circumstances” such that their “tryal or Observation” is “necessary or sufficient to prove or to invalidate this or that particular Hypothesis or Conjecture”.
Boyle’s statement makes clear that he allows for the acceptance of a natural-philosophical claims that are proven by “tryal [experiment] or Observation”. The claims in question must be those that are expressed by substantive or – in Kantian terms – synthetic a posteriori statements. Experiments and observations cannot prove analytic a priori statements. These are hardly the kind of statements that concerned experimental philosophers. Assuming that the analytic/synthetic distinction is tenable, accepting analytic a priori statements as true seems to be a harmless move anyway.
In the light of this, we may be tempted to paraphrase the rejection of hypotheses as follows:
- [A] Only commit to those substantive (as opposed to analytic) claims and theories that are warranted by experiments or observations.
[A] is in line with experimental philosophers’ rejection of arguments from authority, epitomized by the motto of the Royal Society: “nullius in verba“, which can be loosely translated as “take no man’s word for it”. [A] entails the rejection not only of arguments from authority, but also any kind of a priori arguments for substantive natural-philosophical claims – for instance, the arguments that Descartes used in the Principles of Philosophy to establish that material objects are made up of corpuscles. [A] has the welcome effect of classifying Descartes where, in my view, he belongs: outside of the movement of experimental philosophy, even though he too gathered natural-philosophical observations and performed some experiments.
However, [A] is inconsistent with the fact that many experimental philosophers were committed to substantive claims, like the corpuscularian and mechanist hypotheses, that were hardly warranted by the then extant empirical evidence. Boyle or Montanari did not seem to be concerned to provide detailed empirical arguments for corpuscularism or mechanism. However, they did not regard their acceptance of these views as being inconsistent with their commitment to experimentalism.
In view of this, I suggest replacing [A] with [B]:
- [B] Only firmly commit to those substantive claims and theories that are warranted by experiments and observations
and claiming that experimental philosophers like Boyle and Montanari did not firmly commit to corpuscularism and mechanism. They only weakly, tentatively, provisionally commit to these views, even though they were confident that future discoveries would dispel any doubt on their truth.
Is it correct to say that experimental philosophers’ commitments to mechanism and corpuscularism was typically weak, provisional, tentative? Are there other claims on the natural world that experimental philosophers firmly endorsed, even though the then available empirical evidence did not warrant them? Can a clear distinction between weak, provisional, tentative and strong, definitive, firm commitments be drawn, and if so, how? If you have any suggestions on how these questions should be answered, please let me know in the comments or get in touch. Answering these questions is important to establish if my suggestion that [B] represents a suitable candidate for the experimentalists’ methodical dogma is persuasive.
Daunou and the Fate of Experimental Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century France
Alberto Vanzo writes…
On this blog, we have often stressed the importance of the movement of experimental philosophy between the 1660s and ca. 1800. What happened to this movement in the nineteenth century? Last week Juan noted that, after 1823, the entry “experimental philosophy” in the Encyclopedia Britannica was substantially shortened and then removed. This suggests that that notion may have disappeared from the British philosophical scene. Something similar had happened in Germany, where the tradition of experimental or, as it was mostly called, observational philosophy was eclipsed by Kantian and post-Kantian systems around 1800. The expression “observational philosophy” seems to have disappeared from the German philosophical vocabulary in the early nineteenth century.
In this post, I will highlight an exception to this trend: Pierre-Claude-François Daunou’s Recherches sur les systèmes philosophiques applicables à l’historie. This is the text of the lectures on the history of philosophy that Daunou gave at the Collège de France in 1829-1830. It was published posthumously in 1849. In this work, as late as in the mid-nineteenth century, we find a wholehearted defense of experimental philosophy and its application to philosophical historiography.
Daunou aims to outline a philosophical history of philosophy. What renders the history of philosophy philosophical? Daunou’s answer is: “history is philosophy, when it consists in a methodical series of facts that are carefully verified and presented as experimental instructions”. In fact, “only the experimental school provides the true method in the historical studies”.
Like Degérando before him, Daunou draws on the historical facts to develop a natural history of philosophy: a classification of the various types of philosophical systems which we can use to establish which is the best. To this end, “the classifications must resemble those of naturalists, that is, they must only summarize the facts. Pretending that they are given and established a priori by the nature of things is a Platonic illusion, that has introduced many prejudices and errors into the sciences”.
In 1829, Daunou could chose between plenty of alternative classifications: for instance, the old division of philosophers into sects to be found in Brucker’s manual, praised by Daunou; the empiricism/rationalism distinction used by the Kantians and by Degérando; and Cousin’s fourfold distinction between idealism, sensualism, scepticism and mysticism. Rejecting all of these classifications, Daunou follows Diderot, Condillac and Condorcet in relying on the good old division between experimental and speculative (or in his terms, contemplative) systems. On the one hand, we have the experimental approach of Aristotle, Bacon, Gassendi, Locke, and Condillac. On the other hand, we have the Platonic attempt to develop philosophical systems a priori. Kant, far from synthesizing these two trends as his disciples claimed, was responsible for perpetuating the Platonic, contemplative illusion. He “delayed the progress of science” and he induced French thinkers to accept the mistaken principle that “the abstract precedes the concrete, sheds light on it and dominates upon it”.
Given Daunou’s assumptions, it is easy to guess what moral he draws from his history of philosophy: we must abandon the Platonic “picture of an idea or imaginary world” and acknowledge that “we owe all progress of physical and moral sciences” to experimental philosophers.
What is surprising, or at least interesting, is that we find these claims in a text published as late as in 1849. Was Daunou a historian attardé, a living fossil in his own time, as Gregorio Piaia states in his very informative survey of Daunou’s work (to which this post owes much) in the Storia delle storie generali della filosofia? It is hard to deny that he was, at least to some extent. However, Daunou’s speculative-experimental distinction was paralleled in Saint-Simon’s contrast between Plato’s and Descartes’ vague speculations on the one hand, Aristotle’s and Bacon’s positive philosophy on the other. The term used by Saint-Simon is “positive”, not “experimental”. However, Saint-Simon’s positive philosophy was based on the experimental method. And in the first volume of Comte’s Course of Positive Philosophy we find the same contrast between the metaphysical spirit, to be rejected, and the positive spirit of those that Daunou regarded as experimental philosophers.
Let’s go back to our initial question on the fate of experimental philosophy in the nineteenth century. Daunou’s work, together with Saint-Simon’s and Comte’s statements, suggests that the notion of experimental philosophy was not simply abandoned in nineteenth century France. Instead, it morphed into the new notion of positive philosophy, or at least it contributed to the definition of this new important movement in the French philosophical scene. I am no expert in nineteenth century French philosophy though. I would love to hear if you find this suggestion plausible.
Ancient Philosophy and the Origins of the Rationalism-Empiricism Distinction
Alberto Vanzo writes…
An interesting aspect of Kant’s use of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) is that he does not only apply it to the moderns, but also to the ancients. Kant portrays Leibniz as an adherent to Plato’s rationalism and Locke as a follower of Aristotle’s empiricism. Could Leibniz’s New Essays be a source of Kant’s distinction between empiricism and rationalism?
Here is one of Leibniz’s comments on his disagreements with Locke in the Preface of the New Essays:
- Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which nothing has been written (tabula rasa), as Aristotle and the author of the Essay [Locke] maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato and even with the Schoolmen […]
Here, Leibniz pits Plato and himself against Aristotle and Locke with regard to the existence of innate ideas (“several notions…”) and a priori truths (“… and doctrines”). These are precisely the issues around which Kant frames his distinction between empiricists and rationalists (or, as he sometimes calls them, dogmatists and noologists). However, Kant holds that a third issue divides ancient empiricists like Aristotle from ancient rationalists like Plato. It is the existence or inexistence of objects of which we cannot have sensations. According to Kant, ancient rationalists claim that there are non-sensible objects (Platonic ideas). Ancient empiricists, like Aristotle and Epicurus, deny this. Leibniz does not focus on this issue, but Christian Garve (who would later become one of Kant’s early critics) did. Like Kant, Garve divided ancient philosophers into two camps based on whether they admitted substantive a priori truths, innate ideas, and non-sensible objects. He drew this distinction in a dissertation that he published in 1770, eleven years before Kant’s first Critique and five years after Leibniz’s New Essays. Let me summarize Garve’s statements on each of the three points.
A priori knowledge
After they learned to distinguish between appearance and reality and between the senses and the intellect, philosophers took two opposed paths:
- Some [like Heraclitus] devoted themselves to exploring the nature of the senses with great care and they subtly searched in the senses the mark and sign of truth. Others [like Parmenides], having ignored and set aside the senses, devoted themselves entirely to the faculty of intellect and to contemplating with their mind the thoughts that they had gathered in themselves.
This epistemological divide gave rise to an ontological divide:
- [T]hose that sought the foundation of the truth to be discovered in the senses were forced to refer [only] to the things that are subjected to the senses […]; and those claiming that true cognition is distinctive of the mind, not of the senses, denied the name and almost the rank of things […] to sensible items. They ascribed it only to [merely] intelligible things […]
On the one hand, we have Protagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and even the sceptics. On the other hand, we have Plato.
Those who denied “the truth of the senses” did not only have to posit a realm of non-sensible beings. They also had to defend the existence of innate ideas. This is because, if there is no truth in the senses, we cannot derive “true notions” from the senses (where true notions appears to be, in some sense, notions that map onto reality). We must claim that they are “innate in the soul and prior to every sensation”. “And thus were born Plato’s famous ideas, on which he says various, inconsistent things”, like those who are forced to embrace a conclusion, “although they do not understand well enough what it may be or how it could be true”.
Garve does not use the terms “empiricists” and “rationalists”, which would take on their now-common meanings only with Kant. However, the way in which Garve carves the two opposed camps of ancient philosophers maps neatly onto Kant’s distinction between ancient empiricists and rationalists. Garve also suggests that Locke and Berkeley followed Aristotle, whereas Leibniz followed Plato. This is because, in the antiquity, “nearly the whole territory of all opinions which may be held on this matter had been explored; all matter for supposition and invention had been used”.
Kant too thought that modern empiricists and rationalists followed the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. This brief survey of Leibniz’s and Garve’s statements suggests that their historiography of ancient philosophy may have been a source of Kant’s influential distinction between empiricism and rationalism.
Degérando’s Experimental History of Philosophy
Alberto Vanzo writes...
So far, on this blog, we have focused on a philosophical movement and a historiographical tradition. Of course, the movement was experimental philosophy. The historiographical tradition was based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism and was first developed by Kantian and post-Kantian authors, like Reinhold and Tennemann, who did not belong to the movement of experimental philosophy. This post is on a historian who was an adherent of experimental philosophy and who endeavoured to employ its methodology in his history of philosophy. He is Joseph-Marie Degérando, who published a Comparative History of the Philosophical Systems, relatively to the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1804. Interestingly, this text is also influenced by the new post-Kantian historiography based on the rationalism-empiricism distinction.
Degérando intends to apply the method of natural history to the history of philosophy. Natural histories were large structured collections of facts about natural phenomena and they were to form the basis for the identification of theories and principles. Degérando’s history of philosophy is a structured collection of facts about past philosophies which will help us identify which philosophical outlook is the best.
Before starting to collect the facts, we must determine the organizing principles of the collection. Philosophers should
- imitate naturalists, who, before entering into the vast regions of natural history, give us regular and simple nomenclatures and they seek the principle of these nomenclatures in the essential characters of each production.
The “nomenclatures” that form the basis for Degérando’s natural history of past philosophers are three dichotomies: scepticism vs dogmatism, empiricism (or sensualism) vs rational (or speculative or contemplative) philosophy; and materialism vs idealism.
Armed with these nomenclatures, historians of philosophy should free themselves of all prejudices and collect historical facts in an unbiased way. Only after having completed this task should historians start philosophizing. Degérando claims to have ascertained “facts as if” he were “foreign to every opinion” and he has “later established an opinion on the basis of the sole testimony of facts”.
In doing this, Degérando does not aim to write a “simple narrative history, to use Bacon’s expression”, but an “inductive or comparative history that converts the facts into “experiences in the path of human spirit.”
- […] the work that we set out to do can be considered as the essay of a treatise of philosophy, […] a treatise conceived of according to the most cautious, albeit most neglected method, the method of experiences. Hence, we dare to offer this essay as an essay of experimental philosophy.
Degérando is strongly influenced by the post-Kantian historiography of Tennemann and other German historians. Like Tennemann, he focuses on epistemological issues concerning “the certainty of human cognitions”, “their origin” and their reality. Degérando uses the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. Like the Kantians, he criticizes them as two unilateral points of view that should be overcome by a higher philosophical standpoint. This is a form of experimental philosophy that is inspired by Bacon and Condillac and is superior to empiricism which as criticized by German historians. Empiricism stops at the facts. The philosophy of experience “transforms them” and identifies general laws.
- Empiricism does not see anything else than the exterior of the temple of nature; experience enters into its sanctuary. Empiricism is an instinct; experience is an art. Empiricism does not see anything else than phenomena, experience ascends from effects to causes. Empiricism is confined to the present; experience learns the future from the past. Empiricism obeys blindly, experience interrogates with method. Everything is mobile, fugitive for empiricism; experience discovers regular and constant combinations underneath the variable appearances. But what need is there to insist on this distinction? He who opens [a book by] Bacon will see it standing out in every page.
The philosophical upshot of Degérando’s experimental history of philosophy
- is spelled out by Bacon’s words, when he said in his preface to the Advancement of Learning: in this way we believe that we are combining, in a manner that is as stable as legitimate, the empirical and rational methods […]
According to Degérando, experimental philosophy, and not Kant’s Critical philosophy is the true, higher synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.
Edward Caird on the history of early modern philosophy
Alberto Vanzo writes…
By researching the history of early modern experimental philosophy, my fellow bloggers and I are attempting to provide an alternative to the standard narrative of early modern thought as a prolonged conflict between the empiricist school of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume and the rationalist school of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Who was responsible for coining and popularizing that standard narrative?
Several scholars suggested that British Idealists in particular, played an important role in this process. I recently tested this suggestion by doing some research on Edward Caird, one of the main first-generation British Idealists.
Caird did not write any history of philosophy, but he provided extended accounts of early modern thought in his widely read Kant books. The quotes below are from the first volume of The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889).
Caird sees his own idealism as a completion of the philosophical revolution initiated by Kant. Kant’s Critical philosophy opened the doors to an “idealistic interpretation of the universe” (44) by synthesizing “the different tendencies of his time” and going “beyond their one-sidedness, and thereby lifted philosophical discussion to a new level” (44).
“How are we to describe” this “great change”, initiated by Kant? (46) “In general terms we may say that it was a change from division to reconciliation, from Individualism and Atomism to a renewed perception that the whole is prior to the parts, and that individual independence must rest on social unity” (46, see 70). Individualism is the guiding principle of the whole “history of [early] modern philosophy” (72).
“The history of modern thought begins with” Martin Luther’s “declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual, and the rejection of the principle of authority” (72). Along similar lines, modern science and “Bacon’s empiricism” placed a strong emphasis on individual, first-hand knowledge. Luther and Bacon attempted to go beyond mere subjectivity to achieve “the unity of thought with its object” (74). They failed, giving rise to the scepticism with which Descartes grappled at the beginning of the Meditations. Descartes overcame it by relying on God’s veracity. To Descartes, “our consciousness of God” is prior even to “our consciousness of ourselves” (76).
Malebranche and Spinoza developed Descartes’ theocentric approach to unify subject and object, but they failed and gave way to the individualist assumption that “we must see all things” not in God, but “in ourselves”, either “through the sensations which outward objects have produced in our minds, or through the ideas which spring directly out of our own consciousness, that we come to a knowledge of other things” (83). Locke’s and Hume’s empiricism explored the first alternative, Leibniz’s and Wolff’s rationalism the second. They all failed, leading “the progress of Individualism to its necessary consummation in Scepticism” (86). Only Kant managed to synthesize subject and object, mind and world by realizing that the latter is mind-dependent and placing “the idea of a self-determining subject” (85) at the centre of his philosophy. Thus ends Caird’s account of early modern thought.
How much of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy can we find in this account? The emphasis on the individualism of the Reformation may have struck a familiar chord. The account of Kant’s Critical philosophy as a synthesis of Lockean and Leibnizian ideas and an antidote to scepticism sounds familiar too. But these are precisely the elements of Caird’s account that are not distinctive of Idealist accounts of early modern thought, such as Schwegler‘s and Erdmann’s. Their distinctive traits are others, like the following:
- an emphasis on individualism as a distinctive feature of the entire early modern period,
- a theo-centric interpretation of Descartes, Malebranche and Spinoza (but not Leibniz) as members of a single school,
- the teleological reading of early modern thinkers as struggling to reach an adequate understanding of the unity of subject and object, mind and world — something that only Hegel would fully achieve.
Besides having these rather unfamiliar features, Idealist histories of early modern thought do not spell out the standard triumvirates. They sever the theocentric philosophies of Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza from Leibniz’s and Wolff’s philosophy. They read Berkeley as an idealist rather than an intermediate step in the progress from Locke to Hume. On the whole, then, Caird’s account of early modern thought is much less similar to standard histories of early modern philosophies than Tennemann’s earlier, Kant-inspired History of Philosophy. This leads me to doubt that British Idealism is key to understanding how the standard narrative of early modern thought came to the fore.
Experimental Philosophy and the Straw Man Problem
Peter Anstey writes …
One common objection against the experimental–speculative distinction (ESD) as an alternative historiographical framework for understanding early modern philosophy is the Straw Man Problem. Our interlocutors are prepared to admit the importance of the emergence of the experimental philosophy in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century and its subsequent uptake across the Continent. However, they object that, in spite of all the experimental philosophers’ rhetoric, there were few, if any, speculative philosophers. The speculative philosopher, in their view, is merely a straw man, a creation of the experimental philosophers who needed someone or something to define themselves against. The claim, then, is that there was not really any substantive experimental–speculative distinction because there were not really any speculative philosophers.
In my view this objection is based upon a superficial understanding of the ESD. Moreover, I believe that providing an adequate response to the Straw Man Problem is a good way to highlight what is at the core of the ESD framework.
A weakness of the Straw Man objection is the presumption of parity: it is assumed that if we have an actual distinction then we have practitioners of, more or less, equal number on both sides of the distinction. This presumption may derive from the Kantian rationalism–empiricism historiography with its two triumvirates of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza versus Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that there were very few advocates of speculative philosophy after the 1660s. In Britain, Thomas Hobbes, Margaret Cavendish and John Sergeant were all opponents of the experimental philosophy and so might be classed as speculative philosophers, but it’s hard to name any others.
Nevertheless, this lack of parity does nothing to undermine the ESD. For, what is important is that it is the method, content and characteristics of speculative philosophy that were the focus of experimental philosophers’ attacks and disdain and not, on the whole, the practitioners themselves.
The ESD is, therefore, in the first instance a distinction that pertains to natural philosophical (and later philosophical) methodology and only secondarily to individuals. A nice analogue here is found in twentieth-century philosophy of mind. From the 1970s most philosophers were materialists or physicalists about the mind and it became hard to name any substance dualists. And yet physicalists about the mind defined their position, in large part, as being distinct from and opposed to dualism. Anyone who has done even the most cursory reading in the philosophy of mind knows that there is an historical explanation of this phenomenon. The Identity Theory emerged in the 1960s on the back of the attack on the ‘ghost in the machine’ by Gilbert Ryle and others. Early materialist theories of the mind were new and radical in so far as they defined themselves against dualism, even if within a few decades there were hardly any dualists to be found.
A similar situation is to be found with the emergence and growth of early modern experimental philosophy. There had been a long tradition in philosophy of distinguishing between speculative and operative philosophy, between speculative and operative knowledge and even speculative and operative intellects. Natural philosophy had almost invariably been classified as a speculative science. The conceit of the Fellows of the early Royal Society (among others) was to claim not only that natural philosophy could also be an operative (that is, experimental) science, but that the operative method of natural philosophy is far superior to the old speculative approach.
Thus, in order to explain the nature of the ESD, we shouldn’t look forward from the mid-seventeenth century for parity among practitioners from either side, rather we should look back to the origins of the distinction. In so doing it becomes clear that the speculative philosopher is no straw man.
The Prehistory of Empiricism
Alberto Vanzo writes…
As some of you will know, I have claimed for a while that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was first introduced by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. However, a quick search on Google Books reveals that there were many occurrences of “empiricism” and “rationalism” before Kant was even born. What is new about Kant’s use of these terms?
In this post I will survey early modern uses of “empiricism” and its cognates, “empiric” and “empirical”. I will argue that Kant’s new use of “empiricism” reflects a shift from the historical tradition of experimental philosophy to a new set of concerns.
Early modern authors often used “empiricism” and its cognates in medical contexts. Empirical physicians were said to depend “on experience without knowledge or art”. They did not have a good reputation. Shakespeare was expressing a common view when he wrote in All’s Well that Ends Well: “We must not corrupt our hope, To prostitute our past-cure malladie To empiricks”.
However, some defended empirical physicians. For instance, according to Johann Georg Zimmermann, the ancient physician Serapion of Alexandria was a good empiric. Why? Because he followed the method of experimental philosophy. He relied on experience and rejected idle hypotheses:
- Serapion and his followers rejected the inquiries of hidden causes and stuck to the visible ones […] So one can see that the founder of the sect of empirics had the noble purpose to band the love of hypotheses and useless quarrels from the medical art.
Tetens wrote in 1777: “It has been asked in politics whether [politicians] should derive their maxims from the way the world goes, or whether they should derive them from rational insight.” Those who chose the first alternative were empirical politicians. Like empirical physicians, they were usually the target of criticism. Several writers throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century agreed that true politicians could not be “blind empirics”.
Who opposed empirical politicians? It was the dogmatic or — as a review from 1797 called them, speculative politicians. Speculative politicians relied on “philosophical hypotheses and unilateral [i.e., insufficient] observations”, from which they rashly derived general conclusions. Once again, empirical politicians and their adversaries are implicitly identified with experimental and speculative philosophers.
The term “empiric” was also used in a general sense to refer to people who “owe their cognition to the senses” and “steer their actions on the basis of experience“. Leibniz famously said that we are empirics in three quarters of our actions. Bacon called empirics those who perform experiment after experiment without ever reflecting on the causes and principles that govern what they experience.
At least two of Kant’s German predecessors, Baumgarten and Mayer, coined disciplines called “empiric” that deal with the origin of our cognitions from experience or introspection. Additionally, two German historians identified an “empirical philosophy” that they contrasted with “scientific philosophy”.
Kant: what’s new in his usage?
Kant built on these linguistic uses when he introduced a new notion of empiricism:
- Like the authors referred to by some historians, Kant’s empiricists are philosophers.
- Like empirical physicians, empirical politicians, and empirical people, Kant’s empiricists rely entirely on experience.
However, Kant’s empiricism is not a generic reliance on experience, nor is it primarily related to the rejection of hypotheses and speculative reasonings. Kant’s empiricists advocate specific epistemological views (taking “epistemology” in a broad sense), that is, views on the origins and foundations of our knowledge. They deny that we can have any substantive a priori knowledge and they claim that all of our concepts derive from experience.
What is new in Kant’s notion of empiricism is the shift from a generic reference to experience and to the methodological issues that were distinctive of early modern x-phi, to broadly epistemological issues. To be sure, Kant was not concerned with epistemology for its own sake. He aimed to answer ontological and moral questions. Nevertheless, the epistemological issues that Kant’s new notion of empiricism focuses on are the issues that post-Kantian histories of philosophy, based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism, would place at the centre of their narratives.
Do you think this is persuasive? I am collecting early modern uses of “empiricism” and “rationalism”, so if you know some interesting occurrence, please let me know. Also, if you are familiar with methods for performing quantitative analyses of early modern corpora, could you get in touch? I would appreciate your advice.