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Tag Archives: historiography

On the Origins of a Historiographical Paradigm

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    It came to pass that the earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the earth. And the creator saw that the darkness was evil, and he spoke out in the darkness, saying “Let there be light” and there was light, and he called the light “Renaissance”. But still the creator was not pleased, for there remained darkness, and hence he took from the Renaissance a rib, with which to fashion greater light. But the strain of his power broke the rib, and there did grow up two false lights, one Bacon, whose name meanteh “Father of the British Empiricists”, and one Descartes, whose name meaneth “Father of the Continental Rationalists”. […] 

    And thus it was that Bacon begat Hobbes, and Hobbes begat Locke, and Locke begat Berkeley, and Berkeley begat Hume. And thus it was that Descartes begat Spinoza, and Spinoza begat Leibniz, and Leibniz begat Wolff. And then it was that there arose the great sage of Königsberg, the great Immanuel, Immanuel Kant, who, though neither empiricist nor rationalist, was like unto both. […]

    And this too the creator saw, and he saw that it was good […]

In this parody, David Fate Norton has summarized a familiar account of the history of early modern philosophy — an account based on the antagonism of empiricism and rationalism. It has dominated histories of philosophy for most of the twentieth century, including Russell’s and Copleston’s histories.

In an earlier post, I argued that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was fleshed out into a fully-fledged history of philosophy by the Kantian historian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (To be sure, two other historians made use of the distinction roughly at the same time as Tennemann, but his hisory was by far the most influential.)

The question I’d like to discuss in this post is: how do we get from Tennemann to Copleston and Russell? At some point between the 1820s and 1940s, the account of early modern philosophy that can be found in Tennemann must have been exported from Germany to the English-speaking world. When and how did this happen?

Here are three hypotheses.

1. British philosophers around the 1830s?

The first English translation of Tennemann’s Manual was published in 1832. At that time, three British philosophers were interested in the history of philosophy: William Hamilton, Samuel Coleridge, and Dugald Stewart. None of them produced any substantial writing that made use of the rationalism-empiricism distinction. Thomas Morell had published in 1827 a History of Philosophy that would be reprinted many times, but he did not distinguish early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists. He split them into four groups:

  • sensualists like Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke;
  • idealists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Berkeley;
  • sceptics like Hume;
  • and mystics like Jacobi.

Morell’s notion of “sensualism” is similar to our notion of empiricism, but he does not group Locke, Berkeley, and Hume together as empiricists or sensualists. Nor does he create a rationalist category to contrast with sensualism.

2. English histories of philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Some of these were based on the distinction between empiricism and rationalism or similar distinctions, but many were not. For instance, the history written by F.D. Maurice followed a strictly chronological order, without grouping philosophers into movements. German Hegelians and British Idealists grouped together Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza, but not Leibniz. They claimed that these philosophers were criticized by two groups of thinkers: realists like Locke and Hume, but not Berkeley, and idealists like Leibniz and Berkeley. These distinctions cut across the traditional groupings of empiricists and rationalists.

3. Textbook writers at the turn of the twentieth century?

It was between 1895 and 1915 that the account of early modern thought based on the empiricism-rationalism distinction became standard in the English-speaking world. It can be found in many new introductions to philosophy, histories of philosophy, and lecture syllabi.

It is unclear to me why the standard account become standard between 1895 and 1915. I suspect that the answer has to do with two factors:

The first is the institutionalization of the study of early modern philosophy. The classificatory schema based on the contrast of empiricism and rationalism was simpler than the others and well suited for teaching.

The second factor (highlighted by Alex Klein) is the rise of philosopher-psychologists like William James. By grouping together Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as empiricists, the standard accounts of early modern philosophy provided a distinguished ancestry for the growing number of American philosophers and psychologists who, under the James’ influence, called themselves empiricists.

I’m keen to hear if you think that these explanations are persuasive and if you have any other suggestions.

Tim Mehigan on ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann’

Tim Mehigan writes…

Alberto Vanzo presented two papers for discussion at the recent Otago symposium on early modern experimental philosophy. There are two conclusions in the first paper (“Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany” [on which we’ll publish Eric Watkins’ comments next Monday]) that are important for the second paper: one, that experimental philosophy, as “observational philosophy”, was replaced in German historiography by the term “empiricism” (this occurred sometime before 1796 as a passage from an essay by Christian Garve indicates); two, as experimental/observational philosophy waned, so the historiographical distinction between rationalism and empiricism (RED) waxed. While the reasons for the waxing are not completely clear, there appear to be two ways of imagining how it occurred. The first view holds that Kant himself was responsible for legislating the RED into existence. The second argues that the distinction was not authorized by Kant but arose as a result of the way his philosophy was interpreted and explained by later Kantians such as Reinhold and Tennemann. Both explanations are considered and evaluated in Vanzo’s second paper “Empiricism vs. Rationalism.”

So this is what’s at stake: Vanzo needs to show how the RED can be read into Kant’s first Critique, even if it is not expressly established as a formal distinction on which other parts of the CPR depend. Given the strategy alluded to above – that Kant introduces a distinction under the guise of different terminology – Vanzo is obliged to consider whether we encounter a “mapping” problem when Kant’s contrasts are seen in the context of the RED. He immediately concedes that there is indeed such a mapping problem (as Gary Banham had noted here). The RED is introduced in two places in the CPR – the Antinomies of Pure Reason and the History of Pure Reason. In the first case, Kant contrasts empiricism with dogmatism (not rationalism), and in the second case, Kant contrasts empiricism with “noologism” (not rationalism). The question is: whether RED can “map onto” either or both of these contrasts and thus indicate compellingly that Kant operated with the RED in mind?

As it turns out, the occurrence of the RED in the History of Pure Reason is more readily answered than in the Antinomies. Vanzo establishes both that the contrast of “empiricism” and “noologism” in the History of Pure Reason can be regarded as a version of the RED and that the contrast established here was to become a standard part of the histories of early modern philosophy. The argument in the Antinomies follows a more circuitous route. Vanzo cannot directly show that “dogmatism” and “rationalism” are interchangeable terms, all the more so since Kant’s purpose in the Antinomies is to show that neither dogmatism nor empiricism on its own is able to offer satisfactory proofs of key statements about the world. So both dogmatism and empiricism come up short, and Kant, as a later self-identifying rationalist, is clearly not about to subscribe to the dogmatic variant of metaphysical rationalism. So a problem of mapping does appear here, and it is the more serious one for the RED distinction.

Was the RED introduced by Kant? Vanzo’s final answer is, “not really”. Kant does not have the “epistemological bias” in regard to the RED, i.e. he does not overestimate the importance of the RED on epistemological grounds. Neither does Kant have the “Kantian bias”, according to which the RED is important for his project in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant, finally, does not have the “classificatory bias” which classifies all philosophers prior to Kant into either empiricist or rationalist camps. When we consider the later Kantians, the picture is quite different. Both Reinhold and Tennemann are said to have the epistemological, the Kantian and the classificatory biases. Reinhold, I believe, did not initially have the classificatory bias, as it is not clearly in evidence in his first major work, the Essay on a New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation (1789). By the early 1790s, however, as Vanzo shows, Reinhold appears to have derived a historiographical framework based on the RED. Reinhold’s framework appears to have been important for philosophers such as Tennemann, who by the late 1790s had begun to craft a “methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy” in which the RED is amply applied to individual philosophers and where Kant takes his place as the author who successfully overcame the limits of these two schools.

In sum, Vanzo’s case for the establishment of the RED in Germany appears to ascribe great importance to the manner in which Kantian philosophy was received from the mid 1780s until the mid 1790s and how it was laid out against a background of historiographical assumptions. As happens so often, the background was to become foreground for a few brief years, and when it did so under Reinhold’s pen – this is the likely conclusion – the historiography became more important than the philosophy. Fortunately this situation has reversed itself and Kant’s philosophy has become a far more open proposition than it was taken to be in those years. This openness, in turn, makes room for different conceptualizations of the early modern period.

ESP: Is It Really Best?

Alberto Vanzo writes…

One of the mantras of our research team is: ESP is best. But is it?

As those of you who have been reading the blog for a while will know, we are not supporting Extra-Sensory Phenomena. We are claiming that we can make better sense of a number of episodes in the history of early modern thought by reading them in the light of the distinction between Experimental and Speculative Philosophy than in the light of the empiricism-rationalism distinction.

Keith Hutchison is less than convinced. If he is correct, we’d be better off putting away our early modern x-phi hats and start working on some other idea. Should we? We’d love to know what you think, so today I’m posting Keith’s comment along with a reply.

Keith says:

    Alberto’s paper told me something very helpful about the proposal to replace the RED [rationalism-empiricism distinction] with the ESP. For it is clear that Alberto interprets ‘experimentalism’ very widely, so widely indeed that he would count (say) the observational astronomy of the eighteenth-century as ‘experimental’. In fact, he seems to use the word to mean what I routinely call ‘empiricism’. Apparently there are two senses of ’empiricism’, one a very narrow conception endorsed by that coterie of historians of thought secluded within the halls of philosophy departments, and the other a more general one, as used widely within the thinking public. It is this second notion that the Otago team propose to call ‘experimentalism’. This seems to me a very dangerous practice, one that would generate much confusion if it spread. For it clashes with one of the key connotations of the word ‘experiment’, the idea that experiments constitute a special sub-class of empirical enquiries, those that involve an experimenter, who deliberately manipulates the entities under investigation. This is the way the word is used in modern English, and it is the way the word was used in seventeenth-century English – when such experimentalism became philosophically respectable. To start using it in a radically new sense, just to avoid a problem created by the way a tiny handful of writers have (mis-?)used the word ‘empirical’ is surely mischievous.

Keith is right when he points out that, in the expression “experimental philosophy”, the adjective “experimental” does not uniquely refer to experiments. But this is in line with seventeenth-century usage. When authors like Dunton (here) and Diderot (here), spoke of the experimental philosophy or the experimental method, they did not uniquely refer to experiments. They referred to a specific way of studying the nature of the world around us and our own human nature. To understand it, experimental philosophers claimed, we cannot rely on demonstrative reasonings from principles or hypotheses lacking a broad empirical support. Instead, we must make extensive and systematic recourse on experiments and observations.

When self-declared experimental philosophers studied the human mind, they were adamant that the observations on which they rely included introspection. Juan has showed this in a post on Reid. Indeed, although some early modern authors distinguished between experiments and observations, they performed the same role within Boyle’s or Hooke’s conception of knowledge acquisition. This is why German experimental philosophers could translate “experimental philosophy” as “observational philosophy”.

So as Keith points out, in the expression “experimental philosophy”, the term “experimental” has a broad meaning. However, this is not to say that the expression “experimental philosophy” is irremediably vague or identical to a broad notion of “empiricism”. First, the self-declared early modern experimental philosophers told us what the method of experimental philosophy was. Second, authors like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke put that method in practice in their natural-philosophical work. Third, experimental philosophy can be seen as a movement that people adhered to: they stated that they were part of that movement; they endorsed its rhetoric; they identified with its heroes (e.g., Bacon) and attacked its foes (e.g., Aristotle). When we trace the history of early modern x-phi, we are not applying notions that we have first introduced. We are taking seriously their statements on how they were studying the nature of the world and of our mind, and seeing if it is possible to better understand what they were doing by placing them within the movement that they were actually involved in than by using either the vague or the more technical notions of empiricism that can be found in the literature.

So what do you think: is ESP best? Or are we on a wrong track?

Gideon Manning on the Origins of the Experimental/Speculative Distinction

Gideon Manning writes…

Having commented on Peter Anstey’s “The Origins of the Experimental-Speculative Distinction” at the recent symposium in Otago, I am pleased to share a much abbreviated and slightly revised version of my comments.  I limit myself here to making two points.  First, there is reason to believe the Experimental-Speculative Distinction (ESD) is not all it is cracked up to be.  Second, the best place to look for what Peter has called the “pre-history” of ESD might be in the Scholastic distinction and distinct practice of general as opposed to particular physics.

1. Part of what motivates Peter’s interest in the Experimental-Speculative Distinction (ESD) is his belief that in just about every way it is superior to the post-Kantian Rationalism-Empiricism Distinction (RED).  I agree that RED is no good – it’s an idealization and it’s imposed after the fact to tell a self-affirming story about how philosophy was waiting for Kant to come along.  In addition, RED ignores all sorts of interesting characters in early modern philosophy (like Boyle) and further it ignores the shared doctrines between members of the supposedly opposed camps.  Without wanting to defend RED, however, I do want to raise a red flag about ESD’s advantages.  With the sole exception that the terms employed in ESD were used by many of the actors in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, I see the same worries Peter identifies with RED coming up for ESD.  Specifically, where RED over emphasizes epistemology ESD over emphasizes methodology; where RED admits to too many significations of “empiricism” and “rationalism” ESD admits to too many significations of “experiment” and “experimental”; where RED leaves a demarcation problem with figures like Boyle – and I would add Hobbes and Berkeley – ESD leaves a demarcation problem with figures like Huygens and Descartes.  Put succinctly, the fact that ESD is an actor’s distinction does not mean it is not an idealization imposed to tell a self-affirming story.

2. In passing, Peter notes that Niccolò Cabeo’s commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology (1646) uses the phrase “experimental philosophy / experimentalis philosophia”.  I urge him to pursue this lead further.  For, there was a Scholastic distinction between two approaches to natural philosophy found in Aristotle’s corpus: physica generalis and physica particularisPhysica generalis is exemplified by Aristotle’s Physics, where he defines the object of natural philosophy, notes the conditions for the possibility of any kind of motion or change, and identifies matter, form, privation and the four causes as the principles of nature. Physica particularis is exemplified by On Generation and Corruption and the fourth book of the Meteorology, where Aristotle defines the object of natural philosophy as corpus potentia sensibile, considers what the object of sense-perception is, and concludes that touch is the most fundamental of all the senses.  Physica generalis is a metaphysical and theoretical or speculative approach to the study of nature since it is based on the conceptual analysis of the concept of a natural body.  Physica particularis is an experimental approach to nature since it is based on an empirical analysis of what is or seems to be given in sense-perception, as Cabeo observed.  Put succinctly, physica particularis was unquestionably experimental with its own experimental philosophy, so if the story of the “new science” and ESD represent a move away from the general to the particular and toward experimentation, we must look closely at physica particularis.

The case of Daniel Sennert further supports this suggestion.  Sennert was aware of the two approaches to natural philosophy in Aristotle’s corpus and as he matured he grew, in Bill Newman’s words, “increasingly impatient with the traditional scholastic focus on the more theoretical side of Aristotle’s thought”.  In fact, in Sennert’s late Hypomnemata physica (1636) he complains about traditional scholastic practice:

    I consider the chief cause of the imperfection of physics to be the fact that in previous centuries those who considered themselves particularly subtle consumed the greatest part of their life in those very general questions about the prime matter, form, privation, motion, and the like, and wore out their time in those disputations repeated so many times ad nauseam. Indeed they never considered the specifics from whose observation their principles should have been derived, or those specifics which should have provided the foundations of medicine and other disciplines…. And this to such a degree that so many wagon-fulls, practically, of commentaries on Aristotle’s books of general physics have been born, stuffed for the greatest part with questions that are not physical, but rather metaphysical, and often empty speculations. But very few are found who would read or comment on Aristotle’s Meteorology, Historia animalium, De partibus animalium, De generatione animalium, and De plantis. (Newman’s translation)

Sennert’s impatience with contemporary Aristotelians (and even his own earlier Aristotelianism) was tied to their preference for the general over the particular.  In focusing on ESD and its history, I think Peter and his group are reminding us what Sennert and his followers knew; that physica particularis was where the action was in the early modern period.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism: 20 Theses for Discussion

Before our recent symposium, we decided to imitate our early modern heroes by preparing a set of queries or articles of inquiry. They are a list of 20 claims that we are sharing with you below. They summarize what we take to be our main claims and findings so far in our study of early modern experimental philosophy and the genesis of empiricism.

After many posts on rather specific points, hopefully our 20 theses will give you an idea of the big picture within which all the topics we blog about fit together, from Baconian natural histories and optical experiments to moral inquiries or long-forgotten historians of philosophy.

Most importantly, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you find any of our claims unconvincing, inaccurate, or plainly wrong? Do let us know in the comments!

Is there some important piece of evidence that you’d like to point our attention to? Please get in touch!

Are you working on any of these areas and you’d like to share your thoughts? We’d like to hear from you (our contacts are listed here).

Would you like to know more on some of our 20 claims? Please tell us, we might write a post on that (or see if there’s anything hidden in the archives that may satisfy your curiosity).

Here are our articles, divided into six handy categories:


1. The distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy (ESD) provided the most widespread terms of reference for philosophy from the 1660s until Kant.

2. The ESD emerged in England in the late 1650s, and while a practical/speculative distinction in philosophy can be traced back to Aristotle, the ESD cannot be found in the late Renaissance or the early seventeenth century.

3. The main way in which the experimental philosophy was practised from the 1660s until the 1690s was according to the Baconian method of natural history.

4. The Baconian method of natural history fell into serious decline in the 1690s and is all but absent in the eighteenth century. The Baconian method of natural history was superseded by an approach to natural philosophy that emulated Newton’s mathematical experimental philosophy.


5. The ESD is operative in Newton’s early optical papers.

6. In his early optical papers, Newton’s use of queries represents both a Baconian influence and (conversely) a break with Baconian experimental philosophy.

7. While Newton’s anti-hypothetical stance was typical of Fellows of the early Royal Society and consistent with their methodology, his mathematisation of optics and claims to absolute certainty were not.

8. The development of Newton’s method from 1672 to 1687 appears to display a shift in emphasis from experiment to mathematics.


9. Unlike natural philosophy, where a Baconian methodology was supplanted by a Newtonian one, moral philosophers borrowed their methods from both traditions. This is revealed in the range of different approaches to moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment, approaches that were all unified under the banner of experimental philosophy.

10. Two distinctive features of the texts on moral philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment are: first, the appeal to the experimental method; and second, the explicit rejection of conjectures and unfounded hypotheses.

11. Experimental philosophy provided learned societies (like the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh) with an approach to knowledge that placed an emphasis on the practical outcomes of science.


12. The ESD is prominent in the methodological writings of the French philosophes associated with Diderot’s Encyclopédie project, including the writings of Condillac, d’Alembert, Helvétius and Diderot himself.


13. German philosophers in the first decades of the eighteenth century knew the main works of British experimental philosophers, including Boyle, Hooke, other members of the Royal Society, Locke, Newton, and the Newtonians.

14. Christian Wolff emphasized the importance of experiments and placed limitations on the use of hypotheses. Yet unlike British experimental philosophers, Wolff held that data collection and theory building are simultaneous and interdependent and he stressed the importance of a priori principles for natural philosophy.

15. Most German philosophers between 1770 and 1790 regarded themselves as experimental philosophers (in their terms, “observational philosophers”). They regarded experimental philosophy as a tradition initiated by Bacon, extended to the study of the mind by Locke, and developed by Hume and Reid.

16. Friends and foes of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies in the 1780s and 1790s saw them as examples of speculative philosophy, in competition with the experimental tradition.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism

17. Kant coined the now-standard epistemological definitions of empiricism and rationalism, but he did not regard them as purely epistemological positions. He saw them as comprehensive philosophical options, with a core rooted in epistemology and philosophy of mind and consequences for natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics.

18. Karl Leonhard Reinhold was the first philosopher to outline a schema for the interpretation of early modern philosophy based (a) on the opposition between Lockean empiricism (leading to Humean scepticism) and Leibnizian rationalism, and (b) Kant’s Critical synthesis of empiricism and rationalism.

19. Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann was the first historian to craft a detailed, historically accurate, and methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy based on Reinhold’s schema. [Possibly with the exception of Johann Gottlieb Buhle.]

20. Tennemann’s direct and indirect influence is partially responsible for the popularity of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy based on the conflict between empiricism and rationalism.

That’s it for now. Come back next Monday for Gideon Manning‘s comments on the origins of the experimental-speculative distinction.

(in their terms, “observational philosophers”)

Lost in translation

Peter Anstey writes…

Sometimes our historiographical categories can so dominate the way we approach the texts of great dead philosophers that we project them onto the texts themselves. Unhappily this is all too common among historians of early modern philosophy who take as their terms of reference the distinction between rationalism and empiricism.

For example, Stephen Priest, in The British Empiricists (2nd ed. 2006, p. 8) claims:

    Although historians of philosophy claim that Kant invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction and retrospectively imposed it on his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors, this is a historical mistake. The distinction was explicitly drawn using the words “empiricists” and “rationalists” at least as early as 1607, when the British empiricist Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote: “Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves” and: 

    Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.

    […] Leaving aside the use of the words “rationalism” and “empiricism” (or similar) the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy is as old as philosophy itself. It is true that many rationalist and empiricists do not describe themselves as rationalists or empiricists but that does not matter. Calling oneself “x” is neither necessary nor sufficient for being x.

However, a careful reading of Bacon’s Latin reveals that he is not using the Latin equivalents of ‘empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’, but rather empirici and rationales, terms that have quite different meanings in Bacon. For Bacon, the empirici are those who focus too much on observation and the works of their hands (New Organon, I, 117). Quacks who prescribe chemical remedies without any knowledge of medical theory are commonly called empirici and the term is usually a pejorative in the early seventeenth century (see De augmentis scientiarum, Bk IV, chapter 2). By contrast rationales are those who ‘wrench things various and commonplace from experience… and leave the rest to meditation and intellectual agitation’ (New Organon, I, 62).

Another example of projecting the rationalism/empiricism distinction onto a text is found in the recent English edition of Diderot’s Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature. Diderot’s work contains a very interesting discussion of philosophical methodology. Article XXIII says,

    Nous avons distingué deux sortes de philosophies, l’expérimentale et la rationnelle.

The translation in the Clinamen Press (1999, p. 44) edition reads:

    We have identified two types of philosophy – one is empirical and the other rationalist.

But Diderot doesn’t contrast empirical with rationalist. Rather the contrast is between experimental philosophy (la philosophie expérimentale) and rational and the context makes it clear that rationnelle here is used to refer to what the English called speculative philosophers. The terminology and the content of Diderot’s discussion makes far more sense when read in the light of the experimental/speculative distinction. Yet this is lost in the English translation.

Having pointed out two examples of reading the traditional historiography into the texts themselves, I should like to end with a note of caution. Those of us who regard the experimental/speculative distinction as having more explanatory value than the traditional post-Kantian terms of reference also need to be aware that we too can fall into the same trap of reading the ESD into the texts under study and not allow the texts to speak for themselves.

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.