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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.

“Secta Empírica y Dogmáticos Racionales”: medicine and the ESD in early modern Spain II

Juan Gomez writes…

I have been discussing the reception and development of experimental philosophy in early modern Spain in a number of posts in our blog. In my previous entry, I introduced a 1711 text by Marcelino Boix which presents an interesting sketch of the relationship between natural philosophy and medicine. In particular, we saw that Boix sets out to defend empiric doctors from the attacks of rational dogmatists. However, I did not examine in detail Boix’s conception of empiric doctors. It is to Boix’s description of the empiric sect that I want to turn to now.

Boix establishes his definition of the empiric sect by placing it in relation to what he calls “the three main sects of natural philosophy”: sceptics, academics, and rational dogmatists. While all three sects are driven by the search for truth, they differ in the accounts of their results:

Rational dogmatists brag that they have found the truth, in contrast to the Sceptics, which have not been able to find it, in spite of the fact that they have never lost hope of finding it…The Academics have completely despaired in finding it. While Rational dogmatists insist on giving an answer to every question in nature, Academics and Sceptics suspend their judgment.

Boix wants the reader to think that out of the three sects, the Academic one is the best. This is made evident in his description of the way the three sects have made an impact on the history of medicine. Boix comments that medicine up to the eighteenth century was founded on the rational dogmatist philosophy, which has Aristotle and Chrysippus as its leading figures, since “they were the first who taught Dogmatists and Scholastics to talk loud when it comes to the search for truth.”

The academics are discarded quickly, since they have given up in the search for the truth. The sceptics are considered in a more favorable light, since they are the foundation for the empiric doctors, who Boix sides with. He mentions that the Sceptics had Pyrrho for their guide, who “acquired the knowledge, solely through the light of nature, that Philosophy and Medicine were not learnt through disputes and useless questions.”  Boix starts his defense of the empiric sect and finds support in the work of Robert Boyle. He quotes a passage from Boyle’s Certain Physiological Essays in order to show that the way rational dogmatists conduct their research does not yield results:

If a physician be asked, why rhubarb does commonly cure looseness, he will probably tell you as a reason, that rhubarb is available in such diseases, because it hath both a laxative virtue, whereby it evacuates choler, and such other bad humours as are wont, in such cases, to be the peccant matter; and an astringent quality, whereby it afterwards arrests the flux. But if you further ask him the reason, why rhubarb purges, and why it purges choler more than any other humour; it is ten to one he will not be able to give you a satisfactory answer.

Boix uses the quote to prove a point: that the rational dogmatists (focusing their accounts on occult and secondary qualities) cannot explain why rhubarb purges choler more than any other humour. He comments that not even Robert Boyle, “the Prince of philosophy in our time”, can explain why rhubarb purges choler more than any other humour. The point is that those partial to the empiric sect know when to abstain from giving an answer, unlike the rational dogmatists who make up their explanations.

This brings Boix to ask an interesting question to his sketch: If none of the sects can give us answers, what is the difference between them? Boix reiterates his suggestion that while rational dogmatists claim to know certain truths, without proof, sceptics focus on the plausibility of their explanations based on experience:

If, like Valles says, a doctrine is more probable than another, because it has better foundations both ab extrinseco and ab intrinseco, then in Philosophy the Sceptics will make it more probable than the Rational dogmatists, the latter make doctrines plausible based on the authority of many, which is ab extrinseco, and on reason, which is ab intrinseco. But the Sceptics laugh at all this, since with experience they prove both reason and authority wrong. The same can be said of the Empiric doctors, given that, despising useless questions they search for experience, because they know that it will bring them closer to the truth (even though they lose hope in ascertaining it), and in this way Sceptics and Empirics make their doctrine more plausible than the Rational dogmatists do: since opposed to experience there can be no disputes, especially when it is accompanied by reason.

Boix’s description of the distinction between rational dogmatists and sceptics/empiric doctors closely resembles the speculative-experimental divide: rational dogmatists, just like speculative philosophers, turn to authority, syllogisms, and occult qualities to ground their doctrines; sceptics/empiric doctors rely solely on experience in their search for truth, just like experimental philosophers. Boix’s references to Boyle and Sydenham also suggest that his empiric doctors are committed to the same methodology the experimental physicians promoted. In this sense, Boix’s work can help us decipher the way in which Spanish philosophers received and interpreted experimental philosophy, giving way to the philosophy of the Novatores, a group that would shape the development of early modern Spanish philosophy.

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

Juan Gomez writes…

I have posted on this blog regarding early modern experimental philosophy in Spain (here and here). Contrary to the common opinion that Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a ‘backwards’ nation when compared to France and England, I have pointed out how many Spanish thinkers were aware of and advocated for the application of the ‘new’ science. In today’s post I want to focus on a text by the thinker who is arguably one of the most influential figures in Spanish thought, Benito Jerónimo Feijoo.

Feijoo was born in 1676 and ordained under the order of Saint Benedict in 1690 after studying in the monastery of San Vicente de Salamanca. He moved to Oviedo in 1709 where he taught and developed his philosophical work. The most influential of his texts was the Teatro Crítico Universal, a nine volume work published between 1726 and 1740. Each of the volumes contains a number of essays on a variety of topics including natural philosophy, history, medicine, women, education, transubstantiation, and religion. I want to focus on a discourse from the fifth volume (1733) titled ‘El gran magisterio de la experiencia’ (The great lessons of experience).

The piece is an essay on the danger of pure speculation (‘reason unaided by experience’) and calls for the emphasis on experience and observation in all our inquiries. Feijoo begins by recounting a fable that was read to him from a French book by a foreign traveller. The story begins with the arrival of two ladies, Solidína and Ideária, in the Kingdom of Cosmósia with the intention of taking dominion over the Kingdom. Solidína was ´wise but simple,’ and her strategy for conquering the empire was the following:

    She went from house to house, making herself acquainted with everyone, teaching with clear and common voices true and useful doctrines… since everywhere she found sensible objects that examined through the ministry of the sense became the books for her lessons. Far from inspiring an indiscreet presumption among her disciples, she told them with humbleness that what she could teach was very little compared to the infinite amount there is to learn, and that to achieve even just an average knowledge of things immense work and discipline was necessary.

Ideária on the other hand was ‘ignorant but charlatan’ and had a very different strategy:

    She tried to establish an absolute despotism over her disciples, expediting an edict so that no one would believe what their eyes saw or what their hands felt… their disciples started to believe many maxims that used to be seen as impediments to knowledge: that truth can only be known through fiction; that there is a way of knowing things that a boy can learn in four days; that there is one man, that is all man (the same goes for all species), so that if one is known, all are known; that non-sensitive and inanimate things have their appetites, ears, and loves no less than sensitive and animate things… that all living beings are composed by a considerable degree of fire, not even excluding fishes, even though they are always under water.

Ideária ruled for a long time until there was a schism among her disciples. A subject named Papyráceo separated himself and introduced new dogmas:

    That all living beings (except men) are nothing but corpses; that even in man only a small part of the body entertains the presence of the soul; that the world is infinitely extended; that the movement of sub-lunar and celestial bodies is perennial; that imaginary space is a true and real body… that in all things imagination must be believed, and never the senses; and the latter deceive in all their representations; that the swan is not white, nor the crow black, nor fire hot, nor snow cold &c.

But fortunately the story does not end with Ideária’s rule. People found out that the maxims both her and Papyráceo defended were at most probable, so they remembered Solidína and brought her back to the city:

    They established her as the magnificent of the teaching rooms, where she teaches with more and more credit each day, contributing immensely to the favour of some great heroes, especially the two princes, Galindo and Anglosio, who are very fond of Solidína.

Feijoo goes on to explain the themes and characters the story alludes to, which are not that difficult to discern. Cosmósia is the world, coming from the Greek cosmos. Solidína is experience, since it ‘explains solidly its maxims with sensible demonstrations.’ Ideária is imagination, since it ‘founds its opinions on the vain representation of its ideas.’ The triumph of this kind of philosophy is represented by Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, out of whom came an ‘ideal physics instead of a solid and experimental one.’ The character of Papyráceo alludes to Descartes, since the former comes from the Latin word Papyrus, which is equivalent to the French ‘Carte’. Finally,

    experimental observation, which was only used before by the farmers for the cultivation of the crops, the due care of the fields and the propagation of livestock, was recently brought back pompously by some institutions set up to examine nature in this way. Among them, the most famous being the Royal Academy of the Sciences in Paris and the Royal Society of London chartered under the Monarchs of France and England, respectively, which are alluded by the princes Galindo and Anglosio, derived from the Latin terms for those nations, Gallia and Anglia.

It is clear from this introduction to Feijoo’s essay that he is promoting this picture of the history of philosophy as a very long and detrimental period where the way of doing philosophy without consideration for experiment and observation was superseded by the new method in the seventeenth century, as it is exemplified by the Royal institutions of France and England. And this just sets the scene for the rest of what Feijoo wants to say. In my next post I will explore Feijoo’s more detailed objections to the use of pure speculation and his call for experimental observation as the foundation of all knowledge.

Laura Bassi: An Eighteenth-Century Newtonian

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Laura Bassi (1711-1778) had a remarkable career.  In eighteenth-century Italy, it was rare, but not unheard of, for a woman from a wealthy family to receive a higher education, a doctorate, or even a lectureship.  But what made Bassi unique was how she used her positions at the University of Bologna and the Academy of Science (which would ordinarily have been symbolic) to contribute to the scientific community of Europe.

Thony Christie over at The Renaissance Mathematicus recently wrote a very good post about Bassi’s life and career, so I will not go into those details here.  Instead, today I’m interested in Bassi as an eighteenth-century Newtonian and experimental physicist.

Over the course of her career (roughly 1732 to 1778), Bassi presented papers on mathematics, pneumatics, fluid dynamics, mechanics, optics and electricity.  Most of these papers have been lost, but the few surviving papers display Bassi’s talent for mathematics and her commitment to the Newtonian method (as exemplified by Principia).  For example, in her paper on differential calculus (“De problemate quodam mechanico”, 1757), Bassi dealt with the problem of how to determine the motion of the centre of mass of two or more bodies moving along any curved paths in a plane.  In this paper, she followed the Newtonian method of avoiding metaphysical and empirical assumptions about the nature of matter.

From the 1740s onwards, Bassi and her husband  Giuseppe Veratti became very interested in electrical phenomena.  Here, we can identify two different Newtonian themes.  Firstly, their research appears to have been heavily influenced by the later queries of the Opticks, which attempt to link phenomena such as light, heat, electricity and magnetism with biological phenomena such as muscle movement, growth of plants and phosphorescent fish.  Secondly, they supported Franklin’s electrical-fluid theory, which had been systematised in a Newtonian framework by Beccaria.

In the late 1740s, Bassi began teaching privately.  Bassi and Veratti had a well-equipped physics laboratory in their home, including an electricity machine.  This made it possible for Bassi to teach experimental physics in their home.  At the University, the philosophical curriculum was essentially scholastic, and at the Institute of Sciences, the courses on experimental physics had a physiological focus (which reflected the interests of the Bolognese scholars, most of whom had medical degrees).  Bassi’s knowledge-base, which by then included advanced mathematics, mechanics, optics, and electricity, made her uniquely qualified to teach a course on Newtonian philosophy and Franklinian electricity.  In a letter to Scarselli in 1755 she mentioned the popularity of her classes: “The classes have gathered such momentum that they are now attended by people of considerable education, including foreigners, rather than by youths”.

From this brief survey of Bassi’s work, she appears to have adopted many facets of Newtonianism: she accepted and built on Newton’s rational mechanics, but also followed the leads left by Newton in his optical queries.  Indeed, in her own time, Bassi was a well-known Newtonian.  Algarotti mentioned her several times (although not by name) in his Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy explain’d for the use of the Ladies and explicitly presented her as a Newtonian in ‘Non la lesboa’ – his contribution to the book of poems published in honour of Bassi’s graduation.  Also, in 1744 Voltaire implicitly compared Bassi with Newton when he wrote:

    Most Honoured Lady: I would like to visit Bologna so that I might say to my fellow citizens that I have seen Signora Bassi, but, deprived of this honour, I trust that I may with justice cast at your feet this philosophical homage in reverence to the glory of her century and sex.  As there is no Bassi in London I should more happily enter your Academy of Bologna than the English one, even though it may have produced a Newton.

But what can we say about Bassi’s ‘experimental physics’?  The subject-matter was certainly Newtonian, but what about the methodology?  On this blog, we have argued that, from the 1690s onwards, the experimental philosophy was approached in a way that emulated Newton’s mathematical-experimental method.  Bassi certainly had the expertise to follow the Newtonian method, which raises the question: Should Bassi’s experimental physics be seen as another facet of her Newtonianism, or should we regard it as a more general interest in the experimental method?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the evidence to answer this question.  I’m not even sure if Bassi engaged in any kind of methodological reflection.  Does anyone know how I might find out?

Emilie du Châtelet on Hypotheses

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Emilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749) is best known in the popular literature as one of Voltaire’s lovers, but among her contemporaries, she was considered to be a brilliant mathematician, physicist and philosopher, whom Voltaire once described as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.  Her work on heat and light predicted infrared radiation, and her translation and commentary of Newton’s Principia, published ten years after her death, is still considered to be the standard French translation.  Today I’m interested in Du Châtelet’s views on hypotheses.

Emilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749)

Du Châtelet’s lengthiest discussion of the use of hypotheses in natural philosophy is found in her Institutions de Physique* (1740), which she wrote as a textbook for her thirteen year old son.  Here, Du Châtelet explicitly set up her position on hypotheses in opposition to both Descartes and the Newtonians.  She saw both positions as too extreme; and neither position as correct or useful.  On the one hand:

    “Descartes, who had established much of his philosophy on hypotheses, … gave the whole learned world a taste for hypotheses; and it was not long before one fell into a taste for fictions.  Thus, the books of philosophy, which should have been collections of truths, were filled with fables and reveries.”

But on the other hand, those who follow Newton “have fallen into the opposite excess”:

    “…he alone, who was able to assign and demonstrate the causes of all that we see, would be entitled to banish hypotheses from physics; but, as for us, who do not seem to be cut out for such knowledge, and who can only arrive at the truth by crawling from probability to probability, it is not for us to pronounce so boldly against hypotheses.”

Du Châtelet advocated a more moderate position.  She thought that hypotheses performed several important functions:

Firstly, hypothesising is a good way to get the proverbial ball rolling.  She wrote:

    “There must be a beginning in all researches, and this beginning must almost always be a very imperfect, often unsuccessful attempt.  There are unknown truths just as there are unknown countries to which one can only find the good route after having tried all the others.  Thus, some must run the risk of losing their way in order to mark the good path for others; so it would be doing the sciences great injury, infinitely delaying their progress, to banish hypotheses as some modern philosophers have.”

Secondly, hypotheses can provide useful explanations of the phenomena:

    “When certain things are used to explain what has been observed, and though the truth of what has been supposed is impossible to demonstrate, one is making a hypothesis.  Thus, philosophers frame hypotheses to explain the phenomena, the cause of which cannot be discovered either by experiment or by demonstration.”

So, unlike Newton, Du Châtelet thought that, if we couldn’t obtain certainties, then we should make do with probabilities:

    “The true causes of natural effects and of the phenomena we observe are often so far from the principles on which we can rely and the experiments we can make that one is obliged to be content with probable reasons to explain them.  Thus, probabilities are not to be rejected in the sciences, not only because they are often of great practical use, but also because they clear the path that leads to truth.”

Thirdly, hypotheses suggest new experiments:

    “Hypotheses must then find a place in the sciences, since they promote the discovery of truth and offer new perspectives; for when a hypothesis is once posed, experiments are often done to ascertain if it is a good one, experiments which would never have been thought of without it.”

Moreover, Du Châtelet thought that experimental results could increase the probability of the hypothesis:

    “If it is found that these experiments confirm it, and that it not only explains the phenomenon that one had proposed to explain with it, but also that all the consequences drawn from it agree with observations, its probability grows to such a point that we cannot refuse our assent to it, and that is almost equivalent to a demonstration.”

However, Du Châtelet warned her readers that, when hypothesising, one must proceed with caution:

    “Without a doubt there are rules to follow and pitfalls to avoid in hypotheses.  The first is, that it not be in contradiction with the principle of sufficient reason, nor with any principles that are the foundations of our knowledge.  The second rule is to have certain knowledge of the facts that are within our reach, and to know all the circumstances attendant upon the phenomena we want to explain.”


    “Since hypotheses are only made in order to discover the truth, they must not be passed off as the truth itself, before one is able to give irrefutable proofs.”

So finally:

    “With this precaution one does not run the danger of taking for certain that which is not; and one inspires those who follow us to correct the faults in our hypotheses and to provide what they lack to make them certain.”

Du Châtelet greatly admired the British philosophers, Locke and Newton in particular.  But her views on hypotheses have much more in common with her fellow Continental philosophers, Leibniz and Wolff.


*Translations are quoted from Du Châtelet, E. (2009), Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, J. P. Zinsser (ed.), I. Bour & J. P. Zinsser (trans.), University of Chicago Press.

Oldenburg and Newton on ‘Experimental Philosophy’

Kirsten Walsh writes…

During the debate following the publication of Newton’s first paper, Newton provided a set of eight queries, in an attempt to steer the debate towards a satisfactory conclusion.  When Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society and Editor of the Philosophical Transactions, published Newton’s queries, he added the following introduction:

    A Serie’s of Quere’s propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be determin’d by Experiments, positively and directly concluding his new Theory of Light and Colours; and here recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they were generously imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the said Mr. Newtons of July 8. 1672.

However, Newton didn’t describe his own work as ‘experimental philosophy’ until 1713, when he added the General Scholium to the Principia.  He wrote:

    … and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.  In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction.

In 1672, would Newton have been comfortable with Oldenburg’s label ‘experimental philosopher’?  Or did he consciously avoid the label, as Alan Shapiro suggests, in order to distance himself from the methodology of the early Royal Society?

Oldenburg on ‘Experimental Philosophy’

Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677)

To begin, what did Oldenburg mean by ‘experimental philosophy’?  Let’s look at his prefaces to each issue of the Philosophical Transactions.

Firstly, Oldenburg was talking about the Baconian experimental philosophy.  In the 1672 Preface, Oldenburg chose to adopt Bacon’s term, ‘Operative Philosophy’, which he used interchangeably with the term ‘Experimental Philosophy’.  And he wrote:

    But, when our renowned Lord Bacon had demonstrated the Methods for a perfect Restauration of all parts of Real knowledge … The success became on a sudden stupendious, and Effective philosophy began to sparkle, and even to flow into beams of bright-shining Light, all over the World.

Moreover, in 1671, Oldenburg advocated Abraham Cowley’s Baconian-vision for the Royal Society.  In his book, Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy, Cowley proposed that the Royal Society appoint professors who were:

    bound to study and teach all sorts of Natural, Experimental Philosophy, to consist of the Mathematicks, Mechanicks, Medicine, Anatomy, Chymistry, the History of Animals, Plants …. and briefly all things contained in the Catalogue of Natural Histories annexed to My Lord Bacon’s Organon.

(Incidentally, in a previous post on this blog, Peter Anstey has identified this as the first English book to use the term ‘experimental philosophy’ in its title.)

Secondly, Oldenburg had in mind an experimental philosophy that emphasised the construction of natural histories.  For example, in 1669, Oldenburg wrote:

    …we then made an Attempt of laying some Foundation for the Improvement of real Philosophy, and for the spreading of Useful knowledge; in publishing Advices and Directions for the writing of an Experimental Natural History…

Thirdly, Oldenburg had in mind an experimental philosophy that attempted to recover ancient knowledge.  For example, in 1671, responding to critics of the experimental philosophy, Oldenburg wrote:

    they call it contemptuously the New Philosophy; when as yet perhaps themselves are not ignorant, that ‘tis so old as to have been the Discipline in Paradise; and from the First of Mankind … to have been practised and countenanced by the Best of Men…


    … we may not lay aside the other expedient, which is so helpful to explicate the Old Wonders of Art, and Old Histories of Nature; namely, To inquire diligently The things that are; What Rarities of Nature, and what Inventions of Men are now extant in any parts of the World.

To summarise, Oldenburg had in mind an experimental philosophy that:

  1. Followed Bacon’s method;
  2. Constructed natural histories; and
  3. Investigated ancient knowledge.

Newton on ‘Experimental Philosophy’

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Would Newton have approved of this way of describing his work?

Certainly Newton would have approved of being broadly aligned with the experimentalist philosophers, as opposed to the speculative philosophers.  In his ‘Queries Paper’, he wrote:

    … the Theory … was evinced to me … not by deducing it only from a confutation of contrary suppositions, but by deriving it from Experiments concluding positively and directly.

And in the first paper, he wrote: “And I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties”.

While Newton didn’t construct natural histories, he may have approved of the Baconian overtones of the label.  For, as I’ve discussed previously, Newton’s 1672 queries resemble Baconian queries.

Newton may even have approved of the suggestion that his method had ties to the Ancients.  For example, as early as 1686, in his Preface to Principia, Newton emphasised the influence of the Ancients:

    Since the Ancients (according to Pappus) considered mechanics to be of the greatest importance in the investigation of nature and science and since the moderns – rejecting substantial forms and occult qualities – have undertaken to reduce the phenomena of nature of mathematical laws, it has seemed best in this treatise to concentrate on mathematics as it relates to natural philosophy.

So, I think Newton would have approved of Oldenburg’s label, even though later on, when he came to describe his own experimental philosophy, the emphasis was quite different.  For example, in Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton wrote:

    This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths.  For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy.

Experimental Philosophy in Spain Part II

Juan Gomez writes…

In my previous post I reviewed some texts from Spanish authors in the 17th century to show that, contrary to common opinion, intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula were in fact acquainted with the progress and achievements of the new experimental philosophy. They did not just know of it, but actually advocated its application and called for the rejection of the old method of the scholastics. In this post I will conclude this overview of the ESD in Spain by looking at the work of the Novatores in the eighteenth century.

The texts we examined in my last post were both written by physicians. In the eighteenth century medicine remained as the forum for the promotion of experimental philosophy. The first author I will examine is Doctor Martín Martínez. He was a physician and professor of anatomy in Madrid, and royal physican to Phillip V. Besides a number of medical writings, in 1730 he published Filosofía Escéptica which consisted in a dialogue between an Aristotlian, a Cartesian, a Gassendist, and a Sceptic. In the preliminaries to this book he tells us that

    The spirit of this book is to give to the Curious Romantics an idea of the most famous philosophies that today run through Europe, relegating that Aristotle just for theological studies.

Even in the 1730’s books in Spain still included a statement of approval made by a priest or friar that confirmed that there was nothing in the book to be censured. The censorship for Filosofía Escéptica was written by Friar Agustín Sanchez and in it we find a statement in the spirit of experimental philosophy. Speaking of the account Martínez gives of the Aristotelian, Cartesian, and Gassendist positions he tells us that the Doctor

    Is determined not to follow any of them, but is inclined towards what he judges more plausible; he does not believe in what experience cannot confirm, based on the fact that words cannot reach the truth of physical and material things, nor their natures and properties; what experience cannot testify, and persuade, cannot be known by words.

Martínez begins his dialogue by giving a brief history of philosophy in Spain, blaming the Arabians for the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy,

    From which that contentious and vociferous philosophy we call Scholastic, as opposed to Experimental, has been derived.

A few lines later Martínez comments that he shares the same opinion held by Bacon:

    The most judicious Verulam also held, that of all the philosophies that have been invented, and received, so many were but fables, and Comical Scenes, each of them making the world to their liking, amassing the Elements to the measure of their palate, and arbitrarily establishing hypotheses as difficult to believe, as they are to prove.

In the case of Martín Martínez we can see the experimental philosophy and the rejection of mere speculation clearly represented. But to show that this was not an isolated case I turn now to another doctor, Andrés Piquer. Out of all the Novatores that practices medicine, Piquer was the one that published most on other topics. He published a book on logic, one on moral philosophy, and one on physics. This last one was published in 1745 under the title Física Moderna Racional, y Experimental (Modern Physics, Rational and Experimental). Piquer begins this book by giving some preliminaries about the state and history of physics and the method to follow. In his historical account he tells us that

    Physics was wrongly cultivated for many centuries, until Francis Bacon Lord Verulam, Great Chancellor of England, towards the end of the sixteenth century, started to renew it, freeing it form the superfluity of reasoning, and manifesting, that the true way to advance in it is through the path of experience.

Speaking about the proper method Piquer sets up a distinction that illustrates the presence of the ESD (in some form) in Spain:

    Modern physicists, are either Systematic, or Experimental. The former explain nature according to some system; the latter discover it through the way of experience. The Systematic form in the imagination some idea, or drawing of the principal parts of the World, of its connections, and mutual correspondence; and holding such idea, that sometimes is strictly willed, as a principle, and foundation of their Philosophy, try to explain everything that occurs in the universe according to it. This has been done by Descartes, and Newton. The Experimental work to collect many experiments, combine them, and use them as the basis of their reasonings. This is how Robert Boyle, Boerhaave, and many other philosophers of these times treat physics.

One of the interesting features of this passage is that Piquer groups Descartes and Newton together under systematic philosophers! However, I don’t have the space or time to discuss this very interesting issue in this post, but Piquer’s distinction between systematic and experimental is something worth looking into. For now, I believe I have provided some very interesting passages from early modern Spanish authors that show that they were acquainted with experimental philosophy and opposed and rejected mere speculation.

N.B. The English translation of the quotes presented here is mine

Experimental Philosophy in Spain

Juan Gomez writes…

We have presented plenty of evidence in this blog to support our claim that the experimental/speculative distinction (ESD) provides the best terms of reference to interpret early modern philosophy. One of the worries we’ve had was that the ESD seemed to be a strictly British phenomenon. However as we have shown in this blog, the distinction is also present in the work of philosophers in other parts of Europe (France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands). In this post I want to further expand on the use of the ESD in continental Europe by exploring the case of Spain. It is a particularly interesting case due to the influence the church (the Inquisition in particular) had on the development of the country. Many of the influential books in natural philosophy (like the work of Descartes and Bacon) were banned by the Catholic Church, which also meant that the “new philosophy” was not taught at universities. Foreigners believed that the Spanish were not at all acquainted with the new philosophy and had the image that Spain was far behind the rest of Europe. Francis Willughby had travelled with his friend and botanist John Ray through Europe and decided to return via Spain in 1666. His opinion of the “backwardness of the country” was published posthumously in a book where Ray and Willughby’s travels are documented (Observations, Topographical, Moral and Physical) (1673)

    I heard a Professor read Logick. The scholars are sufficiently insolent and very disputatious… None of them understood any thing about the New Philosophy, or had so much as heard of it. None of the new books to be found in any of their Bookseller shops: In a word the University of Valencia is just where our universities were 100 years ago… In all kind of good learning the Spaniards are behind the rest of Europe, understanding nothing at all but a little of the old wrangling Philosophy and School-divinity.

However, Willughby’s comment is not accurate. There were several circles and professors that not only knew about the “new philosophy” but actually promoted it and applied it in their works. The first field that vouched for the experimental method was medicine, but in the eighteenth century this philosophy expanded to all areas. As early as 1650 there are references to Bacon and to the new philosophy in Sebastian Izquierdo’s Pharus Scientiarium, a book about the proper way to do science. At the end of the century we find clear expression of the praise for the method of the new philosophy associated with Bacon. The following quote is from Juan de Cabriada’s 1687 Carta Philosophica (English translation is mine):

    Es regla asentada, y máxima cierta en toda medicina, que ninguna cosa se ha de admitir por verdad en ella, ni en el conocimiento de las cosas naturales, sino es aquello, que ha mostrado la experiencia mediante los sentidos exteriores: Asimismo es cierto, que el médico ha de estar instruido en tres géneros de observaciones, y experimentos, como son: anatómicos, prácticos, y chymicos.
    It is an established rule, and true maxim in all of medicine, and in the knowledge of natural things, that nothing is to be admitted as true, if it is not what has been shown by experience through the external senses: it is also certain, that the physician must be instructed in three kinds of observations, and experiments: anatomical, practical, and chymical.

The emphasis on experience and observation is clear, and de Cabriada goes on to discuss how the discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey is of great advantage to science and opposes it to the Galenic theory of the blood used by the scholastics.

Diego Mateo Zapata, a doctor trained in Galenic medicine, actually published against de Cabriada and his method, but in 1690 he had embraced the new science and discarded the Galenic method. Zapata became one of the main promoters of the new philosophy in Spain. In 1701 he published his Crisis Medica, dedicated to the newly established Regia Sociedad Médica de Sevilla (Royal Medical Society of Sevilla). He tells us that the aim of the society is to show medicine

    In its full splendor, which it deserves, getting rid of the shadows that either make it stop at the theoretical, or don’t let it shine in the practical with such experimental clarity, of which it can’t be doubted if it is shadow or light… This society is useful, because it does not rely on the adornments of speech, or on authority, but on the examinations of experience… nothing is more worthy of laughter, of tears, than a drawn curation, like those the Prince (Galen) achieved through the lines of speculation, tinged only with the colors of his own opinion, regardless of whether it was shown to be contrary to experience, like the ancient doctors did.

Zapata continued the attack on the scholastics and speculative philosophy and in 1745 a posthumous publication came out titled Ocaso de las formas Aristotelicas (Twilight of Aristotelian Forms). Zapata and de Cabriada are just two examples that show that Spain was not as backwards as Willughby thought. Further, Spanish intellectuals were very much acquainted with the new philosophy and its contribution to science. Both thinkers that I have quoted today were identified by the term ‘Novatores’ that was used at the time to refer to those thinkers that opposed the scholastic way of doing philosophy. In my next post I will examine the work of the Novatores in the eighteenth century.

An Open Conversation about Early Modern History and Philosophy of Science in Australia

Peter Anstey writes …

In a new venture for this blog we are hosting a conversation about the discipline of History and Philosophy of Science.

The aim of this exchange of ideas is to review the discipline and to come up with ideas and strategies that will reinvigorate it within Australia.

The more specific aim is to formulate a two-hour session on Early Modern HPS at the forthcoming What is this thing called History and Philosophy of Science? to be held at the University of Sydney on 26–28 September 2012.



It is expected that this conversation will last for 4 months.

Anyone is welcome to contribute.

Contributions are by post, comment or reply.

Please send new posts to Peter Anstey at

New posts will appear on Thursdays.

Moderators of the conversation are Peter Anstey (Otago) and Alberto Vanzo (Birmingham).


Leading Question

What is distinctive and important about early modern HPS in Australia and what is worth preserving and developing?

It seems that an adequate answer this question will address some or all of the following issues:

1. Its historiographical orientation and contribution

2. Its historical methods and focuses

3. Its philosophical profile and influences

4. Its research methodology

5. Its recent and current institutional manifestations

6. Let us show you how we do it! (lead by example of cutting-edge research)


We invite contributions!

Is Newton’s Explanation of Gravity a Hypothesis?

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In the General Scholium to Book 3 of Principia, Newton wrote:

    “Thus far I have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the force of gravity, but I have not yet assigned a cause to gravity.”

He went on to explain that such a cause would be a hypothesis,

    “and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.”

It might appear that Newton’s methodological statements don’t reflect his real attitude to causal explanations. He explained all the motions of bodies and the sea by the force of gravity. So in some sense, gravity was the cause of those motions. But if gravity was a cause, then wasn’t it a hypothesis? Was Newton’s famous statement “Hypotheses non fingo” a lie?

In this post, I’ll have a closer look at the role of causal explanations in Newton’s method of natural philosophy.

To begin, consider this statement from Query 28 of Opticks:

    “Whereas the main Business of natural Philosophy is to argue from Phaenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical…”

Here, Newton outlined two central tasks for natural philosophers:

  1. To argue from phenomena without relying on, or giving credence to, hypotheses; and
  2. To infer causes from effects until you arrive at the first cause.

The first task is methodological, and it places a constraint on the kinds of inferences one may make from effect to cause. The second task is epistemological: it tells the philosopher what kind of knowledge to seek, and when to stop. Newton shed a little more light on this second task in Query 31:

    “By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general.”

Perhaps recognising that, once constrained by task 1, task 2 would be too difficult for any single philosopher to complete, Newton wrote in Query 28:

    “And though every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.”

Furthermore, in Query 31, he writes:

    “And therefore I scruple not to propose the Principles of motion above-mention’d, they being of very general Extent, and leave their Causes to be found out.”

And so, in Principia, Newton inferred causes from effects as far as he was able to, while still following the advice of task 1. He stopped short of assigning a cause for gravity, because he could not deduce it from the phenomena. So as he wrote in the General Scholium of Principia:

    “It is enough [i.e. for the purposes of his argument] that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea.”

To conclude, Newton doesn’t rail against causes per se, only against causes that cannot be proved by, or inferred from, experiment. I have argued that Newton was working with a clear distinction between theories and hypotheses, where a hypothesis is:

H1.   Something that is, at best, only highly probable;
H2.   A conjecture or speculation – something not based on empirical evidence; or
H3.   A causal explanation – something concerning the nature of the phenomenon, rather than its physical properties.

I have changed the wording of H1 slightly from the definition I have given in previous posts. Now it looks like I might need to alter H3. What do you think?