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?
Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy in Early Modern Italy
Alberto Vanzo writes…
So far, we have argued in many posts that British philosophers from the 1660s onwards worked in the tradition of experimental philosophy and criticized speculative philosophy. However, the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy was also widely employed outside the British isles. In this post, I will document the presence of the experimental-speculative distinction in Italian natural philosophy between 1667 and 1716.
The Accademia del Cimento, founded by 1657 by Prince Leopoldo de Medici in Florence, was one of the first scientific societies in Europe. In 1667 the Accademia published a collection of experimental reports with the title Saggi di naturali esperienze. The preface to this work ends with a caveat:
- We would not like anyone to believe that we presume to give to the light a complete work, or even only a perfect scheme of a great experimental history, because we know well that more time and strengths are required for such an enterprise […] if, sometimes, an even minimal allusion to anything speculative has been made, […] always take it to be a specific idea or intuition of [some] academics, but never one of the Accademia, whose only aim is to experiment and to narrate.
Note the emphasis on experiments, the references to natural histories, and the refrain from endorsing any speculation. These are all indications that the Academy was presenting its work in terms of the then nascent distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy.
Not everyone was endorsing experimental philosophy in late seventeenth-century Italy. However, some of the authors who expressed reservations towards it did so in terms of the experimental-speculative distinction. For instance, Daniello Bartoli distinguished in 1677
- the two manners of natural philosophy which nowadays are very rumored, because they fight over the glory of primacy […]: the Theoretical and the Experimental […]
On the one hand, theoretical or “purely speculative” philosophy “needs experimental [philosophy] to “see [things] by means of the senses”. On the other hand, “purely experimental” philosophy must seek the help of speculative philosophy to proceed from particular experiences to their causes.
- [E]ither [philosophy], by itself, can be defeated if the other does not help and rescue it when it may fall down. But if both are united and if they fight side by side, although they may not always win, surely they will never be defeated.
Among the Aristotelians, Giovanni Battista de Benedictis (writing under the pseudonym of Benedetto Aletino) criticized experimental philosophy for its inability to proceed from facts to causes. He claimed that experimenters were not philosophers, but mere empirics, because they failed to establish any evident, undisputed premises as the basis for a deductive scientia of nature.
- Indeed, if our Peripatetics, who only paid attention to speculative subtleties, had followed Aristotle’s teachings by directing their efforts towards experience, I have no doubt that they would have unfailingly attained the glory that the Atomists [i.e., experimental philosophers] are now seizing, not because of their knowledge, but because of the neglicence of others [the Peripetetics].
While Aletino defends the Aristotelians, he categorizes them as speculative philosophers and he rejects experimental philosophy.
Antonio Conti was a Venetian abbot who acted as intermediary in the epistolary exchange between Leibniz and Newton. He published a discussion of the relation between experimental and speculative philosophy in 1716. For Conti, experimental philosophy alone “is truly science” because it rely on experience to prove the truth of its claims. By contrast, speculative or conjectural philosophy can only establish the probability or truth-likeliness of hypotheses. Due to the endless variety of nature and the limitations of our senses, Conti did not think that experimental philosophy could eventually supplant all speculations. His fallibilism concerning hypotheses sounds rather modern:
- One makes hypotheses to establish [new] ideas and experiences; but hypotheses last only until phenomena modify or destroy them, or until a more perfect art of comparing truth-likely [statements] proves their uselessness or their imprudence.
Like Bartoli, Conti endorsed experimental philosophy without wholly rejecting the speculative approach. Bartoli and Conti, like Aletino and the compiler of the Saggi di naturali esperienze, thought of natural philosophy in terms of the experimental-speculative distinction. As in the British isles, so also in Italy the experimental-speculative distinction provided important terms of reference for thinking about nature in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
In this post, I have not discussed to what extent the experimental-speculative distinction shaped the contents, besides the rhetoric and methodology, of Italian natural philosophy. I must do more work to answer that question. In the meanwhile, let me know what you think in the comments.