Alberto Vanzo writes…
In the late 1780s, few years after the Critique of Pure Reason was published, Kant’s followers engaged in a debate with German experimental philosophers on whose system was superior. Kant’s disciples and his adversaries published tables detailing the differences and comparative advantages of Kant’s rationalism (as it was then classed) over his adversaries’ empiricism, or vice versa. An example is the page of an article by Christian Gottlieb Selle, one of Kant’s early critics,
which you can see below.
In these debates, “empiricism” and “empirical philosophy” were actors’ categories, that is, categories used to single out certain positions within the then current debates. They were used to identify the positions that we too call empiricist, that is, positions claiming that experience provides the basis for all of our knowledge, knowledge of the world, or substantive knowledge, and that there are no innate ideas or substantive a priori principles.
However, the expressions “empirical philosophy” and “empiricism” were in use well before the debates on Kant’s Critique ensued. There are many occurrences these expressions in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts. Can we find the now-familiar, standard meanings of “empiricism” in any of them? Let us survey three pre-Kantian uses of “empiricism” or “empirical philosophy”.
Bacon’s empirical philosophers
Francis Bacon famously classes “empirical philosophy” as one of the three kinds false philosophy, alongside the superstitious and sophistic philosophies, in the Novum Organon. However, Bacon’s empirical philosophers are quite different from our familiar empiricists. Bacon identifies empirical philosophers with William Gilbert (the author of De magnete), “the chymists and the whole pack of mechanics”. According to Bacon, these are not empirical philosophers because they reject innate ideas or defend the empirical origins of our knowledge, but because derived “experiments from experiments”, without managing to “convert and digest” them properly so as to develop true theories on their basis (Novum Organon, I, 95). This characterization hardly maps onto our familiar notion of empiricism.
Priestley’s Philosophical Empiricism
Joseph Priestley wrote a pamphlet entitled Philosophical Empiricism. Commenting on the natural-philosophical pronouncements of his unnamed opponent, he writes:
- These and suchlike long-exploded, and crude notions (so many of which I believe were never thrown together into the same compass since the age of Aristotle or Cartesius) are delivered in a manner and phrase so quaint, and a tone so solemn and authoritative, as gives me an idea that I cannot express otherwise than by the term Philosophical Empiricism.
Here, “empiricism” is used to highlight the crudeness of the opponent’s notions. “Philosophical” may allude, somewhat
ironically, to the solemn tone with which they were presented. This is hardly the sense in which Locke, Hume, or Priestley himself would be later called empiricists.
Adam, the Patriarchs, and Empirical Philosophy
If we turn to German texts, we can find yet another use of “empirical philosophy”. Historians of philosophy, like Heumann and Brucker, were embarrassed as to how they should categorize the wisdom of Jewish Patriarchs and early Greek sages. Reports of their deeds, myths, and ancient rules of political prudence show that they made use of their God-given disposition to philosophize. However, it would seem wrong to put their wisdom on a par with the more recognizably philosophical reflections of Socrates or the Pre-Socratics. German historians found a compromise by classing the reflections of the Patriarchs and early Greek thinkers as forms of empirical philosophy, as opposed to scientific, demonstrative philosophical systems which alone are philosophy in a narrow, proper sense.
The “empirical philosophy” of the Patriarchs, just like Bacon’s “empirical philosophers” and Priestley’s “philosophical empiricism”, has little to do with the current notion of philosophical empiricism. This suggests that that notion saw the light only in late eighteenth-century Germany. Or did I miss any earlier, pre-Kantian uses of that notion? If you have any
suggestions, I would love to hear them. Please leave them in the comments or get in touch.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
An interesting aspect of Kant’s use of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) is that he does not only apply it to the moderns, but also to the ancients. Kant portrays Leibniz as an adherent to Plato’s rationalism and Locke as a follower of Aristotle’s empiricism. Could Leibniz’s New Essays be a source of Kant’s distinction between empiricism and rationalism?
Here is one of Leibniz’s comments on his disagreements with Locke in the Preface of the New Essays:
- Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which nothing has been written (tabula rasa), as Aristotle and the author of the Essay [Locke] maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato and even with the Schoolmen […]
Here, Leibniz pits Plato and himself against Aristotle and Locke with regard to the existence of innate ideas (“several notions…”) and a priori truths (“… and doctrines”). These are precisely the issues around which Kant frames his distinction between empiricists and rationalists (or, as he sometimes calls them, dogmatists and noologists). However, Kant holds that a third issue divides ancient empiricists like Aristotle from ancient rationalists like Plato. It is the existence or inexistence of objects of which we cannot have sensations. According to Kant, ancient rationalists claim that there are non-sensible objects (Platonic ideas). Ancient empiricists, like Aristotle and Epicurus, deny this. Leibniz does not focus on this issue, but Christian Garve (who would later become one of Kant’s early critics) did. Like Kant, Garve divided ancient philosophers into two camps based on whether they admitted substantive a priori truths, innate ideas, and non-sensible objects. He drew this distinction in a dissertation that he published in 1770, eleven years before Kant’s first Critique and five years after Leibniz’s New Essays. Let me summarize Garve’s statements on each of the three points.
A priori knowledge
After they learned to distinguish between appearance and reality and between the senses and the intellect, philosophers took two opposed paths:
- Some [like Heraclitus] devoted themselves to exploring the nature of the senses with great care and they subtly searched in the senses the mark and sign of truth. Others [like Parmenides], having ignored and set aside the senses, devoted themselves entirely to the faculty of intellect and to contemplating with their mind the thoughts that they had gathered in themselves.
This epistemological divide gave rise to an ontological divide:
- [T]hose that sought the foundation of the truth to be discovered in the senses were forced to refer [only] to the things that are subjected to the senses […]; and those claiming that true cognition is distinctive of the mind, not of the senses, denied the name and almost the rank of things […] to sensible items. They ascribed it only to [merely] intelligible things […]
On the one hand, we have Protagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and even the sceptics. On the other hand, we have Plato.
Those who denied “the truth of the senses” did not only have to posit a realm of non-sensible beings. They also had to defend the existence of innate ideas. This is because, if there is no truth in the senses, we cannot derive “true notions” from the senses (where true notions appears to be, in some sense, notions that map onto reality). We must claim that they are “innate in the soul and prior to every sensation”. “And thus were born Plato’s famous ideas, on which he says various, inconsistent things”, like those who are forced to embrace a conclusion, “although they do not understand well enough what it may be or how it could be true”.
Garve does not use the terms “empiricists” and “rationalists”, which would take on their now-common meanings only with Kant. However, the way in which Garve carves the two opposed camps of ancient philosophers maps neatly onto Kant’s distinction between ancient empiricists and rationalists. Garve also suggests that Locke and Berkeley followed Aristotle, whereas Leibniz followed Plato. This is because, in the antiquity, “nearly the whole territory of all opinions which may be held on this matter had been explored; all matter for supposition and invention had been used”.
Kant too thought that modern empiricists and rationalists followed the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. This brief survey of Leibniz’s and Garve’s statements suggests that their historiography of ancient philosophy may have been a source of Kant’s influential distinction between empiricism and rationalism.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
As we have often noted on this blog, early modern experimental philosophers typically praised observations and experiments, while rejecting natural-philosophical hypotheses and assumptions not derived from experience. Along similar lines, Larry Laudan claimed that aversion to the method of hypothesis characterized “most scientists and epistemologists” from the 1720s to the end of the eighteenth century. Laudan mentioned Kant as one of the authors for whom “the method of hypothesis is fraught with difficulties”.
In this post, I will sketch a different reading of Kant. I will suggest that Kant, alongisde other German thinkers like von Haller, is an exception to the anti-hypothetical trend of the eighteenth century. Kant held that natural philosophers should embrace experiments and observations, but they are also allowed to formulate hypotheses and to rely on certain non-empirical assumptions. They should develop fruitful relationships between experiments and observations on the one hand, (some) hypotheses and speculations on the other.
I will illustrate Kant’s position by commenting on a sentence from the Pragmatic Anthropology: when we perform experiments,
- we must always first presuppose something here (begin with a hypothesis) from which to begin our course of investigation, and this must come about as a result of principles. (Ak. 7:223)
1. “[W]e must always first presuppose something here (begin with a hypothesis)…”
“For to venture forth blindly, trusting good luck until one stumbles over a stone and finds a piece of ore and subsequently a lode as well, is indeed bad advice for inquiry”. Even if we tried to perform experiments in a theoretical void, our activity would still be influenced by hypotheses and expectations. “Every man who makes experiments first makes hypotheses, in that he believes that this or that experiment will have these consequences” (24:889).
Like British experimental philosophers, Kant acknowledges that hypotheses and preliminary judgements may be “mere chimeras” (24:888), “romances” (24:220), castles in the air, or “empty fictions” (24:746). Hypotheses, like castles in the air, are fictions, but not all fictions must be rejected. The power of imagination, kept “under the strict oversight of reason” (A770/B798), can give rise to useful “heuristic fictions” (24:262). What is important is to be ready to reject or modify our hypotheses in the light of experimental results, so as to get closer and closer to the truth.
2. “…and this must come about as a result of principles.”
What principles are involved in our natural-philosophical investigations? As is well known, Kant holds that nature is constrained by a set of principles that we can establish a priori, like the causal law. In what follows, I will focus on three other principles that guide our experimental activity. They are the principles of homogeneity, specification, and affinity.
- The principle of homogeneity states that “one should not multiply beginnings (principles) without necessity” (A652/B680). Kant takes it to mean that one must always search for higher genera for all the species that one knows. An example is the attempt to regard the distinction between acids and alkali “as merely a variety or varied expression of one and the same fundamental material” (A652-53/B680-81).
- The principle of specification prohibits one from assuming that there are lowest species, that is, species which cannot in turn have sub-species. This led, for instance, to the discovery “[t]hat there are absorbent earths of different species (chalky earths and muriatic earths)” (A657/B685).
- The principle of affinity derives from the combination of the principles of homogeneity and specification. It prompt us to look for intermediate specices between the species that we already know.
For Kant, the principles of homogeneity, specification, and affinity are not derived a posteriori from our experimental inquiries. They are a priori assumptions that guide them. We would not find higher genera, lower species, and intermediate species in the first place, unless we assumed that they exist and we tested that assumption with experiments and observations. For Kant, this is a non-empirical assumption that precedes and guides natural-philosophical inquiries. These do not unfold entirely a posteriori. They presuppose hypotheses and principles that are prior to experience and enable us to extend our knowledge of the world. Thus, rather than rejecting hypotheses and non-empirical assumptions as many experimental philosophers did, Kant holds that a guarded use of them is useful for our study of nature.
Eric Watkins writes…
Having commented on two of Alberto Vanzo’s papers at the symposium recently held in Otago, I am happy to post an abbreviated version of my comments. The basic topic of Alberto’s papers is the extent to which one can see evidence of the experimental – speculative philosophy distinction (ESD) in two different periods in Germany, one from the 1720s through the 1740s, when Wolff was a dominant figure, and then another from the mid 1770s through the 1790s, when Tetens, Lossius, Feder, Kant, and Reinhold were all active. Alberto argues that though Wolff was aware of the works of many of the proponents of experimental philosophy and emphasized the importance of basing at least some principles on experience and experiments, he is not a pure advocate of either experimental or speculative philosophy. He then argues that some of the later figures, specifically Tetens, Lossius, Feder and various popular philosophers, undertook projects that could potentially be aligned with ESD, while others, such as Reinhold and later German Idealists, consciously rejected it, opting for the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) instead, which was better suited to their own agenda as well as to that of their German Idealist successors. As a result, Alberto concludes that ESD was an option available to many German thinkers, but that experimental philosophy was not a dominant intellectual movement, as it was in England and elsewhere.
I am in basic agreement with Alberto’s main claims, but I’d like to supplement the account he offers just a bit with a broader historical perspective. Two points about Wolff. First, when Wolff tries to address how the historical knowledge relates to the philosophical knowledge, which can be fully a priori, it is unclear how his account is supposed to go. As Alberto points out, Wolff thinks that data collection and theory building are interdependent, but he also thinks that we can have a priori knowledge. It’s simply not clear how these two positions are really consistent and Wolff does not, to my mind, ever address the issue clearly enough. So I am inclined to think that Wolff is actually ambiguous on a point that lies at the very heart of ESD.
Second, though Wolff was certainly a dominant figure in Germany, he is of course also not the only person of note. For one, throughout the course of the 18th century, experimental disciplines became much more widespread in Germany. So, in charting the shape and scope of ESD at the time, it would be useful to see what conceptions of knowledge and scientific methodology university professors in physics, physiology, botany, and chemistry had, if any. For another, after the resurrection of the Prussian Academy of Sciences by Frederick the Great in 1740, a number of very accomplished figures with reputations of European-wide stature, such as Leonhard Euler, Maupertuis, and Voltaire, came to ply their trade in Berlin. Virtually all of them were quite interested in experimental disciplines and several were extremely hostile towards Wolff. It would therefore be worth considering the full range of their activities to get a sense of their views on ESD.
Let me now turn to the later time period. As Alberto argued, Kant isn’t exactly the right figure to look to for the origin of the RED. Kant does not typically contrast empiricism with rationalism. Instead, when it comes to question of method and the proper use of reason, Kant’s clearest statements in the Doctrine of Method are that the fundamental views are that of dogmatism (Leibniz), skepticism (Hume), indifferentism (popular philosophers), and finally the critique of pure reason, positions that do not line up neatly with either RED or ESD.
However, it would be hasty to infer that there is no significant element of ESD in Kant. Kant dedicates the Critique of Pure Reason to Bacon, an inspiration to many of the British experimentalists. More importantly, one should keep in mind whom Kant is attacking in the first Critique, namely proponents of pure reason who use reason independently of the deliverances of the senses in their speculative endeavors. In many of these instances, the term “speculative” is synonymous with “theoretical” and is contrasted with “practical”. However, in many others Kant is indicating a use of reason that is independent of what is given through our senses, and on that issue, it is a major thrust of Kant’s entire Critical project to show that the purely speculative use of reason (pure reason) cannot deliver knowledge. In this sense, his basic project reveals fundamental similarities with experimental philosophers.
Now the British experimental philosophers would presumably object to synthetic a priori knowledge on the grounds that this is precisely the kind of philosophical speculation that one ought to avoid. But Kant would respond that he is attempting to show that experiments in particular, and experience in general, have substantive rational presuppositions, a possibility that cannot be dismissed out of hand, given its intimate connection to what the experimental philosophers hold dear. This is one of the novel and unexpected twists that make Kant’s position so interesting. So one could incorporate Kant into the ESD narrative by arguing that he is trying to save the spirit of the experimentalists against those who are overly enamored with speculation while still allowing for rational elements. On this account, then, Kant would be responding directly to the ESD, namely by trying to save it, albeit in an extremely abstract and fundamental way that original proponents of the view could never have anticipated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to Wordle for the word cloud above.
St Margaret’s College, University of Otago, 18-19 April 2011
Monday 18 April
9.00 Introductory Session (Peter Anstey and Alberto Vanzo)
9.30 Discussion of Peter Anstey, The Origins of the Experimental/Speculative Distinction
Discussant: Gideon Manning
Chair: Alberto Vanzo
11:30 Discussion of Juan Gomez, The Experimental Method and Moral Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment
Discussant: Charles Pigden
Chair: Kirsten Walsh
14:30 Discussion of Kirsten Walsh, De Gravitatione and Newton’s Mathematical Method
Discussant: Keith Hutchison
Chair: Philip Catton
20:00 European Panel of Experts (video conference)
Chair: Peter Anstey
Tuesday 19 April
9:30 Discussion of Peter Anstey, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and the Experimental Philosophy
Discussant: Anik Waldow
Chair: Juan Gomez
11:30 Discussion of Alberto Vanzo, Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann
Discussant: Tim Mehigan
Chair: Philip Catton
14:30 Discussion of Alberto Vanzo, Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany
Discussant: Eric Watkins
Chair: Peter Anstey
16:30 Final plenary session, led by Gideon Manning
Attendance at the symposium is free. However, space is limited, so we advise you to register early. To register and for information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alberto Vanzo writes…
We saw in earlier posts that experimental-speculative distinction was widely present within early modern philosophy, including eighteenth century Germany. The distinction was clearly drawn in Tetens’ essay from 1775, six years before Kant published the first Critique. With that work, another distinction entered the scene. It was the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. The rationalism-empiricism distinction, developed and popularized in widespread works by Reinhold, Tennemann, and later Kuno Fischer, would eventually become the standard way of classifying early modern philosophers. The experimental-speculative distinction would fall into the almost total oblivion in which it lies today.
How did this process take place? It would be surprising if, with the publication of Kant’s first Critique in 1781, philosophers suddenly dropped the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy altogether.
In fact, the lively debates surrounding the emergence of Critical philosophy in the late 1780s and 1790s were still framed, at least at times, in terms of the speculative-experimental distinction. In this post, I will present some evidence for this claim.
J.G.H. Feder published one of the first attacks on the first Critique in 1787, claiming that it was full “of the most abstract speculations of logic and metaphysics” (italics, here and below, are mostly mine). In Feder’s view, Kant was “too much a friend of the most abstract and profound speculations in Scholastic form”. One year earlier, Christoph Meiners criticized Kant’s “transcendentish [sic] speculations”, “independent from any experience” in the preface to a successful book.
Why did Feder and Meiners attack Kant? Because, in Feder’s words, Kant humiliated
- empirical philosophy, that is, the philosophy which is based only on observations and on the agreement of all of most human experiences, and on inferences based on the analogy between them, and fully renounces [to employ] demonstration[s] based on concepts in the study of nature […]
In other words, the philosophy that Kant allegedly humiliated was the same experimental (or as the Germans preferred to call it, observational) philosophy that Tetens had described in his essay of 1775. Feder and Meiners defended observational philosophy. By associating Kant’s name with speculation, they were categorizing Kant as an example of a speculative philosopher.
Kant’s followers accepted the classification of their philosophy as speculative. Replying to Feder in 1789, the Kantian J.C.G. Schaumann had no hesitation in calling Kant’s disciples “friends of speculation and critique”. In the same year, Reinhold opened his New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation by claiming, against observational philosophers: “neither common understanding [scil. common sense], nor healthy understanding, but only reason guided by principles and trained through speculation could succeed in the study of experience”.
These quotes show that the experimental-speculative distinction was very much alive in Germany during the first reception of Kant’s Critical philosophy. The experimental-speculative distinction contributed to the self-understanding of the parties involved in the dispute.
The dichotomy of experiment and speculation was not the only way of categorizing the debates between Kant and experimental philosophers. A gifted Kant scholar, C.C.E. Schmid, published in 1788 “Some Remarks on Empiricism and Purism in Philosophy” to defend Kant from the criticisms of an experimental philosopher, C.G. Selle. The debate continued, with the term “empiricism” being often used to designate Kant’s opponents. The term that Schmid used to refer to Kant’s philosophy was the rather unusual term “purism”. Kant, instead, was classifying his philosophy as a form of rationalism in those very years. Clearly, the terminology was still rather fluid.
We all know who won the confrontation between anti-Kantian experimental philosophy on the one hand, Kantian and post-Kantian speculation on the other. The terms “speculation” and “speculative” soon acquired a new range of connotations in the philosophies of Schelling and Hegel. Observative or experimental philosophy lost popularity and its name was replaced by “empiricism”. Christian Garve was referring to the early stages of this process, when he wrote in 1796:
- it seems that in our time observation, which was formerly regarded as one of the first accomplishments of the philosophical spirit and the foundation of our scientific cognitions, since its object has been designated with the name of empirical, has fallen in discredit with some people.
Garve’s adjective “empirical” refers to the new term “empiricism”. “With some people” is clearly an understatement, reflecting Garve’s preference for the observational approach over Kantianism. While the historical notion of experimental or observational philosophy was falling into discredit, the historiographical dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism was on the rise. I will discuss this process in one of the next posts.
Next Monday, we’ll go back to Newton with a new post by Kirsten. Stay tuned!
Alberto Vanzo writes…
Many scholars have criticized histories of early modern philosophy based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism. Among the reasons for their criticism are:
- the epistemological bias: histories of philosophy which give pride of place to the rationalism-empiricism distinction overestimate the importance of epistemological issues for early modern philosophers.
- the Kantian bias: histories of early modern philosophy that embrace the empiricism-rationalism distinction are often biased in favour of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. They portray Kant as the first author who uncovered the limits of rationalism and empiricism, rejected their mistakes, and incorporated their correct insights within his Critical philosophy.
Since the introduction of the empiricism-rationalism distinction within philosophical historiography is due to Kant, scholars have charged him with both the historiographical and the Kantian biases. For instance, according to Anik Waldow, “Kant is impermissibly reductive in his attempt to present empiricism as a purely epistemological position”. For Hans-Jürgen Engfer, “Kant […] distinguishes both currents of empiricism and rationalism […] and want to reconcile and go beyond them with a third [position].”
I do not think that Kant should be charged with making the empiricism-rationalism distinction a merely epistemological one, or of placing his philosophy beyond and above the two currents of empiricism and rationalism.
To see why Kant does not have the epistemological bias or the Kantian bias, let us consider his two characterizations of empiricism in the Critique of Pure Reason.
I will start with the second characterization. It is contained in a section entitled The History of Pure Reason (A854/B882). Empiricists such as Aristotle claim that pure cognitions of reason “are derived from experience”. Noologists (elsewhere called rationalists) such as Plato claim that, “independent from [experience], [pure cognitions of reason] have their source in reason”.
The cognitions that Kant is referring to are concepts and judgements. As for concepts, empiricists “take all concepts of the understanding from experience” (Ak. 29:763). As for the judgements, empiricists claim that there are no synthetic judgements that can have an a priori justification. Kant’s proof that such judgements exist makes empiricism “completely untenable” (Ak. 20:275).
These characterizations of empiricism are cast in epistemological terms – especially if one takes epistemology to be concerned not only with what justifies beliefs, but also with issues concerning the origin of concepts.
Does Kant reject the epistemological views of empiricism and rationalism? The History of Pure Reason does not make this clear. However, elsewhere Kant places himself in the rationalist camp. For instance, in the second Critique he endorses the “rationalism of power of judgement” with regard to practical concepts (Ak. 5:71). In a metaphysics lecture from the 1790s, Kant qualifies his view that we have some non-empirical concepts (the categories) as a rationalist view.
Let us now look at Kant’s first characterization of empiricism in the Critique of Pure Reason. It is contained in the discussion of the antinomies. There, Kant does not characterize empiricism in epistemological terms, but in ontological terms. Empiricists are those natural philosophers who refuse to postulate entities whose existence, and phenomena whose occurrence, cannot be confirmed by sensory experience (B496-497): for instance, simple beings without extension or parts, a supernatural creator which caused the existence of the world, or contra-causal free actions that are undetermined by previous natural events. Empiricists adopt two attitudes toward those entities and phenomena:
- Modest empiricists acknowledge their ignorance as to their existence.
- Dogmatic or dogmatising empiricists deny their existence.
Kant rejects immodest or dogmatic empiricism because it “says more than it knows” (A472/B500). Interestingly, however, he endorses the attitude of modest empiricists in his solution of the antinomies.
What conclusions can we draw from this survey of Kant’s texts?
First, Kant operates with multiple notions of empiricism. The empiricism described in the History of Pure Reason is epistemological. The modest empiricism in the antinomies chapter, instead, is an ontological view concerning the existence of certain items. Immodest empiricism claims ignorance of their existence, modest empiricism claims knowledge of their non-existence. Hence, pace Anik Waldow and others, Kant does not consistently describe empiricism as “a purely epistemological position”.
Second, Kant does not consistently portray his position as an alternative to empiricism and rationalism. He sides with modest empiricists in the antinomies and with rationalists in other texts. He may have sown the seeds for a narrative of early modern philosophy based on the Critical Aufhebung of empiricism and rationalism. However, he can hardly be regarded as the first author to consistently develop such a narrative.