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Tag Archives: methodology

Vegetative and mechanical processes in Newton’s Chymistry

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In my last post, I started thinking about the lesser-known aspects of Newton’s work—his chymistry, theology and Church history—in order to learn more about his methodology.  In particular, I wondered what kinds of methodological continuity, if any, there are across his many projects.  In this post, I’ll focus on a tract, now referred to as ‘Of Natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation’, from Newton’s alchemical corpus.  Newton probably wrote this piece in 1672—the year that he wrote his ‘New Theory of Light and Colour’.  The piece represents Newton’s attempt to give a synopsis of his early alchemical reading and to come up with, essentially, a ‘theory of everything’.

There is a great deal to interest us in this tract, including an early mechanical-æthereal theory of gravity and a discussion of the nature of God.  But here, I’ll focus on one idea: Newton’s distinction between mechanical processes and vegetative processes.  Where ‘vegetation’ is the generative process through which animals, plants and minerals grow, putrefy and regenerate themselves, ‘mechanical’ processes involve adding, subtracting and rearranging parts (described as “a gross mechanical transposition of parts” (5r)).  Newton considers these processes to be exhaustive: “Natures actions are either vegetable or purely mechanical” (5r).

Newton’s discussion of this idea highlights several methodological continuities.  I’ll discuss two of them here.

The first concerns the way Newton infers physical processes from observed phenomenal patterns.  Drawing comparisons across the ‘three kingdoms of nature’—animal, vegetable and mineral—Newton notes that some metals grow, putrefy and regenerate within the Earth, much in the way that trees grow out of the earth, suggesting that some metals and minerals ‘vegetate’.  In contrast, some salts and minerals appear to generate by the simple combining and arranging of parts.  And so Newton proposes that there are two distinct processes at work in nature: vegetative and mechanical.  The postulated distinction in turn guides further exploration of natural phenomena, enabling him to unify some patterns of generation and to differentiate others.  The phenomena he explores go well beyond the initial cluster of metals and salts, eventually including organic life, heat and flame, and gravitation.  And these phenomena, in turn, offer further clues about nature’s hidden processes.  In short, observed phenomena illuminate underlying processes, which, in turn, guide further exploration of phenomena.

We see Newton engaging in similar inferential patterns in both the Principia and the Opticks.  In the Principia, from the observed Keplerian orbits of the planets, Newton infers the inverse-square centripetal force.  The inverse-square force, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration of other celestial phenomena, allowing him to calculate the motions of comets, the shapes of planets, and also to correct for perturbations of orbits.  Similarly, in the Opticks, from the phenomena of the unequal refraction of light, Newton infers the heterogeneity of white light.  The heterogeneity of white light, in turn, guides Newton’s exploration and theorising of other optical phenomena, including the colours of thin plates, thick plates and coloured fringes.  In other words, this inferential feedback loop between phenomena and processes appears to be a standard feature of Newton’s methodology.  In Query 31 of his Opticks, Newton describes this in terms of the joint methods of ‘analysis’ and ‘composition’.  ‘Of Natures obvious laws’ might be considered an early manifestation of this method.

A second feature worth considering is the way Newton operationalised the concept of vegetation in order to develop a quantitative test for such processes.  The term ‘vegetative’ was familiar to those concerned with the study of life and vitalism, and Newton was happy to speculate on the nature of this process:

The principles of her vegetable actions are noe other than the seeds or seminal vessels of things those are her onely agents, her fire, her soule, her life (5r).

But such a qualitative description of the process wasn’t very helpful for establishing which phenomena were generated by which processes.  Especially since, as he noted, some natural phenomenon might appear to have been generated through vegetative processes, but in fact be produced mechanically.  The way to distinguish between the two kinds of effects was to analyse them—i.e. break the entity down into its parts—and then try to put it back together again.  If the recomposition was successful, then this indicated mechanical processes, if it wasn’t, then vegetative processes were operative.  And so the methods of resolution and composition, or analysis and synthesis, provided him with a way of testing for vegetative processes.  And thus ‘vegetation’ was effectively operationalised: the concept was defined through the operations which tested for it.

We see Newton engaging in a similar practice in his study of interference phenomena.  His hypothesis on the nature of light postulated a hypothetical cause for the observed pattern of coloured rings: an æthereal ‘pulse’.  Operationalising the concept of a pulse gave Newton a unit of measurement and, eventually, a way of formalising and abstracting the explanation.  I have argued that Newton’s hypotheses played sophisticated supporting roles in his optical investigations.  The role performed by the hypothesis of vegetation in this alchemical tract, and the way Newton links it to observation and experiment, looks similarly rich and sophisticated.

This feature helps me to say something more specific about, what I have termed, Newton’s ‘rhetorical style’.  As I have noticed in previous posts, Newton took familiar terms and stretched them to fit his methodology.  It is well-known that he did this with physical concepts such as ‘force’ and ‘mass’, and I have shown, on this blog, that he did this with methodological concepts such as ‘query’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘principle’.  Bill Newman has demonstrated that Newton also borrowed the concepts of ‘analysis’, ‘synthesis’ and ‘redintegration’ from chymistry and adapted them to his optical work—massaging them to fit his own needs.  But Newton’s use of ‘vegetation’ highlights a particular feature of his rhetorical style: Newton took common terms with imprecise, qualitative meanings and defined them in terms of methods which measure, quantify or detect certain processes.  And so what was really innovative in this case wasn’t that Newton used analysis and synthesis to investigate salts and metals, but rather, that he defined mechanical and vegetative processes in terms of that kind of intervention.  In other words, Newton’s rhetorical style involved operationalising concepts—turning them into tools of measurement.

I closed my last post by pointing out that Newton’s efforts to pass off his published work as experimental philosophy may well have been politically motivated: by describing his work as ‘experimental philosophy’, he was signalling his commitment as much to the Royal Society as to observation- and experiment-based theorising.  Newton’s chymical papers were circulated much more privately and so, presumably, the same political motivations didn’t apply.  Moreover, Newton did not describe himself as an ‘experimental philosopher’ in his published work until 1713.  So it is not surprising that we find no explicit mention of experimental philosophy or the methods of the Royal Society in this tract, which predates that explicit declaration by at least 40 years.  However, the two features I’ve identified highlight Newton’s commitment to observation- and experiment-based theorising.  That this commitment is evident, absent of any political pressure, suggests that it was genuine.

The Experimental-Speculative debate in early modern Spain 2

Juan Gomez writes…

Following up on my previous post, we will examine today the second part of the  Alvarez-Palanco-Zapata-Lessaca-Najera controversy. Last time, we introduced the issue by examining Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo’s attempt to stand at the crossroads of the experimental/speculative divide. We saw that he gave an account of the creation of the world which he claimed was consistent with both the story told in Genesis and the theory of atomism. However, some scholastic thinkers viewed Alvarez’s account as a threat, and decided to criticize him. In today’s post we will look at Fransisco Palanco’s attack on the new science and a reply from the novatores side by Juan de Nájera.

Fransisco Palanco published in 1714 his Dialogus physico-theologicus contra Philosophiae Novatores, sive thomista contra atomistas as a reaction to Alvarez’s texts. Palanco was perhaps the most vocal of the scholastic thinkers who opposed the novatores and the new science, but his attacks were easily dismissed by the novatores themselves. In fact, even some well-known priests from Palanco’s same order (Emmanuel Maignan and Jean Saguens) criticized the Dialogus physico-theologicus. To begin with, the title of the text suggests that it proposes a defense of Thomism from atomism, but it turns out the text is actually an attack on Descartes and the Cartesian system. Even this description of the text is somewhat inaccurate, since the criticisms made are against a few Cartesians (Antoine Le Grand, Theodore Graanen, and François Bayle) and not Descartes himself. Palanco had missed his target: Cartesianism is not the same as atomism, as the novatores would soon point out. But the most criticized aspect was the fact that Palanco takes the discussion out of its scientific framework, focusing solely on the religious and theological aspect.

In spite of all the flaws of Palanco’s text, the book did manage to get the attention of the novatores and it set the stage for a proper scientific debate between scholastics and novatores.

In 1716 Juan de Nájera, under the pseudonym Alejandro de Avendaño, published Diálogos philosophicos en defensa del atomismo as a response to Palanco. Nájera constructs a dialogue between an atomist and a scholastic (Palanco), where he shows the supremacy of atomism and reinforces the maxims we saw in Alvarez’s Historia de la Iglesia: corpuscles as the primitive matter for compounds, material forms, the distinction between substance and accident, among other topics.

Besides Nájera’s response, the book contains a review by Diego Mateo Zapata where he defends the new science and the novatores, explaining that atomism is different from cartesianism, rejecting Aristotelianism, and reinforcing the importance of experimental physics for our investigation of the natural world. Zapata’s review stands out as valuable, since it gives us some very clear statements of the way in which the novatores stand as Spain’s promoters of experimental philosophy.

Zapata first clarifies: “I am not Cartesian, but rather Maignanist,” stating that he adheres to the atomism of Maignan. Despite this claim, he goes on to defend Descartes, making an exaggerated emphasis on the latter’s religious devotion and faith. Aside from this defense of Descartes, the main thrust of the review is to defend the new science. Zapata gives us the following statement which summarizes his viewpoint:

Oh poor, miserable, weary Physics, or Natural Philosophy, how unattended and disregarded you are, on accounts of not being understood! Everyone dares you, abuses you, and disfigures you wanting to dress you with a Metaphysical varnish. Your truth, real nature and properties are obscured so they can’t be found, nor can the immense variety of your legitimate, sensible, natural Phenomena be explained.

Following this, Zapata claims that the cause for this neglect lays in upholding Aristotelianism. He comments that the scholastics follow Aristotelianism blindly, to the point where “the eyes are not believed so the belief in Aristotle is not lost.” This rejection of Aristotelianism and the complaint of the way the scholastics carry out their natural philosophy places the Spanish novatores clearly on the experimental side of the ESD, strengthening the claim that the ESD can be useful for our interpretation of the history of philosophy in Spain.

As for the controversy at hand, Palanco’s arguments are not strong enough and even a bit sidetracked, leaving us without much to work with in order to understand the scholastic viewpoint on the matter and if such views line up with the speculative side of the ESD. However, in my next post we will have the opportunity to examine a text by a scholastic which does shed some light on the matter: Juan Martin de Lessaca’s Formas ilustradas a la luz de la razón, a response to Zapata and Nájera.


What drives philosophical progress?

Kirsten Walsh and guest blogger Adrian Currie write…

A while ago, Peter Anstey argued that, while the traditional rationalist-empiricist distinction (RED) is primarily about epistemology, questioning the foundational sources of knowledge, evidence and justification from an a priori, first-person perspective, the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD) is primarily methodological, concerned with how knowledge is generated. In this highly speculative post, we consider a consequence of preferring one of these distinctions over the other, namely, its effect on our understanding of philosophical progress in the early modern period.  Note that the ESD is just one way of providing a methodological (as opposed to epistemological) narrative about the history of ideas, and we think much of what we have to say is perfectly compatible with those who, for instance, take a non-traditional (specifically, methodological or technological) stance on empiricism (see, for instance, Newton and Empiricism).

We suspect that the RED and the ESD give very different answers to questions about what the main driver of change in early modern philosophy was. Insofar as the RED gives us an account of what mattered in early modern philosophy, it generates stories about foundational, a priori investigation into the nature of knowledge. In contrast, the ESD tells a story of philosophical progress driven by scientific achievement, technological development and methodological innovation. These are two very different narratives about the history of ideas. Moreover, they emphasise the contributions of different historical figures.

When the focus is epistemology, we fixate on theorists who provided accounts of knowledge and its justification—namely, the canonical seven: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant—to the exclusion of other historical figures. The early Royal Society, for instance, clearly influenced the direction of Western thought, i.e. Western philosophical thought, enormously. Yet its members are sidelined in favor of epistemologists.

The ESD’s methodological emphasis shifts our focus. Boyle, Hooke and Newton, for example, did not produce new theories of knowledge, but they made strides in terms of methodology. Their inquiries yielded original ideas about how to produce knowledge and utilise new technologies (e.g. experimental apparatuses and mathematics). On this view, Newton made an enormous contribution to (anachronistically) philosophy as well as science. Newton synthesized Baconian experimental philosophy with the mathematical rigour of geometric methods—as we have argued on this blog, this methodology was influential beyond natural philosophy. Newton didn’t tell us what it is to know, but he did tell us how to go about generating knowledge. On the RED, scientific advancement is at best a side-show, on the ESD it is (to misquote Newton) the main business of philosophy.

This bit of speculation raises some questions.

Firstly, presumably it is a mistake to think that any one factor has played a privileged role in shaping history, intellectual or otherwise. Thus, arguing that the history of ideas is methodology-driven, rather than epistemology-driven, creates far too stark a dichotomy. If our speculation holds water, then the upshot is that the role of epistemology is over-emphasized. But how much, and how might we go about attributing blame?

Secondly, it is not clear to what extent frameworks such as the RED and the ESD should be read as hypotheses about historical forces. We might simply interpret them as handy heuristics—giving direction to various legitimate research interests. Moreover, they might bring out narratives relevant for understanding other parts of history. For example, one might argue that the RED is important for examining how later philosophers understood and were influenced by the early moderns (something like this view is defended here). So, how should we understand the content and role of such frameworks?

Thirdly, historians these days don’t often go in for ‘grand narratives’—and with good reason. Human history is messy and, typically, simplistic, one-size-fits-all explanations are inapplicable. Moreover, it’s not clear what difference such macro-scale frameworks make at the coalface of academic history, where historians and philosophers must engage with complex ideas and even more complex individuals. Prima facie, seeing Newton as an experimental philosopher rather than an empiricist won’t affect our interpretation of query 31. It might seem that the business of academic history is far too fine-grained for those differences to matter often. So, how much do such frameworks effect the day-to-day work of philosophers and historians?

Regardless of our answer to that question, we think these grand narratives do matter. They help decide the direction of research, and what counts as a good question for serious academic history of philosophy. Moreover, they influence pedagogy: how and what we teach (see our discussion here). Finally, they might play a role in how we, as contemporary philosophers, see ourselves and our field’s development.

This thought raises a further question: what role has the RED’s historical narrative played in vindicating and perpetuating the idea that ‘core’ epistemology targets questions about the nature of knowledge and its justification from a first-person a priori perspective?

So far, these speculations have raised more questions than answers. We’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

Workshop: Mathematics and methodology from Newton to Euler

University of Sydney

20 March, 2014




  • 9.15 Katherine Dunlop (Texas): ‘Christian Wolff on Newtonianism and Exact Science’
  • 10.45 Coffee
  • 11.00 Peter Anstey (Sydney): ‘From scientific syllogisms to mathematical certainty’
  • 12.30 Lunch
  • 2.00 Kirsten Walsh (Otago): ‘Newton’s method’
  • 3.30 Stephen Gaukroger (Sydney):  ‘D’Alembert, Euler and mid-18th century rational mechanics: what mechanics does not tell us about the world’
  • 5.00 Wind up


Location: Common Room 822, Level 8, Brennan MacCallum Building

Contact:    Prof Peter Anstey

Phone:       61 2 9351 2477


RSVP:      Here

Reflections on HPS

Peter Anstey writes…

It is time to restart the conversation about early modern HPS as we lead up to the Sydney conference which commences in two week’s time.

I am currently in Cambridge and have had a number of talks with philosophers and people working in HPS here and in Paris. A common theme has been that they don’t believe that there is anything particularly unique about HPS in terms of methodology and the sorts of outputs of its practitioners. They are happy to work in HPS departments and hope that the discipline continues, but they are noticing changes in the disciplinary mix with a clear shift towards the social sciences and to sciences studies.

I should like to propose a tentative historical explanation of the current situation of HPS as a disciplinary division with the university sector. I raise it for discussion rather than as my own position statement.

It is very hard to do new, innovative research on a historical period, particularly one as rich as the early modern period, without doing interdisciplinary research. In the 1950s and 1960s and there was little institutional recognition of interdiciplinary research in Anglophone universities. At the same time the philosophy of science was undergoing very exciting developments. There was the hotbed at the LSE in London and Kuhn was nearing his peak in Princeton, to choose just two obvious examples. Now what is striking about these developments in the philosophy of science is that they were inextricably bound to historical episodes in the history of science – Kuhn’s paradigm shifts needed actual examples from the history of science. The combination of these two factors, and perhaps others, led to a new form of interdisciplinary research output – a hybrid if you will – that could not be written without the intersecting of history of science and philosophy. Soon institutional niches opened up to accommodate groups of researchers who were working in this overtly interdisciplinary way. (We could add another paragraph on how sociology of science and the study of technology were soon grafted on, but you get the general picture.)

That was then. It appears that today, by contrast, there is a widespread recognition of the value and the almost ineliminable need for interdisciplinary research in the traditional disciplines themselves: history, philosophy, literature, languages, music, theology. Interdisciplinarity is everywhere and is not merely tolerated but celebrated and funded. At the same time the philosophy of and the history of science have become far more specialized and diffuse. There is no unified set of problems or approaches or dominant players that provide the fulcrum around which HPS is practised. Koyré, Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc. are now part of the history itself.

The result of this higher tolerance of and wider practice of interdisciplinary research, combined with the veritable explosion of and diversification of the history of science and the philosophy of science, is that there is now far less pressure for scholars to find a separate, interdisciplinary, institutional niche within which to work and there is far less of a sense that the methodology of those who do HPS is really all that different from someone studying, say, early modern theology or literature.

A positive consequence of this for HPSers is that we can now celebrate the fact that scholars in other disciplines are working in the way we always have. A negative consequence is that it’s now harder to point out what is unique to HPS either in terms of its methodology or its research outputs. It is, therefore, harder to justify the existence of institutional niches set up for HPS on methodological grounds or in terms of research outputs. The upshot of all of this is that HPS is both in a stronger position and a weaker position. It is now better understood and appreciated because its methods are widely practised by others. Yet it is less unique, less distinctive within the disciplinary matrix in which it is situated.