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Geminiano Montanari on Natural History and Explanations

Alberto Vanzo writes…

A while ago, I wrote a post on the late seventeenth-century Italian natural philosopher, Geminiano Montanari. I argued that his stints of speculative reasoning were, after all, compatible with his allegiance to the experimental philosophy. In this post, I will focus on another aspect of Montanari’s experimentalism that appears to clash with his natural-philosophical practice: his view that, before even attempting to explain natural phenomena, we should compile a universal natural history.

The problem: disagreements and errors in natural philosophy

Montanari sees the compilation of a universal natural history as way of overcoming disagreements among philosophers. Having noted the many competing views on what “the first principles of natural things” may be, Montanari explains that this variety is due to the excessive self-confidence of “nearly all great minds”. Instead of jumping to first principles,

    It was necessary to start philosophy from particular things, examining the whole of nature one piece after another, and to amass a rich capital of experiences so as to prepare the historical matter on whose basis one should later speculate about the reasons [of those experiences].

The solution: building a universal natural history

We can avoid errors and reach agreement on the principles of things by following Francis Bacon’s suggestion of building a natural history including “all experiences and other certain information that one could get from faithful sources”.

How much information should be gathered before we can discover the first principles of natural things?

    [I]n order to find what the true, first and most universal principles of all things may be, it is not sufficient to make an induction from few terms, but it is necessary first to cognize all natural effects, so that one can later find a common reason which satisfies all experiences. But who can already boast to possess such an universal information?

Montanari’s answer is: nobody. It is still too early to make an induction from the observation of everything to its first cause. We must postpone the task of explaining the whole of nature and focus our strengths on the task of compiling natural histories.

Did Montanari do what he says?

He certainly collected many experiments and observations on manifold phenomena, from the capillary behaviour of liquids to the comets and celestial bodies. But he did not refrain from developing explanations of those phenomena, even though he was aware that his experiences were limited and many phenomena had not yet been observed. It is tempting to conclude that Montanari did not do what he says, that his allegiance to the Baconian view that a comprehensive data collection must precede natural-philosophical explanations was merely verbal, and that he was merely paying lip-service to the Baconian fashion of the time.

I do not think that this is the case. Montanari claims that completing a universal natural history is necessary to establish the “true, first and most universal principles of all things”. However, he does not claim that completing a universal natural history is necessary to explain specific natural phenomena, nor does he think that we must first establish the first principles of all things in order to explain specific phenomena. On the contrary, Montanari thinks that, upon completing a universal natural history, we will have to to advance piecemeal toward the first principles, by formulating explanations of specific phenomena and proceeding to increasingly higher levels of generality.

Montanari’s two-part discussions of specific phenomena follow, on a small scale, his favoured Baconian method that for establishing first principles. Regardless of whether he is discussing the capillary action, the behaviour of hot spheres of glass in water, or the position of a comet, Montanari starts by providing a natural history of the phenomenon at hand in the form of a list of observations and experiments. He then proceeds from the “historical matter” to its “reasons”, that is, he provides natural-philosophical explanations of the phenomena.

These explanations are fallible. Natural histories are inescapably incomplete and it is always possible that future experiments or observations invalidate his explanations. However, Montanari holds that it is possible to “deduce” explanations “with physico-mathematical evidence” from a suitable, even if limited, natural-historical basis. What warrants his explanations is the fact that they “explain all the other effects we have observed.”

In conclusion, Montanari does not violate his claim that we should build a universal natural history before identifying the very first principles of the whole nature. The magnitude of the task suggests that this may be only a regulative ideal and may even warrant a certain scepticism on whether we will ever be able to discover the first principles. However, discovering these principles is not necessary to do science for Montanari. What drives Montanari’s natural philosophy is the fact that he allows for fallible natural-philosophical explanations which are based on small-scale, necessarily incomplete, subject-specific natural histories.

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