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Tag Archives: Moral Philosophy

Joseph Butler and Method in Moral Philosophy and Religion

Juan Gomez writes…

One of the features that we have explored in our project is the application of the experimental method in areas other than natural philosophy. I have focused on the work of George Turnbull to illustrate how the method was applied in moral philosophy and religion. In my next series of posts I want to focus on the work of Joseph Butler (who was arguably one of the figures that most influenced Turnbull) and explore his ideas on method in moral and religious inquiries.

As an introductory post to this series I will focus on the preface that appeared in the 1788 edition of Butler’s Analogy of Religion (first edition 1736) by Samuel Halifax, Bishop of Gloucester. In this preface Halifax gives an account of Butler’s ‘moral and religious systems’ that serves as a summary of Butler’s main ideas.

Halifax tells us that Butler’s moral system can be found mainly in the first three of his collection of Sermons, which are on human nature. Halifax highlights the way Butler proceeds to determine human nature:

What the inward frame and constitution of man is, is a question of fact; to be determined, as other facts are, from experience, from our internal feelings and external senses, and from the testimony of others…From contemplating the bodily senses, and the organs or instruments adapted to them, we learn that the eye was given to see with, the ear to hear with. In like manner, from considering our inward perceptions and the final causes of them, we collect that the feeling of shame, for instance, was given to prevent the doing of things shameful; compassion, to carry us to relieve others in distress; anger, to resist sudden violence offered to ourselves.

The method for acquiring knowledge of our moral system must be the same we employ to discover external facts. Halifax contrasts this method that Butler adhered himself to with the one used by Samuel Clarke. Halifax and Butler both see the two methods not as opposed to each other but rather as complementary:

The reader will observe, that this way of treating the subject of morals, by an appeal to facts, does not at all interfere with that other way, adopted by Dr. Samuel Clarke and others, which begins inquiring into the relations and fitness of things, but rather illustrates and confirms it.

It is interesting that Clarke is portrayed as following an a priori method in his moral inquiries, and I will leave the analysis of this and its relation to Butler’s method for a future post where we will examine the correspondence between Butler and Clarke regarding this issue. Since this is just an introductory post, I want to finish by showing Halifax’s rendering of Butler’s method in his religious work.

Butler’s main philosophical text was his Analogy, where he deals with natural and revealed religion and argues that the former is confirmed in the latter, both giving us evidence for the divine government of the world. The way Butler proceeds in this text is by arguing by analogy from the natural to the moral realm:

This way of arguing from what is acknowledged to what is disputed, from things known to other things that resemble them, from that part of the divine establishment which is exposed to our view to that more important one which lies beyond it, is all on hands confessed to be just. By this method Sir Isaac Newton has unfolded the system of nature; by the same method Bishop Butler has explained the system of grace; and thus, to use the words of a writer, whom I quote with pleasure, has ‘formed and concluded a happy alliance between faith and philosophy.’

One of the advantages of this method of analogy is that (as we will see in my next post where we examine Butler’s Analogy in a bit more detail) it does not lead to a claim of certain knowledge about the doctrines of religion, but it rather leads to a high degree of credibility in them. This feature allows Butler to get rid of a number of objections. Further, if the analogy Butler argues for is a strong one, then all objections made against revealed religion will also count as objections to natural religion, which is a consequence the objectors will not want to admit.

As we have seen in this brief account of Halifax’s preface, it appears that a striking feature of Butler’s work in morality and religion is the methodology he applies in both areas, one that argues from facts and experience instead of hypotheses and speculations:

Instead of indulging to idle speculations, how the world might possibly have been better than it is; or, forgetful of the difference between hypothesis and fact, attempting to explain the divine economy with respect to intelligent creatures, from preconceived notions of his own; he [Butler] first inquires what the constitution of nature, as made known to us in the way of experiment, actually is; and from this, now seen and acknowledged, he endeavours to form a judgment of that larger constitution, which religion discovers to us.

In my next post we will examine Butler’s application of this method in his Analogy and his defense of probable knowledge.

Teaching Moral Philosophy: Bentham and the Speculative Method

Juan Gomez writes…

In my last post I commented on a text by Edward Bentham that defended the use if the syllogistic in logic, in particular for education. Following Peter Anstey’s interesting posts on teaching experimental philosophy (one on Desaguilers, one on Adams) I will focus on a text by Bentham regarding the teaching of moral philosophy.

I have already posted on this blog regarding the teaching of moral education, in particular in eighteenth century Aberdeen under George Turnbull and David Fordyce. However, they both were promoters of the use of the experimental method within moral philosophy. It appears that Edward Bentham had a different opinion. His An Introduction to Moral Philosophy was published in 1745, five years after Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy and Hume’s Treatise, and three years before the first version of Fordyce’s Elements of Moral Philosophy. The texts by the Scottish thinkers all explicitly claimed to be attempts to apply the experimental method of natural philosophy to moral inquiries. Bentham, on the other hand, objected to this method for moral philosophy and prefers the scholastic method:

    I have had a general regard to the Plan usually received in the Schools, because I think it the most commodious; and because the new, and seemingly more scientifical, method attended with all the Mathematical formalities of Definitions, Postulatums, Axioms, Lemmas, Theorems, and Corollaries (all very astonishing to a young Reader) seems to me forced and affected upon this subject; and not so likely to answer the good purpose of clearing up any doubtful proposition, as to perplex Him in the apprehension of those that are confessedly true.

This is the opposite of what the experimental moral philosophers (Turnbull, Hume, Fordyce, etc.) claim! They specifically choose to apply the experimental method because morality is a part of human nature, it is an inquiry into fact just like any other science and therefore the same method should be applied. Bentham seems to be alluding in the passage to a more Newtonian experimental method referring only to the mathematical side of the method and not on the emphasis on facts and observation.

In the paragraph following the passage quoted above Bentham seems to go against Scholastic philosophy, but he only manages to go half-way about it. He tells us that he is discarding “many of the Scholastick terms of Art and Distinction,” because they are misleadings and characterizes them as “the husks of Science.” Simultaneously, he has also decided to keep “several of them” (!) since they are “very useful to those, whose studies are likely to carry them into the reading of philosophical treatises and moral discourses.”

Confusing as this may be, his condition as a speculative philosopher is clear from the text itself. It consists in a definition of human nature, our faculties, and virtue all relating to God. However, there is no sort of proof for the concept of human nature and morality he is proposing. It is just a collection of statements of what he thinks morality amounts to, of course in accordance to Christianity and revelation.

Most experimental moral philosophers appealed to some form of natural religion, and in specific cases (like Turnbull) allowed revelation to play a very minor role. Bentham once again represents the opposite position, placing revealed religion in centre stage:

    Christianity contains a revelation of a particular dispensation of things not at all discoverable by reason…And in consequence of this revelation being made, several obligations of duty, unknown before, are revealed.

Our moral duties are not something that we can discover by reason and experience alone. Natural religion only plays a role in confirming the morality discovered through revelation.

It seems that from this text, and in particular from the methodological statement quoted at the beginning of the post, we can safely infer that Edward Bentham was on the speculative side of the ESD, at least as far as moral philosophy is concerned. Not only did he claim that the “new” method was not appropriate for morals, but as we explored in the post on his thoughts on logic, he was not very comfortable with the idea of giving way to experimental philosophy, especially not in education.

Peter Anstey posted here last year on one of the main objections our project has faced, known as the Straw-man problem. Bentham’s texts can help us reply to such objection by showing that speculative philosophers were not just a creation of the promoters of experimental philosophy, but there were some who made the claim that the method of experimental philosophy was not the appropriate method, at least not outside natural philosophy.

Experiments in Early Modern Moral Philosophy

Juan Gomez writes…

As we have constantly argued for in this blog, experimental philosophy went beyond the boundaries of natural philosophy and was adopted in a number of other areas (ethics, aesthetics, theology, etc.) We have seen that this is particularly true in the case of Scotland (Turnbull, Hume, Fordyce, Reid, Hutcheson, Smith etc.), but we are yet to discuss the suitability of the experimental method of natural philosophy for enquiries into moral philosophy. In particular, we have not examined in any detail what those thinkers we have discussed would count as ‘experiments’ in formulating their moral theories. This is the topic of today’s post.

In a previous post I commented on Turnbull’s description of paintings as suitable samples or experiments for moral philosophy. But that discussion considered Turnbull’s Treatise on Ancient Painting instead of his main moral text, The Principles of Moral Philosophy. In the latter there is no explicit statement of what experiments for moral philosophy would look like, but we can get a picture of what they would amount to. Turnbull constantly writes statements where he tells us that the only method we should apply in all inquiries is one founded on experiment and observation:

    …we set about such an inquiry [moral] in the fair impartial way of experiment, and of reasoning from experiment alone… 

    …the whole of true natural philosophy is not, for that reason, no more than a system of facts discovered by experiment and observation; but it is a mixture of experiments, with reasonings from experiments: so in the same manner, in moral philosophy…

    In fine, the only thing in enquiries into any part of nature, moral or corporeal, is not to admit any hypothesis as the real solution of appearances, till it is found really to take place in nature, either by immediate experiment, or by necessary reasonings from effects, that unavoidably lead to it as their sole cause, law, or principle.

    It is only in the way of experiment, that either the science of the human mind, or of any material system can be acquired.

From these statements and the argument Turnbull develops in his book, it seems that he is using ‘experiment’ in a sense that is closer to the meaning of ‘experience’. This usage of the term is not surprising, since the French word ‘experience’ can mean both ‘experiment’ and ‘experience,’ and even in English and in Spanish the word can be used with both senses (the verb ‘experimentar’ in Spanish is used both to refer to ‘experience’ and to ‘experiment’). So it seems that ‘experiments’ in moral philosophy lose one of the connotations the term has in natural philosophy, namely the active, manipulation of nature. When Turnbull insists that in moral philosophy we can only reason by way of experiments, he is talking about observing and experiencing the way human beings behave, and founding our conclusions on such observations. So far we would have to say that there are no experiments per se in moral philosophy, but rather just experience and observation.

However, there is an aspect that does have some sort of parallel with experiments in natural philosophy. As I commented in a previous post, introspection is one of the aspects that the Scottish experimental moral philosophers used in their investigations, and this is the experimenting factor in their method. If we are to follow the methodology of experimental philosophy, then we must found all our theories on experience and observation, and completely disregard any sort of hypotheses and speculation. But when the subject of our inquiries is the human mind, our observations are limited. Yes, we can observe how other human beings behave, and that can give us some knowledge, but we cannot observe their minds. The only way anyone can observe the human mind and its operations is by looking into and experiencing their own mind, by introspection. By looking into our own minds we can construct an explanation of our constitution and behaviour based on such observations, and then we can observe others and compare experiences in order to enrich our moral theories. This is why Turnbull is constantly asking the reader not to take his word for the claims he makes, but rather experiment and look into their own minds to confirm such claims. He wasn’t the only one taking this stand: Thomas Reid also appeals to introspection and even Locke as early as Draft B of the Essay (1671) takes introspection to be a form of experiment.

So it seems that the term ‘experiment’ was tweaked for its application in moral philosophy. It is closer to what we mean by ‘experience,’ but it keeps an aspect of ‘experimenting’ that is limited to the each individual’s own mind. The question remains, however, as to whether we can actually count introspection as a proper experiment or not. The Scottish experimental moral philosophers certainly counted it just as they would count any experiment in natural philosophy.

Early modern x-phi: a genre free zone

Peter Anstey writes…

One feature of early modern experimental philosophy that has been brought home to us as we have prepared the exhibition entitled ‘Experimental Philosophy: Old and New’ (soon to appear online) is the broad range of disciplinary domains in which the experimental philosophy was applied in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the works on display are books from what we now call the history of science, some are works in the history of medicine, some are works of literature, others are works in moral philosophy, and yet they all have the unifying thread of being related in some way to the experimental philosophy.

Two lessons can be drawn from this. First – and this is a simple point that may not be immediately obvious – there is no distinct genre of experimental philosophical writing. Senac’s Treatise on the Structure of the Heart is just as much a work of experimental philosophy as Newton’s Principia or Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. To be sure, if one turns to the works from the 1660s to the 1690s written after the method of Baconian natural history, one can find a fairly well-defined genre. But, as we have already argued on this blog, this approach to the experimental philosophy was short-lived and by no means exhausts the works from those decades that employed the new experimental method.

Second, disciplinary boundaries in the 17th and 18th centuries were quite different from those of today. The experimental philosophy emerged in natural philosophy in the 1650s and early 1660s and was quickly applied to medicine, which was widely regarded as continuous with natural philosophy. By the 1670s it was being applied to the study of the understanding in France by Jean-Baptiste du Hamel and later by John Locke. Then from the 1720s and ’30s it began to be applied in moral philosophy and aesthetics. But the salient point here is that in the early modern period there was no clear demarcation between natural philosophy and philosophy as there is today between science and philosophy. Thus Robert Boyle was called ‘the English Philosopher’ and yet today he is remembered as a great scientist. This is one of the most important differences between early modern x-phi and the contemporary phenomenon: early modern x-phi was endorsed and applied across a broad range of disciplines, whereas contemporary x-phi is a methodological stance within philosophy itself.

What is it then that makes an early modern book a work of experimental philosophy? There are at least three qualities each of which is sufficient to qualify a book as a work of experimental philosophy:

  1. an explicit endorsement of the experimental philosophy and its salient doctrines (such as an emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge by observation and experiment, opposition to speculative philosophy);
  2. an explicit application of the general method of the experimental philosophy;
  3. acknowledgment by others that a book is a work of experimental philosophy.

Now, some of the books in the exhibition are precursors  to the emergence of the experimental philosophy (such as Bacon’s Sylva sylvarum). Some of them are comments on the experimental philosophy by sympathetic observers (Sprat’s History of the Royal Society), and others poke fun at the new experimental approach (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). But this still leaves a large number of very diverse works, which qualify as works of experimental philosophy. Early modern x-phi is a genre free zone.

From Experimental Philosophy to Empiricism: 20 Theses for Discussion

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.

(in their terms, “observational philosophers”)

Thomas Reid and the dangers of introspection

Juan Gomez writes…

In the upcoming symposium we are hosting here at the University of Otago, I will be giving a paper on the features of the experimental method in moral philosophy (you can read the abstract). One of the salient features of this method was the use of introspection as a tool to access the nature and powers of the human mind. In fact, some Scottish moral philosophers acknowledge introspection as the only way we can get to know the nature of our mind. George Turnbull and David Fordyce were proponents of such claims, as well as Thomas Reid. The latter, in the Introduction to his Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764) draws an analogy with anatomy where he tells us that, in the same way we gain knowledge of the body by dissecting and observing it, we must perform an ‘anatomy of the mind’ to “discover its powers and principles.” The problem is that unlike the anatomist who has multiple bodies to observe, the anatomist of the mind can only look into his own mind:

    It is his own mind only that he can examine with any degree of accuracy and distinctness. This is the only subject he can look into.

Reid notices that this is not good for our experimental inquiry into the human mind, since a general law or rule cannot be deduced from just one subject:

    So that, if a philosopher could delineate to us, distinctly and methodically, all the operations of the thinking principle within him, which no man was ever able to do, this would be only the anatomy of one particular subject; which would be both deficient and erroneous, if applied to human nature in general.

But this obstacle doesn’t persuade Reid to give up introspection (Reid uses the term ‘reflection’) since it is “the only instrument by which we can discern the powers of the mind.” What we have to do is be very careful:

    It must therefore require great caution, and great application of mind, for a man that is grown up in all the prejudices of education, fashion, and philosophy, to unravel his notions and opinions, till he find out the simple and original principles of his constitution… This may be truly called an analysis of the human faculties; and, till this is performed, it is in vain we expect any just system of the original powers and laws of our constitution, and an explication from them to the various phaenomena of human nature.

Scottish moral philosophers were faced with this dilemma. On one hand, in order to access the nature of the human mind, they had to rely on a tool that could only examine and observe one particular mind, making the generalization of the principles discovered impossible; on the other hand, introspection was the only way to access the human mind, since by observing others we cannot gain any knowledge of what goes on in their minds, at least not accurately. The solution, consistent with the spirit of the experimental method, was to focus only on what we can experience and observe, and follow this evidence only as far as it can take us. Therefore as Reid points out, we are to use reflection with

    caution and humility, to avoid error and delusion. The labyrinth may be too intricate, and the thread too fine, to be traced through all its windings; but, if we stop where we can trace it no farther, and secure the ground we have gained, there is no harm done; a quicker eye may in time trace it farther.

These comments by Reid show that even when the problems of relying on introspection were explicitly recognized, the Scottish moral philosophers still used it as their way to access the nature of the human mind. Since introspection was considered to be the only reliable way into the workings of the human mind, they had to be very careful with the use they made of it. This caution was achieved by following the methodology of the experimental method, where they could  only go as far as their observations would take them, and their conclusions had to be confirmed by the particular experience of many.  But such limits to the conclusions drawn from introspection cast doubt on the status of the exercise of reflection: could introspection really be considered ‘experimental,’ or was the justification given by the moral philosophers (Reid  in particular) just a rhetorical device? This is a problem that requires a lot more space than a blog post, but if you have any particular thoughts and comments I am looking forward to receiving and discussing them with you.

Experimental Philosophy and the Origins of Empiricism: Symposium Abstracts

Hello, readers!

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.

Word cloud of our symposium abstracts

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.

Related posts: Turnbull and the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method; David Fordyce’s advice to students.

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.

Related posts: Experiment and Hypothesis, Theory and Observation: Wolff vs Newton; Tetens on Experimental vs Speculative Philosophy

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.

Related posts: Kant, Empiricism, and Historiographical Biases; Reinhold on Empiricism, Rationalism, and the Philosophy without Nicknames

Thanks to Wordle for the word cloud above.

Paintings as Experiments in Natural and Moral Philosophy

Juan Gomez writes…

About a month ago I published a post on George Turnbull’s Treatise on ancient Painting. There I briefly commented that Turnbull thought that paintings could work as proper samples or experiments for natural and moral philosophy (understood as the ‘science of man’). I want to expand on this issue in this post.


Engraving by Camillo Paderni, first edition of Turnbull's 'Treatise'

The whole of Turnbull’s Treatise, as he comments at the beginning of chapter seven, is designed to show the usefulness of the imitative arts for philosophy and education in general. After a recollection of the thoughts of the ancient philosophers on these arts, Turnbull dedicates the last two chapters of the book to sketch the reasons for incorporating the arts in the Liberal education program. This is where paintings can serve as samples or experiments.

To understand the role of paintings, it is necessary to point out a general characteristic of Turnbull’s philosophy. He believed that human beings were made to contemplate and to imitate nature, and their happiness was mainly achieved through these two activities. If we take a look and examine all our faculties and powers, we will see that we are perfectly constituted for the study of nature. We acquire knowledge through the observation of nature, and the desire to imitate it leads us to perform experiments that will enhance our understanding of it.

Nature is also the source for the work of the artist:

    The Artist derives all his Ideas from Nature, and does not make Laws and Connexions agreeably to which he works in order to produce certain Effects, but conforms himself to such as he finds to be necessarily and unchangeably established in Nature. (Treatise on Ancient Painting, p. 137)

From this it follows that the paintings of an artist should represent (imitate) nature as it is in reality, following all its laws.  With this in mind Turnbull goes on to tell us that paintings in fact serve as samples or experiments for natural and moral philosophy:

    Philosophy is rightly divided into natural and moral; and in like manner, Pictures are of two Sorts, natural and moral: The former belong to natural, and the other to moral Philosophy. For if we reflect upon the End and Use of Samples or Experiments in Philosophy, it will immediately appear that Pictures are such, or that they must have the same Effect. What are Landscapes and Views of Nature, but Samples of Nature’s visible Beauties, and for that Reason Samples and Experiments in natural Philosophy? And moral Pictures, or such as represent parts of human Life, Men Manners, Affections, and Characters; are they not Samples of moral Nature, or of the Laws and Connexions of the moral World, and therefore Samples or Experiments in moral Philosophy? (Treatise, p. 145)

Since the paintings are supposed to represent nature, it is impossible to appreciate them without comparing them to the original (reality). In this sense paintings will provide us with a proper sample of nature that will enhance our knowledge of it. Turnbull’s theory relies on the artist making exact ‘copies’ of nature, and only then can they serve as proper samples. In the case of natural pictures, he allows two sorts of ‘copies’: either exact representations of nature (like a photograph), or imaginary scenes, as long as they conform to the Laws of Nature. If they are not in these categories, then they shouldn’t be taken as proper samples for the study of nature, and in Turnbull’s case, not even as good works of art. Those works of art that do not imitate nature do not give us the pleasure derived from those that do.

Turnbull prescribes a parallel form of realism for moral paintings. These pictures should depict human nature as it really is, and through them we can gain knowledge of our actions and characters:

    Moral Pictures, as well as moral Poems, are indeed Mirrours in which we may view our inward Features and Complexions, our Tempers and Dispositions, and the various Workings of our Affections. ‘Tis true, the Painter only represents outward Features, Gestures, Airs, and Attitudes; but do not these, by an universal Language, mark the different Affections and Dispositions of the Mind? (Treatise, p. 147)

As long as the sole purpose of the arts is to imitate nature, and all the works follow the laws of nature (even in cases of imaginary scenes), Turnbull can count them as having the same effect ‘real’ samples and experiments have.

David Fordyce’s advice to students

Juan Gomez writes…

I have mentioned the name ‘David Fordyce’ a couple of times in my previous posts. The influence this thinker had in the second half of the eighteenth century (Benjamin Franklin was impresed by his works, though he mistakenly credited them to Hutcheson) usually goes unnoticed, despite the success of his main works. He is also a very good example of the adoption of the rhetoric and methodology of experimental philosophy in the field of moral philosophy.

Fordyce (1711-1751) studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen, in the 1720s (the same decade George Turnbull was a regent there). He came back to his alma mater in 1742 to become a regent himself. During this period he taught, as most regents did, “all the Sciences, Logics, Metaphysics, Pneumatics, Ethics strictly so called & the Principles of the Law of Nature and Nations with natural and experimental Philosophy.” (David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 6 June 1743. Quoted in the Liberty Fund edition of his Elements of Moral Philosophy). This was also the period when he published his main works, the Dialogues Concerning Education (1745) and The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1748). The latter was first published as section nine of Robert Dodsley’s The Preceptor (1748), anonymously, and then published posthumously in 1754. The essay had such a good reception that it was used as the text book for moral philosophy lectures in North American universities, and it was used almost in full (only the conclusion was ommitted) for the entry on moral philosophy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from its first edition until well into the nineteenth century.

A recent edition of the Elements also includes a speech he gave to his students at the start of the year of lectures on moral philosophy, which is the text I want to focus on. The speech is entitled A brief Account of the Nature, Progress, and Origin of Philosophy delivered by the late Mr. David Fordyce, P. P. Marish. Col: Abdn to his Scholars, before they begun their Philosophical course. Besides the explicit use of the terminology of the experimental method in his Elements (induction, hypotheses, deduction of rules from observation, etc.), his speech shows the traits that characterize the methodology of the experimental philosophy. For example:

    “It is evident that setting aside sovreign instruction, true knowledge must be acquired by slow degrees from experience & observation, & that it will always be proportionate to the largeness & extent of our Experience.”
    “The knowledge then of the nature, laws & connections of things is, as has been observed, Philosophy; and they who apply to the study of these, & from thence deduce rules for the conduct & improvement of human life, are Philosophers. They who consider things as they are or as they exist, & draw right conclusions from thence, are true Philosophers. But they who without regard to fact or nature indulge themselves in framing systems to which they afterwards reduce all appearances, are, notwithstanding their ingenuity & subtilty, to be reckoned only the corrupters & enemies of true learning.”
    “Now there is a natural & proper method of attaining to true knowledge as well as any other accomplishment, which if neglected must occasion error & contradiction. It cannot be too often repeated, that there is no real knowledge, nor any that can answer a valuable End, but what is gathered or Copyed from nature or from things themselves. That the knowledge of Nature is nothing else than the knowledge of facts or realities & their established connections. That no Rules or Precepts of life Can be given or any Scheme of Conduct prescribed, but what must suppose a settled Course of things conducted in a regular uniform manner. That in order to denominate those Rules just, & to render those Schemes successful, the Course of things must be understood & observed. & that all Philosophy, even the most didactic & practical parts of it, must be drawn from the Observation of things or at least resolved into it; Or which is the same thing, that the knowledge of truth is the knowledge of Fact, & whatever Speculations are not reduceable to the one or the other of these are Chimerical, Vague & uncertain.”

The previous are just the most telling quotes, but the whole overview Fordyce gives of the history of philosophy embodies the anti-Aristotelian, anti-hypothetical attitude of the experimental philosophy. Such was the message Fordyce delivered as a regent to his students in the 1740s, highlighting the relevance of the experimental/ speculative distinction, with the former being the only appropriate method for the progress of knowledge.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned to our blog. Pretty soon we will have a guest post by Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt on a topic closely related to Fordyce’s speech: early modern universities and experimental philosophy.

Anti-Newtonianism in moral philosophy?

Juan Gomez writes…

Peter Anstey recently posted a reply to Eric Schliesser’s criticisms of the experimental/speculative distinction we are proposing. Eric posted some comments on this topic in the New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog, where he expanded his criticisms by presenting a four-fold problem for our distinction. I quote the fourth point of criticism from Eric’s post:

    Fourth, and most important to the history of philosophy, when the “experimental” philosophy was introduced into moral areas (Turnbull, Hume, etc.) it was decidedly Baconian in character, and often quite hostile to Newton (but that story must await more detail later).

I am going to pitch in my reply before Eric gives us more details on this hostility to Newton. In my previous post on the ‘spirit’ of experimental philosophy, I attached a document with some quotes from Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy that illustrate the opposite of Eric’s claim.  The following are just the three most explicit quotes (you can check this document for more of them):

    Account for MORAL, as the great Newton has taught us to explain for NATURAL Appearances, (that is, by reducing them to good general laws) (Epistle dedicatory, i)
    The great Master [Newton], to whose truly marvelous (I had almost said more than human) sagacity and accuracy, we are indebted for all the greater improvements that have been made in Natural Philosophy, after pointing out in the clearest manner, the only way by which we can acquire real knowledge of any part of nature, corporeal or moral, plainly declares, that he looked upon the enlargement Moral Philosophy must needs receive, so soon as Natural Philosophy, in its full extent, being pursued in that only proper method of advancing it, should be brought to any considerable degree of perfection, to be the principal advantage mankind and human society would then reap from such science. (Preface, iii)
    It was by this important, comprehensive hint [Newton’s], I was led long ago to apply myself to the study of the human mind in the same way as to that of the human body, or any other part of Natural Philosophy: that is, to try whether due enquiry into moral nature would not soon enable us to account for moral, as the best of Philosophers teaches us to explain natural phenomena. (Preface, iii)

One last thought, and a preview of a post in the near future, regarding Eric’s comments: David Fordyce, regent at Marischal College for 10 years (1741-1751), studied in the same college in the 1720’s when Turnbull was a regent. His posthumous publication The Elements of Moral Philosophy might fall under Eric’s description of being ‘Baconian in character,’ but there is certainly no hostility to Newton, and it fits in nicely with our description of experimental philosophy. I leave you with a passage from Fordyce’s book. It is interesting to mention here that parts of Fordyce’s book were used by William Smellie’s for the entry on moral philosophy of his first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and were maintained in the following editions for decades.

    Moral Philosophy has this in common with Natural Philosophy, that it appeals to Nature or Fact; depends on Observation, and builds its Reasonings on plain uncontroverted Experiments, or upon the fullest Induction of Particulars of which the Subject will admit. We must observe, in both these Sciences, Quid faciat & ferat Natura; how Nature is affected, and what her Conduct is in such and such Circumstances. Or in other words, we must collect the Phaenomena, or Appearances of Nature in any given Instance; trace these to some General Principles, or Laws of Operation; and then apply these Principles or Laws to the explaining of other Phaenomena. (The Elements of moral Philosophy, 1754, p. 7-8)