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Tag Archives: Moral Philosophy

Turnbull and the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method

Juan Gomez writes…

You will probably recognize the following phrase: ‘An attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into moral Subjects.’ It is the subtitle of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature of 1739-40, and the first explicit mention of the application of the experimental method in moral topics. Many scholars have pointed to it, and claimed that Hume was the first one to go forward with this attempt. However, others (Tom Beauchamp, Alexander Broadie) have also noticed that this idea did not originate with Hume. I will show here that the ‘spirit’ of the experimental method was very much alive at least 20 years before the publication of Hume’s Treatise. In fact, contrary to the most commonly held view, Hume should not be the reference point when studying the emergence of the “science of man”. Rather, we should look at the Aberdeen philosophers, in particular at George Turnbull and his lectures at Marischal College in the 1720’s.

I will make a prima facie case for this claim with only a few quotes (available in this document), but please do contact me if you are interested in the topic, since there is more than enough evidence that I would be happy to discuss with you.

To begin with, Hume was not the first to allude to the application of the experimental method in moral philosophy. Francis Hutcheson had already done this in his 1725 Inquiry. The subtitle of this work explains that it contains the following:

Turnbull's Principles of Moral Philosophy(1740)

Turnbull's Principles of Moral Philosophy(1740)

    the Principles of the late Earl of Shaftesbury are explained and defended against the Fable of the Bees; and the Ideas of Moral Good and Evil are established, according to the Sentiments of the Ancient Moralists, with an attempt to introduce a Mathematical Calculation on subjects of Morality. (emphasis added)

Hutcheson doesn’t use the words ‘experimental method’, but saying that he will give a ‘mathematical calculation on subjects of morality’ is perfectly in line with the spirit of the experimental method (specifically with the Newtonian method). To be fair to Hume, he does recognize Hutcheson as one of the philosophers who has “begun to put the science of man on a new footing.” (Treatise (1739), Introduction, p. 6-7) So Hume might have recognized that he was not the first, but a number of modern scholars have not.

Moving on to George Turnbull, whom I believe is mistakenly underrated as a figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, published his Principles of Moral Philosophy in 1740, the same year Hume published the third volume of his Treatise, which is on Morals. This would at least lead us to think that both Hume and Turnbull were working on the application of the experimental method in morality at the same time. But as Turnbull mentions in the introduction to his Principles, his book is based on the lectures he gave at Marischal College between 1721 and 1726, around the time when Hume was a student at the University of Edinburgh. Besides the numerous remarks in the Principles that show Turnbull’s devotion to the experimental method, there is a key document that shows that he was teaching the young Aberdeen students the moral philosophy he explains in the book he published 17 years later.  The document is the 1723 graduation thesis, which the graduating students (Thomas Reid among them) had to defend, titled De scientiae naturalis cum philosophia morali conjunctione (On the unity of natural science and moral philosophy).

I am currently working on the 1723 thesis, and at this moment I can let you know that it is strengthening my belief in the importance of Turnbull in the development of the ‘science of man.’ For now I’ll leave you with enough quotes from the Principles that show that if we want to study the development of the science of morals, we should start focusing more on Turnbull and Aberdeen, and less on Hume and Edinburgh.

Experimental Method in Moral Philosophy

Juan Gomez writes…

This is just a quick summary of the project I’m working on, so you can get a grasp of it, hopefully get interested, and discuss related issues with us. Our Marsden project as a whole revolves around the experimental/speculative distinction in the early modern period (see project description). My interest is to trace and study such distinction within the moral philosophers and the texts produced by them. I’m trying to find answers to the following questions:

  • Was the experimental method actually being applied in moral philosophy, or did they use it just as a rhetorical tool?
  • Can  introspection amount to more than just speculation?

These are just two of the questions that have come up in my research. I should point out here that I’m focusing only on British philosophers in the Eighteenth century, since it seems to be the most fertile ground for my interests. There is enough evidence to show that the British philosophers (Hutcheson, Turnbull, Hume, Reid, Fordyce) were using the language of experimental philosophy in their moral treatises, but this is a different thing from actually following the guidelines of the experimental method of natural philosophy and applying it in moral topics. And even when they were following such guidelines, the most important tool for acquiring knowledge of the “science of man” was introspection, and it is just not clear how different this is from plain speculation.

It seems that most of the eighteenth-century British philosophers (especially Turnbull and Hume) dealing with moral topics tried to fulfill the following ‘prediction’ made by Newton:

    if Natural Philosophy, in all its Parts, by pursuing this [experimental] Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will also be enlarged.” (Newton’s Optics. Book 3, Query 31).

We are trying to find how far they succeeded in making moral philosophy a ‘moral science’ by following the experimental method.

At the moment I’m studying George Turnbull’s Principles of Moral Philosophy (1749), and I’ve come across many interesting findings, which make me realize how important this philosopher and teacher was for the Scottish Enlightenment, and how he has been overlooked and underrated. In future posts I will tell you more about Turnbull’s philosophy, and why I believe he is of extreme importance for understanding philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment. For the time being I leave you with this quick description of my research, and welcome any comments or questions you have.