Skip to Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map

Tag Archives: Pluche

Experimental philosophy in France

Peter Anstey writes…

When did the French embrace experimental philosophy? There is no doubt that the early Académie des Sciences was committed to the use of experimental methods in natural philosophy from its inception in 1666. But there is little evidence of French natural philosophers self-identifying as experimental philosophers, of the teaching of experimental philosophy or of institutional recognition of experimental philosophy before the 1730s.

In 1735 Abbé Nollet offered the first course in experimental philosophy in France and two years later he published Programme ou idée générale d’un cours de physique expérimentale which was strongly influenced by John Theophilus Desaguliers whom he had met in England around 1734. By the late 1730s, however, it is not hard to find explicit endorsements of experimental philosophy and the deployment of the experimental/speculative distinction. The reviewer of Abbé Pluche’s Spectacle de la Nature in 1739 claims that Pluche rightly prefers experimental natural philosophy to speculative (Physique spéculative à laquelle il préfére avec raison la Physique) and that experimental philosophy is ‘so à la mode today’ (qui est aujourd’hui si à la mode).

By the early 1750s experimental philosophy is part and parcel of French natural philosophy. We have discussed this before on this blog in relation to Denis Diderot, but the following nice, clear, anonymous dictionary entry reinforces the point. In the Dictionnaire philosophique ou Introduction à la connoisance de l’homme, London (?), 1751 we find the following entry under ‘Physique’:

Natural philosophy is the knowledge of causes and effects of nature. It is experimental or conjectural. Experimental natural philosophy is certain knowledge; conjectural natural philosophy is often only ingenious. The one leads us to the truth, the other leads to error.

La Physique est la connoissance des causes & des effets de la nature: elle est expérimentale, or conjecturale. La Physique expérimentale est une connoissance certaine; la Physique conjecturale n’est souvent qu’ingénieuse: l’une nous conduit à la vérité, & l’autre nous mene à l’erreur.

The parallels with our oft-cited passage from John Dunton’s student manual in 1692 are striking:

Philosophy may be consider’d under these two Heads, Natural and Moral: The first of which, by Reason of the strange Alterations that have been made in it; may be again Subdivided into Speculative and Experimental.

… we must consider, the distinction we have made of Speculative and Experimental, and, as much as possible, Exclude the first, for an indefatigable and laborious Search into Natural Experiments, they being only the Certain, Sure Method to gather a true Body of Philosophy, for the Antient Way of clapping up an entire building of Sciences, upon pure Contemplation, may make indeed an Admirable Fabrick, but the Materials are such as can promise no lasting one.

(The Young-Students-Library, London, 1692, vi–vii)

And yet the two passages are six decades apart. Why did it take so long for the French to take up experimental philosophy? Why is it, for example, that the first chair in experimental philosophy in England was the Cambridge Plumian Chair in Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy founded in 1708 and first held by Roger Cotes, whereas the first chair of experimental philosophy in France was held by Abbé Nollet who was appointed as Professeur Royal de Physique Expérimentale au College de Navarre in 1753?

Any light that our readers can shed on these questions would be most welcome.