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“Secta Empírica y Dogmáticos Racionales”: medicine and the ESD in early modern Spain

A couple of months ago Peter Anstey directed me to a book by Miguel Marcelino Boix, a Spanish doctor and professor of surgery at the Universidad de Alcalá. The book, a defense and commentary on the first aphorism of Hippocrates, was published in 1711 and it contains some references to the experimental philosophy of the time. But what really caught my eye was the use Boix makes of the terms rationalism (racionalismo) and empiricism in medicine, and the connection of the latter term to experimental philosophy. In this and a couple of future posts I want to present Boix’s text and hopefully shed some light on the connection between experimental philosophy and empiricism (and the ESD) in early modern Spain.

Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.

This is Hippocrates’ first aphorism, the focus of Boix’s text. The Spanish doctor gives his analysis of the five phrases of the aphorism while criticizing various other interpretations of them. It is during his account of the fourth phrase, experimentum periculosum, that Boix contrasts the two sects, rational dogmatists (dogmáticos racionales) and empirics (empíricos), and begins to connect the latter with experimental philosophy.

Boix begins by offering his interpretation of the phrase, explaining that it says that doctors “never apply any medicine to the human body with absolute certainty that the desired effect will result.” In this sense, the phrase serves as warning to doctors, both rational and empiric, to be mindful of the limits of our knowledge and experience regarding medicine. However, Boix comments, some rational dogmatists have taken the phrase to mean that “experience is dangerous and false if it is not accompanied by reason.” This interpretation is used by rational dogmatists to attack the empirics, given that they follow experience blindly without any reference to reason. But Boix believes that this description of the empiric doctors, which is popular among people, is flawed. It is this mistaken account of the empirics that leads him to explain the differences between the two sects.

Given that the rational dogmatists attack the empirics for detaching reason from experience, Boix begins by examining the reasons the former give in their accounts.

They (rational dogmatists) say that their Medicine and Philosophy is founded on the four Elements, and the four humours; look at these four columns, these four strong pillars. And so they say, that knowing that there is heat, cold, wet and dry; blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile, they know all the effects they want, and that solely with the knowledge of these two quartets they have enough to defeat even the toughest questions contained in Natural philosophy and all of medicine. To this they add, that they are extremely happy, that Galen and Aristotle,their Princes, one in Medicine, the other in Philosophy, knew all they could, because neither to them or their disciples, has a problem been put forward, whether Physical or Medical, that they have not been able to solve solely by knowing that there are four qualities, and four humours.

By contrast, the popular opinion of the empirics is that they focus solely on experience and never give reasons for it; they “are those tricksters or scoundrels that come from Foreign Nations with half a dozen remedies, wanting to cure all kinds of diseases with them.” But this is a false depiction of the empiric sect. In order to explain what the empiric doctors are really about, Boix refers to the main sects in natural philosophy: sceptics, academics, and rational dogmatists. But we will get into that in my next post. I want to stop here to talk about the popular concept of the empiric doctors and the connection with experimental philosophy.

As Alberto Vanzo pointed out in a previous post, “experimental physicians” saw themselves as opponents of “empirical physicians.” But the text by Boix brings in a new scenario for our consideration. It seems that in Spain, rather than seeing themselves as opponents of the empirical physicians, experimental physicians felt that were indeed part of the empiric sect and opposed the rational dogmatists. However, the position of the Spanish doctors is not different from that of the physicians described by Alberto in his post. When doctors like John Gregory and Friederich Hoffman described themselves as opponents of the empirical physicians, they had in mind the popular concept of empiric that Boix points out in his text. The Spanish doctors, just like their Scottish and German counterparts, saw themselves as opponents of that specific kind of physician. The difference lies in the fact that Spanish physicians believed that the true empirical physicians were far from the popular depiction of empirics. In fact, the way they described the true empirical doctors is very similar to that of Gregory and Hoffman regarding experimental physicians. It is this description of the empiric sect that we will turn to in my next post.



Cartesianism, experimentalism, and the experimental-speculative distinction

A guest post by Tammy Nyden and Mihnea Dobre.

Tammy Nyden and Mihnea Dobre write…

A while ago, we published an announcement on this blog of our forthcoming edited volume, Cartesian Empiricisms (Springer 2013). A claim in that post – that some Cartesians “seem to escape the ESD distinction” – has been questioned by Peter Anstey in another post. We thank him for the intervention and would like to push forward our claim and discuss it in more detail as this will reveal some of our concerns with the ESD (experimental-speculative distinction).

In his reply, Peter Anstey asked, “Did the Cartesians practise a form of experimental philosophy analogous to that of the Fellows of the early Royal Society?” We would argue that the question itself is problematic, as there are not two practices or worldviews to compare. There is variation among the Cartesians as well as among the fellows of early Royal Society.  In order to gain a nuanced understanding of these historical actors, we suggest a rather different question: “What role did Cartesian philosophy play in the acceptance and spread of experimental practices in late seventeenth-century philosophy?” When we ask this question, we recognize the experiments of Robert Desgabets on blood transfusion, Henricus Regius on liquids, Burchard de Volder’s with air-pumps, etc., and consider how their work improved experimental technologies, influenced a theoretical reflection on the role of experiments and the senses in natural philosophy, and influenced institutional change that was favorable to experimental science.

Because Cartesians took various aspects of Descartes’ system and merged it with various aspects of experimentalism, there is not one ‘Cartesian’ use of experiment, but several. For example, both Regius and de Volder promoted experiment, but Regius rejects Descartes’ theory of innate ideas while de Volder defends it. Many Cartesians came to reject hyperbolic doubt, some defended vortex theory, some did not. Cartesian Empiricisms is not a complete inventory of such views expressed by Descartes’ followers. Rather our goal was to encourage the discussion of the above-mentioned question and to reveal some aspects that have been unfortunately neglected so far by both historians of philosophy and science.

Readers of this blog are familiar with the objection that traditional historiography of science was built on the Rationalist-Empiricist distinction (RED). A consequence is the exclusion of so-called “rationalists” from the histories of science, particularly history of the use, development and acceptance of experiment. This is problematic because recent research (e.g., Ariew, Lennon and Easton, Easton, Schmaltz, Cook, Nyden, Dobre, etc.) shows that many so-called rationalists were deeply involved in the practice and spread of the acceptance of experiment in natural philosophy. Cartesian Empiricisms gives further emphasis to this issue, as it examines several philosophers who identified as committed Cartesians who were deeply involved in experiment. According to historiographies that divide the period into two mutually exclusive epistemologies or methodologies these philosophers either do not exist (i.e., they are overlooked by histories of philosophy and science) or are seen as “not really Cartesian” or “not really experimentalist,” as it would be needed by that particular narrative. Thus, we do share the concern of the authors of this blog, that such binaries as RED force us to fit philosophers into categories that they would not themselves recognize and causes us to misrepresent seventeenth-century natural philosophy. Moreover, we acknowledge that this blog importantly shows the anachronism of the RED, a way of viewing the period that is constructed later by what may be called Kantian propaganda. However, we would like to raise now some of our concerns with the distinction promoted by this blog, the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD) and explain why some Cartesians would escape the ESD. Our worries cover two important aspects of the ESD: the label “speculative” and the actor-category problem.

(1) In a very recent post, Peter Anstey argued that eighteenth-century Newtonians pointed out Cartesian vortex theory as a prime representative of speculative philosophy (our emphasis). We caution against letting eighteenth-century Newtonian propaganda color a historical interpretation of seventeenth-century natural philosophy. Voltaire, d’Alembert and others took great pains to contrast Newtonianism from Cartesianism as two mutually exclusive worldviews who battled it out, with Newton’s natural philosophy as the victor. But the reality is that after Descartes’ death (1650) and before the victory of Newtonianism in the middle of the eighteenth century, followers of both Descartes and Newton had more in common than we are led to believe. More importantly, both “camps” had more diversity than we were ready to accept in the traditional histories. Cartesian Empiricisms draws attention to that diversity within Cartesianism. Perhaps the one thing Cartesians discussed in the chapters of this volume do have in common is that they do both experimental and speculative philosophy, as these two categories are sometimes defined on this blog. But this last claim leads to our second concern with the ESD.

(2) A reader of this blog will find that when ESD is compared to RED, the first advantage highlighted over the latter is that “the ESD distinction provided the actual historical terms of reference that many philosophers and natural philosophers used from the 1660s until late into the 18th century.” While there is no doubt that many early modern philosophers were using this language (i.e., “experimental” and “speculative”) in their writings, it is equally true that such language is not in use by the Cartesians. If one would be very strict with picking up “the actual historical terms of reference,” one will see another pair of terms keep mentioned by various Cartesians, “experience” and “reason.” Of course, one can read this pair as another form of the ESD, but that would be an interpretation, and a problematic one at that. Both the Cartesians and the so-called “experimentalists” were trying to determine the proper relationship between reason and experience and when one looks at their attempts, it becomes even more difficult to draw a clear line between speculative philosophers and experimentalist philosophers.

Our concern is the possible danger of transforming ESD into a new RED. Experimental and speculative may be useful adjectives to describe aspects of a particular philosophy or particular commitments of a philosopher (especially when the two terms are clearly stated in one’s writings). However, they are not useful for dividing philosophers or their natural philosophies, particularly when they are not already conceived as falling within the “experimental philosophy” camp, as is the case for Cartesians at the end of the seventeenth century.

Empiricism and innate ideas

Alberto Vanzo writes…

The empiricism/rationalism distinction (RED) is still often characterized, at least in part, in terms of the rejection or endorsement of innate ideas. Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are said to deny that we have innate ideas, whereas rationalists are said to have endorsed innatism. Empiricists are also said to have rejected, and rationalists to have endorsed, substantive a priori truths. However, I will only focus on innate ideas in this post. Is it plausible to distinguish early modern empiricists from early modern rationalists on the basis of their attitude toward innate ideas? Here are five reasons to doubt that this is plausible.

1. Spinoza. As Luis Loeb noted, “Spinoza is completely silent on the subject of innateness”. He never claimed that we have innate ideas. However, he famously denied that mind and body interact. This may be taken to imply that our ideas, rather than deriving from sense experience, are innate.

2. Berkeley. In his most famous writings, Berkeley did not claim that all of our ideas have sensory origin, nor did he reject innate ideas. He only rejected abstract ideas. But the greatest difficulties for enrolling the “empiricist” Berkeley among the enemies of innatism come from his personal notes. Not only did he write that Locke was “tedious about innate ideas” (Luce/Jessop, 9:153), but he also wrote in his Notebooks (649) that “[t]here are innate ideas i.e. Ideas created with us.” (1, 2).

3. Malebranche. The “rationalist” Malebranche attacked, rather than endorsed, innate ideas. As Nicholas Jolley noted, Malebranche’s rejection of innatism derives from his anti-psychologism. Ideas, “according to Malebranche, are not in the mind at all; indeed, they are not the sort of entities which could be in a mind. So if there are, and could be, no ideas in a mind at any time, a fortiori there are no innate ideas.”

Descartes can reply that ideas are only innate in us in

    the same sense as that in which we say that generosity is “innate” in certain families, or that certain diseases such as gout or stones are innate in others: it is not so much that the babies of such families suffer from these diseases in their mother’s womb, but simply that they are born with a certain “faculty” or tendency to contract them. (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet)

Malebranche rebuts that this form of innatism is trivial and vacuous. Saying that our ideas are innate because our mind has the capacity to form or bring them to consciousness under appropriate circumstances is like saying that we fall asleep because we have a dormitive virtue. What we need to know are the categorical, non-dispositional properties that ground these dispositions.

4. Leibniz. Leibniz was aware of Malebranche’s criticism. When he defends the doctrine of innate ideas (most notably, in the New Essays), he is fighting a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, he counters Locke’s rejection of innatism in the first book of the Essay. On the other hand, he responds to Malebranche, because he too endorses the dispositional account of innate ideas attacked by Malebranche: “This is how ideas and truths are innate in us – as inclinations, dispositions, tendencies, or natural potentialities and not as actions”. So, the standard account of Leibniz’s innatism as a rationalist reply to Locke’s concept-empiricism is too simplistic. Leibniz is opposing the “rationalist” Malebranche as well as the “empiricist” Locke. (As Nicholas Jolley explains in The Light of the Soul, Leibniz replies to Malebranche by identifying the categorical basis of the relevant dispositions with unconscious petites perceptiones).

5. Boyle and the Cimento. Things become even more complicated if we consider less-known authors like Robert Boyle or the Italian natural philosophers who were associated with the Accademia del Cimento. They are usually regarded as empiricists. Yet Boyle mentions “inbred notions” or endorses innatism in various passages (e.g. The Christian Virtuoso, in The Works of Robert Boyle, eds. Hunter/Davis, 11:300-301). The opening of the Cimento’s Saggi di naturali esperienze mentions innate notizie that God has planted in our soul and that we recollect in the course of experience. Passages like these are hard to reconcile with the tendency to take the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as a criterion to distinguish between early modern empiricists and rationalists.

I agree with Loeb that the empiricism/rationalism distinction is broken-backed. However, if one still wants to use it, one cannot appeal to the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as scholars have often done. Do you think that this conclusion is convincing? I would love to hear your views in the comments.

On the Early Modern Meanings of “Rationalism”

Alberto Vanzo writes…

In last week’s post, Juan noted that the Encyclopedia Britannica first recorded the philosophical meaning of the term “rationalism” in the early twentieth century. As Juan states, this lends support to the view that “rationalism” started to be “used to refer to early modern philosophy” in “the first decades of the twentieth century”. I am sympathetic to this view. In this post, I will defend it from two objections.

The first objection is that Bacon himself used used the term “rationalist” in a philosophical sense, for instance when he wrote:

    Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves (Cogitata et visa; see Novum Organum, I, 95)

This objection can be dispensed with rather quickly, as Peter did on this blog some time ago. Bacon did not use the term “rationalists”. He referred to those who “spin threads out of themselves” as “rationals” (rationales) and to their philosophy as philosophia rationalis (rational philosophy, e.g. in Novum Organum, I, 42, 64), not as rationalism. One cannot find a philosophical use of the English terms “rationalist” or “rationalism” in Bacon’s texts.

The second objection notes that, nevertheless, the translation of Bacon’s “rationales” as rationalists is an early modern one. Shaw’s 1733 English translation of the Novum Organum states: “Those who have treated the Sciences, were either Empirics, or Rationalists. […] the Rationalists [are] like Spiders […]”. Although this use of “Rationalist” is not recorded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is recorded in other reference texts, such as the 1740 edition of Dyche’s and Pardon’s New General English Dictionary, the 1755-1756 edition of Johnson’s English Dictionary, and this entry from the 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language:

    RATIONALIST, n. One who proceeds in his certain disquisitions and practice wholly upon reason. – Bacon.

(I owe these references to Li Ling.) Webster’s entry recalls a passage by Shaftesbury, to whom, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we owe the first recorded use of the term “empiricist” (1705). Shaftersbury characterizes rationalists as those “who walk by Reason in every thing”. This statement may sound rather similar to one that can be found in an early twentieth-century edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: according to rationalists, «reason is in and by itself a source of knowledge» which «has superior authority over knowledge acquired through sensation».

How can we respond to this objection? It is true that there are early modern uses of the term “rationalist” in relation to philosophers. However, the term was used for philosophers in the broad early modern sense of all those who pursue scientia, especially for natural philosophers, and has a methodological connotation: it designates their (reflected or unreflected) reliance on reason. By contrast, the twentieth-century philosophical use of “rationalism” designates the endorsement of a specific epistemological view. In the terms of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “philosophical rationalism” is a “theory of knowledge”.

Additionally, the existence of early modern philosophical uses of the adjective “rationalist” does not entail that the noun “rationalism” was used in a philosophical sense too. The term was mostly used in a theological sense to designate those who stressed the importance of reason not over the sense, but over faith or revelation. Whereas Webster’s dictionary records a philosophical use of “rationalist” with a reference to Bacon, it does not record any philosophical use of “rationalism”. For Webster, rationalism is “[t]he practice or tenets of certain latitudinarian divines”. Shaftesbury contrasts the attitude of the rationalists, who “exalted Reason above Faith“, with the prominence that he accords to faith above reason: “We for our parts know nothing, and believe all”.

Finally, pre-Kantian writers nearly did not associate the term “rationalism” with the textbook rationalists of twentieth-century texts, namely Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Indeed, the only pre-Kantian text of which I am aware which groups together Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz is Account of Sir Newton’s Discoveries, but it does not use the term “rationalism”. One can find the association of “rationalism” with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in nineteenth-century translations of German texts, but the English term “rationalism” started to be routinely associated with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz only around the turn of the twentieth century. It is only in this period that, as is witnessed by the changes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica highlighted by Juan, the now-standard epistemological usage of “rationalism” to refer to early modern philosophers became established.

Tracking Terms in the Encyclopædia Britannica: Part II

Juan Gomez writes…

In my previous post I explored the use of the terms ‘experimental philosophy’ and ’empiricism’ in the Encyclopædia Britannica. Today I will look at the terms ‘speculative’ and ‘rationalism’ throughout the first nine editions of the Encyclopædia.

There is no entry for ‘speculative philosophy’ in any of the eighteenth and nineteenth century editions. However,the term ‘speculative’ on its own appears in the first seven editions (1771-1827). It is a very short entry, it was never expanded or modified and it disappears entirely from the 1853 edition onwards.

We can see Bacon’s contrast between speculative and practical present in this definition which remained in the exact same form in all the editions it appeared. It seems to be more of a dictionary definition pertaining to the standard meaning of the word at the time. This is also the case for the term ‘rational’ that appears only in the first edition (1771) of the Encyclopædia.


Although there was no entry for ‘rationalism’ until the 1853(8th) edition, we do find a brief entry for ‘rational’ in the first edition:

This is the only entry for ‘rational’ in any edition of the Encyclopædia. We can see that it does not have any connotation other than its specific use in mathematics and its use as an adjective meaning ‘reasonable.’

On the other hand, ‘rationalism’ appears for the first time in the same edition where the terms ’empiric’ and ‘experimental philosophy’ disappear, and there is no entry for ’empiricism’ yet (it first appeared in the 11th edition in 1910). We can see here that even by the mid-nineteenth century the term still had a restricted meaning that pertained specifically to religion.

As it was the case with ’empiricism,’ ‘rationalism’ only appears in its modern sense in the twentieth century, where two definitions if the term are given: one referring to it’s use regarding religion present in the quote above, and the second one regarding its use in philosophy:

It is not until the first decades of the twentieth century that we see the terms ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism’ being used to refer to early modern philosophy, showing that the ESD framework has some considerable advantages over the RED for interpreting the Early Modern period.

Ancient Philosophy and the Origins of the Rationalism-Empiricism Distinction

Alberto Vanzo writes…

An interesting aspect of Kant’s use of the rationalism/empiricism distinction (RED) is that he does not only apply it to the moderns, but also to the ancients. Kant portrays Leibniz as an adherent to Plato’s rationalism and Locke as a follower of Aristotle’s empiricism. Could Leibniz’s New Essays be a source of Kant’s distinction between empiricism and rationalism?

Here is one of Leibniz’s comments on his disagreements with Locke in the Preface of the New Essays:

    Our differences are about subjects of some importance. There is the question about whether the soul in itself is completely empty like tablets upon which nothing has been written (tabula rasa), as Aristotle and the author of the Essay [Locke] maintain, and whether everything inscribed on it comes solely from the senses and from experience, or whether the soul contains from the beginning the source of several notions and doctrines, which external objects awaken only on certain occasions, as I believe with Plato and even with the Schoolmen […]

Here, Leibniz pits Plato and himself against Aristotle and Locke with regard to the existence of innate ideas (“several notions…”) and a priori truths (“… and doctrines”). These are precisely the issues around which Kant frames his distinction between empiricists and rationalists (or, as he sometimes calls them, dogmatists and noologists). However, Kant holds that a third issue divides ancient empiricists like Aristotle from ancient rationalists like Plato. It is the existence or inexistence of objects of which we cannot have sensations. According to Kant, ancient rationalists claim that there are non-sensible objects (Platonic ideas). Ancient empiricists, like Aristotle and Epicurus, deny this. Leibniz does not focus on this issue, but Christian Garve (who would later become one of Kant’s early critics) did. Like Kant, Garve divided ancient philosophers into two camps based on whether they admitted substantive a priori truths, innate ideas, and non-sensible objects. He drew this distinction in a dissertation that he published in 1770, eleven years before Kant’s first Critique and five years after Leibniz’s New Essays. Let me summarize Garve’s statements on each of the three points.

A priori knowledge

After they learned to distinguish between appearance and reality and between the senses and the intellect, philosophers took two opposed paths:

    Some [like Heraclitus] devoted themselves to exploring the nature of the senses with great care and they subtly searched in the senses the mark and sign of truth. Others [like Parmenides], having ignored and set aside the senses, devoted themselves entirely to the faculty of intellect and to contemplating with their mind the thoughts that they had gathered in themselves.

Non-sensible beings

This epistemological divide gave rise to an ontological divide:

    [T]hose that sought the foundation of the truth to be discovered in the senses were forced to refer [only] to the things that are subjected to the senses […]; and those claiming that true cognition is distinctive of the mind, not of the senses, denied the name and almost the rank of things […] to sensible items. They ascribed it only to [merely] intelligible things […]

On the one hand, we have Protagoras, Democritus, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and even the sceptics. On the other hand, we have Plato.

Innate ideas

Those who denied “the truth of the senses” did not only have to posit a realm of non-sensible beings. They also had to defend the existence of innate ideas. This is because, if there is no truth in the senses, we cannot derive “true notions” from the senses (where true notions appears to be, in some sense, notions that map onto reality). We must claim that they are “innate in the soul and prior to every sensation”. “And thus were born Plato’s famous ideas, on which he says various, inconsistent things”, like those who are forced to embrace a conclusion, “although they do not understand well enough what it may be or how it could be true”.

Garve does not use the terms “empiricists” and “rationalists”, which would take on their now-common meanings only with Kant. However, the way in which Garve carves the two opposed camps of ancient philosophers maps neatly onto Kant’s distinction between ancient empiricists and rationalists. Garve also suggests that Locke and Berkeley followed Aristotle, whereas Leibniz followed Plato. This is because, in the antiquity, “nearly the whole territory of all opinions which may be held on this matter had been explored; all matter for supposition and invention had been used”.

Kant too thought that modern empiricists and rationalists followed the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. This brief survey of Leibniz’s and Garve’s statements suggests that their historiography of ancient philosophy may have been a source of Kant’s influential distinction between empiricism and rationalism.

Edward Caird on the history of early modern philosophy

Alberto Vanzo writes…

By researching the history of early modern experimental philosophy, my fellow bloggers and I are attempting to provide an alternative to the standard narrative of early modern thought as a prolonged conflict between the empiricist school of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume and the rationalist school of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Who was responsible for coining and popularizing that standard narrative?

Several scholars suggested that British Idealists in particular, played an important role in this process. I recently tested this suggestion by doing some research on Edward Caird, one of the main first-generation British Idealists.

Caird did not write any history of philosophy, but he provided extended accounts of early modern thought in his widely read Kant books. The quotes below are from the first volume of The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889).

Caird sees his own idealism as a completion of the philosophical revolution initiated by Kant. Kant’s Critical philosophy opened the doors to an “idealistic interpretation of the universe” (44) by synthesizing “the different tendencies of his time” and going “beyond their one-sidedness, and thereby lifted philosophical discussion to a new level” (44).

“How are we to describe” this “great change”, initiated by Kant? (46) “In general terms we may say that it was a change from division to reconciliation, from Individualism and Atomism to a renewed perception that the whole is prior to the parts, and that individual independence must rest on social unity” (46, see 70). Individualism is the guiding principle of the whole “history of [early] modern philosophy” (72).

“The history of modern thought begins with” Martin Luther’s “declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual, and the rejection of the principle of authority” (72). Along similar lines, modern science and “Bacon’s empiricism” placed a strong emphasis on individual, first-hand knowledge. Luther and Bacon attempted to go beyond mere subjectivity to achieve “the unity of thought with its object” (74). They failed, giving rise to the scepticism with which Descartes grappled at the beginning of the Meditations. Descartes overcame it by relying on God’s veracity. To Descartes, “our consciousness of God” is prior even to “our consciousness of ourselves” (76).

Malebranche and Spinoza developed Descartes’ theocentric approach to unify subject and object, but they failed and gave way to the individualist assumption that “we must see all things” not in God, but “in ourselves”, either “through the sensations which outward objects have produced in our minds, or through the ideas which spring directly out of our own consciousness, that we come to a knowledge of other things” (83). Locke’s and Hume’s empiricism explored the first alternative, Leibniz’s and Wolff’s rationalism the second. They all failed, leading “the progress of Individualism to its necessary consummation in Scepticism” (86). Only Kant managed to synthesize subject and object, mind and world by realizing that the latter is mind-dependent and placing “the idea of a self-determining subject” (85) at the centre of his philosophy. Thus ends Caird’s account of early modern thought.

How much of the standard narratives of early modern philosophy can we find in this account? The emphasis on the individualism of the Reformation may have struck a familiar chord. The account of Kant’s Critical philosophy as a synthesis of Lockean and Leibnizian ideas and an antidote to scepticism sounds familiar too. But these are precisely the elements of Caird’s account that are not distinctive of Idealist accounts of early modern thought, such as Schwegler‘s and Erdmann’s. Their distinctive traits are others, like the following:

  1. an emphasis on individualism as a distinctive feature of the entire early modern period,
  2. a theo-centric interpretation of Descartes, Malebranche and Spinoza (but not Leibniz) as members of a single school,
  3. the teleological reading of early modern thinkers as struggling to reach an adequate understanding of the unity of subject and object, mind and world — something that only Hegel would fully achieve.

Besides having these rather unfamiliar features, Idealist histories of early modern thought do not spell out the standard triumvirates. They sever the theocentric philosophies of Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza from Leibniz’s and Wolff’s philosophy. They read Berkeley as an idealist rather than an intermediate step in the progress from Locke to Hume. On the whole, then, Caird’s account of early modern thought is much less similar to standard histories of early modern philosophies than Tennemann’s earlier, Kant-inspired History of Philosophy. This leads me to doubt that British Idealism is key to understanding how the standard narrative of early modern thought came to the fore.

On the Origins of a Historiographical Paradigm

Alberto Vanzo writes…

    It came to pass that the earth was without form, and void, and darkness covered the face of the earth. And the creator saw that the darkness was evil, and he spoke out in the darkness, saying “Let there be light” and there was light, and he called the light “Renaissance”. But still the creator was not pleased, for there remained darkness, and hence he took from the Renaissance a rib, with which to fashion greater light. But the strain of his power broke the rib, and there did grow up two false lights, one Bacon, whose name meanteh “Father of the British Empiricists”, and one Descartes, whose name meaneth “Father of the Continental Rationalists”. […] 

    And thus it was that Bacon begat Hobbes, and Hobbes begat Locke, and Locke begat Berkeley, and Berkeley begat Hume. And thus it was that Descartes begat Spinoza, and Spinoza begat Leibniz, and Leibniz begat Wolff. And then it was that there arose the great sage of Königsberg, the great Immanuel, Immanuel Kant, who, though neither empiricist nor rationalist, was like unto both. […]

    And this too the creator saw, and he saw that it was good […]

In this parody, David Fate Norton has summarized a familiar account of the history of early modern philosophy — an account based on the antagonism of empiricism and rationalism. It has dominated histories of philosophy for most of the twentieth century, including Russell’s and Copleston’s histories.

In an earlier post, I argued that the distinction between empiricism and rationalism was fleshed out into a fully-fledged history of philosophy by the Kantian historian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann at the beginning of the nineteenth century. (To be sure, two other historians made use of the distinction roughly at the same time as Tennemann, but his hisory was by far the most influential.)

The question I’d like to discuss in this post is: how do we get from Tennemann to Copleston and Russell? At some point between the 1820s and 1940s, the account of early modern philosophy that can be found in Tennemann must have been exported from Germany to the English-speaking world. When and how did this happen?

Here are three hypotheses.

1. British philosophers around the 1830s?

The first English translation of Tennemann’s Manual was published in 1832. At that time, three British philosophers were interested in the history of philosophy: William Hamilton, Samuel Coleridge, and Dugald Stewart. None of them produced any substantial writing that made use of the rationalism-empiricism distinction. Thomas Morell had published in 1827 a History of Philosophy that would be reprinted many times, but he did not distinguish early modern philosophers into empiricists and rationalists. He split them into four groups:

  • sensualists like Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke;
  • idealists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Berkeley;
  • sceptics like Hume;
  • and mystics like Jacobi.

Morell’s notion of “sensualism” is similar to our notion of empiricism, but he does not group Locke, Berkeley, and Hume together as empiricists or sensualists. Nor does he create a rationalist category to contrast with sensualism.

2. English histories of philosophy in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Some of these were based on the distinction between empiricism and rationalism or similar distinctions, but many were not. For instance, the history written by F.D. Maurice followed a strictly chronological order, without grouping philosophers into movements. German Hegelians and British Idealists grouped together Descartes, Malebranche, and Spinoza, but not Leibniz. They claimed that these philosophers were criticized by two groups of thinkers: realists like Locke and Hume, but not Berkeley, and idealists like Leibniz and Berkeley. These distinctions cut across the traditional groupings of empiricists and rationalists.

3. Textbook writers at the turn of the twentieth century?

It was between 1895 and 1915 that the account of early modern thought based on the empiricism-rationalism distinction became standard in the English-speaking world. It can be found in many new introductions to philosophy, histories of philosophy, and lecture syllabi.

It is unclear to me why the standard account become standard between 1895 and 1915. I suspect that the answer has to do with two factors:

The first is the institutionalization of the study of early modern philosophy. The classificatory schema based on the contrast of empiricism and rationalism was simpler than the others and well suited for teaching.

The second factor (highlighted by Alex Klein) is the rise of philosopher-psychologists like William James. By grouping together Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as empiricists, the standard accounts of early modern philosophy provided a distinguished ancestry for the growing number of American philosophers and psychologists who, under the James’ influence, called themselves empiricists.

I’m keen to hear if you think that these explanations are persuasive and if you have any other suggestions.

Eric Watkins on Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Eric Watkins writes…

Having commented on two of Alberto Vanzo’s papers at the symposium recently held in Otago, I am happy to post an abbreviated version of my comments. The basic topic of Alberto’s papers is the extent to which one can see evidence of the experimental – speculative philosophy distinction (ESD) in two different periods in Germany, one from the 1720s through the 1740s, when Wolff was a dominant figure, and then another from the mid 1770s through the 1790s, when Tetens, Lossius, Feder, Kant, and Reinhold were all active. Alberto argues that though Wolff was aware of the works of many of the proponents of experimental philosophy and emphasized the importance of basing at least some principles on experience and experiments, he is not a pure advocate of either experimental or speculative philosophy. He then argues that some of the later figures, specifically Tetens, Lossius, Feder and various popular philosophers, undertook projects that could potentially be aligned with ESD, while others, such as Reinhold and later German Idealists, consciously rejected it, opting for the rationalism-empiricism distinction (RED) instead, which was better suited to their own agenda as well as to that of their German Idealist successors. As a result, Alberto concludes that ESD was an option available to many German thinkers, but that experimental philosophy was not a dominant intellectual movement, as it was in England and elsewhere.

I am in basic agreement with Alberto’s main claims, but I’d like to supplement the account he offers just a bit with a broader historical perspective. Two points about Wolff. First, when Wolff tries to address how the historical knowledge relates to the philosophical knowledge, which can be fully a priori, it is unclear how his account is supposed to go. As Alberto points out, Wolff thinks that data collection and theory building are interdependent, but he also thinks that we can have a priori knowledge. It’s simply not clear how these two positions are really consistent and Wolff does not, to my mind, ever address the issue clearly enough. So I am inclined to think that Wolff is actually ambiguous on a point that lies at the very heart of ESD.

Second, though Wolff was certainly a dominant figure in Germany, he is of course also not the only person of note. For one, throughout the course of the 18th century, experimental disciplines became much more widespread in Germany. So, in charting the shape and scope of ESD at the time, it would be useful to see what conceptions of knowledge and scientific methodology university professors in physics, physiology, botany, and chemistry had, if any. For another, after the resurrection of the Prussian Academy of Sciences by Frederick the Great in 1740, a number of very accomplished figures with reputations of European-wide stature, such as Leonhard Euler, Maupertuis, and Voltaire, came to ply their trade in Berlin. Virtually all of them were quite interested in experimental disciplines and several were extremely hostile towards Wolff. It would therefore be worth considering the full range of their activities to get a sense of their views on ESD.

Let me now turn to the later time period. As Alberto argued, Kant isn’t exactly the right figure to look to for the origin of the RED. Kant does not typically contrast empiricism with rationalism. Instead, when it comes to question of method and the proper use of reason, Kant’s clearest statements in the Doctrine of Method are that the fundamental views are that of dogmatism (Leibniz), skepticism (Hume), indifferentism (popular philosophers), and finally the critique of pure reason, positions that do not line up neatly with either RED or ESD.

However, it would be hasty to infer that there is no significant element of ESD in Kant. Kant dedicates the Critique of Pure Reason to Bacon, an inspiration to many of the British experimentalists. More importantly, one should keep in mind whom Kant is attacking in the first Critique, namely proponents of pure reason who use reason independently of the deliverances of the senses in their speculative endeavors. In many of these instances, the term “speculative” is synonymous with “theoretical” and is contrasted with “practical”. However, in many others Kant is indicating a use of reason that is independent of what is given through our senses, and on that issue, it is a major thrust of Kant’s entire Critical project to show that the purely speculative use of reason (pure reason) cannot deliver knowledge. In this sense, his basic project reveals fundamental similarities with experimental philosophers.

Now the British experimental philosophers would presumably object to synthetic a priori knowledge on the grounds that this is precisely the kind of philosophical speculation that one ought to avoid. But Kant would respond that he is attempting to show that experiments in particular, and experience in general, have substantive rational presuppositions, a possibility that cannot be dismissed out of hand, given its intimate connection to what the experimental philosophers hold dear. This is one of the novel and unexpected twists that make Kant’s position so interesting. So one could incorporate Kant into the ESD narrative by arguing that he is trying to save the spirit of the experimentalists against those who are overly enamored with speculation while still allowing for rational elements. On this account, then, Kant would be responding directly to the ESD, namely by trying to save it, albeit in an extremely abstract and fundamental way that original proponents of the view could never have anticipated.

Tim Mehigan on ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann’

Tim Mehigan writes…

Alberto Vanzo presented two papers for discussion at the recent Otago symposium on early modern experimental philosophy. There are two conclusions in the first paper (“Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany” [on which we’ll publish Eric Watkins’ comments next Monday]) that are important for the second paper: one, that experimental philosophy, as “observational philosophy”, was replaced in German historiography by the term “empiricism” (this occurred sometime before 1796 as a passage from an essay by Christian Garve indicates); two, as experimental/observational philosophy waned, so the historiographical distinction between rationalism and empiricism (RED) waxed. While the reasons for the waxing are not completely clear, there appear to be two ways of imagining how it occurred. The first view holds that Kant himself was responsible for legislating the RED into existence. The second argues that the distinction was not authorized by Kant but arose as a result of the way his philosophy was interpreted and explained by later Kantians such as Reinhold and Tennemann. Both explanations are considered and evaluated in Vanzo’s second paper “Empiricism vs. Rationalism.”

So this is what’s at stake: Vanzo needs to show how the RED can be read into Kant’s first Critique, even if it is not expressly established as a formal distinction on which other parts of the CPR depend. Given the strategy alluded to above – that Kant introduces a distinction under the guise of different terminology – Vanzo is obliged to consider whether we encounter a “mapping” problem when Kant’s contrasts are seen in the context of the RED. He immediately concedes that there is indeed such a mapping problem (as Gary Banham had noted here). The RED is introduced in two places in the CPR – the Antinomies of Pure Reason and the History of Pure Reason. In the first case, Kant contrasts empiricism with dogmatism (not rationalism), and in the second case, Kant contrasts empiricism with “noologism” (not rationalism). The question is: whether RED can “map onto” either or both of these contrasts and thus indicate compellingly that Kant operated with the RED in mind?

As it turns out, the occurrence of the RED in the History of Pure Reason is more readily answered than in the Antinomies. Vanzo establishes both that the contrast of “empiricism” and “noologism” in the History of Pure Reason can be regarded as a version of the RED and that the contrast established here was to become a standard part of the histories of early modern philosophy. The argument in the Antinomies follows a more circuitous route. Vanzo cannot directly show that “dogmatism” and “rationalism” are interchangeable terms, all the more so since Kant’s purpose in the Antinomies is to show that neither dogmatism nor empiricism on its own is able to offer satisfactory proofs of key statements about the world. So both dogmatism and empiricism come up short, and Kant, as a later self-identifying rationalist, is clearly not about to subscribe to the dogmatic variant of metaphysical rationalism. So a problem of mapping does appear here, and it is the more serious one for the RED distinction.

Was the RED introduced by Kant? Vanzo’s final answer is, “not really”. Kant does not have the “epistemological bias” in regard to the RED, i.e. he does not overestimate the importance of the RED on epistemological grounds. Neither does Kant have the “Kantian bias”, according to which the RED is important for his project in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant, finally, does not have the “classificatory bias” which classifies all philosophers prior to Kant into either empiricist or rationalist camps. When we consider the later Kantians, the picture is quite different. Both Reinhold and Tennemann are said to have the epistemological, the Kantian and the classificatory biases. Reinhold, I believe, did not initially have the classificatory bias, as it is not clearly in evidence in his first major work, the Essay on a New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation (1789). By the early 1790s, however, as Vanzo shows, Reinhold appears to have derived a historiographical framework based on the RED. Reinhold’s framework appears to have been important for philosophers such as Tennemann, who by the late 1790s had begun to craft a “methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy” in which the RED is amply applied to individual philosophers and where Kant takes his place as the author who successfully overcame the limits of these two schools.

In sum, Vanzo’s case for the establishment of the RED in Germany appears to ascribe great importance to the manner in which Kantian philosophy was received from the mid 1780s until the mid 1790s and how it was laid out against a background of historiographical assumptions. As happens so often, the background was to become foreground for a few brief years, and when it did so under Reinhold’s pen – this is the likely conclusion – the historiography became more important than the philosophy. Fortunately this situation has reversed itself and Kant’s philosophy has become a far more open proposition than it was taken to be in those years. This openness, in turn, makes room for different conceptualizations of the early modern period.