Kirsten Walsh and guest blogger Adrian Currie write…
A while ago, Peter Anstey argued that, while the traditional rationalist-empiricist distinction (RED) is primarily about epistemology, questioning the foundational sources of knowledge, evidence and justification from an a priori, first-person perspective, the experimental-speculative distinction (ESD) is primarily methodological, concerned with how knowledge is generated. In this highly speculative post, we consider a consequence of preferring one of these distinctions over the other, namely, its effect on our understanding of philosophical progress in the early modern period. Note that the ESD is just one way of providing a methodological (as opposed to epistemological) narrative about the history of ideas, and we think much of what we have to say is perfectly compatible with those who, for instance, take a non-traditional (specifically, methodological or technological) stance on empiricism (see, for instance, Newton and Empiricism).
We suspect that the RED and the ESD give very different answers to questions about what the main driver of change in early modern philosophy was. Insofar as the RED gives us an account of what mattered in early modern philosophy, it generates stories about foundational, a priori investigation into the nature of knowledge. In contrast, the ESD tells a story of philosophical progress driven by scientific achievement, technological development and methodological innovation. These are two very different narratives about the history of ideas. Moreover, they emphasise the contributions of different historical figures.
When the focus is epistemology, we fixate on theorists who provided accounts of knowledge and its justification—namely, the canonical seven: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant—to the exclusion of other historical figures. The early Royal Society, for instance, clearly influenced the direction of Western thought, i.e. Western philosophical thought, enormously. Yet its members are sidelined in favor of epistemologists.
The ESD’s methodological emphasis shifts our focus. Boyle, Hooke and Newton, for example, did not produce new theories of knowledge, but they made strides in terms of methodology. Their inquiries yielded original ideas about how to produce knowledge and utilise new technologies (e.g. experimental apparatuses and mathematics). On this view, Newton made an enormous contribution to (anachronistically) philosophy as well as science. Newton synthesized Baconian experimental philosophy with the mathematical rigour of geometric methods—as we have argued on this blog, this methodology was influential beyond natural philosophy. Newton didn’t tell us what it is to know, but he did tell us how to go about generating knowledge. On the RED, scientific advancement is at best a side-show, on the ESD it is (to misquote Newton) the main business of philosophy.
This bit of speculation raises some questions.
Firstly, presumably it is a mistake to think that any one factor has played a privileged role in shaping history, intellectual or otherwise. Thus, arguing that the history of ideas is methodology-driven, rather than epistemology-driven, creates far too stark a dichotomy. If our speculation holds water, then the upshot is that the role of epistemology is over-emphasized. But how much, and how might we go about attributing blame?
Secondly, it is not clear to what extent frameworks such as the RED and the ESD should be read as hypotheses about historical forces. We might simply interpret them as handy heuristics—giving direction to various legitimate research interests. Moreover, they might bring out narratives relevant for understanding other parts of history. For example, one might argue that the RED is important for examining how later philosophers understood and were influenced by the early moderns (something like this view is defended here). So, how should we understand the content and role of such frameworks?
Thirdly, historians these days don’t often go in for ‘grand narratives’—and with good reason. Human history is messy and, typically, simplistic, one-size-fits-all explanations are inapplicable. Moreover, it’s not clear what difference such macro-scale frameworks make at the coalface of academic history, where historians and philosophers must engage with complex ideas and even more complex individuals. Prima facie, seeing Newton as an experimental philosopher rather than an empiricist won’t affect our interpretation of query 31. It might seem that the business of academic history is far too fine-grained for those differences to matter often. So, how much do such frameworks effect the day-to-day work of philosophers and historians?
Regardless of our answer to that question, we think these grand narratives do matter. They help decide the direction of research, and what counts as a good question for serious academic history of philosophy. Moreover, they influence pedagogy: how and what we teach (see our discussion here). Finally, they might play a role in how we, as contemporary philosophers, see ourselves and our field’s development.
This thought raises a further question: what role has the RED’s historical narrative played in vindicating and perpetuating the idea that ‘core’ epistemology targets questions about the nature of knowledge and its justification from a first-person a priori perspective?
So far, these speculations have raised more questions than answers. We’d love to hear your thoughts on them.