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A response to Anstey’s ‘Experimental Philosophy before the Restoration’

A guest post by Mordechai Feingold.

Mordechai Feingold writes …

I thank Peter Anstey for drawing attention to my ‘“Experimental Philosophy”: Invention and Rebirth of a Seventeenth-Century Concept’, and for giving me the opportunity to correct certain misunderstandings of my argument.

Anstey begins: ‘Feingold has done us a real service by trawling through the Hartlib Papers and uncovering every use of the term “experimental philosophy” in them.’ The unsuspecting reader of the blog may conclude that the paper is devoted in its entirety to such minute study; in fact, only a third is given over to the Hartlib papers. More serious, however, is Anstey’s insinuation that on the basis of such a survey I conclude: ‘there was no such thing as experimental philosophy before 1660’. I make no such claim. As both the title and the content of my article make abundantly clear, I argue explicitly that it was the concept of ‘experimental philosophy’, not the practices that would be identified later under such term, that was absent before the Restoration.

Anstey pivots to my claim that when John Aubrey, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood described, two decades and more after the events, the activities carried out at Oxford during the 1650s, they anachronistically projected the term ‘experimental philosophy’ onto such activities—thereby leading historians to assume that the term had been in use already back then. Anstey disagrees. ‘As early as 1659 in his Seraphic Love’, he writes, ‘Boyle had been described by the anonymous author … of the Advertisement to the ‘Philosophicall Readers’ as a lover of ‘Experimentall Philosophy’. I was aware of this reference. However, since the first edition of Seraphic Love was published in late September 1659, and since it is not at all clear whether the anonymous second advertisement was actually included in the initial printing of the book, I considered the following statement sufficient to denote Boyle’s centrality to the revamping of the concept: ‘By early 1660 Boyle added “experimental philosophy” to his rhetorical repertoire, thereby becoming intimately involved in refitting the meaning of the phrase’. I documented the statement by citing the very expressions from New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Air that Anstey cites against my interpretation. In particular, Anstey claims, the context in which Boyle referred to John Wilkins as the ‘Great and Learned Promoter of Experimental Philosophy’ is ‘entirely experimental’—thereby implying that I denied the existence of experimental activity before 1660. Anstey further contends that ‘Boyle could hardly have been anachronistic here, for this was written before 1660 about the very recent past, and yet his comments square almost exactly with those of Wallis, Aubrey and Wood’. I don’t see the problem here. The reference to Wilkins was obviously added to the discussion of the twentieth experiment when Boyle prepared the manuscript for press in early 1660. Thus, the inclusion of the term coheres perfectly with the other references to ‘experimental philosophy’ in the book.

Ultimately, whether Boyle started using the term in late 1659 or in early 1660 is of no great matter. What is important, and this is the point I insist on, is that Boyle and other members of the Royal Society—with the notable exception of William Petty whom I discuss at some length in my article—had previously used terms other than ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their scientific activities. And in view of my pronounced aim to probe the changing fortunes of a concept, I’m puzzled by Anstey’s characterization of my undertaking as a denial of the historical relations furnished by Aubrey, Wallis, Wood, and Boyle concerning the existence of a flourishing experimental activity at Oxford during the 1650s. My intent was to show why it was only around 1660 that Boyle and his Royal Society colleagues decide to appropriate the term ‘experimental philosophy’ to describe their activities, thereby imbuing it with a fixed conceptual and polemical meaning. Given Anstey’s divergent understanding of the meaning and fortunes of ‘experimental philosophy’, it is understandable why he is reluctant to accept my argument or my periodization. This divergence notwithstanding, however, ultimately Anstey and I share much more in common than we disagree.

Shapiro and Newton on Experimental Philosophy

Kirsten Walsh writes…

In a recent post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s paper, ‘Newton’s “Experimental Philosophy”‘, where he argues that

    the apparent continuity between Newton’s usage [of the term ‘experimental philosophy’] and that of the early Royal Society is, however, largely an illusion.

I examined his claim that ‘experimental philosophy’ was used as a synonym for ‘mechanical philosophy’ by the early Royal Society, whereas for Newton, the two terms had different meanings.

Today I’ll address another argument Shapiro makes in that paper.

Shapiro claims that Newton’s adoption of the experimental philosophy occurred quite late – while preparing the 2nd edition of Principia, published in 1713.  To support this claim, Shapiro argues that, in the 1713 edition of Principia, Newton uses the term ‘experimental philosophy’ for the first time in public.  Moreover, the methodology Newton describes in this context is very different to the methodology he describes in his early optical papers.  Shapiro writes:

    At this time [1675] for Newton confirmation is by mathematical demonstration and secondarily – only if you think it is worth the bother – by experiment.  He clearly believed that a mathematical deductive approach would lead to great certainty and that experiment could provide the requisite certain foundations for such a science, but until the eighteenth century he did not assign experiment a primary place in his methodology.

If Newton’s ‘experimental philosophy’ is a late development, then this provides additional support for Shapiro’s claim that Newton’s experimental philosophy is not continuous with the methodology of his predecessors, the early members of the Royal Society.

In this post, I’ll argue that (1) experiment is a prominent theme in Newton’s methodological statements between 1672 and 1713, and (2) Newton’s methodology has features that suggest the influence of the early Royal Society.

1. Experiment is a prominent theme between 1672 and 1713

There is a strong experimental theme in Newton’s early optical papers (1672-1675).  For example, he says:

    the proper Method for inquiring after the properties of things is to deduce them from Experiments.


    I drew up a series of such Experiments on designe to reduce the Theory of colours to Propositions & prove each Proposition from one or more of those Experiments by the assistance of common notions set down in the form of Definitions & Axioms in imitation of the Method by which Mathematicians are wont to prove their doctrines.


    Now the evidence by which I asserted the Propositions of colours is in the next words expressed to be from Experiments & so but Physicall: Whence the Propositions themselves can be esteemed no more then Physicall Principles of a Science.

In the opening paragraph of De Gravitatione (date of composition unknown), Newton says:

    in order, moreover, that … the certainty of its principles perhaps be confirmed, I shall not be reluctant to illustrate the propositions abundantly from experiments as well…

In the 1st edition of Principia (1686), Newton says:

    The principles I have set forth are accepted by mathematicians and confirmed by experiments of many kinds.

And in the 1st edition of Opticks (1704), Newton says:

    My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments…

Experiment doesn’t seem secondary to me!

2. Newton’s methodology suggests the influence of the early Royal Society

As we have said before, the Royal Society adopted the experimental philosophy in a Baconian form – according to the Baconian method of natural history.  There is good evidence that Newton was familiar with the work of the Royal Society by the time he wrote his first optical paper in 1672: his notebooks show that he took notes from many issues of the Philosophical Transactions and he took careful notes on Boyle’s work.  Newton never adopted the Baconian method of natural history.  However, other features of Newton’s methodology suggest the influence of the early Royal Society.  For example, he made use of queries, he adopted the familiar distinction between theory and hypothesis, he was concerned with experiments, and he rejected speculation and speculative systems.

Shapiro notices that Newton rejected speculative systems, but fails to recognise that Newton wasn’t the first member of the Royal Society to take this stance.  On this blog we have provided ample evidence that the early members of the Royal Society railed against speculation.  Newton’s anti-speculation and anti-hypothetical stance, while extreme, was still inside the spectrum of acceptable experimental positions.  Consider this passage from Hooke’s Micrographa, addressed to the Royal Society:

    The Rules YOU have prescrib’d YOUR selves in YOUR Philosophical Progress do seem the best that have ever yet been practis’d.  And particularly that of avoiding Dogmatizing, and the espousal of any Hypothesis not sufficiently grounded and confirm’d by Experiments.  This way seems the most excellent, and may preserve both Philosophy and Natural History from its former Corruptions.

Whether or not Newton explicitly identified himself as such, we have good reason to think that Newton’s first optical paper in 1672 was written by an experimental philosopher.

Conflating the Experimental and Mechanical Philosophies

Kirsten Walsh writes…

Recently I read Alan Shapiro’s paper, ‘Newton’s “Experimental Philosophy”’, in which he argues that

    the apparent continuity between Newton’s usage [of the term ‘experimental philosophy’] and that of the early Royal Society is, however, largely an illusion.

To support this claim, Shapiro argues that, whereas ‘experimental philosophy’ was used as a synonym for ‘mechanical philosophy’ by the early Royal Society, for Newton, the two terms had different meanings. This is demonstrated by the fact that Newton adopted the experimental philosophy, but not the mechanical philosophy.

Shapiro explains that the mechanical philosophy is characterised by adherence to some or all of the following theses:

    the world and its components behave like a machine; or, more strongly, the world can be described solely by the mathematical laws of mechanics; all causation is by contact action so that the immaterial, spiritual agents are banished; matter is composed of invisible corpuscles; and hypotheses about the properties and motions of these invisible corpuscles may be formulated to explain visible effects.

Here Shapiro is conflating mechanism and corpuscularianism. However, Peter Anstey explains in his recent book, John Locke and Natural Philosophy, that these are distinct (but related) philosophies. The leading idea of the mechanical philosophy is that natural phenomena should be explained by analogy with the functioning of machines. The corpuscularian philosophy is primarily a philosophy about the underlying nature of matter, whereby explanations of natural phenomena are constrained by appeal to the invisible corpuscles which constitute all material bodies. Thus, the former is a theory of explanation; the latter, a theory of matter. There is a significant amount of overlap between the mechanical and corpuscularian philosophies, for example the focus on shape, size, motion and texture. But, they are not interchangeable. For example, Anstey points out that it wasn’t the case that everyone who held a corpuscularian theory of matter was a mechanical philosopher.

In contrast, the experimental philosophy emphasises that we can only acquire knowledge of nature by first accumulating observations and experiments and then turning to theory and hypotheses. Thus, the experimental philosophy is a theory of method, which can be viewed as placing epistemic constraints on philosophical endeavours, as opposed to the explanatory constraints of the mechanical philosophy, or the ontological constraints of the corpuscularian philosophy. So, at least notionally, these are three distinct philosophical positions.

Shapiro argues that, in practice, the early Royal Society didn’t distinguish between these philosophical positions. As evidence, he cites a passage from the preface to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in which Hooke runs together “the real, the mechanical, the experimental philosophy”. But if we look at Hooke’s other work for uses of the term ‘mechanical’, we find that he can and does distinguish the mechanical from the experimental.

When Hooke explicitly discusses experimental philosophy, he emphasises the importance of constructing natural histories. For example, in his ‘General Scheme’, where he sets out his “Method of Improving Natural Philosophy”, Hooke explains that the best way to proceed is according to the Baconian method of natural history. He says there are three “ways of discovering the Properties and Powers [of bodies]”:

      I. By the Help of the Naked Senses.
      II. By the Senses assisted with Instruments, and arm’d with Engines.
      III. By Induction, or comparing the collected Observations, by the two preceding Helps, and ratiocinating from them.

When he discusses III, Hooke explains that an understanding of mathematics and mechanics “will most assist the Mind in making, examining, and ratiocinating from Experiments”:

    Mechanicks also being partly Physical, and partly Mathematical, do bring the Mind more closely to the business it designs, and shews it a Pattern of Demonstration, in Physical Operations, manifests the possible Ways, how Powers may act in the moving resisting Bodies: Gives a Scheme of the Laws and Rules of Motion, and as it were enters the Mind into a Method of accurate and demonstrative Inquiry and Examination of Physical Operations. For though the Operations of Nature are more secret and abstruse; and hid from our discerning, or discovering of them, than those more gross and obvious ones of Engines, yet it seems most probable, by the Effects and Circumstances; that most of them may be as capable of Demonstration and Reduction to a certain Rule, as the Operations of Mechanicks or Arts.

Later in the same discussion, Hooke enumerates the different kinds of observations one should make when constructing natural histories:

    25ly, To enquire and try how many Mechanical Ways there may be of working on, or altering the Proprieties of several Bodies; such as hammering, pounding, grinding, rowling, steeping, soaking, dissolving, heating, burning, freezing, melting, &c.

Hooke is using the term ‘mechanical’ in (at least) two different senses. In the first sense, the term describes the processes of machines; in the second sense, the term describes manual work. But he conflates neither of these with the experimental philosophy. They are distinct, albeit related, philosophies.

Previously on this blog we have claimed that some features of Newton’s early methodology, for example his early use of queries, suggest that he was influenced by the new experimental philosophy of the early Royal Society. I do not claim that Newton’s experimental philosophy is continuous with the experimental philosophy of the early Royal Society, so I do not take issue with Shapiro’s main claim. But I do take issue with his claim that the ‘mechanical philosophy’ and ‘experimental philosophy’ were considered by the early Royal Society to be synonymous.

Nullius in verba, Nihil in verbis, Sapere aude

Greg Dawes writes…

I was recently reading Peter Ackroyd’s short biography of Isaac Newton, when I was startled to come across the following sentence: “[The Royal Society] excluded all questions of politics and religion… Their motto became, Nullius in verba, ‘Nothing in words’, or nothing on authority.” As we shall see, “Nothing on authority” is a good rendering of the sense of the motto. But even with my modest knowledge of Latin I could see that Nullius in verba could not possibly be translated as “Nothing in words.” The latter phrase in Latin would be Nihil in verbis, but that was not the phrase chosen by the founders of the Royal Society.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find that “nothing in words” has become what Stephen Jay Gould once called the “canonical mistranslation” of this famous motto. Indeed while casually browsing the shelves of our public library I found another instance. In his popular book on the history of the Royal Society, John Gribbin offers the same combination of mistranslation with accurate paraphrase that appears in Ackroyd’s biography. “Nullius in Verba,” Gribbin writes, “translates literally as ‘nothing in words’ but should be taken as meaning ‘take no man’s word for it.” He’s right that it should be taken to mean “take no man’s word for it.” But he’s wrong to say that it “translates literally as ‘nothing in words.'”

A quick Web search for the Latin phrase will reveal how common a mistranslation this is.  You may not be surprised to find such a mistake in popular works. You may be even less surprised to find it on the Web, where (to borrow the words of Tacitus) “all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their home and become popular.” But Gould’s criticism was directed at no less a figure than the distinguished philosopher of science, Karl Popper.

Popper and a fellow author had written to Science regarding the use of the names “progenote” and “protogenote.” The details of this particular “dispute about words” need not detain us. The only fact to note here is that Popper and his fellow author ended their letter by saying,

We all may at times be seduced by the tempting ease of introducing new words. But then, we should always respect the forbidding difficulties facing those who toil to establish new facts. As the founders of the Royal Society of London put it in 1663: Nullius in verba — there is nothing in words. It is facts we seek.

Popper may well be right that disputes about words are particularly fruitless. And it is surely true that scientists seek to know “the facts.” The problem is that the motto of the Royal Society does not make a contrast between facts and “mere words.” Nullius is the genitive singular of nemo, the Latin for “no one.” In verba is a puzzling phrase, for reasons I shall examine in a moment. But it is best understood here as “on the word of.” So the whole phrase can be literally translated as “on the word of no one,” or (as Ackroyd and Gribbin rightly suggest) “take nothing on authority.”

Following Gould’s letter, the issue was discussed by Clive Sutton in the British Journal for the History of Science. Sutton points out that the members of the Royal Society were opposed to the idea that verbal argumentation alone could lead to new knowledge. So the common mistranslation of their motto does, perhaps, capture one aspect of their thinking. But it remains a mistranslation, which fails to express what the motto was intended to convey.

The Latin motto has its origins in a work by the Roman poet Horace. In the first of his Epistles, Horace writes that he is setting aside mere literary concerns in order to turn to philosophy. “In case you ask me who’s my master, what roof protects me,” he writes, “I’m not bound to swear by anyone’s precepts [nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri], I’m carried, a guest, wherever the storm-wind blows me.” It is this passage that explains the slightly odd phrase in verba, which makes more sense as the indirect object of iurare than when taken out of context. But the fellows of the Royal Society could read Latin almost as easily as English. They could assume that their contemporaries would recognize the allusion and read the motto as it was intended.

But how was it intended? In its original context, Horace is presumably not saying that he will take no notice of what the various schools of philosophy teach. What he is saying is that he is not going to consider himself bound to any one of them. He is free to pick and choose whatever opinion he judges best. This lends some support to a thesis recently put forward by Thomas Ahnert, that the motto of the Royal Society reflected its “anti-sectarian aims … rather than its concern with the definition of reliable testimony”. On this view, the motto supports an eclectic attitude, as opposed to dogmatic adherence to a particular school of natural philosophy.

While this anti-sectarian interpretation cannot be excluded, there is evidence that the fellows were advocating reliance on first-hand evidence rather than second-hand reports. Sutton notes that one of the other phrases that was considered (and rejected) was a biblical one, namely omnia probate or “test all things,” originally from 1 Thessalonians 5. This, too, can be understood in the sense of opposing uncritical reliance on authorities. Sutton also cites a remark made by one fellow when the Society met for elections on St Andrew’s Day 1663. Responding to a suggestion that in England St George’s Day would have been more appropriate, the fellow said, “I had rather it [had] been on St. Thomas’s Day, for he would not beleeve till he had seen and putt his fingers into the holes; according to the motto, Nullius in Verba.'”

St Thomas, who is remembered for doubting the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and for believing only when faced with “experimental” evidence, was apparently the patron saint of the Royal Society.

There is, incidentally, a fascinating anticipation of these ideas in a remark made by William Gilbert, some sixty years before the founding of the Royal Society. In the preface to his De magnete, Gilbert asks why he should make his ideas public, given the lamentable state of contemporary natural philosophy. “Why,” he writes, “should I submit … this noble … philosophy to the judgement of men who have taken oath to follow the opinions of others [iuratis in alienorum sententias].” Here, too, there is a contrast between merely following authorities — the attitude Gilbert is condemning — and seeing for oneself.

By way of contrast, Gilbert goes on to describe his intended audience as “true philosophers … who seek knowledge not only in books but in things themselves [non in libris solum sed ex rebus ipsis].” One might be tempted to read this as a contrast between words and facts, of the kind employed by Popper. But what Gilbert is criticizing are those who seek knowledge in books alone (in libris solum). (He presumably wants people to read his book.)  As Shapin and Schaffer note in Leviathan and the Air Pump, words had an important role to play in early modern experimental philosophy: they were the means by which experimental results could be conveyed to those who were not among the original witnesses.

Finally, it might be interesting to note a certain similarity between the motto of the Royal Society and that of my own university, sapere aude. This phrase also came from one of Horace’s Epistles, where it has the sense of “dare to be wise.” (“Who’s started has half finished: dare to be wise! Begin!”) This is the translation favoured by the university authorities. But Horace’s phrase is also cited by Immanuel Kant in his essay Was ist Aufklärung? (“What is Enlightenment?”). In that context he translates it as “have the courage to use your own understanding” (Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen). Here, too, a contrast is being made between thinking for yourself and relying on authority. As Kant writes,

If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

But if I act in this way, I remain in a state of self-imposed tutelage, which is the very opposite of Enlightenment.

I have yet to convince the university authorities to replace their “Dare to be wise!” with “Have the courage to think for yourself!” This would, however, be closer to what Kant intended. It would also be consistent with the often mistranslated motto of the Royal Society.

Hooke’s Knowledge of Optics

This is a guest post by Ian Lawson.

Robert Hooke knew how light worked. He worked with the stuff day in day out during the early 1660s and in Observation IX of his Micrographia (1665) he presents quite a systematic theory of optics.

He presents his theory as the result of a startling observation about the colours of the rainbow observable in thin sheets of muscovy glass (mica). This observation he takes to be an ‘experimentum crucis’ against Descartes’ optical theory, ‘serving as a Guide or Land-mark, by which to direct our course in the search after the true cause of Colours’ (Micrographia, p. 54). His positive thesis starts by outlining a hypothesis about light based on some widely accepted principles (though I won’t go into the details here). This hypothesis he checks against more evidence, this time a glass globe filled with water. He finds his idea consistent with the phenomenon, while Descartes is again lacking. An ‘instantia crucis‘ this time – a sure sign he’s on the right track (ibid., p. 59).

A schema from the Micrographia

To refine his theory, Hooke continues experimenting. Now he uses water in a long glass tube and sheets of muscovy glass split to varying thicknesses. He adds detail until he feels he can account for all kinds of colour phenomena. ‘By this Hypothesis there is no one experiment of colour that I have yet met with, but may be, I conceive, very rationally solv’d, and perhaps, had I time to examine several particulars requisite to the demonstration of it, I might prove it more than probable…’ (ibid., p. 69).

Hooke presents his theory in an ordered and structured way. First he disproves the leading existing theory, then puts forward his own hypothesis. He returns to experiment to check factual adequacy, and uses further trials to refine the general idea. Focusing on his theory as it is presented, though, makes several features of his account mysterious. Why is it tacked on to the end of an observation about colours in a mineral? Why should colour even be the main part of an optical theory? And given that it is, why does he never mention prisms?

Hooke's experimental apparatus

Hooke's apparatus

What is worth noting is the experiments and observations Hooke makes. There are four primary apparatus he uses:

1. Muscovy glass

2. Glass lenses with water between them

3. Water globes

4. Glass vials filled with water.

Prisms, that paradigmatic optical experimentation device used by Descartes, Boyle, Power, and Newton in their experimenting about colour, are conspicuous by their absence. Rather, all of the experiments mentioned by Hooke are, in fact, part of his everyday set up for making microscopical observations. Numbers 2) and 4) are simply water microscopes, which he mentions using in the Preface to Micrographia. Number 3) is a scotoscope, used for concentrating light rays onto a small area to provide illumination, and also described in the Preface. And number 1) was Hooke’s preferred choice of microscope slide, as he explains when recounting his replication of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s observations in the late 1670s. It is unlikely that someone in possession of mica, ornate microscopes, and with connections among the fellows of the Royal Society as well as the instrument makers of London, was unable to obtain prisms with which to make experiments.

What is more likely is that, having spent four years making microscopical observations, Hooke stumbled again and again upon the incidental production of colours by his instruments. Chromatic aberration was a well known problem in microscopes and telescopes, which would not be solved until Dollond’s innovations in the eighteenth century. But using muscovy glass for specimen slides, and a water globe for illuminating his subjects, exposed Hooke two forms of colour production others may not have noticed. What’s more, in his Preface Hooke provides not only a detailed drawing of his primary instrument, but instructions on how it is made, and other versions suitable for other situations. Hooke doesn’t seem to have thought of his microscope as a static, finished product. Rather, he used one instrumental set up to make observations of distant objects such as the moon, and another to view things nearby and in his control. Even this could vary depending on whether the subject was translucent or opaque, and on the amount of light required to illuminate it. He notes trialling lenses made not just of glass, but resin, gum, oil, salt, and arsenic. All of this points to a man very aware of the behaviour of light and the process of refraction by which objects are magnified, and who was able to alter his instruments for the best results.

Hooke's microscope

Hooke's microscope

Some features of his theory are better explained by noting this likely route to Hooke’s knowledge of light, but a perhaps more difficult historical question is raised. Why did he present his observations as a constructed, systematic theory of colours rather than simply part of a history, as Boyle had done the previous year? It is likely the answer has something to do with ambition and rhetoric, and the role both Hooke and the other Fellows thought Micrographia would play in the early days of the Society.

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”)

Two Forms of Natural History

Peter Anstey writes…

There were two forms of natural history in the early modern period: traditional natural history and Baconian natural history. The distinction between them becomes clear in the light of the development of the experimental philosophy in the mid-17th century. Unfortunately, however, this distinction is almost always elided in the secondary literature on natural history.

Traditional natural history, deriving from Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, had flourished in the late Renaissance. It involved the mapping of nature through the classification of plants and animals and the assembling of information about their uses and habits. This traditional natural history continued throughout the 17th century and reached its zenith in the 18th century in the work of the likes of Carl Linnaeus. But this was neither the only form of natural history, nor, for that matter, was it the most important form for the experimental philosophers. Let me explain.

The experimental philosophy of the seventeenth century developed as a method of knowledge acquisition in natural philosophy. However, unlike the division between science and philosophy today, in the early modern period natural philosophy and philosophy were not regarded as discrete disciplinary domains. Natural philosophy was thought to be the philosophy of nature, rather than, say, the philosophy of morality or metaphysics. Thus Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy are principles of natural philosophy and this work presents his mature natural philosophical system.

Robert Boyle's General History of the Air

Robert Boyle's General History of the Air

The experimental philosophy was initially developed and applied in the study of nature and only later was it applied more broadly to the other parts of philosophy. The first ‘version’ of the experimental philosophy was the Baconian method of natural history. This was inspired by Francis Bacon’s grand scheme for the renovation of knowledge of nature and in particular his novel approach to natural history.

The Baconian method involved the assembling of vast amounts of data about particular substances, qualities or states of bodies. In this way it was far broader in its scope than traditional natural history. To be sure, it included facts about generations––that is animal, plant and insect species-–but it included much more, such as histories of cold, of the air, of electrostatic phenomena and of fluidity and solidity, etc. According to the Baconian method, once all of the facts were collected they were to be ordered and structured in such a way as to facilitate theoretical, or speculative, reflection upon the phenomenon at hand. Thus, once all the facts about, say, human blood or the air, were gathered, then the natural philosopher would be in a position to develop a true and accurate philosophy of the blood or air.

It was this method that was developed in a detailed and sophisticated way by the early Royal Society and which became popular across Europe in the second half of the 17th century. This Baconian natural history encompassed traditional natural history and as a result traditional natural history flourished under its aegis. But, the Baconian form of natural history was short-lived: it was in serious decline in the 1690s and all but disappeared in the first decades of the 18th century. All the while traditional natural history was going from strength to strength and was soon to become one of the most important branches of 18th century science.

The reasons for the decline of Baconian natural history need not detain us here, but the reason for the eliding of the distinction between it and traditional natural history is of great importance. I contend that scholars have failed to distinguish between the two because of their failure to appreciate the nature and significance of the experimental philosophy in general. When we view early modern natural history through the lens of the experimental philosophy the distinction between the two forms of natural history becomes clear. This is another reason why, as I claimed in an earlier post, ESP is best!