Kirsten Walsh writes…
In my last post, I explained how Newton’s theory of the tides relied on empirical data drawn from all over the world. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to coordinate information gathering along trade routes, and thus construct a Baconian natural history. I pointed out that although the theory of the tides is considered a major theoretical achievement for Newtonian physics it was also a major empirical project and as such it is one of the major achievements of Baconian experimental philosophy. This case, however, also highlights how the Royal Society exploited its connections with politics and economics in pursuit of knowledge to benefit an elite monied class. In this post, I’m interested in exploring the connections between the Royal Society’s epistemic achievements and its being embedded within the political structures of the early modern world, particularly the rise of large trading empires.
If Bacon is considered to be the ‘Father of Modern Science’, then it’s worth reflecting on the nature of his legacy, and the role Baconianism played in shaping modern science. It is often tempting to split the objectivity and purity of science from the often complex, difficult, morally ambiguous world. In the same vein, reflections on the Royal Society and the birth of modern science often ignore the essential enabling role played by other of the British Empire’s activities: exploitative trade and slaving. Present-day philosophers of science increasingly reject the ‘value-free ideal’, recognising that scientific practice is best understood within its social, institutional and political context. If what are traditionally conceived of as non-epistemic values play an inextricable role in, say, modern medicine, then they likely do here as well. In this post, I’ll apply these ideas to the case of the tides, suggesting that it highlights a darker side of Baconianism.
The collection of tidal data was carried out by the Royal Society in cooperation with the Royal African Company and the East India Company. (When he discusses the Tonkin tides, for example, Newton appeals to data obtained by Francis Davenport, Commander of the Eagle—an East India Company vessel.) Both the Royal African and East India Companies engaged in extractive behaviours in their respective localities; extractive behaviours we now consider morally abhorrent (most strikingly the slave trade in Africa). While the Royal Society cannot be considered responsible for these acts, we might say that it played a role in legitimising, normalising and even celebrating them.
Indeed, these close ties between science and trade were present from the very inception of the Royal Society. The Royal Society and the Royal African Company received their second royal charters in the same year (1663) and were often thought of as sister companies. Thomas Sprat highlights these ties in his History of the Royal Society:
[I]f Gentlemen ‘condescend to engage in commerce, and to regard the Philosophy of Nature. The First of these since the King’s return has bin carry’d on with great vigour, by the Foundation of the Royal Company: to which as to the Twin-Sister of the Royal Society, we have reason as we go along, to wish all Prosperity. In both these Institutions begun together, our King has imitated the two most famous Works of the wisest of antient Kings: who at the same time sent to Ophir for Gold, and compos’d a Natural History, from the Cedar to the Shrub (Sprat, 1667: 407).
The two companies received their royal charters very soon after Charles II’s coronation. And both were held up as symbols of the Restoration—promises of prosperity to come. Sprat measures the success of the Royal Society largely in terms of its ability to exploit the trade network, praising the “Noble, and Inquisitive Genius” of English merchants (Sprat, 1667: 88). He writes:
But in forein, and remote affairs, their [i.e. the Royal Society Fellows’] Intentions, and their Advantages do farr exceed all others. For these, they have begun to settle a correspondence through all Countreys; and have taken such order, that in short time, there will scarce a Ship come up the Thames, that does not make some return of Experiments, as well as of Merchandize (Sprat, 1667: 86).
Sprat links the success of the Royal Society to its ability to exploit the trade networks; rhetoric which might have lent legitimacy and integrity to other actions carried out in the name of British supremacy.
Further, the direction of research reflected the economic and political interests of these trading companies. A history of tides was one of the projects suggested by Bacon in the appendix to his Novum organum, and as such, it is not surprising that the Royal Society committed resources to this project. However, the Royal Society could not have carried out this project without the support of British trade. A Baconian history of tides was necessarily a large-scale affair: information needed to be gathered from all over the globe. It wasn’t until the 17th century, when British trading companies sent ships all around the world, creating networks of merchants, priests and scholars, that such a project was even possible. But the knowledge that was produced was facilitated by, and in service of, those interests.
As global trade increased, knowledge of world-wide tidal patterns became increasingly important. European trading companies vied with one another for footholds in Africa and Asia and engaged in sea battles to gain political control in these regions (most notably the Anglo-Dutch Wars). Knowledge of tidal patterns was important both at sea, where failure to account for tidal flow could lead to navigation errors, and in narrower rivers and harbours—approaching a harbour with a shallow bar at low tide could mean a costly delay or worse. And so, the increasing importance of the tide problem and its increasing tractability stemmed from the same cause. Or, to put it another way, the direction of research was both enabled by, and carried out in the service of, the economic and political aspirations of British trade. In short, the trading empires did not merely enable the success of Newton’s work on the tides and other Royal Society projects; rather, they often directed and shaped them.
What conclusions should we draw from this? It comes as no surprise to historians, philosophers and sociologists of science that knowledge-production and the rest of society—including its exploitative, oppressive activities—are interwoven. However, the connection between natural philosophy and exploitative trade is only rarely made in presentations of the Royal Society’s work or Baconianism generally. Instead, science is often viewed as floating serenely and objectively above the darker aspects of early modern society. (This is surprising, given such rhetoric as Sprat’s.) But this case suggests that the Baconian requirement of information-gathering on a massive scale was enabled by—and perhaps itself worked to legitimate—the systems of trade which, often, represented the darkest parts of Western Europe. This is not to say that the Royal Society explicitly endorsed these features of the early modern world. Rather, the success of such large-scale Baconian projects may have tacitly whitewashed the social and political context.
What value is there in this sort of project? You might worry that, by casting a morally critical eye on the period, I lose my historian’s objectivity, believing myself to be coming from a position of superiority and moral maturity: a dangerous way to do historiography. Regardless of what objectivity might amount to in this context, I think it would be a mistake to couch the project in these terms. Rather, I am interested in what such cases can teach us about the nature of science, the value-free ideal and the role of value in science more generally. As such, this initial analysis leaves me with a few questions: Firstly, was the tidal data sullied, morally and/or epistemically, by the context of its collection? Secondly, if this data was morally sullied, were Newton and the others morally wrong to use it? Finally, what effect should this case have on our lauding of the early Royal Society as an exemplar of good science? How we eventually answer these questions at least partly depends on whether we think that the context of inquiry undermines the epistemic value of the project. In my next post, I’ll explore the idea that the epistemic injustice committed by the Royal Society in the name of Baconianism should undermine its status as exemplary.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Newton’s work on the tides. In the Principia Book 3, Newton identified the physical cause of the tides as a combination of forces: the Moon and Sun exert gravitational pulls on the waters of the ocean which, together, cause the sea levels to rise and fall in regular patterns. This theory of the tides has been described as one of the major achievements of Newtonian natural philosophy. Most commentators have focussed on the fact that Newton extended his theory of universal gravitation to offer a physical cause for the tides—effectively reducing the problem of tides to a mathematical problem, the solution of which, in turn, provided ways to establish various physical features of the Moon, and set the study of tides on a new path. But in this post, I want to focus on the considerable amount of empirical evidence concerning tidal phenomena that underwrites this work.
Let’s begin with the fact that, while Newton’s empirical evidence of tidal patterns came from areas such as the eastern section of the Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic Sea, and the Chilean and Peruvian shores of the Pacific Ocean, Newton never left England. So where did these observational records come from?
Newton’s data was the result of a collective effort on a massive scale, largely coordinated by the Royal Society. For example, one of the earliest issues of the Philosophical Transactions published ‘Directions for sea-men bound for far voyages, drawn up by Master Rook, late geometry professour of Gresham Colledge’ (1665: 140-143). Mariners were instructed “to keep an exact Diary [of their observations], delivering at their return a fair Copy thereof to the Lord High Admiral of England, his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and another to Trinity-house to be perused by the R. Society”. With respect to the tides, they were asked:
“To remark carefully the Ebbings and Flowings of the Sea, in as many places as they can, together with all the Accidents, Ordinary and Extraordinary, of the Tides; as, their precise time of Ebbing and Flowing in Rivers, at Promontories or Capes; which way their Current runs, what Perpendicular distance there is between the highest Tide and lowest Ebb, during the Spring-Tides and Neap-Tides; what day of the Moons age, and what times of the year, the highest and lowest Tides fall out: And all other considerable Accidents, they can observe in the Tides, cheifly neer Ports, and about Ilands, as in St. Helena’s Iland, and the three Rivers there, at the Bermodas &c.”
This is just one of many such articles published in the early Philosophical Transactions that articulated lists of queries concerning sea travel, on which mariners, sailors and merchants were asked to report. In its first 20 years, the journal published scores of lists of queries relating to the tides, and many more reports responding to such queries. This was Baconian experimental philosophy at its best. The Royal Society used its influence and wide-ranging networks to construct a Baconian natural history of tides: using the method of queries, they gathered observational data on tides from all corners of the globe which was then collated and ordered into tables.
Newton’s engagement with these observational records is revelatory of his attitudes and practices relating to Baconian experimental philosophy. Firstly, especially in his later years, Newton was regarded as openly hostile towards natural histories. However, here we see Newton explicitly and approvingly engaging with natural histories. For example, in his discussion of proposition 24, he drew on observations by Samuel Colepresse and Samuel Sturmy, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1668, explicitly offered in response to queries put forward to John Wallis and Robert Boyle in 1665:
“Thus it has been found by experience that in winter, morning tides exceed evening tides and that in summer, evening tides exceed morning tides, at Plymouth by a height of about one foot, and at Bristol by a height of fifteen inches, according to the observations of Colepress and Sturmy” (Newton, 1999: 838).
I have argued previously that Newton was more receptive to natural histories than is usually thought. The case of the tides offers additional support for my argument. Newton’s notes and correspondence show that, from as early as 1665, he was heavily engaged in the project of generating a natural history of the tides, although he never contributed data. And eventually, he was able to use these empirical records to theorise about the cause of the tides. This suggests that Newton didn’t object to using natural histories as the basis for theorising. Rather, he objected to treating natural histories as the end goal of the investigation.
Secondly, I have previously discussed the fact that Newton seldomly reported ‘raw data’. The evidence he provided for Phenomenon 1, for example, included calculated average distances, checked against the distances predicted by the theory. Newton’s empirical evidence on the tides, as reported in the Principia, was similarly manipulated and adjusted with reference to his theory. Commentators have largely either condemned or ignored this ‘fudge factor’, but such adjustments are ubiquitous in Newton’s work, suggesting that they were a key aspect of his practice. Newton recognised that ‘raw data’ had limited use: to be useful, data needed to be analysed and interpreted. In short, it needed to be turned into evidence. The Baconians appear to have recognised this: queries guide the collection of data, which is then ordered into tables in order to reveal patterns in the data. As this case makes clear, however, Newton’s theory-mediated manipulation of the data went beyond basic ordering, drawing on causal assumptions to reveal phenomena from the data.
Thirdly, this case emphasises Newton’s science as embedded in rich social, cultural and economic networks. The construction of this natural history of tides was an organised group effort. That Newton had access to data collected from all over the world was the result of hard work from natural philosophers, merchants, mariners and priests who participated in the accumulation, ordering and dissemination of this data. Further, the capacities of that data to be collected itself followed the increasingly global trade networks reaching to and from Europe. Newton’s work on the tides was the very opposite of a solitary effort.
On this blog, we have noted in passing, but not explored in depth, the crucial roles played by travellers’ reports and information networks in Baconian experimental philosophy. Newton’s study of the tides is revelatory of the attitudes and practices of early modern experimental philosophers with respect to such networks. I shall discuss these in my next post.
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.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
- 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  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.
Kirsten Walsh writes…
- 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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!